In a Nutshell: Grab Bag Edition

So this is an experiment - let’s see if it works. In this first ever Grab Bad Edition, I will be giving quick reviews of a few of the movies I’ve seen recently and found myself having nothing profound enough to say to warrant writing a full review. Hopefully this will help keep the content coming a little more regularly. And a-wayyyy we go!

Tag (2018) 2/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: While at times fun, this “men will be boys” romp wastes a fun premise and awesome cast on a poorly executed plot.

Game Night (2018) 3/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: Strong performances from McAdams and Bateman elevate a by the numbers fun summer throw away movie into an enjoyable, if forgettable, excuse to eat popcorn.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) 4/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: While the music is phenomenal, this glimpse into the inner life of Freddy Mercury feels a little too muted for a man who lived such a loud life.

Outlaw King (2018) 4/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: With fantastic action and meticulous attention to detail, this film blurs the line even further between Premium TV (like Game of Thrones) and mid-budget film making.

The Incredibles 2 (2018) 5/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: Picking up exactly where its predecessor left off, Pixar continues to deliver with a family friendly, whip-sharp-witty, action packed, beautifully rendered masterclass on the superhero genre that is chock full of highly poignant social commentary.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) 3/5 Peanuts - In a Nutshell: While there were some stand out performances, this film fell flat on delivering its core premise. The Great Gatsby this is not.

A Star is Born (2018)

Review Date: 12/3/2018

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Fantastic acting and phenomenal music elevate a muddled story with a well trodden plot from merely ok to truly great.

Full Review:

I struggle a lot with films about rock stars because they’re basically always the same movie every single time. Someone talented struggles, eventually finds fame, struggles with balancing said fame with their off-stage personal life, turns to substance abuse, has a fall from grace and an optional post substance abuse resurgence. It is a tried and true formula seen in such films as Almost Famous, This is Spinal Tap, Get Him to the Greek, Bohemian Rhapsody and many others. What is interesting about A Star is born is that we are told this “Rock Stars’ Journey” - to plagiarize from Joseph Campbell - out of order, simultaneously viewing the rise and the fall arcs in tandem, almost like a musically inclined version of Memento.

I Feel like that may spoil the plot, but honestly, no one is watching this one for the story. That is truly a good thing because this movie feels like it had 4 very different movies it wanted to be, and much of its bloated run time staggers drunkenly between each like its star Bradley Cooper’s performance - Cooper also directed and co-wrote, more on that later - as Jackson Maine, an over the hill country music singer battling a bevy of inner demons ranging from alcoholism to tinnitus to chronic depression. Is it a love story? An exploration of the personal cost of fame? A discussion on substance abuse and/or depression? a musing on the difference between “true” and “commercial” art? A Star is Born touches on all of these things, but suffers somewhat from never fully exploring any of them. I feel a tighter thematic focus would have yielded a better, more cogent film narrative, but given the other things this movie has going for it I suppose that was hardly the point.

Turning to the merits, I’ll begin with the acting, which truly is amazing. the star-studded cast (pun intended) delivers on all fronts with no discernible weak links. The titular “star” is played by Lady Gaga, who delivers a nuanced, powerful performance as Ally, a young and at first undiscovered singer/song-writer who falls for Bradley Cooper’s over the hill rock star performance. Having seen other pop stars try their hand at acting (looking at you Britney Spears), I was not expecting much from Gaga, but she floored me. I remember turning to my wife in the theater and whispering “who knew Lady Gaga could act?” Truly, "if her “something to say” as a singer ever dries up, Gaga could have a healthy 2nd act on the big screen.

Cooper too is phenomenal, delivering a character so world weary he literally buckles under the weight of his own life. He mumbles and stumbles from scene to scene in a performance that never feels forced and could be over-much in the hands of a less skilled actor. The chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is palpable and you never struggle to understand why they fall for each other, nor do you fault them for staying together through the worst of their relationship’s tumultuous path.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast is also excellent, with a strong performance from the always great Sam Elliott and a short yet powerful turn from Dave Chapelle, who’s monologue is so on the nose I’m not sure he didn’t deliver it when he thought the cameras weren’t rolling. These performances were all aided by the interesting directing choices made by Cooper. The movie is shot through a surprising number of extreme close ups. The effect is to render a story of stars in the limelight through an extremely intimate lens (puns intended). This decision required the stars to deliver performances in a way that modern film making sometimes shies away from, but also served to cause the audience to empathize, eve if only subconsciously, with the protagonists. The effect is to show - not tell - us that fame is a scary, alienating thing in which the star feels cut off from the people constantly surrounding them. Lady Gaga even comments on this in her first interaction with Cooper, who is so withdrawn into himself he reflexively changes the subject whenever she asks him personal questions about himself.

Lastly, I’ll discuss the music. I suspect that much of this movie’s success is due to the raw talent exhibited on stage, both from lady Gaga and her unbelievable, if well known, voice as well as from Cooper himself, who performed much of his own songs. The musical styles range from folk to country to rock to pop, and all are truly powerful in their own way. With Lady Gaga and the son of Willie Nelson co-writing the majority of the track list I suppose this should be no surprise, and yet I found a few tracks in particular, such as “Shallow” to be truly moving.

So, in summation, while A Star is Born won’t be making of my as-yet unwritten Top Ten lists, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience with a welcome directorial debut from Cooper and a delightfully surprising acting debut from Gaga. What I find myself most excited about is what each of them “have to say” next.

The Outsider (2018)

Review Date: 4/4/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

This gritty, surreal gangster film with an impressive performance from Jared Leto is weighed down by pacing issues and a lack of self-identity.

Full Review:

First and foremost, I want to talk about what this film does well. More than anything else, this film is an excellent modern addition to the Gangster genre. Despite being modern its historical setting prevents it from being directly compared against more recent entries such as The Departed or The Raid 2. And no, it's no Casino or Goodfellas, despite the (more) similar time period. To be sure, there are echoes of those two excellent Scorsese films, specially Goodfellas, but there is a considerable difference in tone which I will address in a moment. 

As a Gangster film, The Outsider follows Leto's Nick Lowell, an American GI who has gone AWOL from his unit and gets swept up in the fascinating world of the Yakusa, Japan's analogue to the American Mafia. As the title implies, Leto's character is an outsider, a foreigner (or "gaijin" in Japanese) and as such is learning the highly ritualized ways in which the Yakusa operate. Unlike other interpretations of Japan's criminal organizations which often stray into over-stylized camp (looking at you Tarantino), The Outsider provides what I can only surmise is a much more honest interpretation of this closed society. We are constantly shown images of gangs of besuited Yakusa walking down the crowded alleyways of the city of Osaka, the crowd parting before them, oftentimes with reverent bows. It is in these scenes where comparisons to Goodfellas are most obvious. Like their American counterparts, the Yakusa moved openly in the communities in which they lived and were treated almost as royalty in many respects. However, unlike in Goodfellas, Leto's character seems less drawn to the status aspects of the Yakusa lifestyle so much as the other main draw: that of belonging to a family.

Family and belonging are absolutely central to the film, and Leto's search for connection appears to drive the majority of his early decisions. His character Nick is a stranger in a strange land, and Leto's brutal, cold delivery paints the picture of a man who is empty inside. His cold, wide-eyed stare appears to bore holes into whatever his gaze falls upon with an intensity that is altogether unsettling, and it is not softened even when he finds the family and love that he seemed to be searching for. Indeed, it is this lack of true character arc that holds the film back. Leto's character attains what he is searching for, and yet he is left unchanged by it. This would be fine if the resolution was his dismay at finding no satisfaction in what he found, but instead he appears more to be a sociopath, lacking emotion no matter his situation.

And this is why the film suffers from an identity problem. It is a gangster film told from the outside, much the way that Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai was a warrior film told by an outsider. Though not quite as problematic with the "White Savior" dynamic as The Last SamuraiThe Outsider does indeed feature a White American man finding both love and a place within society in Japan who is ultimately the only one able to save is chosen family from the rival Japanese troubling them. But more than this, The Outsider struggles alongside Nick in defining exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Is it a film about family? For the first half, but that theme withers on the vine rather than being brought to conclusion. Is it a film about power in the criminal underworld? Only as window dressing and motivation for the events which the protagonist is forced to deal with, rather than as a driving force for Nick himself. Then is it a film about finding your own way? Quite the contrary, the film seems to hammer home that one must conform to the world around them and shape it only around the edges. 

So in conclusion, the film is good, but by no means great. Leto is magnetic as always, the supporting cast offers good performances and hint at compelling characters whose backstories are worth exploring (though they never really are). The cinematography is safe yet interesting, depicting a dark and somewhat unknowable world in an intriguing way, and the directing is oftentimes excellent. However, the stillness of the film, punctuated by brief yet excessive violence does not really work. It feels as if 15 minutes of run time could have been trimmed down without cutting a single line of dialogue and that's a problem with minimal plot or character arc to fill in the gaps. 

Ultimately, I feel this was an excellent premise which was not quite delivered upon. I feel as if there is the kernel (or even more) of a great film that was never fully realized sitting buried in what was ultimately delivered, just beneath the surface yet never unearthed. 

Wind River (2017)

Review Date: 4/3/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Despite stellar acting from the entire cast, this decidedly dark tale of a murder mystery on an Indian Reservation tries to be many things while actually doing surprisingly little. 

Full Review:

I wanted to like this film. When watching the trailer it checked all the boxes for me in a way that few non-franchise trailers do. It seemed to have everything: a great cast, a compelling story, suspense, great cinematography, and a subject matter that was interesting and largely under-told. So it was to great disappointment that I sat down and actually watched Wind River. To be sure, some of what the trailer promised was delivered.

The entire cast, from leading roles down to minor supporting characters all delivered in spades. The dialogue was excellent, the characters felt real and their emotions (especially grief - more on that in a moment) were palpable and raw. It felt honest, more than anything else. The always great Jeremy Renner reunites with his Avengers co-star Elizabeth Olsen and their on screen relationship was fantastic. Renner's park ranger / wolf hunter character, a white man largely ingrained within the Reservation community is a man of long silences who wears his grief over his late daughter like a millstone around his neck is magnetic. Here he plays the role of the world-wise guide to Olsen's fish out of water FBI agent, a Las Vegas based Florida native who finds herself in a frozen land of crushing winter. For her own contribution, Olsen plays the young and semi-idealistic new agent character well, toeing the line between overeager book smarts without actually crossing over into naive incompetence.

The supporting cast, as I said, also does a fantastic job. Given that it takes place on the Wind River Indian reservation, much of the cast members are Native Americans. As such, anyone familiar with contemporary Westerns will recognize a few faces, such as the ever talented Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal, whom people may recognize from Netflix's Godless. Together with Gil Birmingham, the father of another lost daughter, they help present the face of loss that is all too common among Native American communities. There are other supporting characters as well, all played well, but they are too numerous to mention specifically. Suffice it to say there is no lack of acting chops in the film.

Though I imagine others will disagree, neither Renner nor Olsen fall into the trap of playing the white savior trope. Renner seems to have earned his place within the community, an outsider to be sure, but only by degrees. Olsen's character no doubt serves as the audience's viewpoint into the unfamiliar community of the reservation as well as the harsh realities of the frozen wild. However, she genuinely wants to help, not because the people there are incapable of helping themselves, but because it is both her job and the right thing to do. Her frustrations arise not from the local populace so much as the bureaucracy imposed upon them by her own employer.  

So with a great cast, great acting, beautiful cinematography as well as a simple, if not exactly compelling, plot, where does this film fall short? Two major places. First, the film tries to be too many things. Is it a fish out of water story? Only for about the first half, and the resolution there is hardly earned. Is it a murder mystery? Yes, but the mystery is solved through a flashback rather than through any real detective work. Is it a story about the oppression of Native Americans by White Americans? Surprisingly, not. While it is true that the crime itself is perpetrated by White Men on a Native American woman, I found that the crime itself was surprisingly absent of racial motivations. This woman could just as easily have been White and the crime, the cover up and the resolution all would have remained unchanged. So is this a story about rape and Man on Woman crime? Sort of, but the instigating indecent is so chaotic that it almost comes across as a byproduct of evil men left to their own devices more than anything else. There is a degree of senselessness in this movie that leaves you raw.

So if the film is not really about anything I just outlined, what is it actually about? It seems to me that the film is about grief: both what causes it and how do we deal with it. There is a crushingly somber tone to the film. Everyone is sad because tragedy has touched everyone in the film. And yet there is surprisingly little exploration of that theme. Renner's character is dealing with the grief of his lost daughter in a (probably) unrelated incident from years before. He imparts some hard learned wisdom on his friend and former brother in law who is now dealing with the present murder of his own daughter, and yet there is very little exploration of grief there as well. We are shown the grief of Renner's brother and sister in law, but they themselves do not deal with it. Renner's pursuit of the perpetrators is obviously partially motivated by a desire for catharsis for his own lost daughter, but he never actually acknowledges this. 

So if trying to be too many things is the film's first problem, what is the second? In my mind, the film actually doesn't do that much. The story itself is a fairly straight forward murder mystery. A girl is found dead and Renner, Olsen and Greene must work together to discover the cause. Unsurprisingly, the cause is a group of white men. Men, in this case, is perhaps too good a term for them as it is eventually revealed just how terrible they are, and how heinously senseless their crime. During the flashback showing the murder itself I found myself muttering "savages" out loud to my empty living room without realizing it at first. For real, these are bad dudes, and when you see the scene in question you will be left dazed. But all in all, not very much happens. There are very few clues, no real leads, and ultimately, they discover the trail of the bad guys by... literally discovering the trail they left in the snow. If you're not really going to be a film with a clear theme then you at least have to have a good plot, and unfortunately the film lacks anything but the barest skeleton of one. 

So in the end, should you see Wind River? I think it is a window into a world that White America sees all too little of, and by that merit alone it is worth seeing. Sure, if you're a fan of any of the cast, or simply want to see some beautiful cinematography it's worth a watch as well - just make sure you bring your tissues with you. 

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Review Date: 3/13/2018

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

A surprisingly honest narrative of the events surrounding the demise of one of history's most notorious dictators, The Death of Stalin is both surprisingly funny and surprisingly dark.

Full Review:

When I first saw the trailers for The Death of Stalin I was instantly hooked. Boasting a surprisingly talented cast, the film looked to be a satirical dark comedy from some of the same team that worked on Veep. And so, it was with great excitement that I went to watch what I assumed would be a comedy. And true to form, the film was funny. Like, really, truly funny. But it also has a serious side to it that I didn't expect.

I'm not sure why I was surprised that a film about one of the deadliest regimes in history would be so dark, but it came as a shock. The callous, almost offhanded way in which vast numbers of people died in the film shocked me. Of course I knew all about Stalin's death lists and the bloody swath he cut through Soviet Russia, but this is supposed to be about after Stalin, right? Well let this be a reminder to us that coups are bloody, dangerous affairs. The power vacuum left behind after the great dictator's passing was chock full of murders of both the upper and lower echelons of society.

And this tonal duality is both the film's great strength and its great weakness. On the surface, it is exactly as billed - a silly farce bordering on slapstick at times. The actors, of whom there are too many to give a proper accounting here, all do a fantastic job with the film's lighter moments. But the undercurrents of eminently dark despair that pervade the film cut across in a way that is at times jarring. Watching Steve Buscemi's Nikita Khruschev somberly pivot around Stalin's coffin to scheme and plot while maintaining a modicum of decorum is a hilarious moment only to be followed almost immediately be the almost causal mention of the military killing 1,500 people trying to enter Moscow to pay their respects to their departed dictator. Humor and darkness walk hand in hand in the film.

Ultimately, the film is a triumph, but it falls short of greatness. The acting, writing and plot are all fantastic, and I really do appreciate any film that tries to stay true to the time and place it inhabits, but the violent (literally) shifts in tone made it difficult to stay in the narrative at times. I found myself itching to pull out my phone to look up things on wikipedia in order to sort out what was historically accurate and what was embellished. Though I restrained myself, it came only at great effort, and at the end of a day I watch movies to be distracted. Keeping me in the moment is a filmmaker's number one job, and director Armando Iannucci failed at that. 

Still, I find myself compelled to highly recommend this film to anyone interested in this intriguing period in history. The early Soviet Union was a time of great contradictions, and the film manages to present this in a way that is a few ticks more hilarious than Animal Farm, but remains no less insightful or itelligent. Go see it for sure, but don't say I didn't warn you.