The Front Runner Movie Review

Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner is a true political story that transfixed the nation three decades ago. The Presidential campaign of Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) happened at a time just as cable was set to dominate how we get our news. Newspapers could see it coming and The Miami Herald, for better or worse, got ahead of the curve by venturing into tabloid territory. The Washington Post here is uncertain whether they should veer in that direction. However, they see the sensationalism train beginning to roll and can’t be the highbrow publication to pump the brakes.

It was The Post that exploited a massive Commander-in-Chief scandals a few years prior with Watergate. Here it’s the extramarital activities of Hart. We first witness him in 1984 conceding to Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who would lose badly to President Reagan. Yet his run wasn’t wasted as he becomes the film’s title four years later. He appears set to top the ticket until three wild weeks occur in 1987. It involves his relationship with a young woman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) and the media’s fixation on it. The days of reporters looking the other way when it comes to extracurricular activity is finished.

In this screenplay from Reitman, Matt Bai, and Jay Carson, Hart is alternatively seen as a sympathetic figure while not completely ignoring that he was a lousy spouse. Vera Farmiga is wife Lee and she’s given a few moments to shine as his conflicted partner. Her performance, while more limited in time, is the strongest. She emerges as the most fascinating character, but the marriage is given short treatment. This film is more geared towards critiquing our feeding frenzy media landscape. And while the times were a-changin’ thirty years ago, the script never finds an angle to shed any meaningful light on it.

Candidate Hart himself didn’t see the tide turning and felt his personal life was just that. As played by Jackman, he’s an enigma focused on policy proposals and not the show biz acumen that comes with the territory (let’s not forget he’s attempting to succeed the first movie star POTUS). It frustrates staff including his campaign manager (J.K. Simmons). They believe in him, but realize he gets in his own way.

The Front Runner tries to say Important Things about a campaign that’s influenced all that have followed. Hart’s foibles in our current environment may be considered quaint. That said, the pic rarely makes its points seem bold or fresh. There’s been fictional politico tales such as Primary Colors and Bulworth that were more entertaining and perceptive in their take on this particular universe. This lies toward the back of the pack in the genre.

** (out of four)

Velvet Buzzsaw Movie Review

There’s a moment in Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw where one of the vapid SoCal characters walks past a pile of garbage and declares it an inspired work of art. He doesn’t realize it’s just plain garbage. The writer/director has his eye trained on the reviewing class here in this satire fueled with intermittent gore. Items are junk or priceless because critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) says so. His opinion matters and his choices influence. When he has his eyes dilated after an eye appointment, someone asks if those flimsy and disposable sunglasses he wears after are the new designer craze.

These small moments provide some well-placed humor as Gilroy dissects his power-hungry characters one by one. The setting is Los Angeles, the same locale from his 2014 effort Nightcrawler (which happened to be my favorite film of that year). Gyllenhaal starred in that as well. His portrayal of Louis Bloom was a desperate figure looking to climb the ladder of his chosen profession. In Buzzsaw, Morf already has made it. The Bloom figure would be Josephina (Zawe Ashton). She works for an art gallery run by Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and she’s trying to make her mark. Josephina gets that chance when a tenant in her building dies and leaves behind a vast collection of paintings. No one knows much about the dead man’s background, but his works are immediately deemed masterpieces.

It takes a considerable amount of time for people to discover that the paintings have a mind of their own. A violent mind for anyone who dares to exhibit them. Or perhaps they’re just blinded to it because they see the dollar signs involved. Everyone in this piece judges art by that monetary standard only. Whether it’s an image that could harm you or whether it’s literal garbage, it’s valuation is what counts.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a bizarre and hit or miss concoction filled with stuffy self-important individuals to root against. You may find yourself cheering on the paintings to do their grisly thing. The cast is sprawling with Gyllenhaal adding another peculiar part to his repertoire. Russo (who’s married to Gilroy) is as ruthlessly profit hungry as she was in Nightcrawler (though her part isn’t as memorable). Her background here does provide the title as it’s the name of a punk rock band she was in decades ago. Toni Collette is a curator looking for her best angle to get in on the new craze. Natalia Dyer (of “Stranger Things” fame) is an opportunistic assistant who gains the unfortunate distinction of finding lots of dead bodies.

The artwork comes alive in visually arresting ways from time to time. The main difference between this and Nightcrawler comes down to this – I was constantly enthralled by the disreputable populace of the latter. It’s a more rare occurrence in the former. Velvet Buzzsaw won’t be mistaken for trash, but it shouldn’t be hailed as a sensation either.

**1/2 (out of four)

The Wife Movie Review

The Wife may not be as powerful or emotionally wrenching as the thoughts running through its central figure’s head, but the woman playing her makes this worth checking out. Glenn Close has given many fine performances in her long career and this is among the top ones. She plays Joan Archer and she’s known only by who she’s married to – acclaimed author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). The film opens with an early morning phone call where he finds out he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What transpires afterwards is an examination of their complicated marriage that began as an affair when he was a professor and she was an aspiring writer coed. He still fools around and she manages to put up with it. The list of annoyances extends to her dealing with the fawning behavior of those around him. There are two exceptions. One is their son (Max Irons) who’s trying make his own mark in his Dad’s profession and is forever stuck in his large shadow. The other is Joseph’s would-be biographer (Christian Slater) who believes there’s more to his subject’s legacy and partnership with Joan.

The film is set in Stockholm. This is due to the prestigious award Joseph is about to receive. It also seems appropriate as Joan begins to feel captive in her unhappy existence. Director Björn Runge is a native of the nation as we witness its cold winter and frosty breakdown of our leads.

We see flashbacks of their story. While the two actors playing them as newlyweds (Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd) do a decent job mimicking Close and Pryce, The Wife shines when the camera is trained on their elders counterparts. Starke, by the way, is the real life daughter of Close. Based on a novel from Meg Wolitzer and adapted by Jane Anderson, the picture doesn’t dwell much on what made this rocky union produce literary masterworks. That might’ve provided some insight, but Close’s own wrenching masterwork (with a game Pryce alongside) will have you ready to continue to the next chapter.

*** (out of four)

Widows Movie Review

Like Michael Mann’s Heat over two decades ago, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a heist movie more concerned with the personalities of the people planning them. The similarities don’t stop there. It’s got a sprawling cast with many familiar faces and an overall somber tone. This is a genre marked mostly by its entertainment value. Heists are fun onscreen with the numeric Ocean’s being the highest profile recent examples.

Unlike Heat, its central planner doesn’t pull these crimes because he’s great at it and doesn’t have a personal life. Here it’s the personal lives that lead to the planning in the first place. And in this one, it’s “she’s”. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) works for the Chicago Teachers Union and is married to career thief Harry (Liam Neeson). What I’m about to write isn’t exactly a spoiler considering the title. Harry and his crew have a job go awry and they’re all killed. Besides Veronica, the widowed women include business owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), abused spouse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and new mom Amanda (Carrie Coon).

Their mourning period is disrupted by their husband’s past illegal dealings. Windy City crime lord Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) was ripped off by them and he’s ready to collect. He’s running for an alderman spot against corrupt politico Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Mulligan fancies himself a man of the people and lives close to the dilapidated neighborhood he wishes to represent. He might as well live on another planet. Manning wants to enter government life to get away from a life of crime, but seems to understand that they go hand in hand in this transactional and blood soaked Chicago.

Veronica, Linda, and Alice are put in a desperate spot. A clue left behind by Harry leads them to plan a robbery of Mulligan’s dirty money while trying to keep his political opponent off their backs (Amanda chooses to not to participate). Mulligan and Manning have enforcers on their team. The former’s is his controlling and ruthless father (Robert Duvall). The latter’s is his henchman (Daniel Kaluuya), who’s sadistic and seems to genuinely enjoy his works of depravity.

There are many subplots in Widows and McQueen manages to pull it off in mostly satisfying fashion. Some work better than others. The relationship of Veronica and Harry is a complicated one that’s given emotional heft by a shared loss. The same can be said for Alice’s character. She’s been a victim her whole life it seems. There’s an empowerment element with her that makes her perhaps the easiest character to root for. Rodriguez’s story has less meat on the bones. They pick up another conspirator in Belle (a memorable Cynthia Erivo), a driven woman who serves as the driver.

You’ll not be surprised to find the performances are first-rate, particularly Davis, Debicki, and Kaluuya (there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch). The score, editing, and cinematography are also noteworthy. McQueen wrote the script along with Gillian Flynn, known for her twisty works like Gone Girl. She’s created compelling female characters there and elsewhere and she does so here. If there’s an issue, it’s that her proclivity for twists reaches a tad too far with one (which I won’t spoil). I found it unnecessary and you’ll likely recognize what I’m referring to upon viewing.

And Widows is worth viewing as it gives us some characters you want to follow. There’s nothing remarkable about the heist they’re trying to pull. The acting and technical work often does fit that description.

*** (out of four)

The Old Man & The Gun Movie Review

Forrest Tucker’s life of easygoing deception includes telling the woman he’s courting that he’s a salesman. In a way he is. Forrest (Robert Redford) is selling the most pleasant experience imaginable for the bank tellers he’s robbing. He does so with a calm and reassuring demeanor and the occasional megawatt movie star smile. Tucker was a real man who spent his decades doing what he excelled at. He was noted for being a charmer and Redford (in what might be his final role) certainly knows how to play that.

The Old Man & The Gun is a testament to Redford’s decades of doing what he’s excellent at. Tucker is an outlaw and that moniker holds true for the legend playing him. He’s played other outlaws and the actor that’s championed independent film fits that description.

Forrest’s biggest claim to fame was his ability to break out of prisons (close to 20 times). David Lowery’s feature concentrates more on what put him in the slammer in the first place across Texas and other states. We meet him on a work day as he ambles into a local branch in the early 1980s. He calmly and appealingly tells the teller that he’ll be making an unauthorized withdrawal. The police who interview his marks seem to all say the same things… seemed like a nice guy.

That doesn’t matter much to detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, a frequent Lowery contributor). He’s bound and determined to catch Forrest and his aging two colleagues (Tom Waits and Danny Glover). Hunt could be at a disadvantage. He seems worn down by his job. Forrest, even at his advancing age, still seems to relish it.

The heart of Gun involves Forrest meeting Texas farmer and widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek). Their potential romance gives him a bit of pause. He’s never ridden a horse. She’s got three of them on her property. It’s apparently on his to-do list. It would seem a life enjoying his lifted money on the farmland might be too. Or perhaps not as his job genuinely brings him the greatest joy.

Watching Redford and Spacek together gives us joy. They’re dynamite together. The stylish flair employed by its director is joyous to witness. The same adjective describes listening to Tom Waits giving a monologue about Christmas in his childhood. On the other hand, Affleck’s role isn’t really fleshed out. The screenplay attempts to give him some back story with his wife (Tika Sumpter) and kids, but it never really takes form. There’s also the matter of the audience not really wanting Hunt to catch his likable prey.

This is ultimately Redford’s show. If this is his curtain call, it’s a relaxed and awfully entertaining one. We’re reminded of the star’s former works in old clips toward the end and I found it emotionally gratifying. I finished The Old Man & The Gun sporting the same smile that its subject greets those tellers.

***1/2 (out of four)

Halloween Movie Review

The latest Halloween installment has so much reverence for the 1978 original that it has no use for the multiple sequels that followed. It ignores them and that includes the ones where Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) appeared. She’s not Michael’s sister. She’s not living under an assumed name while working at a boarding school 20 years after his night of havoc. This Halloween ignores all of that and is a direct sequel from what happened four decades ago.

It cheats a little with that. As you’ll recall, John Carpenter’s classic concluded with Michael Myers apparently still on the loose. Here we learn that he was apprehended and has been in custody for 40 years. His psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is long gone with a new doc (Haluk Bilginer) studying him. Michael is about to be transferred to a new facility on the night before his beloved title holiday (maybe picking a different day for that would have been wise). You can correctly guess whether that transfer is successful.

Laurie is still experiencing PTSD from her encounter in ‘78. She’s an alcoholic reclusive double divorcée estranged from daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and grandchild Allyson (Andi Matichak). Her off the beaten path home is a survivalist den. Karen strayed after her mother (wisely it turns out) taught her how to take down a monster. Michael’s breakout session provides the chance.

David Gordon Green directs and shares co-writing duties with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley. They sprinkle the screenplay with nods to part one both large and small. This reimagining recognizes that providing Michael a lot of back story isn’t needed, as the sequels eventually did to a ridiculous degree. He’s The Shape… an unstoppable machine who perhaps cannot be taken out. Nick Castle, who donned the infamous mask 40 years back, returns. Carpenter is around as well – providing the iconic music.

Halloween is effective in spurts. It takes some time to get its motor running while the original was lean and mean. Some of Michael’s kills are fine examples of blunt force creativity. Curtis clearly loves the role of Laurie and she has a few memorable moments as a now badass grandma. She’s not just an unwilling victim anymore. Laurie wants Michael to escape so she can finish him off and that’s a welcome touch.

Yet in all honesty, the 2018 edition never rises too much above the level of the first sequel in 1981. It continues the story from the greatest slasher ever in a serviceable, sometimes scary, and far more spotty way. Of course, I never expected this to match what came with Carpenter’s low-budget vision. Perhaps I hoped it would have a little more running time where it came closer.

**1/2 (out of four)

 

Bird Box Movie Review

Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, imagines a post apocalyptic world where we all must develop a blind side. How fitting, I suppose, that Sandra Bullock is the headliner. It is she and some of her cast mates that holds this concoction together, at least for a while.

We first meet Bullock’s Malorie as she instructs two young children that they are about to embark on a dangerous trip with her. She is soon rowing and rowing and rowing a boat not so gently down a choppy stream to an unknown destination. They’re all blindfolded.

A flashback to five years earlier finds the pregnant Malorie getting a checkup with her sister (Sarah Paulson). She seems none too excited about her impending delivery. Different complications arise as people start committing suicide suddenly all over the globe. It’s soon discovered opening your eyes and looking at some never seen creatures brings on the self violence.

Our soon to be parent manages to hole up with a group of strangers that includes the home’s boozy owner (John Malkovich), another expectant mom (Danielle Macdonald), and a war vet (Trevante Rhodes) who connects with Malorie. It’s in these initial scenes where Bird Box is at its most engrossing. There’s nothing terribly fresh here as the group figures out how to survive, but there’s some interesting characters and actors playing them to make it worthwhile. Jacki Weaver, Lil Rel Howery, and rapper Machine Gun Kelly are part of the eclectic mix as well.

This gets about an hour’s worth of mileage from its premise and the wrinkle of the sighted having to go blind is a newish twist once they venture out (thank goodness for GPS). Eric Heisserer’s screenplay never concerns itself with what the heck really happened to cause this anyway. We do know birds can sense the monsters. The unexplained phenomena of what did happen isn’t all that important, but total ignorance is a tad surprising. Heisserer did significantly superior work with his adapted script for Arrival.

The picture is as much an allegory about motherhood than it is a science fiction horror thriller. There’s also elements of M. Night Shyamalan’s unfortunate The Happening. It had more unintentional laughs than this, but it also found cooler ways for spellbound victims to off themselves.

Bullock’s performance is committed and she certainly makes this watchable. The Oscar winner has played maternal instinct impressively before (the already mentioned The Blind Side, Gravity) and we see it here. Yet the true gravity of this whole situation never feels as suspenseful as it quite should. Maybe it’s the details left unseen or maybe it’s the familiar themes we’ve seen plenty of times already.

**1/2 (out of four)