Tag Archives: Brie Larson

Presumed Guilty

Just Mercy

by George Wolf

You may have noticed there’s no shortage of films exposing the miscarriages of justice that have landed innocent people on Death Row.

Sadly, that’s because there’s no shortage of innocent people on Death Row.

So while the prevailing themes in Just Mercy are not new, the sadly ironic truth is their familiarity brings an added layer of inherent sympathy to the film, which helps offset the by-the-numbers approach taken by director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton.

Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham adapt the 2014 memoir by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, that details Stevenson’s years providing legal counsel to the poor and wrongly convicted in Alabama.

The film keeps its main focus on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who, by the time Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) comes along, has long accepted his death sentence for the murder of an 18 year-old white woman. But by winning over Walter’s extended family, Stevenson gains Walter’s trust, along with plenty of threats from the Alabama good ol’ boys once he starts exposing the outrageous violations during Walter’s “fair trial.”

It’s clear that Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) is firmly committed to respectful accuracy in his adaptation, which is commendable. The authenticity of the roadblocks, impassioned speeches or blood-boiling examples of bigotry are never in doubt, but it’s only the ferocious talents of Jordan and Foxx that keep Just Mercy from collapsing under the weight of its own unchecked righteousness.

As sympathetic as Walter’s situation is, the script never quite sees him as a real person, painting only in shades of hero. Oscar winner Brie Larson, a Cretton favorite, is wasted as EJI co-founder Eva Ansley, who seems included more out of respect than for what the character ultimately adds to the narrative.

Jordan has the most to work with here, and – no surprise – he makes the most of it. Peripheral cases help Jordan give Stevenson the needed edges of a man who is equally driven by his failures, doggedly committed to helping those he identifies with so deeply, those who, as Walter puts it, are “guilty from the moment you’re born.”

Though it comes out swinging with heavy hands, Just Mercy steadies itself in time to become an effective portrait of systemic injustice. You will be moved, but with a force that is muted by simple convention.

Just a Girl

Captain Marvel

by MaddWolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen—not to mention earthlings and aliens alike—and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s – especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass—as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, act 1 still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, and stands strong on its own while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

 





Throwing Stones

The Glass Castle

by Hope Madden

I was excited about the screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Hers is a well-told, often jaw-dropping story of a most unusual family. Her telling is neither sentimental nor leading; she is both clear-eyed and forgiving of an upbringing that is eccentric at best, criminally negligent at worst.

Clearly destined for big screen treatment, the adaptation appeared to fall into the right hands considering the director – Destin Daniel Cretton, of the underseen gem Short Term 12 – and the cast.

Oscar winner and fellow Short Term 12 alum Brie Larson takes lead responsibilities as the adult Walls, while her parents are played by the always wonderful Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts.

That’s a pedigree right there. So what went wrong?

A lot – and the release date was the first clue.

August tends to be a dumping ground. If it didn’t have “summer blockbuster” written on it and it’s not likely to bait Oscar voters, it comes out now.

Presumably, Glass Castle was originally conceived as Oscar bait, and the performances are wonderful, to be sure. It’s really Cretton, along with Andrew Lanham, who adapted Walls’s text, who fell down on this one.

With Cretton, Lanham co-wrote the 2017 screen adaptation of The Shack, an inspirational drama in which a grieving man receives a letter, and then a visit, from God. And that may be all you need to know.

Between Lanham’s refocusing of the story, Cretton’s manipulative use of slow-mo and the emotionally leading score, Walls’s remarkably balanced portrait of wanderlust, addiction and damage is utterly lost.

In its place, you’ll find cheap sentimentality.

The volatile and life-shaping relationship between Walls and her mother is discarded almost outright and Watts is left basically sidelined while a more cinema-friendly arc is developed between father and daughter.

Harrelson has far more to work with, but the root of his troubling quest for freedom is pushed aside in favor of wise-yet-innocent monologues and general zaniness.

Do yourself a favor and grab the book instead.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Free for All

Free Fire

by Hope Madden

The first notes I took, about ten minutes into the screening for Ben Wheatley’s latest Free Fire, read like so: This is a ballsy first act.

Indeed. Co-written with his wife and frequent collaborator Amy Jump, the Seventies crime thriller wastes little time on backstory, context or exposition. None, really.

You gather that two Irishmen (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) wait in a warehouse parking lot with their liaison (Brie Larson) to a gun runner. They’re always waiting for their own henchmen, as well as the gunrunner’s liaison (Armie Hammer).

I love Ben Wheatley. In 2011, he and Jump brought forth the utterly brilliant horror show Kill List, and I have waited breathlessly for every collaboration since. Free Fire included.

And while each of Wheatley’s films is decidedly different from each other, Free Fire is very different from most films altogether.

Imagine if the entire 93 minutes of Reservoir Dogs took place in that last act shootout among the pack.

The noteworthy fact about Free Fire is not that it has a ballsy first act, but that the entire film is a third act. With scarcely a word of context, we’re rolled into an empty warehouse just in time for a shootout to begin, and there we will stay until the film concludes.

It’s pretty brilliant, really. Character development happens under fire. Hammer’s “Ord” (yep, that’s his name) brings a lot of laid back comedy. Brie Larson is characteristically spot on, as is the always welcome Cillian Murphy. The two infuse characters and the proceedings with some authentic humanity.

Also working the comedy angle is Sharlto Copley – always reliable for some scenery-chewing, here working those mandibles as a South African imbecile/arms dealer once misdiagnosed as a child genius.

Jump and Wheatley rob the gang meeting of any of the slick romance or brutal gravitas usually bestowed on such events by cinema. There is a barely controlled, very funny, incredibly bloody chaos afoot here, and it is a wild and entertaining sight to behold.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Return of The King

Kong: Skull Island

by George Wolf

Time to grab the sunscreen and the softball glove…Kong: Skull Island will have you thinking it’s summer! The King’s latest return is fun and fast-paced eye cotton candy, a spectacle entirely satisfied with being less filling and more thrilling.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts serves up the big ape early and often, while smart and talented writers effectively blend homage, humor, metaphor and bombast without ever committing the film too much in one direction.

Writers Nick Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly have resumes that include Nightcrawler, Jurassic World and the 2014 Godzilla. They may have a “B” movie on steroids, but they all know how to sneak in a dose or two of social commentary. This is about man’s inhumanity to nature, about how enemies sometimes “don’t exist until you look for them,” and about an island full of huge freakin’ monsters!

It is 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War, and scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) feels it may be his last chance at getting government approval (and funds) to explore Skull Island, an uncharted mass in the South Pacific kept hidden by constant electrical storms and magnetic interference.  Of course, Randa has other motives for the mission that he’s not interested in sharing with Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s leading the military escort to the island, grizzled mercenary tracker James Conrad (ungrizzled Tom Hiddleston, a bit miscast), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) or anyone else on the team.

First on the agenda is dropping explosives in hopes of mapping the island seismographically. Step two is throwing the rest of the agenda out the window and trying to stay alive because Kong don’t play that.

There are plenty other scary things on Skull Island, and even another pilot. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) has been there since crash landing during WWII, and he’s armed with funny one liners and helpful survival tips for the tourists.

While Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) attacks the adventure with some familiar guns blazing, he peppers in enough small surprises to keep things interestingly off-kilter. It’s like he’s living a dream of combining Apocalypse Now with Godzilla, and he’s not leaving until he’s satisfied the scale is big enough.

It’s plenty big, and the CGI is often exhilarating, but smaller moments of nuance find a way in. The characters both embrace and deflect common stereotypes, so while Brie Larson does end up in a tight tank top, it’s Hiddleston that Vogt-Roberts’s camera is most interested in objectifying.

This is entertaining cheese that screams Memorial Day weekend, rising up before your St. Paddy’s bar crawl. The hangover will be minimal, and even the after-credits scene makes hanging around till closing time seem like a good idea.

No Room for Improvement

Room

by Hope Madden

There is something miraculous about Room.

The film drops you into a world you would be hard-pressed to even imagine and finds a story that is both bright and beautiful despite itself. It’s the story of a young woman, held captive inside a shed, and her 5-year-old son, who’s never been outside of “room.”

Never lurid for even a moment, both restrained and urgently raw, the film benefits most from the potentially catastrophic choice to tell the story from the child’s perspective. And here is the miracle of Room: without ever becoming precious or maudlin or syrupy, with nary a single false note or hint of contrivance, the boy’s point of view fills the story with love and wonder. It gives the proceedings a resilience, and lacking that, a film on this subject so authentically told could become almost too much to bear.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) creates yet another meticulously crafted, lived-in world – a world that should look like nothing we have ever seen or could ever imagine, and yet manages to resonate with beautifully universal touches. He is absolutely blessed with two magnificent leads and one wonderful supporting turn.

The undeniably talented Brie Larson gives a career-defining performance as Ma. On her face she wears the weariness, desperation, and surprising flashes of joy that believably create a character few of us could even imagine. She conjures emotions so tumultuous as to be nearly impossible to create, but does it with rawness that feels almost too real.

Veteran Joan Allen is the normalizing presence, and her characteristically nuanced turn gives the film its needed second act emotional anchor.

Surrounded as he is by exceptional talent, it is young Jacob Tremblay who ensures that the film won’t soon be forgotten. Where did Abrahamson find such a natural performer? Because an awful lot rests on those wee shoulders, and it’s the sincerity in this performance that keeps you utterly, breathlessly riveted every minute, and also bathes an otherwise grim tale in beauty and hope.

There is no other film quite like Room.

Verdict-5-0-Stars





Digging Your Scene

Digging for Fire

by George Wolf

A strong ensemble cast and a crafty, improvisational script make Digging for Fire a new high water mark for a filmmaker inching cautiously closer to the mainstream.

For over a decade, Joe Swanberg has been a busy boy, serving as writer, director, actor, editor, cinematographer and more on various obscure shorts, mumblecore staples, and indie favorites. He’s probably best known for his role in the slasher flick You’re Next, but Swanberg’s 2013 effort Drinking Buddies earned him plenty of notice as writer/director with a refreshing voice.

Digging for Fire‘s cast is full of Swanberg favorites, led by Jake Johnson, who also helped write the script. Johnson plays Tim, who is staying with his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe incredibly cute son) In a swanky house they don’t own.

Lee teaches yoga in LA, and while some of her clients are away shooting a movie, Lee and her happy young family agree to house sit, where Tim promptly finds an old bone and a rusty gun while checking out the grounds.

As the weekend approaches, Lee leaves the boys at home to visit her parents, and then have a girls’ nite with an old friend. Tim promises to do the taxes while she’s gone, but he can’t get his mind off of his strange discovery. Once some friends come over and beer starts flowing, seeing what other secrets might be buried in the yard starts sounding like a great idea.

Both Lee and Tim find plenty of temptation in their respective adventures, and Digging for Fire becomes a quietly insightful take on managing priorities throughout the changing phases of life.

Swanberg’s camera often drifts without anchor, perfect for the bevy of recognizable faces that come and go (Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Sam Elliott, Orlando Bloom and more), some for only one scene. You can see why these talents are drawn to such a free-form filmmaking structure, and all are able to carve out memorable characters that influence the choices Lee and Tim are pondering.

Though obvious, Swanberg’s extended metaphor is effective, as responsibilities of marriage and family clash with the yearning for lost freedom. If you keep digging for something, you just might find it, and that can be playing with fire.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





Hold ‘Em, Fold ‘Em and What Not

The Gambler

by George Wolf

“I tell the truth, that’s all I got.”

So says Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) in The Gambler, an intermittently tense thriller that doesn’t feel all that truthful.

Bennett is a college literature professor with a secret: he’s a high stakes gambler, and he’s deep in debt to the kind of people you shouldn’t be deep in debt to. Jim borrows from everyone and his mother (Jessica Lange) to get out, but his compulsion leads to a deeper and deeper hole.

If it all sounds familiar, then you remember the original 1974 version starring James Caan, a film that doesn’t exactly beg for a re-do. Still, if you’re going to do it, the writer/director team of William Monahan and Rupert Wyatt is a pretty good building block. The exciting, well-paced opening sets the hook for a more effective crime drama than the one that materializes.

Monahan wrote The Departed, and Wyatt helmed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which makes The Gambler‘s resulting missteps all the more surprising.

Though John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams make solid gangsters, you never believe Jim is in any real danger if he fails to pay up. Sure, they rough him up a bit, but Jim just keeps on cracking wise like he’s in Lethal Weapon 6 and someone who’s too old for this shit is coming with the cavalry.

Even worse, when Jim gets involved in a point-shaving scheme, the resulting basketball footage makes you wonder if Wyatt has ever watched even five minutes of an actual college game.

Still, there are stretches that suggest The Gambler could have been more of a contender. Wahlberg is always better with a confident director, and he realizes Jim’s self-loathing without letting it become a caricature. Brie Larson is equally fine in an under-developed role as a student who has seen Jim’s dark side.

There are characters here that are ripe for exploring, amid the stylish depiction of a seedy underbelly worthy of illumination. It’s been done well before, but doing it well again requires hedging your bets with a few risky moves, and The Gambler is just too quick to fold ’em.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Tony Danza, Scarlett Johansson and Porn

by Hope Madden

Look at little Tommy Solomon! Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself a versatile actor in the years since his TV career in the guise of a pre-pubescent Earthling. With his newest effort, Don Jon, he exhibits surprising confidence and aptitude as both a screenwriter and a director.

The film follows Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a Jersey player who cares deeply about only a handful of things: his bod, his pad, his ride, his family, his church, his boys, his girls, his porn.

Guess which one of those gets him into trouble.

Maybe the best way to appreciate what Don Jon is, is to quickly cover what it is not. Don Jon is not a traditional romantic comedy. It is not a sexy romp, or a perfect flick for hangin’ with your bros.

No. It’s a sexually frank, cleverly written, confidently directed independent comedy/drama about our culture of objectification. It’s an alert comment on a society that fears intimacy, collects trophies, and looks to get more than it gives; a culture that raises girls to want to be princesses, and guys to collect sexual conquests. A culture where a fast food restaurant honestly advertises its newest sandwich by having an oiled up, bikini clad super model spread her legs while she enjoys the tasty burger.

The effort certainly carries its flaws, but JGL gets credit for upending expectations, and for brilliantly paralleling romantic comedies and porn – because, let’s be honest, they are equally damaging to our concept of relationship.

Writing and direction are nothing without a cast, and Gordon-Levitt proves just as savvy in that department. Tony F. Danza, ladies and gentlemen! Danza has fun as Jon’s role model father, while this season’s go-to girl Brie Larson – with barely a word – scores as his observant sister.

Gordon-Levitt’s own perfectly crafted swagger finds its match in a gum-chewing Scarlett Johansson, whose sultry manipulator is spot-on.

The fledgling auteur stumbles by Act 3 – quite a letdown after such a well articulated premise. The underdeveloped resolution would hinder the effort more were it not for the presence of Julianne Moore as the eccentric and wise Esther. The role may be a bit clichéd, but Moore is incapable of anything less than excellence.

It won’t be long before we’re saying the same of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Until the end, he proves himself an insightful observer of his times, a cagey storyteller, and an artist with limitless potential.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars