Tag Archives: based on a true story

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.

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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.

Green Book

Tony Lip was a tough guy bouncer at the Copa, Copacabannnna, the hottest spot north of Havana. But in the fall of 1962, the Copacabana closed for renovations, and Tony Lip was temporarily out of work with a wife and two kids to feed at home. Some wise guys seem to imply they might have some “work” for him, but he avoids that by taking work with Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class piano player embarking on a tour of the Southern United States. Tony isn’t thrilled that Dr. Shirley is a black man – he’s not too fond of them generally, but the money is too good to turn down, even if it takes him away from his family in the two months before Christmas.

Tony (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) are an odd couple on a road trip. Tony’s crude and crass and unrefined; he’s rarely left the neighbourhood where he grew up. Dr. Shirley is a gentleman in every respect. He’s cultured and educated. His MV5BZDE1N2U2MGUtM2JiNi00OTMzLTk2MjAtMmM0ZmQyNGZhNjg0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,882_AL_manners are as impeccable as his dress. But when Tony boasts that he’s “blacker” than Shirley, who doesn’t know Aretha Franklin or fried chicken, he’s only showing what a narrow understanding of race he has, because when Shirley is repeatedly subjected to racist indignities and abuses, Tony is shocked while Shirley is not. The “Green Book” to which the title refers is an actual motorist’s handbook, which, for $1.25 teaches people how to navigate segregation and not get lynched while traveling down south. I feel that I might have sold a Red Book for $1.50 that simply said: don’t go. But Dr. Shirley’s going on purpose, knowing it will be hard, but feeling a responsibility to do his part in challenging the system. And white people play their part, paying to enjoy\appropriate his culture while refusing to dine with him in the same room.

It’s a tough subject matter that director Peter Farrelly makes palatable with humour and a gentle approach. Mostly, though, he relies on the magnificent chemistry between Mortensen and Ali, who are both wonderful. Ali has the bearing to makes Shirley’s multiple doctorates feel plausible, and the physicality to make his piano-playing feel real (it’s not, but it’s the best we’ve seen on screen thanks to Kris Bowers, his incredibly talented double). Together, Ali and Mortensen are magic, their scenes positively crackling. And when Dr. Shirley plays, there’s so much energy, the music wells up inside you.

It’s inspiring to see a time of social change reflected in one relationship, how we really can make a difference on an individual level. It’s unsettling to watch the worst racism unfold and understand that 2018 is not exactly beyond this stuff – in fact, we may need this reminder now more than ever. However, there are some problems that I have with the movie. Namely, that the story is Tony’s to tell. That he’s a hero because he consented to drive a black man, while the black man who has a litany of actual accomplishments is quite literally relegated to the back seat, a supporting character in what should have been his film.  Why are we still telling black stories through white eyes? Why is racism only safe to talk about when it’s a white experience? Why do I know how Tony launders his underwear but know so little about Dr. Shirley, a highly educated genius musician who has traveled the world but whose only meaningful relationships come from hired help? Dr. Shirley learned to play piano from his mother, whom we know nothing about. His only living relative is an estranged brother, whom we know nothing about. Dr. Shirley had to be above reproach at all times, constantly turning the other cheek even after he’d run out of cheeks; he had to be perfect just to exist in white spaces, just to be invited into them, briefly, under strict, inhumane conditions, on white people’s terms, and then to leave again as soon as they stopped having use for him, and to smile and pretend to be grateful about the whole thing. This is a white person’s black movie, the kind of movie white people can feel superior watching because they manage to be less racist than Alabamans in 1962. Pat ourselves on the back! Meanwhile, this is the white guy’s story, written by a white guy, directed by another white guy, with Oscar buzz somehow reserved for the white actor who dropped the n-word at a screening for the film. This is the kind of Best Picture nod meant to appease diversity problems, but it’s more about white comfort than black experience. Movies like Sorry To Bother You, Blindspotting, Blackkklansman, and even Black Panther, are better movies with more to say, and they’re told with black voices, which is why they’re more easily overlooked. But fuck white comfort. This shit should make us uncomfortable. If you’re talking about racism and worried about hurting white people’s feelings, you’re doing it wrong, and it’s time to stop.

The Mercy

Donald Crowhurst is hawking navigational tools for sailing that nobody really wants. When a contest is announced that would reward the fastest sailor to navigate the globe without stopping, Crowhurst decides it’s the perfect way to showcase his product, generate press, and make himself known. He’s the last man in the water, but he hopes to make up for it by speed. The problem is, he’s just a hobbyist, an amateur sailor, and he’s going up against the world’s best.

Of course, sailing around the world is the kind of competition that’s very solitary, and MV5BMjMwMTE2Mjc5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzk5NTAyOTE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_difficult to measure. The irony is that though he’s a master of navigation, sailing-wise, it’s being away from his family that is disorienting to him. Out on his boat, alone for months, never seeing land, rarely hearing the voices of his children, Donald (Colin Firth) goes slightly mad, as one would. It’s a test of endurance, but also of mental fortitude. Though the sea and the elements thwart him at every turn, he himself is his biggest obstacle, and every day is a struggle not to quit.

At home, his wife Clare (Rachel Weisz) tries to keep the family afloat while putting on a cheery face for the children even though she frequently doesn’t know if her husband is dead or alive.

Because they’ve bothered to make a movie out of this ‘incredible true story,’ I thought I knew how it would go. I was wrong. The Mercy doesn’t exactly break new ground cinematically, but thematically it’s as crushing as it is absorbing. Colin Firth is astonishing. Frequently on screen alone, his descent into madness is magnetic. It glues your eyeballs to the screen. Rachel Weisz is no slouch, of course, but as the little woman back home, she’s given much less to do other than look fetching in a head scarf. However, when the film does call on her to be something more, you know she answers is as only she could.

The Mercy is a big lungful of salt water. It’s a surprise. It gives you a jolt. If Colin Firth is the film’s compass, Rachel Weisz is its buoy.

 

Instant Family

Ellie and Pete are happily married and finally starting to make a profit flipping houses. They seem content, but an offhand comment has them reevaluating their future. Are they really that couple who will never have children?  Ellie (Rose Byrne) feels ready to be a mom, but Pete (Mark Wahlberg) worries he’ll be an “old dad.” That’s how they come to consider adoption – it’s not altruism or idealism, it’s a solution to a problem: older kids need homes too, and adopting them is kind of like making up for a few lost years.

Pete and Ellie take a fostering class, where the teachers (a very hilarious Octavia MV5BOWZlNDE0ZTItZjViZC00YjI5LWFiYTItNDgwMzc3MjViZThkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_Spencer, and the always hilarious Tig Notaro, playing her straight(ish) woman) let their students know that they’re in for some VERY hard work. Ellie and Pete end up fostering (with the hope to adopt) not one but three siblings, the oldest of whom is a dreaded teenager. And it turns out that ‘hard work’ is putting it almost hysterically mildly. Parenting is hard. Foster parenting is the stuff movies are made of.

Writer-director Sean Anders wrote this script based on his own experience with adoption. It’s heart-warming and wholesome in a PG-13 way, the kind of way you almost instinctively want to dismiss or diminish. But the truth is, this movie exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. It’s funny, consistently funny, not uproariously, but good for lots of thigh slaps and chuckles (it netted a few tears from my corner as well).

Mark Wahlberg plays the exact same guy he does in all the rom-coms, and I suppose Rose Byrne does too, but she’s so much more magnetic and facile. Spencer and Notaro add a lot of light to the proceedings, as does Margo Martingale, although, when does she not?

This story is told rather conventionally, and Anders has no great directorial tricks up his sleeves. But when a script is doing its job as ably as this, you don’t need so much artifice. I’ve seen too many uneven comedies lately where the good jokes are buried under long stretches of monotony and under-cooked story. This, finally, is a script that’s been adequately work-shopped  before bringing it to the screen. The audience rewarded it not just with easy laughter, but with applause, and how often does that happen?