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: “Hail, Caesar!”

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I have to think it takes a specific sensibility to pull of a Golden Age of cinema parody especially in today’s movie climate. Modern comedies seem content with sticking to tired formulas and they rarely step outside of those boxes. And unfortunately these retreads attract big enough crowds to keep the filmmakers comfortable in the genre’s monotony.

Enter Joel and Ethan Coen, a directing duo who has never played within the conventional or the formulaic. Over the years they have dabbled in a number of genres, never conforming to a popular norm and always putting their own special spin on them. Whether its comedy (“Raising Arizona”), action thrillers (“No Country for Old Men”), westerns (“True Grit”), gangster pictures (“Miller’s Crossing”), or even wild amalgamations of several genres (“Fargo”), the Coen brothers are always approaching things from a unique perspective.

Their latest is “Hail, Caesar!”, a comedy written, produced, edited, and directed by the Coens. The film is set in 1950s Hollywood where big studios still run every facet of moviemaking including their laborers. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a real life studio “fixer” represented here with that expected Coen brothers twist.  As a fixer Mannix’s job at Capital Pictures is to protect the images of Hollywood stars by hiding their bad and potentially damaging behavior from the public eye.

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While the trailer shows off a star-studded cast, this is Brolin’s picture and he does a fine job. The film mainly consists of him managing the studio. The supporting cast is seen through bit parts, some of which are nothing more than glorified cameos. Take Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton. None have noteworthy screen time and we are only teased with storylines involving each. The best appearances come from Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand. They are hilarious but we don’t get enough of them.

The bigger of the supporting roles go to George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich. Clooney, the Coen’s favorite numbskull, hams it up as Capital Pictures’ biggest star who ends up kidnapped by a mysterious group known only as “The Future”. Ehrenreich plays a singing cowboy (think Gene Autry) who ends up terribly miscast in a stuffy period drama. These story angles, just like the many others, are promising but aren’t given much attention. It all goes back to Mannix and his professional and personal struggles. It is a far cry from the impression left by the trailer.

I don’t mean to sound like “Hail, Caesar!” is a bad movie. It’s not. There are so many winks and tips of the hat to the people and the system that made up Old Hollywood. The film is a veritable collage of homage and parody. Much of it is sure to put smiles on the faces of classic cinema fans. We get a big dance number. We shoot scenes on big studio lots. We see the politics behind making a Ben-Hur-ish prestige film. And of course communism rears its ugly head. All of these things are a lot of fun.

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But despite that, there’s something about “Hail, Caesar!” that just doesn’t click. There are so many components to the film that feel underplayed. The Coens have always stuck to their vision, but here their constant wandering from one potential plot point to another gives us several entertaining scenes but not a fully compelling whole. It never can keep a steady momentum and the humor seems to come in a few scattered bursts.

It’s hard to put into words what made the film hard for me to fully embrace. As I said, there are many really good scenes and several specific fun moments that stood out to me. Most feature that signature quirky Coen brothers dialogue that I love. But its hard to find a satisfying narrative thread that brings them together. I can’t help but think that a little less of these out-of-the-blue indulgences and slightly more focus on a central story thread would have helped the film immensely.

Still, a disappointing Coen brothers movie is better than most other comedies of today. That’s one way of looking at it. But that doesn’t cover the one unfortunate fact – “Hail, Caesar!” is still a disappointment. It has its moments (some of them are really great), but its flippant approach to some of the storylines it injects left me feeling a bit slighted.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Sicario”

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I think we have reached a point where we can watch a movie and confidently say “That is a Denis Villeneuve film”. The French-Canadian filmmaker can be defined as someone not afraid to claw deep under the surface of difficult subject matter. He also spares his audience no amount of discomfort or unease when telling his stories. His films are incredibly cinematic and are recognized by both their narrative and visual intensity. Several films have helped reveal his uniquenesses, but his new film “Sicario” is his best yet.

Every one of Villeneuve’s characteristics mentioned above are  present in “Sicario”, a border thriller that stings with relevancy. Emily Blunt is superb playing Kate Macer, an FBI field agent specializing in hostage rescue. The film opens with a gripping sequence featuring Kate leading a raid on an Arizona housing division. Her actions catch the attention of her superiors who then ask her to join a task force led by Department of Defense ‘advisor’ Matt Graver (played with amusing cockiness by Josh Brolin). The mission is to strike back at the drug cartels responsible for a number of brutal killings. Anxious to finally make a significant difference, Kate agrees to join Graver’s team.

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Also on the team is the mysterious and shadowy Alejandro played with unflinching precision by Benicio del Toro. Back in 2000 he won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Traffic”, but this stellar performance rises above his past work. His Alejandro is impenetrable – a walking contrast of information and emotion. The vast majority of the film is shown through Kate’s perspective. Like her, we struggle to figure out Alejandro, Graver, and the entire mission for that matter. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan meticulously feeds us small bits of information never allowing us the feeling of being fully informed.

“Sicario” is also strengthened by the sting of its moral ambiguity. There is no easy way to navigate the morality of what we see on screen. Kate struggles with it and Villeneuve forces his audience to struggle with it too. It casts a bright light on the drug war, border violence, and government policy painting each as murkier and far more complex than we normally hear through political talking points. It operates under the idea that we have lost the drug war. Now it’s about control and making sure it doesn’t consume us. But does that mean compromising our moral conscience and turning what we known to be ‘right and wrong’ into a much more gray area? These questions hit Kate like a crashing wave.

And there is no way to talk about this movie without mentioning its phenomenal presentation. Villeneuve has perfectly matched the intensity of his story and subject matter with a visual rendering that is truly absorbing and stimulating. It will come as no surprise that Roger Deakins’ cinematography is magnificent. When will this man finally win the Oscar he deserves? His camerawork is key in making many of these scenes work. There are no vanity or prestige shots. They all have meaning. Deakins visually infuses so many scenes with tension and potency.

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There is one particular sequence that may be my favorite of the year. Kate joins Graver’s team in a extradition mission to Juarez. They are to move across the border, pick up a high value target, and make it back. Deakins’ magic takes over the moment they leave the military base. Through his lens, Deakins reveals to us the boiling tension of the location and situation – the same tension that Kate is experiencing for the first time. It is also helped by JĂłhann JĂłhannsson’s simmering score – one of the year’s best. The entire sequence is cinema at its finest.

“Sicario” is a searing and provocative thriller – visceral and unflinching in its depiction of a situation with no easy answer. Denis Villeneuve and company expertly craft a cinematic experience grounded in relevancy and unwilling to sugar coat its subject matter. Villeneuve, Blunt, del Toro, Deakins, and JĂłhannsson all deserve Oscar nominations and the film itself is among the year’s very best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Everest”

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I said this during a recent review – I have a real weak spot for good, thrilling disaster/survival movies. For decades it has been a genre that has constantly found a place for itself on big screens. No catastrophe is too big and no disaster is beyond cinematic creativity. Now of course some of these films have been nothing short of disasters themselves, but still I often find myself captivated by the melding of large-scale peril with human emotion and survival instinct.

Enter “Everest”, the new movie from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain, ominously standing among Nepal’s Himalayas and armed with some of the most treacherous climbing conditions on planet earth. There is an almost mystic allure that surrounds Mount Everest and it has attracted climbers for years. Documented expeditions dating as far back as 1921 have helped to discover climbing routes as well as shed light on the mountain’s many dangers. Some have resulted in successful summits, but others have ended with disastrous loss of life.

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“Everest” assembles a stellar cast to tell the story of two expedition groups and their attempts to conquer and eventually survive Mount Everest in May, 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an expedition guide for Adventure Consultants. Among his clients are a lively Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin), a meek and timid mailman Doug (John Hawkes), and an experienced Japanese climber named Tasuko (Naoko Mori). They arrive at the base camp where they meet Rob’s team.

Also at base camp is the spirited Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly rival of Rob’s who is there to guide a group for Mountain Madness. As conditions deteriorate and the window to ascend to the summit grows smaller, Rob and Scott agree to team up to try and get their groups to the top. But quickly complications mount as the mountain’s wealth of dangers hit the groups head-on. It turns into a man-versus-nature struggle where sheer survival becomes the ultimate goal.

“Everest” is a unique movie with a firm focus. It isn’t a film interested in serving up deep, fully developed characters. Nor is it interested in building layers of drama between its characters. It could be said that this is a weakness. Actually the film does give us tidbits that open up several of the characters albeit ever so slightly. We learn quite a lot about Rob through his reputation and interactions with his clients, co-workers, and especially his wife Jan (Kiera Knightley). There are also interesting glimpses into Beck and Doug’s backstories that help shape how we look at them.

But to my point, none of that is the prime focus of “Everest”. The film sets its sights on the climb. It grants insight into its characters but just enough to help frame its main focus – man versus mountain. The meat and potatoes of “Everest” is strength, endurance, and the human will to live violently clashing with the captivating, beautiful, yet deadly force of nature. Characters talk of accomplishment and fulfillment, but it all ultimately comes down to this conflict. That is what grabbed me and never let me go.

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And perhaps most impressive is the sting of realism we get throughout the story. It doesn’t bomb us with big money moments or action-based contrivances. Everything that happens in preparing and especially during the climb feels organic. At times it is slow and methodical. Other times it is stressful and chaotic. And it is all captured with breathtaking awe. The visuals in “Everest” are stunning with several scenes literally causing me to exhale a deserved “wow”. Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the surroundings or capturing the climb itself, cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s mixture of CGI and on location filming is a sight to behold.

In the end “Everest” felt considerably different than I expected. It isn’t a brash, bombastic popcorn flick. It isn’t a by-the-books ‘real events’ movie. Sure, it has its big name ensemble cast and its share of visual ‘wow’ moments. But at the same time it felt small, concise, and restrained. The performances are exceptional throughout with actors filling in the character gaps and never allowing us to forget the human element. It’s harrowing, tragic, thrilling, and exhilarating. It could have easily been yet another disaster flick. For me “Everest” was much, much more.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Labor Day”

LABOR POSTEREven though the plot of “Labor Day” sounds like something plucked right out of Lifetime’s primetime television lineup, I was still optimistic considering the talent involved in the project. I greatly respect Jason Reitman as a screenwriter and a director. It also features Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin – two very capable performers who have done some great work during their careers. But I approached the film with a level of skepticism. Could Reitman deliver an intelligent romantic drama or would it be formulaic mush befitting a Harlequin novel?

First the story. The film takes place in the fictional town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire during a hot Labor Day weekend in 1987. 13-year old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is a sweet and responsible boy who takes care of his severely depressed single mother Adele (Winslet). A number of terrible misfortunes have left her an emotional wreck so much so that their once-a-month trips to the supermarket triggers her anxiety. During one of those trips they encounter an escaped and injured felon named Frank (Brolin) who “convinces” them to drive him to their home. Once there he hopes to lay low until his wounds heal and he can skip town.

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As every trailer and television commercial has already shared, Frank isn’t a terrible guy. We get some threatening vibes from him, but as escaped convicts doing time for murder usually go, he is pretty docile. He quickly connects with Adele and Henry, filling all sorts of fatherly and husband-like voids in their lives. He begins fixing things around the house, he teaches Henry how to throw a baseball, and a romance is sparked with Adele. The three create a beautiful fantasy-like world within the homeplace, but right outside is the reality of Frank’s past and his status as a wanted man.

In lesser hands this could have ended up a mushy, clichĂ©d mess. Fortunately Reitman handles the material in a way that keeps that from happening. But not completely. There are a few incredibly sappy bits that hit us head-on. For example there is one scene where Frank reveals his culinary aptitude. In it we get a sequence ripped straight from the signature scene in “Ghost” except here the clay is replaced by peaches. We also get some schmaltzy lines of dialogue such as Frank saying in just the right romantic tone “I’ve come to save you Adele”.

There are also a couple of narrative choices that didn’t really work for me. There is an odd little diversion that gets into Henry’s pubescent struggles. Through it we meet an eccentric young girl who serves as his introduction to puberty. Both she and the entire story angle is underdeveloped and tacked on. We also get the old tried-and-true method of telling Frank’s backstory through a series of random flashbacks. They get the job done but it is a pretty conventional approach.

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But despite all of these jabs I’ve thrown its way, “Labor Day” still manages to work. Other than the few hiccups, Reitman creates a small-scale intimacy that I connected with. Most importantly he gives us three main characters that we genuinely care about. This is important because when the film stumbles I still wanted to stay with these characters. I also love how Reitman uses the camera. He frames some beautiful shots and I love his visual perspective. And of course there are the two lead performances. Winslet has always been great at playing women in some form of anguish. Here she does it again with striking authenticity. Brolin’s rugged looks and charming sincerity are perfect for the role and helps their chemistry.

So clearly “Labor Day” has some issues but it also has some undeniable strengths. It can be a little too sappy and the melodrama can be extremely heavy. But it also has a sweet story with a lot of heart at its core. It all comes down to your ability to just go with it and get lost in the story. If you’re able to do that there is enough here to like. If you can’t then more than likely the film’s flaws will be all too glaring.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls

I originally did this particular Phenomenal 5 over a year ago. Honestly, it was one of the most fun lists to put together, but hardly anyone saw it. Thankfully to you all, my blog has grown some since then and I’ve been waiting to share it again for those who have missed it. So why wait any longer? There have been so many great movie moments involving phone calls and almost every single genre has their share. Putting this list together was a lot tougher that I expected and there are some great scenes I had to leave off. But such is the nature with the Phenomenal 5, right? So as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these movie phone calls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TAKEN” – “a very particular set of skills”

I liked “Taken” even though it kind of flew off the rails closer to the end. But it also provided one of the most memorable movie phone conversations you’ll find. Liam Neeson’s daughter and her friend are abducted while on a trip to Paris. Neeson’s character is a CIA field agent who we quickly find out has “a particular set of skills”. In a brief but incredibly intense phone chat with the abductors, Neeson presents them an offer (if they let his daughter go free) and then a stern warning (if they don’t). It’s a scene that became the signature moment in the film and one that I can’t help but love.

#4 – “DIAL M FOR MURDER” – “Hello?…Hello?…Hello?”

I still struggle with why ANYONE with an ounce of sanity would want to kill the beautiful Grace Kelly, yet that was Ray Milland’s plan in this Hitchcock classic. As his accomplice hides behind the drapes, Milland lures Kelly out of bed with a phone call from the party he’s attending. He then listens on the phone as his hired hand strangles his wife. Foolproof plan right? Of course not, this is Hitchcock, remember? This key scene turns Milland’s devious plans upside down and launches one of cinema’s best thrillers.

#3 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?”

One of the very best scenes in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men” is the phone conversation between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss. It marks the first time the two have had any communication and the intensity is simmering. The scene’s slick dialogue and clever tone is vintage Coen brothers but it also works thanks to great deliveries from Bardem and Brolin. From the startling first ring of the phone to the slamming down of the receiver at the conversation’s end, this movie phone call nails it.

#2 – “DR. STRANGELOVE” – “I agree with you, it’s great to be fine”

How can you have a list of top movie phone calls without including the hilarious conversation between United States President Merkin Muffley and Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov from “Dr. Strangelove”. In this classic Cold War spoof, a base commander goes “a little silly in head” and orders his planes to attack the U.S.S.R. President Muffley, wonderfully played by Peter Sellers, makes a courtesy call to Premier Kisov to let him know the base commander “went and did a silly thing”. The entire scene is just Sellers and he not only plays his character but also brilliantly sells us Dimitri, who we never hear. It’s a laugh out loud funny sequence and one of several great moments from the movie.

#1 – “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” – “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Who can forget the phone call at the end of this Oscar-winning crime thriller? After finishing a gruesome and intense serial killer case, the film ends with Clarice enjoying herself at her FBI graduation party. While receiving several commendations and pats on the back, she’s told she has a phone call. At the other end of the line is Hannibal Lecter. He congratulates Clarice on her success then drops the classic yet still disturbing line “I’m having an old friend for dinner”. Anthony Hopkins, decked in a blonde wig and tilted hat, then walks off after Chilton. The film ends with Clarice simply repeating “Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter…”. It’s one of those endings that leaves you uncomfortable but it’s also an ending you won’t forget.

What are your thoughts of my 5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls? See something I overlooked? Disagree with my choices. Please take time to share you picks or opinions.