In Case You Missed It – November 2018

Seems like these days the only credentials you need to direct is to have been on a movie set a few times. I’m exaggerating, obviously, as I’m sure it’s much more complicated, but here we have another actor working his magic behind the camera as well as in front of it. Well, technically speaking, this is Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directing effort, having done the psychological thriller The Gift in 2015. At first I figured that one to be something of a fluke, having low expectations for it and being fairly surprised. But now that Boy Erased has come out and is even better, I’m beginning to think he’s the real deal. Not to mention he wrote both films he directed, in addition to respectable projects like Felony and The Rover. And even though Boy Erased is definitely an actors film, he’s able to lend them – himself included – the kind of platform to give the characterizations the proper heft. Not only that, but in a movie where you’ve got Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges and Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe delivering top-notch performances, he’s still able to hold his own in crafting one of the most human yet despicable antagonists you’ll see in a movie all year.

Based on a memoir of the same nameBoy Erased follows the trials of teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the closeted gay son of Nancy (Nicole Kidman) and Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe), the latter of whom is a Baptist preacher. Following a traumatic sexual incident at college, Jared returns home, but not before his parents are informed that he is gay. When Jared confirms this, he is told he must enroll in a gay conversion therapy program known as Love in Action and expel his homosexuality, as it conflicts with their core beliefs. There, he is introduced to one Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), the chief therapist whose rigorous teachings takes a mental tole on Jared and the other patients. Doubtful he’s going to be able to change who he is, Jared will have to confront not only the draconian Sykes but his parents as well, and instead ask them to change.

Well isn’t this just a bucket of fun? Seriously though, this is a tough watch, especially considering that it’s based on true events that happen pretty much all over the country every day. So, if you’re on the other side of the equation, this isn’t going to be the movie for you. Because it does take a stance, and if you are the target demographic like me, it will make you mad, in a good way. That said, what I really liked about it is that it didn’t come outright and let you know what it thought about gay conversion therapy; it fittingly didn’t preach, you might say. Instead, it allows you to develop your own opinion as the characters gradually do the same, thus granting the story the proper breathing room it needs to take shape. That said, it also doesn’t villainize those who are caught between their religion and their sexuality, or those who love someone who is. Instead, it treats them sympathetically as well-meaning but flawed individuals with room to expand their minds and their hearts. It can be a tricky tight-rope to navigate, and even though it does pick a side, it does so steadily and with confidence much like a film like The Hate U Give did last month with its arguably even more hot-button issue. So if your beliefs align with that of the conversion therapy, fair warning, it probably won’t be for you. That said, I think this is an important picture that’s smartly written and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, and should – whichever way you slice it – spark a discourse, which is always good.

Final Score: 9/10

Initially conceived as an Oscar contender on all fronts, things have almost appropriately gone the way of Gary Hart for The Front Runner. With a mixed response from the critics and moviegoers who’ve seen it, the real death knell sounded when it made virtually zero moneys at the box office, an outcome which may be attributed to American audiences having been burnt out on politics in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election. You may be asking yourself, “Wait? Didn’t The Post just come out last year and do all the business and get all the nominations?” To which I’ll say yes, but don’t forget it was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, not to mention centered on the journalistic side of the equation. This is a movie about a real-life campaign steeped in controversy, and the wounds are just a little too fresh for most. And I’ll go ahead and put myself in the minority and say that all those factors are disheartening, because The Front Runner is quite good. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it’ll be missed in any of the major categories come February, there’s enough magnetic moving parts to clinch a hell of a comeback year for Jason Reitman, who’s just coming off Tully from this spring, and features one of Hugh Jackman’s finest performances, if not necessarily flashy. It’s just a shame that it’s going to be forgotten so soon.

Set mostly in 1988, The Front Runner centers in on White House hopeful and democrat Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), who is pegged by many to be the favorite for the presidency. Handsome, charismatic and relatively young, Hart seems to have it all, except for an ostensibly faithful marriage to his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) it would seem, as reporters from the Miami Herald target Hart for a story detailing his alleged affair with one Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). What one would ordinarily dismiss as tabloid sleaze soon becomes a national sensation, with Hart’s entire press releases being skewed toward speculation. A staunchly private man, Hart refuses to address the rumors, claiming that the issues regarding his campaign are more important. However, as the American public refuses to let the issue go and his numbers begin declining, Hart must decide if this tidal wave of controversy is worth confronting, or if it’s best to simply walk away.

On the outset, there’s not a whole lot too special about The Front Runner technically or narratively. Until it begins to settle, settle into your skin, that is, as plot slowly gains momentum and the stakes are magnified. Director Jason Reitman takes a very choreographed approach to the material, often opting to let the camera weave through the scenes and highlight each subtle but crucial moment. At first I found this to be somewhat inert, often wondering what it would have been like if it had the same atmosphere David Fincher imprinted on another political drama, one House of Cards. That said, Reitman shows great discipline and consistency, a big step up for him following other lackluster efforts this decade such as Labor Day and Men, Women & Children. And speaking of work done this decade, Hugh Jackman has been having a banner last six years or so, getting to show off his acting chops aplenty between this, Les Misérables and Logan, all supremely different films and roles. While the performance of The Front Runner will keep him out of the Best Actor race, he nevertheless does great work as someone keeping their emotions under the surface for the sake of his family and his country. And it’s worth mentioning that he’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast covering all sides of the central conflict, layering the film with timely themes that the viewer is allowed to individually chew and digest.

Final Score: 8/10

They just can’t seem to get Americans to care about Lisbeth Salander. Which is a shame, seeing as she’s one of the best characters in 21st Century literature. Maybe it’s the whole Swedish thing. Or maybe she’s just past her prime of around a decade a go when those books were selling like hotcakes. Still, we got a good few film adaptations out of it, the Swedish version and the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being tops in the thriller genre of the past decade. While the latter of the two wasn’t quite successful enough to get stars Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig on the fast track to reprise their roles – not to mention get David Fincher to follow up one of his own films for the first time ever – I guess it did do just well enough to cut the budget in half and strike while the iron is at least lukewarm. Nabbing Claire Foy to play the titular character – she having a stellar 2018, having also starred in Unsane and First Man – and getting Fede Álvarez to helm it – he having done the stellar Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe – things were looking good for the new-look The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which opted to skip the second and third books in the series and leap right to the as-of-yet unadapted fourth. Looking good, that is, until it came out, and is proving to be quite the critical and commercial dud. And I wish I could say the opposite, having seen all the films and read all the books, but this fifth one overall seems to miss the essence of the character and the story in favor of a sleek but slack espionage thriller that doesn’t pull many punches. That’s not the say those involved don’t do great work, but given the source material, one would hope it’d be more intelligent than generic.

In The Girl in the Spider’s Web, vigilante hacker turned folk legend Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is tasked by computer programer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to retrieve his creation Firefall – a program with the capacity to hack any and all nuclear weapons in the world – from the National Security Agency. In doing so, she gains the attention of NSA agent Ed Needham (LaKeith Stanfield), who promptly sets off for Sweden in hopes of intercepting Salander and recovering the program. However, he’s not the only one with his eyes set on it, as a Russian crime syndicate, led by Lisbeth’s long thought to be dead sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), murders Balder and makes off with it. However, turns out the only one with the passcode for the system is Balder’s autistic son August (Christopher Convery), whom Lisbeth must protect with the help of journalist and former lover Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). But to do so, she’ll have to confront her childhood, and the one woman she should have helped, but didn’t.

One of the appeals of Lisbeth Salander and the Millenium series as a whole was how grounded in reality it felt, that even though these scenarios were surely conjured by some writer, you could believe that this woman exists and you could empathize with her plight through rich character development. Not here, however, as they reduce her to that of a technological superhero with a backstory that is so slapdash and rushed it may as well have come in a Happy Meal container. And while this might be the part where those more familiar with the print versions get more of a kick out of it, I unfortunately have to report that they stray greatly from the source material, whereas its predecessors did so extremely sparingly. Usually I’m the guy who rolls his eyes when I hear someone bemoan the fact that a movie changed certain aspects of the book’s story, movies being an entirely different medium and thus require a different approach, but when the alterations made don’t pay off, one can’t help but scratch their head. Hell, the novelization of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is easily my least favorite of the series – the original creator having passed away during the drafting stage – and even I bemoan the lack of reverence for it. While not poorly constructed on any front, it’s easy to see that whoever was calling the shots largely missed the point, from Álvarez’s uncharacteristically restrained direction to Foy’s fine but misguidedly emotive portrayal of the character. Let it not be said that anybody phoned it in, but seeing as this serves as nothing more than a gasp for air for a franchise that should be raking it in entry after entry – with Rooney Mara starring and David Fincher directing, mind you – it’s unsurprising to note that we ended up with a product that’s not fully committed to its source material.

Final Score: 4/10

Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect a movie done by one half of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and Dumber and Dumber To to be a major awards contender. Then again, it is a road trip comedy, so I guess that follows. While Peter Farrelly doesn’t go too far out of his comfort zone behind the camera, he does deserve some credit – a third, in fact – for Green Book‘s fabulous screenplay, along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. That said, they’d be nowhere if the central relationship between the two leads wasn’t firing on all cylinders, so they can thank their lucky stars that it is. While on paper I wouldn’t have pegged Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali to be such a good fit for one another, especially in what is essentially a comedy, but any doubts I had melted away as soon as they got in the car. While you could make the argument that Green Book is perhaps a bit on the light side and takes the easiest route to its destination, it’s packaged in such a way that satiates you in pretty much every respect; not too much grit, too much stuffing, saucy but not so much that it’s wet. In short, it’s the perfect crowd-pleaser that has a little bit of everything to please just about everyone.

Taking place in 1962, Green Book picks up with jack of all trades and conflict de-escalator Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) being laid off after the nightclub he works at undergoes renovations. With a family to feed, Tony is introduced to one Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an renown African-American concert pianist in need of a driver to escort him throughout the Deep South during his eight-week tour. While there is an immediate culture clash between the two of them – Tony’s brusque, undignified behavior against Don’s genteel, elocutionary disposition – Tony begrudgingly accepts the position, and the two soon head out of New York on their long trip. Though initially they each have a narrow assessment of the other, they eventually warm up to their differences, Tony getting Don to come out of his shell and Don expanding Tony’s mind and breaking down his prejudices. However, the farther south they travel, the more perilous their journey becomes, as this newfound friendship will be tested in ways neither could have imagined.

When done right, odd couple movies can be hard to resist, and that’s exactly what I experienced with Green Book. At first I wasn’t too excited about this one, pegging their characters as nothing but archetypes, but I think that’s exactly why I enjoyed it as much as I did. By initially seeing them through a two-dimensional lens, I was allowed the experience of peeling back their layers in tandem with the narrative, finding their characterizations both independently and as a unit to be both charming and hearty. And it doesn’t hurt that both Mortensen and Ali do a bang-up job in their respective roles, sure to give other Oscar hopefuls a run for their money. If we’re going by performance alone, I’d say I like Mortensen to pick up a Best Actor nomination. However, due to some very un-choice use of language during a Q&A session for the film, he might’ve just shot himself in the foot on that front, and will probably end up going the way of James Franco for last year’s The Disaster Artist and miss the cut. Oh well. I was already plenty pleased that he was recognized for his work in 2016’s Captain Fantastic, something that would have normally gone under the radar. Meanwhile, Mahershala Ali is looking good to get a nom for Best Supporting Actor. And though it’s probably a little too early to tell, I’m putting my money on him taking home the prize – if only for an unusual lack of legitimate competition – getting his second in three years following his work in 2016’s Moonlight. Also don’t be surprised if it picks up nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture, but don’t expect it to win either. In short, this is a well-acted comedy that doesn’t skimp on the real issues at play, and remains one of the funniest and accessible films of the year.

Final Score: 10/10

If anyone had a breakout 2017, it was most definitely Tiffany Haddish. And when an actor explodes onto the scene in a single calendar year, it’s usually for a multitude of projects, like when Jessica Chastain was suddenly in everything in 2011 and Alicia Vikander was suddenly in everything in 2015. But Haddish had a single movie that brought her to superstardom, and that was Girls Trip. Stealing every scene among an already top-notch cast, her brash behavioral schtick instantly made her one of the most recognizable actors on the market, which certainly carried over into this year when she appeared in the likes of Uncle Drew, Night School, and now Nobody’s Fool. While I neglected to see the second of those, none of them have been quite able to light up the box office the way last year’s sleeper hit did, and Nobody’s Fool is no exception. And justly so, as not only is it ostensibly the worst of Haddish’s offerings, but one of the worst films of the year. While Haddish continues to do what she does best, her loudmouth antics are wholly misguided in a film that thinks it can get the audience off on that alone. Neglected for inclusion were the likes of a concrete story, conflict, and genuinely funny moments, they being entirely manufactured. Sometimes a movie is so bad at trying to be good it actually becomes enjoyable, and you get classics like Battlefield Earth and The Room. That doesn’t happen so often in the comedy genre, because when it is that bad, it’s painfully so. Enter Nobody’s Fool.

In Nobody’s Fool, successful marketing exec Danica (Tika Sumpter) seems to have it all: a great job, good friends, and a supportive boyfriend. Well, maybe, as her relationship with Charlie (Mehcad Brooks) is strictly of the over-the-phone variety, they having never met face-to-face for a multitude of reasons. When Danica is forced to put up her recently paroled, nymphomaniacal sister Tanya (Tiffany Haddish) – since their mother Lola (Whoopi Goldberg) refuses to do so – Tanya is quick to pry into Danica’s love life, and immediately suspects Charlie to be catfishing her. In other words, he likely isn’t real. While Danica refutes the notion outright, it seems more and more to be the case to the point where Charlie simply vanishes. Unwilling to let her sister mourn a fake person, Tanya goads Danica into a relationship with the ex-con, coffee shop owner downstairs Frank (Omari Hardwick). Danica is skeptical towards this, but things develop quickly and she finds herself back on her feet. But what if Charlie really is real? And what if he finds a way back into Danica’s life? Danica may just have to choose between the fantasy she’s always wanted, and the reality she never expected.

Truth be told, I beefed up the sh*t out the plot in that synopsis, because Nobody’s Fool never commits to a cohesive through-line. Instead, it’s largely a series of poorly scripted scenes that only has an inkling as to how the romantic-comedy subgenre operates. Not to mention the jokes inherent – you know, your meat and potatoes of the whole thing – are so unbelievably forced from the start that every single character comes across as an unrealistic stereotype devoid of a functioning brain. That’s hardly surprising, however, seeing as the film was written and directed by Tyler Perry himself, a man whose cinematic infamy keeps him from needing an introduction. Seriously, it baffles me how someone this bad at making movies can make so, so many. As it stands, Nobody’s Fool sits on my list as my third-least favorite film of 2018. Now, you would think that would be far enough down the totem pole to make it by proxy my least favorite Tyler Perry movie of the year too. Nope. Because guess what? He’s got Acrimony at number one. Christ, maybe – just maybe- when A Madea Family Funeral retires his seminal character for good in March I can be done with him for good. Then again, I’m white, so what the hell do I know?

Final Score: 1/10

It’s not easy following up a Best Picture winner. Just ask Ben Affleck, who went from something as thrilling as Argo to something as convoluted as Live by Night. Well, that’s what Steve McQueen has been tasked with doing, and with arguably loftier aspirations, seeing as Widows aims to be another awards contender. While probably nothing could ever live up to the searing period drama that was 12 Years a Slave, this one probably still should have hit a little harder. That’s not to say that there isn’t some magnificent work done here, and believe me, there is. Scene after scene McQueen shows that he knows what to do with the space provided and the actors present, who for the most part all give admirable performances. Chief among them is Viola Davis, the ostensible lead in the film, who once again showcases some of the best screen presence of anyone working today. It even has a slew of well-written characters coming from McQueen and Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, who proves she’s just about as good at writing movies as she is at writing novels. And yet Widows doesn’t really click the way it should. And I’m going to temper that statement by saying that I had some high expectations for this one, naturally, and even though it falls short of being one of the best films of the year, that doesn’t detract from all the solid work done around the board. Even if it won’t be as memorable as other crime thrillers like The Town – another Ben Affleck project – you’ll probably still get some good out of it.

In Widows, career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) is killed, along with the rest of his crew, in an explosion during a heist in which they absconded with $2 million from the likes of crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Trouble is, the money went up in flames too, and Manning wants it back. Only knowing Rawlings to have been involved, Manning is quick to approach his widow, one Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), and pass Harry’s posthumous debt onto her. Without the financial resources to pony up and fearing for her life, Veronica is quick to discover a series of heist plans Harry left to her in the event of his death. After contacting Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of Harry’s partners, Veronica develops a plan whereby the three of them follow Harry’s schemes and make off with $5 million, enough to pay off Manning and put them out of dire straits. As it becomes evident that Harry’s crew were set up by some unknown party, the widows must decide whether they’re doing this for vengeance, or just plain survival.

Upon doing research after having already seen it, I was surprised to learn that Widows was actually based on a 1980s TV series of the same name, having assumed it was simply another novel Flynn was adapting for the big screen. While it would take some more sleuthing to comment any more on the similarities or dissimilarities, I do commend 20th Century Fox and company for being able to find a none-too-recognizable property and give it a fresh update. It gets monotonous when every remake hurled our way is a revered classic that already stood on its own as it was. Instead we get introduced to something few people had ever heard of and incentivize them to take a trip back in time. That’s not to say I will – hell, I still need to sit down and finish House of Cards already just so I can be through with it – but all the more power to the people who might discover something new. But to get back to the film at hand, I must say that the 2018 Widows does feel a little less than the sum of its parts. And that makes me feel sort of bad to say, because it gives me every reason to love it. I guess if I had to verbalize it – and I still don’t know if I precisely can just yet – I’d probably say the inevitable twist never really sold me from a storytelling point of view. And if you’re worried about knowing that one exists, don’t, because even I knew and I didn’t see it coming. That said, it might have benefitted from a tighter rewrite that explained it off better, perhaps ditched a couple extraneous scenes and made the whole experience a bit brisker. Regardless, this is a well constructed picture and one deserving of praise, so I’m going to give it a tentatively positive score. Definitely one I’d want to revisit and get a second opinion on.

Final Score: 8/10

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