SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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TULLY (2018) – Odd Telling of Motherhood Tale A Showcase for Charlize Theron

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Mackenzie Davis and Charlize Theron in TULLY (2018).

TULLY (2018) is an odd movie.

Sometimes I like the odd ones. Other times I don’t.  This one teetered right on the fulcrum for the most part, leaning ever so slightly towards the side of it-didn’t-really-work-for-me.

TULLY is a tale of motherhood, but that’s not what makes this one peculiar. The stress and toils of what it’s like to raise a newborn with two very active older children already in the house, and with an inattentive husband, that part the film gets right.  It’s the extension of that part, which leads to the arrival of the titular character, where the film struggles.

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is about to have a baby, and as one of the characters points out, she looks like she’s going to pop. She and her husband Drew (Ron Livingston) already have two children, an eight year-old girl Sarah (Lia Frankland) and a five year-old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica). Jonah has emotional issues, and while Marlo has taken him to see doctors, they haven’t received a proper diagnosis of his condition. Jonah is prone to fits of panic, crying, and he fixates on routine, which all certainly sounds like a branch of autism, but the disorder is never mentioned in the movie. Instead, Jonah is referred to as “quirky.”

Marlo is already under tremendous stress, mostly because all the parent duties fall on her. Drew works long hours, and when he comes home, they have dinner, and then he retreats to the bedroom where he plays video games. She has no idea how she is going to handle the additional burden of caring for a newborn.

Marlo’s brother Craig (Mark Duplass) suggests she hire a night nanny, someone who comes in at night and takes care of the baby so the mother can enjoy a full night’s sleep, or at least a better night’s sleep. The night nanny still wakes the mother up to breast feed, but that’s it. The mother is free to go right back to sleep afterwards. Craig even goes so far as to offer to pay for the night nanny as a birthday gift for Marlo, but she hesitates, not feeling comfortable inviting a stranger into her home to care for her baby while she’s sleeping.

But after a few rough weeks, Marlo changes her mind. Soon after, showing up at the front door one night like a magical Mary Poppins, is Tully (Mackenzie Davis), their new night nanny.  Tully explains that she’s also there to take care of Marlo as well as the baby. In fact, she says she can help out with everything around the house.

If this sounds like the set-up for a bad horror movie, you’re right. It does, but TULLY is not a horror movie. It’s a comedy-drama, with the emphasis on drama. At one point, Marlo and Drew even joke that the situation does sound like a horror movie, but they laugh it off.

Tully is a quirky character herself, always positive, almost seeming like an angel to Marlo. She is certainly there to help, and the way she helps and her relationship with Marlo is pretty much the story TULLY has to tell.

First off, the most amazing thing about TULLY is that Charlize Theron gained 50 pounds for this role! Talk about dedication! Marlo’s body is supposed to be in rough shape after the pregnancy, as she struggles to lose the additional weight, and Theron with the extra pounds she put on looks the part.

The extra weight also represents the heavy emotional burden Marlo faces each day, as you can just see her struggling to stay afloat in her life. It’s a very good performance by Theron, certainly more satisfying than her traditional turn as the killer agent in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017). That being said, I enjoyed her performance in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) better than her work here.

So, if you’re a fan of Charlize Theron, you definitely want to see this movie. It’s a chance to see her really act.

But the story I had some issues with.  TULLY is by the same team that made JUNO (2007), with Jason Reitman directing and Diablo Cody writing the screenplay. Tully is definitely an odd character, one who at times seems too good to be true, a la Mary Poppins, and since this isn’t a fantasy tale, obviously something has to give, and what that something is to be honest I saw coming very early on.

For starters, the film offers some clues. For example, Marlo has a recurring dream about a mermaid swimming in the water, and since mermaids are not real, the imagery is there for the audience to see clearly a character— the mermaid— who is not real.

Also, if you’ve seen a certain famous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, you won’t be fooled here. It’s obvious early on by the way certain scenes are set up that something isn’t quite right.

The other issue I had with the screenplay by Diablo Cody is the way it handles the young Jonah character.  The boy is certainly on the spectrum for autism or asperger syndrome, and yet no one in the movie acknowledges this. Even the administration and teachers at the school seem to be oblivious, only referring to Jonah as “quirky.” In this day and age, that didn’t seem realistic to me, nor was it credible that Marlo and Drew would have taken their son to multiple doctors without receiving a proper diagnosis.

It also didn’t help that Tully was supposed to be this savior character, but yet I found her persona grating and annoying.

Mackenzie Davis is fine as Tully, although admittedly I never warmed to the character. We recently saw Davis in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and I liked her better in that science fiction movie.

This isn’t the first time Ron Livingston has played an ineffective dad.  He got to perform the same honors in the scary horror flick THE CONJURING (2013) a few years back.  Here, as Drew, the video game playing father, Livingston is very good.  What he does best is make Drew more clueless than careless.  He does love his family and his wife, but it simply takes him an entire movie to realize he needs to get off his butt more to help out.

Which also brings me to another issue I had with this one, the ending.  It ends on a happy note, which one would expect from a movie marketed as a comedy/drama, but I’m not sure I bought all of it.  For instance, Drew supposedly sees the light at the end of the movie and realizes, “You know, I should be helping out more, shouldn’t I?” Duh! Through Livingston’s performance, I understood that Drew was a decent guy, but the script never sold me on the moment when he awakes from his self-absorbed stupor.

And as I said, the big twist in this one, I didn’t think was much of a twist because I saw it coming very early in the proceedings.

The movie wasn’t hyped all that much, and it showed, as I saw it with a small audience. There were only about ten of us in the theater.

TULLY is an odd one. It works best when it shows the incredible stress Marlo feels raising three children, including a developmentally challenged five year-old boy, and a newborn baby. It stumbles when it enters its metaphorical realm, with the entrance of the titular character Tully, the night nanny with all the answers.

There is certainly more to Tully than meets the eye, but sharp observers can figure out what that something is before it’s revealed. And once it is revealed, it begs the question, what’s the point? Is it all just one big wake-up call for Marlo and Drew? That seems to be the case.

I wish they had experienced this enlightenment earlier in the movie. The two of them working together trying to handle their challenging family situation sounds like a story I might like to see.

—END—

 

 

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) – Recounts Tragic Ted Kennedy Car Crash and Subsequent Cover-up

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Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018).

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018) tells the tragic tale of a young woman who lost her life when the car she was riding in crashed off a rickety wooden bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick and plunged into the water below where, trapped inside the car, she drowned, while the drunk man at the wheel swam to safety.

The man, of course, was Senator Ted Kennedy.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells this true story through the prism of what the Kennedy name meant to the United States in 1969. It had been just over one year since Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated just six years before, and all eyes were on young Ted Kennedy as the heir apparent.  JFK’s work was left unfinished, and when Robert Kennedy attempted to take up the mantle, he too was cut down.  The feeling in 1969 wasn’t so much that the Kennedys were entitled, but that their vision for the United States— one of optimism and promise— was desperately needed.  People wanted Ted Kennedy to run for president.

The problem was Ted himself wasn’t all that interested. He had lived in the shadows of his older brothers his whole life and felt the sting of a strict father who seemed to view him as much less of a man than his older brothers.  And then there was his safety to consider.  We see Ted wearing a bullet proof vest at one point.  The Ted Kennedy we see in CHAPPAQUIDDICK is a sad, somber soul, a lost soul, trying to make his way in the world, feeling unbelievable pressure to do something he didn’t really want to do, and pretty much behaving in a way that suggested he wanted to get away from it all.

And on this particular weekend in 1969 his brother John’s legacy was on full display as Neil Armstrong was about to set foot on the moon, and all the newscasts were hearkening back to JFK’s inspiring words which had propelled the space program forward in the early 1960s.

So, when the accident happened, there was a prevalent feeling to protect Ted Kennedy, not because he was wealthy and privileged, but because he was needed to continue the work of his brothers and keep the nation on a positive path.  This view was shared by both those in power on Kennedy’s side and a large portion of the general public who even after the story broke still said they would vote for him, and of course in reality they actually did.

But still, a young woman lay dead in a car submerged underwater.

Early in CHAPPAQUIDDICK, young Senator Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) set up a party on the island of Chappaquiddick, located near Martha’s Vineyard, for the “Boiler Room Girls,” a group of women who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign.  It was meant to be a reunion and celebration of the work these women had done on Robert Kennedy’s behalf.

Kennedy chats with Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and asks her to join his staff in Washington, D.C., but she declines, saying she doesn’t think she can handle another presidential campaign, to which Kennedy replies that she won’t have to, the implication being that he’s not going to run for president. Later in the evening, the two leave the party and take a drive into the night where they continue to chat, and as they attempt to travel to a secluded beach, the drunken Kennedy drives off the infamous bridge into the water.

He somehow manages to escape the car, and he makes his way back to the party where he tells his cousin Joe what happened.  They return to the scene of the accident, along with Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) and they attempt unsuccessfully to extract Mary Jo from the submerged vehicle. Joe tells Ted that he must report the accident, the sooner the better, and Ted agrees. However, Ted does not report it.  Instead, he returns to his hotel room in Edgartown, and he calls his ailing father Joe Kennedy (Bruce Dern) who can barely speak, but the Kennedy patriarch does say one word to his son: alibi.

It takes ten hours before the conflicted Ted Kennedy finally decides to report the incident, and after going back and forth with what to say, admits that he was indeed the driver of the vehicle.  What follows is the tale of the cover up, the powerful advisors on one side, who are doing everything in their power to create a false narrative to save Ted’s political career, and Ted’s cousin Joe on the other side, imploring him to remember that a young woman is dead and for him to tell the truth. In the middle is a confused young Senator who seems lost throughout these events, pulled in multiple directions, conflicted between doing the right thing for himself, for his family, for his country, and for Mary Jo Kopechne. In short, he doesn’t have a clue.

CHAPPAQUIDDICK tells a somber story that portrays Ted Kennedy as a conflicted, confused figure. At times he comes off as sympathetic because he seems to want to do the right thing, but more often than not he’s seen as a massively frustrating figure who completely and continually botches the situation, and if not for his famous name could and most likely should have easily gone to jail for manslaughter.

But the best part of CHAPPAQUIDDICK is it tells its tale with Mary Jo Kopechne at its forefront.  Never does the movie allow its audience to forget that Mary Jo Kopechne, a promising young woman with a bright future ahead of her, lost her life that night. Worse yet, it’s quite possible she died not only because of Ted Kennedy’s drunk driving, but because he didn’t call for help immediately.  The film intimates that she survived for a while inside the vehicle before ultimately passing away.

Jason Clarke delivers a grave performance as Ted Kennedy. He portrays Kennedy with a “deer in the headlights” expression throughout.  He makes Kennedy a man who seemed completely lost and overwhelmed by the events around him. Should he listen to his father and lie? Or to his cousin Joe and tell the truth? He portrays Kennedy as a man who knows what’s expected of him because of his family name, yet seems to want to carve out his own path in life, and when this tragedy occurs, at his own hands, he goes back and forth between owning up and saving his political hide for the sake of a nation. One thing that Kennedy is not portrayed as is a cold-hearted manipulator.

Jason Clarke has delivered some fine performances in the past, in films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), but this might be his finest work yet. He captures the essense of the conflicted Kennedy so perfectly you almost can feel a migraine coming on while watching him.

I’m a huge fan of Kate Mara, and I’m still waiting for her breakout role. With very limited screen time here, this isn’t it, but she’s still excellent as Mary Jo Kopechne. In her brief time on-screen, Mara makes Mary Jo a three-dimensional character, one whose presence is felt throughout the film, even after she has drowned.

Ed Helms gives the most memorable performance in the film as Kennedy cousin and “fixer” Joe Gargan. Normally a comedic actor, Helms more than holds his own in this dramatic role. He’s the voice of reason in this story and its conscience, the voice audiences hope Ted Kennedy listens to, but ultimately that’s not what happened.

Bruce Dern also makes an impact as the gravely ill and very harsh Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy, who would die a few months after the Chappaquiddick incident. At this time, Joe Kennedy could barely speak, and as such Dern’s performance is pretty much sans dialogue.  He does manage to utter that one cold calculating word to his son over the phone, “alibi,” and later when Ted opens his heart to his father and says he’s unsure of who he is and where he’s going, but he does know he wants to be a great man, his father responds, “you’ll never be great.” Ted hugs him anyway.

Clancy Brown is memorable as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense called in to “fix” the Chappaquiddick incident.  As is Olivia Thirlby as fellow “Boiler Girl” and Mary Jo’s friend Rachel Schiff who utters the prophetic line to Ted that even Mary Jo’s parents didn’t blame him for her death, so why should America?

The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan pretty much tells two stories. On the one hand, there’s the ugly tale of Kennedy’s cowardly negligence which led to the tragic death of a young woman and the subsequent cover up by the rich and powerful powers that be to save the political career of a young senator with a famous name. But there’s also the story of a nation still mourning the loss of its beloved Kennedy brothers, and how the voting public was willing to turn a blind eye on the actions of the man who they hoped would be the successor to these leaders, the younger brother, Ted Kennedy.

And in the middle of both stories, a conflicted, sad, confused, and for one fateful evening completely irresponsible Senator Ted Kennedy, who if not for his name, should have gone to jail for both his actions and inactions. Instead, he served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts for over 40 years.

Director John Curran captures the salty feel of a Massachusetts island to the point where you can smell the unpleasant odor of the ocean, and it smells like death, ugly incompetence, and the vulgar actions of a political cover-up.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story

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PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.

—END—

 

I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

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MOLLY’S GAME (2017) – High Stakes Poker Tale Plays Close to the Vest

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

MOLLY’S GAME (2017), based on the true story of Olympic-class skier Molly Bloom who after a devastating injury which ended her skiing career went on to run some of the most expensive high stakes poker games in the world, and was subsequently prosecuted by the FBI, begs the question: are all “true stories” created equal?

The answer obviously is no, and most of the time movie makers get this right and don’t film stories not worth telling.  Here, in MOLLY’S GAME, I’m not so sure.

After a freak accident on the ski slopes ends her career and spoils her shot at making the Olympic team, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to California to get as far away from her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as possible.  While he had always been hard on her, the main reason she can’t stand him is he cheated on her mom.

She lands a job as a cocktail waitress where she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) a shadowy guy who hires her to be his personal secretary, a position that opens up the door for her to assist him with his high stakes poker game he runs every week, a game that attracts all sorts of celebrities, including a popular actor named only in the movie as Player X (Michael Cera).

After a falling out with Dean, Molly sets up shop on her own, and suddenly she’s the one running the high stakes poker game. Under her guidance, the game continues to grow, but after she moves it to New York, to attract even wealthier players, trouble brews, as she runs afoul of the Russian mob, the Italian mafia, and illegal drug use, eventually catching the attention of the FBI.

The story is told largely through flashback, as she tells her story to her attorney Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba).

MOLLY’S GAME is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, known for his thought-provoking scripts for such films as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), to name a couple, and more so, for his classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006). It’s an impressive debut.

The writing is top-notch and is full of snappy quick-paced dialogue, which is no surprise since Sorkin also wrote the script, based on the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom.

The acting is also excellent.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are two of my favorite actors working today.  In the lead role as Molly Bloom, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park, and her performance is the best part of this movie.  She makes Molly Bloom a compelling character, and I was more than interested in following her story.

Chastain has already delivered a host of notable performances, in such films as ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE HELP (2011), INTERSTELLAR 2014), and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few.

Likewise, Idris Elba has also delivered a lot of excellent performances, although his best work is clearly on the TV show LUTHER (2010-2018) in which he plays DCI John Luther and he’s been phenomenal in the role for the entirety of the show’s run.

Strangely, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Chastain and Elba here.  Not that they were romantically involved, but in terms of plot, at first Elba’s attorney Charlie Jaffey wants no part of Molly’s case, but eventually he changes his mind, because he believes there’s more to her story than what he’s read in the tabloids, and it’s this part of the story that’s missing.  I was never convinced that Charlie would have changed his mind about Molly. I didn’t buy his change of heart because I never really saw him have that lightbulb moment where he realizes, I can defend this woman.  It’s supposed to be when he realizes that she’s had numerous opportunities to make lots of money off her story and has turned them all down, a reflection of her integrity as a person.  I understood this as a plot point, but I never felt it through Charlie’s character.

This was a major sticking point for me throughout the entire movie.  I understood it all, but all of it left me feeling rather empty.  The story worked intellectually, but not emotionally.

The cast is full of familiar faces who all do a wonderful job in their roles.  Kevin Costner is sufficiently cold and demanding as Molly’s psychologist dad Larry, who’s not going to win any father of the year awards.

Jeremy Strong is slimy and sexist as Dean Keith. Strong has been in a bunch of movies of late, including appearances in DETROIT (2017), THE BIG SHORT (2015), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

Michael Cera makes for a very unlikable Player X, while Chris O’Dowd makes for a rather likable Douglas Downey, a regular at the table who’s almost always drunk and who has affable conversations with Molly after the games. I like O’Dowd a lot, and he’s made similar impressions in films like ST. VINCENT (2014) and THE SAPPHIRES (2012).

Likewise, Brian D’Arcy James is memorable as Brad, nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he was the worst player at the table and lost regularly. D’Arcy James also appeared in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and most recently on the TV series 13 REASONS WHY (2017-18).

So, in MOLLY’S GAME, you have acting, writing, and directing that are all excellent, and yet, when it was all said and done, I found myself asking a big so what?

And that “so what?” refers to Molly’s story.  I enjoyed Jessica Chastain in the lead role, and I enjoyed learning about Molly Bloom, and her character is certainly interesting, but her story?  I dunno. For a while, it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly worthwhile learning about a woman who made it her mission to outwork powerful men and beat them at their own game.

All of this I liked, but the film, like some of the players sitting around the table, plays things close to the vest, and as a result it was difficult to gage just what people were feeling and why they were feeling it. And the story itself suffers for it, because it never really becomes alive or makes a compelling argument to its audience that this story needs to be told.  Ultimately, I agree with the judge at the end of the story who in making his ruling suggests that this whole case was much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, there is just something missing here, and that something is heart. MOLLY’S GAME has little emotional connection with its audience. Intellectually, I understood and appreciated Molly’s story, and I enjoyed watching a story about a woman getting the upper hand over powerful and sexist men.  But emotionally, I never felt much for any of the characters, including Molly.  Molly should have been an extremely sympathetic character here, but she’s not.  The writing doesn’t allow her to be.

As such, I never felt a connection to Charlie Jaffey’s character, and I never believed his reasons for taking Molly’s case.  Moreover, I never felt the fear Molly should have felt being arrested by the FBI, or earlier the jubilation for a job well done running the high stakes poker game.  Maybe it’s because for Molly, there wasn’t much to feel.  The herculean effort it took for her to organize and run these games left her exhausted and got her addicted to drugs.

Or maybe it’s because in terms of stories, it’s just not one that pulls at the heartstrings.

I don’t know.

I do know that MOLLY’S GAME is a well-directed, expertly written, and professionally acted movie that held my interest for its 140 minute running time, but when it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a genuinely compelling story, or if like some of the players at the table in the movie, I had fallen victim to a monumental bluff.

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DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Gary Oldman Brings Winston Churchill to Life

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Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017)

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.

It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.

It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.

Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”

And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler.  But as we know, this is not what happened.  Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.

How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill.  It’s as good as advertised.

Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable.  He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.

He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives.  And militarily his hands were tied.  When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten.  His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.

Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.

And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.

The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.

For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift.  There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide.  When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.

The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.

And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.

It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister.  And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here.  This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader.   These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.

This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk.  There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort.  Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.

Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life.  In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.

Oldman is helped by a solid cast.  I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.  It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.

I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton.  She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.

Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side.  He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly.  He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon.  It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”

Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain.  And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI.  He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.

DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all.  And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.

DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.

And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.

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