Tag Archives: Jon Bernthal

A Pair of Aces

King Richard

by George Wolf

You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.

So how – and why – did Richard Williams’s predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?

That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.

The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.

Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.

In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’s surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.

But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.

And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.

It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.

Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.

As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.

And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.

So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?

Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.

Born Under a Bad Sign

The Many Saints of Newark

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.

It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over eight years and six seasons.

Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.

Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.

But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).

De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.  

Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.

But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.

If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.

It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.

Fire Starter

Those Who Wish Me Dead

by Hope Madden

Michael Koryta’s heart-thumping YA adventure tale Those Who Wish Me Dead comes to the big screen. Well, mainly—it’s also on HBO Max—but the mountainous, fiery, wooded adventure is better suited to the largest screen you can find.

Koryta himself adapted his novel, along with co-writers Charles Leavitt (not very good—Warcraft, Seventh Son, In the Heart of the Sea) and Taylor Sheridan (very good—Hell or High Water, Sicario).

It should even out.

Sheridan also directs, dropping a young boy (Finn Little) in a burning forest, hunted by two murderers (Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen), with only Angelina Jolie to help.

She does have a way with children, though.

Jolie’s Hanna Faber is a damaged Hotshot (those firefighters who parachute into forest blazes). She failed her psych eval after those fatalities last season and now she’s stuck in a lonely fire lookout tower miles from anywhere with nothing to keep her company but her own haunted thoughts.

So what I’m saying is, Those Who Wish Me Dead is now about Hanna rather than being about the kid who is wished dead. I just want fans of the novel to be prepared for this.

It’s still a perfectly satisfying if not particularly inspired adventure tale.

Little delivers an emotional blow as the newly orphaned youth who’s trying to be brave, trying to be smart, and sincerely in need of a hug. The biggest issue is simply the way he becomes a side character in his own story.

He’s not as discarded as the couple who run the survival camp (Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore – though the latter does look glorious riding horseback with her rifle through the flames).

The basic backstory does suit this cinematic vehicle, though, and Jolie proves a charismatic central figure who can sure take a beating. As the bad guys close in from one direction, the fire from the other, Sheridan and team build a perfectly reasonable and structurally sound thriller.

Performances are strong and locations are gorgeous, but Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t take a lot of risks and that’s unfortunate.

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.

Scrape it Off your Shoes

Sweet Virginia

by Hope Madden

Which is a better death—a bullet, or a broken heart? Aah, the neo-noir, always trodding that lonesome, masculine road.

Director Jamie Dagg’s latest effort, the brooding Sweet Virginia, contemplates many of the same bruised musings in many of the old, familiar ways. But between Benjamin and Paul China’s taut script and an ensemble’s powerful performances, you won’t mind.

Jon Bernthal leads the cast as Sam, former rodeo star and current proprietor of small town motel Sweet Virginia. It’s the kind of place where a drifter (Christopher Abbott) might stay, a high school kid (Odessa Young) might take a part-time job, a new widow (Rosemary DeWitt) might find comfort or a femme fatale (Imogen Poots) might find danger.

Bernthal charms playing against type and spilling over with tenderness. His every moment onscreen is abundant with warmth, a curious choice for a hillbilly noir’s male lead, but it pays off immeasurably.

Abbott is his fascinating opposite. Both dark and imposing, Abbott’s Elwood festers and stews, a pot of simmering violence waiting to bubble over. Like Bernthal, Abbott chooses an approach to his character that is nonstandard and, in both instances, carving such believable and unusual men in such a familiar environment gives Sweet Virginia more staying power than it probably deserves.

DeWitt reminds us again of her skill with a character, embracing Bernie’s brittleness and resilience to craft an authentic presence. More impressive, though, is Poots in an aching performance.

Daggs shows confidence in his script and his performers, siding with atmosphere over exposition and letting scenes breathe. His string-heavy score and fixation with reflections and the spare light cast by a lonely street lamp create a mood that is familiar, yes, but fitting and welcome.

This is Coen territory, and where the Brothers can always find texture in even the most threadbare of material, Daggs’s film feels superficial. It holds your attention and repays you for the effort with a series of finely drawn and beautifully delivered characters, not to mention a script that invests in clever callbacks as well as character.

It’s a gripping film that lacks substance, a well-told reiteration on the same theme.





Mr. Furyous

 

Fury

by George Wolf

“See that? That’s an entire city on fire.”

It is World War II, and grizzled combat vet Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is teaching scared rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) about the horrors of battle.

Fury is hardly the first movie to use a naive soldier as an extension of the audience, and that metaphor is just one of the familiar devices the film leans on to craft a competent, if not exactly groundbreaking, drama of war.

Collier leads a 5-man Sherman Tank crew which also includes “Bible” (Shia LeBeouf),  “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal). Deep inside Germany, their combat prowess earns the team a mission with mighty long odds. On their own, they must cut off an entire Nazi regiment before it reaches a defenseless Allied supply station.

Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) presents powerful battle scenes, frequently gripping and bursting with ugly brutality. Less successful are Ayers’s attempts at the humanity the story needs to cut deeper.

The confines of the tank are a good start, as we feel a bond with the five men simply from the claustrophobic closeups. But as the combat scenes stack up, the character development is reduced to quick sketches we’ve seen before.

The scripture-quoting marksman (Saving Private Ryan), the greenhorn not meant for the battlefield (Full Metal Jacket) and the facially scarred taskmaster (Platoon) are all here, instantly familiar and throwing roadblocks into Fury‘s attempt to reach higher ground.

Pitt is fantastic in the lead, with solid support from all his co-stars. Lerman’s effective naïveté, when thrown beside four eager members of an actual killing machine, creates a stark moral ambiguity that lingers, even if Norman’s transformation from “boy to man” is a bit lacking in subtlety.

Same goes for turning “Wardaddy” into a mythic G.I. Superjoe. Pitt has the chops that could have delivered on the chance to peek inside his character’s psyche, but it doesn’t come.

Instead, though the film’s final standoff definitely delivers the tension, Fury can’t go out in the blaze of glory it aimed for.

 

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