Tag Archives: based on a true story

The Upside

Dell has a record and a chip on his shoulder. He’s looking for work just enough to appease his parole officer but not enough to actually get a job. But then one lands in his lap anyway.

Now, to be fair: Dell (Kevin Hart) hasn’t done anything to earn this job. Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) has lined up plenty of qualified, competent health care aides to interview for the position. But Philip (Bryan Cranston) doesn’t want the good ones. Philip is disgustingly wealthy, newly paraplegic, and harboring a death wish. No one else is prepared to respect his DNR and he’s hoping a fuck up like Dell will mean merciful death – and soon.

The Upside is an American remake of  a French film called The Intouchables. It was wildly popular in France and it’s a well-made film, but both iterations have MV5BODE2NDI3NzUxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTIzMDQxNzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_the same problem. They’re about a wealthy white dude introducing a poor black man to “culture.” The condescension implicit in the premise is so problematic it’s hard to look beyond it. Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston have passable chemistry but you’re going to love or hate this film, mostly depending on whether you can embrace the formula. Because The Upside doesn’t even pretend to deviate from The Intouchables’ formula. Not for one stinking minute.

Old white rich guy and slightly younger ex-con have a lot to learn from each other. Philip is grieving the loss of his wife (which never amounts to anything) and his legs, while Dell is dealing with repercussions over the loss of his freedom, and his family. Not that he ‘lost’ his family so much as neglected them and now thinks he can win them back by throwing money at the situation.

The direction is nothing special. The movie relies on the whole ‘based (VERY LOOSELY) on a true story’ shtick and it’s very familiar and uninspired. The performances are fine; the best thing you can say about them is that they won’t be remembered in anyone’s career retrospective. But none of this really matters because at the end of the day (or the start of the film), the movie just feels racist and wrong.

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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

It’s hard out there for a single woman. And there is perhaps nothing more illustrative of that fact than the woman who stayed with Ted Bundy, infamous serial killer.

Liz (Lily Collins) is the dumb bitch and Ted (Zac Efron) is the charming son of a gun who gets away with it.

Liz wants to believe him. Or she wants to want to believe him. Sure it’s increasingly hard when the convictions start rolling in and other states start throwing in their charges as well. The country is littered with the bodies of dead young women. It’s getting tricky to be in love with Ted Bundy. But no matter how much evidence piles up against him, no MV5BMTk5NzEyNTY0M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA4MTU4NjM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,893_AL_matter how much sense it makes to her rational self, the heart is a stubborn muscle, and it often betrays common sense. There’s an early scene wherein Liz and Ted go dog shopping at a local shelter. She walks by some real cuties, including the unicorn of dog shelters, a real life golden retriever puppy, but she sets her eyes on a dog even I thought looked suspicious. “It’s going to tear her throat out,” I said, half joking. And then it turned aggressive a split second later. Liz is as good at choosing dogs as she is at choosing men.

Liz isn’t the only one who doesn’t take him seriously enough. The cops often have him behind bars only to let him slip away. One mustache later and he’s picking up women again. And, you know, brutally murdering them. But the movie completely glosses over those parts. Rather it focuses on Bundy’s manipulation of the women in his life, of the truth and what it means, of the judicial system itself, of the media and its perception of him. Bundy is the ring master of a certified media circus, and a continued magnet for a certain brand of chick who insist they find him “dreamy.”

Strangely, the film seems more in contempt of the women who love and help and care for him than it is of the man convicted of so many vile and wicked crimes. It’s an odd take I’m not sure the world needed it. The only thing that saves this movie from itself is Zac Efron’s performance, and I bet you never thought you’d hear anyone say that in your life. As Bundy, Efron is a man of misplaced convictions, a man who believes his own lies – and his own hype. He’s a shark, but he’s also a master of charm and good manners when he’s not ripping into your flesh. And while it’s a compelling performance, it’s also part of the problem. The movie with the long, annoying title shows all the facets of Bundy’s personality that a woman might fall for, and very little of the terrible violence he perpetrated on dozens of innocent victims.

The Highwaymen

In 1934, the infamous criminal duo Bonnie & Clyde were seemingly unstoppable. Their crime spree was turning more serious and their body count higher each day. Though they enjoyed almost movie-star status in certain circles, they were an embarrassment to the law enforcement they continued to evade – including Hoover’s FBI men.

The Texas Rangers have long since been disbanded – too lawless, too unsupervised. But Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) manages to convince Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) that since her new police force has proved ineffectual, perhaps what is needed is just a couple of highwaymen, doing things the old fashioned way.

Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) chafes in his retirement, and though he hasn’t even held a MV5BMjM2NDg5NjQzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzMyNzI5NjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_gun in his hand in years, he doesn’t take much convincing. Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) is a little more reluctant but pride is a tricky thing.

Following Bonnie & Clyde’s bloody trail is a complicated thing. These criminals are hailed as heroes by some, protected by family and friends. The men discuss whether they could shoot a woman, if it came to that. Neither really want it to come to that, but a job is a job is a job. It’s morally muddy ground maybe, but the script is a little shy about saying so, so it merely tiptoes around these dirty puddles, relying too heavily on the grizzled buddy-cop dynamic of Costner and Harrelson. And it’s not a bad dynamic at that: the two do a good job of seeming beaten down by their lives and their choices. But the movie plays it safe, and frankly, sometimes boring. Well, not boring, exactly, but not nearly as jittery and exciting as you might think literally any movie remotely associated with Bonnie & Clyde would be. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Police work isn’t all car chases and whizzing bullets. Nor was Bonnie and Clyde’s life of crime nearly as glamourous as it was made out to be at the time. The actual truth is lost to us – no witnesses are alive today, and those that talked at the time tended to conflict each other’s stories quite a bit.

I imagine this movie will appeal most to a certain demographic: those inclined to beaten-up recliners and canned nuts. It’s a bit of a dad movie.

The Old Man & The Gun

Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is a charming old rascal. He meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek) on the side of the road in front of her broken down truck while still in the getaway portion of a bank heist. Would she believe him even if he told her?

Based on a true story, Forrest Tucker was a Texan bank robber who escaped San Quentin at the age of 70 and went on yet another crime spree in the early 80s. Well, his whole life, really, when he wasn’t in prison, which he often was. But then he always escaped and went straight back to the only thing that ever made him happy. His victims would often note how happy he looked, how polite he was. A real mv5bmta2odriy2utnzq1zi00zjzklwe4mwyty2u1odiznty2yzc2xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq@._v1_gentleman. John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is the cop who just happens to be making a deposit on the morning of one of Forrest’s robberies. He vows to chase him and his Over-The-Hill Gang (Danny Glover, Tom Waits).

The Old Man & The Gun isn’t just a tribute to a bygone era of movie-making; it looks and feels like it’s part of the period. It’s the slowest-moving heist movie you’ll see this century, and not just because Redford’s hips aren’t what they used to be. It’s just that director David Lowery isn’t so interesting in the cops and robbers part as he is in making a fitting tribute to Robert Redford. The camera lingers on his impish grin, still capable of commanding a scene after all these years. The film is an homage to him in many ways – to his past filmography, to his status as a living legend. If this is indeed Redford’s last role (he has announced his intention to retire from acting), you couldn’t have found a better one. Lowery reworked the script, molding it from true crime to something more of a love letter to one of his favourite actors.

Greenfingers

Colin Briggs catches a rare break in prison: he gets transfered to one of those mythical low-security, cushy prisons where there are no bars and the food is edible. Colin (Clive Owen) is too cool for it though. He refuses to bond with his elderly roommate Fergus, or to request interesting work. He pulls toilet duty of course, but it’s not long before the warden saves him from himself and assigns him to gardening.

Colin doesn’t know manure from jackshit about gardening, but it’s better than toilets, so he takes lots of books out of the library and eventually works himself up into quite a passionate froth about flowers. The warden is so impressed by the gardening crew’s efforts and so is Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren), who just happens to be the author of several of those books about gardening. Between them, they arrange for some work release – for the prisoners to leave the grounds and work on a9u47-ab73tb7ktr3-full-image_gallerybackground-en-us-1535774499460._ri_sx940_designing and planting gardens for wealthy clients. Their work is so renowned that they’re invited to participate in the Great British Gardening Show, which is not at all what it’s really called, but I forget the name and don’t care to look it up. Of course, they’re prisoners, and not everyone is open-minded about that.

It’s sort of nice to see a prison warden who believes in rehabilitation, and who treats his prisoners like human beings. This movie is apparently based on a true story; the inmates of Her Majesty’s Prison Leyhill actually did excel at gardening. And finding something that they’re good at, that they can be recognized and praised for, is clearly strengthening and healing for men who have otherwise such bleak futures. It wouldn’t have to be gardening of course, but it’s nice that it is because of course the contrast between delicate flowers and big burly murderers is pretty damn satisfying.

So much of British cinema is devoted to this formula: the underdog triumphing over adversity. You root for the prisoners of course, but you won’t get overly invested because the characters aren’t that knowable, and everyone besides Colin is pretty much just petunias (haha, that’s a gardening joke for “filler”). It’s meant, of course, to be charming and up-lifting, but it’s actually quite bland and manages only mild mediocrity. Worth checking out if you miss Clive Owen’s mug, or if you have a thing for Helen Mirren in oversized floral hats, but otherwise fit for the pruning pile.

The Catcher Was A Spy

Mo Berg was a real-life baseball player, a queer, an intellect, and a spy. In the off-season, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services. When the Americans get an inkling that the Germans may be working on a nuclear bomb, they sent Berg overseas to find the brilliant physicist, Werner Heisenberg.

If Heisenberg is indeed working on a bomb, then he must be executed for the cause, right? But we don’t want to sacrifice a perfectly good brain if we don’t have to, and Heisenberg (of the famed Heisenberg principle, in fact) is the second most sciency scientist in the world (sucks to be Einstein’s contemporary – must be a little like being my sister, I assume).

Paul Rudd stars as our dashing but enigmatic hero. He does indeed play catcher behind MV5BNDYyNjMxNDUwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTUwNDgyNDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_the plate, and if he plays it anywhere else, well, the movie’s inconclusive about that. In fact, Berg was so secretive, he was destined to be a spy. Baseball was just a funny pit stop along the way – but while he may have been a third string catcher, he was a first string spy. Just perhaps not a first rate choice for biopic.

Now, understand that Paul Rudd is adorable as always and totally up to the task. He’s propped up by able performances by Jeff Daniels, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Strong, and Guy Pearce. But the script lets them all down by failing the man himself. He is no doubt an interesting man, but if The Catcher Was A Spy is a weak spy thriller, it’s also a diluted character study because the writer just won’t stick his neck out. Berg risked his life for his country, but between screen writer Robert Rodat and director Ben Lewin, those boys won’t risk accidentally making a good movie. Instead, they play it safe, and frankly, dry. Mo Berg was clearly a curious and compelling guy. The movie has none of that, no quirk, no zing, no point, really. End title cards have to deliver the punch, and I didn’t come here to read, y’all.

 

Welcome to Marwen

Mark Hogancamp was beaten nearly to death by 5 men outside a bar where he’d casually mentioned enjoying wearing women’s shoes. When he awoke from his coma 9 days later, every memory of his life over the last 38 years was gone. Just gone. His life was changed forever. Formerly a talented artist and illustrator, Mark could no longer wield a pencil well enough to write his own name. Not that he remembered his art anyway; looking at his own stuff was no different than looking at a stranger’s. Imagine how sad, how profoundly sad it would make you to know that you had been capable of such beauty and now you don’t even have the memories.

So that broken man is who Mark is when we first meet him in Welcome to Marwen. He is crippled with PTSD. He lives in fear. He’s over-medicating. Mark (Steve Carell) has an ingenious coping mechanism, though. Unable to do art the way he used to, his innate MV5BMTg5Y2M2YWEtNzU5OS00MzlkLWE5YWItZDliZGE1NzhjOWY4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_abilities are leaking out however they can, and now Mark is a photographer, and his subjects are quite unusual. Hogancamp has constructed a village in his backyard, a village called Marwen, which is inhabited by dolls. He sets the dolls up in war-time scenarios, and each one represents someone special to him in real life, namely the women who care for him. Living among Marwen’s women is Captain Hogie, the stand-in for Hogancamp, a tough soldier who lives his life fearlessly. And so he should, because as invariably as he is captured and beaten by the Nazis hiding on the outskirts of town, his lovely ladies come to his rescue, time and time again.

Carell has made it his business to understand the outsider, and Mark is more wounded, more vulnerable than most. But he’s not defeated. He’s fighting back in small ways, in brave ways. He is a complex man and Carell embraces that. I’m just not sure his director does. Robert Zemeckis prefers to stay away from the tricky stuff. He’s made a feel-good movie where perseverance triumphs over adversity. I suppose that’s nice, but I’m not sure it’s a good fit for the story, or true to Hogancamp’s experience. Likewise, Zemeckis seems puzzled about how to treat the women of Marwen. The movie incorporates some truly incredible animated sequences as we see the dolls come to life and act out the scenarios that Hogancamp devises for them. The animation is informed by motion-capture and it looks really, really cool. Voiced by some very talented actresses (Janelle Monae, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie), the dolls are absolute bad-asses. In real life, Hogancamp’s photography of them has resulted in gallery shows around the world. But they’re also comfort items. The dolls are how he deals with his fear, they’re talismans, protectors, therapeutic symbols of safety and security. Zemeckis seems more interested in treating them like sex dolls, which is a creepy impulse, and one that is not reflected in the dialogue, so it’s like the story disagrees between what it shows us and what it tells us, and that discord can be quite distracting.

I think the actors involved in this project strove for an authenticy that perhaps Zemeckis overlooked, or failed to value. Which is too bad, because this movie had real oddball possibilities. It’s still a pretty incredible story, and I don’t mean to discourage anyone from seeing it, because Hogancamp’s story is worth being told (although there is a book and a documentary that may do it better). The way Hogancamp’s experience informs and describes trauma is unique and real and complicated, but I don’t think Zemeckis trusts us to get it, or else he doesn’t get it himself. He gets such a stiffie from all his special effects that he robs the movie of what actually may have made it special. We shouldn’t be dissecting a man’s trauma just to give it the syrupy Hollywood treatment. There was an opportunity to be real, to be honest, to show life’s ugliness and be brave and bold about it, but Zemeckis took the road too frequently traveled. He played it safe, and disappointing, and the movie just can’t live up to the truth.