Tag Archives: 5 stars

Way late review: Kramer vs. Kramer

Dustin Hoffman is short. He’s really short. In Kramer vs. Kramer he has a six year old son and it looks as though his son will be hovering over dad within a year max. Too bad height doesn’t determine one’s acting chops. Otherwise I’d be a decent actor. Hoffman puts on one of his finest performances in the 1979 Oscar winner. He wins a little gold trophy as does his counterpart, Meryl Streep. Not bad, and all in a film where melodrama could easily trump the natural drama in which a barely there father becomes an only parent overnight thanks to his wife walking out on him and his son.

Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is making his way up the corporate ladder at an advertising firm. He’s landing and managing ever larger accounts. Meanwhile his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry), hardly make it on the ad man’s radar. Joanna decides she’s had enough and abruptly walks out on her husband and child. Ted is convinced this is an irrational act committed in anger, she’ll be back in a matter of hours. She never shows and Ted begins to realize what life is like as a single parent.

The driver in the two first acts of the film are that of Ted and Billy getting to at first know one another on the level of a healthy father and son relationship, followed up by a growing bond between the two. In between the developing relationship between he and his son, Ted wrestles with balancing his work with his new found responsibilities. The daunting nature of the challenge is hard to miss. The breaking points are in the smallest of moments early on when Ted is still coming to grips with having to care for Billy without any help.

Unlike many modern day dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer uses very little music to signal the emotional cues. In place of a sweeping, sappy soundtrack is an incredible set of performances by Hoffman, Streep, and even Justin Henry as Billy. Most child actors in this type of film fall into the trap of being overly emotional in response to the situation or serving as comic relief, but Henry’s performance never does either. He is a child coping with the loss of his mom and adjusting to life with a father he hardly knows.

The courtroom drama that drives the last third of the film, and earns it its title, does tend to swing an emotional hammer in intense questioning between lawyers and the two parents. The scenes are believable and convey the outrage felt by this mother and father fighting over the custody of their child. The case seems sealed and shut from the viewer’s perspective, which makes the outcome a punch to the gut.

If you’re feeling down about your own parenting, want to watch two of the finest actors alive today give landmark performances, or simply want to feel taller, Kramer vs. Kramer is a can’t miss film.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Better This World

Activist documentaries are quite the rage these days. Everyone has their cause and some think that cause is worth documenting as a movie. Most of these movies are of little interest to me. For example, If a Tree Falls was nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category and I was convinced that if the Academy handed the little gold guy to that snoozer then it was proof that those in the Academy love trees more than they love good movies. Harsh, I know. Every once in a while a documentary covers a politically charged topic and I like it. Better This World isn’t one of those. It is a documentary I love.

Wasting no time to setup the premise of the film, we’re immediately thrown into the mess that is the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). Aside from John McCain winning the nomination in 2008, there were protests brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota where the RNC was being held. Right or not, numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies feared these protests were going to escalate into violence, which means trouble in a post 9/11 world. And the trouble comes not only in overzealous protesters but in their government employed counterparts overreacting in the name of security. Mixing protesters weary (at best) of their government with police forces loaded with and prepared to use various weapons on the protesting masses makes for a disastrous recipe. Add on top of that two friends from Midland, Texas, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, with close ties to a charismatic social activist Brandon Darby who encourages his protégés to ratchet up the action, even if it means taking up arms. McKay and Crowder comply by creating molotov cocktails (aka fire bombs) they consider using on strategic non-human targets. The two friends never get that far. Crowder was held in custody from an earlier arrest and McKay had a swat team on him before he could do anything.

The story seems rather straight forward until some key details are expertly revealed throughout the fast paced film. The surprises are too good to spoil. Let’s just say that not everything is as it seems, and not all of it is in favor of McKay and Crowder, who most would assume are handled most sympathetically throughout. The spoilers are so good that there is even one in the credits. I couldn’t believe that one of the biggest reveals was saved for credit rolling material. It’s a gutsy move and one that pays off by leaving the viewer unsettled one last time.

The disturbing results of the US justice system and the paranoid homeland security efforts are on full display. There are no winners, even though it would appear the government wins 90% of the time in criminal trials. The tactics used by the prosecution are underhanded, not to mention the highly questionable actions of those enforcing the laws and catching the suspects. Even so, kudos to the filmmakers (Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway) for not letting the two young men off the hook. Crowder and McKay made some poor choices along the way and thankfully the film allows the friends to make this admission and contemplate a bit on the unfortunate (not to mention unjust) results.

Whether one agrees with their left leaning politics or not, it’s hard not to feel empathy for Crowder and McKay in the latter half of the film. The two twenty-something friends are not simply used as exhibits A and B in a case against the US justice system and overreaching homeland security, they are shown as people who have families and loved ones. The repercussions for Crowder and McKay are deeper than a lost battle for the cause they believe in. These young men are faced with hard prison time away from loving families and friends.

Unlike its counterparts, Better This World makes the most of its activist focused material and tells a compelling story in a manner worthy of the source material.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Take Shelter

After working closely with those impacted by and helping out with the aftermath of a devastating tornado I’m not crazy about watching films that have tornadoes as a central prop. Take Shelter is more about a man struggling with losing his sanity than it is about the storms around him, whether they be real or in his head.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to a young daughter who lost her hearing. He lives in a small town where your secrets are only well kept for a matter of minutes if not less. Everyone knows everyone. There is nothing extraordinary about Curtis. He works hard, appears to have a good relationship with his wife and child, and enjoys the friendship of those he works with. Contrasted with his relatively simple way of life are visions and dreams he has of deadly storms approaching along with strangers and loved ones threatening to kill him. The events seem so real that physical pain is inflicted. The torment this down to earth man goes through is hard not to feel.

After one too many painful dreams, Curtis realizes he needs to figure out what is going on. He knows there is a history of schizophrenia in his immediate family. This leads him to seek help though without letting his wife know. While desperately seeking help he also goes about securing a risky home equity loan in order to get funds for expanding the tornado shelter out back. It’s at this point that Samantha loses her patience. She has seen changes in her husband, mostly writing them off as one off oddities or physical illness. But when she comes home to discover Curtis and his friend from work tearing up the backyard to expand the tornado shelter she is at a loss for words. She can’t comprehend the project, the way she discovers it, where the funds are coming from – none of it makes sense. Since there is a sweet chemistry between Curtis and Samantha this grenade set off in their relationship by Curtis is painful to watch, even though we as viewers understand a bit more about what Curtis is dealing with it’s also hard for us to justify his self destructive behavior.

To go further into the plot development is to potentially ruin one of the components that makes the film so compelling. Take Shelter is sure to leave some perplexed, others enthralled, and almost everyone thinking for days about what it all meant in the end. Count me in the camp of those enthralled. The performances, the overall mood, and the contrast between an everyday life and schizophrenia are done in a near perfect manner.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell and Werner Herzog were made for each other. Unfortunately their meeting meant the death of Treadwell, as Herzog’s Grizzly Man documents Treadwell’s life and death at the paws of the grizzly bears Treadwell felt were his surrogate family.

Knowing how things end makes Grizzly Man an uncomfortable watch, not because we get to see a bear rip a man and his girlfriend to shreds (we don’t), but because a majority of the film is filled with laughs. For example the movie opens with Treadwell talking about being a warrior, a samurai of sorts as bears roam behind him. Seriously? Herzog finds a plethora of odd footage Treadwell shot of himself, the bears, and the rest of nature around him. Perhaps even stranger are some of the role players, such as the coroner whose every movement and word have creepy connotations. Herzog can’t help himself, as even the seemingly mundane pilot who flew the grizzly man in and out of the Alaska wilderness is introduced with a subtitle of pilot and former rodeo performer. And, like most Herzog documentaries, the narrative is done by the director, not only for exposition but to opine. The deadpan delivery makes it hard to know if Herzog is part of the comedy or sincerely trying to make a point.

The fact that Treadwell wanted to be an actor is not surprising. His roughly one hundred hours of footage he shot while out in the wild is filled with manufactured drama. We know this because we’re allowed to see some of the outtakes and setup of various scenes. This doesn’t take away from the authenticity, in fact it raises it. Instead of pretending the grizzly man is pure in his insane pursuit of his large furry friends, a more complete picture is painted of a man losing his sanity but still hoping to make it big someway. Truth is, Treadwell died just about the time reality TV took off like a rocket. Had he been doing his crazy living with the bears routine today there is little doubt there’d be a bidding war for the rights to the show.

In order to balance out the insanity, there are interviews with those gracefully calling Treadwell out on his crossing the boundaries between man and animal. They don’t make fun of him or point fingers but question his misguided mission. These level headed folks seem alien in comparison to those dominating the majority of the film.

A fascinating character study filled with uncomfortable laughs, Grizzly Man succeeds to peel back the layers that make up the life of a man who wanted nothing more than to trade in the painful reality that life can be at times for the fantasy that grizzly bears could be his best friends.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Floored

After watching Floored, a documentary about old-school traders on Chicago’s exchange floors, I wonder (once again) if there is much difference between gambling and trading commodities.

One can’t help but notice the subjects of the film, struggling to adapt to the new ways of doing business (computer vs. in-person trades), resemble professional poker players. They wear odd clothes to distinguish themselves on the floor. They are driven by the thrill of making major money in a split second. They thrive in a high stress environment where reading faces and feeling the vibe of the room can be just as important as the math behind it all. Telling these men that their livelihoods is now going to a world dominated by computers is like telling a pro poker player all the money is in online poker. With that one revelation their worlds get flipped upside down. And that reality is the one that Floored examines in its last act. Along the way are fascinating characters, stories, and insights into a world that most of us never get to see, nor will we in the case of the manic days of trading on the floor.

Being a fan of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, where he tells his story of working at Salomon Brothers in the ’80s, made me particularly interested in watching Floored once I discovered it thanks to Netflix’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. A relatively short film (77 minutes), it wastes no time getting into the insanity of trading floors, including a brief but helpful explanation of what all those crazies yelling at each other in the middle of a pit do. Unbeknown to me, many of those in the pit put up their own money in the trades. That fact alone leads to some intense pressure.

Let there be no doubt, the love of money drives these guys. They are every bit materialistic as they are thrill seekers. Regrets are not expressed by the sadness of losing oneself in insatiable greed or the loss of fellow traders to suicide. No, regrets from these men are often about not staying ahead of the game, either by adapting to the change to computer trading or missing out on some great trades.

Stories of fights after trading hours breaking out include one where two traders take it out to the parking lot. After trading a few blows, one of the traders swings while the other ducks and the punch lands through the window of a car. The trader with a bloody, glass filled hand asks the other for a ride to the hospital. The request for a ride is refused. Mind you, the trader telling this story (the one who refused to give a ride) is eccentric to say the least. We meet him at his house where he shows off an endless display of taxidermy animals he’s killed over the years. Bonus points for putting some of them on wheels, including a giraffe. While giving a tour of the place, this former floor trader states that it’s not any fun if you can’t get killed. I think he was referring to hunting wild animals, but I think his motto applied to his approach to trading.

There is little sympathy in the end for those who find themselves on the way out as a new crew takes their place in the form of analysts, computer scientists, and mathematicians. The game is being played by better players. Too bad that same game is one where most of us are blindly invested.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.