REVIEW: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

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This is one of those cases where a movie had me with the trailer. Despite the question marks of Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson or the potential for sappy and overwrought sentimentality, there was something about the way “The Peanut Butter Falcon” presented itself that instantly grabbed me. Oh, and the name is pretty catchy too.

From the very start “The Peanut Butter Falcon” plays like a Mark Twain story for modern day audiences. It’s the feature film debut for co-writers and co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Friends and collaborators for over ten years, Nilson and Schwartz show off a wonderful sense for their Outer Banks, North Carolina setting and for the characters who live there. It’s easy to lose yourself in their convincing slice of Deep South Americana.

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At its core this is a movie about three lost souls each bound by their own circumstances. Shia LaBeouf is excellent playing Tyler, a struggling crabber who gets in deep with another local fisherman (a perfectly cast but underused John Hawkes). Zak (a beguiling Zack Gottsagen) is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome who is stuck living in a nursing home for the elderly. His dream is to attend the pro wrestling school of his hero Salt Water Redneck. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, Zak’s caseworker and friend. She genuinely cares for him and he’s the one meaningful relationship in her life.

With the help of his rascally roommate (Bruce Dern), Zak busts out of the nursing home and he crosses paths with Tyler who is trying to get away from Hawkes’ Duncan. With both of them on the lamb (so to speak) the two form an unexpected and poignant bond. Tyler agrees to take Zak to Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school and their Huck Finn-inspired journey begins. In the meantime Eleanor is following their trail but unsure of what to do when and if she finds them.

Along the way they meet a fun array of southern-fried locals and each encounter strengthens the relationships Tyler, Zak, and Eleanor share. And as the movie progresses Nilson and Schwartz show off two clear strengths – the ability to authentically capture the rural South and a true feel for fleshing out their characters. There is an undeniable sweetness at the center of this truly heartfelt story. But it only works because we care for the characters and believe their plights.

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The performances are just as important. LaBeouf is the real standout here. He is deeply committed to his character and has clearly done his homework. The Tyler he gives us could have been plucked right out of North Carolina’s barrier islands. And what delightful work from Zack Gottsagen, a real-life Down syndrome young adult. As an aspiring actor, Nilson and Schwartz had promised Gottsagen they would write a movie for him and he pays back their efforts with a performance full of enthusiasm, humor, and moxie. Johnson isn’t given as much to do yet she’s a nice fit within the trio.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a tender and often funny heartwarmer with loads of charm, personality, and humanity. A career best turn from Shia LaBeouf and an endearing debut from Zack Gottsagen certainly doesn’t hurt. It all makes for an utterly charming tale of friendship that feels pulled off the page of a storybook yet still very much etched in the real world. I really fell for it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Pet Sematary” (2019)

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It has been 30 years since the original movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”. It was a peculiar slice of genre entertainment that was essentially a twisted horror fable on death and loss. And even with King writing the screenplay himself, it never quite overcame the goofiness of its concept to be a truly effective horror film. The same could be said for 2019’s version

The duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer direct from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler. Their film follows the same basic blueprint but with a handful of noticeable changes, none of which makes this a particularly better picture.

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Jason Clarke plays Louis Reed, a Doctor from Boston who moves his wife, two children, and the family cat (yes, it’s important that I mention the cat) to the idyllic small town of Ludlow, Maine. His hope is to exchange the hustle and bustle of the big city for quiet rural living. It probably goes without saying, but things don’t exactly go as planned.

It starts when his daughter Ellie (JetĂ© Laurence) stumbles upon an old pet cemetery in the woods near their house. She bumps into their creepy neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who warns her that the woods are a dangerous place (as they always are in movies like this). When the aforementioned family cat is killed on the highway Louis sets out to bury it at the cemetery. But Jud recommends a patch of ground deeper into the woods – one apparently built on a studio set yanked straight out of the Dark Shadows television series.

Louis takes Jud’s advice but is stunned the next morning when he discovers the formerly dead cat is (gasp!) alive. He has no believable explanation for his skeptical wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), I mean who would? But things get really hairy when they realize that their kitty isn’t the same cute, cuddly feline he once was. In fact, he has a bonafide mean streak.

That sets the groundwork for the film’s more macabre turn after the family is hit with a far more devastating tragedy. A bad idea gives birth to even worse decisions and the consequences are tremendous. Similar to the 1989 film, there is something to this story that has potential to be both creepy and provocative. But the movie can’t quite nail it down. It’s never able to sell us enough on its premise.

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“Pet Sematary” leans on too many genre tropes instead of doing what could have been a lot better – blending in more psychological horror. Also the script has several issues ranging from illogical character actions to underserved side stories. Take Rachel’s lingering mental trauma following a childhood family tragedy of her own. A decent amount of time is put into it yet the story thread never feels particularly relevant. It feels tacked on rather than thoughtfully incorporated into the film.

It’s a shame because there are a handful of decent sequences as well as some clever work with the camera that helps build some much needed tension. And it’s not a movie you have labor through. But it is one that will leave you constantly questioning its logic and always aware of its unfulfilled potential.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Peanuts Movie”

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My favorite animated neurotic blockhead Charlie Brown and all of his friends returned in “The Peanuts Movie”, an adorable film so charming in its dedicated storytelling and its visual style. But what to make of its appeal? Will it be a warm nostalgic trip down memory lane for parents or a fun introduction for a new age of young fans? Better yet, how about both?

The film is based on the classic Peanuts comic strip from Charles Schulz which ran for 50 years and continues today in syndication. Schulz produced just under 18,000 strips, several books, and television specials. Under its layer of light-hearted humor the Peanuts subtly explored a variety of issues but always from a children’s perspective. The strip was a window into their world which made it all the more appealing.

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Steve Martino directs a script co-written by Bryan and Craig Schulz (Charles’ son and grandson). Their involvement undoubtedly contributes to one of the film’s greatest strengths – its faithfulness to the original vision for the Peanuts. The movie feels every bit in tune with the television specials. It avoids any urge to modernize the formula (which some saw as a dissapointment) and captures the same idyllic charms that made these characters so endearing.

The movie’s story is segmented in a way that channels the comic-strip vibe. The focus is on Charlie Brown and his every-present struggle with cynicism, self-worth and general bad luck. When the little red-haired girl moves into the neighborhood Charlie Brown is instantly smitten and instantly convinced she’ll never talk to him. But a number of opportunities arise which gives him a chance to impress her. Spurred on by advice from his friends (some good, some not so much) Charlie Brown sets out to establish himself as worthy of her attention. But is he looking in the right places?

Sprinkled in are tons of nostalgic snippets that will bring smiles to the faces of Peanuts fans – Charlie Brown’s kite-flying escapades, Lucy’s 5¢ Psychiatric Advice, Peppermint Patty’s classroom dozing, Frieda’s naturally curly hair, Sally’s bubbly crush on Linus, and so on. They are all here and playfully incorporated into the story. Of these the most time is given to Snoopy and his Red Baron tales. It’s a full-fledged side story that is given a fairly big hunk of the running time (I would say a bit too much). The Red Baron stuff was fine but felt more like its own separate thing.

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I was a bit skeptical on the idea of 3D computer-animated Peanuts feature. 20th Century Fox teamed with Blue Sky Studios (known for their animated work on “Rio” and “Ice Age”) and clearly their goal was was to stay loyal to the material. The CGI is sharp, simple, and most importantly uniquely Peanuts. So many clever touches highlight the film’s roots while giving it a lovely modern day coat of paint.

You could say “The Peanuts Movie” clings to an almost-forgotten vision of childhood. It’s sad to think of that way, but you can’t help but wonder. For that reason alone the Peanuts are a precious commodity to be cherished. This film keeps their creator’s ideals at the forefront. For Schulz, children were precious and his strips offered kids and adults alike a look at life solely from their perspective. This film does it too and to great effect. Just maybe a tad less Red Baron next time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Paris is Us” (2019)

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There are several things about the Elisabeth Vogler’s “Paris is Us” you simply can’t help but admire. Look no further than its production. Vogler shot her film over the course of three years and on a shoestring budget. Post-production was covered through a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $100,000. And to top it all off the film was picked up by streaming behemoth Netflix. That’s an encouraging story for any aspiring filmmaker.

Vogler not only directed and co-wrote “Paris is Us” but she also handled the cinematography which proves to be what the movie leans on the most. There are moments where it dazzles, bringing thoughts of a trippier “Tree of Life”. But it can also frustrate in how it sometimes muddies our ability to interpret any kind of deeper meaning. I’m also a bit conflicted on how Vogler shoots real-life city tragedies to use in the movie. More on that later.

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The film works off of a paper-thin narrative (which is funny considering there are four writing credits). Noemie Schmidt plays a lively twenty-something named Ana who lives her life fully in the moment. Her lack of ambition frustrates her boyfriend Greg (GrĂ©goire Isvarine) who has a detailed roadmap for his life plans. It includes leaving Paris and taking a job promotion in Barcelona. He wants Ana to go with him but she is content waiting tables in Paris.

Storywise that’s pretty much the gist of it. Greg takes off on a plane for Barcelona. At the last second Ana backs out of taking a plane to join him. There is a plane crash. Is it the plane carrying Greg making this a film on grief and loss? Is it the one Ana almost boarded turning this into a study of mortality? Is it either? I lean one way but be honest I’m still not sure. I like to think the answer is there and I have yet to tap into it. But I’m not sure if the movie has enough depth to earn that reading.

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One thing is for sure, Vogler definitely wants to tinker with reality or at least our perception of it. Her film constantly has the audience questioning what is real and what isn’t. This is seen mainly through the imagery which can be beautiful and hypnotic while at other times dizzying and disorienting. And then there are the sequences shot during real-life Paris tragedies. I admit to feeling a little uneasy with how Vogler shoots her movie in the middle of these emotionally-charged moments while also seeing it as pretty bold and daring. All of it is accompanied by a heavy dose of voice-over from Ana. Some of it is essential to understanding the character and it harmonizes well with Schmidt’s melancholy. But some of it is far more lightweight than it’s trying to be.

“Paris is Us” ends up being a tricky movie to review. In terms of storytelling there’s not a lot there and even at a slender 83 minutes it seems to be stretching itself as far as it possibly can. But I admit to being intrigued by the entire film. Perhaps it’s the compulsion to believe (right or wrong) that there is a lot more going on under the surface. I also like how it had me questioning almost everything I was seeing (even their relationship – real, a recollection, or an all-out dream). But this kind of movie isn’t easy to pull off, and I think “Paris is Us” shows off both the strengths and difficulties.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Paddleton”

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I always have time for a Mark Duplass movie. And while not all of his films land as firmly as they could, the ones that do always manage to pull me in. I’ve always appreciated his aversion to big Hollywood formula. His movies operate on a small budget, tend to be short but economical, and usually have a warm and intimate center. That definitely holds true for his latest (and the first film in his new exclusive deal with Netflix) “Paddleton”.

The movie begins with Michael (Mark Duplass) getting test results from his doctor which reveal a large mass in his stomach. His fears are proven true after seeing an oncologist – he has terminal cancer. Unable to bear the thought of hospitals, radiation and side effects, he chooses a controversial alternative to chemotherapy – a prescription that essentially helps a cancer patient end their life before the disease does.

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Michael seeks the help of his neighbor and best friend Andy (Ray Romano) to help him go through with it. The buddies are like two peas in a pod – kinda homely and a tad eccentric. They have longstanding traditions of watching Kung fu movies, cooking pizzas, and putting together puzzles. Oh, and then there’s Paddleton, a racquetball-like game they made up and play together at an abandoned drive-in theater.

The closest pharmacy willing to fill the prescription is in a small tourist town some six hours away. So Michael and Andy head out on a road trip made up of quirky conversations, an ostrich farm, a dryly hilarious pharmacist named David (Kadeem Hardison) and meditations on their favorite movie “Death Punch”. But more importantly it opens up these two characters and the endearing and routinely funny friendship at the core of the film.

Romano is just the right fit to play Andy, an insecure worrywart by nature with a disdain for smalltalk (and for David), yet he’s undeniably tender-hearted and quietly devastated by his friend’s plight. Duplass is just as good playing a variation of the comedy straight man. His Michael is a tad more level-headed but not without his own peculiarities.

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Duplass and Romano have a sharp, witty chemistry and what makes it stand out most is their improvisation. Duplass’ script offers plenty of room for the two stars to play off each other and director Alex Lehmann is smart enough to let them. It’s not surprising since Duplass and Lehmann did the same thing in 2016’s “Blue Jay”, an underseen drama/comedy featuring its own healthy dose of improv.

The film’s early playfulness all but disappears in its final 20 minutes as “Paddleton” blindsided us with an emotionally earnest and deeply affecting ending. It left me looking at the film as a whole through an entirely different lens. I’ve seen it a second time now and the themes of loneliness, friendship, and mortality stand out even more profoundly now. I get why a lot of people won’t be as enamored with “Paddleton” as I am. But what can I say? I’m an unabashed fan of its simplicity, its humor, and its heart.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Polar” (2019)

 

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I was hoping the trashy and cringe-worthy opening to Jonas Ă…kerlund’s “Polar” was an exception – a simple case of a movie getting off on the wrong foot. Turns out it’s more prophecy than anomaly. It serves as a good indicator (and warning sign) of what to expect from this objectionable and utterly frustrating Netflix Original.

For much of its two-hour running time “Polar” feels like two separate movies in one. The first follows an absurd motley crew of killers as they travel across the country looking for hyper-stylized ways to murder people for Ă…kerlund’s camera. It’s quite vulgar and off-putting. The second focuses on a retiring assassin Duncan Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) as he takes to a new life off the grid. He moves into a remote mountain cabin in Montana where he befriends a quiet young neighbor Camille (Vanessa Hudgens).

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These quieter moments with Duncan are promising and offer a good setup to the violence we know is on the way. Unfortunately whenever the above storylines cross paths Ă…kerlund ramps up the excess to ludicrous levels. He seems to operate under the mantra of ‘the bloodier and smuttier the better’ as long as you soak it all in blinding bright colors and use plenty a crafty camera angles.

Not that it matters, but the merry band of sadistic killers work for Duncan’s former boss, the embarrassingly bad antagonist Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas). He’s one of those pathetically weak and painfully dumb crime bosses who are nearly impossible to buy into. You can’t help but wonder why his many powerful male and female laptogs follow his orders like lemmings. But I digress.

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Mr. Blut wants Duncan dead so that he doesn’t have to pay the $8 million of contractually obligated retirement money. But even the dopiest crime boss should know you don’t double-cross your top assassin, especially when his nickname is “The Black Kaiser” and he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen. Katheryn Winnick plays Blut’s right-hand woman (I think) and the only person with sense enough to know that turning on Duncan is probably a bad idea.

Sadly the blaring, obnoxious part with its ramped up violence and its unabashed scuzziness smothers out the more observational and introspective part. We’re left with a movie that seems to relish the mindless bloodshed, gratuitous sex, and glaring objectification. It’s sold out on looking cool and blinding us with its ‘style’ but doesn’t consider its story or its characters. It’s a shame because Ă…kerlund delivers some jaw-dropping images and he casts a great lead. But Mikkelsen is too good of an actor for this. He could easily shine in this kind of role, but this relentless mess is a complete waste of his talents.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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