Why is it so hard for fathers to support their sons? Why are fathers so obsessed with insisting their sons be exactly like them? On the other hand, daddy issues have been extremely fruitful for Hollywood, so…
So yeah. Homer and his dad John don’t get along. John (Chris Cooper) works in a mine like almost all of the men in their mining town do, which is kinda what makes it a mining town, and fully expects his two sons to do the same. It’s the 1950s and mining is actually starting to decline but no one wants to see the writing on the shaft, not yet anyway. It’s pick axes full steam ahead, every third word punctuated with a buckling, phlegmy cough. Except for Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal, still in his puppyhood), a lackluster student who resists his mining fate but doesn’t have a lot of other options. Until the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, is launched into orbit and Homer’s sights turn to the skies. He’s inspired to discover rocketry for himself, and his new passion takes him all the way to the national science fair, but it never wins his father’s approval.
Eep. It’s sad but there you have it: John’s not just disappointed, he’s ashamed. He’s ashamed to have a son who’s “full of himself” because he dreams of something other than a carbon copy of his parents’ life and who’s “wasting his time” teaching himself calculus and physics.
As an inspirational drama, it’s fairly predictable, but October Sky is made better by top quality performances and some real heart, learning seen as a key to a wider world, to more and better choices, for enriching life. It’s kind of a fun notion. For most of us, we’ve grown up taking space travel for granted. Moon landings are ancient history. But for Homer and his friends, it fired up their imaginations; the science followed their ideas, and let them straight to the stars.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig has a clear feminist point of view when retelling the classic tale Little Women. She doesn’t deviate much from the novel penned by Louisa May Alcott (two novels in fact – more on that later) and doesn’t need to. Alcott was surprisingly modern unconventional for her time (1832-1888), writing about domesticity and women’s work but making it clear that they all had minds and passions and ambitions of their own, even if society was set up to constrain their use.
The novels are largely classified as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction, with Jo March standing in for Alcott herself as she pulls stories from her own life to illustrate herself and her sisters transitioning from childhood to womanhood. The first novel was such a success that Alcott quickly wrote a follow up which she titled Good Wives, telling more about her characters are their lives as grown women. An avalanche of fan mail had poured in, much of it demanding a happy ending for Jo, happy meaning married of course, so Alcott wove that into her own story, but bucked against the traditional and created a second option for Jo, one she hoped would appease readers (she was, after all, needing to support her family on the earnings from her work) but would still honour the true spirit of the character she and so many others had come to love. But 150 years later, Gerwig restores Alcott’s true intentions, bending the ending just a bit, leaving it not a little ambiguous so that we may choose which of the paths was truly more important to Jo.
As a writer with 3 sisters myself, who often put on plays together in the basement (we had no attic) of our home, you can probably guess why I loved this novel from a young age. It wasn’t its radical (for the time) point of view, it was the wonderful bond of sisterhood so deeply felt within its pages. Even as the sisters fight (sometimes physically, as illustrated in the film), their attachments are secure, their love never wavering. Modern sisterhood is often portrayed as catty and competitive but we too were a home of Little Women with big personalities and are close to this day, as our Snapchat can attest.
Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the writer, not just of their childhood productions but also evidently of this retelling. Big sister Meg (Emma Watson) is the actress, Amy (Florence Pugh) the dreamer and youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the sweet, shy musician. Marmee (Laura Dern) presides over her family with unending patience and affection even as she spreads the family’s resources thin taking care of others in the community. The next door neighbours are almost as rich as they are irresistible; Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) cuts a sad figure from the window of his large but empty house, and young Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) clearly feels stifled as its only other occupant. Both men will get folded into the March family home in their own ways. Mr. Laurence is fond of young Beth, who reminds him of his own departed daughter, while Laurie and Jo get on like a house on fire, often to the exclusion of Amy who feels on so spurned.
The brilliance of Alcott is that even as some of these sisters settled into marriage and domesticity, the work never seems to judge them. Their paths are held in equal esteem to that of Jo’s. Alcott, who remained unmarried herself, was revolutionary in her thinking, in painting love and career in equal measure and equal worth. 151 years later, we still haven’t truly caught up, still trying to balance those wants and needs in a way that feels satisfying and right. Although I loved the spirit of this adaptation, I suppose I thought Gerwig might have a little more to say on the matter. I imagined that she might have stamped just a bit more of herself into the proceedings.
Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are the stand-outs among the cast; as this is the seventh movie adaptation I suppose by now we know these are the plum roles (Jo having been played by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, and Amy by Elizabeth Taylor and Kirsten Dunst). All great directors have their muses and it seems Ronan may be that for Gerwig, playing her leading lady twice now, and likely to secure an Oscar nomination. Pugh has already had a dizzyingly successful 2019, and she certainly makes the most of her scenes in this. As Gerwig must, she trims many of the novel’s excesses, choosing scenes for plot and character development and losing many of the fun and funny anecdotal ones that make the novel feel so lively and warm. But Gerwig’s adaptation is both faithful and wise. It’s only that I admire her unique voice so much that I wish she had respected her source material a little less and allowed her own perspective to shine through a little more. If it is possible to love something while being just the tiniest bit disappointed, then that’s my verdict. Gerwig gives Little Women 100% but I unfairly hoped for 110%. Still, it’s a pleasure to see a female story be so lovingly preserved through the years, in timeless and timely ways.
This weekend, I was babysitting my two adored and adorable little nephews, Brady, who is 7, and Jack, who is 5. We went to the trampoline park and the toy store, and then we came home to bake a cake for their dad, who was celebrating a birthday. We mixed and measured and layered on nearly 5 pounds of candy, which they insisted their dad would love, including banana cannons and a candy fence we dubbed the fortress of bananatude (I know, this cake sounds banana heavy).
Anyway, the kids were discussing The Muppet Babies for some reason, which Jack pronounces ‘Muffin Babies’ and is pretty sure he’s saying the same thing we are. I’m thinking about Jack a lot today because he’s being brave and having a little surgery. Mostly I’m thinking about my sister, Jack’s mom – the surgery will likely be harder on her than on him. But anyway. After we discussed which muppets were our favourites (Kermit for Jack, Fozzy for Brady, who does work in an errant “wocka wocka” into random conversations), and how we’d recently seen them at Disney World, we decided that our pre-bedtime movie would be Lego Batman. Haha, just kidding, they watched that in the car (imagine as a kid having a movie screen in your car!) – we watched The Muppet Movie!!
It’s about two brothers, the human Gary (Jason Segel) and the muppet Walter, who is obsessed with THE Muppets, who they’ve compulsively watched on television since they were kids, but who have sadly been absent from show business in recent years. Gary and his human girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) are celebrating their tenth anniversary and plan to visit L.A. to celebrate, and Walter is thrilled to be invited along with them (by Gary, and a much more reluctant Mary) as it is the home of the Muppet studios. But once there, he discovers that an evil businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is about to buy both the studio and the Muppet name right from underneath them. So he enlists Kermit to go on a roadtrip to assemble the old gang in an effort to raise the money to save the day.
Jason Segel showed his puppet fetish in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and went full kink with this script, clearly a loving tribute to a beloved franchise. There’s joy being spewed all over the screen in this film, the movie is dripping with it, and it’s fun just to sit back and get soaked in nostalgia. The script introduces a new character, Walter, with whom we re-experience the magic of the Muppets, and it’s great to see them back in action, recreating a lot of acts that we remember so fondly, in a format that we know and love. They work in plenty of celebrity cameos, both human and Muppet, and the whole thing feels like a love letter – not just to the Muppets, but to a new generation of kids just discovering them, two of whom were cuddled next to me in my bed.
At the end of the movie, when asked how they liked it, Jack exclaimed “I didn’t know Kermit had a car!” Because when you’re 5, even the most mundane things can seem momentous. The Muppets are that elusive thing that can bring out the kid in all of us.
Ben Affleck branded Charlestown the “bank robbery capital” of America in his movie about the neighbourhood, The Town. Neither cops nor statistics actually bear that statement out, but he certainly painted a picture of a rough neighbourhood where its inhabitants (“townies”) scowl at outsiders and steal everything that’s not nailed down. Sean and I have been to Boston a few times so I can’t quite recall which time we ventured out to “the town” for some dinner but I do recall deliberating whether we should. Sure the internet was calling this Moroccan restaurant one of Boston’s best, but did we feel safe?
Clearly things have changed since Ben Affleck last spent the night in Charlestown. When we visited, it was gentrified as hell, Beamers parked up and down the street. It’s also been a while since we last watched the film, so without the benefit of bellydancers or couscous, we gave it a re-watch.
Ben Affleck came on board as director only after someone else bowed out. His original cut of the movie was 4 hours long, and if you’re interested, it’s available to watch on the Blu-Ray. The studio convinced him to cut it down to 2 hours, 8 minutes for our sake, still a lengthy movie, but one that just flies by. Affleck’s character assembles a team of ruffians who brazenly rob banks and armoured trucks. He’s wanting to get out of this life, but neither his friends nor his enemies are willing to let him go. So that’s a complication. Another little wrinkle: the woman he’s currently in a relationship with is a former hostage of his, only she doesn’t know it. So that’s awkward.
You can tell Affleck is an actor-director; the action scenes are electric but the editing slows way down during character-driven scenes. He lingers over them. And he knows a great performance when he sees one. In The Town, the scene stealer was Jeremy Renner, who Casey Affleck recommended when Ben couldn’t get Mark Walhberg. Affleck has since said that Renner’s performance was so strong that he could literally save a scene by cutting to Renner looking down at a napkin.
Anyway, whether or not The Town is an accurate portrayal of the people and criminals who live there, it’s an excellent film, slick and well-paced, and it definitely benefits from great on-location shooting. The Boston on screen no longer exists, if it ever did, but it’s a great cinematic accomplishment for a hometown boy.
Pixar doesn’t have many missteps in its catalogue, but for me, the Cars franchise just never had any traction. I was only just recently able to watch the films straight through, and it made me want to put the Pixar crew on suicide watch. Thanks to films like Toy Story, I already knew Pixar had a real nostalgia fixation, but Cars crystallizes that notion. The Pixar animators are living for the past. But for the first time, I could also watch the film through the eyes of my 5 year old nephew. He and his younger brother adore the franchise. They have every iteration of every car that got even a fraction of a second’s worth of screen time. Last year for his birthday, I made him a Cars racetrack cake. So even before I’d truly seen the film, I had a kinship with it.
In this third installment, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) hits the racing circuit once again, but it’s been 11 years since the first film made its debut. McQueen isn’t the hot shot rookie anymore, he’s a veteran being challenged by faster, sleeker next generation race cars. Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is the fiercest of these new competitors, but McQueen isn’t ready to be counted out. Unfortunately, McQueen’s best efforts result in a terrible crash that many believe spells his retirement. You may remember from the first film that his old friend Doc (Paul Newman) suffered a similar fate: by the time he’d healed up\gotten road-worthy again, the racing world had moved on without him, ultimately forcing him into retirement before he was ready.
Two things about what I’ve just written: One, that crash was spectacularly animated. Disney-Pixar’s animation technology has clearly improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade. They work hard to keep the cars we know and love looking like themselves while still improving the overall quality of the animation. The crash scene is a show-stopper. But, second, so too are flash-back scenes of McQueen and his friend Doc, in a different, more emotional way. Paul Newman, who voiced him, passed away in 2008, and so did the character by the time the sequel came out. But Doc was a formative figure in McQueen’s career, and Cars 3 pays tribute to both the character and the actor in a very satisfying way.
Cars 3 focuses on McQueen’s relationship with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who is well-versed in all the newest techniques. Old school clashes with new school. In fact, watching it, I wondered if McQueen’s mid-life crisis would resonate with the kids watching it. My nephew certainly enjoyed it, though I don’t think he picked up on McQueen’s fear of being aged out\replaced. What he did like were the repetitive race track scenes, many of which I could have done without. I guess what it boils down to is: Cars 3 panders to its audience. It does not reach the heights we adults have come to expect from Pixar’s best work, but it’s exceptionally talented at marketing toys to children. There are dozens of new characters (65 to be exact) to be bought for Christmas. Is that cynical of me? Sure. Here’s the thing: I admit I was charmed by the ending, glad old McQueen had it in him. If this is the end of the franchise, it’s a pretty noble note to go out on. But as a cynical, toy-buying aunt, I can’t help but feel that this Cruz character has the whiff of spin-off to her, and I’m not convinced that Cars 3 bought into its own message of retiring with dignity.
Truth tellers: every family has one. They say mean shit and then hide behind its being “the truth” as if no harm ever came from telling the truth. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that the truth can be painful, can be private, and can be left unsaid. And as humans with emotional intelligence and self-control, we have no excuse not to hold back. My grandmother is a truth-teller, often leaving hurt feelings in the wake of her “plain-spokenness”. I don’t always understand what has kept my grandparents together for 66 years (well, okay, probably Catholicism, and good old fashioned not believing in divorce), but my grandmother is not a pill-popper and my grandfather is not a suicidal alcoholic. So there’s that.
When Bev (Sam Shepard) goes missing, his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) rallies the troops. Daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is already there, always there, but it’s favoured daughter Barb (Julia Roberts) who really matters, who will make everything better when she arrives.
Favourites: every family has these too. Maybe it’s the one who reminds you most of yourself, or maybe the complete opposite. And maybe it changes over time, favouring the best achiever, and then the one who produces the most grandchildren, and then favouring the one who sticks closest to home. There isn’t always a rhyme or reason but we do seem to agree that we must never, ever admit it out loud. But your kids know, just the same as you knew it of your parents. It’s the way of life. Most people are just pretty good at being diplomatic about it.
Violet’s not. Violet’s pretty nasty about it. Ivy is the good one, but Barb is the favourite. Karen (Juliette Lewis) doesn’t really even figure, but it’s mostly nice when she shows up. And she does show up eventually, because her father’s bloated body is fished out of the river and now it’s not his disappearance they’re dealing with, it’s his death. The dynamic between the sisters is fragile, and with Violet twisted with grief and pills, she lets her truth flag fly. And you know how gets caught in the crossfire? Everyone.
The passing on of pain: Violet and her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) were abused by their mother. Violet is so self-righteous about her own pain that she can’t fathom the pain she causes others, or she doesn’t think it rates. Violet is cruel to her daughters, and Mattie Fae can’t seem to stand her son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). That’s the way abuse works, it trickles down the generations. Is Barb messing up her own daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin)? She’s suffering too.
Family secrets: What’s a family without its secrets? Maybe secrets are the cement that hold us all together. Only Ivy and Charles know they’re in love, despite being cousins. Only Mattie Fae knows that Ivy and Charles aren’t cousins, they’re siblings. Only Barb and her husband (Ewan McGregor) know they’re separated. Only the devoted nursemaid knows what Karen’t fiance is trying to do with Barb’s young daughter. And only Violet knows that Bev’s death was actually a suicide.
You’ve got to have nerves of steel to get through August: Osage County. The family drama is raw as fuck. But Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts put in incredibly strong performances amid a top-notch cast that never puts so much as a baby toe wrong. It’s note perfect, it’s just not pretty. A lifetime of pain is more poisonous than all the pills in the world. This film, based on a brilliant play by Tracy Letts, is a force.
It’s possible that Live By Night will give hope to mopey gangsters everywhere by raising awareness of their difficult, stressful lives. It can’t be easy making money hand over fist by preying on the working class, especially when other bad guys are constantly trying to pick fights with you. In that small way, Ben Affleck (a.k.a. the director of Argo and the Town) has done those poor souls a great service by finally addressing this important topic and bringing their suffering to light.
It’s clearly long past time for Matt Damon to stage an intervention. Affleck has lost his way and next on his list of mopey outlaws is the Batman. There can now be no doubt that Affleck will use that movie like he used this one, to share his people’s plight by bringing more one-percenter depression to the silver screen. I can neither tolerate another bad Batman movie nor refrain from seeing whatever schlock is put onscreen starring a comic book character (I am so far gone I thought the Logan trailer looked good). Help me, Matt Damon, you’re my only hope!
Putting aside my Batman-related angst and focusing on Live By Night, Affleck is the core of what is wrong with the movie, which I suppose is inevitable since he directs, stars and wrote the screenplay. I suspect he’s even disappointed in himself. He should be, because if nothing else the role he has created for himself is a terrible one. The lead character is remarkably unsympathetic and no amount of teary-eyed inner conflict or monotone monologuing in voiceover form (because this character doesn’t like to express feelings aloud) can change that. On top of that, his hats make him look ridiculous, and there are so many hats.
Affleck the writer/director also does himself no favours by all but omitting action scenes from this gangster tale. Worse, the film’s few action scenes are as a jumble of tommy-gun-wielding maniacs shooting at each other that leave the viewer unclear as to who’s on whose side (spoiler alert: the guys doing the killing are the ones on Affleck’s character’s side). Affleck also completely wastes Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, and most egregiously Agent Coulson (though Jay took Chris Messina’s bad teeth and pot belly hardest but at least Messina got a decent amount of screen time).
In case you can’t tell by now, Live By Night is not a good movie, not by a long shot. I should have seen Patriots Day instead. Did you hear that, Affleck? I should have seen a Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg joint rather than this mess. You’re an Oscar winning writer, dammit! Go think about what you’ve done and get your shit together before you ruin Batman too.