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

4-stars

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

5-starss

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

2-5-stars

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

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Logan Lucky”

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You could argue that Steven Soderbergh is the architect of the modern heist film. Look no further than his hit movie “Ocean’s Eleven”. In that 2001 remake Soderbergh pretty much wrote his own set of rules for a heist flick and would follow them through two sequels. Now years later he returns with “Logan Lucky”, a working class version of the “Ocean’s” formula, less focused on being cool and more on straight southern-fried humor.

Channing Tatum (an actor I have steadily warmed up to) plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck blue collar construction worker who loses his job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Soon after, Jimmy learns that his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and her slug of a husband Moody (played with just the right amount of macho slime by David Denman) plan to move to Lynchburg making it harder for Jimmy to see his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie).

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Tatum’s performance is funny in a number of ways. One is in how he reacts to all of his bad luck (referenced several times in the film as the ‘Logan Hex’). He takes everything in stride, never getting worked up. But he doesn’t sit around and take it. You could say he’s a man of action. So needing money in order to stay closer to Sadie, Jimmy concocts an elaborate plan to rob the speedway. But he’s going to need a crew.

First he recruits his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), an Iraq war veteran and bartender with a prosthetic hand, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Riley Keough). Needing someone experienced with vaults they contact the currently in-car-cer-ated Joe Bang. He’s played by Daniel Craig channeling something far different than his dapper James Bond persona. Joe’s two numbskull brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) join in to fill out the wacky team.

Several other names round off the cast – Sebastian Stan, Dwight Yoakam, Katherine Waterston. And then there are a couple who don’t quite fit. Seth MacFarlane plays a scumbag NASCAR team owner with a bad British accent and an even worse wig. Not sure what he’s going for but it doesn’t work. And then there is Hillary Swank as a not so hot on the trail FBI agent. Swank’s performance is hard to interpret and feels out of tune with the rest of the film. Thankfully both are smaller roles and are easy to look past, but they do stand out.

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This zany bunch of country folk is a far cry from Danny Ocean’s good-looking and snazzy dressed band of burglars. That’s part of the fun. In many ways Soderbergh is spoofing his own “Ocean’s” trilogy and has a lot of fun doing it. You can’t help but notice similarities in the two story structures, but “Logan Lucky” adds its own unique twist and is by far the broader comedy.

Out of the blue newcomer Rebecca Blunt is credited with the screenplay but there is a catch. Many say Rebecca Blunt doesn’t exist. No one can seem to find her. Some believe it’s a pseudonym for Soderbergh himself. Others have speculated that Soderbergh’s wife, former E! personality Jules Asner, is the real screenwriter. This weird little mystery surrounding Rebecca Blunt seems only fitting for such weird little movie. Whoever wrote it deserves some attention for dishing out a fun madcap caper with big personalities and even bigger laughs. Toss in that Soderbergh flavor and an all-in cast and you have one of last year’s funniest movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Logan”

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It could be argued that Hugh Jackman as Wolverine has been the best bit of superhero casting since this wave of comic book movies started in 2000. Not only does Jackman keenly capture the adamantium-clawed mutant’s look and personality, but he’s been incredibly committed to fleshing out the character through the good movies and even the rotten ones.

“Logan” is the tenth actual X-Men movie and the third Wolverine solo adventure behind 2009’s abysmal “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and 2013’s surprisingly good “The Wolverine” directed by James Mangold. Mangold returns to direct “Logan” based on a story he began writing following the previous film. After some rather cryptic messaging it was confirmed that “Logan” would be Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine. The star worked closely in development even taking a pay cut to ensure an R-rating, something he and Mangold felt was imperative to the character’s final violent chapter.

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“Logan” could easily be categorized as a superhero western and the influences are everywhere. “Shane” and “Unforgiven” instantly came to mind and readers of the original “Old Man Logan” comic book series will see a handful of similarities.

The film is set in 2029 and there have been no new mutants in 25 years. Logan has been off the grid, making money as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas. He has aged and his body is showing it. The claws don’t pop like they used to, his eye sight is failing, and his healing factor isn’t as effective. Essentially the adamantium inside of him is taking its toll.

He uses the money he makes to take care of his old friend and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who is kept hidden in an old dilapidated factory just across the US/Mexico border. The ailing Charles is suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s which causes devastating psychic seizures if left unmedicated. Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant tracker, helps as a caretaker for Charles while Logan is away.

While on the job Logan is approached by a woman beseeching him to take 11 year-old Laura (a fabulous Dafne Keen) away. She tells him of Transigen, an illegal bioengineering lab doing mutant experiments on children. Laura is one of many children set free by nurses but now being tracked for extermination by Transigen. Logan wants no part of it but when events bring Laura and her trackers to his hideout in Mexico a violent exchange ensues and he sees first-hand why Laura is so ‘special’. With Xavier’s prodding they take off with Laura, Transigen not far behind.

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“Logan” is an interesting stew. Fans of the character will find plenty to like as he is let off the proverbial leash in terms of violence. The feral nature of it is fitting in most cases, but there are times when the movie seems to be saying “Look, we’re doing an R-Rated Wolverine picture.” And I would be lying if I didn’t mention a conflict in the handling of the violence. There is an interesting theme on the nature of violence that runs throughout the film. Logan wants no part of it. He tries to abstain from it. His body is breaking down because of it. He’s shown to be mentally scarred from it. He warns Laura away from it even saying “Don’t be what they made you to be.” But while offering this compelling angle on violence, the movie sometimes relishes in its depiction of it. It’s not a big problem but it does mute the film’s message a bit.

You could say “Logan” becomes a road trip movie and along the way we learn that this isn’t a traditional superhero tale. It isn’t as profoundly fresh as its press would lead you to believe, but it does tell a good story. There are no punchy jokes or one-liners. There are no colorful, larger than life characters. Mangold’s tone remains intensely serious and his characters are broken and struggling. Laura represents a glimmer of life – a reminder to Logan and Charles of what they once fought for. It’s an interesting take on the genre. And then there is Jackman who has played Wolverine for 17 years. His passion for the character is undeniable and he ends his run in a fitting and satisfying way. And Mangold’s final shot – it couldn’t be a more perfect ending.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars