LUCKY (Movie Review)

lucky
*1/2 out of ****
Not Rated (for adults only)
(for strong language, smoking, drug use)
Released:  September 29, 2017 limited; October 20 expands
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: John Caroll Lynch
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant, James Darren, Yvonne Huff, David Lynch

This is an actor’s showcase that doesn’t give its actor much to showcase.

Lucky is an ill-titled character study and ironically named final screen role for Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away earlier this year. Talk about a guy who deserved better.

Lucky wants to be a movie about life and death, to say things about loneliness and meaning. But as its ornery hero strolls around town with a severely uncongenial disposition, all the movie ends up doing is playing cute with its foul-mouthed weed smoking old coot.

Billed as “the spiritual journey of a 90-year-old atheist”, that provocative tag line bears no resemblance to the simplistic void this limp screenplay provides. It’s existentialism writ adorable, on a canvas of schmaltzy nihilism.

Stanton’s Lucky is no more an atheist than any other average non-sectarian agnostic seen in most other movies. There’s no talk or debate of God. Conversations lack any honest depth or true wisdom, at best peppered with clever one-liners and flat aphorisms that ring false. Even Lucky’s loner grumpiness is perfectly agreeable  to him, a state that’s proudly self-imposed.

As spiritual journeys go, its theme is the mystical hogwash that existence is nothing. We are nothing. All is nothing. Yet it’s a message (calling it a “message” is even being generous) that’s delivered with a surprising level of sappy pandering, as if a life devoid of meaning is supposed to bring peace to your heart and put a smile on your face.

Part of this lies in the notion that everything’s relative; a valid perspective, given life’s grays and complexities. But this film embraces a depressing form of humanism, and then drapes it in flaky sentimentality.

The disheartening failure of Lucky is no fault of its legendary lead. Stanton’s mere presence is substantial, and evocative, but he’s given little worthwhile to say, do, or contemplate, outside of a beautifully rendered song at a Quinceañera party. It embodies everything the movie aspires to be, but isn’t.

Character actor John Caroll Lynch struggles to tell a cohesive story in his directorial debut, or create a cohesive experience. It largely feels sincere, to Lynch’s credit, and he comes up with some inspired visual metaphors, but the screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja never sounds credible, let alone enlightening. It’s all randomly contrived instead of emerging from a personal, specific place.

The faux conviction is particularly hard to buy when you consider the legacy of Harry Dean Stanton himself, a character actor who made a lasting, meaningful mark on the cinematic art form, his fellow artists, and the cinephiles who grew to love him.

Philosophically vacant, Lucky embraces a dissatisfying, empty state of Zen. Consequently, as far as poignant swan songs go, I’ll stick with this one as the final on-screen ode for Harry Dean Stanton:

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ONLY THE BRAVE (Movie Review)

 

onlythebravecast
*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for thematic content, some sexual references, language, peril, and drug material)
Released:  October 20, 2017
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch

Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) is on tap to direct the upcoming sequel Top Gun: Maverick. His latest film Only The Brave plays like a demo reel for that gig, but without the cocky soundtrack-fueled swagger.

A sobering ode to blue collar valor, Only The Brave imbues the tried-and-true template of real hero biopics with unassuming conviction. This movie won’t surprise you but it will move you.

By the end, you’ll respect the hell out of these guys who risk their lives to save our communities, and the loved ones who live with that burden every day.

Based on a true story, Only The Brave is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the only municipal team of firefighters in the United States to ever achieve Elite status. Initially a “Grade 2” unit, one that aides top level wildfire fighting teams as backup and support, this crew from Prescott, Arizona lacked the proper connections to vie for Hotshot status, a.k.a. firefighting’s “SEAL Team” equivalent.

But with the driving passion of their “Supe” leader Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), these scrappy outsiders eventually completed their historic breakthrough.

Much of the film tracks that journey, and then builds towards a dramatic re-creation of the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 that was famously documented in the GQ article “No Exit”.

Once it gets past the clunky forced camaraderie and bravado of the opening scenes, along with some rote domestic sappiness, Only The Brave settles into a compelling, grounded narrative of this unique brotherhood, enriched by fascinating specifics about what their job requires.

There are nice character portraits here, too. Brolin and Jeff Bridges offer the kind of sturdy, stalwart men you admire from Middle America, and Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) continues to shine as possibly the best actor of his generation. Here, his rookie fighter Brendan McDonough is a junkie looking to overcome addiction and provide for a newborn. Teller walks this man’s path of redemption with real humility, not macho intensity.

Kosinki’s tone is similar to the gritty, credible elegies by director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day, Lone Survivor) but it’s more visually confident, without the erratic shaky cam overkill, and it’s the best, most insightful film about firefighting since 1991’s Backdraft.

There’s an impressive formalism to the shooting and editing style, too, but one that eschews Hollywood gloss for an aesthetic that’s natural and lived-in.

The scenes at home aren’t quite the equal to those “on the line”, dipping occasionally into overwrought melodrama (as wives compete with that mistress “The Fire”), but it’s still affecting on the whole, and earnest, in particular Teller’s scenes with McDonough’s girlfriend and daughter as he respectfully strives to become worthy of them.

Through harrowing challenges and, yes, sacrifices, we grow to appreciate the skill and commitment of these men, and their families. Only The Brave may be told in simple broad strokes, but they’re noble ones.

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (Movie Review)

firsttheykilledmyfather
***1/2 out of ****
Rated TV-MA
(for some language, war violence, torture, brutal conditions involving children)
Released:  September 15, 2017
Runtime: 136 minutes
Director: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Sareum Srey Moch, Phoeung Kompheak, Sveng Socheata, Mun Kimhak, Heng Dara, Khoun Sothea, Sarun Nika

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

My review of First They Killed My Father, for The Tulsa Voice. It’s the true story of a Cambodian girl’s survival during the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Based on the memoir by Loung Ung.

This “unflinching portrayal of totalitarian oppression by the Khmer Rouge…is a bone-chilling reminder of how the past is repeating itself unabated” in North Korea today.

Director Angelina Joliegives us a comprehensive understanding of something perpetrated on a massive scale, but does so through an effectively intimate lens.”

To read my full review, click here.

SPIELBERG (Movie Review)

Spielberg_Documentary
*** out of ****
TV-MA
(for some strong language, adult themes, sexual references)
Released:  October 7, 2017
Runtime: 147 minutes
Director: Susan Lucy
Starring: 
Steven Spielberg and various collaborators

Airing exclusively on HBO, and streaming free to the public on HBO.com during the month of October

For a director as influential as Steven Spielberg – with so many movies to examine and dissect – the HBO documentary Spielberg is about as comprehensive as a broad overview from 30,000 feet can get.

Director Susan Lucy occasionally dives deeper for closer flybys, and those moments offer fascinating detail, but overall this is an entertaining highlight reel of the most influential American filmmaker from the last forty years.

Spielberg nerds, like myself, who’ve read or heard the stories and lore countless times over from various and sundry profiles, will find little that’s revelatory here. But Lucy has packaged these gems all into one narrative – from the influence of his parents’ divorce, to sneaking onto the Universal lot as a green upstart, to how George Lucas rescued him from his greatest failure, and more – and that certainly counts for something.

However, for those who aren’t familiar with these anecdotes and behind-the-scenes histories, or haven’t studied his movies beyond their entertainment value, Spielberg is an absolute treasure trove.

Indeed, we probably get the most personal accounting of those milestones than has ever been seen, all culled from over thirty hours of interviews with the wunderkind himself (a feat in its own right) which, in part, works as a “Who wore it best?” contest between Spielberg and himself with his various scarf accessories.

It’s fun to hear him reflect on his early days in the 1970s as part of the revolutionary Movie Brats – Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, and De Palma (to name a few) – and how they made one another better (even working anonymously on each other’s films, like the classic scene in Scarface that Spielberg essentially staged and shot), complete with his own archival film footage of the young geniuses hanging out together.

We also hear from famous collaborators throughout his career, all glowing of course, but perspectives like one from Lincoln’s Sally Field“Steven has a part of him that wants to see the good in the darkest of the dark.” – aren’t just warm sentiments; they’re legitimate insights that hold up under examination of his entire career.

The portrait it paints remains a hagiography (DreamWorks, for example, is mentioned but not as the struggling endeavor it was), yet it’s still a worthwhile one, even insightful, especially in those rare moments when Spielberg talks about the actual craft and not just a specific movie or influence.

In them we learn, for example, how nervous he is before every shot, even to this day. The pressure that comes from being the one person on set who bears the responsibility of being able to see the whole thing before it’s actually been made.

There’s a comfort in this confession, a reassurance to us lesser beings, showing that even for a certified master it’s still a mysterious art, not an exact science. The film could’ve used a lot more personal candor like that.

Even so, to touch on nearly every film Spielberg has ever made is well worth the two-and-a-half hour sit, especially as it’s buoyed by the scores of John Williams. It’s smartly broken into sections. Act 1, essentially, explores his populist beginnings. Act 2, his maturation. Act 3, his legacy.

Lucy does a superb job of placing his achievements in context. There’s perhaps no better example of this than 1993. That summer, Spielberg advanced blockbuster cinema by showing us what was possible with technology in Jurassic Park. Six months later, he showed us what was possible for him as an artist in Schindler’s List. In the history of the movies, it’s hard to find another filmmaker who achieved so much in a single year.

There are other things we get an appreciation for, too, not the least of which is the influence of his wife Kate Capshaw. Known to most as the shrill Indy babe from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (who couldn’t hold a whiskey shot to Karen Allen’s Marion), Spielberg helps us to understand in credible terms of genuine gratitude how Capshaw was the person that made Steven’s maturation as a filmmaker possible.

There are also more honest yet still loving appraisals from Spielberg’s siblings. The family background helps illuminate a movie like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which Spielberg also wrote the screenplay for. A fair, new reading of that film – and of Roy Neary in particular – is that it’s Spielberg extending grace, empathy, and forgiveness toward his own father, who he perceived as “leaving” the family when his parents divorced.

It’s telling what movies are bypassed, some without nary a single clip. Always and The Lost World: Jurassic Park are ignored completely, while Hook, The Terminal, The Adventures of Tintin, and War Horse get little more than fleeting glimpses at best (but no commentary). No doubt those references were left to the original 4-hour cut, some deservedly and others unfortunately.

The primary beneficiary of that neglect, however, is Munich, Spielberg’s 2005 thriller about Israel’s retaliation against the PLO for the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. It’s a film that remains the best, most complex cinematic reflection on our post-9/11 War on Terror, and its toll on our personal and collective soul.

It’s also the most underappreciated masterpiece of Spielberg’s oeuvre, especially now that 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is getting its due. Lucy studies Munich at length; inspiring people to give it another look may be the best virtue her documentary can boast.

It’s virtually impossible to sum up a career like Spielberg’s in one movie and actually do the man’s work justice. But to Lucy’s credit, Spielberg helps us to appreciate in full what her film can only scratch the surface of, an inherent truth best summed up by actor Bob Balaban“He doesn’t want to make little personal movies. He wants to make big personal movies.”

And each one, in its own way, is a close encounter.

You can read my reviews of every Steven Spielberg film ever made, and see how I rank them, in The Spielberg Canon.

OFCC Podcast: Episode 15 – BLADE RUNNER 2049, BATTLE OF THE SEXES, & More (PODCAST)

ofcc

Episode 15: Replicating The Future and The Past

For this edition of The OFCC Podcast, available on iTunes, our roundtable of critics from the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle return after a month off from podcasting to discuss the latest in movies for early October 2017.

You can also stream Episode 15 by clicking here.

On this episode, the critics include:

DISCUSSIONS
 Blade Runner 2049 (starting at 1:20)
Battle of the Sexes (at 20:40)

HOT TAKES
– American Made (at 38:46)
– Kingsman: The Golden Circle (at 40:10)
– Stronger (at 43:12)

Click here to subscribe through iTunes, and look for the October 14, 2017 episode.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) (Movie Review)

Meyerowitz_Siblings
***1/2 out of ****
Rated TV-MA
(for strong language, nudity, and some sexual content)
Released:  October 13, 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson

Streaming exclusively on Netflix

It can be exciting to see filmmakers try new things or push their own boundaries, but there’s something to be said for a director doubling down on his or her own wheelhouse. Within that, some of the best, most confident and exciting movies are forged, and occasionally the most personal.

What makes The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) particularly special is that it not only emerges from writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most natural creative instincts; it hits the visceral sweet spot for its leads, too. Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller seem born to play father and sons, and the sister and daughter aren’t shortchanged either.

If The Squid and the Whale is Baumbach’s best work to date (and it is), then the The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) transforms that film’s template by removing its cynicism without castrating its honest bite, yet maintains its comic sophistication.

The Squid and the Whale was tale of family dysfunction set against the backdrop of New York academia, with a father who longs for the embrace of cultural elites and the two sons who are burdened by that ambition. Jeff Daniels’ failed writer is replaced by Hoffman’s failed sculptor, each having “settled” for teaching careers at top collegiate institutions, and the teenage sons are now grown adults.

If Squid was a release of semi-autobiographical venting, then Meyerowitz is Baumbach’s act of reconciliation.

It’s certainly no random choice to have Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz be a failed sculptor, because it serves as a perfect metaphor to his role as a father. The dysfunctional atmosphere he created, born of parental neglect mixed with high expectations, has molded three very different grown-ups.

Sandler’s Danny is an amiable failure, Stiller’s Matthew is highly successful but living on the opposite coast, and sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) landed somewhere in between, stable but still messed up.

A series of events brings them all together, exhuming unresolved conflicts, dashed hopes, and regrets. It’s a familiar formula, but for Baumbach it comes from a very real place. Now with more time and distance (it’s been over a decade since Squid), Baumbach is able tear off some emotional band-aids as an act of love, not spite.

The Meyerowitzes are a family grappling with the legacy of its patriarch, a bitter intellectual who impacted his students while scarring his kids. The surface-level results are recognizable, but Baumbach and his cast give them a unique specificity.

Sandler’s Danny, for instance, has a wonderful relationship with his college age daughter, Eliza, not a strained one. They are genuinely close. Instead of Danny repeating his dad’s mistakes, he’s intentionally avoided them. Sandler and Grace Van Patten have some of the sweetest, warmest moments of the movie (and of any Baumbach film). Danny may have failed professionally, but as a parent he got it right.

Sandler is a revelation here, even when considering his formidable, fragile turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. In that, Sandler was able to hide behind that film’s perverse, demented quirk. Here, in Baumbach’s naturalism, he’s completely out in the open, and Sandler lays everything bare.

Matthew is certainly the most functional, normal one of the bunch, but neither Stiller nor the script have to force his latent baggage. It emerges progressively, organically (and yes, comically), from a person who’s run from his issues but mistaken that for having dealt with them, climaxing in one of Stiller’s best-ever on-screen moments. Elizabeth Marvel elevates the eccentric sister role, too, and takes full advantage of the scenes she’s given, but this (understandably) is primarily a story of father and sons.

And Dustin Hoffman? Actors dream of late-in-life roles like this one, a character rich in his neurosis yet oblivious to its severity, creating a sharp-tongued non-PC narcissist who thinks his intellect absolves all of his defaults.

Hoffman takes all of these delicious layers and, instead of chewing the scenery, makes them spontaneous, lived in, self-evident, and completely unconscious, creating tension and disaster all to hilarious effect. If a performance can break through from the Netflix streaming ghetto to an actual Oscar nomination, it’s this one.

Not everything works here, namely Eliza’s pursuit of film studies. Her short subjects are little more than French New Wave pornos, so they’re limp as satire and not credible in substantiating her as truly gifted (something the film really tries to sell), but that’s a rare overreach in a movie that’s otherwise firing on astute, insightful cylinders.

The comic and the tragic often intermingle here, and that balance allows truly sad, poignant moments to pop up, grab us, and resonate. This is certainly Baumbach’s most sentimental film, but it’s never schmaltzy. The Meyerowitz Stories makes frank observations of life and family, but with wise notes of self-deprecation and grace.

Meyerowitz_Parents

VICTORIA & ABDUL (Movie Review)

victoriaandabdul
** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some thematic elements and language)
Released:  October 6, 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar

With Judi Dench starring as Queen Victoria, Victoria & Abdul could’ve been a wonderful companion piece to the magnificent Mrs. Brown from twenty years ago, in which Dench first played (and was Oscar-nominated for portraying) England’s latter 19th Century monarch.

Instead, the two films work in tandem as an unfortunate but instructive compare-and-contrast, a case study on how to do a certain type of material with rich poignancy and class, and then how to make a complete mockery of it.

The two structures are so similar that Victoria & Abdul plays like a quasi-sequel, imitating the original in premise but then changing up the details. Mrs. Brown told the story of Queen Victoria’s personal, life-saving friendship with her Scottish servant John Brown that followed the death of her beloved husband. That film’s timeline ended in 1886.

Victoria & Abdul begins in 1887. It follows the Queen’s friendship with an Indian servant named Abdul, who becomes her spiritual advisor, and how he inspired Victoria in her final years. The film’s advertising could’ve been slapped with the tagline: “Same Queen. Different Footman. New Attitude.”

That sort of trite marketing would’ve been entirely appropriate for a movie that’s as equally glib. It takes the archetype of the stern but loyal John Brown and reincarnates him into the amiable Abdul, providing a similar influence but to much less credible or satisfying effect.

Compared to Mrs. Brown, which is an emotionally searing portrait of a profoundly moving, complex relationship, Victoria & Abdul is an art house softball, pandering to the Period Piece aficionado by playing cute with a progressive-yet-doddering Queen and the Indian version of the Magical Negro (think Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance).

The overall tone is lightweight; that’s particularly surprising given director Stephen Frears’ track record (The Queen and Dangerous Liasons, to name two). Dramatic stakes are entirely undercut by playing up the culture clash as silly antics. Seemingly insurmountable challenges are pushed aside all-too-easily.

Threats aren’t real; they’re formulaic plot beats, quickly dispensed of by Victoria. She simply tells off her advisors, who have imperialist sticks up their butts. (She’s even given a Sorkin-like monologue, too, stacked with an encyclopedic list of facts, delivered with rapid-fire defiance, and capped by a mic drop conclusion.)

The aesthetic is equally slight, feeling more modern than period. Yes, the costumes and set pieces are all 1800s, but the contemporary dialogue and overall lack of propriety keep us in the present, not transporting us to the past. You half-expect someone to pull out a smartphone at any moment.

A lighter, even more comedic approach is fine. This need not be as weighted as Mrs. Brown so powerfully was. Fears, however, makes a joke of a story that’s packed with layers of potential. Consequently, at those rare moments that the Queen expresses genuine vulnerability, even tears, it comes out nowhere – like from a different movie entirely – and doesn’t register.

Dench’s formidable chops are chopped and, as Abdul, the sincere charisma and noble grace of newcomer Ali Fazal is reduced to a flat (if endearing) caricature. The narrative focus even veers off-course, evolving from Victoria & Abdul to Victoria vs. the Petty, Cowardly Royal Household. This trifling miscalculation also belabors its import, overstaying its welcome by a good twenty minutes.

Like many biopics, this movie opens with an on-screen statement that reads (with a wink), “Based on a true story…mostly.” It should’ve said…barely.