#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne

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Original US release date: July 1, 2011
Production budget: $30,000,000
Worldwide gross: $72,008,245

Back in 2011, Tom Hanks released Larry Crowne, a film that he directed and co-wrote, along with Nia Vardalos.  The marketing mostly centered around the fact that the film co-starred Hanks and Julia Roberts.  It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first where they both played to type.  Despite that, the box office returns were mediocre and the reviews were even worse.  Hanks and Roberts are two of the biggest, most-beloved movie stars of the last thirty years.  How could something that seemed like such a sure thing go so wrong?  What happened?  Was the film really that bad?

Larry Crowne follows the eponymous Larry Crowne, portrayed by Hanks.  Larry is the typical wholesome good guy that has largely defined Hanks’s career – or at least the public perception of his career.  When Larry is let go from his longtime sales position at a mass-market retailing chain for not having a college education (and therefore possessing the least upside of anyone else at the location), he decides to rectify his situation by finally pursuing a degree.  He enrolls at a local community college and learns more about himself than is dictated by any syllabi, just as he affects the other students and his professors by injecting his infectious optimism into their lives.

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The role of Larry Crowne does little to nothing to push Hanks to the boundaries of his talents, but it’s still an endearing part and it’s always nice to see Hanks play this sort of fatherly, uplifting character to supplement the more challenging roles that he has also tackled during his career.  He is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, led by Julia Roberts.  Roberts plays Larry’s speech professor, Mercy Tainot.  Mercy is cynical and beaten – her enthusiasm for life stamped out by the people around her.  Her students are uninspired and her husband (Bryan Cranston) sits at home all day, looking at PG-13 photos of women in their underwear (the movie’s interpretation of “porn”).

Backing up Hanks and Roberts is a who’s-who of talented actors – many of whom have gone on to become huge names in their own right.  Included in the cast is the aforementioned Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, George Takei, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who should be a much bigger star than she is), Wilmer Valderrama, and Hanks’s real-life wife Rita Wilson.  Of this group, contributing the most to the film are Malik and Mbatha-Raw.  As a college professor, myself, I can confirm that Malik’s Steve Dibiasi is the most like a real-life college student.  He provides much of the film’s humor (of which there is quite a bit, and pretty much all of it lands, to some degree) and is supremely likable in spite of Dibiasi’s annoying tendencies and entitled approach to life.  Mbatha-Raw’s Talia is a fellow student who takes an immediate liking to Larry and helps him adapt to modern-day college life.  Talia is an unusually upbeat character for Mbatha-Raw, who typically plays more serious parts.  It’s refreshing to see her smiling and joking and revealing a rarely-seen side of herself, displaying some versatility along the way.  She’s exuberant and adds an element of life and energy to the film that would have been noticeably lacking without her presence.

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So, what happened?  Why didn’t the film blow the box office away and rack up $200+ million in worldwide box office receipts?  Three things, I believe:

  1. The reviews.  As I mentioned, the reviews were rather critical of the film upon its release.  Or, at least, on first glance.  Upon further inspection, they generally acknowledge that the film has it’s positives, but plays it too safe.  I can’t argue that it’s not safe.  But it’s also so entertaining and charming along the way that it shouldn’t really matter, in my estimation.  I laughed quite a bit, I enjoyed the performances, and I was invested in the characters.  I can deal with safe.
  2. The title.  Honestly, does Larry Crowne stand out as a title in any meaningful way, at all?  Even when I hear the title, myself, I have to ransack my memory in order to recall which movie it was and what it was about.  Unless the character is already a household name, titling a film with just said character’s name is risky.  I have always maintained that John Carter would have performed at least somewhat better at the box office if it had been called John Carter of Mars.  Sometimes, it works out (such as with John Wick), but it’s a gamble.
  3. The marketplace.  This film was released on July 1, right in the middle of blockbuster season.  What was it up against?  A week prior saw the release of Cars 2.  On the same day as Larry Crowne was released, Transformers: Dark of the Moon also hit theaters.  Midnight in Paris and The Town were also still hanging around, pulling in the adult crowds with counterprogramming.  Had the movie opened in the spring or the fall, I think it would have gotten more attention and performed more admirably at the box office.  Even with mostly-underwhelming reviews, people love Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and want to support them.  But timing matters.

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So, while Larry Crowne isn’t an exercise in groundbreaking filmmaking, it’s still a fun, delightful time with laughs and wit abound.  It’s sadly been forgotten in the six years since its release, but it’s an appropriate movie to watch when one is in the mood for something light and uplifting.  And it’s a fun game of Spot-the-Future-Star, to boot!  Larry Crowne isn’t an all-time classic, but it deserves better than its reputation – or its lack thereof – suggests.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne

#ThrowbackThursday – Risky Business

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Original US release date: August 5, 1983
Production budget: $6,200,000
Worldwide gross: $63,541,777

Risky Business was not Tom Cruise’s first film, but it was unquestionably the film that launched his career, putting him in a major spotlight in the summer of 1983.  Written and directed by Paul Brickman, the film was a massive hit and Cruise’s famous underwear-clad lip-syncing dance to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” has fallen into film legend and is still referenced and replayed regularly, 34 years later.

Confession: I had never seen this film.  I was way too young for it when it was released and, until now, I just never took the time to watch it once I was older.  I will say that I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got.  I suppose, based upon the above-referenced iconic dance scene, that I was anticipating something more akin to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  What I saw, instead, was something a little darker, a little more complex, and a little more . . . adult.

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The story focuses on Cruise’s Joel, a high school senior who has always followed the rules, lived up to his responsibilities, and is on the verge of an Ivy League college career.  Along the way, though, Joel feels that he’s missed out on the life of a teenager and longs for some true life experience – particularly of the sexual kind.  When Joel’s parents go on a weekend trip, his friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong, in his first role) encourages him to throw caution to wind and hire a prostitute.  After meeting call girl Lana (Rebecca De Mornay), Joel gets pulled into her seedy world and must try to find his way back out before his parents get home and without ruining his future.

After finally watching Risky Business, I can easily see the influence it has had on certain films over the decades.  2004’s The Girl Next Door, for example, is tremendously derivative of the classic Cruise vehicle, and I can even note areas that may have influenced Stanley Kubrick in later years and possibly even David Lynch.  Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut reminds me very much of this film (it even stars Cruise) in content whereas Lynch’s works strike a similar tone, though Lynch’s style infinitely more bizarre than Risky Business.  Lynch was working in film before 1983, however, so it may just be a coincidence, though one can gain inspiration at any point in a career.

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Whether or not any of my speculation is accurate, Risky Business effortlessly and deftly shifts between a light-hearted comedy and a more serious drama dissecting the darker side of humanity.  Somehow, the film exists simultaneously as encouragement to step outside of one’s comfort zone and a cautionary tale against throwing caution to the wind.  That statement suggests that the film lacks a clear focus or direction, but I would disagree with that particular assessment.  Instead, I believe that Brickman desires to take a dichotomous look at the duel nature of life – the good and the bad, the exciting and the mundane, the clean and the dirty – and then let the audience decide which direction they wish to take for themselves.

Cruise helps Brickman accomplish his goals by stepping up to bat and hitting a grand slam.  He would have more technically challenging roles, later in his career, but this was his first starring role.  The pressure on his shoulders must have been immense.  But he turns in a humble and endearing performance that makes it easy to understand why the entire country took to him.  Rebecca de Mornay also delivers as the mysterious Lana, who feels genuine on the surface but never fully lets the audience buy into her sincerity.  She uses her physicality to manipulate both the characters and the viewer, always suggesting that there’s more going on with her than we know.

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Risky Business is the type of film that could only have come about in the eighties.  It’s a fearless coming-of-age tale crafted for an audience that was far-less prudish than what we have today.  Brickman had the luxury of being able to craft his story as he pleased without being concerned about backlash for the sexuality or any potential – yet nonexistent – message that more modern, pretentious audiences would likely read into the film.  The fact is that the movie a classic, and it’s a classic for reasons that go far beyond one solitary dance scene.  Risky Business delivered unto the world one of the biggest movie stars in history and did it while telling an engaging and entertaining story about what we do when we have to choose between living and simply existing.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Risky Business

Review – The Hitman’s Bodyguard

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From director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) comes the new action-comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard.  Starring Samuel L. Jackson and a recently-revitalized Ryan Reynolds, The Hitman’s Bodyguard follows the exploits of bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) as he must ensure that renowned hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) makes it to the International Court of Justice in order to testify against notorious criminal Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman).  Tensions erupt between Bryce and Kincaid and, naturally, hilarity ensues.  At least, theoretically.

Again, as I always say, mileage varies on various stylings of comedy and this film will be no exception.  I do feel confident in saying that the film is not as much of a comedy as the marketing would have everyone believe.  All of the humor stems entirely from the conflict between the characters represented by Reynolds and Jackson.  It’s completely situational and devoid of any silly gags or poor attempts at wit.  Reynolds gets off a number of successful zingers (with flawless delivery, as always) while Jackson provides more character-driven humor, which is right up his alley.  The movie isn’t the funniest of the year, or anything, but I certainly laughed on multiple occasions, even if it wasn’t exactly the outright spoof that has been suggested by the trailers and the poster.

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The cast mostly does well with the material they are handed, and they are the best component of The Hitman’s Bodyguard.  I was pleased to see Elodie Yung (Daredevil, The Defenders) in another prominent role and hope that her star continues to rise.  She, Jackson, and Reynolds all exhibit undeniable charisma and chemistry, elevating the film above its script as much as can be expected.  Salma Hayek has less screen time than the others but gives a memorable performance – perhaps the most memorable.  Gary Oldman is the only one who seems to phone it in, a bit.  He doesn’t exactly do a poor job as the Belarussian crime lord but he shows signs of disinterest (such as pronouncing the word “charade” two different ways  in his accent within 30 seconds of each other).

The biggest issue with The Hitman’s Bodyguard is that it brings nothing new to the table.  Even though, as I mentioned, the cast makes the film better than it is on paper, they can only do so much.  For the most part, the story, the action, and the character relationships and dynamics are stereotypical for this type of buddy/action film.  It’s tempting to suggest that the Reynolds/Jackson relationship is something new, but – while the specifics of their relationship are unique and their interactions are enjoyable – it’s really not altogether dissimilar from what we’ve seen in films such as Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon.  A strong cast can do nothing to improve upon an uninspired story.

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The action suffers from the same issue.  As well-staged and executed as they are, there is nothing particularly distinctive or imaginative about the action set pieces.  There’s an exorbitantly succinct fight inside an industrial kitchen involving Reynolds that was rather fun, but that’s about it.  Outside of that, it’s the exact same routine gunplay and car chases that we’ve seen a multitude of times without anything to compound the excitement or throw an unexpected twist in the audience’s direction.

The generic (and rather distracting) score doesn’t help matters.  In fact, I argue that the music actually hurts the film by making it feel antiquated and low-budget by recycling the same types of riffs, chords, arrangements, and leitmotifs that have been employed in the straightforward action film genre for decades.  And this isn’t a stylistic creative choice with a definitive purpose such as with the excellent Atomic Blonde.  In that case, the idea was to make a film set in the eighties that is simultaneously evocative of films made in the eighties.  In the instance of The Hitman’s Bodyguard, the music just comes off as cheap and lazy, as if the producers couldn’t afford an experienced and visionary composer.

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What this all amounts to is that The Hitman’s Bodyguard is . . . fine.  The cast is strong, the music is detrimentally weak, and everything else is acceptable but unspectacular.  But, with so many truly great films out there, right now (go out of your way for A Ghost Story, Wind River, and the previously-mentioned Atomic Blonde), that’s just not enough.  The good news is that the film only cost $30,000,000 (so maybe Lionsgate actually couldn’t afford a composer) and has a good chance of making a profit by being a mediocre distraction.  But if people are complaining about the supposed “lack of originality” in Hollywood and then summarily choose movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard over Wind River or A Ghost Story, then they only have themselves to blame.  The film is adequately entertaining, but don’t expect anything more than that.

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Review – The Hitman’s Bodyguard

#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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Original US release date: December 17, 2003
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $1,119,929,521

Might as well do this, right?  I did a #ThrowbackThursday on The Fellowship of the Ring here and I did one on The Two Towers here, so let’s finish off the trilogy with The Return of the King!  As before, I’m looking at the Extended Edition, so there are scenes – and even characters – that are featured in the version I’m looking back upon that are not included in the theatrical cut.  These make a true difference in giving the audience closure on some of the ongoing subplots and character arcs.  For instance, near the beginning of the film, there is a major scene featuring Christopher Lee’s Saruman, yet Saruman was nowhere to be found in the theatrical edit.  So, yes, the Extended Edition is monumentally lengthy, but it’s a much more complete and satisfying narrative experience.

Also of note regarding the film is that it was only the second film in history, after James Cameron’s Titanic, to cross the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.  A couple of other films that were released before Return of the King, namely Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now sit above the $1 billion mark, as well, but they both required re-releases that occurred long after their original runs and after the original run of Return of the King, as well.

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In addition to that, after the series scored Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards for both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in the two prior years, The Return of the King finally delivered with a win in the category.  Conventional wisdom is that the win counts as a moral victory for the entire series and that the first two installments were never going to win because the epic finale was waiting in the wings.  I don’t know if I agree with that, but that’s what many people think.

One way or another, the film certainly lives up to any lofty expectations it had weighing on its shoulders.  Director Peter Jackson took this job extremely seriously, wanting to pay respect to author J.R.R. Tolkien, pay service to the cornucopia of deep and engaging characters, and deliver for the fans that had waited for so many years – and in some cases, the majority of their lives – to witness Tolkien’s magnum opus fully realized in spectacular live-action.

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In order to end up with the film that Jackson (and everyone else) desired, he knew he couldn’t cut corners.  He had to deliver on story, character, dialogue, and action.  And there is plenty of each.  The action doesn’t kick into gear, right out of the gate.  There is still a healthy dose of groundwork to be laid before the fun, eye-popping geekouts can commence.  But that’s not a problem (for those with an attention span, at least), because by this point in the story, we already feel a strong connection with the characters.  We care what they have to say.  We care what they need to do.  We care about their wants and desires.  The film is never boring because we feel like we’re a part of it.  We’re engaged.  We’re invested.  This is the magic of big-sprawling franchises that allows us to spend a significant amount of time with the characters.  Had each of the series installments been a brisk 90 minutes, so much would have been lost – most importantly the weight of the events that occur.

Along the way, everyone gets at least one moment to shine – even the characters that weren’t introduced until later in the narrative.  Jackson is savvy enough to know that every character is someone’s favorite character, so he makes sure to give everyone in the audience something to cheer about.  (My favorite moment is the big one for Legolas.  “That still only counts as one!”)  Ultimately, all of the character arcs lead up to two nearly-simultaneous events: Frodo’s arrival at Mount Doom and the Battle of Pelennor Fields.  But instead of using the action as an escape from the story, Jackson adeptly uses the action to embolden said story.  Characterizations are further developed based on the actions that are taken in war.  Important events in the narrative are both caused and affected by the physical conflicts.  It all works together as one massive cornucopia of masterful storytelling by one of the great filmmakers of our time.

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This feels abbreviated, but what more can truly be said about this film or this series, in general?  Once everything is tied up at the end of the film (in a series of codas that the impatient whined about but were necessary in order to completely close the door on the story), the audience has had an immensely rewarding experience that honors the devoted, the attentive, the thoughtful, and the persevering patrons who were willing to submit themselves to the full, unforgettable adventure that was The Lord of the Rings.  The franchise will forever stand on its own as an unmatched combination of art, spectacle, and legacy that will likely long outlive each and every one of us.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Review – Annabelle: Creation

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You likely know by this point that I consider the Conjuring films to be two of the three greatest horror films ever made, along with The Ring (my thoughts on those three films can be found here, here, and here).  The original Annabelle movie doesn’t have a great reputation, but it wasn’t all that bad.  Most people are only capable of throwing films into two categories: perfect and horrible.  It was neither of those, delivering pretty standard fare for a horror film and failing to impress or be memorable in any significant way, even if it wasn’t all that offensive, either.  Despite people swearing up and down that they hated the film, it still somehow managed to earn almost $257 million at the worldwide box office on a paltry $6.5 million budget.  So, if you were the beneficiary of that success, you’d make another one, too.

The producers over at Warner Brothers decided to go another route, however, and deliver a prequel to that first film, just as Universal recently did with its Ouija franchise.  That prequel, Ouija: Origins of Evil, was a fantastic horror film that ultimately earned less money than its far inferior predecessor, a victim of an unforgiving audience.  On at least one of those counts, Annabelle: Creation is following the same path, whereas it’s still too early to know for sure about the other.

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When a nun and the orphans in her care are expelled by the closing of their orphanage, they find a home with a couple who are struggling to cope with the death of their young daughter from over a decade past.  The father of that young girl is also a dollmaker who created – you guessed it – Annabelle.  Whereas the Conjuring films are adapted from the real-life case files of renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (I feel like I’ve typed that description so often in my life that I’m not entirely sure it’s my own wording, anymore.  I’m keeping it the way it is, though.), this particular film is a purely fictionalized account of the genesis of the famed Annabelle doll.  In reality, Annabelle was actually a Raggedy Ann doll, not the product of an independent dollmaker.

So, knowing that this film isn’t purportedly based on factual occurrences may take a little bit of the luster off, but it shouldn’t really matter all that much.  It’s a solid story that surprises in all the right places.  As in the Conjuring films, the focus is on the characterization and narrative, with the scares being augmented by our investment in the cast.  One would have to be of rather questionable character in order to root for the demise of a sweet young orphaned girl who has been hobbled by polio.  So, yeah, maybe the script stacks the deck and perhaps even panders a bit in order to elicit the desired sympathy.  But since I’m sure most of you have complained at one point or another about the tendency of horror films to feature unlikable characters who you want to see dead, this should be a refreshing change (unless you’re already a fan of the Conjuring franchise – as you should be – in which case, this is just one of many areas in which the series almost always excels).

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As the film builds, the menace creeps in, a bit at a time.  It all crescendos in a climax bursting with imaginative and terrifying visuals buried within excellently-timed examples of both jump scares and suspense horror.  The film goes out of its way to offer up a haunting that manifests in ways unlike anything that has been done in film before (mostly, at least).

The marketing for the film has featured a quote (from a critic whose name I didn’t catch, so my apologies) that states that Annabelle: Creation is “one of the best films in the Conjuring universe”.  That may be a slight paraphrase, but that was the idea.  Using basic logic, that would make Annabelle: Creation the second-best film when comparing it to the two Conjuring films and the original Annabelle.  If it was the best, that would have been stated outright.  If it was in the bottom two, that would not make it one of the best”.  So, since there are exactly four films in the series, that only leaves one spot according to that particular critic.

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I agree that it’s significantly better that the original Annabelle, if for no other reason than I suspect it made more of an impression on me and I’ll remember more specifics of the film after time has passed.  But Creation is nowhere near the quality of the two Conjuring films.  Those films have infinitely more heart and weight, largely due to the presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who have a combustible chemistry and, when paired, create an unbeatable and intangible It Factor that can’t be replicated on demand.  Plus, those films do have the aforementioned added attraction of being based on true stories.

But that doesn’t mean that Annabelle: Creation isn’t good or worth seeing for horror buffs.  I just suggest that one not go in expecting it to measure up to either Conjuring film, since those movies are near-perfect classics and those would be unfair expectations.  Still, Annabelle: Creation is an above-average supernatural thriller with some fun and disturbing visuals and many genuinely unnerving moments.  It’s not one of the best horror films ever, but it’s a worthwhile entry and a fun horror movie to hold us over until It drops in just a few weeks.

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Review – Annabelle: Creation

Review – Wind River (2017)

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In a little over two weeks, I’ll get to meet Elizabeth Olsen.  This is a big deal to me because she’s been among my favorite actors for a number of years, now – not that she’s been around for all that long.  She caught my attention by single-handedly elevating the remake of Silent House from an okay movie to a pretty darned good one.  And then she turned me into a full-fledged fan after I went back and watched her performance in the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene.  There was a lot of talk that she might get an Oscar nomination for that one.  It didn’t materialize that time out, but that takes nothing away from her efforts.  She quickly established herself as one of the best in the business, of any age and of any experience level.

Wind River opened last weekend in a limited release of only four theaters.  It expanded, this weekend, but still came nowhere within reasonable driving distance of where I live.  But, I’m out of town and am taking advantage of being in Boston and catching this one while I can.  I’ve seen – and own – every other movie she’s been in (except one she did with her sisters, Mary Kate and Ashley, when she was a kid) and wanted to see her latest before I got the chance to talk to her.  Of course, the fact that she is also in Ingrid Goes West, a comedy with Aubrey Plaza, that opens this weekend in a whopping three theaters poses its own problem, but I’ll deal with these issues one at a time.

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I already got to meet Olsen’s Wind River co-star Jeremy Renner, but that was over a year-and-a-half ago, so it’s too late to talk to him about this one.  Still, he’s pretty great, too.  Despite featuring a pair of powerhouse leads, it takes more than a great cast to make a great film, even when the cast delivers.  Had Wind River featured an entirely different cast, it still would have caught my attention based on the trailer, alone.  So, while one can feel pretty confident in Olsen and Renner, did the film live up to its promise?

Fortunately, coming along with the film’s reliable cast is an equally-reliable writer-director in the form of Taylor Sheridan.  Actually, to clarify, Sheridan has been building a strong writing résumé with Sicario and Hell or High Water, but he has only directed one film prior to Wind River – a little-known horror movie from 2012 called Vile.  I can’t speak to that one, since I haven’t seen it, but I can speak to Sicario and Hell or High Water.  I liked the former and loved the latter, so seeing Sheridan’s name attached to Wind River gave me even more confidence that the film was going to be of high quality.

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When a young woman is found dead on the Wyoming Native America reservation of Wind River, a local tracker (Renner) aids an FBI agent (Olsen) in her efforts to solve the mystery and bring the guilty party to justice.  The film is inspired by true events, the details of which I have no knowledge.  But, even had that not been the case, as I watched the film, one word kept occurring to me as the most appropriate description: authentic.

Every individual aspect of the film plays as honest, true, and sincere.  And this is accomplished, similarly to A Ghost Story (though not to that extreme), through the conscious application of extreme restraint.  This is a dynamic story, no matter the lens through which it is viewed.  Many filmmakers would have been painfully tempted to “Hollywood it up” with the typical, supposedly crowd-pleasing clichés that we’ve all seen umpteen-thousand times.  Sheridan shows great respect to the story and the thematic elements by foregoing the standard Hollywood tropes and playing it straight and genuine.  Sheridan doesn’t pander and he doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence nor their sensibilities.

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The film (from my perspective, at least) flies by.  Sheridan’s direction and eye are buoyed by his own whip-smart script that betrays an understanding of seemingly basic concepts on a bafflingly complex level.  The dialogue snaps, the events unfold at a brisk pace, and the two charming and charismatic leads captivate and force the audience to invest.  Sheridan provides Olsen and Renner with two heroic and relatable protagonists that are only strengthened by the talents of the actors.

I try to avoid hyperbole.  And I’m also aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the moment just after one has seen an amazing film for the first time.  So, I’m not going to jump the gun and proclaim that both Olsen and Renner turned in my favorite performances of their careers in this film, but I will say, without hesitation, that both of their Wind River performances are in that conversation.  And, as Sheridan does with his direction, they both accomplish this feat through restraint.  The best performances are the authentic ones.  I’m going to say that, again, and I’m going to put the whole thing in bold type.  The best performances are the authentic ones.  It’s not about grandiose displays of emotions, though those are the performances that tend to get the most attention.  Whether obtusely theatrical or quietly subdued, acting is all about authenticity.  And, as Olsen and Renner’s characters both have justification – whether professional or personal – for reigning in their emotions while they also must struggle with the deeply affecting nature of the case as it unfolds, the duo majestically toe the line, grounding their humanity in their need and desire to solve the case.  It’s simply too late for them to do anything else.  Olsen and Renner are both perfect in this film and maybe – hopefully – this will be Olsen’s time at the Academy Awards.  If not, it’s just a matter of time.

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As I said in my review for A Ghost Story, the biggest hurdle this film has to clear on the road to awards season is time.  It’s awfully early in 2017 and people have very short memories.  Then again, Hell or High Water was released at about this same time, last year, and it did pretty well for itself.  Ultimately, the point is that Wind River is filmmaking at its finest and it serves as a thoughtful, adult-skewing option featuring some of today’s finest talent both in front of and behind the camera.  It’s still expanding out into theaters, so you might have to be patient, for a little while longer.  But, once it’s in your town, I urge you to reward Wind River with your time and money, just as it will reward you with a poignant and heartbreaking tale of reality.

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Review – Wind River (2017)

#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous

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Original US release date: September 15, 2000
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $47,383,689

Directed by Cameron Crowe and released to much critical praise (including winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical), Almost Famous is another example in a very long, sad line of examples in which a great movie of the precise type that people claim to love and want to see failed to succeed because those very people were all talk and bailed on the film when it was actually released.  I know a great many people who say they saw and loved this movie, yet look at the box office numbers above.  People love to make fun of a movie such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for “only” grossing $873 million on a $250 million budget, but that final figure is nearly a multiple of 3.5 times its budget.  That’s a success.  Whereas Almost Famous didn’t even gross enough worldwide to match its already-modest budget.

That’s a shame and the audience bears the blame for it.  Almost Famous is a fantastic film and deserved to be a financial success in addition to being a critical one.  Director and writer Cameron Crowe used his own experiences from earlier in his life as a columnist for Rolling Stone as inspiration for the film, which follows wannabe rock-and-roll writer Will Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he tags along with the band Stillwater, who is on the brink of superstardom.  Miller has an assignment from Rolling Stone for a 3,000-word article on the band, but nailing it down proves difficult as he gets caught up in the whirlwind of life with a rock band and consistently gets the blow off from guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) for the interview that will serve as the lynchpin of the piece.

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Complicating issues even further is the presence of a superfan who goes by the pseudonym “Penny Lane” (Kate Hudson).  Penny is infatuated with Russell while Will is infatuated with Penny.  Will gets increasingly involved in the personal issues of the band and must decide if it’s more important to be their friend or to be an honest journalist.

Almost Famous sports the shiny veneer of being a film about music, but the music is just one of the tools that Crowe uses to tell his story.  Here’s a secret: genre is an illusion.  Whether the topic of discussion is movies, music, books, or anything else, genre is essentially irrelevant.  Regarding film, whether the movie in question is classified as action, drama, romance, horror, or anything else, it always boils down to two components: story and character.  Any story can be told using any genre.  And this story is a coming of age tale for multiple characters – maybe even the majority of them.

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Most of the characters are largely unlikable – especially those in the band.  This is by design, as Crowe aims to present them honestly.  They are selfish, insecure, and suffer from delusions of grandeur, as most bands do.  They truly believe that they’re changing the world through their music, yet when Will asks one of them why they love music, he can’t even answer the question.  He doesn’t know.  That’s because it’s not about the music.  It’s about the lifestyle.  It’s about the image.  It’s about the ego.  The only one of the whole bunch who truly loves music is Will.  His resistance to being seduced by the romantic nature of the industry is evident throughout the film, but he clings to his desire to be honest and true to his hopeful profession.  The band sees journalists as “the enemy” because of their honesty (an all-too-common platitude, these days), yet they bring Will into the fold, anyway, trusting that his youth and their charm will make him easy to manipulate.

Will is the youngest character in the film, but he is also the most mature.  As much as he initially experiences during his time with Stillwater, Penny, and their friends, he teaches them even more about themselves.  The film is almost a three-person show, with Fugit, Hudson, and Crudup taking the leads, but Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel, and Fairuza Balk all make their mark on the film, as well – with McDormand and Hoffman standing out, in particular.  The film mostly served as Kate Hudson’s coming-out party, though.  She used the role to launch a solid career for herself (though she never quite hit the heights I expected her to), while co-star Patrick Fugit was unable to similarly capitalize, despite doing well in the role of Will.

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In the film, Jason Lee’s Jeff Bebe says that, with regards to music, “the popular stuff is usually the best stuff”.  That’s typically true in music (true, high-quality music speaks to people through its own merits, not through an associated image.  And you know it’s speaking to people when they respond by buying it.), but film is unfortunately a little different.  Films require more than someone liking it enough that they show it to a captive audience who is then forced to experience it, such as the way a disc jockey would play a song on the radio and grant it free exposure.  Movies require people to pay before they experience it.  And if there’s not enough money in the advertising budget to do that, many great movies can go without the support they deserve.  And that’s what happened to Almost Famous.  The award nominations should have gotten people to go see it, but general audiences still absurdly believe they know more about movies than critics, so they mostly ignore award nominations.  I hope that changes, one day.  But, until it does, you can still enjoy Almost Famous long after the fact, when it no longer does the film any good.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous