Darkest Hour: Movie Man Jackson

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. There’s nothing but difficulty in Great Britain circa 1940. Smack dab in the early part of World War II, the German forces are invading and ransacking their opposition, the pressure’s on England to fortify their national security. The populace (read: Parliament) doesn’t believe their current Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain is up to the task, so he is ousted.

In steps Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), not the first replacement choice but the second and possibly the only choice who can rally an European party of decision makers. He needs to, because most are advocating the white flag surrender to Hitler. But, Churchill, in all his intestinal fortitude, refuses to lay down. His words are going to have to be decisive to get Britain out of her Darkest Hour. 

There’s something honest about Darkest Hour. Not necessarily in its presentation of facts (far from a completely and unabashedly artistically licensed movie, but it’s definitely present), but what director Joe Wright’s (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) film is primed to do. What is that? Serve major awards prospects on a silver platter for one of the best actors today. And he’s eating.

Darkest Hour begins and ends with the work of Gary Oldman. Prosthetics and makeup sometimes have the wrong intended effect; instead of making a thespian more believable and lifelike in their famous figure portrayal, the figure ends up feeling artificial and even unintentionally comical. Costume designer and longtime Joe Wright collaborator Jacqueline Duran deserves a ton of credit, as does the general set cast for recreating the stuffiness and feel of these conference and war rooms on display. But Oldman never lets the getup overshadow his performance.

Occasionally called out for overacting in a couple of roles, Oldman finds a strong balance of power mixed with restrain. The Oscar clips are here, but honestly, the more quieter moments such as Churchill speaking with the President or coming to grips with his doubts resonate just as much, if not more so, than the big ones. He’s earned whatever accolades come his way. Providing sound support are Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Lily James as Elizabeth Layton, and Kristen Scott Thomas as Clemmie.

Light is used to great effect in Darkest Hour, creating this sort of sheen that matches most of the setting impeccably. There’s not much else that pops out; Wright’s directing here seems to take a background relegation its star and rightfully so. Anthony McCarten handles script duties. We see the struggles of Churchill galvanizing his party, and struggling with his feeling on whether he’s doing the right thing. Rinse, repeat. That’s the extent of it, really, but, it’s enough to get the film from point A to point B.

Without victory, there is no survival. That was also once said by Winston Churchill. Let’s tweak it to, “Without Gary Oldman, there is no Darkest Hour.

B-

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All the Money in the World: Movie Man Jackson

Does it really pay the cost to be the boss? Depends on who you’re dealing with. In 1973, the richest man in the world happens to be John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), amassing his immense fortune in oil. No kids of his own, but he has fourteen grandchildren, one of them being John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer). Getty the Third happens to be the elder’s favorite grandson, even seemingly considering the idea of giving the family business to the youngster in the event of his passing.

When you’re as rich as Getty, everyone knows, and will do anything to get a cut. Masked men take the grandson, and demand 17 million from the billionaire in exchange for his life. This angers and scares Gail (Michelle Williams), the mother of the kidnapped, who does not have the cash to pay ransom despite marrying into the family. Her pleads to Getty to pay are unsuccessful, as he deems the price too high. But wanting his grandson to return unharmed, he sends hired help in the form of Getty Oil and ex-CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to investigate, and more importantly—to negotiate—a cheaper figure before the youngest Getty is lost forever.

Slow down? Not in Ridley Scott’s lexicon. At the ripe age of 80, the director has had quite the busy 2017, producing Phoenix Forgotten, Blade Runner 2049, and Murder on the Orient Express, along with directing (and serving as a producer) Alien: Covenant and now his latest in All the Money in the World. Receiving initial heavy chatter for the late and extensive production changes, the final product stands as a wonderfully dark, “biographical” thriller.

Of course, the production changes and re-shoots are the story of All the Money in the World, an unfortunate result attributed to the sexual misconduct allegations of previous star Kevin Spacey. In his stead, Scott went ahead with Christopher Plummer in the John Paul Getty role, a move that feels pretty masterful and even an upgrade. There’s a significant level of gravitas, world weariness, and larger-than-life aspect that the 88-year-old Plummer brings to his scenes and dialogue—all without additional makeup or effects. His warped logic and stoic personality in the midst of disaster is special and troubling to watch. As good as Spacey can be, I’m not sure if he’d bring the same effect. Perhaps one day, we’ll see the cut or at least extended scenes that feature him to know for sure.

Let’s not forget Plummer’s leading co-stars, who also happened to be Spacey’s for a long time. Michelle Williams just continues to prove how much of a talent she is, her desperate mother serving essentially as what the audience sees and feels. Her steadfastness and firm moral center gives heart and relatability, making her an easy character to get behind in a world full of people looking to make an easy buck or save one. Some of her screen-time is shared with Mark Wahlberg, believable as a man who’s driven by duty to take the emotion out of everything but slowly turning to realize what is truly important.

Wahlberg, somewhat shoddy bespectacled look and all, takes a little time to find a groove, like the movie and its script. Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa, adapting from John Pearson’s book, struggle to find a solid pace and even tone for the first 20 or so minutes, showing Getty’s rise to power and how things came to be in his immediate family before 1973. Most of it is necessary for the events later, but cleaner editing would have helped for the nonlinear storytelling to feel less rough around the edges. Once All the Money in the World starts going, however, the vice grip on the audience is never lost.

Ridley’s latest is less of a biography and more of a straight-up crime drama/thriller. On the former front, All the Money in the World is a little lacking if working with that belief; do not expect a ton of central character depth. Like recent films in Dunkirk and Detroit, this chooses to focus on a specific, singled out event in a person’s life opposed to an overarching look at a life/lives or a series of events. The focus on this tense, dark drama makes for a run-time that flies by, even at two hours and ten minutes. Scott’s razor sharp direction and mood-setting makes for a gripping experience.

Making lemonade out of lemons, or rather, turning nickels and dimes into dollars, All the Money in the World is likely to be remembered more for what it was more than what it is. Hopefully that changes over time.

A-

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The Post: Movie Man Jackson

Whether in a relationship, a job, or in matters of politics and America, power should never go unchecked. The Washington Post is in a little bit of a transitional period, led by publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a major newspaper. Graham—as does lead editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks)—wants “The Post” to be more than a local newspaper. She doesn’t command much faith in her visions, mainly because she’s a woman in a man’s world.

Opportunity does knock, however, when secrets regarding the US Government’s stance on the Vietnam War are leaked initially via the New York Times by way of the “Pentagon Papers.” Government is none too happy about it, and chooses to shut down the story before it gets too in-depth. They’re threatening criminal action if anyone else decides to run with it, but this is something that the American populace needs to know. Commence the battle between free press and the government.

Officially ending the unofficial real-life heroic figure(s) trilogy that director Steven Spielberg has lent his talents to in recent years starting with 2012’s Lincoln and 2015’s Bridge of Spies is his latest in The Post. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: It is impossible to discuss or think about The Post without thinking about our current everyday bizarre political world, but it is the truth. Spielberg has made something that honors the past, but is more so focused on preventing the future.

A fast production schedule rarely benefits a movie, but with Spielberg overseeing just about everything, it’s not likely we’d be getting a better cut with additional prep time. But, it is still impressive at just how well The Post comes out, showing no signs of a rushed timeline. The standard of excellence we’ve become accustomed to from Steven is still present, displaying a tight and historically accurate-looking presentation that rarely feels stagy or fake. Longtime legendary collaborators in cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and composer John Williams assist to make The Post one of the year’s best, technically.

Hard to find any egregious faults with The Post, if any. It’s a good movie that fits right into the season, with a solid script that seems to be very rooted into reality penned by debut feature writer Liz Hannah. One can feel the passion she has for this story and the character that is Katharine Graham. But, watching The Post is more akin to viewing an important, yet dry, history lesson more so than a compelling silver screen feature, even with the obvious allusions to what’s going on now. One that is respected for the overall craftsmanship and message rather than possessing the ability to become enamored with what is on screen.

Having Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks pretty much makes a film good by default, and no surprise, they’re excellent here. The first ever on-screen pairing between two of the greatest to ever do it proves fruitful, with the duo occasionally sharing scenes in the same location. Streep sells the fear, yet determination of trying to brave a male-dominated workforce, and Hanks sells the brazen determination of an editor trying to get to the bottom of a story the world needs, sleep be damned. Going past the big named twosome, The Post is planted with maybe not big, but well-respected, cast members in Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Matthew Rhys, Tracy Letts, Alison Brie, and Bruce Greenfield who all blend in and chew scenery when needed.

Hot off the presses and fast-tracked ever since the results of that November 8th, 2016 day crystallized, The Post doubles as a timely historical piece and an obvious Oscar contender.

B

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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-

Photo credits go to vulture.com, usmagazine.com, teaser-trailer.com, and variety.com

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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-

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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

Photo credits go to uproxx.com, BET.com, and xxlmag.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Hidden Figures: Movie Man Jackson

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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.

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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.

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Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, denofgeek.com, and filmandnow.com.

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