Review: Bryan Cranston gives Oscar-caliber performance in complex ‘Wakefield’

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(IFC) Jennifer Garner and Bryan Cranston play an unhappy rich couple in “Wakefield.”

Scared off by the harsh reviews for “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? Then seek out “Wakefield,” an indie drama that proves why Bryan Cranston is one of today’s best actors.

Here’s my review.

Anyone stuck in a nightmare commute on a daily basis understands the urge to want to run away from it all.

For most of us that’s temporary fantasy, a coping mechanism until the gridlock lightens up and we arrive at our doorstep.

Howard Wakefield sees his day-in/day-out routine leading to a dead-end street. The cruelly self-absorbed Howard (Bryan Cranston, nailing the part from start to finish) is the unlikeable but fascinating anti-hero dominating director/writer Robin Swicord’s intense character study, an incisive adaptation of an  E.L. Doctorow story. Her “Wakefield” gives a complex  portrait of a rich white middle-aged man taking drastic steps to upend a cushy life.  Howard is a miserable and insufferable man. His life overflows with the comforts the American Dream. He chooses to abandon it all: his high-paying job as a New York lawyer, his gorgeous, former dancer of a wife (Jennifer Garner, so good here), his two indifferent teenaged daughters and, even, his tony suburban home.

What triggers ditching a manicured New York life is a power blackout that interrupts his train commute ride home.

Through voice-over narration delivered with a thespian’s understanding of timing and modulation, Cranston taps into this affluent white guy’s unstable mindset as he holes himself up in the cluttered attic of the family’s garage and watches rather than participates in their life.

It’s incredibly creepy and unsettling as Howard grows a beard, pees in water bottles and scavenges and fights for food scraps and clothing that’s stuffed in overburdened garbage containers.  Life in the ‘burbs here is consumed and spit out.

Why is Howard making such a U-turn? He claims he wants to feel a part of something wild and elemental. But, he goes about it in a wretched way, thrusting his family into a crisis and then watching them like Jimmy Stewart as if they were specimens.

Well-placed flashbacks provide more context to who Howard is, particularly how his marriage was the result of a jealousy-fueled competition. One of the most telling exchanges comes in an argument between Howard and his wife Diana. She says to him: “All I want to is to get through the day.”

It’s a telling line that reverberates through the entire film. “Wakefield” provides a shattering portrait of a couple and family that has attained it all yet feels wholly unfulfilled.

While its message — money and privilege won’t buy happiness and fosters guilt — isn’t new, the execution by “The Jane Austen Book Club” filmmaker Swicord mostly is as she confines us into the interior musings of a man unhinged. Unfortunately, the ending is a letdown, and it’s a crucial — and frustrating — misstep given the buildup.   

Regardless, Cranston’s performance is masterful, a high mark in the “Breaking Bad” star’s brilliant career. Oscar voter must be reminded about it near year’s end.

 

 

WAKEFIELD

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo

Director and writer: Robin Swicord

Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Rating: R (for some sexual material and language)

Stars: 3 out of 4 stars

Where: Opens May 26 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, the Embarcadero in SF and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center

Review: Ghost sharks matter in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’

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“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES”..The villainous Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) pursues Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as he searches for the trident used by Poseidon..Pictured L-R: Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa) and Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow)..Ph: Peter Mountain..© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bless you, ghost sharks.

Those demonic CGI creations bring urgently needed bite to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth entry in a long-winded voyage that has been slowly  keeling over ever since we met swashbuckling scalawag Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in his most famous role) in 2003. Too bad the spectacularly animated critters  — so weird and nasty — arrive late to the party and then retreat so quickly.

The rest of “Dead Men” could have benefitted from their gonzo style.

“Pirates” charts a familiar course even as it unites the search for Poseidon’s Trident with the deadly deeds of a band of dead pirate haters whose captain has a vendetta against the drunken Sparrow

Intermittently, it recalls the rousing spirit of the first “Pirates,”  but fails to do anything bold or unexpected. In fact, for 30 minutes after an eventful prologue, the film goes flat. It later rights itself enough as the pirate haters go beserk.

“Dead Men” mostly sticks to the tried and tired during what amounts to an unfunny first part cluttered with routine bank-robbing antics and screwball getaways. It all seems better suited for a reboot of the studio’s “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”

The plot is as tangled as sea kelp, too intent on further lengthening out a mythology than the story can handle. It all but positions itself for a sequel.

Part of the mayhem occurs when Sparrow trades his compass for a bottle of booze, unwittingly placing a big target on his back.  A dead crew of pirate exterminators commandeered by Captain Salazar (a game Javier Bardem and one of the film’s high notes) go after him. Salazar is hellbent on payback over a less-than-friendly first encounter (told effectively in flashback) with a younger Sparrow.

Meanwhile, Sparrow’s thorn-in-his-side Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his monkey join in on the search of Poseidon’s Trident, a treasure that could stop these dead sailors and help in other ways I’m just not going to reveal.

Who initiates all this talk about Poseidon and the Trident? The hunky Henry Turner  (Brenton Thwaites more than fulfilling his hunk duties) who happens to be the son of  cursed “Pirates” lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) along with a brainiac astronomer type Carina (Kaya Scodelario, in a lively performance) who’s been branded a witch.

Along the way, Paul McCartney pops in as a Sparrow relative and Depp regains his unsteady comedic footing after being handed some terrible lines that sound cribbed from the last four installments. His character is too predictable, and Sparrow shouldn’t be predictable. That changes a bit in the second half as the humor starts to gel.

Incoming directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) do whatever they can with what they’ve been given, but the reality is the screenplay from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio is rote and there’s not that much here.

There are a few clever surprises along the way and a showdown that’s an exciting and impressive, from a special effects angle.

But that’s not enough to prop up the sails of this franchise, even if a tasty morsel at the end of the film’s credits intrigues. The next “Pirates” needs to give “Sparrow” something more interesting to do, a  more risk-taking development that will force Depp to stretch and the story to steer toward a more original direction. 

But whatever they do, let’s hope they keep those killer ghost sharks and Bardem too.

 

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario

Running Time: 2:33

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence and suggestive comments)

Stars: 2.5 out of 4

What to stream on Netflix? The drama ‘Loev’ and the comedy ‘Mindhorn’

David Michod’s eagerly awaited “War Machine” with Brad Pitt finally drops May 26 on Netflix. I have high hopes for it. After all, the talented Mr. Michod directed one of my all-time favorites, the grim Australian crime family saga “Animal Kingdom.” What a coup for the streaming service to release “War Machine.”

In the meantime, there are more than enough Netflix movies to keep us occupied. Here are reviews of three recent films available for streaming.

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Shiv Pandit and Dhruv Ganesh star in “Loev.”

“LOEV”: It’s somewhat of a miracle that this poignant, hard-hitting drama about a tumultuous, intimate weekend in which two reunited friends spend together in the countryside actually got made. Stealthily shot in India where homophobia is prevalent and the laws reflect it, writer/director Sudhanshu Saria’s film slowly peels back the layers of the uneasy relationship between Sahil (Shiv Pandit), a musician living in Mumbai, and Jai (Dhruv Ganesh), a successful Wall Street businessman. It’s a powerful indie film that deserves to be seen everywhere. Be ready though: It’s not always an easy watch. (3 out of 4 stars)

“MINDHORN”: If you’re in the mood for something silly yet sly, add this clueless detective story to your queue. Julian Barratt, who cowrote the script, is hilarious as Richard Thorncroft, a gone-to-seed ‘80s star who made a name for himself as kooky TV detective Mindhorn. When a real-life serial killer’s actions draw Richard into the fray of an investigation, Thorncroft is all too happy to return to the spotlight. The ensuing comedy results in being more chuckle-worthy than of the  laugh-till-it-hurts variety, but the cameos — especially Kenneth Branagh — and supporting players — in particular Steve Coogan as Thorncroft’s still-successful costar and Simon Farnaby as Richard’s ex-girlfriend and stunt stand-in, who has a serious aversion to clothing — pep up the British farce. (3 out of 4 stars)

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(Netflix) Jason Segel goes afterlife head-tripping  in “The Discovery”

“THE DISCOVERY”: With its intriguing premise, top-notch cast (Jason Segel, Robert Redford, Rooney Mara) and talented filmmaker Charlie (“The One I Love”)  McDowell, this cerebral afterlife thriller should have been great. Instead, it’s OK. Noted researcher Thomas Harbor (Redford) offers verifiable evidence there is a better tomorrow when we die. His discovery triggers numerous suicides since everyone’s unhappy in the here and now. That provocative set up gets somewhat squandered as the tale focuses on Harbor’s son (Segel) who joins his dad at his latest site for exploration — a mammoth Gothic-looking estate — where he then becomes even closer to a mysterious woman (Mara) with a haunted past. It’s a slow go, with a reveal at the end that doesn’t have the punch it should.  (2 out of 4 stars)

 

Netflix: Watch ‘Handsome,’ ‘Win It All,’ ‘In the Shadow of Iris’

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(Netflix) Natasha Lyonne and Jeff Garlin make a winning crime fighting team in “Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie.”

Don’t know what to watch on Netflix tonight? Here are three original films from the streaming service that are worth a look:

“Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie”: In this entirely agreeable and thoroughly undemanding comic venture from talented star/writer/director Jeff Garlin, a dimwitted murderer  — a cheesy actor type (Steven Weber) in a pool — fesses up to his grisly crime in the opening moments. That jarring reveal doesn’t diminish the pleasure of watching the ensuing blunder-prone investigation, which pairs lonely-heart Garlin with a horny partner (Natasha Lyonne, hilarious), as they ask inappropriate questions of “persons of interest.” Many of the costars — Lyonne, Weber and Amy Sedaris as Garlin’s wackadoodle boss — have their moments, but it’s the endearing, basset-hound-like Garlin who wins you over as lonely detective Gene Handsome. Here’s hoping we meet with him again on another silly investigation. (3 out of 4 stars)

“In the Shadow of Iris”: Back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, the sorta-kinky thriller whipped audiences — and the box office–  into a frenzy. But the lurid thriller soon wore out its welcome. This Netflix original from France pays satisfying homage to those teasing, steamy tales about duplicitous and impossibly beautiful people doing very bad things to each other. In this sexily shot back-stabber, a reported abduction thrusts a banker (Jalil Lespert) into a cat-and-mouse game with an ex-con mechanic (Romain Duris) and a beautiful woman (Charlotte Le Bon). U-turns and comeuppances ensue as the handsome drama set in Paris pushes us and its characters over to the dark side. Laspert directs with an understanding of the genre, and how to do right by it. (3 out of 4 stars)

“Win It All”: Eddie (Jake Johnson), a gambling addict, gets lured back to the tables when a bag stuffed with questionable cash lands in his safekeeping. But can he temper his habit so he can finally have an honest relationship with a hardworking nurse and single mom? Both Johnson — who co-wrote — and director and co-writer Joe Swanberg make us root for this anti-hero. All the performances hit the right notes, including from Keegan-Michael Key, as does the human and compassionate drama itself. What a find. (3 stars out of 4 stars)

Stream ‘A Dark Song,’ one of the best horror films you’ll see this year

 

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(IFC Midnight) Steve Oram and Catherine Walker star in “A Dark Song.”

It’s been a horror heyday of late. From the scare-your-pants-off “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” to the thrill-ride “Train to Busan,” the quality of scary movies keeps going up. Way up.

 

That high bar gets raised more so with IFC Midnight’s “A Dark Song,” one of the best horror films you’ll see this year.  (IFC Midnight’s slate of creepy features has been leading the charge.)

The mostly two-character mindbender moves like a deadly, purposeful storm front, growing ever more forceful and ominous as the minutes tensely pass by. Screenwriter and director Liam Gavin doesn’t rely — for the most part — on cliched gotcha shocks and buckets of gore to create an unnerving sense of unease and dread. It’s quite remarkable that this is his first feature film.

Everything about  “A Dark Song” screams first-rate.  The ominous soundtrack channels an off-putting mood while the performances, particularly lead Catherine Walker whose committed turn is on par with Essie Davis in “The Babadook,” become more layered and textured as the plot unspools.

Walker goes through a roundabout of conflicted emotion as Sophia, a determined, hellbent mom unable to deal with the black-hole-sized death of her 7-year-old son. She hires Joseph, a belligerent, foul-mouthed black-magic specialist (Steve Oram, great at being shady). The duo hole themselves up in an isolated  property in Wales that, of course, makes you want to shout out at the screen  “get the hell outta there now.”

They don’t, of course.

What Sophia hopes to accomplish by communing with the dark side and what exactly goes down in the shadowy interior spaces (captured icily by cinematographer Cathal Watters) and what goes on in the minds of the two lead characters should not be revealed. What can be said is that “A Dark Song” is a class-act of a horror film, one that doesn’t let its high-minded intentions and emotional heft to snuff out the scares.  It’s available for streaming on some platforms. Don’t miss it. (3.5 out of 4 stars)

 

Netflix: ‘Tramps’ is one not to miss, a romantic comedy with real emotion, real people

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Netflix What a find! Grace Van Patten and Callum Turner deliver the romantic sparks in Adam Leon’s “Tramps.”

Can’t dedicate the time to binge out on a TV series? Then take a chance on these five films now streaming on Netflix.

 

  1. “Tramps”: Netflix knocks it out of the indie filmmaking park (once again) with rising-star filmmaker Adam Leon’s enchanting followup to his 2012 feature-length debut “Gimme the Loot” (rent that one if you haven’t). A botched exchange of briefcases after a heist unites two young New York souls, one a stammering wanna-be chef (Callum Turner) and the other a confident and alternately insecure bartender/cocktail waitress (Grace Van Patten). Stalled dreams, complicated family obligations and breaking and entering posh abodes results while the duo peel back the layers of who they are and who they aren’t in this assuredly different romantic comedy, one that values creating flesh-and-blood characters that don’t always do the right thing. I just love this little gem and how it so unexpectedly made me tear up near the end. (3.5 out of 4 stars) 
  2. “Oklahoma City”: This intense, intelligent documentary covers not only the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing instigated by Timothy McVeigh but the previous deadly headline-making events that triggered the Army veteran’s drastic actions.  Barak Goodman’s disturbing overview hits us hard as it taps into the spectre of hatred and the consequences and human casualties of when hate gets unleashed. (3 out of 4 stars)
  3. “Backcountry”: Novice backpackers might think twice about venturing into the great outdoors after seeing this nervy survivalist thriller that tags along with an intrepid but not entirely prepared couple (Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop) tangling with nature and each other. Warning: Things get grisly as well as grizzly. (3 out of 4 stars)
  4. “Being 17”: Andre Techine savvy and observant character drama thrums with erotic tension as two high school-aged teens (Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila) get thrown together in the French countryside and then fight it out until they realize they’re attracted to each other. Techine (“Wild Reeds”) is on top of his game here, as is his splendid cast. (3.5 out of 4 stars)

      5. “Other People”: If you’re in need of a good “Terms of Endearment”-sort of cryout,           watch this family dramedy about a gay writer (Jesse Plemons) caring and tending for his cancer-stricken mom (Molly Shannon) in Sacramento. Chris Kelly’s weeper is destined to get you bawling, but it is also quite funny — at moments. Shannon is sensational. (3 out of 4 stars)

SF Film Fest: ‘God’s Own Country’ is one of the best in the lineup

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(Samuel Goldwyn Films) The arrival of a Romanian field hand (Alec Secareanu) sends a sheep farmer’s son’s (Josh O’Connor) into an emotional tailspin.

One of the best films I’ve seen in the SF International Film Festival arrives Saturday night.

The award-winning “God’s Own Country” has been lazily labeled as the English “Brokeback Mountain.” Enough with that. This raw yet heartfelt drama about a 20-something wayward sheep farmer’s ( Josh O’Connor) firey attraction to a compassionate Romanian immigrant field hand (Alec Secareanu) scores on its own terms, and on its own well-drawn emotional and physical terrain.  Francis Lee’s debut feature is one of the finest films I’ve seen yet from 2017, and what I particularly liked about it is how it’s so refreshingly hopeful. A tone-perfect film; so well-acted, directed and photographed. It screens this Saturday at the Roxie and on April 17 at the Alamo. For tickets, visit http://www.sffilm.org/festival/attend/tickets