Friday, May 18, 2018

BOOK VS MOVIE: Lean on Pete

Many times in fiction we often see adolescents dealing with the brunt of everyday life beyond high school and puberty. Sometimes they lose a close family member, often by unnatural means. Other times their responsibilities in life increase greatly. But what differs from these depictions is how the teens handle their new situations.

With Lean on Pete, it follows Charley Thompson after his supposedly comfortable home life slips through his fingers. He decides to find his aunt but there's one problem: he's in Oregon, she lives in Wyoming (at least that's where he remember where she lives), and he has no means of getting there. With the titular ailing racehorse as his companion, he ventures out to find a place he can call home.

Willy Vlautin's novel is simplistic in its writing (it's told from Charley's point of view) but its storytelling speaks volumes in the narrative. In a style reminiscent of John Steinbeck's work, the matter-of-fact perspective from Charley shows innocence becoming aware of the hardscrabble nature of everyday life. (No one ever said life itself would be forgiving.)

Andrew Haigh's adaptation condenses Vlautin's novel to a certain degree but otherwise stays true to the source material. As his earlier films Weekend and 45 Years showed, he prefers depicting the small things that happen in one's day and Lean on Pete is no exception. And like his previous entries, Haigh shows how the little things can lead to something big.

So which is better: Vlautin's book or Haigh's movie? Both capture the modesty of everyday life, how one's usual routine can be a change of pace for another. And they also depict something else, something most fiction rarely chronicles and often eschews: the world we're a part of is both fascinating and frightening.

What's worth checking out?: Both.


July 18, 1969. That was the evening that left permanent damage on the career of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. That was the night that cost an innocent woman her life. That was the night of the Chappaquiddick incident.

Now nearly fifty years since the accident, John Curran dramatizes the days following the death of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) with his film Chappaquiddick, What he depicts is how after the accident, Kennedy (Jason Clarke) and his legal team tried their damnedest to save both his own and his family's reputations. But often lost in this scramble of public relations is the fact a woman died involuntarily by his hand.

Throughout Chappaquiddick, Kennedy is depicted as someone who's more concerned about his image than the people he's supposed to be representing. Now obviously this can be viewed as far from the truth (Kennedy was haunted by Kopechne's death until his dying day forty years later) or an attempt to depict politicians -- real or fictional -- as arrogant. (His wearing an unnecessary neck brace to Kopechne's funeral certainly did not help his mounting troubles.)

The depiction of the aftermath may be on shaky ground but Clarke's portrayal of Kennedy is particularly noteworthy. He plays the late senator as a man under the weight of expectation from both his father and his country. (The shadows of his brothers loom over him throughout Chappaquiddick.) Now if this was also true in real life is hard to say but Clarke is excellent.

Chappaquiddick ends up raising more questions than answering them. What caused Kennedy to drive off the bridge? Was it really an accident or was it deliberate? Was was the extent of his connection with Kopechne? The real answers went to the grave with Kopechne and Kennedy, so we may never know the truth.

My Rating: ****

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Married to the Mob

Angela de Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) should be happy about her initial situation in Jonathan Demme's Married to the Mob. She lives in absolute luxury thanks to her husband Frank's (Alec Baldwin) line of work: organized crime. But he gets whacked by his boss "Tony the Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell) -- who's desperate to get Angela as his mistress -- so she and her son go into hiding...which is much easier said than done.

In stark contrast to some of her work earlier in the decade (hell, she did Dangerous Liaisons the same year), Married to the Mob allows Pfeiffer to be in a lighter role and expand on her comedic abilities. (Worth mentioning that Demme's follow-up film to this was The Silence of the Lambs, again another decided career change-up.)

By this point in American history, the public was more than aware of the mafia's existence. (John Gotti as the head of the Gambino family really did not help the other four families in keeping a low profile.) There were a number of films during the 1980s alone that either made a mockery of or enforced the status of the Italian mob. Regardless of the depiction, people were fascinated by this organization.

Pfeiffer may headline the film but she's not the only actor of note in Married to the Mob. Stockwell and Mercedes Ruehl (she plays Tony's easily jealous wife Connie) steals scenes left and right. It's no wonder that they were the more recognized performers of the film come awards season (with Stockwell earning a long-overdue Oscar nomination).

Married to the Mob is further testament to Demme's worth as a filmmaker. (Being one of Roger Corman's protégés clear had some perks.) His death last year marked the end of an esteemed career of varying genres, and it's unlikely that we'll see another storyteller like him.

My Rating: ****

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Death of Stalin

If there's one thing Armando Iannucci will be forever associated with, it's the political satire. Having found immense success with The Thick of It and Veep, he serves as a polar opposite to what Aaron Sorkin did with The West Wing. (But in light of recent events, the need for such depictions has waned significantly.)

That said, his latest film The Death of Stalin still remains welcome amid these trying times. (It's nice to see something politically focused and actually laugh about it.) And surprisingly, amid the frustrated swearing and constant backstabbing, it's pretty accurate historically. (See? Truth can be stranger than fiction.)

Now because of the political world during the last two years, one would shy away from such stories in fear of ruining their day. (Hell, some of them make websites like The Onion redundant.) But Iannucci makes sure with The Death of Stalin that concerns for the current state of things are forgotten in favor of his film. (Those who say movies aren't a good escape from life clearly haven't seen any.)

Anyway, there's one thing very much proven in The Death of Stalin: have your matters in order when you shuffle off this mortal coil lest you want pandemonium to follow suit once you're in the ground. And this being an Iannucci work, there's anxiety everywhere. (No wonder they're all at each other's throats.)

The Death of Stalin may make one's head spin trying to keep up with who's betraying who but that aside, Iannucci provides an anecdote to today's political woes. Instead of dreading the outcome of the politicians' impulsivity, we can actually laugh at them in the knowledge that they're long-dead. But as George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My Rating: ****1/2

BOOK VS MOVIE: You Were Never Really Here

There's a real ugliness to humanity, no question about it. Some people are more than willing to throw others under the bus for their own selfish needs. But how far will these figures go as they slip further into immoral depravity?

When fiction depicts such corruption, more often than not police officers and politicians are the ones put under the microscope. But that's not to say the average person is immune from such a sensation, far from it. What seems to be the case is that the allure of money and power is too strong for them to resist, falling prey to that for control soon after. (Maybe John Dalberg-Acton was onto something...)

Jonathan Ames' You Were Never Really Here depicts a man trying to hide from such a dehumanizing society, both figuratively and literally. Having endured numerous traumas in his life, Joe now serves as a hired gun tasked with saving girls forced into sex work. But with his latest assignment, he delves into a world darker than his own demons.

Lynne Ramsay's adaptation tweaks the details of Ames' novella considerably but that in itself provides a new perspective. Joaquin Phoenix is great (as he so often is) but special mention goes to the sound mixing and Jonny Greenwood's score. That combination captures the damaged frame of mind Joe deals with every waking moment. (Hopefully awards voters will remember them by year's end.)

So which is better: Ames' take on the story or Ramsay's? The author maintains a more visceral perspective for You Were Never Really Here while the director focuses more on Joe's fractured mental state. They obviously take different approaches to the same story but that's not generally a bad thing. If anything, it shows there are two sides to every story.

What's worth checking out?: Both.

Isle of Dogs

Within the last twenty-plus years, Wes Anderson has established himself as a unique presence in the world of film. (He's certainly doing something right if Martin Scorsese's praising him.) With all but one of his films being original works (with Fantastic Mr. Fox being the lone exception), it's no wonder that he's prone to stand out amongst bloated sequels and big-budget spectacles.

So where does his latest film Isle of Dogs stand? His second foray into animation (again, the first being Fantastic Mr. Fox), it bolsters the expected mix of Anderson regulars and some surprising inclusions (Yoko Ono!) as well as that display of eccentricity. But some might be crying foul at the predominately white roster of actors amid the film's setting.

But let's focus on that, shall we? For those concerned, no, there aren't any white actors voicing Japanese characters (Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson have dealt with the brunt of those previous casting decisions enough for several lifetimes.) Most of them voice the titular dogs, and the beginning of the film specifies that the Japanese dialogue remains untranslated save for a few scenes. So no stereotypes here, right? Well, not quite.

Some might view Greta Gerwig's character bordering on white savior (she sort of does) and what many perceive as Japanese culture is on display throughout Isle of Dogs. If anything, it's not so much racially insensitive as it is more along the lines of cultural tourism on Anderson's part. (Hopefully he'll learn from his mistakes here so as not to affect later works.)

Anyway, Isle of Dogs continues to show Anderson's worth as a storyteller. A few bumps towards Japanese culture aside, he possesses an imagination unlike anyone before him. Will he surpass his current cinematic streak? Only time will tell.

My Rating: ****1/2