‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’ – Cynicism Be Damned!

The Art of Racing in the Rain movie poster

Okay, I get why people in general are being resistant to and are cynical about this particular movie. A story told from a dog’s point of view? Even I had trepidations as I entered the theater to check this inescapably sentimental feature which looks to have many visuals of an adorable dog or two. Was this dog going to have a “Mr. Ed” relationship with his owner? How many scenes would we get of the dog sniffing another dog’s butt? Trust me, I have been to dog parks and I have seen them do this endlessly. And considering how this dog’s owner is a race car driver, will the dog be able to advise him of how to keep sliding out of control on the track even if it isn’t raining? Indeed, it says a lot about a race car driver who can drive in the rain without skidding or getting into an accident, and only so many can pull this off.

Well, it should be noted how Garth Stein’s novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” upon which this movie is based, brought about a similar reaction as Stein’s literary agent laughed at its concept from the get go. As a result, Stein fired him and had the last laugh as the novel spent over 150 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Now it has finally been turned into a motion picture, and I have to admit I was truly taken in by it. While it breaks no new ground, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” moved me in a way I did not expect, and it is not at all an exercise in emotional manipulation or filled with an endless supply of cringe-inducing moments.

We meet Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), a race car driver, as he stops by a farm to see the puppies on display. One of them is quick to capture his attention, and we can see how quickly the two form a bond which we know will never be broken. It’s a sweet moment as even the most jaded viewer has to admit how cute puppies are, and no Sarah McLachlan song is utilized at any time to sell us on this connection (for the record, I love Sarah McLachlan).

Denny comes to name his new dog Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, the Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur who made the kind of car I keep asking my parents for at Christmas time. Enzo completes the bond between him and Denny by taking a piss on his apartment floor, and this is after Denny hurriedly takes him outside to pee on the grass. Still, like Jack Nicholson in “Wolf,” he had to mark his territory before being properly potty trained.

Throughout “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” we are privy to Enzo’s inner thoughts as he spends his days watching races on television with Denny, and he even goes with him to races to where he realizes how racing serves as a metaphor for life. Moreover, Enzo becomes infinitely keen on being reincarnated as human in the next life after watching a documentary about a particular Mongolian legend. Can he make this happen? Does the answer really matter?

The filmmakers prove to be very knowledgeable about dogs, and this made the movie especially interesting to me. A dog’s sense of smell really comes to the forefront as Enzo eventually realizes a certain character is very ill, and it breaks the heart to see the concern on his face which cannot be verbalized to this person. It was at this point I wished dogs could talk because this particular character could have gotten medical attention a heck of a lot sooner. Imagine what Enzo would say, “Hey buddy! You’re sick! See a doctor now or I’ll chase you up a tree!”

But while the characters cannot hear Enzo’s inner thoughts, we can thanks to Kevin Costner. Upon learning he would be voicing Enzo, I was concerned Costner would give Enzo’s narration the same monotone delivery he gave John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” and that movie is a bona fide classic. However, he captures Enzo’s wise nature which is not easily corrupted by money, greed or an inescapable addiction to cellphones, and not once does he overplay a single moment which is much appreciated. Even as Enzo groans about Eve (the ever so radiant Amanda Seyfried) coming into Denny’s life as a certain line of dialogue from “Killing Zoe” flashed through my mind (“never let a woman come between two men”), Costner shows how Enzo evolves through each new person who comes into his life and of the challenges thrown in his way.

Directing “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is Simon Curtis, the filmmaker who first introduced us to Daniel Radcliffe in his version of “David Copperfield,” and who also directed one of the most underappreciated movies of 2017 with “Goodbye Christopher Robin.” This could have been an emotionally overwrought cinematic experience, but Curtis keeps things grounded in a certain reality we can all relate to, and he is very careful to not milk our emotions too much throughout. Just when I thought things would start getting overly sentimental, Curtis succeeds in keeping everything in check to where any cynical thoughts we had about this movie were completely done away with.

I should also add I saw this movie with my parents who have in fact read Stein’s novel, and they both confirmed Mark Bomback’s screenplay is very faithful to the source material. Yes, there are predictable moments such as when a character dies prematurely or when the grandparents (played by Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan) sue Denny for custody of his and Eve’s daughter, Zoe (the delightful Ryan Kiera Armstrong), believing Denny’s career will leave him little time to be at home. My parents, however, reminded me how people with money often do this in life more often than I realize, so this is clearly not so shallow plot device to get us all miffed at the grandparents.

And yes, this movie starts out with the inevitable, with Enzo in his last days lying on the floor and waiting for Denny to come home. Curtis eventually circles back to this moment as we are reminded of the unbreakable bond between humans and dogs, and it leads to a lovely moment where Enzo gets one last spin in a classic car. Few movies in 2019 have gotten me choked up, but this one did.

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” is not a masterpiece of cinema, but it does its job and gives us an emotionally fulfilling time at the movies. Its take on dogs is very thoughtful, and if you were never keen on owning an animal before, this movie may change your mind. It’s a shame this project has proven to be a hard sell for audiences as its storyline seems too ridiculous on paper to be taken seriously. I cannot really blame people for having a cynical attitude to this material as I certainly did, but what results is a very good movie which will check your cynicism at the door if you give it a chance. And if you never thought about owning a dog before, seeing this movie just might change your mind.

As for myself, I am in no hurry to own any pets as stuffed animals, especially Eeyores, are more than enough for me. And to Curtis’ and Bomback’s credit, there is a scene where Denny has to take Enzo to the vet, and we are reminded of just how much caring for a pet can cost. The love of a pet can be a great thing, but it can also be seriously expensive. Still, there is no doubt in mind we can get more love from a dog than Chevy Chase did in “Funny Farm.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Jennifer Lawrence on Her Oscar-Winning Role in ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2012.

She played a hard-bitten young woman in “Winter’s Bone” and portrayed the heroic Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games,” but now actress Jennifer Lawrence gets her most challenging role yet in David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” Starring opposite Bradley Cooper, she plays Tiffany who has been recently widowed and speaks bluntly about what’s on her mind without a single apology. The eccentricities and quirkiness of the character required an actress who is wise beyond her years, and Lawrence proved to be the one who could pull it off.

Lawrence ended up auditioning for Russell via Skype from her father’s home in Louisville, Kentucky. In talking with Rebecca Ford of The Hollywood Reporter, she said what attracted her to the role was that she didn’t understand who Tiffany was. I think this is what made her performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” especially good because this lack of understanding forced her to make some important discoveries along with the character. A lot of times actors are expected to know their characters inside and out, but here is a case where an actor can grow along with who they are playing.

“I was very confused by her,” Lawrence told Ford. “She was just kind of this mysterious enigma to me because she didn’t really fit any basic kind of character profile. Somebody who is very forceful and bullheaded is normally very insecure, but she isn’t. I was driven to her to kind of discover that personality a little bit more.”

“Silver Linings Playbook” is based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick, and in the book, Tiffany is described as being a goth chick. Lawrence told Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast how in addition to getting her hair dyed black, she was also going to get her tongue, and possibly other parts of her body, pierced. But Lawrence later came to see how Tiffany needed to be made less intense of a character because, just like with Cooper’s character of Pat Solitano, she needed to be made relatable enough for the audience to want to follow her.

But unlike Cooper’s character who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lawrence did not try to discover what Tiffany’s psychological diagnosis was. In the film we learn Tiffany’s husband was a cop who was killed in the line of duty three years ago, and she still hasn’t gotten past his death. Both she and Cooper benefitted greatly from focusing on what their characters’ personal problems were as opposed to what a doctor may have described their problems as being.

“I didn’t ever feel like Tiffany had a condition. I felt like Tiffany did something and made no apologies,” Lawrence told Setoodeh. “She’s like, ‘Yeah, I fucked everyone in my office. I was mourning the death of my husband.’ For me, I gained weight and lay around.”

Yes, Lawrence had to gain weight to play Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook.” However, Lawrence ended up telling Melena Ryzik of the New York Times she was actually thrilled to put on the pounds as “that never happens in a movie.” There is something really refreshing about hearing an actor, any actor, get excited about putting on weight as there are far too many svelte individuals in Hollywood. Actresses are especially held up to a ridiculous physical standard which can be far from healthy, so seeing Lawrence defy such standards makes her seem both refreshingly intelligent and down to earth.

Ironically, the thing which almost kept Lawrence from being cast was she was much younger than her character. On top of that, she is also 15 years younger than her co-star Cooper which complicated matters even further. Russell, however, told Ford of The Hollywood Reporter how he was won over by Lawrence because she is “wise beyond her years.”

“She plays kind of ageless. She can be 30 or 40 or 20,” Russell told Ford.

Russell also told Ryzik that Lawrence is one of the “least neurotic people” he has ever met in his life. The more he talked about the actress’ confidence and vulnerability, the more it seems like Lawrence was the only logical choice to play Tiffany in “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“She (Lawrence) always offers her opinion,” Russell said to Ryzik. “She’s not afraid to talk to anybody about anything, and yet she can also turn around and have an 18-year-old’s ‘nevermind.’ That’s their version of being vulnerable.”

Jennifer Lawrence’s quick ascent to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars today was no mistake. After her breakthrough turn in “Winter’s Bone,” she has continued to impress audiences with her talent in films like “The Beaver,” “The Hunger Games” and “X-Men: First Class.” But “Silver Linings Playbook” shows us all just how far her range as an actress goes. It looks like another Oscar nomination is in store for her in the near future.

SOURCES:

Rebecca Ford, “‘Silver Linings Playbook’: Jennifer Lawrence Wins Her Role via Skype, Learns to Dance Like an Amateur,” The Hollywood Reporter, November 21, 2012.

Ramin Setoodeh, “Jennifer Lawrence on ‘Silver Linings Playbook,’ ‘Hunger Games’ & More,” The Daily Beast, November 19, 2012.

Melena Ryzik, “Shooting the Sass Easily as an Arrow,” New York Times, November 9, 2012.

‘Doctor Sleep,’ Sequel to ‘The Shining,’ Gets Its First Trailer

Upon hearing that Stephen King’s 2013 novel “Doctor Sleep,” the sequel to “The Shining,” was going to be turned into a movie, many things ran through my head. Could a cinematic sequel be created out of this novel? If so, should it have the same visual style Stanley Kubrick gave to his film adaptation of it in 1980? Wouldn’t it be better to make a movie which stands on its own from its predecessor in the way “Hannibal” stood apart from “The Silence of the Lambs?” Will it be closer to King’s novel or Kubrick’s film? Would it acknowledge the 1997 miniseries which King very much preferred to Kubrick’s film to an infinite degree? Heck, would it even acknowledge the documentary “Room 237” which dealt with the many interpretations and perceived meanings people had of Kubrick’s classic horror film?

Well, several of these questions were answered when Warner Brothers released the first trailer for the cinematic adaptation of “Doctor Sleep” which stars Ewan McGregor as Dan Torrance who is now grown up and still suffering from the trauma he endured from the events at the Overlook Hotel. At first, it looks like any other movie as McGregor keeps writing a word or two in chalk on the wall in his bedroom. But then one day this same wall erupts in a way which wakes him up quite violently, and he sees that it says “REDRUM.” From there, you know you are back in Stephen King territory, let alone the universe he created in “The Shining.”

At first, “Doctor Sleep” looks to have a different visual look from “The Shining” as Danny Torrance is now in a different place which is far removed from the Overlook Hotel. But then he meets a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) who has the same gift he has, and he becomes determined to save her from Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), head of the True Knot cult which feeds on the psychic powers of children.

But as things go on, we see images which appear to be strikingly accurate recreations of Kubrick’s film all the way to the carpet on the hotel floor. There’s even a moment where we see the blood rushing like a river out of those elevators, and another where the occupant of room 237 pushes away the shower curtain to see who is invading her private space. The trailer ends on McGregor looking through the same door Jack Nicholson once broke through with an axe and yelled at Shelley Duvall, “HERE’S JOHNNY!!!”

My thoughts on this “Doctor Sleep” trailer are a bit mixed as I feel it could have had more energy as it seems a little too quiet or subdued. At the same time, it shows the movie has a lot of promise as it dares to match the visual style Kubrick gave us years beforehand to where it invites us to compare it to his 1980 horror classic. It is also written and directed by Mike Flanagan who has already given us an excellent Stephen King adaptation with “Gerald’s Game,” and those who read that particular King novel were convinced it was unfilmable until he proved otherwise. Suffice to say, it feels like this movie is in very good hands.

Well, the ultimate comparisons between “Doctor Sleep” and “The Shining” will be made when “Doctor Sleep” arrives in theaters on November 8, 2019. Please check out the trailer above.

Doctor Sleep teaser poster

 

 

‘Pet Sematary’ Remake Easily Improves on the Original

Pet Sematary 2019 movie poster

Of all the Stephen King cinematic adaptations up for a remake, “Pet Sematary” is the one I looked forward to the most. I never cared much for the 1989 version directed by Mary Lambert. It wasn’t a terrible movie, but it was undone by a screenplay which tried to fit in too much from King’s novel, and ironically it was a screenplay written by King himself. While Fred Gwynne was perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, Dale Midkiff’s performance goes way over the top and contains moments which Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman are justified in describing as “exquisite acting.” And there was the ending which was undone by test screenings where the audience demanded something more graphic. Bitch, please!

Now we have the remake of “Pet Sematary” which comes to us from the directors of “Starry Eyes,” Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, and it is easily an improvement over what came before. It is not a great horror movie, but even if it were, it is nearly impossible to top King’s 1983 novel which itself is one of the darkest works of fiction ever conceived. Heck, even King himself thought he went too far with it, and that should tell you something. Still, it is an effective film which pays tribute to the spirit of the novel even as it makes changes to the source material in a way I did not see coming.

As before, the story starts with Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) driving with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two kids to their new home in the small town of Ludlow, Maine. We learn that Louis and Rachel were looking to escape big city life for something simpler and countrylike to where they could spend more time with each other and the children. When they arrive at their new home, it looks like a heavenly and peaceful place which they will serve them well, but we all know where the story will go from there as a huge 18-wheeler truck zooms by with little warning while leaving a lot of dust and dead leaves in its wake.

The first half of the “Pet Sematary” remake more or less follows King’s novel to the letter as it treads familiar ground while adding some interesting touches in the process. Upon discovering the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, we also see a procession of children wearing animal masks as they march on by while carrying a dead dog in a wheelbarrow to the place which will bring about its resurrection. Both Kolsch and Widmyer give this movie a wonderfully unnerving feeling which they keep building on throughout as things for the Creed family get worse and worse to where they have little chance to regret the deeds they have committed.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

One of the interesting things about this version is how the filmmakers have switched elements around, but in a way which does not take away from the spirit of the novel. Instead of young Gage getting run over by a truck driver who is distracted by his cell phone (and who isn’t these days?), it is Ellie, and the reaction of her parents to this terrible tragedy feel all too real to where neither has to yell out in sheer anguish.

Jeté Laurence plays Ellie Creed, and her performance is especially impressive as she makes this resurrected character far more than a zombie with a thirst for blood. Ellie seems very aware of the fact she is not who she once was, but she also has knowledge of what lies beyond the realm of the living, and she becomes a little too eager to bring her parents to the other side of it.

Jason Clarke has long since proven to be one of our most dependable actors in movies today with his terrific performances in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Chappaquiddick.” Clarke makes Louis Creed into an especially sympathetic character even as he comes to play God when it comes to Ellie’s life. The late Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) warns Louis not to exceed the boundaries set for humanity, but Louis is blinded by a grief I would not wish on anyone, and his desire to undo a terrible tragedy is understandable even if it flies in the face of reason, logic and the saying of “sometimes dead is better.”

Amy Seimetz, who co-starred in “Alien: Covenant,” also makes the most of her role as Rachel Creed, an individual who has dealt with death a far too young an age. Rachel remains forever haunted by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine) whom she was forced to watch by her lonesome while their parents were away. Indeed, Seimetz makes you deeply feel the unfairness of Rachel’s predicament as no child should be forced into such a position at such a young age, and it proves to be one of this movie’s most haunting segments as a result.

And while there is no topping Fred Gwynne’s performance as Jud Crandall, the great John Lithgow succeeds in making this role his own. How many movies and TV shows have we watched Lithgow in anyway? He has been a constant in popular culture, and he remains a welcome presence in anything he appears in. Lithgow doesn’t have to do much to show how Jud has lived a long life which has been filled with one tragedy too many, and this is the mark of a great on camera actor.

Kölsch and Widmyer do an excellent job of raising the tension and overbearing atmosphere of the story throughout the movie’s running time, and they don’t just resort to giving us jump scares every five minutes. They are also aided by a powerful film score composed by Christopher Young which makes an already unnerving motion picture even more so.

“Pet Sematary” is one of the few books I got to read before it was turned into a movie, and this is quite the feat for me these days as filmmakers typically beat me to the punch. As a result, my perspective of the book will forever remain more powerful than any movie made out of it. Still, this cinematic version of it is a powerful one which takes chances with the source material while remaining true to its spirit. I am also quite thankful the filmmakers had enough freedom to give this movie the ambiguous conclusion it deserves. I am a big fan of ambiguity in movies, and this one has an unsettling conclusion which stays with you long after you have walked out of the theater.

Still, I would have preferred The Ramones’ version of their song “Pet Sematary” as opposed to the cover of it performed here by Starcrawler. Nothing against their version, but in this case the original reigns supreme.

* * * out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Naked Lunch’

William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” is a novel you may not have read, but you have definitely heard of it. Due to its subject matter which involves drug addiction (be it heroin, morphine or hashish) and obscene language which people back in 1959 had yet to become numbed to, it was banned in the American states of Boston and Los Angeles. Still, the more people tried to suppress the novel’s existence, the more people came to discover it. Eventually, filmmakers became keen to adapt this controversial novel into a motion picture, and it makes perfect sense David Cronenberg would be the one to successfully do so.

I love how this movie trailer starts off with black and white footage of Burroughs back in the 1950’s as we hear him (his voice was done by an impersonator) talking about how “Naked Lunch” was described by critics as being “disgusting,” “pornographic” and “un-American trash.” Upon its publication, it became a subject for discussion at town hall meetings and book burnings, the latter which is in itself deeply un-American. Burroughs in his impersonated laconic voice, revels at how big a mark his novel made on the American public, and I loved how he talked about how Hollywood in its “infinite wisdom” decided to make a movie out of it 30 years later.

From there, the trailer shifts into color mode as we watch scenes from Cronenberg’s movie which feature Peter Weller, who turned down “Robocop 3” to do this, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider and Julian Sands among others. The visuals Cronenberg gives us here make this motion picture seem wonderfully unique among so many others released back in the 1990’s, and the Canadian filmmaker was still riding high on the success of his remake of “The Fly” which led him to make this and the deeply unsettling “Dead Ringers” with Jeremy Irons.

Why is this movie trailer among my favorites? Well, it makes “Naked Lunch” out to be a unique motion picture like no other, and it revels at how such a controversial novel could still be made into a movie even when so many tried to squash its existence from our collective consciousness. Plus, you don’t see trailers like this anymore as Hollywood is playing it safe now more than ever. Studio executives would not be quick to green light such a controversial tale in a time when superheroes continue to reign supreme at the local multiplex. Then again, the sight of Burroughs wearing a cape would be a fascinating sight in this day and age.

Sadly, Cronenberg’s “Naked Lunch” was a box office bomb as it grossed only $2.6 million against a budget of around $18 million. Then again, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox put it out in a limited release and put little effort in expanding it beyond five theaters. Regardless, it has since become a cult film and garnered a special release on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. After all these years, many continue to empower what they do their damndest to resist.

Naked Lunch movie poster

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Pet Sematary’ (1989)

While I am not the biggest fan of the 1989 cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel “Pet Sematary,” never will I forget the first time I watched its trailer. Me and my friend Tim were at Crow Canyon Cinemas to watch “Fletch Lives,” a sequel I couldn’t wait to see. There were a number of trailers which preceded it, but then came the one for “Pet Sematary,” and it was a red band trailer. You know, the kind of trailers meant for “restricted audiences only.” Typically, they are attached to an R-rated movie, but for some odd reason, this particular red band trailer was shown ahead of the PG-rated “Fletch Lives.” I told people about this later, and they told me no one is allowed to place a red band trailer before a PG rated movie, but I remember exactly what I saw.

Back in 1989, I was not all that crazy about horror movies. Over the years I have come to love this genre, but even the tamest of horror scary flick would unnerve me to no end back when I was a kid. As soon as the trailer took us to the pet cemetery of the movie’s title, all the little hairs on my body went straight up as I found myself looking away from the silver screen at times.

20 years later, this trailer for “Pet Sematary” stands out among so many others as it proved to be almost as terrifying as the one Stanley Kubrick did for “The Shining.” The build up from a seemingly normal family living in a town far away from the big city hustle to an unveiling of a sinister secret the people of Ludlow, Maine will have wished they kept hidden was handled brilliantly, and it scared me so much to where I didn’t see the movie until about five or six years after its release. This ended up being one of the few King novels I read before I saw the movie, and this is saying quite a bit.

The very scary cat with the glowing dead eyes, the precious child who somehow got hold of a shiny scalpel, and the presence of Fred Gwynne, perfectly cast as Jud Crandall, made for a trailer which looked far more effective than the average King cinematic adaptation, and the original “Pet Sematary” was released back in a time when King movies were both plentiful and critically maligned. Not even the welcome presence of Denise Crosby, who I was heartbroken to see leave “Star Trek: The Next Generation” during its first season, was enough to soothe my shattered nerves. Thankfully, Chevy Chase’s return to his best role as Irwin M. Fletcher helped to calm me down even if “Fletch Lives” was nowhere as good as “Fletch.”

For me, this trailer peaks right where it should as Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) takes a phone call from his undead son, Gage (Miko Hughes). The framing of this shot is perfect as it shows Louis isolated in what should be the safety of his own home as he yells into the telephone, “WHAT DID YOU DO???!!!” After the movie’s title appeared onscreen, we were left with the sound of Gage telling his daddy “now I’m gonna come play with you,” and the laugh he gave following that was simply blood curdling. This was the icing on the cake as few trailers could ever prove to be as scary as this one was back then. No wonder this proved to be one of the more commercially successful King movies from the 1980’s.

If you haven’t already, please check out the 1989 trailer above. I really want to thank “Horrorama – Classic Horror Movie Trailers & More” for finding this trailer including it on their YouTube channel as I have been looking for this one for ages. I feel like I looked everywhere on the internet and thought I would never find it. Thank goodness I was wrong.

Pet Sematary 1989 poster

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Reader’ Features a Brilliant and Galvanizing Performance from Kate Winslet

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WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

The Reader” has been getting mixed reviews, and I can’t understand why. I was expecting a good movie with great performances when I went in to see it, but I ended up getting a lot more than that. My father was with me when I saw the movie, and he confirmed it was astonishingly faithful to the book it was based on. Indeed, “The Reader” is an emotionally devastating journey through the beginning of an affair between a young student and an older woman, and of the aftermath it lays on both of them. Every single performance here is extraordinary, particularly the one given by Kate Winslet. If she does indeed get nominated for this movie or “Revolutionary Road,” she will certainly deserve the Oscar this time around.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz who works as a ticket taker for the local trains going in and out of the town, and she encounters young Michael Berg (David Kross) who is sick and depressed. She takes care of him and even walks him home. Michael later returns to where she lives to thank her for what she did, and from there the two have a secret affair which involves both sex and reading. Hanna asks Michael to read to her before they make love, and he does so with tremendous enthusiasm to say the least. This deepens their relationship even while it remains a secret between the two of them, and it lasts for several months.

Part of the movie’s success in affecting you may depend on how much of yourself you see in the character of Michael Berg. Many of us would not like to remember ourselves as ever being weak, but something deep in our subconscious would certainly have entertained the idea of having an affair with an older woman, let alone Kate Winslet. As a teenager, your hormones are jumping up and down on an ever-expanding trampoline in the realm of puberty, so thinking about something other than girls will be a bit challenging. All the same, common sense might kick in somewhere which can, and should, stop us from being involved in such a relationship.

In many ways, “The Reader” is an argument against this kind of a relationship as this one elicits even more heartache, confusion, and emotional scars which can last a lifetime. They say the first love is always the hardest because of the eventual break up which hurts like a son of a bitch. Clearly, there are not many break ups or separations which can hurt as much as the one experienced by Michael and Hanna.

2008 may be remembered as the year of Batman, the late Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr. and many other things. I do hope it is also known as the year of Winslet. On top of “The Reader,” she also has “Revolutionary Road” coming up which is directed by her husband Sam Mendes. She needn’t have been nominated for an Oscar five times already to convince us of what a superb actress she is. Winslet manages to do many things I cannot see another actress doing as effectively, and she superbly handles the aging of her character without overdoing it or falling into some caricature of an elderly person we may have preconceptions of. Winslet immerses herself into this role ever so fearlessly, and she gives us one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating performances of the year.

Winslet also does something which at first would seem unthinkable and horrifying; she gives a human face to the SS officers who were later prosecuted for their role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. From a distance, we would simply shout down at these people because of the horrible things they have done. Winslet wisely does not make us sympathize with what her character has been through, but she makes us see Hanna’s pain throughout the trial as she is caught up in a situation she does not entirely understand. This later leads to a revelation about her which I will not reveal as it will destroy the mystery of her character for the audience this movie deserves. But this secret is something Hanna feels much more ashamed of than her role as an SS officer.

It also brings up an interesting point worth dwelling on. These officers are being prosecuted for their role in the worst kind of atrocity, and probably rightly so. I say probably because in the end, these are just soldiers who were ordered to do their jobs by a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler. As history shows, the hierarchy of an evil or highly immoral regime seems to get off somewhat easier than the soldiers whom, whether we agree with their actions or not, were simply doing the job they were commanded to do. For them to simply not do their duties would have led to their deaths by a simple bullet in the head. Obviously, the atrocity of the Holocaust brought on a strong need for revenge in its aftermath, and prosecutors went after perhaps the only ones who could be easily prosecuted as Hitler killed himself before he could ever be captured. While I watched the movie, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Just remember this when they prosecute those soldiers from Abu Ghraib and not Donald Rumsfeld.”

As much as “The Reader” may seem like the Kate Winslet show, there are many other performances to admire other than hers. The one performance which might come across as the most underrated is the one given by David Kross as the young Michael Berg. Throughout all the scenes he has with Kate, he more than holds his own with her as he conveys the hell of an emotional turmoil he goes through both as a teenager, and later as an adult. In retrospect, Kross has the hardest role in the movie as he has to convey many things about his character without saying a word. We know why Michael is going through so many conflicting emotions, but the characters around him don’t know this. Furthermore, they cannot know as this would implicate Michael in a situation he will not ever be able to escape from. I have not heard of Kross before this movie, and I am interested to see how he got the role as his performance is nothing short of astonishing.

And of course, we have the great Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael Berg, and he conveys how the character never moved on fully from the affair he had so many years ago. Fiennes portrays him as a man who knows he is more emotionally distant from people than anyone should be, and he is aided by Kross’ performance as we see why this is the case.

Director Stephen Daldry previously directed the film adaptation of “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Along with “The Reader,” he seems to be working with a recurring theme of women caught up in a world they are desperate to escape from. Even if such an escape lasts only a brief moment, they are caught up in a world not necessarily of their own making, and it threatens to kill their soul completely. Daldry certainly isn’t afraid to venture into emotionally charged material, or of material many will simply view as depressing.

“The Reader” is pretty certain at this point to have a place on my list of the best movies of 2008, and not just for the brilliant performance given by Kate Winslet.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Darkest Minds’ is the Same Old Young Adult Song and Dance

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I went into “The Darkest Minds” thinking it was a “X-Men” spinoff. It deals with kids who have been ostracized from society once they are revealed to have obtained superpowers under mysterious circumstances, and it is being distributed by 20th Century Fox which also distributes the “X-Men” movies. With this in mind, I kept waiting for the main characters to yell out “mutant freedom” as loudly as those teenagers from “Red Dawn” cried out “Wolverines!” at any given opportunity. Lord knows the “X-Men” franchise shows no signs of slowing down even after the dramatic conclusion of “Logan.”

Well, it turns out “The Darkest Minds” is not an “X-Men” movie, but instead another adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel which takes place in an apocalyptic future. Written by Alexandra Bracken, this novel led to a series of others, so clearly Hollywood has set its sights on another potential franchise. But while “The Darkest Minds” might have seemed enthralling on the page, it comes off as just another young adult adventure on the silver screen. After the burnout of the “Divergent” franchise, I figured Hollywood would have finally tired of taping into the young adult book market, but these movies do still represent an a strong opportunity for studios to reach out to most desirable of demographics.

Once again, we are thrust into a dystopian future where the pandemic I.A.A.N. (Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration) has killed 98% of humans under the age of 20. The rest who have survived develop amazing psychic powers under mysterious circumstances, and we all know how quick the world is to react to those people who are different. These children are quickly rounded up and sent to internment camps where they are separated from their families and identified by colors. And yes, there is a President of the United States (played by Bradley Whitford) determined to find a cure for this epidemic, but it is no surprise to see him flaunting a phony child reform program which those brainwashed my certain news channels are quick to believe in. Sound familiar? I mean, heaven forbid “The Darkest Minds” reflect today’s reality in any way, shape or form, you know?

Among these children is Ruby Daly (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl who accidentally erased her existence from the minds of her parents. On a scale, which looks a lot like the Homeland Security Advisory System, she is listed as an orange which classifies her as the most dangerous of the kids afflicted with psychic powers. But thanks to her mental powers which help her perform a mind trick much like the kind Obi-Wan Kenobi performed in “Star Wars,” she is able to escape the mandatory execution her kind gets. But even she knows it is only a matter of time before she is found out.

For a time, I thought “The Darkest Minds” would become the most politically subversive movie since “They Live,” but it eventually devolves into just another young adult adventure which is like so many we have seen previously. It features a strong and demographically desirable female character who looks to be the one to save humanity and/or dominate society in a way those in power are eager to take advantage of, and the story ends on a cliffhanger as the studio is unsurprisingly eager to make a sequel. But watching this movie reminded me of a little tidbit I read in Premiere Magazine back when it was in print as it summed up another potential franchise in a short sentence:

“’Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins…’ and ends.”

Ruby manages to escape the camp with the help of the kindly Doctor Cate Connor (Mandy Moore), but when she feels Cate may have other plans in mind for her, she flees and meets up with a group of kids who have also been afflicted with psychic powers and are just as demographically desirable. This group includes the rugged Liam Stewart (Harris Dickinson), the highly intelligent Chubs (Skylan Brooks), and the electrifying Zu (Miya Cech) who has since been rendered mute. As you can expect, Ruby and Liam get the hots for one another, and its hard not to laugh at the romantic scenes they have as their dialogue threatens to be as awkward as what Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman were forced to utter in “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”

Everything in “The Darkest Minds” feels like it was borrowed from some other movie. The kids discover a radio signal alerting them to a haven for I.A.A.N. kids, and it seems stolen from a similar scene in “28 Days Later.” The dance scene where Ruby and Liam get a little more intimate kept reminding me of the giant rave scene from “The Matrix Reloaded,” and not in a good way. Ruby’s ability to erase memories from the minds of others feels like a direct steal from “Superman II” as Clark Kent found a way to cure Lois Lane of her heartbreak. I know Hollywood movies are seriously lacking in originality these days, so this one ends up looking extremely desperate for ideas as a result.

When the kids get to use their mysteriously acquired powers, their eyes light up a certain color, and I kept waiting for Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” to start playing on the soundtrack. As for the powers they possess, I was not particularly impressed with them as they are much like the kind in every “X-Men” movie. I do have to say, however, that Zu doe a more impressive job of channeling electricity than Jamie Foxx ever did in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But perhaps the most damaging aspect of “The Darkest Minds” is the endless number of plot holes which the dinosaurs from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” could have been quick to escape through. In a time where kids are being hunted by the government, how did Ruby and her friends manage to acquire a hotel room? When the kids invade a mall which has been abandoned for some time, how could they possibly find a new and unexpired bottle of Vitamin Water in it? And when the main characters arrive at a haven for kids of their kind and discover the person who leads it, shouldn’t this have raised their suspicions almost immediately? It is questions like these which make this young adult adventure unbearable at times to sit through.

For what it’s worth, “The Darkest Minds” fares better than some of the other young adult adventures I have seen in recent years. It proved to be more entertaining and memorable than “The 5th Wave,” and I was more interested in checking this one out than I was in watching any of “The Maze Runner” movies. Amandla Stenberg does give a very strong performance as Ruby, and she makes us invest fully in her character’s endless conflicts and dilemmas. It was also great to see Gwendoline Christie show up as Lady Jane, a bounty hunter of superpowered teens. Her character is essentially Captain Phasma from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” but without the helmet. Christie is a thrilling presence here, and that’s even though she disappears from the movie far too soon.

“The Darkest Minds” ends up traveling down a cinematic path which has been trodden on more often than not, and what results is a motion picture which is coming out five years later than it should. Even its target audience must be worn out from these different variations of the same story as nothing new is brought to the table. Despite the efforts of the filmmakers, this young adult adventure is inescapably ordinary, and I don’t think we will be seeing a follow up to it in the near future.

However, I do have to take the time to award Wade Williams with the John P. Ryan award for overacting in a motion picture. As the brutal military leader called The Captain, he chews the scenery with his endless snarling at others, and I could not help but laugh hysterically. Clearly this is not going to go down as his best work, but here he was never less than entertaining.

* * out of * * * *