Movie Review ~ Labor Day

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tom Lipinski, Clark Gregg, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Brighid Fleming, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Brooke Smith, Micah Fowler, Tobey Maguire

Director: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I have this nagging feeling that I’m going to be one of the very few people that likes Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel.  I’ve had time to think about the film a lot over the last few weeks since I attended a screening with the author present.  While I enjoyed the film when I saw it, I was wondering if the author’s buoyant personality in the Q&A after colored some of my judgment.  I gotta say…after some deep soul searching my opinion stands.  I liked Labor Day… I liked it a lot.

Though the trailer suggests Labor Day fits on the same golden hued shelf as countless film adaptations of those saccharine Nicholas Sparks books, rest assured that it’s so much more than that.  Reitman has become one of my very favorite filmmakers and I don’t believe he’s made a movie yet that I don’t have a high level of respect for…even Juno, which I caught part of recently and for the record does not hold up as well as I remembered.

I hold steady that Up in the Air is his best film but there’s signs here of a maturing director that doesn’t feel the need to make the same film repeatedly just because he found favor there before.  I’m in the camp that feels Young Adult was one of the under appreciated gems of 2011, navigating its pitch black comedic moments with ease and leading up to a less than satisfying resolution for our anti-heroine that was incredibly satisfying for the viewer.

That same against the grain approach Reitman has employed in previous efforts is true here with the director taking responsibility for adapting Maynard’s work for the screen.  As has been the case with every Reitman film, his taste in casting is impeccable.  From the A list stars above the title down to the extras populating the background Reitman finds himself in a league with directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher who have an eye for casting.

Reitman wanted Kate Winslet (Carnage) for this role so badly that he delayed production of the film to accommodate her schedule.  Back on screen after nearly two years, Winslet reminds us again why she’s so valuable an asset to any film set she joins.  In similar territory to her work in 2006’s Little Children, Winslet is a mother struggling with depression years after her husband (Clark Gregg, The To-Do List) left her to start a new life.  Living with her son (Gattlin Griffith) in the kind of New England home that’s too run down to be fancy but too well kept to be ramshackle, she rarely ventures outside, preferring to shut the world out and stay cocooned within.

Relative newcomer Griffith is remarkably assured and Winslet helps him avoid coming off with a misplaced hyper-sensitivity to the situation.  When an escaped convict (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) takes mother and son hostage during a once in a blue moon trip to the supermarket, a carefully played trio of agendas start to take shape over a hot and sticky Labor Day weekend in 1987.

Brolin’s character is wounded physically and emotionally, jailed for a crime of passion we see played out in brief flashbacks that reveal themselves cautiously rather than tease for show.  Coming off like a gentle giant rarely threatening, Brolin’s actions over the next several days are certainly unconventional as he helps around the house, fixes what was once broken, and, in a scene bound to be lampooned in the next Scary Movie entry, helps Winslet and Griffth make a peach pie.

Ah…the peach pie scene.  Y’know, I went into the movie with no knowledge of this but so many of the reviews are either deriding it as exceedingly syrupy or praising it as one of the sexier non sex scenes since Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze made a muddy mess at their Ghost pottery wheel.  Either way you’ll be licking your lips at how deliciously cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Draft Day) captures every flake of crust and piping hot filling.

Aside from the central trio, Gregg’s fatherly once a week outings with his son and new family have that forced happiness feel to them that we actually understand why Griffith can’t wait to get back to the man on the run playing house with his mom.  Brooke Adams has a nice little cameo as a mother to a disabled boy…and leaves a lasting impression with a genuinely startling surprise.  Even if she comes off like a character out of Diablo Cody’s imagination, Brighid Fleming’s turn as the new girl in town leaves you wanting more.  Heck, even James Van Der Beek gets a few good moments as a concerned sheriff.

In the stifling heat of a long Labor Day weekend (everyone maintains a glistening gleam of sweat for the majority of the film), three people form the kind of family environment they never knew they needed.   Sure, the final third of the film withers a bit and lingers a tad too long but it doesn’t die on the vine.  With a director now fully coming into his own leading a cast of esteem, Labor Day has even-keeled fireworks on display.

The Silver Bullet ~ Labor Day

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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013 (limited)

Thoughts: By all accounts, Jason Reitman is on a roll.  Starting with the sly Thank You For Smoking before breaking into the major leagues with the unconventional hit Juno, he followed that with the rewarding Up in the Air and the very underappreciated Young Adult.  So for his fifth major motion picture, Reitman probably had it in the bag the moment he enlisted Kate Winslet (Titanic), an Oscar winner continuing her streak at the top of her cinematic game.  Winslet costars with Josh Brolin (Men in Black III) in a film adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel that has shades of Winslet’s 2006 suburban drama Little Children but seems to maybe not cut quite as deep a wound.  That’s not a bad thing when you consider Reitman’s talent for taking off-kilter material and fashioning something wonderful from it.  Keep your eye on this one; it may be one of those sleeper films that slip in to award conversations at the last minute.  The pedigree is certainly there.

Movie Review ~ The Great Gatsby (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review:  Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”.  A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.  Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.

This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work.  Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s!  Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.

It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change.  The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.

Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium.  Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).

All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann).  The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.

That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it.  While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them.  That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished.  Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.

Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby.  DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated.  He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be.  The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.

Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse.  Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new.  DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.

Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone.  Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby.  Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.

Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick.  Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s.  Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.

Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack.  So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen.  Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters.  Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.

Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life.  The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion.  When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.

Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour.  Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close.  Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think.  Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.