It’s a sure bet that as summer turns to fall, films with awards buzz start hitting theaters and this October was no exception. This is also a good time to discover those surprise gems playing in art house theaters and limited runs. As we leave October, I thought a look back at some of the movies I saw that have come (and possibly gone) wouldn’t be amiss.

Need Some Ridiculous Fun?

I’m a sucker for a bit of anti– in my superheroes. I’m also unlikely to ever say no to dark humor driving an action adventure movie. If you find yourself in a similar mood, then Sony Pictures’ Venom may just be hit the thing.

Venom introduces rough-around-the-edges Eddie Brock intrepid photojournalist and the lifeform known as a Symbiote he becomes unwillingly bonded to in a way that best serves the story.

Now, if you’re a Marvel comic purist, then this film is not likely to be your cup of tea because Spiderman doesn’t make an appearance; but if you give it a shot you’ll laugh at this flick that never takes itself too seriously. Venom smartly drops the audience into Brock’s life well before he ends up playing host to an alien. It’s not an unpredictable storyline but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the moments of body-horror and violent action along the way.

Set in San Francisco the film takes advantage of the city to set the scene and keep you engaged. Brock is brash, belligerent and prone to acting without thought to the consequences. When he oversteps during an interview, Brock swiftly loses everything that matters to him. It’s not long after, he finds himself at a crossroads. What happens thereafter is pure chaos. Venom has action, relationship drama, a seriously mad billionaire played with just the right amount of sociopathy by Riz Ahmed, and just enough creep-factor, ridiculousness and heart to keep thing interesting. Tom Hardy leans into his character’s dual nature with a Jekyll and Hyde flair that’s equal parts humorous and brilliantly off-kilter. The film presents its story with an old-school superhero movie edge that works surprisingly well if you’re willing to just sit back and enjoy the ride. (Opened Nationwide October 5, 2018).

Grade: B –

Inspired by A True Story Films Your Thing?

October offered up a handful of dramas based on true events and or real people. Some had big screen buzz like First Man and Beautiful Boy, while others had big names attached telling more obscure, but no less compelling, tales like The Old Man and the Gun or The Happy Prince.

Each film offers audiences a chance to take a memorable walk in someone else’s shoes.

The Old Man and the Gun is about gentleman bank robber, Forest Tucker (Robert Redford). Director David Lowery plays up the 70s feel of this story to draw you in and captivate you with the idea of an older man no content to fade gently into retirement.

This film skips through Tucker’s real life as a convicted felon addicted to robbing banks. You’ll meet his crew and see how they land in the crosshairs of a reluctantly charmed police detective (Casey Affleck) just as Tucker begins to fall for a woman (Sissy Spacek) while still contemplating his next heist.

Redford’s swansong shares the tail end of Forester’s life with a wink and a nod to his many prison breaks and high-profile robberies.

For that alone, The Old Man and the Gun shouldn’t be missed. I will admit to liking this retrospective and the brief inclusion of notorious Over the Hill Gang, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Forest Tucker’s life story told in all its fascinating fullness one day. This is one character-driven story older many viewers will be charmed by before too far into the runtime. (Limited Opening October 12, 2018)

Grade B+

First Man is a look at the NASA program in the race to put a man on the moon. The film (overly) focuses on Neil Armstrong, what motivated him to join NASA and his role in the program from 1961 to 1965. Armstrong’s played by a stoic and restrained Ryan Gosling.

It’s mostly a first-person perspective on the missions leading up to the landing and Armstrong’s internal turmoil and struggles. Josh Singer’s screenplay puts known facts into a relatable and emotional shape that feels honest.

The story navigates the relationships between the members of the space program but doesn’t truly flesh out these relationships enough to build a firm connection to more than Armstrong’s perspective.

First Man offers insight even as it shies away from a realistic look at the larger aspects of the program and essential players in history. First Man is a flawed film that doesn’t truly tell its tale with sufficient authenticity (the only person of color mostly appeared via voice over which is ridiculous) to resonate as it should even as it believably shares the perils both physical and psychological of the space race. (Opened Nationwide October 12, 2018)

Grade: A –

If you’re feeling ready for a more emotionally poignant, and deeper, look at the tail end of life then I suggest The Happy Prince starring Rupert Everett as literary rapscallion Oscar Wilde.

Written and directed by Rupert Everett, The Happy Prince is one passion project that takes a stark turn navigating the last days of Wilde’s life with an introspective look at his fall from grace.

Everett delves into Wilde’s life such frankness and flair it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

This dissipated man has one foot in the grave even as the other continuously dabbles in debauchery. Everett is superb. Strategically placed flashbacks peel back the veil on the choices and recklessness that ultimately brought him low.

The Happy Prince finds its rhythm early and shares events around Wilde telling a children’s story.

Each shared moment is a heartbreaking front row seat (alongside Colin Firth) as Wilde reaps the suffering he’s sowed through faithfulness to those who care for him, devotion to a toxic relationship, and a selfish life lived with abandon to the point of dissipation. This sobering look at the downfall of this historical figure is harrowing, informative, and disturbing in its honesty. (Limited Opening October 19, 2018).

Grade: A

Turning from the historical to a contemporary biographical tale, but still digging into darker life experiences, comes Beautiful Boy to put a mainstream face to a mainstream problem: drug addiction.

Beautiful Boy is based on the addiction memoirs by both father and son. Using some seriously non-linear (but smartly edited) storyline Director Felix Van Groeningen tells a gripping (but not particularly gritty) tale of a family living with a son (Timothée Chalamet) severely addicted to drugs. The story approaches the issue primarily from the perspective of the father, believably played by Steve Carell. Told with more than a heavy dose of “how do I ‘fix’ my son, Beautiful Boy follows the disintegration of Nic Sheff. Timothée Chalamet gives an agonizingly compelling performance of Nic at every level. He gives a performance that’s not only noteworthy, but it’s also past time it’s the default; young, white, and from a working class/affluent family. This is a family able to gift their children with lives of privilege and affluence. Despite, having an attentive and involved father, Nic still willingly falls into drug use and ultimately spiraling addiction.

In that regard, Beautiful Boy is a necessary look at addiction presented in a way that will-hopefully-spark real conversation about drug use, abuse, and addiction treatment. Because for many, this film will be the first time that drug use is framed in a way that’ll be inescapable. Groeningen does an excellent job of highlighting how the Sheff family is often held hostage by Nic’s addiction. Steve Carell plays a father deeply invested in his family and his relationship with his son. But just as opportunities to really dig into the emotional toll and peril of drugs occurs, Beautiful Boy changes the subject and comes at its story from less threatening directions.

For others, Beautiful Boy will feel like a shallow, self-indulgent PSA. This screenplay deliberately skims the surface when it comes to showing Nic as a junkie and active drug user; sticking to mostly palatable visuals and choosing to unravel the times when Nic is sober more in-depth than digging into what he does to feed his addiction.

Beautiful Boy isn’t really that edgy when it comes to illustrating what addiction does to a family on many levels and yet somehow, its till a poignant story that needs to be seen because while it chooses not to truly dig into what sharpens those edges it’s unflinching when it comes to telling a story far too many want to pretend doesn’t even exist; middle class addicts.  (Opened Nationwide October 12, 2018)

Grade A –

Feeling Nostalgic?

If you’re not in a superhero kind of mood, then a little bit of horror may just ease your way into winter. If so, then the highly anticipated return of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode to the big screen probably lured you to a theater. Halloween combines the brash irreverence of 2018 with more than a few overt hat tips to John Carpenter’s original Halloween in this return to Haddonfield 20 years later.

Halloween starts with slightly too much exposition as two podcasters attempt to investigate the slayings that made Michael Myers notorious and Laurie Strode (Jaime Lee Curtis) a hard woman focused on survival and revenge to the exclusion of all else (I won’t lie, I was completely satisfied with what happens to this pair). It’s not the best way to introduce the players but pulls all the facts together and starts the countdown to Myer’s transfer to a different facility (which of course goes horribly wrong) and Halloween night.

Where the original Halloween kept audiences on edge with tension building music coupled with the stark, methodical actions of Myers juxtaposed against the frantic fear and paranoid frenzy his actions provoked in his victims; this Halloween is more a disturbing, gnawing trip down memory lane. Director David Gordon Green makes best use of Jamie Lee Curtis to insert more than one homage and Easter egg those in the know will seriously appreciate. Halloween is a bloody trip down memory lane with just enough twists to have you reaching to turn on the lights before entering your bedroom.

Hands down, the best thing in the movie is a young kid named Julian (Jibrail Nantambu). This young man says and does all the things many of us always want in a horror movie. He’s quick-witted, irreverent, and knows when to get the hell out while the getting is good. The misplaced humor in his scenes is worth it even if you don’t find Halloween to be a scary as the original; red herrings notwithstanding. (Opened Nationwide October 19, 2018).

Grade: B-

The Revisionist Perspective Takes Center Stage

Charlie and Eli Sisters are gunmen for hire in 1851. They work for a powerful man and carry out their orders rarely questioning the who or the why.

Eli (John C. Reilly) stays in the game to protect (everyone else from) his brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). He knows their life – as is- will likely end violently but dreams of a better, less bloody future for himself. Charlie loves the life of an outlaw gunman and has no intention of ever stopping. Watching them circle each other warily, makes for some weirdly comedic moments cut by extreme violence.

Director Jacques Audiard drops this pair smack dab into a hunt for a prospector during the California Gold Rush. The brothers’ complicated relationship plays out while an unlikely friendship develops between that prospector, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) forward scout for the Brothers elsewhere. John questions his role in the Brothers’ business the more he comes to know Hermann. It makes for more a few philosophical moments and ironic longing for the pair to outrun their fate. The Sister Brothers is a revisionist western full stop. You may not be sure what the point to it all is in the end but, this is one film adaptation that is witty, darkly ironic, and a telling commentary on loyalty, family, and greed that seamlessly lives up to and debunks the western ideal all at once. (Opened Nationwide October 19, 2018)

Grade A-

An Ideological Farce Falls Flat

The Oath is supposed to be a dark comedy with a contemporary political theme. The White House introduces a controversial campaign (but is it really?) calling for all US citizens to sign a loyalty oath to the President with a deadline set for Black Friday.

That’s right, coming to a Thanksgiving get together near you, dinner debate at its finest…or at least that’s what the joke’s supposed to be. Instead, writer/director Ike Barinholtz offers caricatures of the most annoying political stereotypes floating around in real life.

The uber-liberal and his enabler ahem wife, the progressive couple living the corporate dream, the conservative mainlining alternative news sources like the gospel and the long-suffering parents who just want to have dinner without talking politics.

Before too long you’ll be too annoyed by everyone to even care about the infrequent joke that manages to be funny. The movie’s message is so in-your-face and obnoxious it won’t even matter if you agree with it. The biggest failing is Kai played by Tiffany Haddish. She the sole character of color and, as written, is so unexplored that her entire part in this debacle is decidedly unbelievable. The Oath is overdone, overwrought, and uncompelling. The irony is, all these unrealistic people bogged down by such obvious and ham-fisted storytelling is a more pointed sign of the times than anything this film could accomplish.  I had no expectations and yet, still came away disappointed. (Opened October 19, 2018)

Grade: D (sad to believe, but I’ve seen worse)

Keep an eye on that coming soon list ladies and gents because with November comes the multi-film releases by the week. But have no fear, I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop in!


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