Sex, Truth and Videotape

Ride the Eagle

by George Wolf

Small casts working on limited sets with wide open spaces. We’ve seen plenty of these films lately, and we’ll see plenty more. Because even under pandemic rules, creators adjust and create.

Director/co-writer Trent O’Donnell and star/co-writer Jake Johnson adjusted to the tune of Ride the Eagle, a lightly sweet lesson in living your best life while you still can.

Johnson is Leif, a harmless California stoner who plays bongos (oh, sorry, “percussion”) in a band called Restaurant. Leif’s been estranged from his mom Honey (Susan Sarandon, in a role that seems tailored to her) since she left to join a cult when he was 12.

But now, Honey’s dead, and she’s left behind a couple things especially for Leif. The first is her sweet mountain cabin up near Yosemite, which he can take possession of only if he pays close attention to the other thing Mom left.

It’s a VHS tape, filled with a to-do list that comprises Leif’s “conditional inheritance.”

“Is this legal?” Apparently, it is.

And luckily, Mom’s VHS player isn’t dead. So Leif dutifully goes about the tasks that Honey hopes will teach him things she regretfully did not: express yourself, eat what you kill, call the one that got away.

Sarandon’s on tape, and ex Audrey (a charmingly flirty D’Arcy Carden) is on phone and text, so this is nearly a Johnson one man show. Good thing he’s in his likable comfort zone, using his talks with dog Nora as an endearingly organic way to both inform and crack wise.

It’s all perfectly warm and amusing, but in need of precisely the jolt delivered by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as Carl, Honey’s ex-lover who’s not shy about detailing their love life.

“That’s probably not what her son wants to hear, I guess.”

No probably not, but we do. Simmons’s cameo punctures the bubble by putting two humans in the same room to reflect on the passing of another human. It’s funny and it’s fuzzy and it goes a long way toward making sure these ruminations on forgiveness and regret actually resonate.

The Honey do list isn’t preaching anything new, but Johnson and O’Donnell never pretend that it is. Ride the Eagle is a casual, come as you are and wherever you are affair, like some comfort food two guys thought was worth another serving during a worldwide crisis.

And they’re not wrong. Some golden rules are always worth a rewind, even on VHS.

Ride the Eagle comes to theaters, VOD and digital July 30th

Blue Wave

21 Bridges

by George Wolf

Okay, huddle up.

Sometimes, your team comes in the underdog. They run the same old plays we’ve seen so many times, it’s not hard to figure out the game plan. But stack that team with enough talent, and it just might succeed anyway.

Hut 21, hut 21…Bridges!

That’s a cliched analogy, perfect for a cliched film. 21 Bridges lives in a familiar world of drug deals gone bad, hero cops who might be crooked, damaged cops who might be heroes, ticking clocks and killers on the run.

Chadwick Boseman stars as Andre Davis, a NYC detective with “cop in his DNA” since his father was gunned down on duty years ago. Andre has a reputation for being quick with the trigger, which is why Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) is happy to see him at a bloody Brooklyn crime scene.

Eight of McKenna’s cops are dead, after surprising two drug runners (Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch) during a botched cocaine robbery. McKenna is confident Andre will enforce their right to remain dead, but the Mayor’s (“he eats pizza with a fork!” – nice) flunkies make it clear hizzoner wants the perps alive for a campaign-friendly show trial.

But first, they have to find the two cop killers. Forced to accept help from narcotics officer Frankie (“fight me or use me”) Burns (Sienna Miller), Andre is granted a five hour window to shut down every possible avenue out of Manhattan, flood the island with blue, and get his men.

Director Brian Kirk, a TV vet helming his second feature, has clearly seen a crime thriller or two. The aerial shots of the city and shaky cam pursuits are standard moves, but Kirk manages to add his own layers of grit and intensity without ever letting the pace bog down.

One half of the writing team, Matthew Michael Carnahan, has some impressive credits, and about half the time, it shows. But even when the dialogue reeks of recycled cop drama, the talent of this cast manages to put a shine on it.

Simmons adds his usual mastery to a role that could have easily been one-note, and Miller again proves how good she is at morphing into completely different looks and personalities.

But this is Boseman’s film to carry, a nice break from his run of biopics and superheroics. The film’s success at exploring the paradoxes of a life in law enforcement is due mainly to Boseman. He finds a mix of outrage and conscience for Andre that feels true, often when the story around him doesn’t quite keep up.

There’s not much freshness to be found in 21 Bridges, just the visceral satisfaction and forgettable fun of talent winning out.

Visions of the Past

I’m Not Here

by Brandon Thomas

Loss, regret and redemption permeate people’s lives. We all have those things we wish we could “do over” — a life mulligan, if you will. It’s a universal fantasy that binds us together as human beings. This idea of redemption, or at least the understanding of one’s mistakes, is right at the muddled heart of I’m Not Here.

Steven (J.K. Simmons) is a shell of a man. He drinks too much, lives in squalor and has distanced himself from his remaining family. Through a rotating series of flashbacks, we’re introduced to Steven as a boy dealing with the complexities of his parents’ divorce, and also as a young man (Sebastian Stan) who has just started to make his own life-altering missteps. For present-day Steven, a phone call delivering upsetting news brings all of his past trauma to the surface.

I’m Not Here is frustrating. Its cast is more than capable of knocking this kind of material out of the park, but they are hobbled by a poor script and weak direction. Simmons fares best as his segments are solo and allow him to channel the intensity that’s he’s so well known for. The rest of the cast, including Stan, Maika Monroe and Mandy Moore, get bogged down by the cliche-ridden script. The lack of subtlety, especially in the flashback segments, undermines the emotional wallop of grief and loss that director Michelle Schumacher is trying to convey.

Schumacher’s handling of the material is scattershot. The present day scenes involving Simmons show a confidence that isn’t replicated in the flashbacks. The present day material has a more natural flow that lets the audience settle into Steven’s world of loneliness and self-pity. The darkness of his home mirrors the darkness of his life. On the other hand, the flashbacks offer hazy, overlit scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on CBS’s prime time schedule.

Casting Steven as the ultimate Unreliable Narrator is perhaps I’m Not Here’s greatest strength. His unwillingness to come to terms with his choices have clouded his memories with excuses. Steven’s memories cast him as a victim with only slivers of truth peeking through.

I’m Not Here has the foundation for a complex look at how tragedy and grief shape us, but it doesn’t have the follow-through. This one is not worth remembering.





The Unchosen One

The Front Runner

by George Wolf

The Front Runner closes with Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) dropping out of the 1988 Presidential race with a dire warning: Beware the day we elect leaders we deserve.

The film’s previous 110 minutes operate on the premise that day has come, pinpointing Hart’s very public fall from grace as the three watershed weeks that made it possible.

Hart, the Colorado senator who had been a surprise runner up to Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic nomination, emerged four years later as the assumed nominee and betting favorite to be the next President. But then, angered by questions about his marriage, Hart famously challenged the press to “put a tail on me, you’ll be bored.”

So they did, and they weren’t.

There was that yacht named Monkey Business (I swear, kids, look it up), the affair with Donna Rice, and damaging photos with another not Mrs. Hart. And before you could say “Dukakis” without laughing, we got President George H.W. Bush and a journalistic landscape that’s never been the same.

That’s more than enough meat for director Jason Reitman to chew on, and he gamely tries to balance all the ethical questions that remain startlingly vibrant today.

Should serious journalism embrace tabloid fodder? Are politicians entitled to private lives? Whose responsibility is it to hold powerful men accountable for their treatment of women?

Reitman, who also helped screenwriter Matt Bai adapt his own best seller All the Truth is Out, taps back into much of the groove that made his Thank You for Smoking such a mischievous treat.

The dialogue is fast and smart, often evoking a more easily digestible Aaron Sorkin. Salient points are made and then rebutted through the precise timing and intricate blocking of an outstanding ensemble (including greats such as J.K. Simmons, Vera Farmiga and Alfred Molina) that serves up indelible characters with relative ease.

Jackman is flat out terrific as the natural-born politician (“his hair alone is worth 6 points, 4 if it’s windy”) who could not, and would not, accept that the press were no longer giving men like him free passes.

Hart used his fame when it suited him and railed against its trappings when it didn’t. Jackman, in a thoroughly realized performance, is able to unveil this hypocrisy subtly enough to keep the authenticity of Hart’s political convictions uninjured.

The attention to narrative ebb and flow is detailed, becoming an absorbing dive into a historical clash of idealism, self-interest, and morality that seems almost quaint today. But strangely, it finds a depth that feels intentionally cautious, and the film never pounds a fist toward any viewpoint of its own.

Is that layup designed to encourage our own conclusions?

Maybe.

But Hart’s warning closes the film for a reason, and The Front Runner, much like the man himself, might have cut even deeper with more courage alongside those convictions.





Bring a Shovel

The Snowman

by Hope Madden

The Snowman, a Norway-set serial killer thriller, runs like a 3-hour flick that someone gutted for time without regard to sensibility, leaving a disemboweled and incoherent pile in the snow for audiences to puzzle over.

Not what I had expected.

I love director Tomas Alfredson. Well, I love his 2008 gem Let the Right One In and so, by extension, I love him. His writing team, adapting Jo Nesbø’s novel, includes the scribes behind such bits of brilliance as Drive (Hossein Amini) and Frank (Peter Straughan), and Michael Fassbender is the lead. Rock solid, that’s what that is.

And yet, The Snowman went horribly, embarrassingly, head-scratchingly wrong.

Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole. (I swear to God, that’s his name.) He’s a blackout drunk in need of a case to straighten him out. He finds it in one misogynistic mess of a serial killer plot.

All he and his new partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) know is that the killer leaves snowmen at the crime scene and has complicated issues with women. What follows is convoluted, needlessly complicated with erratic and unexplained behavior, ludicrous red herrings and a completely unexplained plot point about prescription pills.

The Snowman is not the first in Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, so a lot of “catch us up on this guy” exposition gets wedged in. From there, the writing team took a buzzsaw to Nesbø’s prose, leaving none of the connective tissue necessary to pull the many, varied and needlessly lurid details together into a sensible mystery plot.

It all leads ploddingly, frustratingly to an unearned climax heavy with needless flashbacks and convenient turns.

Everybody smokes, so it almost works as a cigarette ad, but as an actual story? No.

Fassbender, an inarguable talent, offers little to a clichéd character whose tics are predetermined—a shame because this is an actor who can dig deep when it comes to character tics. Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Hole’s ex, fare even worse. And an entire slew of heavy hitters gets wasted completely, including J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones and a weirdly dubbed Val Kilmer.

Alfredson films snowcapped carnage with a grotesque beauty few directors can touch, but that’s hardly reason enough to sit through this muddled mess.





Strong

Patriot’s Day

by George Wolf

If director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg are on a mission to salute America’s unsung heroes, they’re doing a damn fine job. After Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, they bring a similar formula to Patriot’s Day and achieve even more satisfying results.

A chronicle of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search for terrorist bombers that followed it, the film employs a breathless timeline and confident pacing to triumphantly salute the courage, compassion and dedication of a city under siege.

As he did so well in Deepwater Horizon last year, Berg opens with quick snapshots of the many lives involved (terrorists included), efficiently creating a layer of humanity and emotional depth. The explosions are sudden and jarring, presented with a compelling mixture of chaos and carnage, as bloody limbs and shell shock bring us uncomfortably close to the suffering.

The ensuing manhunt is nothing less than thrilling, with the rock-solid ensemble cast (including Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan and a fully committed Wahlberg) illustrating the harried teamwork of first responders and government agencies.

Strong and sturdy with undeniable spirit, Patriot’s Day stands as a fitting tribute to both individual heroes and an entire city itself.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 





This Queue Might Get Loud

Get it while it’s hot – Oscar winner J.K. Simmons throws a cymbol right in your home! Whiplash releases for home entertainment today, and it’s a film that must be seen. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor go mano y mano in a battle that makes the Hobbit look light-hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.

 

Not all youngsters endure punishment in the name of their art – and that’s why punk rock is so much better than jazz! We Are the Best! follows three Swedish teens circa 1982 who find an outlet for their artistic and energetic impulses in punk rock. The film bubbles and bursts with the energy, innocence and sweet-natured idiocy of youth. It’s an absolute joy.





The Beat Goes On

Whiplash

by Hope Madden

Whether you recognize the name or not, you know J. K. Simmons. A that guy among that guys, Simmons has appeared in scores of films and dozens of TV shows – sometimes simultaneously – and he’s never turned in a mediocre performance. Perhaps the most reliable character actor of all time, Simmons finally gets a role that will no doubt draw Oscar attention with Whiplash.

He plays Terence Fletcher, the meanest, most abusive professor at the finest music conservatory in New York. Miles Teller plays the driven young drummer taking the lion’s share of his torment at the moment.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has crafted a unique and immensely tense human drama, and his casting could not have been better. Teller and Simmons offer not an inauthentic moment as both inhabit characters that are not like the rest of us, which is necessary in an environment where the next Charlie Parker could emerge. There is something excruciating and beautiful and dizzying about their bursting volcano of a relationship.

That neither is an entirely good person makes the film that much fresher. Surprisingly, Whiplash is neither victim versus victimizer nor is it a testament to tough love. Chazelle abandons all cliché, rarely taking the predictable course. His provocative choices and his leads’ fearless work set this film far apart from other mentor/mentee pics.

Teller has real talent, a fact made clear in his screen debut Rabbit Hole. He understands the drive, arrogance, need and insecurity roiling beneath the surface of his character. His screen time with Simmons is violent, vibrant magic.

Whiplash takes us to the burgeoning of that solitary, lonesome madness that marks so many artistic geniuses. It isn’t tidy, it isn’t comfortable, it isn’t quiet but it is endlessly fascinating and it sounds good.

Verdict-4-0-Stars