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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Kristy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a college girl alone on campus over the Thanksgiving break is targeted by a group of outcasts, she must conquer her deepest fears to outwit them and fight back.

Stars: Haley Bennett, Ashley Greene, Lucas Till, Erica Ash, James Ransone, Chris Coy, Mike Seal, Lucius Falick, Matthew St. Patrick

Director: Oliver Blackburn

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Where to Watch: Netflix

Review: You know how sometimes Netflix will exercise its info gathering muscle by sending you an e-mail letting you know they just added a movie you’d like?  Based on my viewing preferences, I’m always getting a notice about some indie horror flick making its debut on the streaming service.  If I’m honest, most of the suggestions remain that way, sure I may add them at the time but they quickly get pushed further and further down my queue.  For a while there though, they were nicely on target and steered me toward a few winners.  Now it’s my turn to share the wealth.

After suffering through 2012’s The Apparition, I made a pact not to let myself be exposed to another Ashley Greene (Wish I Was Here – another movie I loathed) film.  That particular movie made me so mad I felt justified in holding a grudge against all involved…but when Kristy became the latest suggested title from my good friends over at Netflix I decided to give her another shot.

Feeling very “now” (which means it’ll be dated in several years), Kristy is a thriller heavy on atmosphere resting squarely on the shoulders of its leading lady (Haley Bennett, The Magnificent Seven).  Greene plays the leader of a gang of cyber cultists that hunt and kill random females they dub with the moniker ‘Kristy’.  With no motive to speak of, it’s impossible to look for meaning in their murder-for-sport thrill-kills and the overall brutality to all that stand in their way makes Greene and her crew into fairly nifty villains.  Unfortunately, their latest target is Justine (Bennett, a strong heroine) and she’s not going down without a fight.

It’s the Thanksgiving break and college-student Justine doesn’t have the money to make it home.  Her boyfriend  (Lucas Till, Stoker) and roommate (Erica Ash) have family obligations so aside from a friendly security guard (Matthew St. Patrick) and a solitary maintenance man (James Ransone, Sinister) she’s has the entire campus to herself.  Needing some sustenance for the long weekend, Justine makes a late night convenience store dash where she has a run-in with Greene.  The murder mob follows Justine back to her deserted dormitory and over the course of the evening the bodies pile up in most gruesome ways.  Working from a tight script by Anthony Jaswinski (The Shallows), director Oliver Blackburn keeps the tension high, working the shadowy corridors and security-lit grounds to his advantage.  The campus is wide-open but feels like a prison as Justine scrambles for safety while the four-person posse goes on safari for another ‘Kristy’ to add to their trophy wall.

I look at Kristy now as a nice make-up for me and Greene, because this was one hell of a solid movie that deserved a bigger audience.  Admittedly, I imagine the film plays better at home than it did in whatever limited release it had but this is competent filmmaking surpassing much of the lame big studio fare topping box offices throughout the year.  For the extra brave, I’d suggest watching this one alone late at night in your basement, just for the added thrill of it all.

Movie Review ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl on the Train

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Synopsis: Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house that her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds

Release Date:  October 7, 2016

Thoughts: For several years now I find myself thinking at the end of most movies “Emily Blunt should have been in this…Emily Blunt makes everything good.” and it’s an opinion I hold fast to. Luckily, Blunt (Into the Woods) is front and center in this new trailer for the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel The Girl on the Train.  Sure it shares not only an October release date but a plot kinship with 2014’s nice and twisted Gone Girl, but if this first look is any indication (and, I know, it’s not) Blunt could find herself with an Oscar nomination like Rosamund Pike did for Gone Girl.  Plus…I mean, look at the cast: Allison Janney (The Way, Way Back), Justin Theroux (Wanderlust), Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors)…just a roster of dependable, stellar talent. October is a great month for mystery and I’m ready for my ticket to ride this Train.