REVIEW: “Light of My Life” (2019)

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I’m always drawn to movies that highlight fathers and daughters and explore the dynamics that often define their relationships. You can probably guess why, but movies that do it well really speak to me. Last year it was Debra Granik’s brilliant “Leave No Trace”. This year Casey Affleck’s “Light of My Life” strikes many of the same powerful chords.

Affleck directs, writes, co-produces, and stars in this slow-brewing but intimate survival drama. It uses some of the same elements found in Granik’s film and laces them with the dystopian flavor of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It’s a compelling stew, but at its core it’s still a story about a dad named Caleb (Affleck) and his daughter Rag (played by impressive newcomer Anna Pniowsky).

The story takes place a decade after a devastating plague has wiped out almost all of the world’s female population. Included among the casualties is Caleb’s wife and Rag’s mom (played in a handful of flashbacks by Elisabeth Moss). Affleck paints a bleak portrait of a world without women. It’s dark, ugly, and on the brink of total collapse.

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In one scene Caleb explains the crumbling world as being unbalanced. An inquisitive Rags asks “When will it be balanced?” Her father can only respond “When there are more women.” It’s all he knows to say. He’s being honest while trying to offer his daughter a glimmer of hope. At the same time he knows the outlook is grim and there is no guarantee that the world will ever be the same again.

Caleb and Rag live along the outskirts of this shell of civilization. Rag’s hair is kept short and she dresses as a boy in order to keep safe. The reasons why are both obvious and ominous, bringing a heightened level of tension and suspicion to every encounter. Affleck’s fierce development of atmosphere and mood causes us to question the motives and intents of every person they meet.

The setting is undeniably dour, but Affleck’s interests are considerably more intimate. As the movie’s title implies, it’s a story about paternal love, the anxieties of parenting, and growing up in unforgiving circumstances. The film tosses aside practically every modern convention and puts an extraordinary amount of time into its two main characters. Take the opening scene where Caleb lays next to Rag telling her a version of Noah’s Ark. It’s a gutsy long take featuring a static camera locked on Affleck and Pniowsky. It may go a hair too long but it’s still an ambitious character-focused approach.

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Elsewhere we get heart-to-heart conversations about mortality, the state of the world, and the difference between morals and ethics. We even get a lighthearted dinner table scene where Caleb awkwardly attempts to cover everything from racism to…(you know)…’THE talk’ all in one uncomfortable sitting. It’s a tender and welcomed moment of levity that shines a light On the fantastic chemistry between Affleck and Pniowsky.

But then you have the film’s dark side vividly seen in its sketch of a male-dominated society. Aside from being a potent metaphor, Affleck’s grim milieu and its undercurrent of savagery makes for some harrowing sequences. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw coats his images in blues, whites, and grays while shooting in a way that highlights the emptiness of the landscapes. And when we do get glimpses of approaching men in the distance it can be genuinely frightening.

At the end of Caleb’s Noah’s Ark story Rag challenges her father “You said it would be about the girl, why do you keep talking about the boy? You can’t miss the subtle indictment in light of how male-centered our perspectives can be. And considering this is a movie about a father driven to shield his daughter from aggressive men, you can’t help but wonder if this is Affleck dealing with his past transgressions. It’s hard to say, but the film’s message is forceful, its approach is thoughtful, and its storytelling is raw and unflinching. It’s sure to be too slow for some and too gloomy for others. I fell in with its rhythm and found plenty of heart to light a path through the darkness.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Life Itself” (2018)

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Navigating through the haze that is “Life Itself” isn’t the most pleasurable experience. But this wasn’t totally unexpected. Writer/Director Dan Fogelman’s quasi-meditation on life and death has been widely panned by critics appearing on more than one ‘Worst of’ list last year. But when movies sport such an intriguing cast I like to give them a chance.

Unfortunately “Life Itself” gives you cause for concern right out of the gate. It starts with an off-putting opening sequence featuring truly cringe-worthy narration from Samuel L. Jackson (who must have been told to milk every drop out of his Samuel L. persona). It’s meant to serve as an introduction to the first of five chapters all connected by one traumatic event.

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Chapter one focuses on a deeply depressed and lonely New Yorker named Will Dempsey (Oscar Isaac). Through flashbacks on top of flashbacks we learn of his past relationship with the free-spirited Abby (Olivia Wilde). Fogelman attempts to put us in Will’s head as he constructs stories in his mind that we must sift through to find the truth.

Most of our clarity comes from a messy series of sessions Will has with his therapist (Annette Bening). These scenes range from exposition-soaked chats to weird trips back in time where the two resemble ghosts from Christmas past. Isaac and Bening give it their best and they’re clearly better than the material they are working with. Isaac works especially hard trying to add emotional depth and nuance to his character. He can only do so much.

The narrative leapfrogs back-and-forth across the timeline before finally getting to the key incident and the ripple effect it has across the remaining chapters. Each chapter attempts to tell a different person’s story yet the connections between them are glaringly obvious. But it some cases it takes time to come into focus. Take when the story suddenly shifts from the Big Apple to the countryside of Spain.

Here we have Vincent (Antonio Banderas, again a good performance despite the material) who grows olives on a patch of land he owns. He promotes the quiet but hardworking Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to foreman. Now with a means of support, Javier marries his girlfriend Isabel (Laia Costa) and they have a son. Like the New York storyline, this one hops through time, shifts its focus and reveals its connection to what we’ve seen already.

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If all of this sounds too hard to follow, don’t worry. Fogelman spells it all out to us. Every detail, every emotion, you name it. Any question you might have is probably answered in an on-the-nose flashback or montage. We are given no room to wrestle with these characters or come to our own conclusions about them. This seems like an example of a filmmaker not trusting his audience to understand his movie.

It’s odd that a film filled with this much sorrow, longing, heartache, and loss can leave you so emotionally numb. Perhaps if it didn’t hold our hand the entire time. Maybe if it weren’t so sloppy in its execution. It’s funny, the ending seems perfectly fitting – a facepalm worthy finish that’s telegraphed from miles away. On one hand I want to give credit to Fogelman for having a unique concept and interesting vision. On the other I’m reminded of how poorly it all comes together and no amount of time leaps or Bob Dylan references can save it.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Lean on Pete”

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It’s no revelation that movie trailers can sometimes (either intentionally or not) be misleading. Look to “Lean on Pete” as one of the more recent examples. For those unfamiliar with the 2010 Willy Vlautin novel of the same name, the trailer would have you expecting a gentile and sentimental ‘boy and his horse’ story. While most certainly moving, don’t expect “Lean on Pete” to fall into the “Black Stallion” category.

Writer and director Andrew Haigh (“45 Years”) has made a biting, tough-minded adaptation that still has a ton of heart. Practically all of that heart is found in the central character, a timid and reserved 15-year-old boy named Charley. He’s played by a Charlie Plummer who gives a phenomenal breakthrough performance. It truly is the key performance in the film as Charley is in every frame. Plummer is strikingly authentic in a role that could have easily gone too sentimental. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year.

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Charley lives in low-income Portland, Oregon with his deadbeat but sometimes good-hearted father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Despite his father’s dysfunction you can see Charley’s adoration for him. Charley is a genuinely good kid and surprisingly lighthearted considering the cruddy hands he has been dealt. He crosses paths with a cantankerous horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) who hires him as a gopher and stablehand. The job puts a little money in Charley’s pocket and introduces him to a beautiful but worn down quarter horse named Lean on Pete.

Charley begins to form a bond with Lean on Pete even though he’s cautioned by Del’s part-time jockey (played by a very good Chloë Sevigny) “He’s not a pet. He’s just a horse.” But Charley sees him as more than that, perhaps even a kindred spirit. I won’t reveal much more but it’s here that the movie’s meaning becomes clearer. It’s a story of a boy yearning for stability and desperate to find some sense of home. It’s a bleak coming-of-age tale full of unflinching socioeconomic subtext with a rather cynical look at the “American Dream”.

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Charley’s personal journey leads him to cross paths with a number of different people. Sticking with the running theme of working class hardship and poverty, nearly everyone he meets are stuck in their circumstances and compassion can be both precious and rare. Haigh skillfully manages these themes never allowing theme to dribble over into sentimentality or false optimism. At the same time it has been a while since I haven’t rooted for a character as hard a I did for Charley.

“Lean on Pete” is a tough watch and sometimes our lone refuge lies in the picturesque landscapes of cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. One of the year’s most heart-wrenching scenes is in a quiet moment where a worn and hungry Charley stares into a bathroom mirror. He reaches down and takes his belt in another notch. It’s a scene loaded with illumination and emotion. There are several instances where Haigh smartly leans on quietness and the stellar talents of young Plummer. It’s a key reason his film is so effective.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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RETRO REVIEW: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

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Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” was an extraordinary introduction to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It not only introduced us to its compelling assortment of characters, but it also firmly planted us within J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast enchanting world. But it’s the second installment, “The Two Towers” where the series truly hits its stride.

“The Two Towers” takes the story of its predecessor and expands it in every way. Fascinating new characters, more lands throughout Middle-Earth, and even higher stakes than before. But one of Jackson’s many great accomplishments is how seamlessly he blends these new pieces into the existing fabric. And despite the immensity of his scope, the movie never loses its intimacy.

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Picking up where “Fellowship” left off, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam’s (Sean Astin) journey to destroy the One Ring has grown more arduous and the weight of the ring more burdensome. As the two struggle to find a path to Mordor, the sallow, emaciated Gollum (Andy Serkis) secretly follows them. He was the ring’s former owner, consumed by its power and desperate to reclaim it. When Gollum is discovered Frodo shows pity and uses him as a guide against the pleas of a concerned Sam.

A second story thread follows Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) as they follow the trail of their abducted Hobbit companions Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). They are led through the war-torn lands of Rohan whose King Theodin (Bernard Hill) lies under a spell of the wicked wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).

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And yet a third story thread follows the aforementioned Merry and Pippin who manage to escape their Uruk-hai captors after the Orc soldiers are attacked by Éomer (Karl Urban) and his exiled Riders of Rohan. The two Hobbits hide deep within Fanghorn Forest where they encounter a mysterious tree beings called Ents.

The challenges for this incredible three-headed story are obvious. Huge in scale and with a ton of ground to cover, yet vitally important that it all comes together. Jackson melds together his many moving parts with remarkable precision. And of the several new characters introduced not a one feels wasted or undeserved. Each fit and have a place in Tolkien’s tumultuous world yet have their own personal storylines that take form without ever feeling pointless or intrusive. It’s a remarkable mixture of character and narrative.

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Then there is the genius of Jackson’s technique. From his sweeping camera combing the exquisite New Zealand landscapes to the subtlest of closeups capturing every worry, concern, and pain of the characters. Equally exhilarating are the action scenes both small and epic in size. It’s hard not to be blown away by his framing of the action as well as Weta Workshop’s extraordinary special effects. Jackson really opens it up with the first of the series’ huge battlefield sequences. The Battle for Helm’s Deep remains my favorite segment in the entire trilogy.

Much more could be talked about including Jackson’s knack for not only building tension but maintaining it throughout a sequence. Also “The Two Towers” highlights Jackson’s keen ability to convey to the audience an incredible sense of the mystical and magical. The world he and his teams place us in are rich with imagination and the fantastical. But the greatest thing about the series is that it’s far more than eye candy and sparkly window dressing. It’s the characters and their stories that form the heart of trilogy. That’s especially true for “The Two Towers”.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5STAR K&M

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REVIEW: “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter”

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In one very specific way I felt a lot like Josh Brolin’s Buck Ferguson. Where he was looking for the elusive monster whitetail deep in the Appalachians, I was looking for the untapped potential in his movie. I looked everywhere, waited patiently, and after 83 minutes it never came. Well, not completely.

As that bad metaphor falls apart in your mind, let me put it a bit clearer. “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” has so much potential. Pieces are there for a rib-splitting indie classic (and that’s no overstatement). Unfortunately it never quite gets out of first gear. It’s also trapped in a swirling vortex of ideas and identities. Is it a full-blown comedy? Is it a moving character study? Is it a coming-of-age story? A movie can certainly be all of the above, but central to its success is that they work in harmony, at least in some capacity. That just isn’t the case at all here.

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The architects are Jody Hill and Danny McBride of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” fame. They co-write the script along with John Carcieri, Hill directs, and McBride plays a supporting role. Fans may have a good idea of what to expect, but as someone with little connection to their collaborations, they weren’t the biggest draw for me. Instead it was Josh Brolin and his seemingly perfect fit as Buck Ferguson, a whitetail enthusiast who makes VHS quality deer hunting videos for a living (believe it or not, for a time those things were fairly popular).

Fresh off of a divorce Buck envisions a whitetail deer hunt as an opportunity to mend his relationship with his 12-year-old son Jaden (Montana Jordan). For Buck, killing your first Whitetail is like a rite of passage and he has grown deeply concerned that if his son doesn’t “take to it now he might not ever”. With his loyal cameraman Don (McBride) in tow, the three venture deep into the beautiful Appalachian Mountains in search of what Buck calls the monster “non-typical” (for the uninitiated that mean a huge whitetail deer).

The problem is Jaden has no real interest in deer hunting or being in the woods with his father. He’s much more into Wi-Fi signals, Panini, and checking in with his girlfriend Caroline back home. This not only stymies Buck’s hopes of bonding, but also his plans to shoot a father-and-son episode for his “Buck Fever” series. So again I mention the pieces are here for a ‘good ol’ boy’ southern-fried comedy.

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Unfortunately “Whitetail” is only an occasionally funny satire. I kind of see what Hill and McBride are shooting for (no pun intended), but it’s never silly enough, never thoughtful enough, or even clever enough to land with much conviction. And the character treatments aren’t much better. Take McBride’s wildly inconsistent Don character. One minute he is a loyal and sympathetic sidekick only to act disgusting two scenes later. I’m sure giving a 12-year-old drags off his cigarette and showing him pornographic Polaroids will be funny for some. I found it to be jarring both with the tone of movie and the character himself. Young Montana Jordan fares a little better although he is never as funny as the movie wants him to be.

Thankfully we get Josh Brolin, so superbly cast to play this ‘type’. Without a hint of parody and a ton of sincerity, Brolin is firm enough in his conviction to make Buck easily the movie’s funniest character. There is no winking at the camera, only commitment which is exactly what the character needs. He’s perfectly positioned for an off-the-rails wacky comedy but Hill never really goes for it. Ultimately Brolin can’t save the movie from spinning its wheels and feeling like a terribly missed opportunity. Not a horrible film, but a needlessly bland one.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Leave No Trace” (2018)

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It’s hard to believe it has been eight years since director Debra Granik’s last narrative feature. That movie was “Winter’s Bone” and it portrayed a distinct slice of America as foreign to most people as a distant alien planet. Her latest is “Leave No Trace” and while not nearly as grim as her previous film, it’s a movie that once again explores a segment of our population on the fringes.

Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini base their script on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment”. It tells the story of a father and daughter living off the grid in a National Forest outside Portland, Oregon (beautifully visualized through Michael McDonough’s camera). Ben Foster gives the performance of his career as Will, a beaten-down veteran and father to his 13-year-old daughter Tom. She’s played by New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie, a relatively fresh new face who matches Foster’s brilliance scene for scene.

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With the exception of necessary trips into the city for supplies and to pick up Will’s check from the VA, the pair survive off the land. By nearly every societal standard they are homeless (as a case worker later explains “It’s not a crime to be unhoused, but it’s illegal to live on public land”), but for Will living on their own provides his only sense of freedom. Foster is known for playing intense characters on the edge, but here he so naturally falls into the role with a quietness and restraint that conveys a surprising amount of insight into his character.

Take Will’s struggles with PTSD. He’s haunted by nightmares and flashbacks but we never see any of them, only the effects. Ultimately it’s up to Foster to show the weight of the trauma. It’s a tricky role that the seasoned actor nails.

The story takes a significant shift when Will and Tom are discovered and taken into custody. They are met with compassion and given a place to stay. For Tom this opens up the possibility for stability, to make friends, and to be part of a community (something Granik has a true knack for portraying). Will attempts to adapt but ultimately feels smothered in society’s cage. For the rest of the way the film wrestles with the idea of ‘home’ and what that means to both Will and Tom.

I’ve read some comparisons, but this is no “Captain Fantastic” scenario. If you remember, in that film Viggo Mortensen raises his family to the wilderness as a hippie’s statement against the evils of modern culture. “Stick it to the man!” was their battle cry. There is none of that in “Leave No Trace”. Will has no idealistic stand he’s making. He loves his daughter and is raising her the best way he knows how. The movie makes no harsh judgements on him, but Tom is our conduit and her experience brings us to some inevitable conclusions. She loves her father and wants to be with him. But she’s also becoming her own person. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Tom lovingly tells her father “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

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Much like she did for Vera Farmiga in 2004 (“Down to the Bone”) and Jennifer Lawrence in 2010 (“Winter’s Bone”), Debra Granik has developed a star-making role for Thomasin McKenzie. The young actress is such a vital piece of the movie – gentle and earnest but with a quiet strength. And you won’t catch a false line in her entire performance. Every soft-spoken word comes from a place of pure sincerity. She’s really good and this is a name you’ll be hearing a lot of.

“Leave No Trace” struck a chord with me early and I could feel its emotional tug all the way till the end. It’s not a movie deeply concerned with plot. Instead it is all about character. Granik’s biggest investment is in creating two people we can care about and can connect with. Maybe not with their specific circumstances but on a deeper human level (while subtly opening some eyes along the way). It certainly worked for me.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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