Category Archives: drama film

“Like Father” a sweet but slightly bland drama

“Like Father” follows the story of Rachel (Kristen Bell), a career woman whose fiance, Owen (Jon Foster), leaves her at the altar. When her lost father, Harry (Kelsey Grammer), shows up out of the blue and tries to reunite with her, they delve into booze and wind up on the honeymoon cruise she was supposed to go on with Owen. Now trapped on a boat and with nowhere to go, both Rachel and Harry must try to mend the fences that pushed them apart.

The film is sweet nearly to the point of schmaltz, teetering right on the edge of soap opera, but just barely not going over it. Grammer and Bell are great and bring a hefty amount of regret, nervousness and acceptance to their roles. Their co-stars, a collage of honeymooners and newlyweds, are entertaining, but somewhat stereotypical and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Sometimes feeling a bit like an ad for Carnival cruises, the film does a good job of using the trappings and corniness of the cruise to bolster the film’s message of feeling release and overcoming the persona we give to others.

What’s missing is a sense of comedy and build-up. Rachel is annoying, combative and high-strung. Harry is solemn, regretful and nervous. There are plenty of opportunities for them to butt heads on the cruise (“How did we get here?” “I don’t know where here is.” “It’s a boat.” “What kind of boat?” “Does it look like I know what kind of boat?”, etc.) and get some laughs out of the audience. There’s a few funny lines and instances, but neither really gets on the other’s nerves enough to generate comedy. The film feels like it’s trying to be a dramedy, but can’t quite get there.

And the film doesn’t have much arc. Harry and Rachel meet. They end up on the ship. They reconcile. The End. There’s a little bit of a secret Harry is hiding, but it’s resolved pretty easily and doesn’t contribute to a major falling out between the characters. It’s all rather ho-hum and the story could have gone further to build up obstacles that the characters need to overcome.

But it’s hard not to be overcome by the film’s charm. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Grammer and Bell work seamlessly as father and daughter, full of regret and hope. For a world of cinema so often focused on explosions and sequels, it’s nice to just watch a simple story that takes place over a week on a cruise ship.

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“Last Flag Flying” a sterling portrait of duty

Directed by Richard Linklater and written by him and Darryl Ponicsan, “Last Flag Flying” tells the story of three Vietnam veterans, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a drunk bar owner, Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a reformed pastor, and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), whose son has just died in the Iraq war. As Doc reunites with his old army buddies, he asks for their help to bury his son.

The film follows a typical Linklater style where many plot points are understated and long moments are spent talking and thinking deeply about life. And like many Linklater films, there are moments where it is very sweet and moments where it is grating. But overall, the film is touching with just the right amount of schmaltz without tipping into sentimentalism.

The three principal actors are fantastic, each imbuing their character with conflict and depth. It’s a tribute to the writing that gives each actor a strong basis to connect with their performance. They’re stereotypes to a point, but unique enough to be memorable.

And there is a deep, festering anger burning at the heart of the film, an anger about the sacrifices the United States asks every generation to make, wars seemingly springing up again and again. When will it end? After how much we’ve already given up, how can our country ask for more? It’s an interesting perspective counter to the constant chest-beating patriotism so often seem in films.

At the end, there is only respect, for our country, despite its flaws, for the military and for our friends. For a nation so often weighed down by moral qualms, it’s a satisfying film.

“The Florida Project” a portrait of lives too often hidden

Writer-director Sean Baker has always focused on the smaller stories of the smaller people, the underprivileged and often noticed of American society. In “The Florida Project”, his subjects are set against the backdrop of the happiest place on Earth, further illustrating the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots.

Set over one summer, “The Florida Project” follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she courts mischief with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). They live in a decrepit motel under the management of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who tries to protect his tenants as best he can.

The film does a good job of building through little moments, illustrating how Moonee copes with a mother who is not fit to care for her. The viewer goes through a swing of emotions wondering if Halley should be allowed to raise her given her anger-fueled, psychotic rants. She clearly cares for Moonee, but is that enough?

Willem Dafoe shines in his Oscar-nominated role as Bobby. He is both caring and stern, almost a Dickensian character for the miscreants in his motel.

It’s often easy to forget or ignore the people like Halley and Moonee, especially in a tourist destination like Orlando. Films like “The Florida Project” do a good job of reminding us that life is far from peachy for many.

“I, Tonya” a searing portrait of “truth”

Tonya Harding is one of the most infamous characters of the 1990s, but what is the real story about her and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Was Harding involved? Is she a villain or a victim? “I, Tonya” tells the story from Harding’s perspective, but with a wink about the nature of truth.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script written by Steven Rogers, the film starts with a young Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she grows up under the fierce tutelage of her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who verbally and emotionally abuses her. She marries the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps pushing her to excel on the national and international stage. Her connection to him leads to a bizarre series of events that culminates with a crying Nancy Kerrigan, a public evisceration and years of scandal.

The film is organized around a “Goodfellas” style of voiceover, intermittent interviews and talking to camera. By framing the story around the words of those who were directly involved in the events, the issue of what is truth takes center stage. Tonya tells one story, her mom tells another, her ex-husband tells yet another. And then they change their minds about what happened. And on top of that, the media quickly comes to their own interpretation and defines the story regardless of the facts. It’s an interesting examination similar to “Rashomon”, but with a distinctly American feel. The film dares you to examine your own preconceived notions about the crime and examine if you what you believe is still what you believe.

All of the actors, particularly Robbie and Oscar-winner Janney, excel and the script motors along at a brisk, never-boring pace. You really feel for Harding as she is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a villain. Whether or not that is true is up for debate, even by the film. But this is Harding’s story by Harding. Whether we take it as vindication for her past is up to us.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.

“Paterson” a beautiful story

Very few films are made about everyday life. Most movies are about “super” people: spies, politicians, doctors, heroes and the like. But writer and director Jim Jarmusch has always been interested in the “lesser” told stories about everyday folks and “Paterson” is such a simple yet unordinary story.

“Paterson” is about a bus driver, Paterson (Adam Driver), who writes poetry. He takes an active interest in the conversations and lives of those who ride his bus and the people he meets on the streets. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is an eccentric who keeps trying to find herself through various hobbies such as baking and artistry.

The film doesn’t have a concrete plot and seems to wander from encounter to encounter, all done with a purpose but seemingly as random as the flashes of a rolling river shown onscreen. All the characters are trying to find their way in life and Paterson sees their struggles mirror his own in a way, but his outlet of poetry helps him find meaning in a life that on the surface doesn’t seem to be too interesting.

The film is a beautiful tale of seeking an avenue of expression in a world full of stories. We just need to take the time to listen and observe those around us to find meaning in our own lives and realize our full potential of love.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.