Tag Archives: John Lithgow

Kings, Queens and Pawns

Killers of the Flower Moon

by George Wolf

“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”

The question comes from a book on Osage Indian history that Ernest Burkhart is perusing, and it’s one that lingers throughout Martin Scorsese’s triumphant epic Killers of the Flower Moon.

After serving as a cook in WWI, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) has come home to work for his uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) on an Oklahoma ranch. But while King is a wealthy powerbroker in the town of Fairfax, he laments that his “cattle money” is nothing next to the oil money of the Osage tribe, at that time the richest people per capita on the face of the Earth.

The Osage natives are worried, too, about the price of assimilation, the dangers that come with the comforts of wealth, and the white men eager to marry into their money.

King assigns Ernest a job driving for the reserved, pensive Mollie (Lily Gladstone). And when the couple marries, King calmly explains to Ernest how much closer the legal union puts them to the oil shares in Mollie’s family.

But Ernest has trouble “finding the wolves,” and as unsolved murders of the Osage people begin to mount, Ernest is drawn into a quagmire of lies and killings that eventually brings federal investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) and his team to Fairfax.

Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth adapt David Grann’s nonfiction book with an engrossing mix of true crime fact-finding, slow burning thrills and devastating heartbreak. The characters are rich in culture and in shades of human grey, each one caught in an infamous crossfire of American envy, arrogance, bigotry and greed.

Expect multiple notices in the coming awards season.

Editing from three time Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker is subtle and patient, every frame buoyed by a mesmerizing, evocative score that is sure to land the legendary Robbie Robertson posthumous nominations, right beside those of an acting ensemble that is don’t-forget-to-breathe tremendous.

De Niro makes King a scheming sociopath hiding in plain sight, with his kindest words saved for those he is most gaslighting. DiCaprio has never been better, as the simple Ernest’s journey from war hero to murder suspect is both a singular character study and a broad personification of confident ignorance.

Every member of the cast, from familiar faces such as Plemons, John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser to lesser known actors like Jason Isbell, Cara Jade Myers and William Belleau, brings limited roles to wonderfully realized fruition.

But it is Lily Gladstone who carries the very soul of this film. Mollie is a woman very aware of the daggers that are out for her people. She wants desperately to trust in her husband and their future, and the deeply held emotion that Gladstone (Certain Woman, First Cow) is able to communicate – often with her eyes alone – is a masterful thing to behold.

Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Barbie, The Irishman, Brokeback Mountain, Silence) find beauty in the expanse of the landscape, intimacy in moments of violence and betrayal, and a purposeful sense of history in the way numerous snapshots are held for an extra beat.

Still, not one moment of the film’s three hours and twenty-six minutes feels like filler. This is majestic, vital storytelling, from a legendary filmmaker who has not lost the drive to push himself. Beyond his clickbait comments about superhero franchises, here is proof that Scorsese still finds plenty on the big screen that inspires him.

He has given credit to Ari Aster for Flower Moon‘s committed pacing, while the film’s surprising finale feels directly influenced by Spike Lee’s success with connecting past and present via bold and challenging choices.

Like Lee, Scorsese is out to document American history while pointing out why so many look to bury it. The correct answer isn’t that there are no wolves in the picture, and Killers of the Flower Moon is a searing reminder that we can’t move forward together until we’re brave enough to confront where we’ve been.

Grifting Away

Sharper

by George Wolf

It may not be a textbook Rashomon approach, but director/co-writer Benjamin Caron leans on a similar structure in his impressive feature debut for Apple Originals, Sharper.

Set up in chapters named for the main personalities, the film first introduces us to Tom (Justice Smith, from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu). Tom owns a struggling bookstore in NYC, and is mostly estranged from his billionaire father, Richard (John Lithgow) and his new wife, Madeline (Julianne Moore).

But when Tom sells a book to PhD student Sandra (The Tender Bar‘s Briana Middleton), a relationship begins. And a few weeks later, Tom is offering to give Sandra thousands of dollars to settle her troubled brother’s debts with some bad guys. He gives her the satchel full of cash, and watches her walk away. Yeah.

So, right away, we’re on Tom’s side. But then, we get Sandra’s backstory, which includes some important details about her life before walking into that bookstore, and about her shady brother.

And then there’s the relationship between Richard and Madeline, which gets plenty complicated with the sudden arrival of Madeline’s ne’er-do-well son, Max (Sebastian Stan).

Caron, from TV’s The Crown, Andor and Sherlock, weaves the agendas together with a fine hand, revealing mysterious secrets just when they can add the most fun to the journey.

And this is an entertaining slice of life on the grift, one leaning more toward gloss and polish than neo and noir. The performances are all stellar, which ironically adds to the film’s slight stumble at the finish line. That final twist will not be hard to sniff out, even for mildly experienced film buffs. But we believe these people know all the angles, and when a character calls out a con midway through, it should only increase the chance that their antenna would be up for this same play later on.

But cons are just fun, aren’t they? And Sharper is a well-crafted and clever one, even with a finale that dulls its edges a bit.

Like There’s No Tomorrow

The Tomorrow Man

by Rachel Willis

I’ve never understood people who prepare for the end of the world: those who stockpile supplies or buy secret caves in the wilderness (I knew a woman) to survive nuclear war or the zombie apocalypse. I’ve always thought if the world ended in some horrible way, I wouldn’t want to stick around. If we’re in a Thunderdome scenario in the future, count me out. 

However, in writer/director Noble Jones’s film, The Tomorrow Man, Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is readying himself for the inevitable end of days. Spending his time on online message boards, watching the news, and gathering supplies at the local grocery store, he’s as prepared as one can be. 

Into his well-organized life comes Ronnie (Blythe Danner). Ed immediately thinks he recognizes the signs of a fellow “prepper” and begins an unusual courtship to which Ronnie is receptive. 

The film suffers from an abundance of quirkiness. Jones seems to be trying for a vibe similar to Moonrise Kingdom, but where Wes Anderson wisely chose children to convey the magic of new love, Jones focuses on two elderly adults who act more like children than grown-ups. Watching the two characters connect brings more questions on the wisdom of them living independently than any sweet enjoyment of their budding December/December romance. 

Lithgow is endearing as the over-prepared Ed. Divorced and estranged from his grown son, it’s impossible not to root for Ed as he woos Ronnie. However, Danner seems as lost in her role as her character Ronnie is lost in life.

The supporting roles offer very little to the story, and no one is offered any opportunity to grow. These characters are the same people at the end of the film as they were at the beginning. Perhaps if Jones spent less time telling us about all of the characters’ various foibles, we’d get a meatier story. 

There are a few comedic moments, but not nearly enough to balance the tedium of watching two peculiar people try to build a relationship. Everything about that relationship, like the film’s idiosyncrasies, feels forced. It’s unfortunate when we’ve seen the formula work before. 

Sadly, The Tomorrow Man tries too hard to be something it’s not. 

Sometimes, Reboots Are Better

Pet Sematary

by Hope Madden

There is a lot of love out there for Mary Lambert’s 1989 hit Pet Sematary.

Why, again? Was it the wooden lead performances? The adorably sinister villain? Massive Headwound Harry? Come on—there was a lot wrong with that movie and only two things were really right: The Ramones and Zelda.

Zelda was creepy AF.

Fear not! Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) were obviously also affected by Zelda because she (Alyssa Levine) delivers again. On all other items, the directing duo improve.

Except The Ramones, but they are here in spirit.

Jason Clarke leads things as Louis, big city doc transplanted to quiet, rural Maine. Apparently he and his family—Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jeté Laurence), Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and Church the Cat—didn’t ask a lot of questions about that 80-acre lot they bought. Lotta nasty stuff out back.

John Lithgow takes over for the tough to replace Fred Gwynne and his over-the-top Mainer accent. Lithgow’s more subdued Grumpy Old Man neighbor falls victim again to the pull of that “sour ground” out back when his beloved little Ellie’s cat gets hit by one of those semis speeding down the nearby road.

The film really tests your ability to suspend disbelief, but it also layers a lot of history and creepiness in tidy fashion. The superior performances alone make the reboot a stronger film, although familiarity means it has to try a little harder to actually scare you.

One help is a change screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler make to the story. It’s a big alteration and not everyone will be thrilled, but it limits the laughability once things turn ugly. The film also lessons spiritual guide Pascow’s (Obssa Ahmed) screen time and gives his presence a spookier, less comedic feel. There’s a new ending, too—meaner and more of a gut punch. Nice.

The movie looks good, and Clarke (playing a grieving father for the second time this weekend, after his WWII drama The Aftermath) anchors the events with a thoughtful, believable performance that helps Pet Sematary overcome some of its more nonsensical moments.

It is not a classic, but it delivers the goods.

I still missed The Ramones.





Who’s Yer Granddaddy?

Daddy’s Home 2

by George Wolf

It’s weeks from Thanksgiving, but already the hot toy this season seems to be the onscreen Christmas countdown, marking off time until the big day.

We saw it just last week, to disastrous results, in A Bad Mom’s Christmas, and now Daddy’s Home 2 arrives carrying stockings with slightly better surprises inside.

By now, macho Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and sensitive Brad (Will Ferrell) have settled into a comfortable “co-Daddy” arrangement with their blended families, so much so that they’re planning one big blendy Christmas this year. The kids won’t have to run from place to place. It’ll be great, right?

Enter Dusty’s mas macho dad (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s uber sensitive pop (John Lithgow), and we’re all headed through the woods to a luxurious mountain cabin for some contrived, snow-covered shenanigans boasting rampant ridiculousness and only scattershot payoffs.

Writer/director Sean Anders returns from the first film with the standard playbook for lazy comedies: a series of zany skits loosely connected with little regard for logic or continuity. We’re prodded to laugh at Brad’s suitcase being left at home, and then again when Brad has to wear a women’s bathrobe since he has no clothes of his own!

Moving on, Brad has an endless supply of wardrobe changes the remainder of the film.

Anders’s resume features solid comedic work (She’s Out of My League, Hot Tub Time Machine, We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses 2), but also embarrassments (Dumb and Dumber To, That’s My Boy). DH2 can manage only a few sequences that recall his creative peaks.

A fight over the cabin thermostat leads to some inspired laughs, as does Brad’s attempt to prepare a young boy for life in the friend zone, and Ferrell’s natural comedic gifts are able to squeeze a chuckle or two from Brad’s constant attempts to prove his parental worth.

With the additions of Gibson and John Cena (as the ex of Dusty’s girlfriend) the sequel ups the ante on the crises of masculinity that anchored the first film. The female characters are still afterthoughts, and some of Gibson’s antics (considering his rep and the current revelations coming out of Hollywood) seem awkwardly ill-timed.

By the time a completely over-the top-production of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (“I love that song! I play that song in August!”) is happening, Daddy’s Home 2 seems content to aim no higher than the guilty pleasure aisle.





Just Desserts

Beatriz at Dinner

by George Wolf

Have you ever owned the worst car in the parking lot of some fancy event?

Then you’ll immediately identify with Beatriz.

Beatriz is a holistic therapist finishing up a massage at the elegant home of her friend Cathy, when her car won’t start. Cathy (Connie Britton), over the mild objections of her husband Grant (David Warshofsky), invites Beatriz to stay for the dinner party that evening. Alex (Jay Duplass) and Doug (John Lithgow), two of Grant’s business associates, roll up with their wives (Amy Landecker, Chloe Sevigny), and it isn’t long before Beatriz is mistaken for the hired help.

Writer Mike White and director Miguel Arteta, after teaming for Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, reunite for the first time in fifteen years with a clearly defined purpose.

As the dinner gets increasingly awkward, Doug is revealed as a narcissistic billionaire mogul reveling in the obnoxious ass-kissing of his company. Beatriz, egged on by multiple glasses of wine, confronts him, and suddenly it’s Trump and the resistance taking dessert in the living room.

The comedy is dark and biting, the performances sharp and well-defined. Stumbling only when it trades sly observations for broader speechifying, Beatriz at Dinner is plenty satisfying.

Verdict-3-5-Stars