‘Til the End

Our Friend

by George Wolf

We don’t tell the truth about dying.

Writer Matthew Teague came to that realization in 2012 when his wife Nicole died of cancer at the age of 34, leaving behind Matt, two daughters, and one very special best friend.

Five years later, Matt detailed their ordeal in an award-winning piece for Esquire magazine. Though it wasn’t Matt’s original intent, as the piece took shape it became clear his focus was Dane Faucheux, the friend who put his own life on hold to be there for Matt, Nicole and their girls.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby deliver Teague’s memoir to the screen with a tender focus on the daily details, and a stellar trio of leads delivering authentic, emotional performances.

Dakota Johnson has never been better as Nicole, bringing a heartbreaking sweetness to the journey into physical and mental decay before her character’s final breaths.

The quiet, committed stoicism that Matt fights to maintain is a natural vehicle for Casey Affleck, and he absorbs the role seamlessly. The Oscar-winning Affleck allows Matt’s hurt to register even in the lightly humorous moments, revealing a man caught between remaining strong and truly processing what the future will bring.

But much like in Teague’s original story, Dane is the soul of this film, thanks to Jason Segel’s warm and vulnerable performance. We see – even before Dane does – that his place in the Teague family has given his life the purpose he’s been craving. Segel never stoops to melodrama, and his scenes with the Teague girls (Isabella Kai and Violet McGraw, both terrific) sparkle with the charm of a man who has found peace within this family.

A wonderful cameo by the always-welcome Cherry Jones as a hospice nurse only cements the effectiveness of this cast, and of Cowperthwaite’s dramatic instincts.

The drawback here is the non-linear structure in Ingelsby’s (The Way Back, Out of the Furnace) script. Though you can see how the shifting timelines might fit a magazine article, on screen they keeps us at a distance, and prevent the trio’s backstory from truly taking root. The chapters in these lives are not equally important, each builds on the other to strengthen the human bonds. Our connection suffers with the re-set of each new time stamp.

Is this a tear-jerker? For sure, but Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey) creates a mood that steers clear of sappy. That elusive truth of dying will always be uniquely intimate, and the way Cowperthwaite’s camera gently wanders away from characters and conversations provides a consistent reminder that the nature of grieving is that it’s often for the lives left behind.

Because this isn’t really a story about dying, it’s one about caring – caring about other people enough to care for them when it helps. As one family found out, there’s a true beauty in that, and Our Friend lets us glimpse it.

Spirit in the Material World

A Ghost Story

by George Wolf

Before some empty misnomers such as “prestige horror” are bandied about, let’s be clear: this is not a horror movie.

But what A Ghost Story is not hardly matters when what it is remains this beautiful. Writer/director David Lowery has crafted a poetic, moving testament to the certainty of time, the inevitability of death and the timeless search for connection.

Opening with a telling quote from Virginia Woolf’s short story “A Haunted House,” Lowery shows us Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a loving couple at odds over whether to move from their current house. She wants to, he doesn’t.

A car accident tragically takes his life, and as her life must move on, his spirit rises to wander as the silent, white-sheeted embodiment of any number of homemade Halloween costumes.

The irony of such a childlike image representing themes so vast and existential seems silly, but only for a few moments, until Lowery’s stationary camera and long, elegant takes wrap you in a strangely hypnotic trance.

After the curious detour of Pete’s Dragon last year, Lowery returns to the dreamlike imagery that drove his richly rewarding Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and evokes the best of Terrence Malick. Here, the Malick comparisons may be even more apt as A Ghost Story‘s narrative is loose and abstract, with long stretches of little to no dialogue.

Both Affleck and Mara (also Lowery’s leads from Bodies Saints) are deeply affecting, though a big part of the film’s conscience is instead revealed through the monologue of a random one-scene character. That’s fitting, for what makes this film so eerily touching is not what it tells but what it shows, and our ache for the couple comes in part from their staying out of our reach.

As the ghost travels through time and circumstance, it’s easy to see Woolf’s short story as a major inspiration for Lowery – right up to the sudden and glorious finale that’s sure to fuel plenty of conversation. Restless spirits amid the slow, silent march of mortality may sound like a horror show, but A Ghost Story is anchored by a loving hope that might bring a tear to the eye.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

 





Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet – Oscar Edition

It is that time again – the time of year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the best of the best, and we honor the worst of those best.

Yes, Skeletons in the Closet: Oscar Edition is back. It’s the day we dig around in Oscar nominee closets to find those low budget, horror bones hiding behind the fancier schmancier stuff.

And we can always find them. The great Viola Davis wasted her talent in the Rear Window/Fright Night knock-off Disturbia. The also-great Michael Shannon spent some time early in his career in the actually quite decent Dead Birds, while Ryan Gosling co-starred in the intriguingly titled Frankenstein and Me. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer slummed it up in Pulse.

But there’s worse – and yet, somehow better – material to discuss. Here are our favorite not-good horror hiding in these A-listers’ closets.

5. Denzel Washington: The Bone Collector (1999)

Denzel! Just a year after the serial Oscar nominee and winner made the dark action thriller Fallen – not good, but not bad – he returned to the land of CSI with The Bone Collector. Must’ve had an itch to scratch.

In Phillip Noyce’s grim police procedural, Washington plays a quadriplegic homicide detective helping beat cop Angelina Jolie track down a serial killer who’s leaving grisly victims and frustrating clues.

Plus, Queen Latifah!

The film is bland, Noyce never able to focus on a physically immobile hero and still create an exciting pace. And yet, Washington commands your attention no matter how listless the scene or unlikely the rest of the casting.

4. Michelle Williams, Halloween 20: H20 (1998)

It’s been 20 years since Michael Myers escaped his confines and slaughtered all those people in Haddonfield. Thousands of miles away in a private school in Northern California, Laurie Strode and her brother come face to face again.

Who was excited? Back in 1998, we were. Jamie Lee Curtis was back, and we were allowed to forget Halloweens 3 – 6 ever happened. Plus – though he’s no John Carpenter – director Steve Minor does have a history with horror, and Curtis’s iconic mom Janet Leigh popped by.

The result was slick, and boasted a great deal more talent than the others: Alan Arkin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and 2017 Oscar nom Michelle Williams. The 4-time Oscar nominee was saddled with the one-dimensional sweetheart role, and though you’d never have known she’d one day be among the most talented performers in film, you knew she was too good for this movie.

3. Jeff Bridges: The Vanishing (1993)

In 1988, co-writer/director George Sluizer unleashed a daring, meticulous and devastating film on an unsuspecting world. Spoorloos asked you to follow a grieving boyfriend down a rabbit hole – one with no escape.

Five years later, Sluizer returned to the scene of the crime, current Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges in tow. Bridges plays just an ordinary guy indulging a particular fantasy. Unfortunately, Bernrd-Pierre Donnadieu played the same ordinary guy to far, far more believable and therefore chilling effect back in ’88.

Worse still, the fantasy itself is gutted with an “America’s not ready for the real thing” ending that just makes you want to kick a guy. Infuriating!

2. Viggo Mortensen: The Prophecy (1995)

This is one of those bad movies that is fun to watch. Somehow the unusually talent-stacked cast doesn’t feel wasted as much as it does weirdly placed.

There is no question this film belongs to Christopher Walken – as do all films in which he graces the screen. His natural weirdness and uncanny comic timing make the film more memorable than it deserves to be, but when it comes to sinister, Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen cuts quite a figure as Lucifer.

Unseemly, gorgeous and evil, he seethes through his few scenes and leaves the celluloid scorched.

1. Casey affleck: Soul Survivors (2001)

Good God, this one’s bad.

Writer/director Steve Carpenter – auteur behind such classics as The Dorm that Dripped Blood – somehow convinced talent to join this cast. Who? A post-American Beauty Wes Bentley, an established Luke Wilson, and pre-Oscar nominee Casey Affleck.

Affleck stars as the tragically dead (or is he?) boyfriend of Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) an awkward runner. (Yes, it’s tangential to any reasonable conversation about the film, but she runs in nearly every scene and I have never seen a more awkward runner.)

Who’s alive? Who’s dead? What’s happening? Well, in case you’ve been lobotomized and can’t keep up, luckily Father Jude (Wilson) will literally explain everything.

Still, Affleck is somehow not terrible.





All in the Family

Manchester by the Sea

by George Wolf

Manchester by the Sea will put your emotions in a vice and slowly squeeze, buffering waves of monumental sadness with moments of biting humor and brittle affection. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan crafts a film so deeply felt it can leave you physically tired. A very good kind of tired.

Casey Affleck is a sure Oscar contender as Lee Chandler, a quiet, moody soul content to live in a one room apartment and work as a janitor in suburban Boston. When the call comes about the passing of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee heads to Manchester to attend to family business.

His brother’s will specifies that Lee is to be guardian of Joe’s 16 year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges in a crackling, breakout performance), a responsibility Lee is not expecting nor seemingly interested in.

Questions on this family backstory abound, and Lonergan takes his sweet, beautiful time in answering them. After his stellar 2000 debut You Can Count on Me and the ambitious mess of Margaret a year later, with his third feature Lonergan displays a form of storytelling masterfully rooted in subtlety and realism.

Sketches of a narrative take shape without regard for any strict linear structure, and the dense fog of grief within the Chandler family becomes palpable, anchored in Affleck’s tremendous performance. More than just a moody loner, Affleck crafts Lee as a soul unsure if he seeks punishment or absolution, and seemingly content to remain undecided.

The sudden responsibility of Patrick forces Lee to face things he’s run from, and Affleck’s scenes with the young Hedges are filled with wonderfully restrained moments of tenderness and anger. Even better are the sudden bursts of piercing humor, as Lonergan is always two steps ahead of where you think a scene may be going.

The entire supporting cast is uniformly excellent, highlighted by an unforgettable Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Despite limited screen time, Williams makes Randi’s own pain visible through her facade, finally airing it in a shattering reunion with her ex husband. A masterclass in film acting from Williams and Affleck, these are moments so full of ache and humanity you’ll be devastated, yet thankful for the experience.

Williams’s small but mighty performance pierces the film’s admittedly male-centric worldview. The other female characters are more broadly drawn in negative lights, yet this reinforces the sad cycle of emotional immaturity in danger of being passed on to another Chandler man. In the end, Manchester by the Sea is a hopeful ode to breaking these barriers, and enduring in the face of the worst that life can bring.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 

 





Breaking the Waves

The Finest Hours

by George Wolf

Plenty of films have created genuine tension telling stories where the outcome is already known. The Finest Hours may not reach the lofty heights of say, Argo, but it crafts a true-life adventure tale with an earnest and sometimes thrilling respect for the bravery involved.

Most of that respect goes to Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), the young Coast Guardsman who directed the greatest small boat rescue in the group’s history. In 1952, Bernie and a small crew braved brutal elements off the coast of Cape Cod to search for a stranded oil tanker that had been broken in half by the storm.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) seems most engaged by the set pieces involving the floundering tanker. As a desperate crew relies on the crafty ideas of Mister Sybert (Casey Affleck) to stay afloat, Gillespie creates a nicely paced contrast between the shrinking confines of the ship and the vast timelessness of the rising waters.

Back on land, we see an idealized, one-dimensional version of the 1950s. Bernie’s courtship of his future wife Miriam (Holliday Grainger) is sweet but superficial, as is most of the setup at Coast Guard base. The screenwriting team of Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (The Fighter) draws parameters quickly, and for obvious purposes.

Bernie is a stickler for regulations, on a mission loaded with impossible obstacles. The more both points are labored, the less impactful it becomes when they fall away.

Pine has genuine movie star charisma, and he underplays Bernie nicely, but it is Gillespie who ultimately saves The Finest Hours. Not only does he make the sentimentality of the period details seem awkwardly appropriate, but lines such as “sometimes men die” and “not on my watch!” are more quickly forgiven amid spectacular storm sequences and the palpable tension of the actual rescue.

As effective as its finest moments may be, what The Finest Hours needs most is a deeper humanity to make it resonate after the credits. You end up saluting these heroes more than caring about them, keeping any lasting sea legs at bay.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Crime Dramas For Your Queue

Butts did not fill seats when Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini’s small time mobster flick The Drop screened theatrically, which is a shame. But the film releases today for home consumption, so eat up, people! The two play cousins running a bar used to launder Chechan mob money, with Hardy adding layers and layers to a fascinating, maybe simple bartender. Shady characters, double crosses, symbolism and meager redemption keep your attention, plus there’s an incredibly cute dog. It’s worth a look.

The Drop writer Dennis Lehane has penned a number of Boston-based crime dramas, including Shutter Island and Mystic River, but the best of the bunch is Gone Baby Gone. The film that shocked us all with the knowledge that Ben Affleck is a genuinely talented director follows two private investigators working a missing kid case. Morally complicated, brilliantly filmed and boasting a career-best turn from Amy Ryan, this is a surprisingly great crime drama.





Countdown: Best Underseen Films of 2013

Today we pay tribute to the most fabulous movies that no one saw in 2013. If you, too, missed them, don’t be too hard on yourself. Some were hard to find, some had such short runs that if you blinked, you missed them in theaters. But here’s your chance to make amends. Seek these out as part of your new year’s resolution to watch something awesome. They are sometimes bloody, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, always intriguing, fresh and memorable. We give you the most tragically underseen films of 2013.

5. Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to Drive offers a nightmarish, polarizing vision of the revenge thriller. The near-silent Ryan Gosling leads a cast of misfits and miscreants (and worse) through a bloody piece of nastiness in Bangkok. It’s a visual, aural feat of wonder creating a dreamlike hellscape. The one-dimensional characters and lurid story guarantee you will either love it or hate it, but you will not forget it easily.

4. Much Ado about Nothing

Joss Whedon proves he can do basically anything as he spins the Bard’s classic comedy. Giving Shakespeare a modern-day treatment trips up many great filmmakers, but Whedon takes it in stride, employing a game cast to create a playful, satisfying romp.

3. Mud

The forever underseen filmmaker of extraordinary talent Jeff Nichols follows up his bewilderingly wonderful Take Shelter with this Huck Finn style tale. Matthew McConaughey excels as the man-child fugitive befriending a couple river rats interested in adventure. The result is a lovely journey of lost innocence and a vanishing American lifestyle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv30J05U2nI

2. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s impressive feature debut offers a powerful and superbly acted account of the tragic death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant. Michael B. Jordan’s revelatory lead performance deserves to be in the Oscar conversation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMrAH_rO_fM

1. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

No one saw this movie, which is a tragedy given all the film has to offer. The aching romantic drama boasts exceptional performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster as well as understated writing and exquisite photography. It’s an overlooked gem of rare beauty – one worth finding.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjR3DLatrFg





Tough Time for a Brother’s Keeper

Out of the Furnace

by Hope Madden

Just in time for the holidays, a bleak look at desperation, blood ties, masculinity and loyalty. Welcome to Braddock, PA and Out of the Furnace.

Part Deer Hunter, part Winter’s Bone, Scott Cooper’s new film casts a haunted image of ugliness scarring natural beauty, whether it’s the steel town petering out and leaving a rusted carcass in a Pennsylvania valley, or the human nastiness up in the hills on the Jersey border.

The tale follows a pair of beleaguered brothers in America’s disappearing rust belt. It’s a deceptively simple story of being your brother’s keeper, but Cooper’s meandering storyline keeps you guessing, often entranced. Nothing is as simple as it seems, although there is an inevitability to everything that makes it feel strangely familiar.

Cooper’s camera evokes a palpable sense of place, and his script positions the film firmly and believably – but without a heavy hand – in a clear time period. The setting itself is so true and absorbing that many of the film’s flaws can almost be forgiven.

At the core of Furnace’s many successes are some powerful performances. Both Christian Bale and the endlessly under-appreciated Casey Affleck, as Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively, dig deep to uncover the anguish and resilience at the heart of the siblings’ relationship and struggles. Bale, in particular, smolders with a tenderness and deep love that is heartbreaking.

On the other hand, Woody Harrelson is just plain scary. As the villain (and excellently named) Harlan DeGroat, Harrelson goes all out, leaves nothing behind. Harlan is a Bad MoFo, no doubt, and Harrelson leaves no scenery unchewed.

Cooper stumbles here and there with his storytelling, though. There is some heavy-handed symbolism, and a letter written from one brother to another that’s almost too clichéd and trite to accept in the otherwise articulate piece of filmmaking.

Just four years ago, in his feature film debut Crazy Heart, Cooper led Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to her first nomination. His sophomore effort is less assured, as if he’s trying too hard. His ability to conjure such a vivid place and time impresses, and both Bale and Affleck are characteristically wonderful, but the director can’t seem to reign in the entire cast, and he borrows too freely from other (excellent) movies.

While the stumbles aren’t crippling, they keep Out of the Furnace from the greatness it otherwise might have reached.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





Ain’t That Film Impressive

by Hope Madden

 

The screen fills with the sepia image of a bygone Texas. Sinewy lovers quarrel and forgive, then wait in a pick-up, planning a future with their unborn baby, until the third robber arrives. There’s a chase, a lonesome shack, a shoot out, and a compromise that sends the boy away to prison and the girl home to pine.

There’s good reason writer/director David Lowery’s romantic tragedy Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels so confident. The breathtaking cinematography, the fittingly artistic framing, the poetry of the language and image, the heartbreaking authority of the performances – each element fits together beautifully and benefits from the artistic coordination of a maestro. It’s because the relatively unknown Lowery has honed his craft, spending time as a casting director, crewman, writer, director, sound editor, actor, producer, and cinematographer before tackling this, the culminating effort of a lifetime spent in film.

He’s blessed with a cast that embraces his understated drama. Casey Affleck animates a career full of characters with vulnerability and confused nobility, and he impresses again here as the outlaw who breaks out of prison, just like he promised, to reunite with his girl and the daughter he’s never met.

Rooney Mara’s quiet ferocity offsets Affleck’s tenderness, and the love story they create offers a poignant center to the film. Orbiting the couple is Ben Foster’s humble police officer, torn by his affection for one and duty to the other. Each actor embodies an image of lonesomeness that makes the film ache. What’s beautiful about this triangle is that neither the characters nor the filmmaker judges anyone. Lowery and his characters accept, however sadly, the motivations and actions of all involved.

The young mother also attracts the protective nature of a retired gangster/father figure played by Keith Carradine, whose presence reinforces the film’s bluesy connection to the other great, doomed Western romance, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The film’s one shortcoming is that it does not tell a larger tale. This beautifully told story of loneliness, devotion, love and tragedy never manages to transcend its own intimacy to speak to something universal.

But it’s a hell of an effort, and one that establishes Lowery as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in decades.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars

 

 





For Your Queue: Affleck Proves his Mettle as Director

After racking up several big wins this awards season, Argo has emerged as the favorite to win Best Picture this Sunday at the Academy Awards. If you didn’t catch it in theaters, you can bring it home this week on DVD, and you’ll be glad you did. The true story of how a CIA operative got six hostages out of Iran in 1979 by posing as a film producer, Argo is simply fantastic moviemaking.

Working with a smart, taut script by Chris Terrio, director Ben Affleck expertly layers political intrigue with Hollywood deal-making. He also crafts an effective period piece, with a sharp eye for details that not only recreate an important slice of history, but also foreshadow more recent international events.

Though you already know how it ends, Affleck infuses Argo with tension and urgency. Regardless of his perplexing snub in Oscar’s Best Director category this year, Affleck, after just three directing efforts, has emerged as one of the best in the business.

Honestly, he showed the skill right from his directing debut in Gone Baby Gone…

Four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing in one of Boston’s rougher neighborhoods. Not the neighborhood of Will Hunting and his buddies, because this is not Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning turn as screenwriter. This film is Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s first, hauntingly successful attempt at directing a feature film.

The director’s kid brother Casey, in fine form, plays a baby-faced PI working his neighborhood connections to find the girl as the mystery plays out among Boston’s nickel-and-dime drug dealers, mules, perverts and ex-cons.

Gone Baby Gone is a complex work examining place as an existential determiner, using setting as character, and plumbing the validity of conscience, all the while developing a disturbingly absorbing mystery. And though the mystery itself tailspins into something less than the story deserves, the final moments of the film remind the audience again of the craftsmanship that went into creating a film you may have missed back in 2007, but you need to see now.