Film Review: The Upside (dir by Neil Burger)


There’s a lot of opera in The Upside.

That, in itself, is not a surprise.  The Upside is about a wealthy, emotionally repressed white man and, if there’s anything we’ve learned from the movies, it’s that wealthy, repressed white people always love opera.

Another things that we’ve learned from the movies is that wealthy, emotionally repressed white people always hire a streetwise person of color to help them learn to appreciate life.  This person  of color will inevitably not care for all of the opera and will then introduce the wealthy, emotionally repressed white person to their own type of music.  If the movie’s a comedy, that music will be rap.  If it’s a drama, that music will be jazz.  The Upside is a dramedy so the music of emotional liberation is Aretha Franklin.

There’s not a single cliche that goes unused in The Upside.  Actually, I take that back.  As opposed to so many other films of this short, Phillip (Bryan Cranston) does not start the film as a politically incorrect bigot, which means that we’re spared of any cringey scenes of Philip trying to bait Dell (Kevin Hart) by being casually racist.  Otherwise, every cliche imaginable is present in The Upside and it all gets to be a bit much after a while.  I’m sure that the film means well and there’s a part of me that felt a little bit guilty about not liking it but seriously, this is one of those movie’s that just keeps coming at you.

Phillip is a paraplegic who wants to die, though not before listening to a lot of opera.  Dell is an ex-con who needs to find a job so his parole doesn’t get revoked.  Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is Phillip’s personal assistant.  She’s obviously in love with Phillip, though for some reason this fact is never acknowledged until the end of the film.

Together …. they solve crimes!

No, actually, they all become friends and learn the importance of celebrating life.  It’s a good lesson to learn, make no mistake.  But it’s just all so predictable that it’s hard not to resent just how thoroughly and blatantly the film insists on trying to manipulate you.  You get the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t have any faith in their audience’s capability to feel empathy.  Director Neil Burger did such a great job with Limitless but, with this film, he seems to have lost his sense of pacing.  The movie drags from one heartwarming cliche to another, without any hints of the type of quirky self-awareness that would help to make those cliches easier to digest.

Bryan Cranston’s a great actor but, perhaps realizing that he’s merely playing a more a benign version of Walter White, he seems a bit bored here while Nicole Kidman is sabotaged by a script that doesn’t allow her to do much other than reproachfully shake her head.  Kevin Hart, however, actually gives a pretty good performance, one that suggests that he actually has a lot of potential as a dramatic actor.  The character may be a stereotype but Hart at least brings a bit of energy to the film.

The Upside came out this January and it was actually a modest box office hit.  I imagine that a lot of people loved this film for the exact reason that I disliked it.  The film’s just too predictable for me to embrace The Upside.

Playing Catch-Up: Manchester By The Sea (dir by Kenneth Lonergan)


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Manchester By The Sea is the latest Oscar contender to be set in Massachusetts.  I’m not exactly sure why but it appears that if you want your film to get some sort of Oscar consideration, it’s always good idea to set it some place in New England.

Consider some of the films nominated for Best Picture since the 1992:

1992′ Scent of a Woman featured a New England prep school.

1994’s The Shawshank Redemption took place in Maine.

1997’s Good Will Hunting took place in Boston.

1999’s The Cider House Rules was set in Maine.

2001’s In The Bedroom took place in Maine.

2003’s Mystic River was set in Boston.

The 2006 winner The Departed was also a Boston-set film.

2010’s The Fighter also set in Boston.  For that matter, The Social Network started at Harvard.

2013’s Captain Phillips featured Tom Hanks speaking with Boston accent.

And, finally, last year’s Spotlight was as much a celebration of Boston as anything else.

As of this writing, it appears that Manchester By The Sea will continue the long tradition of New England-set films being nominated for best picture.  Interestingly, of all those films, Manchester By The Sea is probably the most low-key.  Though it’s a film that deals with death, it’s a natural death as opposed to the violent executions that dominated The Departed and Mystic River.  And though there are two bar fights, there’s very little violence to be found in Manchester By The Sea.  As opposed to Spotlight, Manchester By The Sea is not about moral crusaders battling against the corrupt establishment.

Instead, it’s the story of an intelligent but irresponsible man named Lee Chadler (Casey Affleck).  When Lee was a young man living in the town of Manchester-By-The-Sea, he was someone.  He was a high school hockey star.  He made an okay living, he had a lot of friends, and he was very close to his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler).  He was married to Randi (Michelle Williams) and he had two daughters.

And then he lost everything.  He lost his daughters, through a stupid accident for which he blamed himself.  Randi divorced him.  His friends abandoned him.  The only thing that prevented him from shooting himself was the intervention of Joe.  Lee eventually ended up in Quincy, Massachusetts, working as a maintenance man and keeping to himself.

And that’s probably what Lee would have done his entire life, if Joe hadn’t died.  Lee returns to Manchester-By-The-Sea and, to his shock, he discovers that he’s been named the guardian of Joe’s sixteen year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Still struggling with his own feelings of guilt, Lee now finds himself thrust into the role of being a father.

Patrick, of course, doesn’t think he needs a guardian and sometimes, it almost seems as if Patrick might be right.  At times, it’s hard not to feel that Patrick is a hundred times more mature than his uncle but occasionally, Patrick’s grown-up mask will slip.  When he learns that his father cannot be buried until the spring and the body will be kept in a freezer, Patrick stays calm until he opens up the freezer at home.  That’s when the reality of it all hits him and it’s an amazingly powerful moment.

Manchester By The Sea is not an easy film to describe.  There’s not much of a plot.  Instead, it’s just a portrait of people living from day-to-day, trying to juggle handling tragedy with handling everyday life.  Conditioned by previous films, audiences watch something like Manchester By The Sea and wait for some gigantic dramatic moment that will magically make sense of the human condition but, by design, that moment never comes.  That’s not what Manchester By The Sea is about.  If there is any great lesson to be found in Manchester By The Sea, it’s that life goes on.

Despite being full of funny lines, it’s a sad film but fortunately, it’s also a well-acted one.  I have to admit that I’m not as crazy about Manchester By The Sea as some of the critics who are currently declaring Manchester to be the best film of 2016 are but I can’t disagree with those who have praised Casey Affleck’s lead performance.  Lucas Hedges also does a good job as Patrick and Michelle Williams gets one revelatory scene in which she happens to randomly run into her ex-husband on the street.

As I said, I liked Manchester By The Sea but I didn’t quite love it.  It’s a well-made and well-acted film and, if it’s not as brilliant as some have claimed, it’s still worthy of respect.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Elvis & Nixon (dir by Liza Johnson)


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When you think of actors who you could cast in a biopic of Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon is probably not the first actor who comes to mind.  And yet that’s just what the people behind Elvis & Nixon did.  They also cast Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, a decision that, on the surface, makes more sense than Shannon playing Elvis.

And yet, in the finished film, it’s Shannon who gives the memorable performance while Spacey often seems lost in the role of Nixon.  Fortunately, with Kevin Spacey’s role largely being an extended cameo, Michael Shannon is the one who is in nearly every scene of the movie.

Elvis and Nixon is based on a true story.  In 1970, Elvis Presley asked for a meeting with Richard Nixon who, if the film is to be believed, wasn’t quite sure who Elvis actually was.  It turns out that Elvis was very concerned about the growing popularity of illegal drugs.  In between consuming prodigious amounts of legal drugs, Elvis formulated a plan.  Perhaps he could go to the White House and convince Nixon to deputize him.  Elvis could be a special agent of the FBI.  Even more importantly, maybe Elvis could get a FBI badge.

So, was Elvis sincere or was he just crazy?  Elvis & Nixon walks a thin line between those two possibilities, suggesting that Elvis may have been a bit unblanced but he was also achingly sincere.  Michael Shannon plays Elvis as a man who is blissfully out-of-touch but who truly wants to make the world a better place.  As played by Shannon, Elvis is defined by ennui.   He may be the biggest star in the world but he still struggles with the feeling that he hasn’t accomplished anything.  This is a film that asks, “When you’ve reached top, where else can you do?”  Elvis wants to make the world a better place by combating the spread of drugs.

And he also really, really wants that badge.  There’s an almost child-like petulance to Shannon’s Elvis.  He may be sincere but he’s also very much used to getting whatever he wants.

For that matter, so is Nixon.  And Nixon really doesn’t want to visit with Elvis.  Of course, that’s before his White House aides mention that being seen with Elvis could help him with the youth vote when he runs for reelection.  And then his daughter says that she wants Elvis’s autograph….

Anyway, it all leads to a meeting in the Oval Office and a scene that would have worked better if Spacey’s performance as Nixon was a bit less of caricature.  That said, the scene still works because Michael Shannon totally invests himself in the role of Elvis.  When he’s talking to Nixon and showing off his karate moves, Elvis is happier than we’ve ever seen him.  He’s performing on the biggest stage of his career.

Elvis & Nixon came out earlier this year.  It’s an enjoyable film, even if it’s never quite as good as you might want it to be.  If nothing else, this film proves that Michael Shannon can pretty much do anything.

 

Back to School Part II #18: Not My Kid (dir by Michael Tuchner)


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Not My Kid, a made-for-television from 1985, opens with 15 year-old Susan Bower (Viveka Davis) in a car with her friends.  They’re drunk.  They’re stoned.  They’re laughing.  And soon, they’re screaming as the driver loses control and the car ends up getting overturned!  (I’ve had that happen before.  It wasn’t fun but I survived with only a few cuts and bruises.)  Susan isn’t seriously hurt but, at the hospital, it’s discovered that she has alcohol and drugs in her bloodstream.

“NOT MY KID!” her father, surgeon Frank Bower (George Segal), declares.

“NOT MY KID!” her mother, Helen Bower (Stockard Channing, totally wasted in a thinly written role), agrees.

“Totally your kid!” her younger sister, Kelly (Christa Denton), says before then revealing where Susan hides her drugs.  This leads to Kelly getting beaten up by Susan and her drug addict boyfriend, Ricky (Tate Fuckin’ Donavon, decades before playing a hostage in Argo.).

Anyway, neither Frank nor Helen want to admit that Susan has a drug problem so instead, they go to see a smug family counselor who tells them that they are both being too hard on their daughter and that they need to just let Susan be Susan.  That sounds like a good (and easy) plan but then Susan runs away and disappears for two days.  After she’s finally found, stoned and hiding out in the family’s boat, her parents finally decide to send her to rehab.

The rehab is run by Dr. Royce.  Dr. Royce is played by Andrew Robinson and it took me a while to recognize him as being the same actor who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.  Perhaps that explains why Dr. Royce came across as being such a creepy character.  As I watched this movie, I kept waiting for the big reveal where Dr. Royce would turn out to be a murderer or something.  That never happened, of course.  In the world of Not My Kid, the harsh and confrontational Dr. Royce is the only thing keeping the entire teenage population for shooting up heroin.

The majority of the film takes place at the rehab and it gets annoying pretty quickly.  This is one of those places where everything is done as a group activity.  Whenever someone says something, everyone in the group replies with, “We love you, so-and-so.”  When Susan doesn’t act properly ashamed of herself, the group gangs up on her.  “You’re a phony!” someone says.  “You’re full of crap!” another person adds.  “We love you, Susan,” the group chants.

AGCK!  Seriously, the rehab scenes totally freaked me out because it came across less like therapy and more like brainwashing.  I spent the entire movie waiting for Susan to escape and when she did, I was happy for her.  She may have been a self-destructive drug addict but at least wasn’t a mindless zombie like everyone else in the movie!  But then she ended up getting caught by her father and taken back to the rehab.

Meanwhile, her parents are going through therapy as well.  Again, it’s all group therapy.  When Frank tries to talk about how Susan’s behavior makes him feel, someone says, “You’re a phony!’  Another person adds, “You’re full of crap!”  And the group chants, “We love you, Frank.”  Okay, to be honest, I’m taking some dramatic license with the dialogue here but hopefully, you get the general idea.

I mean, seriously — I understand that I was supposed to be like, “Yay rehab!” while watching the movie but the rehab came across more like some sort of creepy cult.  It reminded me of both a Canadian film called, Ticket To Heaven and a Texas film called Split Image.  As I watched Not My Kid, I kept waiting for James Woods to show up as a cult deprogrammer.

Anyway, don’t worry.  Everything turns out well in the end.  This was a made-for-TV movie, after all.  Not My Kid is way too heavy-handed for its own good and it lacks a certain self-awareness.  On a more positive note, George Segal does a good job in the role of Frank.

You can watch Not My Kid below!

Shattered Politics #76: Good Night, and Good Luck (dir by George Clooney)


Goodnight_posterOne of my favorite episodes of South Park is called Smug Alert!  As you may remember, this is the episode where the citizens of South Park all buy hybrid cars and end up getting so self-satisfied that a dangerous cloud of smug forms over the town.  At the same time, another smug storm is racing across the United States.  This smug storm was created by the speech that George Clooney gave when he won the Oscar for Syriana.  When those two clouds of smug meet, it’s the perfect storm.  It also ends up destroying San Francisco.

The same year that Clooney was named Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, he was also nominated for directing the 2005 best picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck.  In his speech, Clooney specifically said that he felt he was winning supporting actor to make up for not winning director and proceeded to give the speech that he would have given if he had won director.

And looking back, I think that we do have to admit that it was a very smug speech.

Fortunately, Good Night, and Good Luck has aged better than Clooney’s speech.

I do have to admit that, when I recently rewatched Good Night and Good Luck, I was a little concerned.  I always manage to forget that the film starts on a really bad note.  The year is 1958 and news anchorman Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is receiving an award.  As Murrow stands behind the podium, he proceeds to give a long and self-righteous speech about how television should be used not to entertain but to educate as well.  And, quite frankly, he comes across like such a pompous blowhard that I was dreading the idea of having to spend the next 90 or so minutes with him.

But then, fortunately, the film entered into flashback mode and, until the final few minutes of the film, we didn’t have to listen to anymore of Murrow’s speech.  The majority of Good Night and Good Luck takes place in 1953.  U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who appears in archival footage throughout the film) has declared that he has the names of communists who hold important positions in both the government and the media.  Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) defy the corporate overlords of CBS and bravely investigate and challenge McCarthy’s claims.  McCarthy and his henchmen respond by trying to smear both Murrow and one of his reporters (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a communists.  As always seems to happen in films about McCarthyism, another supporting character reacts to the change of communism by committing suicide.  And, in this particular vision of the fight against Joseph McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow and the media save America.

Of course, if you actually make the effort to learn history, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy.  In fact, you’ll discover that Murrow stood up to McCarthy after several other prominent people — on both sides of the political divide — had already done so.  If anything, the real-life Murrow seems to have more in common with pompous scold seen at the beginning and end of the film, as opposed to the one that we see standing up to McCarthy.

One can very legitimately debate whether or not Murrow deserves all of the credit that he’s given in this film.  Still, the film does make a larger and very important point.  We, as Americans, have to always be on guard against witch hunts and against demagogues and the forces of fear and paranoia that are always trying to shape our politics.  And, whether or not Murrow was a hero or just a bystander, one cannot deny that the larger message of Goodnight, and Good Luck remains as relevant today as when the film was originally released.

Judging from some of his other films — The Monuments Men and the Ides of March — I don’t particularly feel that George Clooney is that good of a director.  But he does do a good job with Good Night and Good Luck.  (In fact, he does such a good job that you can’t help but feel that it’s the exception to the rule as far as Clooney the director is concerned.)  Filmed in wonderful black-and-white and full of good performances, Good Night, and Good Luck remains surprisingly watchable.

Just avoid any George Clooney Oscar speeches while watching it.  San Francisco has never recovered.

Shattered Politics #61: Murder at 1600 (dir by Dwight H. Little)


Murder_at_sixteen_hundred_ver2Wow.

I have to admit that, seeing as how I was only 11 going on 12 back in 1997, I really wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on in the world at the time.  But, whatever it was, it must have been something big and scary and it must have left people feeling deeply suspicious of the government.  How else do you explain the fact that 1997 not only saw the release of Absolute Power, a film in which the President is a murderer, but Murder at 1600 as well.

Murder at 1600 opens with a White House maid finding the dead body of Carla Town (Mary Moore), an intern whose sole goal in life was apparently to have sex in every single room in the Executive Mansion.  (And, before you judge, that happens to be my goal in life as well.  So there.)  Streetwise homicide detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) is on the case!

And he’s certainly got a lot of suspects.  Could it be the Vice President (Chris Gillett)?  Or maybe Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda), the National Security Advisor?  Or how about Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali), the bald-bef0re-bald-was-cool head of the Secret Service?  Or maybe it the President’s son (Tate Donavon)?  Or maybe even the President (Ronny Cox) himself!?

Fortunately, Regis is assigned a partner, Secret Service agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane).  When Regis first meets her, he’s all, “Oh my God, you’re a woman!”  And then Nina’s all, “I also won an Olympic medal for sharp shooting!”  And then Regis is like, “I bet that will be a relevant plot point before the film ends!”

Of course, Regis already has a regular partner, as well.  His name is Detective Stengel and he’s played by Dennis Miller, which just seems strange.  Stengel basically looks like Dennis Miller, sounds like Dennis Miller, and acts exactly like Dennis Miller, except for the fact that he’s a cop.  His jarringly out-of-place presence in this film just adds to Murder at 1600‘s general air of weirdness.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the North Koreans are up to no good and the President is being pressured to take military action.  However, he’s being distracted by this whole criminal investigation thing.  Will the country survive or did its future die at 1600?

(And why doesn’t the President just send in Team America to take care of the situation?  Or maybe James Franco and Seth Rogen.  There are way to deal with the North Koreans….)

(By the way, have you noticed how brave everyone online is when it comes to being snarky about the one country in the world that doesn’t have internet access?  If Kim Jong Whatevuh ever gets a twitter account, I bet everyone will start following him and asking him for retweets.)

Murder at 1600 is an enjoyably ludicrous thriller.  It’s one of those films that you’ll enjoy as long as you don’t take it seriously.  Take it seriously and you’ll end up asking question like why the FBI isn’t involved in the investigation and whether or not the solution to the film’s mystery is a bit too convoluted to make any logical sense.  However, if you simply decide to enjoy Murder at 1600 for what it is, an extremely pulpy thriller that’s full of nonstop melodrama, overwritten dialogue, and a healthy distrust of the government*, then you’ll find this to be an entertaining thriller.

At the very least, a White House full of potential murderers is probably a lot more realistic than anything that you might see in The American President.  

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* Oh, everyone knows the government sucks…

 

 

What Lisa Watched Last Night #90: Hostages Episode 1 “Pilot”


Last night, after I got back from dance class, I watched the first episode of the new CBS series, Hostages.

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Why Was I Watching It?

I spent the last three months watching and reviewing Big Brother for the Big Brother Blog.  During every episode of Big Brother, CBS would show at least one commercial for Hostages.  It was obvious that CBS was obsessed with the idea of making Hostages into the show that the entire nation would be watching and debating, a bit like a network TV version of Homeland or Breaking Bad.

The commercials, for the most part, all featured Dylan McDermott looking grim while Toni Collette frowned and, occasionally, some old white guy would tell Collette that she was the only doctor he trusted to operate on her and she would reply, “Thank you, Mr. President.”  In short, the commercials made the show look terrible.  The only question was whether or not Hostages would be intentionally bad or unintentionally awful.

Last night, I got my answer.

What Was It About?

President Paul Kinkaid (James Naughton) needs to have surgery and, of course, only one doctor can perform the operation.  That doctor is Ellen Saunders (Toni Collette).  Ellen is so concerned with the President’s health that she doesn’t realize that her husband (Tate Donovan) is having an affair, her son is selling weed, and her daughter is pregnant.

Meanwhile, Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott) is a FBI hostage negotiator.  When we first see him, he’s gunning down a bank robber and smirking while he does it.  It turns out that Duncan needs money to take care of his sick wife.

Eventually, Duncan and a team of other black-clad operatives end up inside the Saunders home where they take the entire family hostage.  They tell Ellen that, if she wants to save her family, she must assassinate the President…

What Worked?

The show turned out to be just as bad as I was expecting it to be!  Whenever I saw the commercials for Hostages, I would think to myself: “That looks like it’s going to be a really boring, tedious series.”  Judging from the pilot, I was right.  It always feels good to be right.

That said, I do have to say that, alone among the cast, Dylan McDermott seems to understand that he’s playing a ludicrous character in a silly show and — much as he did in American Horror Story — he responds by giving an appropriately melodramatic performance.  While the rest of the cast appeared to be convinced that they were appearing in the next Homeland, McDermott seemed to be enjoying a joke that only he and the viewing audience could understand.

What Did Not Work?

If there’s even been a show that would obviously benefit from an over-the-top, melodramatic approach, it would be Hostages.  So, why did the pilot appear to be taking itself so damn seriously?  As I watched last night’s episode, I found myself wondering if anyone involved in the show (other than Dylan McDermott) understood just how silly this all was.  Instead, the show moved at an almost somber pace and all of the actors (again, with the notable exception of McDermott) delivered their lines with the type of gravity that one would usually associate with Jeff Daniels delivering one of Aaron Sorkin’s pompous polemical speeches on The Newsroom.  Considering all of the melodramatic potential of this show’s plot, Hostages really has no excuse to be as boring and predictable as it was last night.

Toni Collette is one of my favorite actresses so it was kind of sad to see her give such a boring performance in the lead role of Ellen Saunders.  Then again, as written, Ellen Saunders is a pretty boring character.  It’s as if the show’s producers and writers were so proud of creating a professional woman that they didn’t notice that they neglected to give her a personality.

Finally, the President is just some boring old white guy.  What’s up with that?

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

I was tempted to say that, like the family in Hostages, I would totally freak out if a bunch of people appeared in the house, pointed their guns at me, and announced that they were holding me hostage.  However, it then occurred to me that nobody in Hostages really freaked out about being held hostage.  They were certainly annoyed and occasionally, they even attempted to be defiant.  But they never really freaked out.

Nor could I really see much of myself in the character of Ellen Saunders or her daughter.  Since neither one of them came across as being anything more than a two-dimensional plot device, neither one of them was capable of inspiring any “just like me” moments.

I tried to relate to Sandrine Holt, who plays Maria, the only female hostage taker.  However, Maria spent most of the episode carrying around a gun and, while I’m totally into the 2nd amendment, I’m not really into guns.

Then I remembered that, early on in the episode, Ellen’s daughter talks to her best friend.  The friend takes one look at her and says, “Your eyes are puffy,” which is the exact same thing that I would say if one of my friends had puffy eyes.

So, that was my “Oh my God!  Just like me!” moment.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes, commercials don’t lie.