The Mustang

Mustang poster

Horses are magnificent creatures. Like humans, they can be out of control. Wild.

In The Mustang, men who are behind bars in a Nevada state prison are given the opportunity to help tame wild mustangs. Like the men, the mustangs have been herded into pens.

Roman Coleman (Mattias Schoenaerts) is an angry, violent inmate. He’s had time in solitary. He tells the prison therapist (Connie Britton), “I’m not good with people.”

When given the chance to work in the prison’s horse program, his first days are spent shoveling manure. Later, with guidance from the program’s crusty leader Myles (Bruce Dern), he learns techniques to calm the horses.

And, of course, Roman’s process parallels that of the magnificent creatures.

But The Mustang layers more elements atop this simple story of reform and redemption. Along with interactions with the horses and his fellow inmates, Roman has several visits from his daughter Martha (Gideon Aldon). He even makes a sort of friend when fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell) helps him handle the horses.

He expresses regret to Martha for his violence that damaged her mother. He listens as Martha talks of caring for her mother after the incident. He sits in a group therapy session with the therapist and hears that other prisoners had similar violent outbursts that led them to prison. He begins to communicate and show a bit of humanity.

The Mustang is the first feature length film by French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. She opens the movie with beauty shots of mustangs running wild on the open range in Nevada.

The Mustang offers more than just another tale of a bad guy revealing his good side and being capable of empathy. It shows the grisly existence of prison. It also shows how a person may relate better to an animal than to another human being.

 

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Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

Sweet and touching and funny.

Clever and cool and different.

Writer and director and actors.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.

Can a movie about a teenage girl with leukemia be fun? Actually, yes.

First credit goes to the story’s source, Jesse Andrews, who wrote the novel and the screenplay. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, with a bit of Wes Anderson quirkiness, gives the film a look that’s full of visual surprises.

And there are the actors. The characters are high school seniors: Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Greg is just trying to make it through his senior year, keeping peace with all his school’s factions. His mom (Connie Britton) tells him that Rachel is ill and urges him to visit her, even though she is not a close friend. Over time, they become chums. Cooke’s strong performance could net awards at year’s end.

Greg and Earl make film parodies of movie classics. They’re the kind of silly thing teenagers would do. (The fact that they shoot these on film, not video, is interesting.) They don’t freely share the films they make, although Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman) is a fan. As the boys become closer to Rachel, she also gets to see the films.

Among notable supporting performers is Molly Shannon as Rachel’s wine gulping, flirty mom. Jon Bernthal as favorite teacher Mr. McCarthy provides Greg and Earl with a safe place to eat lunch and useful life lessons.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl could’ve fallen into the “too cute” category of movies whose directors want to show off what they learned in film school. Yes, there are some goofy angles and uncomfortable two-shots that direct attention from what’s on the screen to the guy behind the camera. But those long static shots of Greg and Rachel talking are effective, if slightly tedious.

It has been a few years since I was a high school senior but I recognized many of the characters among the student population. The uncomfortable feeling one has around age 18 is depicted well in MAEATDG.

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl will be embraced by teens and young adults, but is a movie older adults can enjoy, too. Nice story, entertainingly told.

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

The To Do List

There has never been a movie with as many totally non-erotic sex scenes as The To Do List. The sex is sometimes quite funny, but it’s doubtful that anyone could be turned on by what happens.

The To Do List reverses the normal pattern of teen sex movies: this time it’s a girl, not a guy, who’s anxious to become sexually active. Writer/director Maggie Carey brings many teen sex comedy staples to The To Do List, but delivers them from a different point of view.

Recent high school grad and virgin Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) is told by her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) that she, Brandy, needs to learn everything about sex before she gets to college.

The To Do List is hardly wholesome, but it’s not sleazy. Brandy’s list of sex acts (some of which end with “job”) is composed not with an attitude of unrestrained lust, but with an almost innocent curiosity. The To Do List is, appropriately, rated R, but there are no bare boobs to be seen here.

Bill Hader of SNL-fame has become, for me, one of those actors whose mere presence onscreen makes me primed for laughter. He plays Willy, the manager of the pool where Brandy works as a lifeguard. Also in a lifeguard perch at the pool is Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who Brandy has targeted to be her deflowerer.

As with most teen sex comedies, there’s that person who’s always been a friend but has kept unrequited love for the main character hidden. In The To Do List it’s Cameron (Johnny Simmons). He is the beneficiary of a certain sexual favor on the list, the conclusion of which prompts him to shout out to Brandy, “I love you!”

Brandy’s mom and dad also weigh in on their daughters’ sexual exploits. Mom (Connie Britton) is realistic and helpful. Dad (Clark Gregg) is a straight-laced judge who wants to know as little as possible. Also vital to the story are Brandy’s gal pals, Fiona (Alia Shakwat) and Wendy (Sara Steele), who offer feedback, but are impressed by Brandy’s exploits. Donald Glover and Andy Samberg each have minor roles in the film.

The To Do List is set in Boise in 1993. Brandy, Fiona and Wendy are anxious to watch chick flick Beaches together. Email is referred to as “electronic mail.” And Brandy’s first “all the way” time is to the accompaniment of “Dreams” by the Cranberries.

Aubrey Plaza is a funny woman. As anchor of a strong ensemble, her talent and charm shine through. The To Do List should help her move up a notch or two on the comedy casting pecking order.

The To Do List is not for those who are offended by sexual terminology. It’s probably not a good first date film. But it is pretty dang funny!