Who is Arthur Chu?

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After winning almost a third of a million dollars on “Jeopardy!”—and becoming the game show’s most vilified contestant in the process—former insurance compliance analyst Arthur Chu sought to leverage his notoriety to do some good in the world. As a wrong-righting crusader on social media, Chu spoke out against the things that mattered most to him: social injustice, misogyny, and the issues central to the Gamergate controversy—sexism vs. progressivism in the video game culture (his Daily Beast article “Your Princess is in Another Castle” went viral). As told by documentarians Yu Gu and Scott Drucker, Who is Arthur Chu? examines Chu’s rise to primetime infamy and subsequent resurrection as a media blogger cum minor talk circuit celebrity. And it does so with enough pizazz to keep it interesting for 90 insightful minutes. According to host Alex Trebek, Chu’s problem on “Jeopardy!” was a combination of arrogance, attitude, and a flagrant disrespect for the unwritten “rules” (jumping all over the board to uncover the lucrative Daily Doubles, for starters). These anti-social character traits resulted in a Twitter storm of racist hate speech and death threats aimed at the 34-year-old Asian American (Trebek didn’t much care for the 11-time winner either if his brief cameo in the film is anything to go by). Who is Arthur Chu? also focuses on the outspoken trivia expert’s upbringing by strict immigrant parents and marriage to fellow nerd/Swarthmore College graduate—and fibromyalgia sufferer—Eliza Blair (a far more sympathetic character than her Twitter-obsessed husband for sure; he can’t hold a 5-minute conversation with his wife without checking his feed). But for a fairly regular guy, Arthur Chu is a passionate and compelling subject who’s not afraid to speak his mind. And by the conclusion of this engaging and observant biopic we’ve gotten a pretty good answer to its titular question.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

I Kill Giants (2017)

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It makes sense that a young girl who madly misses her mother might retreat into a fully-immersive fantasy world to distance herself from that harsh reality. In the case of Barbara Thorsen, an oddball, bunny ears-sporting teenager who takes no guff from bullies or school officials alike, this queenly denial propels her into a quest to lure and destroy the malignant creatures that haunt her New Jersey town. Barbara spends many an hour researching giants and building elaborate traps, trying desperately to design a safe world, convinced that this is her ultimate, inescapable destiny. As the young slayer, 15-year-old Madison Wolfe is commendable in the giant-killing role and director Anders Walter, recognizing her abilities, allows this young talent to carry the film on her unfamiliar shoulders, supported by the more experienced Imogen Poots (as Barbara’s older sister Karen) and Zoe Saldana (as the school shrink). Sydney Wade—a girl from Leeds playing a girl from Leeds!—is also engaging as the shy but supportive British import Barbara awkwardly befriends, sort of. Based on the graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura, I Kill Giants is mostly successful due to Wolfe’s committed performance in the lead and the director’s sensitive handling of the difficult themes—both give the film a surprisingly solid footing. The good-looking locales don’t really feel like ’Jersey, though (the film was photographed in Ireland, Flanders, and Belgium with a largely European crew so that probably explains it), but they do lend the film a certain romanticism likely missing had I Kill Giants been shot among the scrub pines of, say, Shamong.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Scent of Rain & Lightning (2017)

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Longhorns grumble in protest, the rain teems down, and a Midwestern ranching family grieves. According to producer and writer Casey Twenter, The Scent of Rain & Lightning is “a modern western noir” that stars Maika Monroe, Mark Webber, Justin Chatwin, Brad Carter, and Maggie Grace alongside veterans Bonnie Bedelia and Will Patton. Based on Nancy Pickard’s best-selling novel of the same name, the film “tells the story of a young woman who learns her parents’ killer has been released from jail, forcing her to revisit old wounds.” The publicity blurb also tacks on the clause “…while discovering the destructive power of hate and the true cost of family secrets fully revealing themselves.” Twenter probably didn’t pen that last part, because the film is better written than that. And it’s finely acted too, especially by the 24-year-old Monroe as Jody Linder, who confronts the odious lowlife (Carter, scarily real), demanding answers from the man who reportedly shot her father and drowned her mother. Only, there are those in town who believe Billy to be innocent of the crime. By the end of the film we will all know the truth, but Blake Robbins’ atmospheric, performance-driven indie is in no rush to get there, relying heavily on flashbacks for explication. The approach can be a struggle to keep up with at times, it’s true, and then there’s the bizarre inclusion of The Flaming Lips’ 2002 music video “Do You Realize??” somewhere in the middle (its jarring presence reminded me of the time some joker in a red metallic wig spliced footage of himself lip-synching to Adam Ant’s “Desperate But Not Serious” onto the end of a Bodacious Tatas videotape). But despite a few minor missteps, The Scent of Rain & Lightning still works, because the actors are so present, and the mood so prevalent, and the understated score (by Brooke and Will Blair) so resonant, and the direction so grounded. Kudos to everyone, then, for pulling the striking ‘Lightning together.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Forgiven (2017)

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Powerful performances by Forest Whitaker as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Eric Bana as the clemency-seeking death squad assassin Piet Blomfeld highlight Roland Joffé’s latest political drama, The Forgiven, a film inspired by true events. After the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s, newly-elected President Nelson Mandela called for the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a means for promoting healing, peace, and justice for all South Africans, with Tutu appointed its chairman. Those who fully acknowledged and confessed to their crimes of political violence were offered the possibility of amnesty by the TRC. To that end, Pollsmoor prison inmate Blomfeld requests an audience with the Archbishop in some of The Forgiven’s early, groundwork-laying scenes. Based on Michael Ashton’s stage play The Archbishop and the Antichrist—Ashton co-wrote the screenplay with The Killing Fields director Joffé—The Forgiven showcases the redoubtable Whitaker (Academy Award winner for 2006’s The Last King of Scotland), who excels as the celebrated South African Anglican cleric and activist despite a bulbous prosthetic nose that constantly threatens to topple him forwards. And Bana (Munich, Closed Circuit) makes a strong impression as convicted murderer Blomfeld, a man of bristling hatred and intensity, yet one able to coax a meeting out of Tutu by eloquently quoting Plato and Milton. Within Pollsmoor’s walls, the verbal showdowns between the two men are understandably stagy—the classic battle of wits and wills, the prototypical man of peace sparring with the man of war—but Joffé gives his principals the space they deserve to develop their characters’ inner demons and they don’t disappoint. Of equal interest is a subplot in which Tutu vows to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, culminating in a dramatic courtroom scene in which Thandi Makhubele (who plays the teenage girl’s distraught mother) gives as good a showing as Whitaker and Bana with considerably less screen time. The Forgiven documents a pivotal time in South Africa’s turbulent history and does so with grace, intelligence, and humanity. The Archbishop Emeritus has himself called the film a tribute to “the outstanding compassion and courage of those who offered love and forgiveness as an antidote to hate and inhumanity.”


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Dame Agatha Christie described Hercule Poirot, her famous fictional detective, as “no more than five foot five” with “distinctive green eyes” and “symmetrically parted hair” on an “egg-shaped head,” making this “small, compact man” look “positively erotic” with his “expressive eyebrows,” “tiny, fastidiously-groomed hands,” and, of course, “the tortured splendor of his famous moustache.” The Hercule Poirot portrayed in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s all-star remake of Murder on the Orient Express (brought to us by Godiva!) looks decidedly more like the blue-eyed, five foot ten Kenneth Branagh than anything else, a little more handsomely rumpled than those previous descriptors might imply. Christie purists consider David Suchet’s to be the definitive interpretation in the British television series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013), but Branagh pulls off the dapper Belgian bit, even giving his character some realistic OCD tendencies to support the affectations the role dictates.
     And boy, what a moustache!
     Branagh’s flamboyant spectacle of facial hair looks, let’s face it, patently ridiculous, and significantly grayer than the “suspiciously black” one referred to by the celebrated author, but it does actually match Christie’s description of an “enormous” waxed specimen. It even gives Kurt Russell’s outrageous sweeper in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight a run for its money (until now, the largest I remember seeing on the big screen).
     It’s hard not to be distracted by Poirot’s ear-to-ear ‘Express exhibit, especially since the director has his cameraman follow it everywhere, up and down the sleeping cars, in and out of staterooms, in full bloom and pomade curling close-up. In fact, the only time it’s hidden from view is when the detective turns in for the night, covering it with a custom moustache guard for safekeeping. Of course, it makes perfect sense that Branagh would keep Poirot’s signature facial feature front and center since his camera, by design, follows the actor all over the place, from Jerusalem to Istanbul to the Swiss Alps. The other eclipsed stars get a look-in, and they’re all quite good—Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, and Willem Dafoe—but it’s Branagh’s film after all and he likes to play favorites. Just imagine Gilderoy Lockhart directing himself.
     Murder on the Orient Express was first made into a star-studded spectacular in 1974, with Albert Finney as Poirot and Lauren Bacall winning an Oscar for her American socialite Mrs. Hubbard, a character central to the Lindbergh baby-inspired storyline (Pfeiffer doubles for her in the redo). When the unusually full train is derailed by an avalanche and its passengers wait to be dug out, a particularly anxious antiques dealer is found stabbed to death in his first-class sleeping compartment. Fortunately, Poirot is aboard and can invest in some serious sleuthing.
     Branagh’s family friendly film, much like its hirsute protagonist, is big and bold; Murder on the Orient Express is confidently made and competently told (Blade Runner 2049’s Michael Green faithfully adapted the novel for the screen). There are few surprises, of course, if you’ve read the book or seen any of the dramatized versions, but its two-hour running time fairly skips along. The filmmaker is clearly going for the franchise here, what with that closing-reel teaser about a new assignment in Egypt, but that’s understandable given Christie’s popularity and prolific body of work. Personally I’d prefer Branagh tackle one of the Queen of Crime’s smaller, previously unfilmed works but I’ll likely give Death on the Nile a look when it opens next year, moustaches—Christie’s preferred term—an’ all.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Game Night (2017)

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Nobody does exasperated better than Jason Bateman. Nobody. And Bateman is given plenty of opportunities to showcase this particular talent in Game Night, the latest rollicking comedy misadventure from the co-writers of Horrible Bosses (in which the hardworking star of Arrested Development also appeared).
     ’Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein have graduated to co-directors here, leaving the writing duties to one Mark Perez. Perez penned Disney’s The Country Bears, so he has a lot to answer for.
     Anyway, Bateman is one of the best things about Game Night, and he’s joined by a perky Rachel McAdams who proves to have a deft knack for slapstick. Max and Annie meet cute, satirically, in a bar when they simultaneously reveal—for double points—their Teletubby knowledge (Tinkie Winkie is the purple one, in case you were wondering. “He always carried a… red purse!”). The next thing you know, Max and Annie are lovelocked, then married, montage-style, and soon hosting couples game nights in their suburban home… in so generic a development it’s literally a plastic model from the air.
     Anyway, these covert game night affairs regularly arouse the suspicions of their law enforcement neighbor, Gary (a creepily good Jesse Plemons), who’s not been invited to one since his wife left him. She was the fun one, apparently.
     Game Night’s major strength is, in fact, its casting, which also takes advantage of some very appealing supporting players. The usual attendees at Max and Annie’s competitive contests include dimwitted Ryan (Billy Magnussen) and his bimbo of the week… although for the bulk of the film he’s traded up for a sharp-tongued Irish lass, played by Sharon Horgan (he thinks she’s English, naturally). Also on deck are the happily-married-since-high-school Kevin and Michelle (the likeable Lamorne Morris from New Girl, along with Kylie Bunbury). When Max’s intimidatingly successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) shows up in a shiny red 1976 Corvette Stingray—Max’s dream car—the stakes spike precipitously. No board games tonight! Someone is about to be… taken! Now these game game players need to figure out the mystery before, well… before it becomes an actual murder mystery.
     My expectations were, alas, way up for this one, having stupidly ODed on the super-cute trailer, and I was disappointed I didn’t find it funnier (Catastrophe’s Horgan is given a few zingers but deserves more). Game Night is funny, no question—writer Perez certainly redeems himself with occasional flashes of brilliance—but I was hoping for more consistent belly laughs given the talent involved rather than a smattering of lightweight chuckles throughout. At least the film doesn’t devolve into gross-out gags and scatalogical humor, so that earns it an extra half star at least.
     Max [drawing Ed Norton in a game of charades]: Oh, this, easy. He was, er… Incredible Hulk.
     Kevin and Michelle [simultaneously]: Eric Bana.
     Max: Other one.
     Michelle: Mark Ruffalo.
     Max [frustrated]: OTHER one.
     Ryan [shouting victoriously]: Lou Ferrigno!
     Max [making a fist for emphasis]: Primal Fear.
     Kevin [confused]: Richard Gere never played the Incredible Hulk.
     Ryan: Time!
     Max [disgusted]: Jesus Christ! Ed Norton.
     Everyone: Ohhhh…
     That’s fine comedic writing. And classic Jason Bateman.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Midnighters (2017)

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Midnighters is a neat little shocker with, let’s face it, a bad title. They should have called it Unhappy New Year or Cover-Up or Off-Kilter Cop or something. Not Midnighters. Midnighter isn’t even a real word, silly. The tricky plot features a handsome young couple, Lindsey and Jeff, who are driving home after a New Year’s Eve party (so more midnighter than elevener I suppose) and hit a pedestrian out in the middle of nowhere. Being well over the legal limit—and stupid—they decide to stash the body in their garage for a couple of hours until they’ve sobered up before reporting the accident. Which it was of course… only Jeff shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, or been distracted by his wife’s thighs. Had they read the film’s tagline, of course, they’d have known that “Killing is easy. Getting away with it is murder.” Maybe they should have called the film How to Get Away With Murder? But Midnighters it is. By “they” I’m referring to the Ramsay brothers, Julius and Alston. Julius directs (as he did a couple of episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead) and Alston writes (prior to this point, speeches for former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus!). And their writing and directing is mostly pretty solid. Equally mostly pretty solid are Alex Essoe (girl) and Dylan McTee (boy) as our hapless heroes and Perla Haney-Jardine as Lindsey’s screwed-up younger sister Hannah. It’s clear from the outset that Lindsey and Jeff are struggling maritally. He steps out for a cigarette and leaves her in the lurch during the Old Lang Syne, for example. Then, after the stresses of the hit-and-run erupt, we learn that she brings home the bacon and he sits around on his butt all day. Not good. This is definitely not a pairing you’d bet on to hold it together when the going gets tough. And when a slightly unhinged police officer (Ward Horton from the Annabelle franchise) shows up asking some probing questions, that’s precisely what the going gets. Granted, Midnighters loses some momentum in its final stages but overall it has decent thrills, plenty of “what would I do in that situation?” questions, and a modicum of style for a low-budget affair. It’s still saddled with that dumb title, of course, but if you can get over that you’ll likely be well entertained.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com