by Philip Price
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Starring: Sarah Paulson & Kiera Allen
Runtime: 1 hour & 30 minutes
I gave up on “American Horror Story” some time ago after consistently being intrigued for three or four episodes every year and then consistently realizing I didn't care at all about what was happening. Blame ‘AHS’ for my complete lack of interest in Netflix's “Ratched,” but I say this to preface my review of a Sarah Paulson thriller to say I have not kept up with my Sarah Paulson performances as of late. Within those renewed opportunities I would give ‘AHS’ each season though, I saw enough of the actress to understand how good she was at toeing the line between charming, conniving and downright evil. Paulson likes to take on ... complicated characters it would seem and that kind of duality, that type of unhinged serenity is again put to good use in writer/director Aneesh Chaganty's “Run.” One may or may not recognize Chaganty's name for writing and directing 2018's “Searching,” but if not your memory might be jogged with the additional information that “Searching” is the one that takes place entirely through a computer screen and stars Harold from ‘Harold & Kumar’ or Sulu from the new ‘Star Trek’ films. Yep, that's the one. “Searching” illustrated that Chaganty had a knack for knowing how to meld story and execution in a way that provoked real understanding on the part of the character's plight while also delivering moments of genuine tension. Much of the same could be said for the filmmaker's follow-up (which he again penned with co-writer Sev Ohanian) as ”Run” almost feels more like an ode to Alfred Hitchcock than his previous film given the more traditional nature of the story and filmmaking approach, but while Chaganty's sophomore effort is somewhat predictable when it comes to the narrative (emphasis on somewhat due to extenuating circumstances he could not control) the film is still a grade-A thriller in regards to engaging the audience in the core mystery as well as making them feel a part of the experience. What is missing from ”Run” that propelled “Searching” into the next stratosphere though is what in fact makes this feel more like a traditional ode to Hitchcock in that there is no modern element to either convey a timely commentary or defiantly place Chaganty's own stamp on it. Instead, ”Run” plays things in a more orthodox fashion while doing so with the same level of craftsmanship Chaganty proved he'd mastered in his debut feature ultimately resulting in a modern mystery of a thriller that feels as if it could have debuted thirty years ago yet somehow manages to deliver if not necessarily a fresh take on the material, but a satisfying one nonetheless.
From the opening shot Chaganty's aforementioned control over his craft is on display as a sequence of shots glide together forming this perfect type of ambiguous yet heartbreaking prologue prior to the title screen (which I loved) that then propels us into modern day and the small, sleepy suburb where we find our main characters. Diane Sherman (Paulson) is attending a community meeting for parents who home school their children and are getting set to send them away to college (one of those things I'm sure is real, but would have never concocted in my own mind in a million years). While others present in the meeting are clearly having a tough time considering the fact, they'll be sending their babies away for the first time Diane seems to have found some calm in the storm. If nothing else, Diane seems confident in the job she's done raising her daughter; referring to her as smart, brave, and having faced more emotional and physical challenges than any adult she knows makes her absolutely capable of handling herself. Diane reiterates that if there's anyone to not worry about, it's her daughter. This is all well and good seeing as Diane, unlike some of the other parents in the room, at least has a sense of self-awareness and an eye for balance in both she and her child's life. The kicker is that included in that prologue - which shows Diane in the hospital post-her daughter's difficult delivery - is a short definition for five disorders it can be assumed Diane's new baby will have to deal with. Between an arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, asthma, diabetes, and paralysis it's easy to see how Diane doesn't have an easy road ahead, so when she is in fact as composed as she appears in this college-prep meeting some seventeen years later we, as viewers, are both surprised and immediately suspicious given the genre of the movie we know we sat down to watch. It is Paulson, as previously noted with her simplistic yet creative duality, who gives the audience even the slightest bit of hope that said suspicions might be wrong whereas Chaganty and his editorial department utilize Torin Borrowdale's score and the director's pension for emphasizing his intended tone with the movement of his camera and shot compositions that otherwise sell the genre ”Run” is operating in. That is to say, I don't want to take away from what Chaganty has accomplished here simply because his story runs into something of a recent familiarity issue in the Munchausen syndrome by proxy category. If you're familiar with the term or the more popular story concerning said mental health issue that has gained prominence over the last few years then you'll know this is more a case of poor timing than it is a lack of originality, but if you think you already know the story then imagine it with Paulson as the antagonist and there should be little more necessary to convince you of why ”Run” is worth watching.
This shouldn't take away from Chaganty's accomplishment though, largely because he does find a way to meld the drama and tension of the piece into a compelling ninety minutes even if some of the key twists and turns might be more apparent to a seasoned viewer. Paulson is a delight to watch as this woman, this mother who is so convinced of her own convictions that they overtake her logic and sense of right and wrong to the point of insanity. Nothing is scarier than someone who is wrong or completely unhinged in their actions, but wholly believe themselves to be in the right or at least well within their rights and that is the angle from which Paulson approaches Diane. While Diane is our point of entry into the story (there's never any mention of a father) she is not who comes to be our hero, the main character, or even the most complex character - which is saying something given she believes herself to love her kid more than anyone in the universe while also considering neurotoxins help keep that damn teenager in check - but it's in fact that damn teenage who comes to be the real, true anchor of not only the film but the audience's affection. As played by newcomer (and a rather revelatory one at that) Kiera Allen, Chloe is seemingly all those things her mother bragged about her being and more. Chaganty and Ohanian's script smartly sets their audience up to feel a strange sense of empathy for Diane as it wouldn't be easy dealing with all of Chloe's needs and despite the brave face her mother puts on there is obviously concern Chloe won't be able to keep up with all the necessary remedies outside this picturesque bubble her mother has created for her. Of course, it is not more than a few minutes after being invited into this bubble that we learn all is not a peachy as it appears. It's clear that Chloe feels isolated if not initially trapped by her mother's bubble and is anxious to move away though despite what her Diane tells others, letting Chloe go away to college doesn't appear to be a part of her plans at all. Even with these surface-level details it may be easy to pick up on where this thing is going as far as narrative direction is concerned, but what continues to make the experience exciting is the film's ability to build the tension between Diane's facade and Chloe's growing suspicions despite the transparency of the plot. It is through the mounting of this dynamic that we also get to know Chloe more and more as a character. As she begins investigating these irregularities in what her mother is telling her versus the evidence, she's finding her personality emerges even more. At one point, Chloe yells, "I'm paralyzed, feel bad for me," in order to cut in line at a pharmacy. Chloe's ability to gather evidence of her maltreatment proves incredibly difficult given her mother has her under lock and key, but it is within these attempts that Chaganty finds reason to both craft some of the film's most suspenseful sequences as well as expand the horizon of the film beyond its largely confined storytelling space. There is one sequence in particular featuring Chloe that is both insanely tense and exhilarating while also bridging the gap from heavy suspicion to full on war between mother and daughter.
What may have originally been done out of pain devolved into a selfish game of wish fulfillment and ultimately ends not in the sad, heartbreaking ways of which true life tells us such stories can, but in the most eloquent and symmetrical of movie ways. “Run” is certainly not high-art, but it feels like it was made to be while completely ignoring the fact it would undoubtedly operate within a genre typically resigned for the trashiest form of cinema. Whether that be horror or thriller, audiences tend to resort to this genre for "cozy thrills" or, in other words, for the purposes of feeling like they're doing something exciting or dangerous while strapped to the couch in their comfiest of sweatpants. “Run” is fine for these purposes - perfect, even - but there is also this underlying sense of esteem to the project. Whether this kind of "prestige" is due to that of the response to Chaganty's first film or the fact Paulson is involved it's difficult to say, but what's clear is that this stature is carried over from such influential factors to the product itself largely due to the effortlessness with which it is stitched together. That is to say, no matter where the story is going Chaganty and Ohanian don't ever ease the pacing enough to allow viewers time to question the logic of what is unfolding in their story, but instead only assure the audience of their and their films intelligence by providing the character's these voices that also contain a duality in that they both prove themselves to be more than formidable in their own objectives, but non-threatening in their meager appearance. Furthermore, Chaganty and Ohanian only ask that the audience keep up with said pacing long enough to revel in those twists and turns even if they know to expect them at one point or another. That old saying of, "it's the journey, not the destination," isn't necessary applicable here as this isn't a journey anyone might recall fondly, but it works in some form due simply to how skillfully and cunningly the film unravels and concludes. Ultimately, the combination of every factor moving at the same speed carries the film’s forward momentum to the finish line by building upon the tropes it employs and either making them work in favor of the character's doing these things or turning them on their head in such a fashion that the "game" at the heart of Diane and Chloe's toxic relationship becomes more gratifying than thought conceivable ninety minutes prior. In all its lean, perfectly-balanced genre glory “Run” is a pure piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment and a nail-biter down to the final minutes that features Paulson and Allen delivering top-form performances that underplay the heightened situations of their characters thus over delivering on the promise of a modern horror/thriller that would fit snugly under the descriptor of "Hitchcockian".
"Run" can be streamed on Hulu.
by Philip Price
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn & Charlene Swankie
Runtime: 1 hour & 48 minutes
As much about those she encounters as it is Frances McDormand's Fern, Chloé Zhao's “Nomadland” chronicles a year in the life of a woman whose world is dying and her journey to discover a new one. McDormand's performance is as reassuring as ever, but it’s these portraits Zhao paints of those the grind has forgotten that give the film a sense of hope without ever romanticizing its notions. In fact, everything about Zhao's latest is as authentic as one would expect if familiar with the filmmaker's previous features in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider.” While most will know Zhao's name soon enough for directing Marvel's “The Eternals,” it is her documentary-like approach to fictional material that will seemingly carry over no matter the brand she applies it to. This stylistic approach is one that requires a certain level of patience and attention, but as with most things that are worth investing time and effort in if one is able to give those things over to the film completely what it delivers is more than a rewarding experience - it's a stunningly cathartic one. Such praise is heaped upon the film with caution, mind you, as “Nomadland” is also a film about both everything and nothing. It's a movie difficult to describe to people in terms of why it carries the weight it does as it would appear to be little more than a road movie from the outside looking in. This is a movie in which we see Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand play a character who goes from one job to the next, living out of her van, while allowing the third act of her life to be shaped by those she meets along the way. If this were a traditionally structured movie it would undoubtedly include some tangible goal McDormand's Fern was chasing and must reach before a certain deadline or a certain destination that holds the resolve to all her earthly issues she attempts to deal with while on her journey, but “Nomadland” has no such structure. If Zhao's style and approach are distinctive for nothing else it is actually the complete lack of structure her films exhibit. It is because of this abandonment of design though, that the film is able to capture the loneliness of the world without much dialogue, it is through this that it provides the audience with an exploration they themselves might be craving around who we are and what the point of all this might be while reminding us of how good we can be, need to be, and must be to one another while we're still here.
Did you know ferns constitute the largest living group of primitive vascular plants with over 10,000 species? That sad excuse for an analogical segue is to point out the key word "primitive". Much like the species of plant with which our protagonist shares her name, it would seem the largest group of people in the United States have more in common with the quality or style of life that offers an extremely basic level of comfort and convenience than they do with those we typically see in the movies. Fern isn't necessarily meant to be an "every(wo)man", but she is and Zhao's film while not necessarily concentrated on being about any one thing in particular ultimately comes to be about the double-edged sword Fern faces as her options are as wide as the landscapes in front of her yet that freedom could just as easily lead to independence as it could absolute isolation and the aforementioned loneliness. “Nomadland” is set in the real-life town of Empire, Nev. where we are to understand that Fern had more or less resigned most of her life to. This town is essentially wiped off the map six months after the gypsum mine - the staple of the town's economy - closes its doors. Fern along with her husband and the majority of Empire's small population were given nowhere to go with the zip code being eliminated in that six months following the plants closure. We are introduced to McDormand's character in the aftermath of this dissolution, after the death of her husband, and as she's coming to the end of her seasonal employment at an Amazon center where we begin to become immersed in the modern state of Fern's life. Fern has begun living in her van (which she naturally named Vanguard) and prefers being called "houseless" as opposed to "homeless". It is worth noting too that Fern is beginning to invest large parts of her time, effort, and headspace into the design of her new home as well; it's a safe space - maybe the first space she's felt genuinely safe in since everything in her life suddenly changed. Fern remains close with what is assumed to be another Empire native and longtime friend in Linda (Linda May) who also works for Amazon during the holiday season, but who encourages Fern to join her once their stint is over as she's become involved with a group of "nomads". These wanderers have formed makeshift communities for themselves and fellow souls like Fern where comfort and companionship in the hollowed out days that follow life's objectives having all either been accomplished or given up on can be found. It is on Fern's journey that she discovers or at least finds both clarity and sometimes more confusion in things she thought she'd figured out, but whether alone or in good company, she can't help but to keep moving.
It is 2011 when “Nomadland” begins as Fern and her world are just beginning to step out from the shadow cast by the great recession of 2008. Fern states early on that she likes work, that she needs it, as if it allows her to be able to pace herself in life and/or maintain a type of internal balance. That said, Zhao - who also wrote the screenplay adapted from Jessica Bruder's 2017 novel - is keen to emphasize just how much this internal balance has been pushed to the edge with the loss of her husband, her town, and her village of friends. Fern doesn't know exactly what she needs to do in order to begin to feel like she's piecing her life back together, but she knows something feels right about being in the company of this band of gypsies she's landed among. Speaking of those Fern finds herself among, while Zhao's filmmaking language skewers more documentary than feature narrative what adds to this illusion if you will, is that the director also largely uses "non-actors" to make up her cast. In fact, besides McDormand and David Strathairn the rest of this cast was chosen as the locations were. In all honesty, McDormand is the first real "name" Zhao has used to anchor one of her films. Furthermore, Zhao has stated that it was important for the cast to be selected as the locations were being chosen and that the script not be locked until the final day of shooting so that the film would actually be a genuine representation of these areas. This may lead one to question why Zhao might even shift the narrative into the fictional world if she was willing to go to such lengths in order to ensure authenticity instead of just making a documentary. First and foremost, Zhao is being honest with herself about documentary filmmaking and the more incendiary aspects that can be exposed by filmmakers if they want to use the art form to tell the story they want to tell rather than that of their subjects, but in shifting something like “Nomadland” to the realm of fiction it actually allows for more openness among the non-actors as well as in the screenwriting process. The people we see on screen aren't necessarily playing themselves, but obviously versions of themselves that they wish they could or might hope to be one day. Essentially, Zhao is offering the opportunity for these people to be braver than they might have ever had to be by being as honest with themselves about who they truly are or who they've become by committing that to camera. It's an exercise that elicits this desired truth more often than not, but it also drives home the overall and surprisingly simple thesis of the film in that it reminds us of our own humanity and how little the minutiae matters when the biggest threat is division itself. The main and maybe only detractor to this decision is how often the score, taken from composer Ludovico Einaudi's album Seven Days Walking, is utilized; it's undeniably beautiful, but maybe a little too much and a little too on the nose for some of the more authentic moments the film conveys.
This brings us around to trying to decipher how the film creates this sense of grand discussion and deep reflection while appearing to be as mundane an artistic endeavor as the people it chronicles. One of the greatest instances of this and a scene that wholly encompasses how the film not only functions but views itself is when Fern attends a tour in one of the state or national parks that her journey takes her on. The tour guide is talking about stars that blew up eons ago whose matter landed on our planet and is now a part of the beings that inhabit it; how the remnants of these cosmic objects are essentially now a part of us. Zhao cuts from this existential moment to Fern cleaning a restaurant where I imagine one contemplates not what exists beyond the stars or what the origins of man are, but more how they're going to get the grease off the floor. This juxtaposition of infinite potential and how such reductive tasks can make one’s capabilities feel minuscule emphasizes the consistent theme of reflection Zhao is keen on examining. There is little talk of legacy and what individuals will be remembered for and more talk around how the characters in question have satisfied their own time. Did they die with their sailboat still parked in the driveway as one character likened it? Fern in particular wonders if she spent too much of her time remembering rather than taking in the present and if that time was wasted by not making an even larger pool of memories for her to reflect on now that those most critical to making those memories are no longer around to create new ones. It's almost as if living in her van and not allowing herself to get too close to others or enjoy said company of another, namely fellow nomad Dave (Strathairn), is penance for these shortcomings, these regrets, these things she failed to realize earlier in her life. It's easy to imagine all the stories Fern could share as McDormand sports a scruffy-haired//weathered look here that adds to the credibility the "layears" on her face tells us she's lived.
In short, “Nomadland” is a collection of portraits of people who have found themselves on the fringes of society, that have fallen out of the cycle our structured existence promotes and now has no use for. Key among these figures is a woman Fern befriends by the name of Swankie (as played by non-actor Charlene Swankie) who Zhao undoubtedly viewed as a gift from God as not only does Charlene deliver an astounding performance, but the character of Swankie becomes the backbone of the newfound influence and encouragement Fern was seeking. There is a single scene in particular with Swankie that deals in the smaller moments of life that we come to appreciate not only for their beauty or inspiration, but largely for the type of impact they leave on us that triggered a gut reaction of sadness for reasons I'm not sure I can fully explain or even comprehend. Whether it be restoring balance, finding peace in the past and being able to muster some optimism for the future, or finding excuses to try and figure out who we are and what the point of all this is “Nomadland” analyzes and accomplishes all these things in a staggeringly subtle exploration that manages to leave a profound impact.
by Philip Price
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close & Gabriel Basso
Runtime: 1 hour & 56 minutes
It's difficult to know where to begin with “Hillbilly Elegy.” In one sense, we have to consider the context of the individuals this story is about and in another we must accept this specific facet to be the truth of their lives. How does one reconcile that author J.D. Vance's memoir on which this film is based is both undoubtedly a vivid recollection of his own childhood as well as a romanticized portrait of a place in America where the pride of having been left behind has a lot to do with the refusal to move forward? The conflicted feelings about how and what the film is representing naturally extend to the DNA of the film itself as, in the opening moments, Gabriel Basso's Vance tells us how much he loved visiting rural Kentucky when he was a boy despite being raised in the rust belt of Ohio; it was the memories he made while visiting the Blue Grass State he was most fond of. The film quickly contradicts these kind words with a scene where a 13-year old Vance (Owen Asztalos) encounters a band of local bullies before being rescued by his local relatives in Kentucky. Vance is obviously sentimental about these moments and has therefore made them more appealing in his memory, but how far does the gaze of these rose-tinted glasses reach? Depending on the author's age at the time of the events being described, what circumstances are being missed and what details are being diminished? How much is Vance actually misremembering? There are a lot of questions left unanswered that director Ron Howard doesn't feel the need to address as he largely focuses on the core family dynamic at the heart of Vance's story, but what's riveting about the execution of “Hillbilly Elegy” is that it feels the need to explain as much as it does chronicle the reasons these people have ended up the way they have. There is this notion that because they really are well-meaning people underneath their poor life choices that they deserve some type of exception when it comes to discussing said shortcomings. Aside from the complicated cultural discussion around the "hillbilly condition" though, and how sorry viewers should be made to feel for these individuals who can't get out of their own way, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) smartly focus on the prevalent themes around how much community and family genuinely mattered to Vance while growing up in these undeniably unforgiving environments and the complexities of the problems he faced and deals with well into his adult life due to this jagged support system.
Alas, while much of “Hillbilly Elegy” may be a story told in a vacuum-like environment the validity of said perspective will not be refuted by an outsider (though I am from Arkansas and can attest to generalizations of a place easily being proved incorrect) who has only read articles noting the layers upon layers of conflict with the author's worldview or lack thereof. Instead, “Hillbilly Elegy” will be viewed and assessed as any movie should be meaning two of the biggest factors taken into account will be how strong the author's voice is and how well the thesis it decides to zero in on is conveyed. In this regard, Howard's first full-fledged feature since his third Dan Brown adaptation in 2016 has him approaching the source material in a very Ron Howard-like way. This is to say that the filmmaker simply views Vance's story as a rather straightforward family drama that conveys a powerful story of self-actualization despite the hurdles one’s heritage might throw at them. Howard undoubtedly also liked the idea that the material is ripe with performance opportunities for those the Academy has shunned for far too long as well. One might be remiss to completely dismiss the film as cloying awards fodder, but there's definitely a reason the casting director reached out to Glenn Close and Amy Adams specifically, but more on them later. As the protagonist of our story, we are introduced to J.D. Vance - the character - in two separate timelines as the film parallels his journey at Yale and dealing with his mother's relapse due to heroin use with that of the childhood trauma that shaped who he's become and explains why he's made the choices he has as an adult. As mentioned, Gabriel Basso of “Super 8” and “The Kings of Summer” portrays the older J.D. while Asztalos' younger version does most of the heavy lifting in terms of the narrative weight. The events depicted from Vance's youth that take place in the mid-to-late ‘90s are the moments that garner the more physical, guttural reactions simply out of plain human sympathy for any young, innocent child who is meant to deal with the incompetence of the adults around them oftentimes forcing them to be the most mature person in the room. While we spend more time with Asztalos' Vance though, we legitimately feel the exhaustion of Basso’s Vance as he's stripped of everything he has to offer including his dignity. Though we may spend more time with the younger Vance it is the burdens Basso's Vance carries with him that we feel more than anything else in the film.
Vance was burdened by his family for as long as he can remember. Barely past puberty and his hard boiled Mamaw (Close in insanely heavy make-up, but stay for the end credits and you'll see it's not *all* for Oscar glory) more or less tells the young man that when she dies he’s the only one who will remain that is capable and strong-willed enough to take care of the rest of their family, namely Vance’s mother Beverly (Adams). In essence, this is very much about a grandmother who saves her grandson in the hope he might save her daughter. It's a lot to place on a pre-teen's shoulders, but of course this younger Vance doesn't fully comprehend the complications such a burden will entail until much later in life. Vance has an older sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett, who will naturally be overshadowed yet deserves some mention as she's surprisingly effective in her minor role), who is old enough to be preoccupied with her boyfriends and doesn't recognize what this moment in time means to her little brother and how much it will impact his life moving forward. To be clear, while Close and Adams are being trotted out as the performers to take most notice of both women play more supporting roles in service of Vance's distillation of his own journey. The crux of the film is Vance returning home in an effort to - consciously or not - keep that promise he made to his Mamaw. What does one do when trying to break free of the bad choices that have plagued their family for years while understanding that absence is not an option and would most likely result in the ones you love collapsing in on themselves? Mamaw both needed Vance to succeed in ways no one else in their family had while also remaining close enough to be their safety net. As a result, Vance's arc largely deals in him working through these questions in order to convince himself he's not selfish for choosing his own successes, but while Vance's hardships are acknowledged, understood, and don't deserve to be discredited it becomes increasingly evident as the movie plays on that there isn't much to glean from these trials and tribulations besides the simple idea that if you work hard you can succeed no matter your circumstances. As was said earlier, very Ron Howard-like.
Though it's not hard not to appreciate a movie that finds room to utilize Eagle-Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight," “Hillbilly Elegy” is a film that finds more momentum in its editing than it does the story it's telling or the themes it's relaying. Elegy is a word often times confused with eulogy and while they share certain sounds and expressions of grief and sorrow one is a deep reflection while the other is a more immediate piece of writing. Vance is correct to call his ruminations an elegy, but as far as the film adaptation goes a eulogy feels like the more appropriate verbiage. Not because Vance praises Appalachia or the people he knew there, but because it feels sudden in its assessment; an immediate reaction to a traumatizing experience rather than a serious reflection on what these life events meant and will mean for Vance moving forward. This is all to say that while Vance obviously knows his family better than anyone else, the characters of Mamaw and Beverly never come to feel like fully-realized or authentic people in the two hours the audience gets to know them. Adams is naturally reliable in her ability to create this shell of a woman who once was while having decided her only way out of her inherent hick reputation is to find a husband that can take her and her son away from it all. Because Beverly is such a fractured shell when she's introduced to viewers though, and only becomes more of one as time goes on it's difficult to see Adams' performance as anything more than a collection of instances that back-up Vance's claims that she was a shitty mother. Close certainly gets more of a fleshed out role in Mamaw as Vance clearly has an enormous amount of respect for this woman and the role she played in his life and therefore their dynamic is much stronger. Mamaw was the type of hillbilly who would correct you if you called Indians Native Americans. That's right, she would correct you by reverting back to referring to them as Indians and then say things like, "They're not magic just because they don't have microwaves." In other words, she was a relic of the past, yes - and a sometimes ugly one - but she was also the type of person that when shit got real you knew you could count on her. It is in the montage created out of the moments that show Mamaw's resilience and selflessness that Close earns her nomination. It's easy to knock the melodramatic aspects of “Hillbilly Elegy,” but by the same token one also has to then appreciate the rawness with which these people are presented. It would have been easy to add a certain sheen to the events recounted, but whether it be in Vance’s novel or Howard’s direction this story admittedly doesn’t steer away from the ugliness these characters both experienced and distributed.
To return to the bigger contextual issues with “Hillbilly Elegy” though is to return to the concern that Vance has concocted a reality reflective only of his own image by using one-off personal experiences and unsubstantiated observations to make broad, sweeping accusations about an entire region of the country. So, there are two issues here in that not only has Vance perpetrated Appalachia as this mythic "out of time" place that avoids the present by refusing to look toward the future thus altering the perception of the region, but he has written a story with the intent of it being emblematic of how misunderstood these people are while not actually taking anyone else's existence into account. If this were solely an account of Vance's life that made no attempt to generalize an entire culture then OK, but as the story is meant to serve as being representative of what happens throughout this region then what we have here is more problematic. Vance complicates things further by painting a portrait of Appalachia that only views the prism of culture in the area through a single facet. This then begs the question of why the author feels a certain sympathy for the characters in his own story yet whose political leanings would suggest he's comfortable condemning claims of systemic racism. Of course, Vance is sympathetic to the "hillbilly" because he claims to know them - because they are his family, friends and neighbors - whereas anyone who isn't white, holds progressive politics, cares about the environment, or is an LGBTQ individual does not exist in Vance's Appalachia. This "progressive" requirement of inclusion (translation: context is key) wouldn't even be as big a deal if Vance's story didn't attempt to make these broad rationalizations, but because compassion is afforded those asking for their actions to be pardoned until they have time to explain are the same people who marginalize minorities asking for the same type of grace yet Vance quickly dismisses them makes this a big damn deal. The existence of the titular "hillbillies" are meant to negate the idea that "white privilege" exists, but if nothing else “Hillbilly Elegy” actually makes it more clear that the level of hardship endured does not determine how much one is held back, but how much one is held back might in fact prove the necessary motivation to overcome those hardships; that is, unless history isn't on your side either in which case one might have to add a few extra things to that list of hardships.
by Philip Price
Director: Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms
Starring: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins & Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
“Fatman” is the kind of movie that is primed for embrace by movie nerds across the internet based on the concept alone. It almost doesn't even matter how well the writing/directing team of brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms pull this off or don't because all that really matters is that the idea remains the centerpiece. Whether everything surrounding the premise enhances the experience or not the fact they can say 64-year old Mel Gibson was down for playing a disgruntled Santa Claus who has to contend with a hitman sent by a disappointed child is all they really needed to say to sell anyone on it. What does in fact actually sell said pitch though, is that the Brothers Nelms seemingly approached their script as if it were any other post-2010 Gibson actioner. In other words, Saint Nick could just as easily have been played by Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn or any other number of aging actors that tried their hand at the "old man action movie" genre post-“Taken.” While it may have been fun to see someone like Tom Cruise give this lowly low-budget B-movie a kick in the pants by playing into the bait and switch of the tone, Gibson is admittedly a perfect choice for this project. As the man will be working to rebuild his legacy for the remainder of his career these ghosts of Gibson's past somewhat work in the actor’s favor here as his public persona and very public meltdowns inform this version of a Santa Claus that has lost his influence and become little more than a joke to people. Hell, the role may have even been written with Gibson in mind as the screenplay is one-thousand percent banking on the idea the audience will get a good chuckle out of the idea Gibson is playing Santa, a man whose whole deal is that he's completely altruistic in nature. There is no better way to appeal to the masses or earn back some gratitude than by taking the piss out of yourself and Gibson fully commits to doing so here. No, there isn't much more to the movie than this idea of a tongue in cheek take on the most innocent and well-meaning of holidays via a genre of movie that couldn't be more the opposite, but given Gibson's commitment to the bit, the Nelms' ability to manage a tone that's over the top without crossing the threshold from absurdity to stupidity, and the sheer presence that is Walton Goggins, “Fatman” turns out to be an amusing romp if not an immediate staple of the Christmas season.
Now, if that first paragraph made you take more than a couple passes simply because of the confusion around whether you were understanding correctly what you were reading then please know that every word was typed with the most sincere of intentions and a huge side of delight. First and foremost, going into “Fatman” one should know it is a dark comedy that plays everything straight and extremely serious which was absolutely the right choice as the film was only ever going to work if it was able to successfully convince the audience it was a legitimate action movie. So, does a movie called "Fatman" feel like a genuine action thriller with well-choreographed fights and big action set pieces even though our protagonist, our hero is supposed to be a man whose belly resembles a bowl full of jelly? Yes and no. “Fatman,” as executive produced by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, certainly feels as if it skews to the cheaper side of things in several instances, but not necessarily where one might expect in departments like set design, lighting, or sound. Rather, it is the writing that feels most reductive as the film's appearance and more impressively - its sound design - capture the feeling of what the Nelms' are attempting to imitate pretty accurately. Within the screenplay though, these imitations feel more trite than they do biting or especially sharp as it's one thing to fit in among a desired set of peers, but infiltrating in order to expose is an entirely different ballgame and while it's clear “Fatman” wants to retain the aesthetic of a self-serious action flick it's also clear it doesn't want to actually become just another "old man action movie" either. In order to do this, the sibling writing and directing duo put in the work to try and turn each preconceived notion of Santa Claus on its head for the purposes of their tone while lacing it with comedy, but many of the examples of this don't function at the level being aspired to and more often than not the film falls into a routine where it forgets the overall joke that everything taking place is supposed to be in service of. For instance, the primary subplot of the film concerns the U.S. military procuring Santa’s services and in response to the military taking over the workshop Gibson’s version of Santa should have been walking around addressing the soldiers as if he still thought of them as children, knowing all their names, and recalling certain gifts he enjoyed delivering to them, but while the film does acknowledge the possibility of this and Santa’s ability to do so it never follows through on any of it - not even with a joke, never mind a plot point. Of course, the way Gibson goes for a cookie any time Mrs. Cringle (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) brings a plate around almost makes up for this.
It isn't that the Brothers Nelms don't know how to best service their exceptional premise or even that they waste too much of an opportunity here, but more it's that they can't seem to fully crack the formula that would push not only the premise, but the final product as a whole into the realm of exception. This begins with the editing or more specifically, the structuring of the film as it quickly becomes apparent the Nelms' know what they have, but don't know how to present it in the most effective manner. In the opening sequence of the film we are introduced to Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a precocious twelve year-old from a wealthy family whose parents suspect their money will be a fine substitute for their time. Billy is left to occupy himself with science projects while ensuring the help takes good care of his grandmother. The stature of the Wenan estate doesn’t really match the scale of the power and influence they seem to wield, but let's just go with the fact there is enough power and influence here for said twelve year-old to hire a professional hitman for the purposes of kidnapping his science fair competition. The Billy character is key, this is understood given he's the catalyst for the majority of the action, but he shouldn't have been the character to open the film. When you have a film titled "Fatman" and are taking one of the most recognizable people on the planet and making them less recognizable by running them through the filter of a certain genre of filmmaking it would seem the obvious choice is to immediately establish who this version of the character is and how they're different from anything audiences have ever seen before. Instead, “Fatman” opens by outlining Billy's current circumstances rather than indoctrinating viewers to the hardships Chris Cringle is presently dealing with and the lengths he's going to have to go to in order to not only save his operation, but hopefully prove that he still stands for something; that he's still capable of making a difference. The introduction scene featuring Goggins' character would have sufficed as well as it at least would have better set the tone for the film moving forward, but by introducing us to the third most important character first who then leads viewers into a rather anticlimactic title screen it does nothing but relay the sense something is already off; that those holding the reins know where they want to go, but don't have complete control of the reindeer. It's obviously unfair to hold Hurstfield to the same level as his co-stars as both Gibson and Goggins have more experience than the young actor, but are also playing into the more somber, weighty perception the film intends to portray while Billy is the most theatrical of the trio. Billy is present to prop up the main conflict rather than actually influence any of it which is why the fact we meet him first just doesn't jive. Fortunately, while the film’s first step might have been a little wobbly it eventually, thankfully mostly finds its footing.
“Well, I will kill ol’ Jojo Beans too,” is a line of dialogue among many that Goggins rolls out with his signature droll and delivers with such go for broke grimness that it's impossible not to laugh. Were it not for the way Gibson somehow manages to counterbalance the long-faced exhaustion his Santa Claus feels with a genuine sense of earnestness that is underlined with a tinge of comedy then Goggins would easily walk away with this movie. Never referred to by name, Goggins' character is simply known as the "Skinny Man" and beyond being a gun for hire he also has a unique interest in Father Christmas and tracking down the whereabouts of his workshop after feeling neglected by Jolly ol' Saint Nick when he was a boy. Just picture Judge Reinhold's therapist character from “The Santa Clause” and imagine that guy going in the complete opposite direction with his childhood Christmas trauma and you have Goggins' character here. It is through both his character and performance that the aforementioned "side of delight" really comes into play for as much as the idea of Santa being a grizzled Canadian who is having a tough time dealing with the depreciating level of reverence toward his generosity and is forced to partner with the U.S. military so that his elves can help build weapons in order to continue properly funding his Christmas operation is appealing and enough of a movie on its own the added layer of Gibson's Chris being locked in a deadly battle against a highly skilled assassin who was hired by a child after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking is the *chef's kiss* on an already ridiculous affair.
Could “Fatman” have been a little more over-the-top with both its gore and humor if it was always going to be rated R? Sure. Could the script have utilized more of the happy, joyous, and downright sugary aspects of Christmas and turned them on their head to sport more creative flourishes and more than a few good laughs? Definitely. “Fatman” was bound to be a film of "what ifs" though as the sheer concept of Santa via Todd Phillips' “Joker” opens up boundless possibilities to the point all of them would never fit into a coherent film, but with the seemingly limited budget and time the Brothers Nelms had in order to realize this vision what they ultimately deliver is a solid slice of some of those possibilities. The toughest part of something like “Fatman” was never going to be crafting a coherent story - the options are pretty clear cut in regards to how they could pushing the narrative envelope with said concept - but it was going to be mastering tone that proved trickiest. Nevertheless, Eshom and Ian Nelms with a lot of help from their game cast somehow manage to make this literal war on Christmas much better than it probably has any right to be by offsetting the darkness with enough comedy and the cynicism with enough Jean-Baptiste to the point one can't help but to be bowled over not by the man who's making a list and checking it twice, but by his dry-witted assassin and the hardened, leather-skinned Santa at the center who most definitely smokes at least six packs a day.
by Julian Spivey
The Liberator – Netflix – 11/11
“The Liberator,” a new incredibly realistically looking (think “A Scanner Darkly) animated series about a platoon of soldiers during World War II and their captain who is seriously wounded in battle and going to be sent home but goes AWOL to return to his men, premieres on Veteran’s Day. The series is based off the book The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey by Alex Kershaw and looks absolutely stunning with its animation. It’s being compared to the critically-acclaimed HBO series “Band of Brothers,” but with animation instead of real-life action.
The Rider – Amazon Prime Video – 11/13
I’ve been wanting to see Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” ever since seeing glowing reviews of the film when it was released in 2017. The independent film was absolutely beloved by critics, but still hasn’t been available on streaming to a wide audience until now. The film, which features a cast of untrained actors in an attempt to feel as realistic as possible, tells the story of rodeo cowboy searching for a new purpose in life after an accident leaves him unable to compete any longer.
The Crown – Netflix – 11/15
The fourth season of Netflix’s best active original series “The Crown” premieres on Sunday, Nov. 15 and sees Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies continue their roles as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in their final season in the lead roles. The fourth season will, like the three before it, cover a lot of ground and span from 1977 to 1990 and will see the addition of Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin as Lady Diana. Season four will likely be an Emmy-nominated smash like the three seasons before it.
Hillbilly Elegy – Netflix – 11/24
Netflix’s biggest entry into Oscar season this year seems to be director Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the popular 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance. Netflix probably wasn’t too thrilled when the trailer was released in October to many condemning the film as “poverty porn,” but can you really go wrong with frequent Oscar-nominated actresses Glenn Close and Amy Adams in the lead roles? It’s best not to judge a movie solely on its trailer. “Hillbilly Elegy” tells the tale of the exploration of the American Dream through multiple generations of an Appalachian family. Maybe this will be the film that snaps either Close or Adams or both of their Oscar nominated, but never to win droughts. “Hillbilly Elegy” premieres on Tuesday, Nov. 24 just in time to watch with your family over Thanksgiving.
The Flight Attendant – HBO Max – 11/26
I guess HBO Max is banking on the fact that some folks won’t be traveling this year for Thanksgiving due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are hoping they’ll check out the new comedy-murder mystery “The Flight Attendant, premiering on the streamer on Thanksgiving day. The series stars Kaley Cuoco, in a seemingly more serious role than her previous decade-plus turn on “The Big Bang Theory,” as a flight attendant who spends the evening with a passenger only to wake up and find him dead the next morning. The trailer surely makes “The Flight Attendant” look a bit more murder mystery than comedy and also gives vibes of potentially being similar to HBO’s “Run,” which started off so hot before quickly cooling off and being cancelled earlier this year. I’m certainly willing to give it a shot though. “The Flight Attendant” co-stars Zosia Mamet and Rosie Perez.