Tag Archives: drama

A Woman’s Place

The Kitchen

by George Wolf

Looking for trouble? You’ll find plenty in The Kitchen. Looking for nuance? Fresh out, suckas.

It’s a 70s crime drama stripped of style and subtext, yet able to squeeze considerable fun out of the exploitation vibe it revels in.

Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) are left with dwindling options when their Irish mob husbands are sent to prison for a botched robbery. It’s 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, and the ladies realize the meager allowance from their hubbies’ crew ain’t gonna cut it.

Time for these sisters to start doing it for themselves!

And if that song was from the 70s, you’d hear it loud and proud alongside all the other strategically placed picks from that groovy decade. It’s not a Scorsese soundtrack strategy, really, but rather one that makes sure we hear the lyric that can most literally comment on what we’re seeing.

Call it a Berloff maneuver.

The Kitchen marks the directing debut of veteran writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), and from the start, her tone is as unapologetic as her main characters.

Their takeover of the Hells Kitchen action is too easy and their character development too broadly drawn. But just as you’re starting to wonder what this much talent (also including Margo Martindale, Domhnall Gleason, James Badge Dale and of course, Common) saw in this material, the sheer audacity of its often clumsily edited approach feels almost right.

Berloff’s script makes it clear that this is less about the shots and more about who calls them, with some surprises in store by act 3 and a committed cast won over by the comic book source material or Berloff’s vision for it. Or probably both.

Moss, as a meek victim pushed around too long, and Gleason, as the smitten psycho who gently schools her in dismembering a body, elevate the film with every scene they share. Haddish delivers the underestimated street smarts with McCarthy – the two time Oscar nominee whose range should no longer be in doubt – bringing an anchor of authenticity.

There’s an allegory here of strong women fed up with fragile masculinity. There’s also a bloody mess of retro schlocky mob noir tropes (patent pending).

I love it when a plan has some awkward missteps but still kinda sorta comes together.

Meaningful Suffering

Trail by Fire

by George Wolf

Another death row drama with a clear agenda, probing one questionable conviction to build a righteously angry condemnation of our entire justice system?

Yes, Trail by Fire is certainly that, but the familiarity of its gripping narrative actually serves to strengthen the argument. How many dubious death sentences will it take to shake our comfortable faith in fair trials?

In 1992, Texan Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) was sent to death row for setting the house fire that killed his three young children.

After years in prison, concerned citizen Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) took an interest in the case. Along with lawyers from the Innocence Project, Gilbert worked to poke enough holes in the conviction to get Willingham a new trial.

Adapted from a New Yorker magazine article and Willingham’s own letters from prison, the committed script from Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) suffers only in the rushed introduction of Gilbert’s character. But though any organic motivation for Liz’s commitment may be thin, it’s overcome by the sterling performances from the two leads.

O’Connell – a vastly underrated talent- is heartbreakingly effective as Willingham, a man happy to have a regular visitor but wary of the hope Liz brings with her.

His journey from slacker defiance to jailhouse wisdom is grounded in the authenticity of McConnell’s touching performance. This man was no altar boy, but our sympathy for him is well-earned.

The chemistry with Dern is evident from the start. While these plexiglass encounters are a necessary staple of this genre, Dern and McConnell make them simmer with an intensity that is often riveting.

Kudos, too, to Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife Stacy. The Willingham marriage was challenging, to say the least, and Meade (Nerve, Boardwalk Empire, The Deuce) is good enough to make the conflicted relationship recall the bare emotions of Manchester by the Sea.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond, Pawn Sacrifice) takes some narrative risks that ultimately pay off, keeping the pace vital through some effective visual storytelling that feeds the sense of a ticking clock.

Zwick also builds layers of indelible support characters (Willingham’s first jail cell neighbor, the lead prison guard, an independent arson investigator) that leave engaging marks, often at junctures critical to avoiding an overly rote structure.

Crushing in its familiarity, gut wrenching in its specifics, Trial by Fire is a tough but worthy reminder of the illusion of fairness.

Beautiful Ben

Ben is Back

by Hope Madden

Family can be a nightmare during the holidays, eh? Well, if you think your Fox-News-spouting uncle is a problem, you need to meet Ben.

Yes, Ben is Back, the damaged teen at Christmas drama from writer/director Peter Hedges, is clear Oscar bait. It is, after all, a family drama starring two of the Academy’s favorite thespians, Julia Roberts and the filmmaker’s own son, Lucas Hedges.

Lucas Hedges plays Ben, the eldest son of Holly (Roberts), who surprises his family—mom, sister Ivy (Kathryn Newton), half siblings Lacey and Liam (Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser, respectively) and stepdad Neal (Courtney B. Vance)—on Christmas Eve. Ben’s been away in rehab, and not everyone is as thrilled at the prospect of reliving Christmas Horrors Past as Holly seems to be.

Though filmmaker Hedges’s script has a few rough edges, one of its great strengths is its limits. Ben is Back chooses not to spell out every aspect of Ben’s addiction, his descent, his likely court-determined recover program. These are wise omissions as they make the slow reveals more powerful and leave you feeling less manipulated.

What unspools as a tense family drama takes a wild left turn by act three, when Ben’s shaky present and dark past come crashing into Holly’s living room only to make off with the family’s beloved mutt. The balance of the film sees mother and son drive deeper into an ugly abyss of sexual predators, junkies and criminals to have poor Ponce back for the siblings by Christmas morn.

Once the borderline thriller storyline takes flight, Hedges Senior flails a bit with pacing and tone. Hedges Junior and Roberts, however, lose nothing.

The voyage into the underbelly of Holly’s lovely suburbia offers not only some insight into the realities of drug addiction and our current opioid crisis, but allows these two talents the chance to mine their characters’ psyches.

Hedges never overstates the emotions roiling barely beneath the surface. He is almost simultaneously overjoyed, anxious, guilty, dishonest, tender, vulnerable, loyal, broken and resilient. There is nothing showy in his performance as he conveys with clarity the confusing mix of emotions and motives that surface from moment to moment.

Roberts, who has solidified her status as formidable character actor in own second act, takes command of this film and never gives an inch. She owns every scene, and equals Hedges in her own ability to swing—sometimes gently, sometimes seismically—from one emotion to the next. Again, there is nothing inauthentic or overly dramatic in this performance.

The film itself dips too often into maudlin traps. And though the third act is far from awful, the filmmaker’s insights for family dynamics and dysfunction are stronger.

He can cast the shit out of a movie, though.





Swimming in Romance

The Shape of Water

by Hope Madden

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.





This Dude Abides

The Hero

by Hope Madden

Somebody finally wrote a starring role for Sam Elliott. Let’s be honest, we all love him. What’s not to love? His lived-in masculinity, mannered charm and sonorous delivery make every line a comic/dramatic/romantic dream.

His latest film, the Brett Haley directed and co-penned The Hero, feels like an attempt to give Elliott his own The Wrestler or Crazy Heart.

I’m cool with that.

Haley was responsible for the 2015 life-renewing romance I’ll See You In My Dreams, a post-middle-age adventure starring Blythe Danner, with Elliott joining as her mustachioed gentleman caller.

With Hero, Haley places Elliott firmly in the lead of another “life begins when you decide it does” kind of story.

In a role undoubtedly written specifically for the actor, Elliott plays an aging performer who’s knocked around Hollywood for decades but is best known for his deep, cowboy voice. The film opens with that memorable baritone recommending, “Lone Star barbeque sauce – the perfect pardner for your chicken.”

It’s an inspired scene, full of humorous indignity and carried beautifully by the voice-over veteran. It’s really a shame Haley can’t build on it.

Elliott’s Lee Hayden has cause to reevaluate his life when a health issue, a lifetime achievement award, a viral video and a surprising new girlfriend all collide unexpectedly. Oh, so many reasons to contemplate your own mortality.

Elliott’s quiet, moseying way remains as enigmatic and charming as it ever has been, and seeing him play a character so very close to himself is sometimes eerie. Real-life wife Katharine Ross even plays his ex.

The film scores highest marks in two scenes with Ross, and in everything with a delightful Nick Offerman, playing against type as Lee’s goofy former co-star and current weed dealer.

It derails hardest, though, when it tries to juggle a distant relationship with a daughter (Krysten Ritter) and a new romance with a hot, much younger woman (Laura Prepon).

The Hero breaks no new ground. Had Haley and co-writer Marc Basch (who also co-wrote Dreams) thrown one or two fewer contrivances at us, or found perhaps a fresher way to contend with their obvious choices, they might have had something.

Instead they ride Elliott’s charm and settle for sentimentality, which is such a shame. It’s high time Sam Elliott gets to lead his own movie, but he deserves a little more than this.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Bon Appetit

The Dinner

by Hope Madden

Enduring a dinner party – in cinematic terms, it can lead to a cathartic catfight (Carnage), mass suicide (The Invitation) or an all out apocalypse (It’s a Disaster).

It would appear that having to remain civil through such a meal causes us, as a civilization, a lot of anxiety.

Writer/director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) ignites that discomfort and then looks at it from all angles with his newest, The Dinner.

Richard Gere – that silver fox – is Stan Lohman. A politician with a congressional race on the line and an important bill currently up for a vote, he’s juggling a lot right now. So why stop everything to join his brother Paul (Steve Coogan), along with Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) and his own wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for a 5-star meal?

Well, it isn’t good news.

The restaurant of choice is beyond posh, its lushly appointed dining rooms and obscenely laden tables a fascinating surrounding for the drama unfolding. When Moverman remains with his primary foursome inside this restaurant, an involving and curiously repellant morality play unfolds.

Moverman has a particular talent – one that these veterans relish. He scripts characters who are rarely entirely what they appear at first blush, never go where you expect them to go, and somehow wind up being the same and yet remarkably different than what you’d imagined.

This kid of layered challenge can prove too much for many actors, but Hall, Coogan, Gere and especially Linney are custom made for such work. Indeed, in many respects these actors are superior to their material.

Linney and Hall suffer from underwritten characters, which is a shame because both find something primal under all their characters’ studied polish.

Gere is breezily at ease as the smooth politician, convincing himself and others of his genuineness as he works the room.

Coogan is the standout surprise, playing against his traditionally comedic type as the enigma in the middle of this conundrum.

Suffice it to say, the couples have a parental nightmare to contend with, and it’s when Moverman brings in flashback to enlighten the audience that his drama begins to lose its way. Mix in some additional flashbacks to illuminate Paul’s character, including an excruciating Civil War sequence (we get it – sibling rivalry – enough already!), and the slow film comes to a stand-still.

It’s a frustrating way to spend an evening, The Dinner, but not a waste of time. Every member of the cast has a moment of brilliance working with a script that also shines in fits and spurts.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Lost & Found

Lion

by Hope Madden

Inspirational, true-life tales – however tailor-made they seem to be for a big screen presentation – can be tough to deliver with integrity. In fact, the more tailor-made they seem, the tougher it can be.

Director Garth Davis manages to hit most of the right notes with his cinematic telling of Saroo Brierley’s amazing journey in Lion.

At 5-years-old, Saroo (played as a child by the impossibly cute and talented Sunny Pawar) follows his older brother to the train station where they’ll scrounge what they can from between seats and on the ground. But Saroo wanders off, falls asleep in a train car, and by the time he gets off, he’s thousands of miles from home – alone in a train station in Calcutta.

What follows – told with surprising restraint and solid focus – are the details of his struggle to survive and, decades later, to find his mother.

The adventure is harrowing. Davis chooses wisely between the events to explore deeply and those to leave ambiguous. We glimpse things that are clearly menacing but not fully explained because we’re seeing them through the eyes of a bewildered child. The result is a dark sense of all that could have occurred, not a sledge-hammer about the lurid details Saroo couldn’t possibly have articulated.

Once the film moves to Australia, where the boy relocates with an adoptive family, Davis again shares enough details to give the film a memorable sense of authenticity. The now grown and well-cared-for Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with longing, guilt and a crippling concern for the pain his birth-family must bear because of his absence.

Patel deserves credit for a performance unlike the work we’ve seen from him in previous efforts. As a performer, he has tended toward painfully earnest representations, an over-actor who relies heavily on hyperbolic reactions.

Here, though, is a far more nuanced turn – one that benefits immeasurably by the chemistry he shares with Nicole Kidman, playing his adoptive mother Sue Brierley.

Dependable as ever to explore the depths of grief, Kidman conveys the conflicting emotions that, in their way, inform Saroo’s struggle. She’s surrounded by solid performances from a strong ensemble.

The film does make its missteps. The talented Rooney Mara is both underused and overused. Her flatly written character contributes little to the overall narrative, and yet the romance crowds a story that has more interesting things to say.

Faults aside, Lion dives into grief, guilt and love with refreshing honesty to tell the most unbelievable story in a way that echoes with a human connection we can all appreciate.

Verdict-3-5-Stars