Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser


Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)


The Girl on the Train (***) has a familiar track


The Girl on the Train – 2016

Director Tate Taylor
Screenplay Erin Cressida Wilson based on the novel by Paula Hawkins
Starring  Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez, Lisa Kudrow

The Girl on the Train is a movie that feels like it probably was quite well enjoyed by all of the stellar cast that volunteered to be in the film. It’s filled with more than a few choice roles for women – even Phoebe from Friends has a pivotal role. That their enjoyment does not translate to a greater success is a shame.

Emily Blunt has the choicest role, though, as Rachel Watson. Rachel is a sleepy dreamer, who has created a fantasy about a married couple that she sees on her daily train rides to and from New York City. By the first time we see her, she’s already created several scenarios for who this beautiful woman (Bennett) is, what she does and who she loves. Upon closer examination, we are fed bits and pieces of who Rachel is, who the object of her fantastic vision is, and who that seemingly happy couple is living two doors down are that hired the woman as a nanny. The couple consists of her ex-husband, Tom (Theroux) and his lovely new wife Anna (Ferguson). They got together before Rachel and Tom divorced.

The movie goes through great pains to show us how messed up Rachel appears to be. She is an alcoholic, and that is among her better traits. She is a creeper, with seemingly no connection to reality. She stalks her ex-husband’s family, even going so far as to take their child outside once, if only just to hold for a while.

The story jumps around. Going from time forward to the past with assorted flashbacks in between. We get to know more about the other characters. Megan is the girl who Rachel has been watching from the train. Saying she has issues is an understatement. She’s even seeing a psychologist. Anna, she seems very sleepy a lot of the time. What is going on with her?

The problems of each of these women seem to intersect nicely with Rachel’s erratic behavior. Then Megan disappears.

Watching this story, it is easy to connect the dots when one considers there is not one image that the director does not intend for us to see. It becomes a contest of wills to see how much one can force oneself to enjoy the film for the performances, which are all more than adequate to push us through one labored scene to the next.

Blunt is the clear standout, as she commits herself so completely to the role, she is almost hard to watch. She is clearly physically and emotionally ill. She has horrible blotchy skin and her breath is almost visible.

Bennett is equally good. Her intensity and motivation perfectly matches her character’s history. She is recognizable in the most painful way. She’s one that could make all men nervous and attracted at once, without ever really being seen by them. Bennett could parlay this and Magnificent 7 into quite a career, if she picks the right parts.

Ramírez has a choice role as Megan’s psychologist. His character and performance cuts beyond what one would picture of a therapist that looks like he does.

Ferguson’s character seems like it was a bit underserved by the story. Anna is played with a seeming reservoir of emotions being unearthed by the unfolding events. Where she ends up just seems like it’s short of the character and actresses potential.

The rest of the cast is pretty much what one could expect from a movie like this. None of it is all that bad, but every bit of it is foreshadowed enough to take the steam out of the mystery.

Taylor was an overachiever in his early directing efforts. This time around, he does very little to distinguish himself as anything more than an average director. There is nothing here that exceeds the grasp of someone directing a Lifetime drama. He is capable of way more.

(*** out of *****)

Joy (****) – Norma Rae can stuff it


Joy – 2015

Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Elisabeth Röhm, Dascha Polanco

If there is a special ability portrayed by the actors and director of Joy, it’s that none of this feels that much like a movie. This half-fiction portrayal of the life of the creator of the Miracle Mop has way more truth in it than one would expect for something that is laced with this much drama. In contrast to the good but mostly method acting of the leads in The Big Short, when watching mega-star Jennifer Lawrence inhabit the life of the titular working class hero, it is remarkable how much we don’t realize we are watching Jennifer Lawrence.

Much of the first act shows Joy in a miserable state. She is a single mother of two kids with a job that is going nowhere. Her divorced father (De Niro) is handed back to her by his current girlfriend. He moves in downstairs…where her own ex-husband (Ramirez) lives. Her mother (Madsen) inhabits one room, her grandmother (Ladd) another. She does most of the cleaning and repair work.

One day while mopping up a mess on his father’s new girlfriend (Rossellini) Trudy’s boat, she cuts her hand on some glass. The effect is an awakening of a long-dormant mechanism in her psyche that provides solutions to problems in the form of inventions. Following her instinct for the first time in years, she goes for it. Through much negotiating with her father and his girlfriend and some fantastic support from her husband and her best friend (Polanco).

This is not without bumps in the road, some of them real, some added for extra dramatic effect. Either way, the journey from her miserable existence to salvation through QVC is one worthy of the document. Russell, Lawrence and Cooper, as QVC executive Neil Walker, do a fantastic job giving voice to the millions of people who spend each day watching their television for community and ideas to make their lives better in some small way.

There is a moment, after Joy arrives to the QVC studios, waits all day and gets an interview where it seems as though it’s another dead end. Walker stops her presentation, takes her on a tour, and explains the importance of his work and how much it matters. Looking in Joy’s eyes, we see that she is buying what Walker is selling. In this moment, we buy in as well.

Don’t ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn’t. The world doesn’t owe you a thing.

The performances, for the most part, are sublime. The only time the film goes off course is with the fictional character Peggy (Röhm) and her effect on her father. There is a lot of talk about ‘having ideas too.’ It is a creative miss having De Niro switch back and forth between helpful and a kook that sides with odd suggestions better suited to a Wes Anderson film.  They should have replaced the weak and contrived last act with a bolstered middle act with more depth to the colorful and original supporting characters, we would have perfection.

This is Lawrence’s film though. Understandably, they threw the corn fed dramatic twists in there to give her something more to stand up against, just like Norma Rae. Norma Rae be damned. I always preferred Places in the Heart. Lawrence has enough material here navigating through Madsen, Ladd, De Niro and Rossellini to carry the day. Watching her move back and forth between various problems presented, solutions created, help offered and received is enough to fill one’s heart with the pleasure of knowing people like Joy exist.  Joy will push through, even if the world doesn’t owe her a thing.

(**** out of *****)

Deliver Us From Evil (***) survives


Deliver Us From Evil – 2014

Director Scott Derrickson
Starring Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale
Screenplay by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman

 Scott Derrickson has a way of making things seem really bad. Not just movie bad, but real, we’re not gonna make it bad. Sinister was replete with all sorts of things we’d all seen before, but there were a few, very vital things that made it stand apart. This time around, he relies on the intensity of Eric Bana in a good performance as Sargent Ralph Sarchie, a New York cop who has an instinct for the big calls. He is full of New York moxie and brutish intellect, working alongside another hot head named Butler (McHale, expanding his range just a bit). He loves his wife and kid almost as much as he loves his job, and church, well, he does that once a year.

Going on a gut feeling, Ralph gets himself and Butler into a series of inter-related cases that have him crossing paths with Father Mendoza (Ramirez).  Father Mendoza is a member of Narcotics Anonymous, and he specializes in demon possession. He tries to convince Sarchie that this is what he is seeing in this string of cases is exactly that. Sarchie needs convincing, of course.

The cases all revolve around a trio of servicemen who were dishonorably discharged after attacking a chaplain. We don’t see the attack but we do get to see what likely inspired the attack. Serving in Iraq, they came across a spooky looking cave and their commander sent them in. Too bad for them. It’s interesting that they take this route when explaining the origin of the demon that takes them over. Iraq is an old part of the world and we’ve been there a lot lately.

That they don’t explore this aspect more is a bit of a bummer.The film is “inspired” by tales that presumably occurred to the real Sarchie from his 2001 book Beware the Night. The retired cop who later became a demonologist, probably dealt with Iraqi veterans of the Desert Storm variety. Either way, we don’t find out much about the demon, other than its name. That the film is about as curious as George W. Bush is a missed opportunity. The exorcism is about as routine as a police procedural held, ironically, in an interrogation room.

Some unique moments in the film, especially during the chase scene in the apartment stairway and basement and lion pit at the zoo. Bana, McHale and Munn help us forget that we are seeing some pretty average stuff. Ramírez’ take as a priest is different enough to keep us from wondering why he hasn’t been defrocked.

It’s conceivable that most people will enjoy this film, if not become enmeshed with it.There are fewer moments that grab one while watching Deliver Us From Evil, but with only the strength of his earlier film he is worthy of taking on Dr. Strange.

(*** out of *****)

Zero Dark Thirty or Forty, Whatever it Takes.


Zero Dark Thirty – 2012

Director Katheryn Bigelow
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Harold Perrineau, Chris Pratt, Édgar Ramírez, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini
Screenplay Mark Boal

I spent much of the Bush administration reading books about the wars in the middle east after 9/11.  Most of it was read in disgust with Cheney’s and his administration. Along the way, through osmosis, I learned a thing or two about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj.    This helps me understand about 5 minutes of the story.  So much information is pushed in the 157 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, that by the time we get to Maya (Chastain) starts writing the number of days since they found the house that Bin Laden was supposedly housed (and killed) in, it feels like coming out of a fog.

Screenwriter Boal and Director Bigelow go to such lengths to clarify where we are at every step of the way, the process feels like night class at a community college.  It is labored at a few points, and it suffers a bit from the Brad Pitt-Moneyball syndrome, but overall, the movie is smart.  The cast is as good, with some big name actors chewing scenery and other character actors taking in the view.

The film is brave at points, including depicting torture being performed on humanized detainees by likable characters.  The lead is  a woman, giving her a barely tolerable overachiever who is not afraid of how she looks to anyone else.  It was a tough role to execute properly and Chastain gives a solid effort, only occasionally let down by the script making her a martyr genius.  The last 40 minutes are thrilling and thorough, even if they miss the customary two to the head for each aggressor.  They manage to keep the politics out of it, even if the viewer still has a hard time believing the overall story.  The best that can be said is a “possible jackpot.”

The biggest complaint for us is the use of Jennifer Ehle’s character, Jessica.  Her character has unquestionable intelligence and limited anticipation of succeeding.  Still, she has pluck.  This is what we expect from the heroine of Pride and Predjudice and Contagion.  For some reason, her character becomes inexplicably idiotic, along with everyone else around her.  This is necessary to portray for the plot, and perhaps to depict real events.  The thing is, in presenting it as they do, they take away the intelligence of the good guys as well as the bad guys.

No amount of doubt in the truthfulness of the venture of the last killing of a man supposedly dead several times over can take away from the power of seeing Chastain as the film fades to black.  Through this visage, one finds it easy to identify with someone who has concentrated on no one else but Bin Laden in over a decade.  You believe that she believes.  You know she’s been hollowed out and has nowhere else to go.  In her tears, the film puts a human toll on our nation’s burden since that fateful day.  There is strength and vulnerability.  There is aggression temporarily suspended.  What is lost, however, is a sense of purpose.  There is no better actress working today.  Although, before seeing this movie, I would have considered Ehle in the running.

(****1/2 out of *****)