The Guilty: One-Man Show

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty

The Guilty
****
(Streaming on Netflix October 1)

The dialogue-rich story of the worst night in a 911 operator’s life could have worked as a radio drama, but that would have meant missing Jake Gyllenhaal’s iron-clad performance in this taut psychological thriller.

He’s in virtually every frame as Joe Baylor, a street cop who’s stuck on Emergency Dispatch duty pending trial for police brutality. Gyllenhaal is almost animalistic here:  mouth taut, eyes darting like rococheting bullets as a life-and-death scenario unravels over the air, maddeningly out of reach.

One can guess the film’s conceit—a man alone in a room having desperate conversations with unseen callers—arose out of necessity in the COVID-19 filmmaking era. But art often arises out of the bonds of limitation, and The Guilty is a case in point. Besides the visual riches of Gyllenhaal’s performance, the film showcases some truly spectacular voice acting from stars like Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Riley Keough and Peter Sarsgaard.

The film is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer)—who ordinarilly loves to expand his action films into sprawling set pieces—wisely sticks to the prototype. This may well be the first film Fuqua’s made in which the hero does not walk slowly away from an exploding car or building, but Gyllenhaal provides all the fireworks he needs.

Dear Evan Hansen: Dancing On a High Wire

Dear Evan Hansen (Opening Sept. 24)
****

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

A feel-good musical that focuses on teenage depression and suicide? Yes, please! Dear Evan Hansen’s endlesly appealing cast walks a treacherous tightrope, barely keeping its collective balance above a chasmic premise that threatens at any given moment to swallow them all alive. Most of the songs from the smash Broadway production have been kept, along with Tony Award-winning star Ben Platt in the title role—another tricky decision, since he’s now 26. Yes, maybe he’s a bit old for the part, but with those enormous eyes and awkward gestures, Platt more than makes up for his chronological handicap with deep knowledge of the character. 

Julianne Moore shines as his harried, distracted but loving mom (The studio insists that’s actually Moore singing, in which case the film’s voice coach did her no favors by teaching her to trill like a teenage contestant on The Voice).

I don’t rember the last I cried at a movie, and if Dear Evan Hansen is unfairly manipulative in drawing them, you have to give the filmmakers credit for knowing precisely which strings to pull and when. 

Uncut Gems: Stone Cold Carats

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems
***  
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Stars: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Adam Sandler has played straight drama before, but nothing will prepare you for this adrenaline-pumped film that feels like a plunge into a vat of battery acid. It’s a wild ride made all the more disorienting by the presence of Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jittery, jaundiced Manhattan jeweler who is always on the lookout for a quick buck, be it through bad bets or shady business deals. Up to his neck in gambling debt, one step ahead of the bookie’s goons, Howard miraculously finds himself in possession of an opal-embedded rock that, he’s convinced, will enable him to finally pay everyone off. Of course, it’s not that easy.

Nor is it easy to sit through Uncut Gems, a movie that explodes from the gate with reckless abandon, then barrels through its course offering little in the way of surprise or reflection before running into the brick wall we’ve never doubted for a moment stood at the finish line. With no reward at the end, we’re left only to marvel at Sandler’s bravura performance — and that’s not quite enough to make the whole ordeal worthwhile. 

Film directors Benny and Josh Safdie are New York brothers with a distinctively New York vision — make that New York circa 1975, when you had to keep your head on a swivel, street hustlers scurried along the littered sidewalks like hopped-up rats, and only an idiot ventured down a dark Manhattan block after hours. 

The brothers’ latest movie is set in present-day New York, but that underbelly vibe throbs through every hyper-energized frame.

Everybody hates Howard, including his wife — heck, including his girlfriend — but like a black hole, he draws everyone in his unfortunate vicinity toward his self-destructive event horizon. Like them, within minutes of making Howard’s acquaintance we want to punch him right in the kisser, but we’re also held in a masochistic kind of thrall. Besides, we want to stick around to see what awful choice he’ll make next. 

Strangely, the role of perpetual loser Howard seems a natural shift for Sandler, who’s made his career playing irresponsible boobs. He doesn’t disappear into the role of Howard so much as channel the anger and cluelessness of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison into a chasm of nervous energy. 

I’d like to see more of this from Sandler, but perhaps in a movie that doesn’t feel like the aftermath of a night ill-spent. 

Just Mercy: A Real Superhero

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy

Just Mercy 

*****
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson

Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, based on Bryan Stevenson’s book
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton 

Like Christmastime, the Oscars Buzz Season seems to begin sometime around Halloween, and thus far the scuttlebutt has more or less ignored this, the film that ranks as one my very favorites of 2019. We can only hope that will change in the coming weeks as audiences experience the blood, sweat, and tears that stain every frame of this relentlessly powerful screen version of Civil Rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book, a scathing indictment of America’s legal system. 

For more than 30 years, Stevenson has been toiling to rescue wrongly accused or unfairly sentenced death row inmates — the overwhelming majority of them African American — from execution. Just Mercy the book covers decades of outrageous and tragic cases nationwide, but Just Mercy the movie focuses on Stevenson’s earliest: A pair of men facing the electric chair in Alabama during the 1980s.

As Stevenson, Michael B. Jordan (CreedBlack Panther) bristles with indignant compassion. More importantly, his performance traces the young lawyer’s exodus from an idealistic neophyte who sees himself as the principled outsider/savior of these men to a profoundly changed, intimate participant in their personal tragedies. As an innocent man wrongly placed on Louisiana’s Death Row, Jamie Foxx reclaims his place as one of the screen’s most thoughtful actors. Hollow-eyed, physically and emotionally depleted, Foxx brings heartbreaking immediacy to the role of a man who has relinquished all hope of escaping his date with the chair on Louisiana’s Death Row — and who at first views Stevenson with justified skepticism. 

Along with Rob Morgan as a stoic inmate whose assigned punishment far outstrips his offense and Brie Larson (Room) as Stevenson’s increasingly exasperated assistant, Just Mercy’s cast should form an impromptu parade on Oscars night. 

To that end, movies like Just Mercy inevitably find themselves tagged as “Oscar Bait,” a derogatory term in an industry that too often casts a cynical eye on big-name dramas that explore social injustice through closely observed personal stories. But that attitude does Just Mercy a criminal injustice: co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) never goes for cheap sentiment. His characters face difficult choices, and don’t always make the right one. Like the real-life hero at its center, Just Mercy sees what is happening in America’s legal system and asks the question: “How can you not take this personally?” 

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan: Why The Long Face?

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan
***
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
Stars: Kit Harington, Natalie Portman, Jacob Tremblay
Writers: Xavier Dolan, Jacob Tierney
Director: Xavier Dolan


Why do some filmmakers have to make everything so darned complicated?

Co-writer/director Xavier Dolan’s story of an 11-year-old boy (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay) and a troubled 30-something TV star (Game of Thrones hunk Kit Harington) who strike up a pen pal relationship should not have required a lot of narrative acrobatics. But here we are trying to keep track of the flashbacks and flash forwards, and enduring an unnecessary framing device in which the kid, now all grown up, is giving an interview to a testy war correspondent who feels chronicling his story is beneath her.

And then there’s the kid’s mom (Natalie Portman), who’s a struggling actress, and backstabbing intrigue on the set of the actor’s TV show, and suspense over whether or not Disney is going to cast him as its newest superhero. And on and on.

With just a little streamlining, The Life and Death of John F. Donovan might have zipped by in a brisk, poignant hour and a half. At over two hours, it goes straight to the Dead Letter Department.

Dolemite Is My Name: Dynamite

Eddie Murphy and the cast of Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name
****
Rating: R
Stars: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Luenelle
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Director: Craig Brewer

Did you forget that Eddie Murphy is a comic genius? I know I did.

The years have dimmed the memory of Murphy’s angry, ingenious Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop; his fast-talking foil to Nick Nolte in 48 Hours; his crazy quilt of characters in Coming to America.

It’s been over a decade since Murphy last starred in a straight-up comedy (and he should never have made that one, the awful Norbit). During that creative drought, he’s muddled through a couple of lame family heart-warmers and voiced that annoying Shrek donkey a kabillion times.

Now comes Dolemite Is My Name, with Murphy in a role he was born to play: A former X-rated standup comic who decides, with no training or experience, he wants to become a movie star.  

Welcome home, Eddie. All is forgiven.

On paper, Dolemite Is My Name is a screen bio of a real guy: Rudy Ray Moore, who, before he became the king of blacksploitation films in the 1970s, released a super-successful series of comedy albums, the contents of which made Redd Foxx sound like Mr. Rogers’ warm-up act.

Seriously, I don’t think we could repeat a single one of Moore’s jokes here. As Moore, Murphy is even more freewheelingly obscene, mind-numbingly scatological, and transcendentally crass than he was in his Eddie Murphy: Raw days. Yet as he traces Moore’s single-minded ambition to succeed — from strip clubs to Hollywood — Murphy exudes the same subversive sweetness that endeared him to Saturday Night Live audiences 40 years ago.

Murphy’s Moore is no scattershot comic. He’s an artist from the start, tape recording homeless black men in Los Angeles alleys and adapting not only their stories, but also their rhyming cadences and their gloriously vulgar word pictures. He places it all in the mouth of a character he creates: an ostentatious, cane-wielding pimp named Dolemite. There are those who say Moore was the father of rap — and Snoop Dogg, in a cameo role, more or less confirms it.

One day in 1974, after suffering through Billy Wilder’s lame remake of The Front Page, Moore has an inspiration: Why not adapt his Dolemite standup character to the big screen? Sure, he’s had no experience acting. Of course he doesn’t know anybody in the movie business. And naturally Dolemite’s unapologetically urban black character could never find an audience west of Chicago or east of Inglewood. Still, those challenges serve only to galvanize Moore’s determination.

In many ways, Dolemite Is My Name owes its cheery effervescence to Frank Oz’s 1999 comedy Bowfinger. Steve Martin stars in that one as a clueless, talentless film director who surrounds himself with a cluster of lovable misfits — including a meek, bespectacled gofer (played by Murphy) whose brother happens to be an egotistical, paranoid action star (also Murphy). Here, Murphy wraps qualities of both those characters into one guy, creating, perhaps, the richest persona he’s ever tackled.

As played by Murphy, Moore the man is emphatically not Dolemite the caricature: The moment he leaves the stage, or the director yells “cut,” Moore drops his loudmouthed mannerisms and reverts to the kind-hearted, deferential sweetheart who endears himself to friends and business partners alike. Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, TV’s Empire) has surrounded Murphy with an appealing cast: the serious playwright who gets roped into writing Moore’s schlocky Kung Fu epic (Keegan-Michael Key), the fledgling director whose claim to fame is playing an elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby (Wesley Snipes), the plus-size actress who can’t believe she’s landed a major role in any kind of movie (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have made a career of celebrating the outcasts of American culture (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon), and here, once again, they find in Moore that unique brand of dignity found only in the defiantly undignified.

“Why can’t you be like that nice young Bill Cosby fellow?” Moore’s worried aunt (Luenell) asks. “He’s so polite.”

That’s the story of Rudy Ray Moore in a nutshell: It’s better to be authentic. And that’s a lesson Eddie Murphy seems to have learned, as well.

The Current War: Shocking Truth

Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison in The Current War

The Current War: The Director’s Cut
****
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Tuppence Middleton, Katherine Waterson, Nicholas Hoult
Writer: Michael Mitnick
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

So, if I told you The Current War is a historical drama about a titanic face-off between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, battling over whether America’s electrical system should be wired AC or DC, would you stand up, throw your head back and declare, “Count me in?”

Eh, probably not. But trust me, The Current War is at times positively enthralling, and the stars — Benedict Cumberbatch as boyish, blustery Edison and Michael Shannon as the reserved, ruminative Westinghouse — provide the juice to make this history lesson shine.

Every school kid knows Edison invented the light bulb, and to light those bulbs he preferred Direct Current (DC), a system that required transformers every couple of miles, but was so safe you could press your hand to a bare wire and not get shocked. Westinghouse’s Alternating Current (AC) could travel hundreds of miles but, if handled without insulation, would cause instantaneous death.

As The Current War unfolds, the two men feud from afar in the press, Edison masking his all-consuming ambition with the down-home charm that endeared the inventor to America. As Westinghouse, Shannon appears more businessman than visionary, a gentleman appalled by his rival’s dirty play (Edison convinces the State of New York to execute a prisoner via AC current, then goes about declaring that the man had been “Westinghoused”).

I loved The Current War when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2017, but I was in the minority: Most critics found the narrative a bit jumbled. Originally a Weinstein Company film, its release was cancelled when Harry W’s studio sank in the #MeToo Sea. During the two years the film was in movie limbo, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon performed some choice edits and additions to move the story along and heighten the drama — hence this version’s “Director’s Cut” subtitle. He’s made nothing but fortunate choices, particularly in giving his two stars even more time to let their characters breathe.

If you’re wondering who won the AC-DC debate, be my guest and stick a finger into the nearest wall socket. As feuding moguls, Cumberbatch and Shannon offer a more pleasantly charged history lesson. 

Missing Link: Beast Buddies

Missing Link
****
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis
Writer/Director: Chris Butler

The closest thing to Folk Art you’ll find in the movies is stop-action animation, where hand-made model characters — manipulated frame-by-frame by gifted puppeteers — walk, fly, and fret their way through elaborate, physically crafted sets.

The consensus worldwide leader in the art is British filmmaker Nic Park’s Aardman Studios, whose Wallace and Gromit films have won both hearts and Oscars for decades. But Aardman’s got heady competition in the form of Oregon’s Laika Studios, which has astonished audiences with the delicate artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings, haunted them with the eerie atmosphere of Coraline— and now brings the unqualified delight of Missing Link, a raucous high adventure buddy comedy. 

We meet Victorian-era British explorer Sir Lionel Frost (stuffily voiced by Hugh Jackman) as he sets out to capture photo evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. The wondrously thrilling scene cheekily establishes Frost’s relentless ambition, ingenious resourcefulness — and clueless disregard for the well-being of others. Soon he is off on another adventure: Traveling to the Pacific Northwest to find Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. 

You might think that quest would provide adventure enough for the film, but Frost encounters Bigfoot almost immediately after arriving in Washington State, and before long the pair are engaged in yet another endeavor: Uniting Bigfoot, who is the last of his kind and now goes by the name Mr. Link, with his distant cousins, the Yeti, who populate a hidden city in the Himalaya. 

What follows is a boats, trains, and stagecoach odyssey, made more urgent by the threat of a gun-toting hitman hired by a rival explorer to keep Sir Frost from succeeding. 

The presence of that gun, which makes more than one appearance, plus some Disneyesque falling deaths toward the end, may argue against bringing young children to see the film. But there are grownup delights aplenty in Missing Link, from its glorious color palate to the refreshingly angular character design (except for that of Mr. Frost’s love interest, voiced by Zoe Saldana, who seems unsettlingly like a throwback to those Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV quickies of the 1960s).

Best of all is the sparkling voice work of Zach Galifianakis, who breathes humor and innocence into Mr. Link. Writer/director Chris Butler paces his story perfectly, allowing Frost and Link plenty of room to develop a sweet if sometimes combative friendship. 

“Dumbo” An Elephant to Forget

A Trunk Full of Trouble

Dumbo
Two Stars
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
Cast: Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Eva Green
Writer: Ehren Kruger (From the novel by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl)
Director: Tim Burton

            The biggest problem with Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic Dumbois as plain as the trunk on your face: It’s just no fun.

            It’s hard to imagine how anyone could suck all the whimsy out of a story that involves an adorable baby elephant who, urged on by his little mouse friend, discovers he can fly by flapping his enormous ears. But Tim Burton, the man who made Batman a brooder and Willy Wonka a weirdo, has managed the trick. 

            First of all, this Dumbo’s world is dark. Gotham City dark. Even the opening scenes, set at the circus’ winter home in Florida, seem to be lit with a 15-watt bulb. Then there are the morose brother and sister, who in this version sub for the original’s perky mouse as Dumbo’s friends. Their mother has just died in the 1918 flu epidemic, and their father (Colin Farrell), who apparently has not smiled since the Titanic sank, has just returned from World War I minus one arm. Baby Dumbo is revealed cowering under a bale of hay only after a cruel animal handler prods his mother from her shabby rail car using a harpoon-like prodder, and within minutes she is torn from him for good, jailed as a “Mad Elephant.” Before long she is sold to a sadistic animal trainer as big tears fall from Dumbo’s enormous blue eyes.

            Are we having fun yet?

            Of course, things start looking up for Dumbo after he discovers his avionic abilities, but even the spectacularly realized flying sequences come only after the poor elephant faces one peril after another. 

            For a villain, Dumbo can do no better than resort to the most exhausted trope in all of moviedom: The Greedy Businessman. In the person of Michael Keaton, this time the bad guy is an early 20thCentury entertainment mogul who runs a dystopian amusement park called Dreamland. He gets wind of Dumbo’s high-flying talent and promises the moon to the opportunistic circus owner (Danny DeVito, whose character goes not one step beyond the guy he played 40 years ago on Taxi). 

            Thus the action shifts to Dreamland, which is a cross between the Chicago World’s Fair’s White City and Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. The businessman’s big idea is to have his previously biggest attraction, a comely acrobat known as The Queen of the Sky (Eva Green), perch on Dumbo’s back while he flies around the interior of an enormous circus tent. 

            One look at Keaton’s trademark evil smirk and we know what’s afoot: He plans to take Dumbo away from his circus friends and create a “brand” around him. And just in case there’s any doubt about his irredeemable awfulness, Dumbo’s mother is brought back into the story just so he can rip her away from him again — and this time order her murder.

            All of which is to say it’s a long, long road to Dumbo’s happy ending — an ending, by the way, engineered to appease the tut-tutters who object to circuses and trained elephants. 

            Of all the weirdness going on in Dumbo, perhaps nothing is more weird than the nagging feeling that Burton is drawing his veil of darkness not only over a beloved old cartoon, but over his employer, as well. After all, what is Dreamland but a pre-incarnation of Disneyland, and what is Keaton’s character if not the embodiment of the Disney company itself, absorbing every entertainment entity in sight (Lucasfilm, Marvel, 20thCentury Fox, Pixar), shedding the assets it’s not interested in and claiming the hot properties as its own?

            Only occasionally does Dumbo transcend its heavy-lidded attitude, and those moments come largely when the film evokes memories of the original. The scene of Dumbo visiting his mother in her Mad Elephant Cage — which rivals only the death of Bambi’s mother in the Disney Gallery of Uncontrollable Sobs — is gently and tastefully recreated, complete with a lovely rendition of the 1941 Oscar-nominated song “Baby Mine.” And the animated film’s psychedelic centerpiece, “Pink Elephants on Parade,” gets a visual and musical rendition that is wondrously rendered. 

            But I miss Dumbo’s mouse friend Jeremy. And I want to see Mr. Stork delivering those baby animals. I especially miss the original’s much-maligned group of singing crows, who speak and sing with an African American dialect but are voiced by a largely white cast (one of them was named, astonishingly, Jim Crow). This remake was Disney’s one and only chance to redeem that scene by voicing it with an all-Black cast, but as you’d expect the studio took the coward’s way out by eliminating them completely. 

            It’s understandable, of course. Those guys were fun. And for this Dumbo, fun has nothing to do with it. 

Mary Poppins Returns: Practically Perfect

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Returns *****

December 24, 2018
Remember at the end of Mary Poppins, when Bert the Chimneysweep gazes into the windy London sky and says, “Goodbye, Mary Poppins! Don’t stay away too long!”

For 9-year-old me, that line started the clock ticking for what I considered the inevitable sequel to Walt Disney’s instant 1964 classic. That wait proved to be longer than I expected, but happily, Mary Poppins Returns is well worth the wait; every bit as good as the original and in some ways better.

As Ms. Poppins, Emily Blunt lacks Julie Andrews’ soaring voice, but she makes up for it in embodying the smoky mystery that surrounds the magical nanny. With her chin tucked down, her eyes peering out mischievously from under her wide-brimmed hat, Blunt’s Poppins is a lilting invitation to embrace the unexpected.

We’re told early on that her old pal Bert — played by Dick Van Dyke lo those many years ago — is off on a world tour. But we thoroughly enjoy the company of his great-nephew, a lamplighter named Jack (played with back-row-reaching enthusiasm by Hamilton creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda).

The film closely follows the template of the original, with a fantastical leap into a bubble bath sea and a visit to a comically quirky relative (Meryl Streep, singing her little heart out). Master musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago) lends this film a masterful continuity that the original Poppins lacked, but he never loses sight of the film’s essential mission: To entertain all ages while splashing happily in the puddles of childhood fantasy