Tag Archives: based on a true story

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Tag is a movie about grown men playing tag. They’ve played every month of May for the past 30 years, since they were kids. They’re crazy competitive about it, and it rankles that Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is the only one who’s never EVER been tagged. Not once. In 30 years. But this May Jerry’s getting married, and that seems to the rest of the gang (Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm) like the perfect opportunity to finally make him IT.

This movie is based on a true story, which sounds absurd except I knew a couple of brothers who did something similar – they played a game they dubbed Touch You Last (you can probably extrapolate what it involves) throughout their adulthood. In MV5BMjNjYzVkNmMtY2VhNC00ZDg2LTlkNmItMzYzOTI4NzIwYTQ5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjMxMjkwMDg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_the movie, the guys find it a good excuse to get together and stay close well past the time that most friendships fall to the way side. Wives and girlfriends (Rashida Jones, Leslie Bibb, Isla Fisher) are not allowed to play because they made the rules when they were 9 (no girls allowed) but over the years the game has been mythic and this year a reporter from The Wall Street Journal is following them around so the stakes are extra extra high and nothing, believe me NOTHING, is sacred.

The film is a mashup between comedy (hit or miss) and absurd and insane stunts that no grown, sane man should attempt in the name of a game of tag, or ever, unless a bear is chasing you AND you owe that bear money AND that bear has ties to organized crime AND your hair is on fire.

The script isn’t overly strong but there’s a lot of funny people in this (I might give the win to Hannibal Buress, who delivers a straight-faced one-liner like nobody’s business) so it does have its moments. It’s just not in danger for being mistaken for a classic, or, you know, an actual good movie. Which is not to say it’s bad. It’s just pretty content to be a medium-funny diversion which you may or may not wait to see as a rental rather than in theatres, where you damn well better make me laugh out loud.

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Winchester

As a widow, Sarah Winchester has inherited majority share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The other stakeholders get together to hire laudanum-addicted Dr. Price to assess her and find her incompetent to run their business. It shouldn’t be too hard: she’s a crazy, reclusive old lady who is constantly remodelling her home, round the clock, to better suit the ghosts and spirits who inhabit it.

It sounds bad on paper, but once Dr. Price (Jason Clarke) arrives, he starts to share in her hallucinations. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) was a real person, and she really did believe that anyone killed by one of her guns may visit her home in death – seeking revenge or otherwise – and it was her duty to house them and try to find them peace. To appease them, she employed a work crew, round the clock, day and night, 7 days a week for 37 years, until her death, building new rooms, tearing down old ones, resulting in a 7-story house with more than 100 rooms, staircases that led nowhere, and twisty, unnavigable hallways. But some ghosts were not content with her efforts. Some ghosts demanded more.

I have no problem with the cast, and as you might guess, Helen Mirren is of course a gothic gem. But this movie was all wrong. All wrong. It should never have been a horror film. This is actually a very interesting story that deserved a much better treatment. Sarah Winchester is the kind of character you instinctively want to learn MV5BYmQ0YTZjNzctNWI0MS00ODBlLTk3YjUtZTUwMGY0MjM1N2FjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_more about, but this movie would have you on Wikipedia rather than provide her any backstory or context. Instead the house is the most compelling character, and all the walking, talking, sentient characters, both alive and dead, are badly neglected. But even the house sort of loses its charms after the film makers’ limited imagination is maxed out. It just feels like all directors Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig are concerned with is shoving as many jump-scares into one movie as humanly, or demonly, possible. And it’s a lot. There will be something terrifying in EVERY corner, in every mirror and reflection, under every bed, in every attic, behind the curtains, and inside the body of every ginger man and boy. They’ve used a very interesting story as the mere setting, and then completely spoiled it with misuse.

Winchester needed to be a drama with supernatural elements, like Sixth Sense, but instead it’s bottom of the barrel horror. I was prepared to be frightened by it (Sean and I even “worked up” to it by viewing Peter Rabbit first) but I wasn’t expecting to pity it, and it’s hard to sustain suspense for a thing you feel sorry for. And I felt bad for Helen Mirren, who would be too good for the tripe even if she herself were a long-dead ghost merely haunting the set. The good news, though, is that she looks terrific in a widow’s mourning veil, so let’s get her in a Guillermo del Toro film, stat!

American Made

Barry Seal is a bit of a dick; he’s the kind of pilot who will inflict fake turbulence on a whole plane full of people just to wake up his snoozing co-pilot. So it’s rather a good thing that he gets out of the piloting business and into, well, okay, the piloting business, but this time for the CIA, where he’s a lot less likely to toss the cookies of poor little Jay Asshole as he tumbles me across the skies.

Barry is taking aerial reconnaissance pictures of whatever his CIA contact tells him to. The pay is peanuts but it’s exciting work, and Barry is exactly the kind of guy who would get off on it – in fact, he can’t help making videos of himself “confessing” to all of his secret CIA missions, boasting to an unseen, future audience, even though it’s the 1980s and the selfie wasn’t even technically invented yet.

If you’re picturing this guy as cocky, then you’ll understand why Tom Cruise is the perfect guy to play him. Of course, when the missions go from photographing Escobar to running drugs for him, both the money and the thrills (which the rest of us would call “risk” or even “danger” and quite possible “a really bad idea”) increase american-made.pngexponentially. In real life, Barry was, erm, a bit of a heavy set guy; the cartels referred to him as El Gordo, as in, the fat one. In the movie, the only fat thing about him is his wallet. And forget wallets – this guy had nearly every single person in a small town working for him, driving fancy-ass (and super conspicuous cars), his wife draped in jewels like she wandered off the set of a rap video. The town even built him  his own bank vault. Barry was a lot of things, but he wasn’t real great at hiding money.

The movie turns out to be an interesting mix of recklessness and cynicism. There’s a lot of energy and action pumping in all directions but not a lot to insight as to the corruption and compromise. Fun but forgettable.

 

Return to Zero

Maggie and Aaron are happily anticipating the birth of their first child, right up until the moment his heart beat can no longer be detected on the ultrasound and she’ll have to deliver her dead, full-term son.

Losing a child is possibly the worst thing you can survive, and surviving is the tough part. It’s hard to go on without the baby you expected to take home, and without any living memories to cling to, all you have is the loss. And while the mother and father will MV5BNzk5MjgwMTQtYTFiZi00MzMzLWIxY2QtNjRmZGU3ODk1NmU0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNDMwNzI@._V1_survive, often their couplehood does not. Up to 90% will have extreme marital difficulty during a bereavement, and how could they not? No two people grieve in the exact same way, even while grieving the same loss. And this kind of grief can’t help but change you.

So what’s in store for Maggie (Minnie Driver) and Aaron (Paul Adelstein)? Well, it’s going to be a very long and hard road for them, and a part of me wants to say: you’ll have to watch and see for yourself. Except you’re not really going to watch this, are you? I mean, who in their right mind would? That’s what I was asking myself when, halfway through this movie, I had a tension headache from crying so much. My face hurt.

It must be hard to let go of your grief when grief is all you have left. But life moves on whether you want it to or not.

This movie is dedicated to one stillborn baby in particular, and many more besides. I hope the making of this was cathartic to someone who needed it. I think grieving parents themselves will have a better handle on whether or not this is movie may be a comfort, or a trigger. What the film makers do recommend is that it’s watched by health care professionals as an education tool. You can find out more here.

 

Wind River

Cory is a seasoned tracker with the Fish and Wildlife service in Wind River Reservation. He hunts predators. But when he comes across the frozen body of a young woman in the snow, he gets conscripted by FBI agent Jane to help in her investigation. The cause of death hasn’t officially been listed as a homicide, but no one runs 6 miles barefoot into Wyoming’s snowy, sub-zero mountains unless she’s being chased by something REAL bad. Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) is suspicious, and Cory (Jeremy Renner) has some unresolved grief, so the two team up to uncover some very unsavoury things going on in this small community.

Avengers: Infinity War opens in theatres in just a couple of weeks. No, I haven’t randomly started writing a second review. It’s just that Sean and I have been cramming for the upcoming film by watching the Avengers back catalogue which means we’ve seen a lot of Olsen (known in the MCU as the Scarlet Witch) and Renner (Hawkeye) team up inside-movie-wind-river-renner-2-3-2cc2cc20-bc30-440c-88f6-1f5fdf320875an awful lot lately. Now here they are shivering the frigid scrub of one of the largest but least populated states in the country. Wind River Rez is served by a minuscule tribal police force – there are more Avengers than cops in Wind River. Well, that’s not saying as much as it used to, the Avengers continue to recruit to the point that they don’t all fit on the same poster anymore. But the Wind River cops you can count on one hand.

Anyway, Elizabeth Olsen has worn the wrong colour jacket in this one, so without her super powers, Jane’s restricted to good old fashioned detecting, and without much backup. Good thing Cory has no badge and no scruples – his methods are brutal, maybe, but the nature of the crimes here are so heinous they never seem out of bounds.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan astonishes once again. His style, in many ways, is commendably economical. Every word and shot that makes it to the final cut is necessary but it never feels sparse. It just effectively delivers on the thrill inherent in the premise. The chill is bone-deep, it’s emotional, it’s felt not just seen. Sheridan wants you to experience both the snow and the silence the area is known for. Navigated by Renner’s casual competence, you’ll want to stick to this protagonist for shelter and protection. But there’s a psychological depth here so significant you’ll need snowshoes just to survive.

Yes, this is bleak stuff, but it’s also reality for the Indian tribes who live on and around Wind River. Every day, Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered and our law does very little about it. Sheridan paints a careful portrait of the power plays at work, and if bearing witness is the least we can do, then watch.

Miracles From Heaven

Can an atheist such as myself give an unbiased review of a movie with a distinctly Christian bent?

For reals: I don’t think I can. And I’m doing everything I can to be fair here, trying to look beyond the bible-thumping to find something else to focus on, and maybe even, to enjoy.

Okay, let’s talk about Jennifer Garner. It took me a long time to come around to her. Back in her Alias days, I kind of disliked her, for not big reason that I can relate. She married Ben Affleck in 2005 and that softened her for me. And now that they’re divorced, I like her even more, for being stoic and strong and not running her mouth. For putting her family first. For helping him get sober even as he runs around with a new girlfriend. For being a good person, too good for stupid Ben Affleck. I suppose her loving a man who didn’t deserve her makes her pretty damn relatable. And now that she’s “free” she’s a little more present on social media – and she’s funny, and dorky, and unselfconscious. She’s also very hands-on with her 3 kids, taking them to school, to get ice cream, to church.

So I suppose this movie kind of makes sense for her – it’s family-friendly, and it’s churchy, MV5BNDJjNjM2ZTQtMGZlOS00ZDAxLWEyZTMtODMwODY1MGM3MmU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc3MjUzNTI@._V1_as evidenced by her rather large, Texan hair and the lively church services she attends, the kind with the “funny” pastor and the earnest rock band praising jebus. She plays a real-life mother of 3 named Christy Beam who goes through one of the very worst things a mother can experience: a sick kid. A very sick kid. Her middle daughter, Anna, comes down with one of those mystery illnesses that doctors can’t diagnose so they ignore, while a little girl writhes in pain and wastes away. And only because her mother is persistent does she eventually get a prognosis that isn’t very helpful: she has a severe and incurable disease where she basically doesn’t process food, and she will die from it.

So that’s terrible to watch. If you have kids, or, scratch that, any loved one at all, you know how hard it is to watch them be so sick when you are powerless to help. Even 24 hours of vomiting can undo a family – imagine if that became your life. [And side note: does everyone have a “sick bowl” – that special bucket that Moms seem to keep on hand specifically for those times you can’t quite make it to the toilet? Is that a thing in other families?]

So Christy’s faith is tested, because why would a loving god allow her innocent child to be sick? And her faith is further tested when other “Christians” accuse her of deserving it – whether through her own sins, her husband’s, or potentially even Anna’s. It’s the kind of thing that makes even a hardened atheist such as myself roll her eyes and whisper “Oh lord.” Even poor little Anna is starting to wonder why god hasn’t healed her. Is it possible he doesn’t care (or, um, exist?).

But no. This is a Christian movie, destined to be screened by church groups and almost no one else. So of course, a miracle must occur, and if possible, perhaps even the voice of god himself could make itself known. And if that doesn’t stun you into prayerful submission, someone will offer that miracles are god’s way of letting us know he’s here (don’t ask yourself what god is telling us when he lets other little kids die left and right).

So as much as I might praise Garner for her performance, I can’t really look past the message of this film, which is preaching to the choir at best, and downright insulting at worst. They wring this story for all it’s worth, and while I was sorry for the real Anna’s pain, and happy that she survived (make no mistake: there is no doubt that she will survive – the only question is how long they’ll string us along for first), I find it dangerous to label something a “miracle from heaven” when it really seems like a “coincidence on earth” and “an accident in an old tree”. Because otherwise we’d have to ask ourselves what makes one child more worthy of a miracle than any other, and I really, really, really hate where that takes us. That kind of fear and competitiveness makes nice, casserole-toting, big-haired church ladies into real bitches – so where would that leave the rest of us?

 

Wild Nights With Emily

Emily Dickinson, that is.

This movie started and I was like: ugh. They’re really flaunting their teeny-tiny budget. This is a period piece but the costumes look rented and the sets are old (but not old enough) houses and the accents are atrocious and the props are vintage perhaps but certainly not antiques. But once I let go of my authenticity bias, I relaxed and could appreciate that no, this film can’t afford to look like an ethereal Austen period piece, but it does have something important to say.

Emily Dickinson was a brilliant American poet who was never published or recognized during her lifetime because her lifestyle was not “becoming.” In order to publish them MV5BOGIyNjg0NWItYjMzMS00N2I0LTllYjUtMzBhMjJkMDgzMWM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc5OTQwMzk@._V1_posthumously, a narrative was created about her that has ever since called her a recluse, a virgin, a socially awkward spinster, which are all words attributed to women who just didn’t fit the mold. In reality, Emily had a passionate love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Many of her fieriest poems are dedicated to her – and name her. Traces of their relationship were of course literally erased from history in order to sell her poems to a conservative market. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways and this movie’s ambition is to have us reconsider the things we think we know about her.

Director Madeleine Olnek knows that letting Dickinson’s true flag fly may prove controversial, and that people generally don’t enjoy lectures about feminism, so she’s made a film that we can laugh at. And the best signal that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek is her casting of Molly Shannon as Ms. Dickinson. Molly gives Emily an energy and a joie de vivre that has been absent in our conception of her. But it’s clear from her poetry that Dickinson was in fact a woman of real passion – she loved and was loved. She was also constrained by her gender, class, and status, and all of those things have shaped our image of her. It’s only thanks to Susan’s daughter that we know of their great love and lifelong relationship, and to dedicated scholars who have uncovered the clues that were of course there all along. Don’t watch this movie if you can’t think outside the box. But do watch if you think the world needs more feminist, lesbian heroes – they’ve always existed, they just need our acknowledgement.

SXSW: American Animals

american-animals-128159American Animals is billed as a true story, and I have no reason to doubt that claim. The problem for me is an ethical one. I don’t feel good about helping people profit from their illegal activities, because it feels I am encouaging them and others to repeat that behaviour. On a related note, I also don’t want to spend any time with people who commit crimes, get caught, and then sell their stories, because they give assholes a bad name.

The criminals we meet in American Animals are a little different than expected, because they were students when they committed their crimes. I’m not sure whether their status as privileged college kids makes them more sympathetic than the average criminal, or less. It is clear that these students were not in financial need, were not stealing to feed their families and were not trying to pay off a big gambling debt to a leg-breaking mob boss. They essentially do it for kicks and, actually, I’m now sure their circumstances make them much less sympathetic. No matter how charming they are, and the real people are very charming indeed (they all feature prominently in the film in a neat hybrid documentary choice), I kept hoping they would get what was coming to them.

What made this movie work anyway, and work well, was that the script doesn’t take sides. We are allowed to feel how we want about these guys, to make up our own minds, and interestingly, to decide which of them to believe when their stories told to writer-director Bart Layton conflict with each other (which is a running gag within the movie). I did not feel at any time that Layton cared whether I liked, hated, or was indifferent to the protagonists, and it helped immensely that this movie did not gloss over or minimize these criminals’ naivete and stupidity.

American Animals is a very stylish, humourous and original film that I recommend in spite of my general misgivings about the true crime genre. My only complaint is the film dragged a bit, as by the end I just wanted them to get caught already, but that may have arisen from my desire to see the characters punished rather than any flaw in the pacing.

The film is scheduled for release on June 1 so you will soon be able to check out (and harshly judge) these (American) assholes for yourself.

Something The Lord Made

Everyone says that heart surgery is impossible. One doctor, a woman, thinks otherwise, and she challenges Dr. Alfred Blalock, a gifted surgeon, to think on it. He leaves for Johns Hopkins to undertake the trials, and he brings along Vivien Thomas to assist. Thomas is Blalock’s African-American lab technician. Thomas has all the makings of a great doctor but never had the opportunity. Blalock sees his brilliance and uses him to run the whole lab while conducting important research, but Thomas remains poorly paid, a Class-3 employee, like the maintenance crew, who are of course largely black.

It’s Thomas’s hands and tool-making that lead to the big breakthrough that will save blue babies and invent bypass surgery. Blalock defies custom and Jim Crow to bring Thomas into the surgery with him, but when credit is being doled out, Thomas is passed over.

Of course, in 1941, it’s not just professional but also personal prejudice that must be conquered. Theirs is an unlikely partnership and a difficult friendship – one that will MV5BYjI4YTIyNDQtZTBlZS00YmU0LTlhMzMtNzg4NDY1MjA2N2JkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQzMTk1ODU@._V1_be tested when social pressure doesn’t care how many lives are saved if it’s black hands doing the saving. Alan Rickman and Yasiin Bey (credited as Mos Def) star in the lead roles, and their chemistry is appropriately strained and tetchy. Arrogance, subservience, and expectations make such an interesting dynamic (for those of us watching anyway – I’m assuming much less so for those living it). This movie made me miss Rickman and admire Bey for how restrained and humble he could be in a role that must have been difficult.

This is a true story that was suppressed for many many years and obviously we owe a huge debt to this partnership and its fruit. They invented cardiac surgery. If you know anyone who’s had heart surgery, it was only possible because of these two. If this movie is at times a little slow, it’s also quite compelling, and you’ll find yourselves pulling for so many facets at once.

 

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour should maybe be called Darkest Month. In 1940, Winston Churchill was asked by the King to take over as Prime Minister. It was a shitty time to get the job: Hitler was marching his Nazi army across Europe, and the threat of invasion was uncomfortably close. During this particular month, Churchill’s first on the job, he’s got an impossible task. He must decide whether to negotiate a treaty with Hitler, or whether to stand firm against the Nazis but in so doing risk his country. And he had to do this without his party’s support or the public’s understanding or any help from the King.

Winston Churchill is an iconic and influential figure in British history and he’s been portrayed with varying success by some truly venerable actors:  Albert Finney, lead_960Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, and most recently by John Lithgow in The Crown. He is not a saintly figure. He was a great orator but had some problematic positions that hindsight can’t afford to be kind about. Portrayals of him often emphasize his omnipresent cigar, and his particular style of speech (his custom dentures helped cover up a lisp). Gary Oldman is the gentleman tasked with bring old Winnie to life in Darkest Hour, and though he’s seen chomping on the necessary cigars, he turns the performance into something truly remarkable.

Oldman is transformed by makeup and prosthetics; his jowls are considerable. His tics and posture help render him unrecognizable. He dissolves into character. As Churchill he delivers some of history’s most famous and familiar speeches and he is electrifying. Kristin Scott Thomas as his tell-it-like-it-is wife, Lily James as his newbie secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as the King help round out the cast but Darkest Hour feels like a one man show and Oldman is equal to the cast. Truthfully I don’t know many others who could carry 125 minutes of infamy, but Gary Oldman deserves his frontman status in all the Oscar pools. His portrayal is vigorous and complex and maybe even a little bit compassionate.

As for the movie itself, it’s not quite as formidable. The events are told simply, without a lot of cinematic flair, and it sometimes feels sluggish. There’s not a lot of imagination on display, and perhaps that’s an unfair criticism with the burden of historical accuracy weighing heavily, but director Joe Wright is more precise than entertaining. It’s Oldman who kept me in my seat, and I’m sure it’ll be Oldman bounding out of his on Oscar night to collect his well-deserved award.