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drama

The Devil All The Time (2020)

Netflix's 'The Devil All the Time' is an overheated mess: Movie review

DIRECTOR: Antonio Campos

CAST: Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Bill Skarsgard, Eliza Scanlen, Haley Bennett, Mia Wasikowska, Harry Melling

REVIEW:

An adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same name, The Devil All The Time suffers from a scattershot ensemble narrative—and overly slavish fidelity to Pollock’s sprawling written work—but compensates with a solid cast and a strong sense of atmosphere and slow burn tension to be a morbidly engrossing odyssey into darkness, even if it doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

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Boy Erased (2018)

DIRECTOR: Joel Edgerton

CAST: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton

REVIEW:

Boy Erased, the second directorial feature of actor Joel Edgerton and based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley (with names changed to protect both the innocent and some not-so-innocent), is not a feel good viewing but a worthwhile and important one.  Conley’s memoirs, and now the film adaptation, shine a light on the long-running practice of so-called “conversion therapy”, a phrase which may not even be familiar to some viewers.  Performed most often on underage children, and roundly debunked by virtually every reputable psychiatrist as both ineffective and unethical and psychologically harmful, conversion therapy aims to “convert” an individual with homosexual or bisexual inclinations into a heterosexual.  To this end it uses a step-by-step program of indoctrination including techniques amounting to both psychological and physical abuse.  While increasingly a discredited practice and banned in a growing number of states, conversion therapy remains legal on the books in thirty-six states.  By telling one former patient’s story, Boy Erased offers both a frank condemnation of the insidious quackery of conversion therapy, and the dramatically compelling true story of one young man who emerged triumphant on the other side.

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Gifted (2017)

DIRECTOR: Marc Webb

CAST: Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate

REVIEW:

Its trailers make it look like Lifetime Original Movie fodder served up with a cute precocious child and a dash of melodramatic courtroom drama, but that does Gifted a bit of a disservice.  The movie isn’t anything hugely ambitious or original, but the movie is more emotionally true and—apart from some third act contrived narrative contortions—the drama more subdued than the previews might suggest, and the result deserves a chance to be judged on its own merits. Continue reading

Locke (2014)

2F3A9835.jpgDIRECTOR: Steven Knight

CAST: Tom Hardy, voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner

REVIEW:

So, how engaging can a movie be centering entirely on 90 minutes of a man driving in a car and talking on the phone, with the other characters only present via their voices?  As it turns out, Locke is often surprisingly absorbing in the moment, even if it’s ultimately unable to withstand the onset of monotony.  A small, low-key, low-budget indie movie initially opening at independent film festivals in the UK, Locke moved on to a limited theatrical release in the US amid positive critical reviews  and a much-praised performance by Tom Hardy, but the prospect of spending an hour and a half watching a film in which nothing happens but a man driving in a car dealing with a series of personal crises on the phone is not a premise to draw mainstream crowds.  Locke may be a critical darling, but it’s strictly indie art-house fare, and while an intriguing cinematic experiment, its gimmicky premise ultimately wears thin. Continue reading

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

dallas-buyers-clubDIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallee

CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner

REVIEW:

Like 1993’s PhiladelphiaDallas Buyers Club centers on an individual’s experience in the AIDS crisis, but unlike Jonathan Demme’s earlier film, it tells a true story, that of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic heterosexual who was transformed by circumstances into a crusader for AIDS patients and the ringleader of a mostly gay Dallas-based group called The Dallas Buyers Club, using medications unapproved in the US and waging a years-long war with the FDA and extending his own life to another seven years, far beyond his initial prognosis of thirty days.  While Philadelphia‘s flaws were somewhat mitigated by its social courage in releasing at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Dallas Buyers Club might have the most value to viewers too young to remember the climate of the time period, with AIDS sufferers treated with fear and ignorance and effective medication hard to come by. Continue reading

The Great Gatsby (2013)

carey-mulligan-600DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Jack Thompson

REVIEW:

 

I’ll get this out of the way right upfront: I have never read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, now considered a staple of American literature (though it was received poorly at the time, perhaps partly due to its social commentary on 1920s excess), so this review will not include comparisons to the book or any previous film adaptation (the most prominent of which came out in 1974 and starred Robert Redford in the title role), merely review this as a stand-alone film.  Continue reading

Les Misérables (2012)

DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper

CAST:

Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN “SPOILERS”

Based on the phenomenally popular, long-running musical stage production which debuted in 1985, which itself was based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, this musical big screen adaptation of arguably the greatest French novel was a long time coming. Attempts were made at bringing the musical version of Les Mis to the big screen since the 1990s, but the various productions fell through time and again, while several non-musical adaptations of Hugo’s magnum opus were featured both in the theater and on television, only finally moving full steam ahead in 2011, when Tom Hooper, fresh off his acclaimed historical drama The King’s Speech, came onboard.  As someone who would not really consider himself a particular Les Mis aficionado, I’m not really in a position to say how satisfied the musical’s legion of fans will be by this film (though I suspect many of them should be).  In fact, I’ve always been partial to the 1998 non-musical film starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush (although some of its omissions, including the character of Eponine, rankled fans).  Even so, Les Mis is a lavish, sumptuous experience, with plenty of emotionally stirring moments along the way.  It’s also as pure a musical as they come–lines of spoken dialogue are few and brief.  Those for whom musicals are unbearable are not likely to have their opinion changed here.  But for those who enjoy them, and especially for fans of this musical in particular, there is much to appreciate.

 Les MisAt least the broad strokes of the story will be familiar to many viewers.  We open in 1815 France, where convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is finally paroled after nineteen years of hard labor.  Bitter and dejected, with every door shut in his face, Jean quickly returns to crime, but a chance encounter with a sympathetic Bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Jean) leads him to reassess his life, and he breaks parole and disappears.  Eight years later, Jean has completely reinvented himself as the respectable, kindly Mayor of a small French town where he owns a factory whose workers include Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who resorts to selling her hair and teeth and prostitution to support her young illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).  By the time Jean learns of Fantine’s plight, she is mortally ill, but he makes the dying woman a vow to protect Cosette that will guide his destiny for the rest of his life.  Meanwhile, Jean goes on the run again to avoid the new chief of police, the stern, single-minded Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who knew Valjean in his prison guard days and is unshakably devoted to his black-and-white view of law and justice.  With a quick detour to rescue Cosette from the greasy fingers of the money-grubbing Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), Jean makes a narrow escape from the dogged Javert in Paris.  There, he and Cosette will live in peace for nine years, but complications crop up in the forms of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young would-be revolutionary who begins a starcrossed romance with Cosette (now Amanda Seyfried), the meddling Thenardiers, now Parisian thieves who turn up like bad pennies, and their daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks), who fosters an unrequited love for Marius.  And as Marius and his cohorts set their uprising in motion, Jean is torn between stepping out of hiding to save his adopted daughter’s lover, and his fear of exposing himself to Javert.

Hooper did two unusual things in his casting.  Firstly, he cast “name” movie stars who are actors first and, at most, singers second, some not typically associated with singing roles.  Secondly, he had his cast perform all their own singing live on camera rather than the more typical movie process of the actors pre-recording their vocals in a studio and then lip-syncing to them in the scene, leaving everyone to sink or swim on their own vocal ability or lack thereof, without benefit of auto tuning or studio touch-ups.  Most of the cast has some level of singing experience; Hugh Jackman has sang onstage in various Broadway roles, Russell Crowe headlines his own rock band on the side, Anne Hathaway is a trained soprano, and Amanda Seyfried appeared in the big-screen adaptation of Mamma Mia!, but with the exceptions of Samantha Barks, who previously played Eponine onstage and reprises her role onscreen, and perhaps Jackman, none of them would generally be thought of as “professional” singers.  Hooper’s approach produces singing that is sometimes a little rough and unpolished, but also lends a “realness” and an emotional immediacy to the performances.  Rather than lip-syncing to their own vocals which they recorded perhaps months earlier in a studio, the cast is required to sing and feel them live and in the moment.  It was likely a challenging approach for many cast members, especially the less musically experienced, but it also pays off in several key scenes.

FantineOverall, the cast is solid.  Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean is emotional and impassioned, making himself a sturdy lead around which the film can anchor itself, although his voice sometimes strains to hit its biggest or highest notes.  Jackman also undergoes a notable physical transformation from the emaciated, scarred, scraggly bearded prisoner at the beginning—he lost thirty pounds—to the dapper gentleman Jean reinvents himself as (he’s certainly a long way from X-Men’s Wolverine).  A fairly low-key and understated Russell Crowe is fine, if not spectacular, as Javert.  While he serves as the main antagonist, Javert is not really a “villain”—Crowe’s version is somewhat more sympathetic than Geoffrey Rush’s—just bull-headed and narrow-minded and convinced of his own righteousness, and Crowe plays his dogged lawman with a misguided earnestness that’s ultimately a little pitiable.  When it comes to his singing, Crowe shouldn’t quit his day job but acquits himself serviceably enough, especially in his rendition of “Stars” halfway through.  The most arresting presence is Anne Hathaway, despite her limited screentime consisting of a few scenes early in the movie.  Hathaway surpasses even Jackman for making herself look wretched, including having her hair chopped off on camera and losing significant weight off her already slender frame, and her downward spiral culminates in a mesmerizing, tearjerking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the movie’s most emotionally raw number, that holds the audience riveted for five unbroken minutes.  Hathaway seems to tap into some place deep within herself and tear Fantine’s anguish forth, and her efforts should make her a lock for an Oscar nomination.  Amanda Seyfried is lovely and has a nice voice, but has little to do.  Cosette, whose role was bumped up in the 1998 version (albeit not entirely effectually) is reduced here to a thinly-drawn plot device.  More time is spent on Marius and Eponine, who, to be fair, at least in this production, are more compelling characters.  Eddie Redmayne brings a youthful spark and earnestness to Marius that enlivens a sometimes bland and thinly-developed character, and delivers an impassioned rendition of his solo, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.  Samantha Barks had already proven herself as Eponine onstage, and it’s no surprise that she is probably the most accomplished singer in the cast, and her “On My Own” is arresting and impassioned.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide a dash of comic relief as the slimy but fatuous Thenardiers.  Both dive in with eccentric abandon, and do their share of scene-stealing and scenery-chewing, although there are times when their broadly-played villainy is a notch overly cartoonish.  This is the kind of hammy overacting that sometimes plays better on the stage than the screen.

Of course, the big screen opens up Les Mis in ways a stage simply cannot, and Hooper delights in crafting epic spectacle, including sweeping shots of 1800s Paris and the barricades.  Hooper is overly fond of long unbroken close-ups and oddly tilted camera angles.  Sometimes it works, such as in “I Dreamed a Dream”, when the camera stays in one completely unbroken close-up on Hathaway’s devastated face for five straight minutes, but at other times it’s overused.  It’s a minor quibble, but an occasionally distracting one.  

originalLes Mis starts out feeling a little rushed, zipping briskly from one musical number to the next with little segue in between (although this is also the feel of the stage production). The 1998 version gave more development to the dynamics of Jean/Javert, Jean/Fantine, and Cosette/Marius, while here Fantine and Jean are only fleetingly acquainted, Cosette and Marius lock gazes and are instantly “in love”, and Jean and Javert cross paths repeatedly but don’t muster the searing intensity in their confrontations that Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush generated in 1998.  The 1998 film bumped up Cosette’s role, while here, she’s the cypher and plot device she was on the page, with Marius receiving more focus and screentime.  The movie starts to find its footing when we begin Fantine’s downward spiral, and the Thenardiers’ garish “Master of the House”—filled with visual gags—livens things up, but it’s when we get to the barricades that the movie is the most rousing and stirring.  Along the way there are a couple exciting sequences, including a chase through Paris and Jean and Javert’s “Confrontation” duet acted out as a duel, but aside from “I Dreamed a Dream”, the last third is where most of the goosebump-inducing moments are.  The movie loses momentum after the fall of the barricade and Javert’s suicide, and the final few scenes drag a bit, though the conclusion is tearjerking enough to end it on a strong note. Characters like Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) and Marius’ revolutionary co-ringleader Enjolras (Broadway star Aaron Tveit), who were reduced to window dressing in the 1998 version, are more prominent here, and key moments, including theirs and Eponine’s fates, are faithfully included.

Les_Mis_Day5_blogHooper takes various steps to pay homage to Les Mis in its various incarnations.  In addition to the presence of Samantha Barks as Eponine, the original stage Eponine, Frances Ruffelle, has a cameo as a prostitute, and the original stage Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, plays the Bishop of Digne.  Many extras and minor roles are played by alumni of various Les Mis stage productions.  Most of the musical’s songs, while with a few lines cut here and there, are faithfully presented, with “Dog Eat Dog” the only significant omission (a new original number, “Suddenly”, was also added specifically for the movie, presumably to make it eligible for awards consideration).  Hooper also throws in a couple small touches that are usually absent from the musical but taken straight from the novel itself, including Marius’ grandfather, and also tosses in a poignantly unexpected moment involving Javert and a certain young barricades casualty that makes all the more impact because it comes as such a surprise. 

Devotees of the musical are likely to be enthralled by the film, and even non-aficionados like myself can find it a stirring and enjoyable experience.  Be warned, though, that if musicals are not your cup of tea, you are unlikely to enjoy yourself, and the 2 1/2 hours that pass briskly for those enjoying themselves may seem interminable for those who are not.  For those who know what they are getting into, however, Les Mis is one of the most sweeping, stirring, and emotionally powerful musicals to hit theater screens in some time, as rousing as its stage ancestor, and well worth the price of admission for fans of the medium.

***1/2

Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

DIRECTOR: Stephen Chbosky

CAST: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Nina Dobrev, Melanie Lynskey, Joan Cusack

REVIEW:

Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted from the book by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film version, is part of a heavily-populated genre—the “coming-of-age” story, and like many of them, it focuses on the outsiders and non-conformists who spent high school on the outside looking in. Continue reading

Warrior (2011)

 WC9V4530.tifDIRECTOR: Gavin O’Connor

CAST: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, Kevin Dunn

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

I don’t know much about MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting, but that doesn’t matter here, because Warrior is less about the sport itself and more about the fractured family drama that plays out both in and outside the ring. MMA is the vehicle used to convey this story, but not the core of it, and even for those both unfamiliar with and not particularly interested in MMA fighting (including myself), Warrior is an engaging and sometimes powerful drama about universal themes of regrets, resentment, and forgiveness. Continue reading

An Unfinished Life (2005)

DIRECTOR: Lasse Hallstrom

CAST: Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Morgan Freeman, Becca Gardner, Josh Lucas, Camryn Manheim, Damian Lewis

REVIEW:

An Unfinished Life isn’t anything daring or unpredictable; it’s a familiar story, well-told. But director Lasse Hallstrom has a deft touch with these kinds of low-key, down-to-earth character pieces (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules), and for those who appreciate these kinds of quiet dramas, it’s an hour-and-forty-five minutes well-spent.

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