REVIEW: “MARRIAGE STORY” (2019) Netflix

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As with some of Bambach other films, “MARRIAGE STORY” is long on talk and short on cinema. While most are at least a good watch, this one tricks you into thinking you’re getting a marriage story for the first five minutes, but it’s got a little trick up it’s sleeve and you soon find out that what you almost fell for, is nothing of the sort. With its sorta jokey NY/LA rivalry theme, and in certain LA frames giving us the “Annie Hall” feels, (along with other films in the same vein appear to be evoked here) but the mere mention of these kinds films only highlights the weakness of this one.

There is however, some passing enjoyment to be had.  Laura Dern turns in a stellar performance as Nora Fanshaw, a vicious divorce lawyer camouflaged in California nuances, and there are some fine cameos from Ray Liotta as Jay, opposing lawyer to Dern’s character.  Alan Alda also steps in as Bert Spitz, and is probably the best bit of comedy the film is given, though we are also given a true moment of sadness when you can’t help but notice the wonderful Mr. Alda’s tremors/shaking during this performance.  The wonderful Wallace Shawn, Merritt Weaver as Nicole’s sister Cassie, her mother Sandra (Julie Haggerty) are fun as well.  On the other hand, our two leads: Nicole & Charlie (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver respectively), are as bland and uninteresting to watch as is paint drying. With such a lack of chemistry the film soon grinds to a plod and therein leaves us with absolutely no feeling towards them – no matter how much they talk about it, it’s hard to fathom that they have any kind of shared history (even their son, used as a bargaining chip throughout the messy divorce, has about as much appeal as a potato).

During one particularly lengthy argument, which was right on the level with that of a Real Housewives scenario and about as well acted as such, Johannson tries, but can’t strike a spark from herself nor her co-star, the dead-eyed and apparently sedated Driver. I’ll admit, his appeal escapes me, but he can sing — as at one point he inexplicably gets to sing an entire number from “Company” at a piano bar, and pulls it off admirably well. But Baumbach remains firmly within his context setting of affluent, if not wealthy, Brooklyn and L.A. showbiz people and their neuroses. It’s all very narcissistic and more than a little contrived — as it could be said, this is more theatre, with its elaborate, paced plotting intended as build-up to the leads’ Big Scene, which then leaves us no great effect.

In fact, Bambauch makes an unforced error in a courtroom scene where, for the first time, ordinary and everyday people are seen waiting their turn before a judge, who makes a welcome comment to the effect that he is adjourning the case around which the film revolves as there are plenty of people with far fewer resources awaiting their turn. Indeed. And so the inevitable question arises: why should we care about these particular privileged, undoubtedly smart, but politically and socially dull people as they go through the predictable phases in the break-up of a marriage whose reality was never very convincing to begin with? Why should we spend our time watching what amounts to a modernized version of a drawing-room comedy, updated to take account certain contemporary sensibilities. Well that’s for someone else to figure out. The sheer fact that they list this as a ‘comedy’ is truly baffling as our leads provide none of it and if it weren’t for some great supporting roles here, this film would be a complete sham. It also should really be titled ‘Divorce Story’ as the ‘Marriage Story’ title invokes a much happier tune than what is given.

This movie is no joy ride and I tend to say that it should have been 30min shorter. Especially the musical scenes in the end felt like “to much”. Sure, I get it, it’s a reference to the Broadway theme, but it just felt out of place. Maybe this movie is a bit to long by design, to make you feel the dread and despair as a divorce, especially when it gets so dirty, is a process that goes on for much longer than you think it should. They gave us a cute little package of tissues upon entry of the film and I thought I would be using them in an emotional tense, instead the only tears to be shed were the ones of wanting the movie to just end.

 

In the end, this film is overlong, over shouty and brings absolutely nothing new to the table. I think I’ll watch “Annie Hall” again, thanks.

Grade: D+

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Media Review Screening: Wednesday, October 30, 2019 ~ Courtesy of LAFTV Meetup

“MARRIAGE STORY NOW OUT IN SELECT THEATERS // ON NETFLIX DECEMBER 6, 2019

REVIEW: “TRIAL BY FIRE” (2019) Roadside Attractions

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If like me, you are someone who is completely conflicted on something like the death penalty, “TRIAL BY FIRE” might just be the movie for us all to see.  My conflict mostly arises from the fact that for me, anyone who hurts a child just shouldn’t get a second chance ever.  Yet, as we know from such wonderful trials as OJ Simpson or Brock Turner’s, the justice system is flawed and while some cases are cut and dry guilty, some aren’t.  Hence the story of imprisoned death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell).  Willingham is a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record to boot.  He is convicted in the arson related death of his own three children in 1992, deaths so awful a swift accounting for is demanded and given and Willingham is sentenced to death with the ‘justice’ system moving with particular swiftness and speed in this case.

What follows is the overwhelming story of this mans life.  Showing him to be the angry and flawed human that he is.  Chronically unemployed or employable to say the least, he is a brawler, womanizer, and yet the caregiver to his three children because he won’t or can’t work, shows another side to him.  Even wife Stacy (Emily Meade), while being the breadwinner of the family, notes that this is a man who loves his kids.  Being that she is away the morning of the fire that engulfs their home and the three children, while Willingham makes it out alive, gives her character the sympathy that is deserved.  But is all really as it seems or does the law just adjust their crime scene to fit the narrative they want to convict.

This is where the story truly picks up what happens when they do decide this and because justice is wanted so badly, that no other scenarios are even discussed.  Except for the small fact that Willingham has never given up on the fact that he is innocent.  Investigators claim to find evidence of a fire accelerant. A jailhouse snitch reports that Willingham confessed to the crime, and during the trial, a disinterested public defender repeatedly advises Willingham to avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty. When Willingham refuses, the lawyer loses interest. No serious defense is mounted, and Willingham finds himself on death row, awaiting lethal injection in Texas, a state that likes to keep the line moving.

Alone and isolated in prison, when through a random encounter with someone who knows about the case, a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern),  volunteers to correspond with him, hears his claims of innocence, and trying to do the right thing, she re-investigates his case, even though the obsession with it all leads to the detriment of duty to her own family home life.  She uncovers what looks increasingly like a shoddy investigation (the arson “evidence” is refuted) and slippery prosecution, even showing the jailhouse snitch recanting.

Even though I might have an issue with performances of many Brits/Aussie’s trying to play the southern accent, the performance here by O’Connell goes beyond that.  He plays Willingham as wronged, but you find heart in him as the story unfolds.  Emily Meade is secondary only in the fact that she plays his wife who shows throughout that she too, is conflicted by what might or might not be the truth.  Dern, though the ‘victorious’ character you could say, still comes off as a bit bland and even though its true, you wonder why she took this interest and it’s never really told to you.  That could be the fault of director Edward Zwick though, as the movie evolves without really showing us the messiness of real life in-between the lines.

The movie allows that Willingham can be innocent and still be manipulative and angry and flawed, and concludes with a wallop of emotion as Willingham is executed all while waiting for a Governors stay of execution.  A significant point made in the end titles is that for all means and purposes, Willingham is notably innocent, hence my referral back to being so conflicted by something like the death penalty, because it’s just not 100% fool-proof.

Grade: C+                                                                                                                                        @pegsatthemovies

 

Review Screening: Wednesday, May 15, 2019 ~ Courtesy of Film Independent

“TRIAL BY FIRE” IS NOW PLAYING IN SELECT CITIES

REVIEW: “DOWNSIZING” (2017) Paramount Pictures

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Welp. we’ve got a strike three for Matt Damon on his 2017 films with “DOWNSIZING”. This movie takes an interesting premise, “What if we could make ourselves smaller to use up fewer resources and save the planet?” and really just does nothing with it. Having heard little about the film aside from its concept, I went into the screening fairly cold. Sadly, the film doesn’t have a whole lot more to offer than its brilliant concept and exceptional first act. I must admit that I left feeling disappointed, thinking they could’ve made this a better movie in many ways. When a film has so much promise and doesn’t exactly deliver on much of it, I feel as though many people would be let down by that.

In this dramedy, which also in part a social satire of its own genre, Downsizing follows a couple Paul (Matt Damon) & Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek, who believe their lives would be better if they were to shrink themselves and be transferred to a new world called Leisureland. This place exists to conserve the Earth and save the environment, as let’s face it, smaller people need much fewer resources. With multiple meanings to the title, this is a concept that sounds incredible on paper but doesn’t exactly translate into that great of a movie. Throughout the first act, I found myself immersed in this world and couldn’t wait to be taken on its journey, but I soon found myself losing interest when political and religious elements began to take over and it started to go very sloooowww. And it’s sad as this is a movie that could’ve done so much more with its premise.

Without giving anything away, there are many characters such as Niecy Nash playing a Leisureworld salesperson, or that of Dusan Mirkovic (Christof Waltz), The Lonowski’s, Jeff (Neil Patrick Harris) & Laura (Laura Dern) or Paul’s good friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis), that come in and out of this film in a heartbeat, pretty much leaving them in the dust, when in reality they were actually interesting and added a layer to the overall story. It felt as though Director Alexander Payne wanted to focus so much on the idea of the Downsizing concept, that he sidelined quite a few characters along the way. His films have always been about characters, and while Paul and Ngoc (Hong Chau) share some great chemistry throughout this film, it’s hard not to wish that all of the characters throughout the first act were present throughout the entire film. This was a very curious issue I had while watching and definitely upon reflection.

As soon as you’re brought into this other world that has been built for those who shrunk themselves over the years, you will find yourself kind of transfixed at how interesting the visuals are and how lackluster the comedy is, but what you don’t expect is for the film to take a dramatic turn and really have you thinking hard about the world we live in and whether or not certain lines of dialogue are true about society in general. This is an eye-opening film in that regard and the third act is incredibly ambitious, but I just don’t think it really sticks the landing that it strives to achieve.

In the end, this is one of the most original ideas I can recall in recent memory, but an idea doesn’t make a film great. It’s the film itself that needs to win you over as a whole, and Downsizing just didn’t do that for me. On many accounts, this is a very impressive movie from a technical standpoint and it takes risks that I didn’t expect it to, but the risks it takes will only work for a few audiences members that can relate to it.

This is a movie that promises a lot and tries to deliver on all of those promises, while also shoving in side plots that make this film too emotionally complex to really be invested in the satirical aspects by the end. I wish this film went through a few more rewrites, because there is a satirical masterpiece of a movie in here somewhere, but it’s just not the product that you’ll be seeing in theatres soon. Downsizing might be worth your time in terms of originality, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up on it being a favorite.

Grade: C-
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Media Review Screening: Wednesday, December 5, 2017 ~ Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
DOWNSIZING is now playing in theaters nationwide. To be released Worldwide in January 2018

REVIEW: “WILSON” (2017) Fox Searchlight

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Based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes.Woody Harrelson is Wilson, probably one of the most random and least liked characters I’ve come across so far this year. He starts and goes throughout the film, with a random series of unpleasant tics of being the most annoying person in the world, rather than a convincing human being. This problem extends to the film itself. It thinks it’s intelligent and possibly a comedy as it supposedly gives us earth-shattering insights into the human condition with establishing Wilson’s unreliability at the outset, pitting his self-righteous voiceover narration against the realities of his condescension toward strangers. But the character we end up seeing never really adds up to more than the sum of his vulgar outbursts and flagrant disregard for conventional social graces, schizophrenically flipping from pessimism to arrogance to sentimentality sometimes within the same scene and not done well, with the character coming off as more mentally unbalanced than anything else.

The film’s events are driven by the death of Wilson’s father, which inspires in an increasingly lonely Wilson a desire to reconnect with his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), and the daughter, Claire (Isabella Amara), he discovers she didn’t terminate the pregnancy as he had assumed, but put the child up for adoption. But his oddly portrayed idea of a conventional nuclear family doesn’t track with his distaste for what he sees as the soul-sucking suburban lifestyle, a contradiction that the filmmakers either don’t recognize or refuse to address for the sake of indulging in easy potshots at suburbia. Such contradictions are simply part and parcel of the film’s confused whole. Throughout its running time, Wilson lurches from melancholy to cartoonish slapstick, to dropping f-bombs for the sheer sake of no reason whatsoever, but to be more annoying and it’s just unable to settle on a consistent tone.

Wilson, Pippi and Claire are surrounded by caricatures oddly done mix of middle-and upper-class insularity. The worst is Polly (Cheryl Hines), Pippi’s sister, who’s so monstrously judgmental of her sister’s lifestyle that she’s willing to lie to Wilson about what Pippi does for a living when he embarks on his quest to reconnect with his ex-wife. Clowes might have intended this graphic novel to be a critique of the kind of out-of-touch smugness Wilson represents, but the film often feels like an symbol of just that toxicity. Add in the factor of bad acting from everyone except for the two-minute scene with Alta played by the always strong Margo Martindale, to the fact that it’s not funny in the slightest should have many skipping this one till they can see it on VOD.

Grade: D
@pegsatthemovies

Media Review Screening: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 ~ Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Nationwide Release: Friday, March 24, 2017

Thanks all for taking the time to give this a read. Let me know your thoughts if you liked this film or not. Don’t forget to give this page a follow or a follow on twitter as well @pegsatthemovies. Cheers!

REVIEW: “99 HOMES” ~ POST Q & A ~ Michael Shannon

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For a movie with the very real backdrop of the US housing market crash, with such believable characters, 99 Homes gives us the story about one man’s struggle with the housing market catastrophe and is the subject of what Ramin Bahrani’s new film is all about. It is at once sad, heart-wrenching and at the same time, somewhat terrifying to watch.

As the movie opens, we see a real estate guy explaining to an Orlando cop how the owner of the house he came to foreclose on, ran inside and shot himself in the head. We then get to know Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a construction worker who gets laid off and before we know it, his family home gets foreclosed on, and Nash, along with his young son, Connor (Noah Lomax) and mom, Lynn (Laura Dern) end up moving into a motel. Desperate for money, Dennis turns to the real estate guy who foreclosed on him, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), and actually starts working for him. 99 homes 2
Let me be clear that I am appalled at what happened, that the banks made serious mistakes, and there hasn’t been nearly enough accountability for what caused the second biggest Recession in history. And while this film isn’t fool proof by any means, it does give you the feeling of being at least a somewhat accurate image of how different the concept of “money” is for everyone. Some people are set for life where others are living paycheck to paycheck. This film seems to know and show both sides of that so well.
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99 Homes is a film that’s main topic is eviction and really this should have been dull ride. How this film is able make this topic interesting and thought-provoking is quite impressive. It’s also a complete character study that truly makes you think who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Michael Shannon’s performance is spellbinding and for me Oscar nomination worthy. Garfield is good, but again, it’s Shannon who really controls the screen when he’s on it he holds you in the palm of his hand for the entire time he is on the screen as he plays the villain well making you give thought if he really is just that or just a product of the environment that was created as he shows you both sides of the coin.
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It is also societal story and commentary, and a story of determination all rolled into one. There are literally are 99 reasons to go see this movie.

Grade: B-
@pegsatthemovies

Screening: Monday, October 19, 2015 ~ Courtesy of Deadline Awardsline screening series

POST Q & A with actor Michael Shannon:
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I just adore this man and have for so long now. I call him my go-to guy as I wish he could be in almost every movie. He’s a gem and simply a fantastic actor & I love his touch of sarcasm, witty, ‘no bullshit’ attitude that he even brought to this Q & A. He really went in depth about how he felt his character here was truly a guy you could hate, but yet explained it so well in that he never wanted to take people’s homes as he was a real estate agent and wanted to put people in homes, yet when everything crashed he could either do what he did, or be a victim also. He chose the road he did and Shannon hopes that he was able to give you the portrayal that showed this in his character and he might have actually been relieved at the end. Shannon, through his dry humour & wit, can make you laugh and then next minute be serious. He noted he truly doesn’t like discussing ‘acting’ per se’ and for those of you who loved him in “Boardwalk Empire” he noted while he loved doing it, he would probably never do TV again. My note to all: If you have the chance to see ‘Iceman’ – DO! Shannon’s performance is as good as it gets.

COUNTDOWN TO THE OSCARS ~ BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR/ACTRESS

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Continuing with the Oscar countdown ~ we are moving along to Best Supporting Actor/Actress.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Mark Ruffalo
“Foxcatcher”
One of my least favourite performances in this category

Edward Norton
“Birdman”
i won’t be mad if Norton wins this.. not in the slightest as this was my favourite performance and I would’ve called Norton the winner…until…

J.K. Simmons
“Whiplash”
Until..I saw this performance of Simmons. Long been a favourite of mine since the HBO series “OZ” – he blew us all away with this..

Robert Duvall
“The Judge”
How do you not like Duvall.. he’s truly an acting icon.

Ethan Hawke
“Boyhood”
Love Ethan.. not my fav. movie or performance.

My Pick: J.K. Simmons
Will Win: J.K. Simmons
Possible Win: Edward Norton

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
I will be upfront here.. none of these performances WOWED me. Jessica Chastain for ‘A Most Violent Year’ was whom I would’ve picked, but yeah..not nominated. So if I have to pick…

Emma Stone
“Birdman”
It’s not Emma for me.

Patricia Arquette
“Boyhood”
Truly not Patricia for me either though she’s been sweeping everything and walking up with her lengthy piece of tacky paper to read off of letting everyone know she knew she was winning.

Meryl Streep
“Into the Woods”
Love Meryl.. but I do think they ran short of people and put her in because she IS Meryl Streep.

Laura Dern
“Wild”
I didn’t love this movie.. but Dern moved me some with her performance here, she was definitely the best part of this movie.

Keira Knightley
“The Imitation Game”
While Knightley didn’t annoy the complete bejesus out of me this go round.. she usually does and she did Laggies & Begin Again, both awful films that she should just be punished for that and all the others.

My Pick: Laura Dern
Will Win: Patricia Arquette
Possible Win: Emma Stone

REVIEW ~ “WILD” (2014)

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In yet another film this year based on a memoir, this biopic, “WILD” by Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who coped with her divorce, the death of her mother, and her own self-destructive behavior by setting out on a grueling, three-month trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from Mexico to Canada. Since Hollywood tends not to deal much in too many surprises, whether its sequels, remakes/retreads of the familiar, or actors and directors staying very securely inside their comfort zones, it’s rare for a movie to sneak up and offer something unexpected and this one is no different. I truly expected more all the way around from the Director that made my favourite film of 2013, “Dallas Buyers Club”.

The other big surprise of “Wild” turns out to be Reese Witherspoon, whom after hearing such big notes that she would be going far from her usual comfort zone here, and then really didn’t. If we are looking for out of box characters for her, she was much more convincing for me in her portrayal in MUD. Don’t get me wrong..Witherspoon is far from awful here, and especially after seeing “The Good Lie” earlier this year and that lackluster performance, just not the WOW! performance I was hearing it to be as touted by some. wild 1

We meet Cheryl at the very beginning of her undertaking of this gargantuan hike. Here you would think it’s the sort of journey taken only by hikers with experience, but as we see all of Cheryl’s camping gear coming fresh out of the package, it’s immediately clear that she’s plunging head-first into this huge undertaking with no prep whatsoever as she has no clue what she really should & shouldn’t be taking along. Barely able to support her comically oversized backpack, we follow along as she begins to shed both literal and metaphorical baggage. Cheryl stumbles and struggles through the first few days of her hike, allowing her plenty of time for flashbacks. And that’s really how you find out why she is undertaking this venture because at the beginning you are given no hint as to WHY she is doing so.
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Her mother “Bobbi” (Laura Dern, in a nice moving turn here) was a source of strength, and even in the quick-flash of remembered moments we can see why her loss would be so devastating to Cheryl. Less attention is given to her failed marriage to “Paul” (Thomas Sadoski), but it’s clear that she was in no place emotionally to handle guiding her own life, much less sharing it with someone else. Though she has a brother also, “Leif” (Keene McRae), she seems the be the one with some major problems in life including being a heroin/sex addict and all around mess. wild 3

I think I was just hoping for more here as the movie delves into the easy answers and personal growth waters of ‘Eat Pray Love’ vs. what I had hoped for, more of a harder core. I was looking for some major challenges ala ‘127 hours’ to happen beyond losing her shoes or encounters with a rattlesnake & a caterpillar, both expected considering where she is..a desert. Same with the visuals..There are only a few rare scenery shots here, as well yes, I understand we are in a desert with just a lot of flat land & bushes, but it does change seasons, can be beautiful and I thought there would be some really scenic visuals.

For me, the best part of the story lies in all the characters she meets along the way. I found this part of it the most fascinating. Having undertaken a journey of my own at one point (I packed up my car and drove across the U.S. one summer, stopping randomly in places and meeting people everywhere I went..loved it), though no, not hiking as it’s something I’ve never been fond of, that & sleeping in tents, (yeah I know..picky picky)..but characters such as “Frank” (W. Earl Brown) & his wife “Annette” (Jan Hoag), “Greg” (Kevin Rankin) & his friends, “Ed” (Cliff De Young), the only other female hiker she encounters along the way, the “Ranger” (Brian Van Holt) and the group of guys she gets drunk with round the ol’ campfire, “Josh” (Will Cuddy), “Rick” (Leigh Parker) & “Ritchie” (Nick Eversman). My ending point is that I think a lot of people have done a journey of some type or another in their lives and sorry but I guess I’ve just heard much more fascinating stories than this one.

Grade: C

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(see grading scale)