‘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.

River of Dreams

The Peanut Butter Falcon

by George Wolf

Zack Gottsagen wanted to be a movie star.

Filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz told Zack there just weren’t many roles available for actors with Down Syndrome.

He asked if they could write him one.

The result is The Peanut Butter Falcon, an irresistibly endearing adventure powered by an unwavering sincerity and a top flight ensemble that is completely committed to propping it up.

Zak (a terrific Gottsagen), getting an assist from his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern), makes a successful break from his nursing home quarters with a mission in mind: finding the wrestling school run by his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Tyler (Shia LeBeouf) is also running – from a big debt to a small time tough guy (John Hawkes) – and when Zak stows away on Tyler’s rickety boat, the two embrace life on the lam as Zak’s case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) slowly closes in.

The quest carries obvious parallels to the real Zack’s Hollywood ambitions, and the Nilson/Schwartz directing team lovingly frames it as a swamp-ridden fable full of Mark Twain homages.

You get the sense early on that this is the type of material that would crumble if any actor betrayed authenticity for even a moment. It also isn’t long before you’re confident that isn’t going to happen here.

LeBeouf is tremendous as the wayward rogue whose inner pain is soothed by his bond with the stubbornly optimistic Zak. The chemistry is unmistakable, and ultimately strong enough to welcome the arrival of Johnson, who gives her Eleanor layers enough to embody our fears of the “real world” puncturing this fairy tale.

The surrounding ensemble (including Jon Bernthal and real-life wrestling vets Mick Foley and Jake “the Snake” Roberts) and rootsy soundtrack color in the last spaces of a world wrestling with convention.

Sure, you’ll find glimpses of feel good cliches. What you won’t find is condescension, or the feeling that anything here – from the characters or the filmmakers alike – is an act of charity.

Often similar to last year’s Shoplifters, The Peanut Butter Falcon is all about embracing family where you find it.

Following a dream, Zak finds it. And we feel it.

Dance Macabre

Suspiria

by George Wolf

Seventies horror has had a damn good month.

Just weeks after David Gordon Green gave 1978’s Halloween the sequel it deserved, director Luca Guadagnino re-imagines 1977’s giallo classic Suspiria as a gorgeous rumination on the horror of being haunted by echoes of your past.

Wait, wasn’t the original about witches?

It still is, more than ever. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (True Story, A Bigger Splash, the upcoming Pet Sematary remake) remove the guesswork about the dance academy coven in favor of a narrative much more layered, meaningful and bloody.

The building blocks remain the same. It is 1977 in “a divided Berlin,” when American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, nicely moving the character from naivete to complexity) arrives for an audition with a world-renowned dance company run by Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, mesmerizing). Susie impresses immediately, and is soon given the lead in the company’s next production.

This “cover version” (The Tilda’s phrase, and valid) of Argento’s original lifts the veil on the academy elders early, via the diaries of Patricia (Chloe Moretz), a dancer who has fled the troupe in fear. While whispers paint Patricia as a radical member of the anti-fascist Red Army Faction, she tells psychotherapist Dr. Josef Kiemperer (also The Tilda, under impressive makeup) wild tales of witches and their shocking plans.

Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.

But even when this new Suspiria is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.

Guadagnino’s stated goal of “de-victimizing” women in this film shows early and often. They move in strong solidarity both onstage and off, dancing with a hypnotic power capable of deadly results. In fact, most of the male characters here are mere playthings under the spell of powerful women, which takes a deliciously ironic swipe at witch lore as it creates a compelling bookend to what’s going on away from the dance academy.

Dr. Kiemperer, still searching for his wife missing since the end of WWII, becomes a personal illustration of Germany’s struggle with its Nazi legacy. When paired with Patricia’s rumored involvement in the “German Autumn” uprising of ’77, we get two important pillars of an epilogue that, admittedly, some may find a head-scratching overreach.

But after the finale that precedes that epilogue, the bigger problem may be breath-catching. A glorious celebration of the grotesque, it explodes into a cathartic mix of Ken Russell’s The Devils and GOT‘s Red Wedding that more than affirms the film’s intense, obsessive build. Guadagnino has thrown so much at us, he knows we deserve a payoff and damn, he delivers one.

It cements a vision of Suspiria that’s as ambitious and it is uncompromising, one that explores different definitions of horror while ultimately delivering more outright shocks and shivers than Argento ever attempted. Who knew a silly witch story could support so much mind-fuckery?

His name is Luca.

 

 

 





No-tell Motel

Bad Times at the El Royale

by George Wolf

A priest and a vacuum salesman walk into a bar…

Well, one may not be a priest, the other might not be a salesman and the bar is really part of a nearly abandoned motel, but the point is all hell breaks loose in writer/director Drew Goddard’s stylish thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale.

Lake’s Tahoe’s El Royale sits straddling the Nevada/California border in the late 1960s. Before the East side lost its gambling license, the El Royale had been a hot spot and Rat Pack hangout, but lately bellboy/desk clerk and bartender Miles (Lewis Pullman) is pretty lonely.

Then the priest (Jeff Bridges), the salesman (Jon Hamm) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in, followed by a hippie (Dakota Johnson) who’s got an F-you attitude and someone in her trunk (Cailee Spaeney). Their respective reasons for stopping at the El Royale are separate and shady, but as the characters reveal dark pasts and true intentions, the quiet hotel quickly becomes a battleground for survival.

Goddard’s follow-up to 2012’s ingenious The Cabin in the Woods is anchored with the same inventive zest, and built with time-jumping back stories and placards that bring Tarentino to mind. And while El Royale can’t completely deliver on its promise, it offers a gorgeous blast of color, sound and plot twists that are pretty fun to watch unravel.

The entire ensemble is splendid, each digging into their characters with a relish that only elevates the impact when our feelings about them change, and change again. Who’s a villain? Who’s a patsy? Who’s being framed and who’s just looking for redemption? Though Goddard’s pace gets bogged down at times, his visual style and careful placement of 60s pop hits make sure chasing those answers is always a retro hoot.

The film’s biggest disappointment stems from the arrival of the sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a violent charmer who’s come to settle a score with someone in the El Royale’s guestbook. As past histories and current events collide, the film reveals a late-stage moralistic vein as hopes for a type of Cabin in the Woods-style showstopping finale slowly fade away.

Those final fifteen minutes are fine for any typical noir crime thriller, but not quite worthy of El Royale‘s previous deliciously indulgent two hours.





You Can’t Punish in Here. This is the Red Room of Pain!

Fifty Shades Freed

by Matt Weiner

Boiling down the Fifty Shades movies into a capsule summary has always felt a bit like playing Mad Libs with a head injury, and Fifty Shades Freed gleefully continues the trend.

Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, each blinking out Morse code to their agents throughout the franchise) are now married. Christian’s dominant side causes fresh problems for Ana at work, but not as much as her ex-boss (Eric Johnson) returning to stalk the entire Grey family for reasons both mysterious and incredibly obvious.

Having watched the entire series, it’s hard not to feel like additional complaining is punching down, so here are some nice things about Fifty Shades Freed:

• This is the first film in the franchise that earns intentional laughs, an incredible improvement all on its own.
• All the shots, while filmed so perfunctorily that you forget what you’ve just seen nearly in real-time, are in focus.
• There is what amounts to a five-minute Audi commercial, which is helpful if you are considering buying or leasing a new Audi.
• According to the credits, Marcia Gay Harden and Danny Elfman received paychecks from this, and although you can hardly feel their presence on screen or in the score, I cherish them both and I hope they buy nice houses from this because they deserve it.

But the other major improvement in the franchise can’t be separated from the movie’s biggest flaw. The good news: with Ana and Christian having settled into betrothed BDSM bliss, the film (written by Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley) devotes less time to their tepid romance and more time allowing the characters to simply be themselves as they get caught up in a sordid thriller.

Here’s the bad news. Allowing these characters to be themselves suffers from one crucial flaw: every single character in the series is boring to an extent that’s almost an achievement in its own right.

And just like in the first two films, the sexual chemistry between Ana and Christian never clicks on screen. Although since Freed revolves more around the couple’s marital gamesmanship than their “erotic” courtship, the tension occasionally works this time. And even produces some real laughs.

While the movie wraps things up neatly for Ana and Christian—albeit in a comically abrupt way I guess is a clever callback to the bizarre pacing of the previous films—it doesn’t answer the question of exactly who this movie is for.

There’s plenty of nudity, but it’s clinically divorced from any recognizable human emotion. Such short shrift is given to character development that I can’t imagine fans of the lengthy books have been satisfied. There’s a mystery plot, sort of, but nothing you couldn’t get from a made-for-TV movie and save the cash.

But if you’ve made it this far through the series, Fifty Shades Freed is the most competent of the bunch. And at least this one can be watched with a clear conscience knowing that the actors are as freed from contractual obligations as their characters are rid of emotional baggage.

 

 





Sloppy Seconds

Fifty Shades Darker

by Matt Weiner

The latest installment in the Fifty Shades trilogy, to its credit, could very well be an ingenious meta-joke on the audience regarding punishment and masochism.

And that’s the kindest thing to be said about Fifty Shades Darker, the follow-up to 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey (based on the wildly popular book series by E. L. James—insert joke about how it was wise to use a pen name, except with those book sales the joke is on all of us).

The sequel has a new director (James Foley) and new hastily sketched roadblocks—er, characters—on the path to bound-up bliss, but in nearly every other way the film doubles down on everything torturous about the first one.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are back as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. They brought some new toys this time around (pro tip: don’t Google “spreader” at work), but there is no amount of light bondage that can distract from the obvious lack of chemistry between the two leads.

Johnson makes the best of a bad situation, and at times her portrayal of Ana flirts with acknowledging how absurd the entire enterprise is. Dornan, however, is impenetrable. Although in his defense, Grey only has three modes to choose from: having sex, being tortured by a mysterious past or impersonating a brick.

A boring relationship between the two leads of an erotic romance series should be a glaring red flag, but just in case the movie also outdoes the original when it comes to mind-blowingly bizarre plotting and pacing.

The film kicks off as a creepy thriller, and tries to wind things up the same way, save the 90 minutes in between that have nothing to do with the main story. Instead the film props up supporting characters as a teaser for the final movie. (Kim Basinger could be a great femme fatale as Elena, Grey’s mentor and original seductress. But if the pattern holds, it’ll be hard for anyone to rise above the source material.)

The script was written by Niall Leonard, who is E. L. James’s husband. This helps the film only insofar as it means Christian and Ana no longer deserve to be the most loathed couple involved in the production.

The LEGO Batman Movie also opens this weekend. It’s a movie full of computer-generated plastic people. Go see that instead: you won’t feel guilty laughing at the dialogue, and the characters do a better job at impersonating humans.

Verdict-0-5-Star

 

 





A Beautiful Trainwreck

A Bigger Splash

by Christie Robb

Remember that infamous high school math problem about the trains? You know, the one where two trains leave different cities heading toward each other and you are tasked with discovering when and where they collide?

A Bigger Splash is a lot like that, only instead of trains we are dealing with ex-lovers and the location of the collision is a gorgeous volcanic island off the coast of Italy.

Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is on vacation, recovering from throat surgery with her studly younger partner Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), when they are interrupted by unexpected houseguests: her ex-lover and producer, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his recently-discovered, lascivious daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). It’s clear that Harry still carries a torch for Marianne. It’s also apparent that he is more than willing to use the close quarters to fan those flames into obsession.

A catastrophe is inevitable. It’s just a matter of time — which, in this film, can tend to drag a little bit. This is not just a movie about nostalgic characters. With its long takes and dramatic score, director Luca Guadagnino’s film itself demonstrates a palpable longing for an earlier cinematic age. But with the stellar cast, breathtaking setting, and stylish costumes, the extra length, like a spare tire on an old flame, is easy to forgive. There is something beautiful in nearly every shot.

Schoenaerts and Johnson deliver solid performances in their somewhat underwritten characters (disdainful melancholic and crafted nymphet, respectively). Fiennes and Swinton, however, are delightful contrasts. Fiennes very nearly steals the show with his frenetic outbursts of verbal diarrhea — and in the scene where he dances to the Rolling Stones, he does. However, in the end this is Swinton’s movie. The layers of emotion she manages to convey with minimal dialogue is what truly makes the biggest splash.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





How to Borrow Liberally

How to be Single

by Hope Madden

Upending rom-com clichés has become its own cliché, and yet, with the right minds and talent, it can still be a fresh and funny experience. Please see Trainwreck.

Seriously. Please see it.

How to Be Single makes a valiant attempt to send up genre clichés as it follows four ladies and a handful of gentlemen, each failing to make that love connection with the Manhattan backdrop. It tries too hard, honestly, but it does get off a few good lines along the way.

Dakota Johnson anchors the ensemble as Alice, our everygirl, a new college grad ready to take a break from her longtime beau, head to the Big Apple, and find herself.

Alice’s circle includes her workaholic sister (Leslie Mann) and a wild new BFF (Rebel Wilson). Both comic veterans deliver some genuine laughs – thanks to an occasionally insightful script by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox – but Wilson, in particular, needs to find a new gimmick.

A revolving door of male characters includes one kooky performance by Jason Mantzoukas (a bright spot in this film, as he was in Dirty Grandpa). Ken Lacy also makes an appearance as basically the exact same character he played in the far superior film Obvious Child.

Which is one of the weirdest things about How to Be Single – it brazenly borrows from other, better films. Leslie Mann has a conversation that is almost identical to one from This Is 40, while her storyline steals an awful lot – including the boyfriend – from Obvious Child. Add to that the fact that Wilson’s boozy party girl schtick was lifted wholesale from Trainwreck, and you start to wonder if the film’s title should be How to Commit Larceny.

This is not to say the movie is bereft of humor. It does offer a handful of laughs, and it often lulls you into believing that characters are about to follow a formula, only to have that tiresome trope cleverly undermined.

It’s not that the film is bad, it’s just that it’s not as good as many other films and it knows it.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Got Wood?

Fifty Shades of Grey

by Christie Robb

Let’s face it, Fifty Shades of Grey is probably not going to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s not the movie you watch for its subtle complexities of character development. It’s a chance to watch two hotties take a naughty little ride to bone town and maybe get some inspiration along the way.

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele delivers, giving the role a bubbly charm that provides the occasional (and much needed) comic relief. However, her costar Jamie Dornan leaves something to be desired. As aloof billionaire Christian Grey, Dornan claims people find him heartless. I found him dull. I’ve seen marital aids with more personality.

And the film desperately needs the chemistry between the two. The plot—nerdy English major battling for the heart of a bachelor CEO while being initiated into the ways of light S&M—is as thin as Christian’s silk tie. This is a story about yearning and longing (and spanking). You gotta have passion.

And what’s with the R rating? There’re surprisingly few sex scenes and a lot of naked Dakota Johnson, but no sign of Dornan’s Johnson. When adapting erotic fiction popular with the ladies, you’d think we’d get to see something more titillating than a butt and a pair of low-slung jeans. Maybe I’m spoiled by premium cable.

Verdict-2-0-Stars