Posts Tagged ‘Shea Whigham’

(Left to right): John Pollono, Jordana Spiro, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Josh Helman

“SMALL ENGINE REPAIR” My rating: C+ (In theaters)

103 minutes || MPAA rating: R

John Pollono’s “Small Engine Repair” isn’t so much a movie as it is several movies, often working at cross purposes.

The upshot is a bad case of emotional/tonal whiplash as what initially looks like a study of blue-collar male bonding — with a healthy dash of toxic masculinity — veers into over-the-top melodrama.

Initially this indie effort presents itself as a workin-class riff on “Three Men and a Baby.”  In the first scene Frankie (writer/director Pollono) comes out of prison to be greeted by his boyhood chums Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick (Shea Whigham), who have been taking care of Frankie’s infant daughter while he was in stir.

How these two beer-swigging man-boys were allowed to care for a baby is something of a mystery, but we’re led to believe that they did a pretty good job in Frankie’s absence.

Cut to many years later.  That baby has grown up to be the teenage Crystal ( Ciara Bravo), who still lives with her dad Frankie, although she also spends much time with her loving “uncles.” 

Though Frankie has long been on the wagon, he’s still got a temper, especially when Crystal’s druggie mom Karen (Jordana Spiro) makes a rare appearance to stir up old animosities.  With his patience frayed by domestic issues, Frankie needs little provocation to get into barroom brawls; he’s invariably joined in the mayhem by Swaino and Patrick, who in middle age remain single and, emotionally anyway, adolescent.

These early passages seem to be going for a slice-of-life naturalism. Despite the violent blips, we find ourselves taking comfort in the three men’s lifelong friendship.

It doesn’t last.

In the second half of the film is like another movie altogether. Frankie entertains a smugly privileged college kid, Anthony  (Josh Helman), who sidelines as a drug dealer.  Over the course of a drunken evening in Frankie’s small engine repair shop Anthony finds himself duct taped to a chair; apparently he dated Frankie’s beloved Crystal and ruined the girl’s life by posting intimate photos of her online.

Frankie now expects old pals Swaino and Patrick and to help out with his revenge, though they’re not so sure they’re ready to commit homicide.  Things are further complicated when Crystal’s mom Karen shows up and begins goading the menfolk into action.

“Small Engine Repair” is a very weird, scattered film. It originated as a four-man, one-set  play written by  Pollono. On stage the characters of Crystal and her mom Karen are discussed, but never seen.  

Watching the film I found myself reverse engineering it.  The whole first half of the movie apparently was created in an effort open the yarn up cinematically.  The play proper eats up the claustrophobic Act II.

But the old material and the new really don’t mesh.  Which is where this expanded narrative’s dramatic schizophrenia rears its ugly head. 

The good news is that individual scenes in “Small Engine Repair” work really well.  And the performances are terrific. I was particularly taken with Whigham’s Patrick, a social moron whose tech expertise — he’s something of a computer geek — becomes essential to the plot.

| Robert W. Butler

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Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

“FIRST MAN” My rating: B 

141 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

With “First Man” wonderkid director Damien Chazelle has segued from the high artifice of a musical (“La La Land”) to a soaked-in-realism docudrama.

“First Man” is the story of Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.

The creation of NASA, setbacks in the U.S. space program and the eventual triumph of a moon landing  already have inspired the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” and films like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13.”

The emphasis from Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer is on momentous events as experienced by one man…and not a terribly demonstrative man at that.

The Neil Armstrong of this retelling is a jet jockey whom we first meet in a near-disastrous sub-orbital test flight of the experimental X-15 plane. Like a lot of guys who risk death as part of their daily routine, he keeps his feelings — both fear and love — pretty much to himself. Whatever  ego he possesses stays hidden…getting the job done is his primary goal.

So it’s a good thing, then, that Armstrong is played by “La La…” star Ryan Gosling, who has the skill and talent to project the inner turmoil of a man who doesn’t give away much.

The screenplay cannily focuses on Armstrong’s most traumatic experience.  It has nothing to do with  ejecting from a crashing plane and being dragged across the landscape by his wind-propelled parachute.

No, it’s the cancer death of  his young daughter, a beautiful child who, thanks to the Chazelle/Singer screenplay, appears periodically to Armstrong’s inner eye, a reminder that no matter his stoic appearance, there’s fierce emotion bubbling beneath.


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Paul Rudd as Moe Berg


98 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Crammed with famous faces and centering on a bit of real-life WW2 cloak-and-dagger that almost defies credulity, “The Catcher Was a Spy” is both a thriller and a flawed character study of a man who refused to be characterized.

Indeed, even before he was recruited by the O.S.S. and trained to be an assassin, Morris “Moe” Berg (portrayed here by Paul Rudd…probably too boyish for the role) was a bundle of puzzling contradictions.

Berg had degrees from Columbia, Princeton and the Sorbonne; he spoke seven or eight languages fluently and could get by in several others.

Yet he made his living as a professional baseball player, serving as the second string catcher for the Boston Red Sox.

As presented in Ben Lewin’s film, he is well spoken, erudite and bisexual, augmenting his domestic life with a live-in girlfriend (Sienna Miller) with visits to underground gay nightspots.

Shortly before the beginning of the war Berg was named to an all star team (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig participated) on a good will tour of Japan.  While there he became convinced that war was inevitable and, on his own, climbed to the roof of a Tokyo skyscraper so that he could film military installations and harbor facilities.

He later presented his reels to William “Wild Bill” Donovan (Jeff Daniels), then running the O.S.S., the precursor to the C.I.A. Donovan was sufficiently impressed by Berg’s intellect, patriotism and facility with foreign languages to give him a job…but not before asking: “Are you queer?”

Berg’s answer sealed the deal: “I’m good at keeping secrets.”


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wolf 2“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Dec. 25)

179 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” the result of some sort of show-biz wager?

It’s as if Martin Scorsese (arguably America’s greatest living filmmaker) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Scorsese’s latter-day DeNiro) accepted a challenge to make a three-hour movie that would entice us to laugh along with despicable characters – just because they thought they had the special juice to pull it off.

And there are moments when they come close.

“Wolf” is based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a poster boy for ‘90s stock market shenanigans, who made millions selling his customers worthless securities and ended up going to prison for his misdeeds.

Now I’m the sort of fellow who tries to find the essential humanity in just about everyone, but Belfort is the financial equivalent of Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. He’s arrogant and greedy and virtually without conscience – capitalism at its most corrupt.

And DiCaprio and Scorsese have to sweat like stevedores to make him a palatable companion for 180 minutes.

This is a speedball of a movie that maniacally tears along from one scene of misbehavior to the next, hardly ever slowing down to contemplate just what message we’re to take away. Presumably Scorsese disapproves of Belfort and what he represents … but the film feels just the opposite. It seems a monumental  celebration of greed and excess.


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