Tag Archives: drama

Martin Scorsese ushers up another epic in The Irishman

Martin Scorsese ushers in another epic gangster movie in the The Irishman, now streaming live on Netflix. The movie stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a small-time truck driver who becomes a confidante and hitman to a crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the legendary and ruthless head of the Teamsters trucking labor union. The movie covers the long arc of their relationship, from the first serendipitous encounter between Frank and Russell through the tense relationship between Hoffa, the Italian crime families, and the federal prosecutors who try to lock them up. The Irishman also includes a slew of top-quality supporting performances, and they all weave in and out of the complex relationship between the three major players.

Throughout the movie, Scorsese uses the decisions forced on Frank by his crime boss and union boss to explore the morally and ethically ambiguous world of organized crime. One highlight is a face off between Hoffa and a rising star in the Teamsters. They find themselves in prison together and begin arguing over whose criminal conviction carries more moral weight. Bufalino argues that fraud, which involves simply stealing funds from the union pension, is more defensible than extortion, which includes a physical threat against a person. Yet both sides use violence and threats as part of their standard trade practices. These exchanges set up critical dilemmas for Frank, and become important plot points. 

Fans of Scorsese and organized crime movies will find a lot to love in The Irishman. Produced by De Niro, Scorsese has paid his characteristic attention to the details of the period. Each scene reflects the craftsmanship that has earned him a well-deserved reputation as a film master. The casting is also superb, as each supporting player plays an intentional role in furthering the plot and adding dimension to the main characters. The “aging” (or, more appropriately, de-aging) of the lead characters over what amounts to a forty-plus year period will likely earn The Irishman major award nominations as well. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino seem to evolve from youth to old age seamlessly and naturally.

Clocking in at three and a half hours, The Irishman would have likely had a tough slog in wide release in commercial theaters. Despite its execution and craftsmanship, the movie’s pacing is slow, even plodding at times. Audiences will need some patience to make it through to the end. For this Scorsese epic, the value is in the journey, not the destination. 

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Bharat is a Bollywood story of tragedy, sacrifice, social justice, and personal growth

Bharat had a strong opening in India and has emerged as one of Bollywood’s highest revenue earners in 2019. While reviews in India have been lukewarm, Western audiences (as opposed to Western critics) are likely to be more patient and engaged with this character-driven drama. They will also learn something about India’s recent history and the events that have shaped its recent political and cultural trajectory.

The story begins during the Great Partition, a violent separation of what is now Pakistan from current-day India in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs clashed in riots and nearly 15 million people were displaced as they sought safety. The movie opens as Bharat’s father (Jeffrie Shroff), a Hindu station master in what would become Pakistan, scrambles to put his family on the last train to India and presumably safety. As 8-year old Bharat climbs to the top of a train car with his mother and his siblings, his sister Guidya loses her grip and falls into the throng. Bharat’s father makes young Bharat promise to keep the family together until he finds them at a family owned store in Delhi.

The movie follows Bharat (Salman Khan) as he tries to live up to the promise, putting the needs of his family above his own even as he finds sporadic success and love. At the same time, the audience is given a street-level view of how India evolved through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s. Each snippet in Bharat’s life reflects a particular phase of India’s social and economic evolution, from his attempts to raise money through the black market to his job as a stunt performer in a traveling Russian circus. He works in the oil fields of the Middle East and then as a seaman on a merchant ship in pirate infested waters off Somalia. Bharat suffers through dogged unemployment as India slogs through an economic period of agonizingly slow economic growth. He discovers the meaning of romantic love (Katrina Kaif) as India grapples with cultural modernization and economic liberalization.

At its core, Bharat is a human drama, a story of tragedy, sacrifice, social change, and personal growth. Bharat’s choices reflect the times in which he makes them as well as the broader changes that reveal new, often dangerous, opportunities. Bharat’s story is not an existential one — he never forgets that he is the one responsible for making those decisions and accepting the consequences of his actions. He also must resolve for himself the value of staying true to a promise he gave as a young boy.

Bharat is in Hindi with English subtitles. While the story is tight and holds together very, very well, evaluating the quality of the acting is a bit difficult — we’re often too busy reading subtitles. However, the movie includes some of Bollywoods best-known actors, including Salman Khan (as Bharat), Katrina Kaif (as his lover Kumud), Tabu (as Bharat’s sister), Sunil Grover (as his best friend Vilayti, a muslim), Jacki Shroff (as Bharat’s father), and Siha Patani. Western audiences interested in getting a taste of modern Bollywood, learning something about India, and pulled in by dramatic, character-driven stories should find enough in Bharat to leave the theaters satisfied.

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Five Feet Apart propelled by poignant story of survival, love, and sacrifice

Occasionally, I am at odds with many movie critics. Such is the case for Five Feet Apart, which I think is an excellent movie (as do most regular audiences watchers). The leads (Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse) are excellent, and have palpable chemistry on screen as two teenagers in advanced stages of a genetically inherited terminal illness (cystic fibrosis, or CF).

The movie’s title derives from standard CF treatment practice of minimizing airborne infection from others with the disease by staying six feet apart. Don’t worry, the movie explains the five foot modification, and it’s the heart and soul of the movie (as good titles should be; not bait and switch). For more on CF, which is actually quite complex, see the general overview here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cystic_fibrosis

“Five Feet Apart” is much more than just good acting. Every scene is a meaningful and moves the story forward, either by driving plot or the arc of the characters. Moreover, the movie just doesn’t dwell on the victims of the disease: the story directs attention, well integrated into the plot, to the toll the disease takes on the caregivers and professionals who cope with the teenagers trying to manage their lives under the heavy weight of a terminal illness (with excellent performances by Kimberly Hebert Gregory as a nurse and Parminder Nagra as a doctor). We see unfolding before us love gained, love lost, love restored; doubt, perseverance, compromise; heartbreak, hope, defeat, determination, inspiration; all amid heartfelt struggles to find purpose and meaning. I think the screenwriters (Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) and the director (Justin Baldoni) have done a remarkable job tying together these wildly dynamic strands and threads into this poignant tale of mental and physical survival. And Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, and Moises Arias (their friend Poe) do a great job fulfilling their artistic and storytelling vision.

So, why do I think many critics missed the mark on “Five Feet Apart”? I suspect I bring a number of perspectives into the film that might put me more in touch with the target audience. As a YA novelist (four YA novels and counting), I have worked for years thinking about and putting into creative practice the personal and social psychology of teen behavior and attitudes. As an active parent, I witnessed my own children struggling with many of the issues that play out in “Five Feet Apart” (although in circumstances far less dire). But perhaps most importantly I have spent a lot of time trying to understand human sexuality and intimacy. “Five Feet Apart” gets all of this right.

So, is Five Feet Apart melodramatic? Certainly. So are teens’ lives. The difference is the melodrama is a critical (and necessary) part of growing up, and “Five Feet Apart” honors this essential element of human development. Audiences who like the movies probably see, as a did, the reality of their world in this story. Does the story meander? On the surface, yes. In terms of the story’s basic structure and drive toward the climax, no. It all fits and provides forward momentum for the story, leading the characters logically and rationally to their climactic scenes. Is the movie exploitive? No. the movie puts teens in an unimaginably (for most) heartbreaking situation that actually does play out in real life (although the prognosis for most afflicted with CF is much better than the movie implies).

Overall, I think Five Feet Apart is a fine film, one of the best I’ve seen in 2019. But be prepared: this movie is a true drama and the story’s ending is not all roses (or, to push the metaphor further a rose with many thorns).

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook post and comments: 5,72 people reached, 443 engagements, 307 reactions, 27 shares.

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Fighting With My Family is a balanced blend of comedy and family dynamics

Movies about professional wrestling are not high on my “to watch” list — I’m not a fan — but I was drawn into the theater by the trailers. I was not disappointed. Well acted, Fighting With My Family is a well balanced comic blend of professional wrestling as entertainment, wrestling as business, and the clash between hopes and (dashed) dreams of those who long to be in its spotlight.“

Fighting With My Family is the story of the rise of Paige (Saraya Bevis played by Florence Pugh), a pioneering real-world female wrestler who rose from the working class city of Norwich, England to become one of professional wrestling most popular figures. She grows up with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) in a wrestling family headed by their father Rowdy Ricky Knight (Nick Frost) and mother Sweet Saraya (Lena Headey). Their parents come from the world of hard knocks, barely scraping by. Ricky has been in an out of prison, and Saraya worked the streets until they found each other and wrestling. They settled down and now run a gym where they train young boys and girls in the art of wrestling as entertainment.

Zak and Paige dream of becoming WWE stars, enamoured with the celebrities, glitz, and glam of the show. However, they take the sport and the skills needed to be successful seriously. They send in tapes to WWE in the hopes of being selected for their world tour. Finally, Zak and Paige are selected to try out. Only Paige, however, seems to have “the spark” that WWE is looking for, triggering a family crisis that requires everyone to come to grips with lost hopes, crashing dreams, and digging deep to find out what really matters.

To the movie’s (and writer/director Stephen Merchant’s) credit, Fighting With My Family deals with the consequences for the entire family of Paige’s selection. Each has to find peace with an industry that is much more complex, sophisticated, and ruthless than they see on the flash of the television screen. At the same time, the movie honors WWE for what it brings (or doesn’t) to entertainment, sportsmanship, and athletics. Even those not enamoured with professional wrestling (such as me) will come away with a better appreciation for the sport.

The acting is well done, although Paige’s character arc is not as well defined as it might be. Florence Pugh and Jack Lowden bring real chemistry to the screen as siblings whose futures and identities are tightly woven together only to be ripped apart. While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson also does a good turn as a celebrity mentor to Paige, his role seems a bit more forced into the story, calculated like the sport is highlights, to bring people in the door.

Overall, Fighting With My Family is a solid movie, although crass humor, crude sexual references, and mild profanity might be unsuitable for younger family members. It’s PG-13 for a reason.

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Review: The Exception harkens to classic war-time romances

The Exception made a brief appearance in the movie theaters before heading to the DVD and on-line streaming market. This is where the film is likely to find its commercial success. It lacks the fast-paced action, grand themes, and scenic worlds that lend themselves big screen storytelling. In many ways, The Exception seems like a throwback to the period romantic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

This World War II story centers on a forbidden love that develops between a German army officer, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad, UnbrokenDivergent) and a female servant working in the household of the exiled German Emperor, Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, BeginnersThe Last Station). The Kaiser and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, Maleficent, Albert NobbsInsurgent) are living in Belgium awaiting an opportunity for the former monarch will be reinstated in Germany. Brandt has been transferred by German headquarters to lead Wilhelm’s security detail.

In retrospect, Wilhelm’s hope to return to Germany seems hopelessly naive and detached (and toward the last years he appeared increasingly delusional). But the Kaiser’s character is rooted in the real life dynamics of post-World War I German culture, society, and politics. Germany’s disastrous early experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), kept hopes for re-establishing the German monarchy alive for many in the aristocracy and military. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated rather than renounce his claim to the throne, and he hoped to be invited back to Germany in a prominent government role.

German loyalty to the former monarch was, in fact, problematic for Adolph Hitler. While Hitler never considered reinstating Wilhelm, the former Kaiser’s stature was sufficiently high his death (in 1941) was used for propaganda purposes reinforce German values of honor and commitment to German aspirations for European hegemony. This historically grounded reality sets up important plot points in the movie.

When Brandt is transferred to the Kaiser’s security detail, he meets Meike de Jong (Lily James, Downton AbbeyBaby Driver), a servant in the Kaiser’s castle. They begin a romance despite rules against fraternization between staff and the soldiers. Complicating matters is the fact Meike is Jewish. Following his heart, Brandt refuses to break off the romance. Intrigue deepens as the SS (a German paramilitary police force) discover a British agent is working in the town. Meike is also an informant for the Dutch resistance, reporting on the activities with the Kaiser’s house.

The Exception is generally well executed and acted. Plummer successfully projects the naive optimism of the banished Kaiser while also adding humanity to his borderline delusional character. McTeer’s portrayal of the Kaiser’s ambitious and devoted wife, Princess Hermine, creates the necessary tension to keep the outcome of the clandestine romance in question throughout most of the movie.

Unfortunately, the plot is predictable, providing little that is fresh or innovative with the exception of a small plot twist at the end. Virtually nothing in this film pushes or even comes close to a creative boundary. The result is an entertaining but largely un-engaging film.

The relationship between Brandt and de Jong as characters is also problematic. The first day at the castle, Brandt and de Jong notice each other, making eye contact several times. This presumably is an attempt to demonstrate mutual attraction. Later that evening, however, de Jong delivers an invitation to dinner with the Kaiser to Brandt in his private quarters. Brandt orders de Jong to strip, and he rapes her (although physical violence is not used or attempted). This scene clearly establishes the master-slave hierarchy. Soldiers by virtue of their status and rank, could take advantage of the subservient role of women.

Yet, just a few nights later, de Jong enters his room again and voluntarily has sex with Brandt after discovering he was wounded on the Eastern Front. If this were a ploy to extract information from Brandt, this turn of events and de Jong’s actions would be plausible. But just days later they are in what appears to be a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. While Brandt’s shift from lustful physical satisfaction to romantic interest is plausible—in the first case it was “just sex”—de Jong’s attitude as the rape victim would be much more difficult. Yet the film does very little to address how the character overcomes the indignity and humiliation of her rape other than a flimsy apology by Brandt after he has developed personal feelings for her.

The Exception is a film that harkens back to the naive innocence of the romance-dramas of the post-World War II era. Despite this inconsistency, the romance mixed with international intrigue creates enough tension and conflict to keep audiences entertained throughout the movie despite the unimaginative plot.

The Exception scored a 7.9 (out of 10) on my rubric, earning a C+.

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Review: Manchester-by-the-Sea Grips Audiences with Gritty Realism

Manchester-by-the-Sea is one of those movies I sometimes hesitate to see. I am pretty sure I am going to like it, but in a crowded field of really good movies, which ones do I want to give up to see this one? Well, Manchester-by-the-Sea was well worth the time, and it’s earned its spots as a nominee for academy awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island), and Best Original Screenplay. The movie is a gritty, compelling, down to earth story of tragedy and heartbreak that still sits in my brain, propelled by fine, grounded film making and exceptional acting.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York), the story is set in New England and focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone, The Finest Hours) a handyman in Quincy Massachusetts who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights, Bloodline) dies from heart failure. He finds that Joe has assigned him guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom, Kill the Messenger). Lee is forced to confront the challenge of parenting a teenager and demons of guilt from the tragic loss of his children years earlier. He also must face the legacy of the tragedy that still lives in the memory of the townspeople, as well as Joe’s friend and partner George (C.J. Wilson).

The story starts out slow, as films of this nature tend to do; they are not action films. But the characters and story grip the audience as soon as Lee Chandler returns to his hometown. The story is complex and layered, with the screenplay providing a textbook example of how to reveal only what is absolutely necessary to keep the audience engaged, leave enough unsaid to maintain tension, and provide just enough information to keep the pace moving forward. Lonergan does an excellent job of splicing in flashbacks at just the right moments to enrich the plot and reveal the intertwined lives of the characters. We learn why some relationships are tenuous, some are frosty, and others are too hurtful to confront. The audience, however, is never overwhelmed with their complexity and layers.

It’s a poignant but real story, and Affleck leaves no doubt that he owns this film although the supporting cast is also superb. Central to the story is whether Lee can put the defining tragedy of his young life behind him. Other characters have found ways to forgive him and move on, but Lee struggles. Affleck deftly shifts from happy go-lucky young husband to self-loathing, guilt ridden wreck, but plays the part with a balance and reserve that keeps the audience rooting for his recovery. Viewers might leave the film a bit disappointed because it lacks a clear resolution. Then again, this is a story about real life, not fantasy.

Manchester-by-the-Sea has earned more than $50 million since its release in mid-December 2016, an astounding and well-earned return on its $8.5 million production budget. Producers Matt Damon and Chris Moore (among others) have proven once again they have a knack for finding a compelling story that can become a gripping movie without a big budget or A-list actors. This movie, however, might be the vehicle to put Casey Affleck back on the path to the A-list.

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