The Departed (2006) *** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Adam Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, James Badge Dale, and Jack Nicolson
For anyone who has seen Best Picture winner The Departed as many times as I have, I’m sure you know what the title of this entry refers to. First off, this film deals with the Irish in Boston, so it’s appropriate we offer our take on St. Patty’s Day. Second, the early scenes of the film, which culminate with maybe the latest title card introduction in movie history, offers this exact question, as posed by Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan:
“Here’s a question. Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?”
Now, please, watch the film. Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again. You’ll see that this line, as typed above, does the line no justice once Queenan’s thick, Boston accent is applied to this dialogue. Much like the movie is a two edged sword dealing with the deception and difficulty in living a life full of lies, let’s look at The Departed from two angles – not only as a great crime thriller loaded with a cast of the highest calibre, but also as the kind of film that makes superb, social fodder among the moviegoers who adore it.
Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between CostelloÕs gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. PicturesÕ crime drama ÒThe Departed.Ó PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.
When I first heard about this film, I thought someone was messing with me. In my youth, Goodfellas had been one of my first rated R experiences. I hated Casino at first – take it easy, guys – then ended up really appreciating it. Let’s not even scratch the surface of Heat. The point is, I absolutely relish the experience of watching epic crime sagas, which just happen to have everyone in Hollywood co-starring in them. So, when I heard in the trades about The Departed, then confirmed the cast on IMDB, I nearly fainted. I remember thinking, “…. and NICHOLSON, too?? Come on!”
So, when I went to Westwood on opening night in early October 2006, I had my hopes running awfully high. And the experience did not disappoint. Again, for those of you who’ve seen it, I’m sure you can appreciate how the audience of maybe 1,200 moviegoers kept gasping and crying out during the finale with the elevator. I’m sure you’ll laugh with me as I remember the “teething… gnawing RAT…” delivery by Nicholson, which was beautifully placed, much needed comic relief.
The Departed is about the truth, and the pursuit of truth always makes for a worthwhile film. To villain Frank Costello (Nicholson), is Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a cop – or is he really an undercover cop that Queenan has planted in his organization? To all his fellow investigators, is Colin Sullivan (Damon) the “worker” he seems to be, or will his shady behavior from time to time uncover something more? Well, the superb set-up from writer William Monahan establishes the neighborhood criminal kingpin in Costello. He’s been “mentoring” a group of young boys for years, and Colin Sullivan grows up under his tutelage – and becomes a cop that is willing to inform Costello of anything he’s interested in.
The “yin” to this criminal “yang” is Costigan, who is seen going through the same state police training program as the elder Sullivan does. Quickly, they graduate and enter the police force. But, there’s a problem for Costigan in that his uncle was a huge player in Costello’s organization who recently met his demise. Captain Queenan (Sheen) and his lackey, Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg, who steals many of the scenes he’s in) advise Costigan that, if he wants to serve the commonwealth, it’ll be in the midst of a special, undercover assignment that only the three of them will know about. Because with his family’s criminal background, there’s no possibility Costigan would be a state police officer in even five years.
This story set up yields a film full of action, violence, corruption and wild visuals. Scorsese and team – especially editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose IMDB filmography is an overwhelming volume of movie hits – are firing on all cylinders. Consider the question from earlier, which Costello was surely wondering about young Costigan suddenly entering his neighborhood. What better way to find out the truth than break open the young man’s cast holding his broken wrist in place – and proceed to smash said wrist with the man’s boot? That’s the kind of moment contained in this film. And, much like other Scorsese greats, these scenes are equally superb as stand alones as they are the necessary piece of Monahan’s labrynth puzzle.
In watching the film recently, I was fascinated by the constant editing style, which offered two different perspectives within the same scene. Consider when Sullivan is in the elevator at one point, and his Costello provided cell phone buzzes. The shot goes completely 180 from above Sullivan’s head down below his waist and looking up. It’s as if the film is visually reminding us that this man has just turned off “cop” and is about to turn on “criminal.” Another visual consistency throughout the film is the “X” in the background. In the DVD extras, Scorsese admits how he wanted to pay homage to 1930s gangster films, which would often place an “X” of some kind behind criminals who were guaranteed to join the departed by the end of the film. Keeping an eye out for these makes for a fun rewatch.
And another item I noticed in this latest viewing was the part of James Badge Dale, who plays Trooper Baragan. He’s one of the guys that Sullivan graduates from the academy with, and he plays a supporting role as one of Sullivan’s investigation team as the film progresses. Particularly once you know the twist of the film, watching this character and his reactions and when the camera gives him moments throughout becomes really interesting. It’s this character that links to another point I wanted to make, and that is that this movie is actually based on a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, which was released a few years before Departed. I was fascinated in watching that original how different the ending in, and how you could certainly argue that Monahan and The Departed’s filmmakers made a conscious choice to make this Best Picture winner’s conclusion much more western.
Lastly, I love to use this film as a great example of how movies and their dialogue become a social currency, particularly among guys after a few drinks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Why don’t you just get me a bottle of scotch… and a hand gun” in response to close pals asking how my week has gone. I have asked and I’ve been asked at the bar, “you sure you don’t wanna make it a cranberry juice?” And of course, the “do you want to be a KWOUP… or do you want to APPEAH to be a KWOUP” dialogue from Queenan early in the film became the go-to line between my brother and a close pal a few years back. To its credit, The Departed won a lot of awards – but even if you don’t follow the accolades, it’s oftentimes the dialogue that you’re able to experience outside of viewing the film itself.
The Top Ten Films of 2017 – A Summary of Each, and Reminder Re: #10 An Annual Ronhamprod.com Presentation
Welcome to ronhamprod.com’s second annual list of the best films from last year, as always, in preparation of the Academy Awards coming up this very evening!
Here’s the list for 2017 for your consideration, discussion and pleasure. As always, these films are in no particular order, and followed by our perception of the film’s genre:
Darkest Hour (Drama/Biography)
Shape of Water, The (Independent Drama/Romance/Musical)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (Independent Drama/Comedy)
Battle of the Sexes (Drama/Comedy)
All the Money in the World (Drama/Thriller)
As we said last year, there are a lot of films released annually in the United States. In 2017, trust Box Office Mojo reports there were 726 movies released theatrically in this country BoxOfficeMojo – 2017 Titles. You folks can probably tell by now – I adore films and always expect I will. But even I can’t make it out to see two films a day minimum. That said, I don’t see how I, or any other film critic, analyst, handicapper, etc. is qualified to say, “THESE are the top 10…”
Sure, all of this analysis and discussion is arbitrary and subjective anyhow – which is part of the fun of Awards Season. That said, we here at Ronhamprod.com will always leave #10 respectfully blank. I mean, I hate admitting that I haven’t gotten to Thor: Ragnarok, or The Phantom Thread, or Coco or Boss Baby or Wind River or The Florida Project or a host of other titles from last year just yet. I will, but… that’s why #10 is our “free space.”
But, let’s look at the film’s up for Best Picture Oscars this year that are not on our list:
The Phantom Thread
I have not seen this latest from Paul Thomas Anderson. IN fact, I may as well say that I haven’t loved any of this particular filmmaker’s works except Boogie Nights and the recent Inherent Vice – which is odd because, I can find very few film pals that liked Vice. Regardless, I’m in no hurry to see Thread, despite the legendary Day-Lewis offering his final work with this title.
Call Me By Your Name
I also haven’t seen this one. I’ve been told it’s fantastic and the footage I saw at The Contenders last November did indeed look like Name is a true “film,” and not Oscar fodder that’s in there to round out the field.
Look… I’m not the audience for this film. I went to Catholic school, as discussed in this entry here – Silence Review – Ronhamprod. I went through teenage years. Despite the fact I love independent cinema, Lady Bird didn’t resonate with me the way other recent dram-edys like The Big Sick did. I’m super glad that this title resonated with so many Academy voters, but for me, the best thing about the film is the editing. Nick Houy did a masterful job of cramming an entire senior year into 90 plus minutes. Think about your senior year of high school for a moment. Remember how there are specific, undeniable moments that will forever be etched into your mind? And, how fast it all went? The biggest impression made upon me from Lady Bird was how the film just keeps… moving…. along. Oh, we’re doing the play. Now, we’re submitting to colleges – and begging Dad to help. Then, our heart got broken – that sucked. But, then we got suspended, remember? Then we got that job that, well, didn’t last too long. So…. kudos to Houy, who did another masterful job with HBO’s The Night Of, for accurately capturing that deluge of memories and feelings into a very compact run time.
There isn’t a lot that I can say about this horror film that hasn’t already been said. I watched Key & Peele on Comedy Central for years, and was very entertained. My interest and acceptance of horror films has had a renaissance in recent years as evidenced in this entry, Oscars 2016 – The Witch, and the upcoming It blog. But, I’ll respectfully leave it at that.
I really enjoyed Tom Hanks in this Steven Spielberg directed newspaper drama. His subtle notes, like the feet on the desk that Jason Robards so adeptly worked into scenes in All the President’s Men, are easy to take for granted. I don’t suspect that I’m the only one that felt this effort was a little rushed, for lack of a better term. This is not to say it isn’t a good film or one worth seeing. And, as usual, the technical and “mise-en-scene” of the film is expert. Think of the authentic sets, costumes, cigarettes and “feel.” These are all elements that are easy to take for granted – but which are all very difficult to synthesize. In the end, I was glad to see The Post in theaters, and I enjoyed it. But, was there room for improvement for this entry in the Spielberg cannon – sure.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Please see my upcoming entry for this film, which I really enjoyed. I think it’s impressive to go to a theater and have multiple instances where the entire crowd was laughing hard, only to be pin-drop quiet moments later… Not every part of MO was exceptional, but I do love those films that force conversation and thought the day after you see them.
The Shape of Water
Ever since Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve been interested in Guillermo Del Toro’s work. Shape is similar to Labyrinth in that the preview definitely gives you a sense of how the film might play for you – but leaves plenty to be revealed. Focusing on a very particular place in time with terribly unique characters, Shape is like watching your favorite symphony directed by a conductor who is new to your ear. You’ve been in love, I’ve been in love – but we’ve never experienced a love like this. This film wasn’t perfect, and I’m very, very confused how of all the awards it’s nominated for, the film is NOT up for best visual effects? I’m also confused by some of Del Toro’s choices with the story, perhaps starting with Michael Shannon’s character’s fingers. Regardless, what I think is especially worth celebrating when it comes to Shape is this – of all nominees, this and Dunkirk are the most cinematic. That is, most of their story is told through moving images – which is the way it should be. Speaking of…
I bloody loved this Christopher Nolan vision, which I first viewed with very dubious eyes. I remember when the teaser came out all the way back in the summer of 2016, a full year before its debut. My initial thought was, “they know how this WWII story went, right? They’re really going to make a full movie about this?” But, I’m fully willing to admit when I underestimate a film, and this is certainly one of those instances. I adored the script’s construct of sharing three very different storylines that unfolded within the same event. Taking several days for Tommy’s story (played by impressive newcomer Fionn Whitehead), spacing Mr. Dawson’s civilian vessel storyline across one day (the always moving Mark Rylance) and rounding the story’s foundation out with fighter pilot Ferrier’s (Tom Hardy) hour long tale was a most unusual construct – but one that worked. And, to the film’s credit, the editing by Lee Smith kept the film tight, not a moment too long. This film had the etchings of a three hour epic, but was better told in its two hour stretch. I’m really glad to see that big man cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has been nominated for Dunkirk, as it was thrilling to see the behind-the-scenes footage at The Contenders last fall, in which he’s seen lugging the huge, 70mm Panavision cameras into the Dunkirk surf.
Please enjoy my take on this Gary Oldman starring film here!
For Your Consideration – Honorable Mentions In Season Two of Netflix’s hit drama, The Crown, I was fascinated by an episode in which one of the British subjects has the audacity, the gall, the temerity to draft an editorial suggesting what The Crown might do to (ahem) leave some traditions behind – and essentially, enter the 20th century with the rest of us. To my interest and viewing pleasure, it turns out the British monarchy actually did embrace some of the suggestions made by the young man. To that end, I think this year in particular warrants the consideration of an “Honorable Mention” for those that got write-ins, or exceptional work that there’s simply no fit for that year… I’m not even suggesting we have a moment on stage, just a simple, write-in category where these filmmakers can be given notice for jobs well done.
Top of that list, in my humble opinion, is Ridley Scott for directing All the Money in the World. The veteran director took a real stand in editing out Kevin Spacey from the film, looping in Christopher Plummer and working with the film’s financiers to successfully re-shoot, re-edit and do all of it within the weeks necessary to make the film eligible for this year’s awards season. While the awards season deadline is the icing on the cake, the real “Honorable Mention” worthy action was a veteran, A-list director taking a stand against the long running behaviors of a few in Hollywood, which needs to change and is in the process of changing. It’s easy to post on social media and make a quick speech denouncing these behaviors – but it’s quite another to spend lots of money, and convince your cast and crew to adjust their schedules and spend their valuable time on such an effort – an effort I consider to be well worth while, and worth honoring.
So, enjoy the Oscars this year! I think I really enjoyed Dunkirk and Darkest Hour most, simply because I’m such a WWII history geek. For me, my hopes are highest for Gary Oldman and the documentary Icarus. Regardless, we’ll have some follow up posts shortly, but all in all, I think we can agree it was another interesting year in the Academy’s history. And I’ll admit – I am anxiously awaiting to see how Mr. Kimmel will reference last year’s ummmmm, mis-step?
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Michael C. Hall and Jesse Plemmons
Let me ask you this – what was the last comedy you saw, in theaters, that made you laugh till you hurt? If you responded Daddy’s Home 2, Father Figures or A Bad Mom’s Christmas, well, fair enough… but I haven’t gotten to those titles just yet. I did see Baby Driver last summer (discussion here on ronhamprod forthcoming), and while that would definitely be classified an action-adventure if perhaps an action-comedy, I encourage you to try Game Night. Particularly if films like Baby Driver, True Lies, Anchorman and The Hangover are your cup of tea, I think you’ll find Night well worth the trip to cinemas. That’s right, I included The Hangover in the discussion for this new action-comedy.
So, that should give you an indication of how funny a Night it is. As you’ll see from the trailer below, Jason Bateman stars as Max and Rachel McAdams is his wife, Annie. They have great chemistry as that uber-competitive couple who has made “game night” part of their regular routine. Part of the film’s strength is that the script from Mark Perez has a great grab – we all know a couple like Max and Annie, or we ARE that couple. An early montage does an entertaining job of showing us how these two came to be husband and wife in expedited fashion, having met at a bar’s game night. We also soon learn over a discussion with the couple’s fertility doctor concerning Max’s sperm count, that Max gets a lot of stress from competing not just in games, but particularly with his big brother, Brooks.
Kyle Chandler, who many viewers will no doubt remember as Coach Taylor from TV’s Friday Night Lights, co-stars as big brother Brooks in a very different role from the wholesome, mentor/father-figure Taylor. Brooks has always got money, he’s always got another trip planned, he still picks on Max – and the sibling rivalry theme mixed into Night is part of its fun. Also, Chandler isn’t the only Friday Night Lights alumni in the cast. Jesse Plemmons, who co-starred on Lights as the lovable, n’er-do-well Landry, basically steals the show as Gary. This guy is Max and Annie’s next door neighbor. A law enforcement officer whose wife recently left him, Gary is eternally dressed for work – and apparently physically attached to his little white dog, seen in many of the film’s promotional materials. Gary is awkward to the nth degree, without pushing the schtick to the point it’s not funny anymore.
As the trailer teases, the game night that Brooks plans goes in a lot of unexpected, action-packed and funny directions. The beautiful thing about Game is that the trailer does not give it all away. Doesn’t even come close! Further, unlike a lot of comedies recently released, this one does not go too far overboard in any way. It stays within the realm of physics and reality – and does not have the gross-out humor that some movies – Dirty Grandpa comes to mind, regrettably – have resorted to in Act Three, if not throughout. Yes, there’s violence, but that’s definitely justified by Perez’s script, and it’s handled well by directors Daley & Goldstein who worked on the Vacation remake and Horrible Bosses. Incidentally, Daley has a cameo as the trivia emcee early in the film – and you might remember him from another TV show, Freaks & Geeks.
With all these references to comedies and action packed films, it’s a tribute to the producing team, who basically trusted these funny talents to do their thing – in front of and behind the camera. Just like a good suspense novel, Night sets up several unique, intriguing characters, who we’re always excited to return to as this chapter ends and the next one starts. In that respect, Game Night is like a funny, suspenseful page turner because of the other couples involved. There’s Ryan and Sarah who are on their first date. Ryan is part of the game night’s usual crew, and he’s always bringing a different date – but the smart Sarah is definitely his match. Then there’s Kevin and Michelle, who have an awkward wrench thrown in their relationship concerning a possible hookup with a celebrity. And, there’s the bad guys who shift and evolve along with the rest of the story right up to the end.
When considering my comparison to The Hangover and True Lies, I’m sure a lot of reviewers have to worry about over-delivering. But, we here at ronhamprod have no such scruples. I’m saying it loud and proud – go see Game Night. Considering an Oscar season that features awfully deep, dramatic films, I think the Game is well placed. And by the way, if you have that couple or friend that is a game fanatic, always dragging you to trivia night or scheduling the next competition at their place… it’s almost your obligation to take them.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)
Dir: David Wain
Stars: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleason, Matt Walsh, Emmy Rossum and Joel McHale
This super-fun comedy is available right now on Netflix, and there are several things it has going for it. A Futile and Stupid Gesture concerns the story of the National Lampoon, the infamous printed magazine from the 1970s that some can say was the foundation of some of the 70s and 80s funniest films, not to mention sketch show Saturday Night Live. Mind you, I’m not making these claims – these are suggestions made by the film… And, for the record, the poster here is a riff off of one of Lampoon’s more infamous magazine covers, which involved the same pistol – but a poor little puppy in place of Mr. Forte!
What I like about Futile was its balancing act between truly funny chapters in the Lampoon history, and these heartfelt, dramatic moments where you just wring your hands in frustration for Doug Kenney, the center of the story. Kenney is played by Will Forte, who with his recent roles keeps convincing me he’s one of the more under estimated actors of this generation. For example, one of my main notes of hesitation in seeing Alexander Payne’s superb family drama, Nebraska, was Forte’s inclusion in the lead role. For the record, let me just say – how wrong I was! And, Futile is no exception to this rule. It seems Forte is able to handle both the comedy, which we knew from early on in his career, and the dramatic aspects of the role.
Kenney’s story starts all the way at the beginning, as it does in a lot of “did you know” styled biographical films. But, the inclusion of Martin Mull as his narrator is an example of great, artistic writing design. For those of you who knew Kenney’s story before Futile, you’ll know what I mean. Regardless, it’s also Mull’s charm that lets the film get away with some of its really funny moments, like when they introduce many of the writers for Lampoon. Soon after, they also show us the cast of the radio show, including stars early on in their career like Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. It’s at this moment that Mull enters frame and basically calms the audience down, with a comment similar to, “Oh, you don’t think this guy looks like Bill Murray? Well do you really believe Will Forte is 27 in this scene? As matter of fact, here’s a whole list of other items we changed or altered for screen time and to make this thing more interesting….” And then, a scroll appears onscreen! Long story short – I love the film calling out today’s audience of “fact checkers.” It’s like this comedy is saying, “leave it for politics!”
Finally, Forte’s performance is made easier I think by the immensely talented – and recognizable – cast. In fact, you might say Futile and Stupid is worth a watch just for the fun of playing “who’s that actor?” The movie is so chock full of fun appearances and cameos that it really rolls along.
SPOILER, in summary:
If I had a complaint with the film, I think it’s one we all share and lament – Kenney, like so many other talents in our beloved entertainment industry, left us too early. I wish I could crack the code on how to cheer up the “sad clowns” like Kenney and others like him. Anyhow, I was impressed how the film shows his decline, and sorry to see that some of his friends were actually culpable in his self-destruction. It’s rather rare to have a comedy that makes you laugh – and makes you think the next day, too.
Fun Follow Up:
Also on Netflix is Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, which is a 2015 documentary covering very much the same subject, but with a more formal presentation. Now, Netflix is claiming I’ve seen this film – but I’ve no memory of doing so! However, having seen Futile, I am quite interested to see how the facts and fiction do compare… IMDB – Lampoon Documentary
Darkest Hour (2017)
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Stephan Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
With the Academy Award nominations nearly upon us, I feel like it’s a great time to talk about Darkest Hour. There were several aspects of the film I thought played very well, especially on the big screen. And, with Mr. Oldman a shoe-in for a nomination, now is as good a time as ever to see this compelling, entertaining historical drama. There are so many fascinating sub-chapters to WWII history that have been adapted for the big screen, and Darkest Hour certainly deserves insertion amongst these volumes.
When you think about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, certain characteristics no doubt pop to mind. My first introduction to Mr. Churchill may well have been dining at Churchills on the Queen Mary when I was vacationing with my family back in 1988. There was his image, complete with that genuine, grand-fatherly smile, that subtle little hunch in his posture and that balding head. As I got more interested in history and came to know more about Churchill’s essential part in winning the war in Europe, more of these characteristics entered my perception of this icon. All of which makes Mr. Oldman’s performance a superlative example of biographical portrayals. Everything from the makeup to the posture to the pattern of speech to his costumes transforms the actor we’ve watched all these years into the Prime Minister, the grand lion himself. After a while, I bet you’ll stop looking for the “fat suit” or the makeup – because they’re seamless. Oldman simply is the man.
And, he is the man in May of 1940, a veritable sliver of Churchill’s voluminous history. Part of why the film deserves so much credit, in my estimation, is that it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Darkest is not a three and half hour epic that attempts to translate key episodes in the early life of its main character to foreshadow and somewhat explain later chapters. Instead, its thesis is that Churchill and the European theater of WWII shared a “darkest hour” in that month of May 1940. Fair enough – and refreshing to take in a more abbreviated take on an iconic character, even if I was craving more by the end! And it’s by focusing on this limited amount of time that we get some enormously interesting details. For example, I had no idea that Winston had been appointed Prime Minister the same month. For as much political clout as he had, the man was dramatically tossed into a most desperate situation.
The last element that I’ll speak to towards hopefully convincing those of you who haven’t seen Hour to see it in theaters is the phenomenal cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The design of the visual scheme most definitely puts you in the period, whether it’s the dust of battles, the harsh, overhead luminescence of the underground wartime offices or the softer glow of Buckingham Palace. Take a look at how different the light feels when Churchill visits with the King compared to when he holds meetings with his wartime cabinet… Also, Delbonnel goes further with a true visual representation of what it must have felt like to be Mr. Churchill in those desperate days. Much like being backed into a corner, totally isolated, most alone in his political views and his social circles, Delbonnel and director Joe Wright take the opportunity several times – without over-doing the effect – to visually illustrate Churchill’s lonely state in those days.
All told, this drama turned left when I thought it was going uphill. Hour kept me on my toes – and gave me the greater, almost patriotic feeling of envy for living under truly great leadership. What with the government shutdown only hours old, perhaps I felt more compelled to draft this entry as counter-programming to some of the stories we’ve seen in the news media as of late. How refreshing would it be if one of our representatives showed up at our workplace, or on the train, the bus or at the grocery? See Darkest Hour to see what I mean…
Final Note: the following day after seeing this title, I had a serious craving for a glass of champagne and a foot long cigar to accompany my breakfast…
The Big Sick (2017)
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano and Kurt Braunohler
This film is one of the most celebrated independent films of last year, and having seen it, I can tell why. First off, The Big Sick is legitimate “dram-edy” fare. It has that independent quirkiness like Juno or last year’s Don’t Think Twice, but moments that really make you stop, too. Second, it concerns a real comedian baring his soul, which is always a hit with critics and fans alike. Finally, Sick deals with the modern discussion of letting old customs… evolve. Perhaps this discussion is what sets the film apart, which is a credit to Nanjiani and the rest of the cast and crew. Without this comic and his real life wife sharing their story, perhaps it would have been easy to dismiss.
You should recognize star Kumail Nanjiani as soon as he appears on screen. The man has been on Portlandia, Silicon Valley, in the film Central Intelligence among many, many other recent projects. From my viewing of his work, this is Nanjiani’s first foray into drama, which is always exciting to see. See Tom Hanks, Adam Sandler and a host of other traditionally comedic actors who have dipped into drama. In this case, and perhaps it’s because it’s Nanjiani’s own, personal tale, the role is well played and convincing in every essence – both the funny moments and the heart breaking ones. His girlfriend is played by Zoe Kazan, and their chemistry is believable and fun to watch in Act One.
In Act Two, however, the story takes an unexpected turn. Emily (Kazan) discovers Kumail’s cigar box full of Pakistani women, which his dear mother has been trying to set him up with using the family dinner as the meeting place. Kumail thinks nothing of the cigar box because he didn’t ask his mother for these set ups, nor is she very subtle about them. Played by Zenobia Shroff, Kumail’s mom was one of the more difficult characters for me watching Sick. We’ll circle back to that sentiment in a while – the point is, their first major fight comes at a terrible time as Emily is sent to the hospital shortly after for symptoms that are really difficult to describe. The long and short is, the hospital staff informs Kumail – and Emily’s Mom (Holly Hunter) and Dad (Ray Romano) that they are putting her in a coma as the best option.
This “what if” is part of why this little indy works so well! I can only imagine sitting in that waiting room, sharing space with my girlfriend-ish’s parents – who I’ve never met, and who know what a bastard I am from their daughter. From here, the film twists and navigates itself adeptly. Frankly, I don’t want to ruin it for you. There are great, laugh out loud moments, and others that really make you pause – and not simply because it’s the time in the script for a pause like so many other formulaic comedies of the day.
The reason I had difficulty with Kumail’s mom is the third reason Sick works – this dialogue about tradition and when to let certain ones go, and how to let others evolve. I grew up in this country, I don’t have Pakistani roots, which makes it easy to understand how I can’t believe how a parent would simply prescribe the mate for their son or daughter. But, the very title of this entry surrounds this point. Do some parents ex-communicate their children because they don’t marry within their wishes? Apparently so! And I had a real difficulty putting myself in that kind of mindset.
In summary, please watch The Big Sick. It’s a great, crowd-pleasing dram-edy, and it raises thought provoking and relevant social questions. Perhaps a dialogue can start in your house after you watch it about some traditions that need adjustment. At the end of the day, I hope we all can find ways to keep our family close and discuss both sides of whatever conflict there may be. I mean, what a phenomenal theme for a film, eh?
Dir: Bryan Fogel
Stars: Bryan Fogel, Grigory Rodchenkov – and many other real-life characters
I remember listening to sports radio years ago – I think it was Dan Patrick, but don’t quote me – and there had been a poll of Olympic athletes. I paraphrase as I say the survey question was something to the effect of, “Would you, as an Olympian, prefer to win the Gold Medal – with the understanding you would therefore surely die by age 40 – or take Silver, and live life indefinitely…?” And the results were something overwhelmingly positive, as in 80% GOLD to 20% Silver/Live Indefinitely… So, I’ve felt for years that I am built very differently – both physically and mentally – from Olympians.
This anecdote is related to Netflix’s documentary film Icarus, which had its first success at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. As documentary films go, Icarus stands as one of the tallest in my humble opinion. The non-fiction story is impressive, as is often the case when watching this genre. But, what makes Icarus so exceptional is the way the filmmakers follow along its unexpected ride. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean that the movie does not start where it ends in any respect. The fact the filmmakers navigated the twists and turns of the narrative in real time, as it was playing out is a tribute to their production skill – and mettle as human beings.
Let me start at the beginning. The point of the film as it begins is for professional cyclist Bryan Fogel to gain a better understanding of how Lance Armstrong, and other cyclists like him, have been able to game the system so easily. He wants to experiment with steroids, and see how much better his performance goes from one year in competing in the Tour of Switzerland compared to the next. You’ll surely get an insight to Brian’s competitive nature when you see where he places in the field the first year – without the influence of narcotics. Anyhow, we begin this journey with Brian in the same boat – just like a scientific experiment, we’re going to state a hypothesis, run a control test and then compare that control test with an alternate test to observe and analyze the results.
Well, the whole tale takes a dramatic turn when it turns out the very advisor Fogel hires is none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, who happens to be far up in the Russian hierarchy of Russian state athletics. Rodchenkov, who is a caricature of a caricature by the way, hops on Skype in his first interaction with Fogel – and he’s got no shirt on. In the same video, he is continually distracted by the family cat, and has no qualms about broadcasting his adoration for the feline as the discussion progresses. The guy is in mis mid 50s. And he is so bizarre and funny that you almost forget you’re watching non-fiction for a moment. The point is, this character is going to advise Fogel on exactly what drugs to take, how to take them (shot to the buttocks or elsewhere, etc) and the dosages, too. We get the feeling right away that this isn’t Rodchenkov’s first rodeo – or whatever the Russian equivalent is to rodeo.
Now, as it turns out, Rodchenkov is the top of the pyramid as far as doping research and execution goes in Russia. He has been responsible for systematically enhancing the performance of Russian athletes – and Olympians in particular – since the 1980s. You might feel as if I’m ruining the film for you, but I promise I’m not. In fact, I’m confident I could relate the entire story to you and it would still be worth watching just how Rodchenkov is able to assist Fogel in his experiment – and how he ultimately becomes the thrust of the entire story. I’m struggling to remember a documentary that so dramatically shifts its focus while only increasing the suspense. Regardless, Rodchenkov has a lot to get off his chest, and Fogel and his filmmaking team deserve massive credit for making the man feel comfortable enough to share his insights and confessions with the world. But, it seems that when you name names and admit to the involvement of the KGB (also known as FSB – let’s just say “Russian Intelligence” to make it crystal clear), the despot Mr. Putin doesn’t take too kindly to it.
As a documentary, Icarus ebbs and flows with an entertaining and thrilling pace. The presentation of new characters, which range from the UCLA doctor in charge of creating the first anti-doping tests, to members of the IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), is handled well in that we know who Fogel is talking to and the purpose of the interview. The introduction of Rodchenkov is interesting, then amusing, then appalling – and ultimately a mix of all these emotions and more. The direct involvement of Russian officials all the way to the top of their government, and how Fogel proves the links to the IOC and WADA reminded me of classics like All the President’s Men and the more recent Spotlight. This won’t spoil anything, but the film even references another world event in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine covered here on ronhamprod in the Winter on Fire entry.
The philosophical questions raised by Icarus continue to intrigue me even weeks after seeing the film. For example, from a cycling standpoint, if all of the athletes are on drugs… does that mean the contest is not actually rigged, but in a bizarre way, an even playing field has resulted? From an Olympics standpoint, I don’t see how the organization can rebound from the revelations Icarus presents without a full external audit of how both the IOC and WADA was able to miss such blatant, systematic cheating. Concerning the almost throwaway reference to Chinese steroid production, will that country be next on the list of investigations by IOC and WADA? Are there other countries who have the kind of secrets contained that Rodchenkov just confessed to here?
Lucky for you, dear Reader, Icarus is on Netflix this minute. And, perhaps you saw the news recently that Russia has been banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea in less than 100 days. It’s fascinating to watch when a great film enters the social conversation – particularly when it’s true. As this is the holiday season, let me raise a glass to truth – something we can all drink to.
Last Saturday, November 4, I had the opportunity to attend The Contenders, which is an all day presentation hosted by the trade publication, Deadline. A variety of interviewers welcomed a legion of Hollywood actors, directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and other royalty onto the stage at the Director’s Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard. It’s an exciting, infinitely fun, full day of discussions surrounding this year’s best film offerings. The purpose of this event, now in its seventh year, is to help those voters in the various industry guilds and associations cull down their “short list” of films. And it’s worth noting, the trade pub does the same event in the screen for TV productions.
In an age in which an infinite number of films are released annually, I would think these voters appreciate the day and the effort that Deadline puts forth. This next comment is not a complaint at all, but worth mentioning how jarring it is to have these immense stars on stage, like Gary Oldman, Patty Jenkins and Denzel Washington – and consistently have the moderators and Deadline staff politely say, after only ten or fifteen minutes, “OK! Thanks, now… onto the next panel!”
What follows is a quick commentary on all of the films presented this year – in order of when I arrived that morning… I’m also including the trailer and IMDB links so you can get a real idea of the filmmakers involved. It was an immensely fun, educational and sometimes heartfelt day. This “Part 1” entry will take us through lunch… Enjoy!
Dir: Reginald Hudlin
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad and Kate Hudson
IMDB – Marshall
I arrived that morning in the midst of director Reginald Hudlin’s discussion. But, the little clip I saw, which showcased the film’s score, gave me a great sense of how intricate and accurate the film was in its costumes, sets and design. The interesting element that the moderator discussed as their talk wrapped up, was the inclusion of Trayvon Martin’s parents in the conclusion of the film. Basically, in an effort to make a definitive correlation between the events of Marshall to today’s race relations, the director was able to “call of friend of mine” to have Martin’s parents take the part of Marshall’s next case.
The Big Sick
Dir: Michael Showalter
Stars: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter
IMDB – The Big Sick
Let me just say that I’ve seen Mr. Nanjiani in a lot of projects over the past years – and he is just a naturally funny man. He told this story about pitching this idea to, as he said it, “a producer named Judd Apatow? Look him up… he’s done some things.” And the idea was for a “ghost witch.” Apparently, Nanjiani really likes the idea of a witch that dies, and then becomes a ghost.
Well, his wife, who was on stage with him, and Mr. Apatow didn’t like that idea so much. So, Nanjiani shifted into the story of how he and his wife met – and Apatow liked that idea very much. From there, the project continued for three years as Nanjiani, his wife and Apatow worked the script over and over. As they do throughout the day at The Contenders, they showed the clip of when Nanjiani meets Kazan in the bar, and admonishes her for heckling him during his comedy set. Well, this scene is almost identical to how the filmmakers actually met. Some real authenticity achieved!
Dir: Todd Haynes
Stars: Millicent Simmonds, Oakes Fegley and Julieanne Moore
IMDB – Wonderstruck
Cinematographer Edward Lachman talked about Wonderstruck, which frankly, was not a movie I had on my radar prior to last Saturday. He talked a little before they showed a clip from the film about how challenging it was to shoot visuals for the feeling of not being able to hear. Not to mention the fact that director Haynes, who you might remember from the recent film Brooklyn, wanted to give New York city a look of “Mean Streets” and classic 1950s films. Tall order, right?
Well, then they showed the clip. And, I have to say, after watching four minutes of this film, it has moved to my top five to see. I see that Mr. Lachman was responsible for shooting Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and Erin Brokovich, so… I’m a fan! But I’m fascinated by a film that wants to tackle a silent film star, casts unknown child actors – one of which is actually deaf – and seeks to transform New York city to that 1950s raw look on a budget. I’m really looking forward to seeing Wonderstruck in theaters.
Last Flag Flying
Dir: Richard Linklater
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne
IMDB – Last Flag Flying
This panel featured director Richard Linklater, who has brought us amazing films in his career. And, it boasts an amazing cast. The clip they showed also hit home, as I can certainly relate with aged folks struggling with today’s technology. In the scene, Fishburne’s character is getting hit from all sides as both Carell and Cranston’s characters, along with the cell phone salesman, try to convince him to get his first mobile device.
With all of that said, I’m still dubious about Flag. I read a lot of social media conversation for work, all of which is related to films and TV shows. The “convo” in clips related to Flag from veterans and those in service say the very plot of the film is suspect. Sure, I’d like to see a road trip film with these iconic actors, but… if, as Linklater says, the film is more about “post 9/11 paranoia” than a legitimate drama featuring veterans and their sons? Concerning my suspicion, I’ve been proven wrong before!
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein
IMDB – Lady Bird
First off… you’re wondering, I was wondering, so let me just spell it out for you. It’s pronounced “SIR-sha,” all right? Ms. Ronan is one talented actor, and I have to say, after her role in Atonement, I will pretty much consider watching anything she’s in, including the very indy minded Lady Bird.
Although the film seems rather Mother-Daughter and “teenage angst” in its themes, and the panel definitely focused on items that were of small interest to me, I suppose I will have to give this A24 title a try. I went to Catholic school, and I know what an effect the themes and norms taught there can have on a youngster. Plus, the clips they showed and the trailer seems to contain some genuine comedy, which nestled within awkward drama always makes for great awards season fodder.
Finally, another random item brought up during the discussion with director Gerwig was Beanie Feldstein’s inclusion in the cast. The relevancy seemed specific to this actor being Jonah Hill’s younger sister. From the IMDB listing, she does not seem to have a substantial role, so this portion of the interview was lost on me. Regardless, I’ll continue to include these kinds of notes to give you a sense of the kind of things discussed on stage at The Contenders.
The Florida Project
Dir: Sean Baker
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince and Caleb Landry Jones
IMDB – The Florida Project
Director Baker and co-star, six year old Brooklyn Prince appeared for this panel. As you’ll see when you watch the preview, the story concerns all the less than economically advantaged children who live in the torn up, wretched motels around Disneyworld in central Florida. The writer came across this idea as an amazing juxtaposition, that you have children coming from around the world to visit the “happiest place on earth,” while all the kids who live down the block can’t afford to get in there – although they can see the fireworks every night.
Regardless, I’m really interested to see this film, which seems to have a real mix of hard drama and genuine laughs, all told from the perspective of a little girl. And Brooklyn Prince is incredible. On stage, as she talked, it became easy to understand why Baker cast her. When asked how Mr. Dafoe was on set, Prince said (paraphrased), “Oh, he was great! He would have lunch with me, and then when a scene was um… ready to go… he would tell everyone to give me space so I could think about it and… yeah, he was great.”
Let me put it this way – Baker said he was looking for a modern take on the classic shorts, “The Little Rascals.” And the clips they showed certainly suggest the film achieved that kind of camaraderie!
The Disaster Artist
Dir: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco and a LOT of high profile actors…
IMDB – The Disaster Artist
Years ago, I specifically remember seeing an outdoor ad for The Room, which is widely considered one of the “best worst movies” ever made. For context, the ad I’m describing said something like, “Tennessee Williams level drama” in its copy. Tommy Wiseau, the film’s director, is a superbly eccentric actor/producer/director/fill-in-the-blank, whose pal wrote a book all about Wiseau’s feature, The Room. In one of the most engaging discussions of last Saturday 11/4, director James Franco did a great job articulating how the material spoke to him.
I recently saw one of Marlon Brando’s interviews from late night TV on YouTube, and I bring it up only because I think it speaks to Franco’s feeling that Wiseau was on to something. Big or small, with an immense budget or micro, you have to keep the very essence of “making movies” in perspective. I also think playing the character appealed to Franco, as his immediate, on demand imitations of “Tommy” were entertaining to watch.
Finally, it was fascinating watching panels where, like Artist, the material just spoke to the actor and/or director. Other times, as I’ll try to call out, the talent had no intention of getting involved – before that “thing” happened. With Disaster, Franco just knew he had to make the film. Obviously, a very unique film has resulted.
The Phantom Thread
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis
IMDB – The Phantom Thread
This film will allegedly be icon Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. OK! Moving on…
This film had not really grabbed me prior to last Saturday. I was certainly aware of it as it came out earlier this fall. But, part of the fun of The Contenders is the “did you know” moment, of which there are many. For Victoria, it was explained that this is indeed a true story, and the British royal family tried with great determination to get it suppressed. So, in a funny way, it was character Abdul Karim’s family that actually brought the story to the public eye. I’m a big fan of director Stephen Frears, and I expect Victoria & Abdul is a superb addition to his filmography.
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James
IMDB – Darkest Hour
The clip shown at The Contenders for Darkest Hour was.. intimidating. It featured Stephen Dillane’s character advising Mr. Churchill to, well, surrender to Hitler. The advise given was essentially that surrender and reasoning with the tyrant was preferable to total annihilation. I get a little emotional even now when I think of Gary Oldman as the heroic figure and his reaction to this suggestion. Let me just add that the applause for this clip was some of the loudest and longest-lasting of the day. It was special seeing Gary Oldman himself in person talking about the role and his experience playing Churchill.
I adore those roles, whether they are recognized with awards or not, in which the actor just sinks into the character in all respects. Physically, mentally, emotionally, you can not recognize the actor, only their character. I think Darkest Hour contains that performance, which is the latest in an impressive career for Mr. Oldman. He discussed the idea that attracted him to the film was playing the “larger than life” prime minister in all his humanity. In a career that spanned from the disaster of Gallipoli to the ultimate triumph over the Nazis, Oldman wanted to explore the “naughty schoolboy” in all his vitality, beyond what’s covered in the history books.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya , Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford
IMDB – Get Out
Just a quick FYI that Get Out is no longer a horror film – as of “Awards Season”, it is now being re-branded as a “Psychological Thriller.” The only representative from the film, Jordan Peele wanted to discuss the “suppression of the race conversation” in this, his directorial debut. In fact, he explained on his panel that he asked himself whether or not there might be riots on opening weekend. If you have not seen Get Out yet, it is one of the best reviewed films of the year thus far.
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
Stars: Algee Smith, Will Poulter and John Boyega
IMDB – Detroit
In case you missed Detroit this summer, the good news is that Annapurna will be re-releasing the film on December 1 in theaters. And, the film sent its best cast and crew to this panel, including director Bigelow and composer from Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, Questlove. It was an interesting panel, but I feel like viewers should be warned that this film, based on true events, is a really emotional, challenging watch from the same director as Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker.
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy
IMDB – Dunkirk
I truly enjoyed the Dunkirk panel, which featured producer and longtime Nolan collaborator, Emma Thomas, and director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema. I never knew that Thomas is Nolan’s wife, and you would never know it unless she had said so. What was fun about the panel was watching these two filmmakers discuss, despite the challenges, how fun it was to make Dunkirk. And remember, this is a film whose script is around 80 pages, and was intended as a silent film.
This statement concerning the fun involved obviously took me by surprise – and should shock anyone who’s seen the film. But, the dedication to the story offset any and all weather challenges the film’s set endured, which were considerable. There was a goodly amount of footage of Hoytema, who is a big fella, hoisting around a 70mm camera rig in the breaks of the French beach at Dunkirk. They advised the “mole” set was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. And yet, nothing would douse that “Dunkirk Spirit.”
Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Robin Wright
IMDB – Wonder Woman
I am almost ashamed to say I still haven’t seen this fantastic title from last summer. Feel free to lay it on me, I deserve it! Regardless, director Patty Jenkins was the sole rep sent for the film, and I think based on the Contenders’ audience reaction, it’s likely she will be nominated for director.
Recognition aside, Jenkins had some items to share that would hit home for any filmmaker. For example, she started working on the film way back after film Monster wrapped! Part of the reason she loved the idea of a Wonder Woman movie so much was that it was an homage to Richard Donner’s Superman, which is also a complex character told within the context of a very direct plot line.
The behind the scenes footage they showed contained a lot of video of Jenkins actually acting out what she wanted – which was both endearing and in some respects, funny. Another fascinating tidbit was that she did not have a say in the casting of the title character because Gadot was already in Batman v Superman! However.. she had no argument when she saw the footage.
Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford and Sylvia Hoeks
IMDB – Blade Runner 2049
I am further ashamed that I have not posted my comments and thoughts on this sequel just yet. But, no time to think of that when the director himself, Denis Villeneuve is on stage. When asked about the pressure he was under to make a great 2049, he said that the original film was his first VHS, the first film he actually owned. As if that didn’t give us enough of an idea as to this “dream come true,” opportunity, he then says, and I paraphrase, “And Ridley’s basic comment to me was, don’t f*ck it up.”
Like so many of the super talented filmmakers on 11/4, Villeneuve added his voice to the list who feels that the script simply must speak to them. And, the 2049 script not only connected well to the original, but also informed the intricate effects and that feeling throughout of the winter season. He also got into how complex the sets and design were to work through from pre-production to the editing – and I think anyone who’s seen the film can agree that effort was worth it.
I just can’t wait to see this one. Anyone who knows my blog knows I love crime thrillers, and Three Billboards looks to be one of the best in recent memory. Both director McDonagh and co-star Sam Rockwell were on stage, and they did a funny little thing. When McDonagh called Rockwell one of the best actors of his generation, Rockwell patted his shoulder, got out his wallet, and stuffed some cash in the director’s coat. And, when Rockwell gave his director equal praise, he returned Rockwell’s money. Funny stuff…
The film clip showed indicates that the film has some real levity in between its serious subject line – not to mention another tour-de-force performance from Ms. McDormand. Woody Harrelson and Rockwell as small town law enforcement? John Hawkes in another deep-dive, cringe-worthy violent, salt of the earth role? Peter Dinklage playing pool? I’m all in!
The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
IMDB – The Shape of Water
I had seen interviews and read articles about del Toro – but seeing and hearing him in person is another affair all together. The man is eccentric, passionate and contagious – all in a good way. He spent years of his life on this latest effort, and the clips shown by Fox Searchlight gave me every indication that Shape must be seen on the big screen – like I should have seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
Del Toro said a few things that confused me, but a lot of things I liked. For example, whenever there’s a budget shortage, he invests his own money into the problem to make a solution. He insists that he knows his audience in that, if we don’t believe it for even a couple seconds… he’s lost us! Del Toro went on to say that he spent the most time developing the creature for Shape because this “monster” is paramount to the story, its themes and moments. Essentially, it all works or falls with the believability of the creature. And, I always think it’s interesting when a writer/director makes a part for someone, and then actually gets that actor, in this case Sally Hawkins. Another “can’t wait” status for this title…
…and then, we had lunch! Kudos to Deadline and their staff for not only the day’s management and composure, but also the delicious lunch.
We’ll take a break too for now – look for Part 2 very soon…
Dir: Zak Hilditch
Stars: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard and Neal McDonough
I saw the trailer for this new Netflix film a couple weeks ago, and this week I finally got a chance to see it. 1922 is a spectacular entry in the horror genre because it doesn’t go too far in its gore to the point it’s explicit. Further, this movie trusts its story and its performers – and the result is a spectacular thriller that provocatively presents the question, “what’s the fallout of a murder?”
Some might disagree with that synopsis, or my presentation of the question the film really asks. I think that’s OK. The beauty of this film, based on a Stephen King novella by the same name, is that it doesn’t use the cinematic devices that so many films use today. It’s much deeper than the typical slasher movie or “us vs. them” setup. The result is a genuine, slow burn that convinces us we’re watching a farmer from the 1920s conspire to kill his own wife – with the help of their only son.
The story is adeptly displayed in the trailer, and the reason behind the murder is quickly laid out for us. Wilfred James (played by Thomas Jane) married Arlette (Molly Parker – might recognize her from House of Cards and/or Deadwood) years ago. Sure, you might think it’s because they’re in love, but as the story unfolds, it seems most likely that Wilfred married her for the 100 acres of land she controls. As family struggles dramatically increase in regularity, Wilfred pitches his only son Henry on the idea of, well, dispatching Arlette. Otherwise, she might take him away to Omaha so she can open that little dress shop she always wanted. Obviously.. such a move would take 14 year old Henry away from his first true love, Shannon.
I must insist on leaving the plot and details surrounding it right there. This is one of those films where, the less you know the better. What unfolds really reminded me of the nonfiction author, criminologist Colin Wilson. He has two big books I read, “The Mammoth Book of True Crime,” and its accompanying “Part II.” In these behemoths, which I highly recommend to aspiring writers, the author details the types of crime, their history and the numerous examples that fuel his descriptions of kidnappings, poisonings, arson – really any kind of crime you can think of. It’s a tough read. I mean, have your favorite sit-com on stand by for watching before bed.
Anyhow, Wilson’s detail is very matter of fact – an example might be, “Mr. Simpson had had enough of his wife cheating on him. So, one day upon returning from the office in late 1958, he took a kitchen knife and stabbed her 32 times.” I’m not saying this example is in Wilson’s books – but his tone has a matter-of-fact-why-are-you-gasping quality to it. This film shares this matter-of-fact tone to the point that it makes your skin crawl. I was thinking, “why is Wilfred so casual about this action?” As the character says in the preview, the suggestion is that there are two men inside us all – the one people see, and then a conniving man. What unfolds in the film is a study in what happens when the conniving one wins out. And what’s fascinating to me is how close this story is to many of Wilson’s descriptions of true crime – down to the detail that many people over the centuries have claimed, “the devil made me do it.”
The presentation of the pre-meditation of Wilfred’s murdering of his wife is scary. I mean, when in the history of Man has a murder ever gone to plan? The King novella’s feel comes out in these early scenes when Wilfred is really piecing together the act – and how it’s the only option he and his son Henry really have. Perhaps that’s the really scary part, how he’s able to convince his boy that if there was another option, he’d gladly take it.
Needless to say, the killing and disposal of poor Arlette is terribly frightening. I think it’s scarier than the typical horror film – because it’s actual human-on-human action, and not “us against them.” I have not yet seen King’s other hit adaptation, It, but that film is a great example of “Us vs. Something Supernatural.” There are other Halloween classics that have “Us vs. A Monster” or “Us vs. a Haunted House,” but as I’ve been thinking of 1922, I think it scared me because it’s so.. possible.
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its supernatural elements. If you do brave the preview, I’ll say just one word – rats. And believe me, Professor Henry Jones would not be able to get through 1922. That said, the incredible effort that director Zak Hilditch has put into 1922 is perhaps best complimented by the fact that there were scenes in which I legitimately couldn’t tell if I was watching reality – or Wilfred’s perception of a reality. Does that make sense? Perhaps its combination of remote location of Nebraska farm land and the patience with which the film is edited that really contribute to the movie’s authentic, frightful tone.
Watch 1922 and see what you think – ’tis the season. Aside from all the elements I’ve mentioned, I’d also like to point out especially that Thomas Jane’s acting is masterful. He is supported by a very talented and able cast, but he literally sinks into this role. He is unrecognizable and twists along with the plot – much like his character’s soul, I’m sure. Will he be nominated for… an Emmy? I wonder…
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman and Austin Stowell
I would apply the “drama-edy” genre label to Battle of the Sexes. Much like directors’ Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ previous effort, Little Miss Sunshine, Sexes is a great combination of heartfelt, genuine, behind-the-scenes glimpses at real life characters juxtaposed with moments of overwhelming comedy. That combination rarely produces a “miss,” and in this case, I think we can call it an “ace.” Come on – you knew this entry was ripe for puns…
The film concerns the real event of September, 1973, which took place in the Houston Astrodome between women’s #1 Billie Jean King and former men’s #1 Bobby Riggs. That month, Billie Jean King was 29 years old, and Riggs was 55. She had trained like hell for the event, Riggs had dabbled with 70s era health and diet supplements and, well, worked on his promotional tactics. Regardless of how they both prepped, the event was a true exercise in American traditions – public relations, media and standing up for one’s cause. The film does a great job of toggling between all of these traditions, from Rigg’s Don-King-styled promotion of the event to King’s real-life confusion concerning an affair, not to mention her development of the WTA.
Now, the filmmakers do a fine job of setting the match up. The movie moves along with expedition as the story develops both King and Riggs. Each of them had dramatic events going on in their own lives when the idea came to Riggs to sell this epic battle. I think the film did adequate job of demonstrating that for Riggs, he might have been over-playing some of his own chauvinism – while illustrating that there was certainly a contingent of men in this country at the time who desperately wanted him to win. These guys had no qualms about their chauvinism, and in some cases, were surely shocked at how big this showdown became in the cultural discussion.
However, I’d like to point out a couple of things that really enriched Battle, things that aren’t necessarily alluded to in the trailer and promotional materials. First off, Billie Jean was instrumental in creating the WTA. I never knew that before watching the movie. As a former tennis player – and one who still follows the game – I was interested in the first half of the film, which showcases how King and her band of women’s tennis players took the sport out of country clubs and made it much more accessible to all Americans. That’s a significant story in and of itself, which meshes well with the comedic shenanigans of Riggs’ grand idea for an ultimate “him vs. her” contest.
But, the other element I really liked from Sexes was the portrayal of how King had an affair with a Los Angeles hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) – and her husband Larry’s subsequent reaction to the infidelity. The scene, in which Larry shows up to King’s LA hotel early to meet up with his wife, is a filmmaking-101 scene. We take it for granted, but the cinematography, sets, costumes, hair – all of the technical elements are just as sharp in this scene as the rest of the film. What I loved specifically in this scene was the awkward manner that Larry discovers that his wife has cheated on him – and how the filmmakers took the time to let him have his moment.
So many films are in a rush today. There is a “save the cat” feeling that, “it’s time to do THIS” in a lot of movies – particularly blockbusters. But, Sexes allowed Larry his moment. Played by a new, familiar actor named Austin Stowell, Larry discovers Billy Jean’s action in her hotel room’s bathroom. He tells her he’s going to stay in another room – and then there is a cut to the hallway, where Larry leans against the wall in shadow. He’s upset, we can tell from his body language. And it’s with great effort that he picks up his bags and hops on the elevator. Seems like an easy scene to cut out, right? I mean, who would miss it? Well… without it, all of his subsequent actions would seem a little odd. With this scene appropriately included in Battle, we are immensely impressed with how Larry continues to support the talented Bill Jean – despite how much her cheating on him hurt.
I haven’t even gotten to the fun scenes between Riggs and his wife! Or how Bobby interacts with the press, or how Virginia Slims – yes, the (gasp!) cigarettes – was the first sponsor of the WTA. But, you can enjoy all of these elements when you watch the movie. Hopefully you’ll agree that King was an incredible talent, particularly in the way she carried herself on the court. There’s a moment – and this won’t ruin anything for you – when the match with Riggs finally begins, and she hits a winner. Riggs yells across the court, “Atta girl!” And King never, ever responds to his chatter during the course of the match. Boy, I’ve always been a fan of those athletes who let their performance speak for itself. Sure, sports needs personalities like Riggs – but I’ve always appreciated the Kings of the world who quietly go about their business…
NOTE: I put the directors of Battle in that order at the top of this post as they are not only alphabetical, but also in that order on IMDB. Just in case anyone was wondering! No chauvinism from this author!!
Final Note… (Potential spoilers, or… unpopular intel?)
I listened to “The Director’s Cut” podcast, which is a phenomenal resource for guys like me who are just junkies for all things related to movies they see. On this podcast, DGA (Director’s Guild of America) members typically interview the director(s) of the film in question, and sometimes other cast and crew.
What fascinated me about the moderated discussion with directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris was their discomfort about stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone’s actual tennis playing ability. What I was able to gather from the podcast is this – not all of the play was ACTUALLY Stone and Carell. In fact, some pro tennis players who doubled as King and Riggs had to re-learn how to play 1970s style tennis, with primitive rackets and slower play – probably a lot more serve and volley than they usually play (just guessing).
My question is – why the discomfort? Why the hush-hush? Whether or not these two stars were actually playing the game had absolutely no effect on my viewing or perception of the film. I think this is an unfortunate fallout effect of the audience’s insistence that they know everything they want to know about the film. To those asking that question – was the play genuine, featuring the stars? – my question is, why is that important?
It would be a shame if these questions about authenticity – whether it’s tennis play or historical – dominated the discussion related to Sexes. Isn’t it enough of a celebration – telling this story, focusing on a beloved game for millions, an event that captured the focus of an entire nation? How does that portrayal – that portion of their portrayal – really matter in the end? And… how incredible is it, speaking from a special effects standpoint, that it WASN’T those two stars?? Because, it sure looked like them.