The Man Who Invented Christmas: Movie Man Jackson

Charles Dickens. Renowned author, creator of Christmas as we know it. In 1842, Dickens (Dan Stevens) is riding high off his successes, gaining immense popularity across the world. Fast forward 18 months, however, and the author has fallen on hard financial times (get it?), with three flops that make people question whether Charles still has it.

Even Chuck questions whether he’s still got it, struggling through a bout of writer’s block. He only begins to break out of it by getting inspiration from those around him in London, including a miserly old man he sees at a funeral (Christopher Plummer). A Christmas Carol is born, and while Charles begins interacting with the book’s many characters in his imagination, he begins to see parallels between his fictional story and his life.

 

There are a few characters synonymous with the Christmas holiday. Christ, Rudolph, Frosty, and of course Jolly ol’ St. Nick are up there. But Scrooge and his story are as well. A Christmas Carol is a story as old as time, told many years over and over. The story of Charles Dickens is a lot less known, but this version of his classic serves to tell a little about his life while framing it in his classic. This combination makes for an unconventional and unique spin, but a spin that ends up pretty cold.

Directed by Bharat Nalljuri (MI-5), The Man Who Invented Christmas would feel at home on ABC Family—excuse me, Freeform now—rather than the silver screen. Nineteenth-century London is recreated beautifully through the costumes, lighting, and architecture. Still, the movie comes off more play-like than cinematic, though Dickens’ moments with his characters are entertaining. What Nalljuri does do well is capture how a writer can catch an idea out of thin air and go to town within seconds.

Fusing Dickens’ real-life story with his most famous creation sounds interesting in theory, until you figure out that Dickens’ story is kind of dull. OK, maybe dull is too negative, but seeing Charles’ family problems and using those to draw parallels does little from an emotional standpoint. Or maybe it’s the way the story flows between scenes, sometimes in a disjointed way that doesn’t appear to be intentional.

Playing the famous author is Dan Stevens. Stevens has no problem utilizing his natural charisma for a character that is rather dry despite every effort made by the script for him not to be. It’s a solid central performance, but doesn’t hold weight in the stocking like Christopher Plummer’s turn as Ebenezer Scrooge. Perfection ensues from the moment Plummer first appears as the miser, nailing every aspect from his physical appearance and disdain for niceties to his discovery of the true meaning of Christmas.

For those who want to see another side of the story that is The Christmas Carol that is more personal, The Man Who Invented Christmas is likely to be a interesting gift to unwrap. Others who rather just have Scrooge be the star would be best serve to catch one of the many adaptions that is not this one.

C

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I, Tonya: Movie Man Jackson

Why can’t it be just about the skating? If it were only about the skating, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) would probably end up as the best figure skater to ever do it. At the age of four she embarked on this career path, driven by her overbearing mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). The talent is evident from the first time she shows her skills in an older age group. Eventually, she becomes the first woman to land a triple axel.

If it were only about the skating, Tonya’s story would be a happy one. But exposed to the constant abuse from LaVona and her first love Jeff (Sebastian Stan), the volatility of her situation places her down a tragic path of darkness, culminating with “the incident” against competitor Nancy Kerrigan that would come to define her life.

Sure, the world may have gotten the great ESPN 30 for 30 in The Price of Gold, but it is kind of surprising that it took almost a quarter-century for the infamous Tonya Harding incident to be captured onto the silver screen. Jordan years (that’s 23 for the non-sports fans out there) later, I, Tonya officially arrives in the awards season and winds up standing as very, very surprising film.

Sometimes tone and approach can be the most important factors as it pertains to how well a movie’s story is told and whether it resonates or not. Massive kudos must be given to director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours, Fright Night 2011), writer/producer Steven Rogers, producers Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Bryan Unkeless, and even Tonya Harding herself who serves as a consultant for the movie for nailing these two components. There’s an alternate universe where I, Tonya is super dry and told with a straight face. That recipe is likely a forgettable view.

Why? Because the preposterous life story of Tonya Harding—from 4 years old on to her celebrity boxing stint—is too unbelievable not to chuckle or even laugh hard at; it might as well be a fiction except it actually happened. The Office-like format in storytelling takes a little while to find a groove, and the fourth-wall breaking isn’t always smoothly deployed, but necessary to seeing how the main characters’ recollection of the events are not the same. However, using this method allows a more emotionally-affecting look into Ms. Harding herself. Seriously, I Tonya goes there to those dark, icy, and uncomfortable places. Gillespie and company do the right thing in straying away from painting Tonya as a complete victim, but rather, examining how one, even with immense talent, is rather hopeless to beat a self-fulfilling prophecy without a stable environment.

Some biographies—especially around awards season—are rather tepid, absent of any spirit or excitement. Not, I, Tonya. The characters, from major to minor, pop off the screen. A mid-80’s to early 90’s soundtrack envelopes the screen with electricity. Gillespie’s skating scenes are some of the more breathtaking sequences of the entire year, filmed with grace and elegance.This is never a dull watch.

The energy is obviously carried into the performances as well. As mentioned, even the bit players in Julianne Nicholson, McKenna Grace, Bobby Cannavale, and Paul Walter Hauser (a real scene-stealer midway through as Tonya’s bodyguard) make their imprint on the feature. But this film is anchored by its superstar trifecta in Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney. Robbie is firmly a superstar who raises anything she’s in at this point, and her work as the troubled figure skater is her career-best, deftly switching between sadness, anger, and dark humor and remaining a character and not a caricature despite some embellishment. A moment midway through where Robbie asks a judge about what exactly they have against her and why it is not solely about skating is gut-wrenching.

Stan, who ironically was in a vastly movie with clear parallels to Tonya Harding in The Bronze, continues to cement himself as more than the Winter Soldier, and here’s to hoping his Marvel future doesn’t prevent him from doing more work like this. Janney is unrecognizable in her turn portraying Harding’s mother, ruthless, brow-beating, and foul-mouthed and the center of her daughter’s troubles and issues. Undoubtedly one of the definitive standout performances the 2017 calendar year.

What is truth? Jumbled, because everyone has their own version of it, according to the movie. But the truth is that with damn near flawless execution, a ton of energy, and top-notch performances, I, Tonya stands out as one of the more memorable biopics in recent memory.

A-

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Marshall: Movie Man Jackson

Justice isn’t guaranteed, it’s earned. Young Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) makes his living fighting injustices. He’s a traveling lawman for the NAACP, defending people of color who have been wrongfully accused of crimes they never committed. His latest assignment brings him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend a Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur who’s been charged with the rape and attempted murder of his provider, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

Things take a turn when Marshall isn’t allowed to take the lead. Rather, the defense lead is given to the man who briefed him on the situation, Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), who is reluctant to take the responsibility for fear it’ll tarnish his business. With Friedman having no experience in the criminal realm, Marshall has to lead from the side while Sam takes point, navigating a slanted judge and jury while being the only hope an innocent man has in avoiding life behind bars.

The latest biographical movie, Marshall, follows the trend of late for Hollywood biographical movies and/or events. That trend being, to focus on a specific period and/or event instead of the overarching life and/or story. This approach does streamline things and allows a sometimes-staid genre to be less conventional. At the same time, there’s a little missing in the way of character building when going about a “biography” this way. Marshall sees both ends of this double-edged sword, but the good largely outweighs the bad.

There’s a reason “biography” was put in quotations, not because of loose facts, but what the idea of a biography conjures up; i.e. a relatively deep and possibly somber dive into a subject. Director Reginald Hudlin (The Great White Hype) and writers Michael (real life Bridgeport attorney) and Jacob Koskoff choose to place much of the focus not on the meat of the lead characters, but the trial that they are a part of. Marshall is great as a courtroom drama, which happens to be most of the movie’s runtime. To spoil bits of it would be a disservice, as the case being one of Marshall’s first ones makes it likely (at least for this viewer) that only the history nuts will know of the verdict and all the twists and turns. Watching this with a bit of uncertainty makes for a relatively gripping finale.

The case that the writers have selected from Marshall’s catalog is an intriguing one that places all attention on the legal proceedings, but in the process, does marginalize Marshall the man to an extent for a few reasons. This serves as a very surface level—almost Disney-like—look at Thurgood; those expecting great depths into the man’s everyday life and character will be very disappointed.

There’s a running joke going around many parts of the Internet that the film’s title should be Marshall & Friedman (aptly sounding), but it serves the point that Marshall is really a co-star and even a secondary player at times in a production named after him. The film itself takes on more of a buddy cop feel than foreseen, especially in tone, and the light one can be problematic. The levity is appreciated in spots, yet simultaneously undermines some serious moments, as does the mostly hokey score. Certain jokes simply do not need to be here. Whether delivery or timing, some dialogue is a bit odd-sounding and juxtaposes the noir-like recounts told by people on the stand.

After playing notable African-American individuals in Jackie Robinson and James Brown in 42 and Get on Up, it’s no surprise that Chadwick Boseman can carry the acting responsibility of portraying one of the greatest lawyers in history. The difference in his role, however, is that it seems to rely more on Boseman’s natural charisma and screen presence than those other two. He gets a lot of reign to show swagger and confidence that makes Marshall more of a dynamic watch than a history lesson. The dynamic he shares with Josh Gad is again an odd one in spots, but it works. Gad isn’t the strongest comedy guy turned serious actor, but he’s largely solid and better as the movie goes on. Rest of the cast is filled out by steady talent in Kate Hudson, Sterling K. Brown, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dan Stevens, and James Cromwell. A few characters can border on caricature, however; by and large the cast grounds them into enough realism.

The jury (of one) ruling on Marshall? Not a definitive introspective look at the man who would become the first African-American Supreme Court judge, but, a lighter-toned, relatively solid entertaining courtroom drama.

B-

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American Made: Movie Man Jackson

Stuff is only illegal if you get caught doing it. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) makes his living as a TWA pilot in the late 1970’s, raising a family along with wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Always something of a free spirit, Barry’s one of the best in the world but deep down desires more.

Enter Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who offers Seal the opportunity to fill that wild spirit void—and to make solid coin—by taking airborne pictures of Central America for reconnaissance purposes. It doesn’t take long for Seal to attract the attention of the locals, particularly the powerful Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who quickly approach Seal and ask him to smuggle their product into the U.S. With the CIA looking the other way, Barry is allowed to live large while increasingly taking on more improbable and dangerous missions.

There’s always those few movies that come out around the fall movie season that feel more like light summer fare. Director Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) latest in American Made is one of those movies. Despite the traditionally dark and gritty treatment the subject matter often generates in cinema, Liman and star Tom Cruise go the other way, opting for a telling that is breezier and fun—if empty.

Honestly, the term “movie” barely fits American Made. That’s not a complete negative or indictment as some of it is intentional. Liman goes for a documentary-esque approach in even the most elementary of scenes, and the narrative framing relies on voiceover from Cruise done through grainy videotape to spur the on-screen events forward and add the occasional necessary exposition. It works solidly enough, the ol’ “style over substance” approach.

Emphasis on style. Because, American Made has little in the way of meat to chew on. Even compared to similar-minded, relatively light films based on unbelievable and/or embellished real-life individuals in War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, American Made kind of makes those films look like thought-provoking works. Perhaps it’s due to the telling of the story, which comes off as a series of increasingly insane events stitched and put together rather than real story cohesion. No real pronounced act structure exists; the time frame of the events will often jump years ahead without warning. Maybe it’s just representative of it’s whimsical main character, a dude living for the thrills without thought given to anything else.

Sometimes being a mega-star is a bad thing that renders a viewing audience unable to distinguish the star from the part they’re playing. This is one of the reasons The Mummy 2017, starring mega-star Tom Cruise, failed. Whereas some roles and films benefit from a lesser name, others depend on it.

Resembling in no way, shape, or form Barry Seal, it doesn’t matter much because Tom Cruise gets across Doug Liman’s vision of him. It’s hard to see many deliver the charisma, swagger, and “don’t go away because you might miss something outrageous” feeling Tom does here. Seal’s a guy with questionable morals at best, yet hard to despise significantly. Obviously, he’s not the only performer that appears in American Made; Domhnall Gleason and Sarah Wright are perfectly fine, but they’re definitively overshadowed by Cruise. Love or hate him, the man still has the undeniable “it” factor.

Firmly in the group of biopics made to entertain first and educate second (if at all), American Made is a middling romp, but a romp raised in quality by Cruise.

C+

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Stronger: Movie Man Jackson

Pain endures. But determination is everlasting. Disaster strikes the city of Boston, Massachusetts on the date of April 15th, 2013 during one of the city’s most cherished celebrations in the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon bombing leads to loss of life and for many, injuries and lost limbs. One of those people falling in the latter category is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was attending the race to get back in good with his on-again, off again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).

A day after being amputated and treated for his lost legs, Jeff describes the people who committed the act, and becomes a hero in the process after their capture/death. But, as Jeff soon realizes, it’s a long road back to not only walking again, but general normalcy. Being a symbol can be a burden, and nothing can ever truly be the same as it once was. Physically and emotionally, Jeff and everyone around him will have to get Stronger to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt.

Stronger is not the movie I expected. What did I expect? Something akin to Bleed for This, which is to say a formulaic biopic with a standard fall/rise story progression and a strong(er) lead performance. What I actually got? A biopic that bucks the usual biographical drama format and generates real emotional investment, along with one of the year’s best lead actor performances. Stronger emerges as the fall season’s first legitimate awards contender.

There’s an alternate universe where Stronger would be overly contrived and even exploitative, sort of like the actual movie poster. While a moment or two of forcedness or ill-timed levity exists, director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) never approaches this story in that matter. The act of the bombing isn’t played up for shock value, neither is the removal of Jeff’s bandages. Even the requisite moment that many of these movies have when the seminal “recovery” act is performed by the lead character accompanied by a swelling orchestral piece is thankfully absent. Directing-wise, Green has a way of putting the camera in the right places and focused on the right things while rightfully defocusing and/or obscuring what is too excessive. Stronger likely will not garner any technical merit, but DGG shows respect for the story and subject by going about it in this fashion.

And going about it in this fashion allows Stronger to truly tug at the heartstrings, but not entirely for the reasons expected. Stronger is a moving watch partly due to the tragedy of the Boston Bombing and what it did to Bauman, but that is only a part of the entire story. Similar movies would tell their stories and lead character in A to B form, with their lead characters only being defined by “getting back what they lost.”

Gordon Green has no fear in delving into the uncomfortable depths of Jeff Bauman and those around him, particularly his family and mother, Patty, played by an opportunistic and disheveled Miranda Richardson. For long stretches, Jeff can be unlikable and his mother insufferable. But, Green and screenplay writer John Pollono give reasons for them being as such. The exploration of symbols and even overnight celebrity allow the main characters to be that much more three-dimensional than initially envisioned at first glance.

Impressive writing does a lot for Stronger, but so does Jake Gyllenhaal, yet again adding another impressive role to his resume. Like his director, his performance never feels exploitative or in bad taste. But, he lets us in on the tortuous anguish. The most basic of tasks and PTSD flashbacks are excruciating to watch at times, as are the flaws in his character, leading to standout second and third act scenes. Remains to be seen if this is the one that finally gets him that elusive Best Actor nom (very early), but he should be in the conversation. His chemistry with Tatiana Maslany is outstanding, herself delivering work that goes well beyond the supportive girlfriend role. Their evolving relationship never gets old and is hardly ever sappy. It feels real and in the moment.

Stronger is a biopic that rarely feels as such. On the back of a great direction and brilliantly acted lead work, there’s a strong base that makes this real-life story every bit as resonant as it should be.

A-

Photo credits go to bbcamerica.com, cinemavine.com, and themoviemylife.com.

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All Eyez on Me: Movie Man Jackson

There will never be another. At an early age, Tupac Amaru Shakur (Demetrius Shipp, Jr) is exposed to a lot—both good and bad—that would eventually shape him into the man he would become. The son of Black Panther party members, Tupac was always given an honest depiction of the world from his mother, Afeni (Danai Gurira). Afeni encouraged her son to get into the arts, which included acting, poetry, and music.

His move from inner-city Baltimore into inner-city Bay Area, California sparks his foray into rap music, first as a member of Digital Underground, then as a solo act. As 2pac, he quickly becomes one of the greatest and most influential artists ever. But his rise isn’t without controversy, nor does it end without an untimely demise.

Most, if not all rapheads, would agree that 2pac is forever entrenched as one of the top five emcees of all time, if not the greatest one to ever do it. His 25 years on this Earth, short as they were, were filled with momentous incidents and cultural significance that hit at the many layers of the legendary rapper. All of that should make for at least a solid, if not fascinating, biographical drama, correct? Some of the moments in All Eyez on Me are there, but the overall total execution often isn’t.

From a narrative perspective in All Eyez on Me, ‘Pac’s life is told to an interviewer (Hill Harper) while in prison, from his birth until his eventual bailout by Death Row Records mogul Suge Knight (played by Dominic L. Santana, in a role written with little subtlety). This takes up about a half or so of the movie, but it is not a bad way for director Benny Boom to tell the rapper’s story. Every now and then, there are small hints to the depths and duality that made up Shakur’s character, portrayed pretty well by Demetrius Shipp, Jr.

In what amounts to his first ever role in film, Shipp looks the part and generally displays good chops. Perfect? No, but there’s something there. Outside of a Tupac hologram assuming the position, probably the best we could hope for. However, he’s the one bright spot in a cast that does itself in with overacting. Pac was certainly a real one, but everyone around him here feels fake. An aside: If Jamal Woolard can reprise his role as The Notorious B.I.G from a movie released over seven years ago, why couldn’t some small agreement come to fruition to bring back those who starred as characters in Straight Outta Compton who also make appearances in Tupac’s biopic? Every studio’s making shared universes, why not a multi-studio spanning “Rapverse” beginning with SOC and AEoM?

The talent or lack thereof in All Eyez on Me is an issue, but the lackluster writing and general technical direction serve as bigger weights on the biography. Despite the semi-linear approach described previously for much of the movie, the film is poorly paced, often spending too little time on transformative moments, or too much time on inconsequential ones (a prison stabbing and a 10-second focus on a woman’s buttocks are examples of this). In about 10-15 minutes, ‘Pac goes from neighborhood poetry club contributor to Digital Underground roadie to signing with Interscope and releasing 2Pacalypse Now. The progression is jarring, and it ends up marring the rapper’s rise to stardom.

There are two words I didn’t think would ever describe this movie. However, after viewing All Eyez on Me, much of the events and more accurately how they’re shown and told are rather cheesy and corny. Made for a reported 40 million, what’s here is on par with those straight-to-BET movies the station used to carry. At times, what occurs is unintentionally funny and/or just eye-rolling, with an odd reliance on slow-motion shaky shots. The ending is simply horrid. Benny Boom is a great music video director, but one does have to wonder if the directorial responsibility for a movie of this level would have been better in more experienced hands, as opposed to a man whose only directorial film credits are Next Day Air and S.W.AT: Firefight.

For such a massive icon, Tupac deserves a better tribute in All Eyez on Me. Shed so many tears, indeed.

D

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Hidden Figures: Movie Man Jackson

phenson

Numbers are indiscriminate. Relatively speaking. The year is 1961. The United States of America is in a race with Russia to put an astronaut into space. But, they are hitting quite a few snags in the process. They simply do not have the manpower, or possibly the mindpower, to break through.

Three brilliant African-American females mathematicians in Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are assigned to various departments to helm Langley’s efforts to launch one of its own into the stratosphere. All are qualified, but each face difficulties in getting their peers to accept them as equals. But the mission takes precedence, and hitting its intended target means putting aside any hate and coming together as a unit.

costner

Needing for a Disney-live movie that isn’t made by Disney? Hidden Figures does the trick, a true story that pays good tribute to amazing women. Well, relatively true. It’s sound in all areas without being extraordinary in any, either. Nothing wrong with playing it safe and filling a purpose.

The title of Hidden Figures serves as a double meaning. The movie’s core plot revolves around finding the math that doesn’t yet exist to propel a shuttle into space. But on a more figurative sense, for myself, I sadly had never heard of these women, but I suspect a good deal have not, either, effectively making these women almost ghost-like in the annals of history. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) takes the quarterback manager approach here. There’s little that catches the eye cinematically, but it’s certainly competent. Producer Pharrell Williams provides a few high spots with original songs that fit the 1960’s setting perfectly.

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Melfi lets the story of Hidden Figures, adapted from the nonfiction book with the same name, tell itself. However, there are obvious embellishments and prints of Hollywood that are left on the production. Hidden Figures does a good job at showcasing the institutional racism that permeated the time period, the small things that made life difficult for African-Americans, and women in a male-dominated field. But, Hidden Figures becomes hokey at times with specific moments and certain characters who didn’t exist. This is not the film to get hyper-accurate history from.

Still, the lead characters of Hidden Figures provide some insight into these troubling times, and though they all work towards the same mission, all three women have their own storylines that the film addresses. It helps that each of the three actresses pull off great performances to make their characters likable and believable. Taraji P. Henson is the standout of the entire picture, and now seeing the list, it is a little disappointing to not see her get a Best Actress nomination; she’s that good with the requisite award scene that plays for a nominee that feels completely natural in the movie. The surprise is Janelle Monáe, who was good in Moonlight but has more to do here, and might be more deserving of the supporting nod than the über-consistent Octavia Spencer who did receive the nod.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, most end up playing the evil white person or misguided white person who thinks they mean well but actually do not. At least for many of the central characters at Langley, this applies. As such, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are playing parts and not so much characters to give life to, though Dunst is a little more impressive with what she is given. On the other side of the spectrum of characters at Langley lies Kevin Costner’s (no one’s going to accuse him of having questionable views in Hollywood!), just a guy who’s about the job regardless of skin color. Costner’s character is good, even if a scene borders on being the aforementioned hokey. Aldis Hodge and Mahershala Ali provide solid yet unspectacular work as stock husband/love interest. But, it’s nice to see these up and coming actors of color in a high-profile movie.

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Hidden Figures is the sum of great lead performances to tell the stories of three women who didn’t get the recognition they deserve until now. Everything else in the film, facts included, is secondary, but it does end up equaling a feel-good watch.

B-

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Jackie: Movie Man Jackson

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It’s tough to pick up the pieces. The assassination of John F. Kennedy has left the first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) all alone.

Always the portrait of cool to the American public, behind the scenes, Jackie is struggling to keep it together. But this tragedy allows Jackie to dig deeper, and to continue what her husband left behind.

jackie

Know that awards movie you want to fall head over heels for but just can’t? That movie would be Jackie, solidly functional in most areas, exceptional in one area. But as a complete package that is supposed to be moving and emotional, it can be rather dull and lacking in poignancy.

Where Jackie impresses is its overall commitment level to its central character. Unlike a good deal of biopics which are almost always criticized for “not exploring the feature character deep enough,” writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín make Jackie Kennedy the Alpha and the Omega of this movie. How they go about it isn’t in the most successful of ways, however. As Kevin mentions in his thoughts over on Polarbearstv.com, the narrative is rather jumbled, and it never really settles into a groove. The more I think about it, there’s really not much of a story to be found.

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As the film goes on, its narrative issues undermine most of the intended emotional moments. It is a shame, because the technical aspects are very strong. Composed by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), the score, though turned up a bit high sometimes, is always compelling. The direction, albeit unspectacular at times, is astonishing at others, particularly during the moments which Jackie is being broadcast to the world. They legitimately look like 60’s stock reels.

Back to commitment, Natalie Portman immerses herself as the widow of JFK. All of her extensive research in videotapes, audiotapes, and books as it pertains to Jackie Kennedy pays off to create a character that goes deeper than the surface. In the hands of a less capable actress this role could become a little bit of a caricature, but under Portman’s grip, the character feels real. Her work here is up there as her career best, but one wishes that there were that one or two scenes that imprint themselves on the memory. It’s no fault of her’s, the script and middling direction lets her down.

It would be wrong to not acknowledge the other members of the cast, but they ultimately are just serviceable. If there were a relative standout, Billy Crudup plays nicely off of Portman as Theodore H. White, the famous journalist who was called to write about the legacy of Jackie’s husband. This itself feels like it could have been its own true piece in the movie, instead of being used as a framing device where momentum becomes scattershot.

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In the classic (made up) category of “superb performance(s) in a forgettable good film” lies Jackie. Expect an intriguing character, and an unmoving story.

B-

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Bleed for This: Movie Man Jackson

bleedstub

Only a matter of time before we get the Butterbean silver screen treatment. Boxer Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller) has amassed much fame and fortune as a fighter. What he doesn’t have in pure skill he has in pure heart. That heart has led him to hold two belts across two different weight classes.

Shortly after winning the junior middleweight world title, Pazienza is on the receiving end of a vicious car accident, rendering him bedridden and his spine in a bad place. “The Pazmanian Devil” is unlikely to fight again, and walking again is a 50/50 proposition with the procedure he goes under. However, this procedure, which requires him to wear a bulky steel device called a Halo screwed into his head, is a procedure that could bring Paz back into the ring, despite everyone’s insistence that he give up these dreams. But he’s a fighter, and it is impossible to keep a fighter down for a 10 count.

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OK, so maybe we are still a ways away from the Butterbean biopic. But it is quite clear that even if the sport of boxing is in a steady popularity decline, Hollywood’s is still very interested in making movies about the sweet science. Outside of a slim few, one knows what they’re going to get when viewing a boxing movie. Bleed for This clinches to the well-worn boxing movie formula.

Rise, fall, adversity, rise. Flip the order in whichever way; as long as it ends with rise, that is the general plot of boxing movie, whether fictional or true. No different is done in Bleed for This. However, the script, penned by director Ben Younger (Boiler Room) does benefit from this actually happening. Though conventional, it does it does resonate a little simply because it was real life, an actual individual went through this and persevered through it. And albeit rushed in a few spots, the script feels pretty true to life, respecting and not embellishing Paz’s story.

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There are many ways for boxing judges to score rounds. One way is to look at the round in three parts, as it consists of three minutes most often. That’s how yours truly looked at Bleed for This. It’s got a solid, if unspectacular, start with a decent fight between Paz and Roger Mayweather. The final act features some good heartfelt moments and a well-staged boxing bout between Roberto Duran (how cool would it have been if Hands of Stone somehow connected with this?) and Pazienza. But a good chunk in the middle is a little of a slog to get through once Vinny comes home from the surgery up until he decides to go against doctor’s orders. Another issue of the screenplay is that Paz isn’t all that distinguishable from other fighters, from a character level, pretty one note. He’s got a fighting, never say no spirit…but so do the bulk of fighters.

The criticism of Paz’s slim character isn’t an indictment on the job Miles Teller does here. Rather it just makes one wish that there was more Teller could explore of the famed boxer’s character. From what he is given, Teller looks the part as a fighter and sells the physical pain and the dogged resolve it took to come back from this career and life-threatening injury. Aaron Eckhart is fun to watch, simultaneously offering a dash of levity along with with sincerity for the well-being of his boxer. Steady hands in Katey Sagal, Ciarán Hinds, and Ted Levine are present and support the feature when asked to.

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Bleed for This sports a few good jabs and straights, but not enough of a sustained combination to contend for the top spot of boxing film heavyweights. Don’t expect knockout power.

C+

Photo credits go to awfulannouncing.com, boxingnewsandviews.com, and soafanatic.com

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Hacksaw Ridge: Movie Man Jackson

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Going to need a strong drink after this one. Maybe four or five. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) has long been a God-fearing Christian, and all-around good guy, who’s seen a few things growing up that has shaped him to be who he is. Who he is happens to be a pacifist; he doesn’t believe in killing people or even handling a firearm.

Being a pacifist isn’t an issue…except when Doss decides to join the Army as a medic in an effort to serve his country during its most important time in World War II. Even carrying the status of a conscientious objector, many in his squadron don’t believe Doss will be there when the chips are down and bully him into quitting. But a man of such strong conviction is one people should want on their side when the going gets tough, and it gets no tougher than Hacksaw Ridge, a battleground on the island of Okinawa that could turn the tide of the war if won.

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There’s really no point in comparing the two, but I can’t help it, as it is something that has stuck with me since early in the movie. Isn’t Hacksaw Ridge sort of like The Birth of a Nation? Not story-wise or anything, but both movies arrived in theaters with biographical subject matter, as well as controversial actions done by their directors. It can be argued (even likely) that Mel Gibson, director of Hacksaw Ridge, is much more controversial than director Nat Turner, for the simple fact that he’s been in the limelight longer for his actions to be unfurled. But like many things in life, winning cures a lot of ill will, and the same goes in cinema. Mel Gibson has a winner in Hacksaw Ridge.

How does he do it? A multitude of ways, but it starts with the writing. Gibson’s not a writer in this, but co-writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are. Together, they pen a compelling story about being convicted in one’s beliefs. Though Christianity is an important characteristic of the main character Desmond, this isn’t a film that pushes that, it pushes more the strength of the human spirit, and how anything can be done with the right determination. Granted, it isn’t a groundbreaking story, but it feels very authentic. Know how true stories and stories about biographical historical figures can be very Hollywoodized? Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel as such, maybe because for all intents and purposes, this is a screenplay that is not exactly original, but by no means adapted, either.

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This does not mean that Hacksaw Ridge‘s screenplay is perfect, however. Some of the first third of the movie is a little too clunky for my personal liking. And though this is clearly a story about Doss, the second act of the movie (if ever so briefly but still) seems to want to explore a few other characters in the squadron, but the third act comes and hardly anything is known about any of them aside from some endearing nicknames. Otherwise, they are somewhat faceless entities.

So not every character gets a lot of meat. But character shortcomings are not due to any fault of the cast. As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield turns in the work of his career, and it comes across so effortless. Okay, his accent isn’t completely on point, but it is more than passable and after a while, you stop listening to vocal oddities because he just sinks into the role. Every other actor/actress around him is firmly of the support fashion, but all stand out in whatever screentime they possess. Teresa Palmer can do so much more, yet she very captivating the moment she steps on screen, and Hugo Weaving could have an entire film anchored by his character, he’s that good here.

One has to give it to Gibson to coaxing great performances from guys who aren’t known for dramatic work. The troika of Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, and Luke Bracey all fit in perfectly. Out of the three, Bracey is the only other character in the entire feature who gets somewhat solid development.

But being honest here, as great as the acting and as good as the overall story is, Hacksaw Ridge is going to be remembered for its unrelenting war action ultraviolence that dominates the 3rd act. It comes so sudden and doesn’t let up once it does. The Hacksaw Ridge battleground itself is extremely frightening, a mix of uneven geography, perpetual haze, and depressing grey. Gibson gets a little too slo-mo happy in the final moments, but otherwise, the comparisons to Saving Private Ryan are warranted.

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10 years is a long time to be away from the directing chair, but it’s clear Gibson hasn’t lost much, if anything. Succeeding as first a stirring drama and then a visceral wartime action, Hacksaw Ridge isn’t likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

A-

Photo credits go to metro.co.uk, theplaylist.net, and screencrush.com

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