Movie Review ~ Hillbilly Elegy


The Facts
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Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie.  Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it.  You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet.  No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved.  Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.

I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts.  This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core.  Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?

Honestly?  I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first.  It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale.   Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).

I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses.  The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another.  Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here.  Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory.  In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.

Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to.  Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for.  There’s no chance of that happening here, though.  While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment.  It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.

Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her.  She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part.  Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it.  The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true.  I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in).  Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.

I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females.  Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role.  Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character.  Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing.  The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance.  For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her.  Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.

Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong.  I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet.  It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from.  Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems.  Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.

Movie Review ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

Director: James Gunn

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If I’m being honest (and c’mon, we’re close enough friends that I’ll always tell the truth) I’ll admit that at first I just didn’t know what to make of Guardians of the Galaxy.  After several years of recognizable Marvel comic book properties making their way to the big screen (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and The Avengers) I wasn’t certain where this new franchise film would fit in.  Not being well acquainted with the source material, I couldn’t quite warm to the first jokey preview that set fan tongues a waggin’ but had me scratchin’ my noggin.  And what was up with the raccoon and talking tree?

So I find myself hunkering down for a screening of Marvel’s latest attempt at superhero domination a little grumbly and prepared for my worst fears onscreen: an overblown yuk fest of an actioner with copious one-liners and inter-galactic battle sequences that pummel you with lots of noise and digital effects.  Who knew that’s exactly what this summer needed?

If the previous Marvel superhero films equate to a stretch limo with your cool aunts and uncles, then Guardians of the Galaxy is the party bus transporting your crazy cousins.  I ask you…which ride would you rather take?

Starting with an emotional Earth-bound prologue that segues into a silly credits sequence showcasing the first of several 80s musical hits, Guardians of the Galaxy hits its stride early on and never lets up as audiences are taking to various points throughout the solar system.  When overgrown kid/space pilot Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Her, now primed for A-List stardom) steals a mysterious orb that looks like the Omegahedron from 1984’s Supergirl, he gets into all kinds of hot water from blue hued baddie Ronan (Lee Pace, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) that wants to use its powers to do some planetary damage.  Additionally, Quill has a bounty put on his head from another Smurf colored character (Michael Rooker) that sent him to retrieve the orb in the first place.

Bounty hunter raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper, The Place Beyond the Pines) and deciduous sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel, Riddick, in possibly his best performance…heard not seen) aren’t the only ones after Quill.  Sent by Ronan to fetch the orb, Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Out of the Furnace, trading her Avatar blue for wicked green) may have plans of her own for the strange object.  It all turns into your standard case of multiple people wanting to possess the orb for numerous purposes.  From prison breaks to narrow escapes, the movie has a breathless pace but never feels rushed or out of balance.  It’s a full meal of a film that blessedly doesn’t wind up feeling like a franchise jumping off point (which of course it is).

Director and co-screenwriter James Gunn packs a lot into his film and there’s a welcome point of view sorely lacking in films made from comic book tales.  He backs up strong characterization with an assembled design team that should get ready for Oscar nominations in visual effects, make-up, and costume design.  From the mechanizations of the evil Nebula (Karen Gillan, Oculus) to the body art of logic driven He-Man-esque Drax (Dave Bautista, who maybe would have been a better choice for Hercules), there’s a follow-through and attention to detail that acts as the sprinkles on top of Gunn’s visual sundae of a film.

Did I mention it’s incredibly funny as well?  I was worried that the laughs would trump logic but from Gunn’s clever music selection and his willingness to capitalize on Pratt’s comedic gifts, there’s the sense that everyone is on the joke and relishing their chance to participate.  Gunn doesn’t let the humor rule the picture but instead picks wise moments to break up some of the overly nerdy bits.

In a summer of ups and downs, Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as the most satisfying big studio film I’ve seen all year (my favorite films of the year, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood, don’t count seeing as they’re independent endeavors) and goes a long way in saving the Summer of 2014 from being remembered as three months of mediocre-to-terrible offerings like A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended, Jersey Boys, and the cinematic Ebola virus called Tammy.  It’s a mammoth sized two hour superlative treat – the one film of the summer worth seeing twice.

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy

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Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.

Release Date:  August 1, 2014

Thoughts: I should start out by saying that I’m totally familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and all of the characters introduced within.  Teased first at the end of Thor: The Dark World, the full trailer for Marvel’s latest “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” film has an awful lot of impressive looking images that we’ve come to expect from an effects driven superhero film.  What I find it’s lacking, however, is some justification for being so tonally blasé.  It’s seems preciously desperate to come across with the same structured sarcasm as Marvel’s The Avengers even though that blockbuster already earned its stripes by bringing characters together already established in solo films.  With a meaty cast like Chris Pratt (Her), Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furnace), Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), and Vin Diesel (Riddick) on board the film isn’t lacking in star power…I just hope it’s not nearly as comic-booky as it looks.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Big Chill

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a posh South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.

Stars: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Some movies set in the 80’s just do not age well.  I can’t tell you how many films I’ve had fond memories of until I took them for another spin and squirmed uncomfortably at their failure to have the same hold on me years later.  On the other hand you have the films that age like a fine wine, getting richer and more meaningful as they age and such a film is 1983’s The Big Chill, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar nominated ensemble dramedy.

Taking place over a long weekend for a funeral of a close friend that dies suddenly, The Big Chill introduces us to a group of baby boomers that are all at different phases of their adulthood.  Kevin Kline (In & Out) and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs, Jagged Edge) are the stable married couple, the ones that their less mature friends look to for support and guidance.  Gathering their old college friends in their expansive South Carolina home, Kline and Close (who was Oscar nominated for her work) are perfect hosts…ones that allow their friends the chance to let loose, grieve, and cavort like they did when they were younger.

As we all know, there is a time to put away childhood playthings but in Kasdan’s eyes people need to let go in their own way at their own pace.  Saying goodbye to their friend (an unbilled Kevin Costner) means saying goodbye to a part of their youth they can never get back and for some that’s a frightening notion to wrap their heads around.

Hollywood playboy Sam (Tom Berenger) rekindles a romance with married Karen (JoBeth Williams) while actors like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) and William Hurt (The Host, Altered States) find themselves at different crossroads of their romantic lives.  I’ve always found Mary Kay Place’s nebbish attorney the most interesting yet consistently frustrating character as she struggles to pinpoint exactly what she wants in life…and when she does the solution surprises everyone.

As famous as the film, the soundtrack to The Big Chill is remarkable, and not only because nearly all of it was added in after the movie was shot.  All the choices from music of the present day to the folk/rock music of the past blends so well together, resulting in a bestselling soundtrack that takes on a life of its own.

Kasdan’s script is extremely funny with a dry wit that speaks to the frustrations of the Baby Boomer generation yet still remains apt to modern audiences viewing it thirty years later.  After all, becoming an adult hasn’t gotten any easier in the decades since The Big Chill was first released and the movie is a lasting reminder that even in the worst of circumstances it’s nice to have a group around you as screwed up as you are to help you find support.

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Mid-Day Mini ~ The Paper

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Henry Hackett is the editor of a New York City tabloid. A workaholic who loves his job, the long hours and low pay are leading to discontent until a hot story soon confronts Henry with tough decisions over the course of one 24 hour period.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards, Jason Alexander, Lynne Thigpen

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  In between period pieces Far and Away and Apollo 13, director Ron Howard (Parenthood, Backdraft) delivered this fast-moving and involving comedy-drama that takes place over 24 hours and focuses in on the goings-on at a NYC daily newspaper.   Not a high-class publication like the New York Times but maybe just above the near tabloid nature of the New York Post, the newspaper at the center of The Paper is struggling and its editor (Keaton) is thinking about the future.  With a pregnant wife (Oscar-winner Tomei), a crazed reporter (Quaid who we all know now is crazed in real life), a jaded colleague (Close, Albert Nobbs), and a veteran boss (Duvall, Tender Mercies, Jack Reacher) to juggle on a daily basis he burns the midnight oil thanks to Coke (the drink, not the powder) and gumption.

When a murder takes place and two youths are jailed it seems like any other story…until Keaton’s character begins to do some actual reporting and begins to see that things aren’t as cut and dry as they appear to be.  With a deadline looming and Close’s character breathing down his neck, the film keeps Keaton plowing on without getting much of a breather.

This is a solid film with good, easy performances and a better than average script thanks to David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and his brother Stephen.  Howard does what he does best and lets the movie develop naturally, placing most of the responsibility on his trusted star Keaton who doesn’t disappoint.  Close, too, is very effective as a dragon lady that’s talked about a lot before we finally see her.  When she does appear, Howard presents her in such a way that the first frame tells us everything we heard about her is right on the money.  Duvall and Tomei also turn in fine performances, navigating some cliché material with ease.

Aside from our above the title leads, Howard once again shows strength in casting by filling the newsroom and outside colleagues with strong character actors.  The late great Thigpen has a small role as Keaton’s secretary but makes the most out of her scenes…this is what true renaissance man/woman acting is all about.

Though print news is clearly dying off, The Paper is no period piece when viewed from an online, tech-savvy perspective.  True, some elements are clearly dated but the pursuit of the truth in the face of the grinding engine of economics still has an impact on our society today.  If you’ve never seen this one or haven’t revisited it in a while, check it out again.  It’s no classic but it’s a nice representation of the talent of all involved.

Down From the Shelf ~ Jagged Edge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When an heiress is brutally murdered in her remote beach house her husband soon finds himself accused of her murder. He hires lawyer Teddy Barnes to defend him, despite the fact she hasn’t handled a criminal case for many years.

Stars: Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges, Peter Coyote, Robert Loggia

Director: Richard Marquand

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review

This is a pulpy little thriller from the mid 80’s that probably was responsible for ushering in movies like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Final Analysis, Guilty as Sin, and countless other films where a protagonist is blinded by their animal attraction to someone that may be out to do them harm.

Almost thirty years after it was originally released (yikes!), revisiting Jagged Edge has become something of a yearly trip for me and I still enjoy it.  Time has been kind to the film, owing in large part to a restrained script from Joe Eszterhas (before he went over the, um, edge with the aforementioned Basic Instinct and, later, Showgirls) and two strong lead performances in Close and Bridges.

Before Close became known for playing unhinged women in a string of films, she was a reliable guiding force in whatever project she was working on and that’s true here as well.  Though her seemingly intelligent lawyer winds up doing a lot of stupid things, Close brings a class to it that’s hard to deny. 

Bridges handles the role of the widower accused of killing his wife for her money well and he rolls nicely with the twists that the movie doles out without hinting either way whether he’s guilty or not.  Loggia turned his foul-mouthed, wise-cracking private investigator working with Close into a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and Coyote is appropriately blustery as a shady District Attorney.

Set along the Bay Area of California and several of its outlying coastal towns, Jagged Edge is directed just fine by Marquand (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi) but really benefits from an effectively dissonant score from John Barry and interesting cinematography courtesy of Matthew F. Leonetti.

The film chugs through many a red herring and courtroom drama mechanics in its journey to a decent but not wholly satisfying conclusion.  I’ve some thoughts about the wrap-up that I won’t go into here as it would spoil the ending for you and I don’t want to give it all away.  You see, even if the ending doesn’t totally work in hindsight the film succeeds because everything that leads up to it lands and lands well.  As far as movies of this ilk go, Jagged Edge easily rises to the top of the pile for me.