by Philip Price
One might think, given Chadwick Boseman has now played three historical characters in three rather high-profile biopics, that it is not only something the actor enjoys or is good at, but that these historical figures might begin to meld together in one fashion or another as far as their screen personas are concerned. If nothing else though, “Marshall” proves that Boseman is as skilled an actor as he is a disguise artist given his representation of the titular character in “Marshall” is as different and unexpected as his incarnations of Jackie Robinson and James Brown were before. The fact Boseman doesn't really share any physical features with the late Marshall isn't distracting for, as Boseman has done in the past, he seemingly captures a spirit or an essence of that person-even if their personality wasn't widely known-and delivers in his portrayal that real personality. It's authentic and it's something you can't manufacture. Lucky for audiences, Boseman's performance and its definitive nature in clarifying Boseman's transformative abilities is not all the movie has to offer as “Marshall” is many interesting things bound together in a seamless and rather moving package that just so happens to include another phenomenal turn from an actor who has shown time and time again that there is no reason to doubt his talent or his choices. Furthermore, “Marshall” is as much a movie about Thurgood Marshall, American lawyer and eventual Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, as it is about Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), an insurance lawyer from Greenwich, Connecticut who comes to form something of an uncommon bond with the famed lawyer who went from town to town for the NAACP fighting for African Americans who were on trial not for their deeds, but for their race. It is important to note that Friedman was a white Jew (this takes place in 1941, mind you) and is someone who no doubt faced prejudice in his own life to certain extents, but it is this combination of Boseman and Gad and their buddy dynamic, of the biopic and the courtroom drama, and of those whodunit aspects with the structure of a super hero origin story that sets “Marshall” apart from not just being another serious drama pining for awards by portraying real-life events, but a motion picture that is genuine in its attempt to portray all facets of the life of a man who strove for nothing but admirable change.
It would be easy to walk into “Marshall” with the expectation of it either being a cradle to the grave type account or that of one that thoroughly examines Marshall's historic win in the Brown v. Board of Education case that took place in 1954; 13 years after the events depicted in the movie we're currently discussing about Marshall's life. Granted, by 1941 at the age 32, Marshall had already sued the University of Maryland and won forcing the school to integrate (he wasn't allowed to attend there because he was black despite it being within walking distance of his house) and had argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court the year before. When we come to meet Marshall, he is the single lawyer on the NAACP's pay role and traveling wherever he is needed to, if not win, at least leave the impression that those African Americans being persecuted solely for the color of their skin will not go down without a fight-that there are those who will fight, not as the racists and bigots would have you believe all black people fight, but by utilizing the law. Thurgood Marshall existed to inform such individuals he could use the very laws this country was built on to win his battles despite the constitution not being written with his race in mind. “Marshall” takes this stirring premise and opens the film by juxtaposing Marshall's valiant efforts in the courtroom with that of Friedman's rather empty ones. Speaking of which, the film makes strong use of cross-cutting these two men often, but the wallop it delivers come the third act is best left to be experienced. Through displaying the two drastically different speeds of life Marshall and Friedman come from before their worlds collide the film makes the upending of our expectations all the more surprising for, after Marshall arrives in Greenwich, meets his client in Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who has been accused of raping a white socialite in Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), and goes in front of the judge who would be hearing the case (James Cromwell) to request an out of state lawyer help try the case-he is unexpectedly denied the right. Cromwell's Judge Foster forbids Marshall from speaking in his courtroom which includes arguing or examining any witnesses. While, as a viewer, we were under the impression we were seeing a movie about Thurgood Marshall and his power in the courtroom what we actually, almost literally get, is more a movie about his presence in the courtroom.
That said, “Marshall” doesn't become "The Sam Friedman Story" either, but rather this unexpected set-up allows for something of a dual narrative about Marshall not only being a lawyer on the road, trying cases, investigating race riots, and meeting with local NAACP branches as well as a man who struggles to balance his work and family life, but also the man who brings out the best in others. Marshall exists in this crazy period of time where WWII is happening around the world, but hasn't involved the U.S. yet while the country as a whole was still recovering from the Great Depression that had more or less done away with the Harlem Renaissance that had spanned the 1920's. Marshall, when he gets the brief moment to return home to his wife, Buster (Keesha Sharp), mingles with old friends from college that include the likes of poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and Their Eyes Were Watching God writer Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda 'Chilli' Thomas) who were prominent figures in that aforementioned renaissance where the freedom of a black-dominant place like Harlem produced unique and brilliant artists such as Hughes and Hurston. These were people Marshall knew on a first name basis, people who he ran in the same circles with, and who, above all else, all desired to create impact and change through the movements they helped usher into existence. It is through this context that we understand better Marshall's particularly driven nature, but also explains this inherent nature to elevate those around him. This added layer of a "buddy cop"-like dynamic, but with lawyers provides not only an opportunity to deviate the expectations of yet another biopic, but it naturally allows for some of Marshall's greatest qualities to come through more despite seemingly doing less. The twist of Friedman having to conduct the trial completely on his own with Marshall only there to guide him outside the courtroom and give him knowing glares inside comes rather early in the film and thus endears the audience to accept the turn while keeping the interest and investment throughout by making it about the specifics of the case, the trials and tribulations both Marshall and Friedman deal with in and outside the courthouse, and the bigger themes and ideas that come out of the facts of the case as it is further mined by both sides, including Strubing's lead prosecutor, Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), who is widely known as an unreconstructed bigot .
Director Reginald Hudlin pitches the courtroom drama as this kind of bigger structure for alluringly conveying what he believes needs to come out of a movie concerning Thurgood Marshall which is that of the essence of a man determined to make change. And “Marshall” does in fact do everything one feels a good courtroom drama should: not only are we invested in our titular character and his sidekick and their lives outside of the main event, but we become more than wrapped up in the events of the night in question. Through all of this we get a sense that while Marshall invests his heart and soul into figuring out a way to get to the bottom of Spell's case this isn't the make or break case for him or the NAACP, but rather another in a line of cases that will eventually culminate to mean something much larger. In other words, this never ends for Marshall and yet-as demonstrated by Boseman's performance and the script's decision to display his vigor even when dealt the biggest blow of all-he still does every possible thing he can to prove his client's innocence. That said, “Marshall” could have stood to be a little more cutting in terms of the subject matter it covers as we're not only talking about racial and religious prejudice here (though the former is certainly the focus), but there are threads of domestic abuse and depression that come along with the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. In this, Hudlin chooses to take the more entertaining route with his film while only hinting at the sadness and heartbreak of the actual events through small details that largely consist of silent looks or glances from one character to another. While Boseman and Gad are very much the stars of the piece, and they are terrific together, there is much to be said for Brown and Hudson as well as they both convey such damaged and beaten mentalities that it's never easy to damn either of them for telling versions of their own truth to best suit their potential futures. For lack of a better term, this isn't simply a case of black and white where the dividing line is easily drawn, but screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff are very clearly intent on creating a narrative where the ground is gray and where the audience can understand either perspective. It's also an interesting touch that the screenwriters chose to tell of a case Marshall was a part of that didn't take place in the south where it would have been easier to vilify Strubing, but this choice now feels even more timely as it's clear racism is still alive-even in places we thought we might be able to put a period on it. And this is what “Marshall” does best-subvert our expectations of what it easily could have been by being something else that, while still largely derivative, is a handsomely made and well-acted account of a necessary story that is endlessly charming without being consistently heavy.
by Philip Price
At the age of 63 and nearly seven years after any type of significant showing on the big screen I imagine Jackie Chan doesn't necessarily want to be starring in second rate scripts Liam Neeson passed on as someone called Quan Ngoc Minh. I imagine he'd like to be making more thought-provoking actioners or maybe even interesting character pieces, but that just doesn't seem to be in the cards for the poor guy. He seems to have tried his hand at making low-risk action/comedies and has done an abundance of voice over work, most recently in the subpar “The LEGO Ninjago Movie,” but the question has now become that of how does a man always known for his agility and stylistic fighting abilities age into a Hollywood environment based on franchises and brand recognition? Well, make “Rush Hour 4” obviously. This is kind of the point though, as Chan has played in seemingly everything the industry could think to put him in, so it makes sense that now-as there is no shortage of aging stars that were once marquee names who are willing to try their hand at being action stars-that a true action star would join in on the fun. Unfortunately, “The Foreigner” isn't that much fun. As much as this feels like a last resort of sorts for Chan it is a double-edged sword for that of his co-star Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan would seemingly like to be a well-regarded leading man in more mature fare, but it is likely he sees no other options in maintaining his relevancy and so we will continue to get things such as leading roles like in “The November Man” (though I wonder if he could even pull off something like that only three years after the fact) and supporting roles such as this before having a late in life career renaissance that will leave his legacy as more than just the guy who once played James Bond...or maybe that arc will be saved for Daniel Craig. All of this is to say that both Chan and Brosnan as well as director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) have been put to better use in much better movies as “The Foreigner” feels like a much-delayed attempt to hop on the now sub-genre of older, unsuspecting guys kicking ass and taking names. “The Foreigner” is a film as generic as anything we've seen this year which is a shame considering it doesn't utilize its stars strongest asset to great effect. I like Jackie Chan, you can't help but to root for the guy and that is inevitable here as well despite the fact that every few minutes you might have to ask yourself where these characters are, where they're going, and/or what exactly they're doing and for what reason. It's that kind of movie though, one that by the time the credits roll you'll shrug it off and move on; no harm and no real foul.
Chan plays Quan who is a man of otherwise simple means and needs. He owns a small Chinese restaurant in London where his daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), is his everything as his wife has since passed on and he's previously lost two daughters to Thai pirates when his family immigrated to London in the eighties. The film opens on Fan leaving school, saying goodbye to her boyfriend, and getting in the car with her father so that they might hurry to purchase her dress for an upcoming school dance. As these things go, Fan rushes out of the car and into the store before her father has found a parking spot only for the store to go up in flames before Quan is even able to get out of his car. Twelve people, including Fan, are killed in the blast leaving Quan a man with nothing to lose and a very particular set of skills that will lead him to relentlessly seek vengeance on those responsible for the death of the only good thing he had left in this world. Got it? Cool. Because while this is in the initial set-up for the film, things get a little complicated once Brosnan's character is introduced into the fold or at least once his role and personal narrative are expanded upon. Brosnan is Liam Hennessy, a former IRA member AKA the group who takes credit for the bombing that killed Quan's daughter, who has since become a British government official who either knows or may know more than he lets on. It is here, in the details of Hennessy's affiliations and many of his actions that genuinely seem to be an attempt at keeping a peace between the U.K. and Ireland that the movie seemingly overcomplicates itself; going from a rather straightforward revenge thriller to essentially taking on a separate narrative altogether. In this, Brosnan's Hennessy becomes the protagonist of his own story while not necessarily being the antagonist of the story it seemed the movie was going to tell. Hennessy was a young, avid political activist with the aforementioned IRA who it seems took drastic action to make his organization's agenda known at the time, but has since matured into more official titles within the British government and has become proud of the peace he has brought about with the actions of Chan's Quan being little more than a nuisance on an already frustrating situation. Based on the Stephen Leather novel The Chainman, “The Foreigner” was adapted by David Marconi (“Enemy of the State”) and while it doesn't work as expected-meaning it isn't a full-fledged vehicle for Chan to exercise his aging action antics-it is admirable for not simply aping what has come before it in this genre. And while “The Foreigner” gets points for varying up the formula it seemed to be emulating a successful execution is still key and, unfortunately, this is where the film falls short.
After that aforementioned strong start that introduces the titular character, almost immediately delivers the inciting incident, and then further solidifies as much through the confrontation between Quan and Hennessy the film then begins to bog itself down by giving more perspective to the Hennessy character and the rather dire circumstances of his contemporary's actions. Again, this isn't to say this is a bad direction for the movie to go, but if it was in fact going to be more of a dual narrative action film/conspiracy thriller then it might have found a more streamlined way to present Hennessy's perspective as any time the movie chooses to follow his storyline over whatever actions Quan is taking to enact his revenge the movie stalls. An hour into The Foreigner it's difficult to feel as if the movie has really produced that jumpstart it needs despite several more bombs having gone off in the wake of Quan's actions. The hope was that Campbell might bring a distinct style or energy to the old man revenge thriller, but “The Foreigner” with its faceless European henchmen and stale color palette make it more fit in with every other generic entry in this hit or miss series of movies rather than stand apart from it in the ways it very clearly could have. Campbell is a director that seems to sometimes have a very clear and distinct vision for what we wants while being wholly in tune with the nature of the material-see his drastically different takes on the Bond character with different leading men-while other times the filmmaker is either just having a fun enough time for a paycheck (“Vertical Limit”) or is completely overwhelmed by the responsibility and production facets at play that he kind of fails fantastically (“Green Lantern”). With “The Foreigner,” Campbell is walking that line between “Vertical Limit” and his second and first ‘Zorro’ films. The tone present here, much like the aforementioned color palette, is so dour that it's never fun enough to excuse the convolution of the story nor is the story intriguing enough to warrant the unrelenting severity that Campbell enlists. There are moments appropriate to this tone, no doubt, especially if the film as a whole were to be centered solely around Chan's grieving Quan, but with Quan becoming so disconnected from the overall arc of Brosnan's character-Quan is essentially the unforeseen result of an already ill-advised plot-this single tone can't carry over into the two different types of stories being told. Sure, both include lies and deception, but one is only about as much while the other is an extremely personal and heartbreakingly volatile exercise in atonement by a man who feels he's failed everyone who he ever loved and depended on him. The two different flavors failing to ring true by sporting the same attitude.
Of course, story isn't necessarily supposed to be the most revolutionary aspect of a movie like “The Foreigner” and I'm okay with that as long as said execution sports a fun or skilled enough way of endearing the audience to the actions happening on screen-no matter how familiar-yet the majority of the time it can't help but feel as if Campbell is going through the motions on “The Foreigner” as the movie isn't particularly bad and even has a few inspired moments in both the directing and in the actors choices, but through and through this thing hits many of the expected beats as expected while being a handsomely polished script and action thriller that pulls its story strands together in a competent manner and is compelling just often enough for who I imagine will make up the majority of the movie's audience. What I went into “The Foreigner” hoping for most was a flurry of well-choreographed and uniquely inventive actions scenes so, how are these action scenes? They're...fine? It's no doubt a treat to see Chan on the big screen once again and there are a few fights staged in stairwells that are as fun as ever, but often times what should be hand to hand combat scenes are boiled down into gun fights in which Campbell easily gets lost in the chaos. This further kind of emphasizes the point that Chan may not be looking to be in full-on action mode for much longer as the more fascinating work done by Chan here are not through his tactical revenge methods, but more how he commits to carrying himself throughout the picture. Chan is very much playing against type here as the forever solemn Quan and while it may seem this would suck out much of the fun of seeing a Jackie Chan action movie it works because it makes sense in the scheme of the film overall. This is where that grave tone comes in handy as Campbell expertly handles the impact the loss of his daughter has on Quan. A shot of Quan standing solemnly in Fan's room-searching for reason and not knowing what to do next-is a fine example of one of those directorial touches where it feels Campbell is in tune with his material and is thus able to successfully relay to the audience the sympathy necessary. There are a handful of other moments such as this where Campbell is able to convey the essence of Quan's mentality in his choices by how he frames Quan while Chan's performance branches him out well enough that it would be easier to digest more candid character work from the typical action star in the future. On the opposite side of the coin, Brosnan plays Hennessy as increasingly frustrated. There is little more to Hennessy outside his thick accent and calming of the continuous fires that erupt as Quan becomes a bigger factor. There's also this subplot with Hennessy's wife (Orla Brady) and nephew (Rory Fleck Byrne) that feels unnecessary and strange. “The Foreigner” should have been simple and brutal, but aspires to be something bigger. It is hard to fault a project for harboring as much, but when such aspirations largely backfire leaving a part of the experience unsatisfactory one wishes the movie would have simply stuck more to its guns-or Chinese martial arts.
Happy Death Day
by Philip Price
The test for a movie that shows us the same thing over and over again is whether it makes us want to return to it over and over again. Does it use this technique in a way that it twists the conventions of whatever genre it is being applied to in a unique enough fashion that it brings something fresh to what we've seen before? In short, does it make something familiar feel born again-the same way our protagonist feels every time they wake up with another opportunity to live their best life. That is ultimately what these kinds of movies are about, right? The hypothetical shot at being able to live your life over and over again to the point you appreciate and/or realize what one has been taking for granted and how much there is to truly be thankful for. This doesn't change with writer's Scott Lobdell's (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) interpretation of the material in “Happy Death Day” as he adapts it for the horror/teen slasher genre, but the basic idea of applying it to this kind of movie with the added caveat of our main character having to put together the pieces of who's trying to kill her in a single day is pretty ingenious with director Christopher B. Landon (“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) mining the material and the setting for all its worth in his execution. Landon, son of the late Michael Landon, has a knack for mixing scares and humor and eliciting the fun that can come from being scared. In other words, he understands that being afraid should entail a whole range of emotions and not just the single one that causes you to jump from your seat. Due to this, it would be easy to mistake his latest for more of a comedy than a horror/thriller, but that it layers in elements of each of these with effective measure is what makes the movie such a fun ride to go along with. Sure, we've seen this kind of situation play out before, most notably in “Groundhog Day” and since in other genres through the likes of “Source Code,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and the countless iterations of William Dean Howells' 1892 short story "Christmas Every Day" that you've no doubt seen at least one version of around the holidays, but in taking this concept and applying it to a cheeky genre exercise like “Scream” both Lobdell and Landon have created a knowing horror flick that revels in the main trope and has fun with the archetypes. So yeah, I'd watch “Happy Death Day” again. And probably again.
Landon exercises his love of the teen slasher movie from the get-go, opening on the bright and vibrant campus of a college in Louisiana-it's tall, likely historic bell tower hovering over every other building in sight. Within a muggy and disjointed dorm room Teresa, who goes by Tree (Jessica Rothe), wakes up to find that she has spent the night with a boy she's never met before named Carter (Israel Broussard). Tree hurriedly gets out of bed, struggling to find her clothes and disregard Carter's t-shirt as a nervous Carter informs her of his name and that she was pretty wasted at whatever party they were attending the night before. Tree quickly leaves before having to spend too much time with this movie's version of the sympathetic and sweet male friend that will have been there all along. As Tree leaves the dorm room to make her way to her sorority house she encounters several distinct events including being asked to sign a petition to help stop global warming, the lawn sprinklers coming on, a car alarm going off, and a round of hazing by a local fraternity that brings one pledge to his knees. Oh, and apparently, it's also Tree's birthday. We know this because of her ringtone which goes off because her dad (Jason Bayle) calls her, but Tree never seems inclined to answer. Upon arriving at her sorority house, we meet Tree's "best friend" and main source of competition in Danielle (Rachel Matthews) as well as her roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) who is a hard-working medical student that doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of the girls in her sorority. She has made Tree a cupcake for her birthday, which Tree naturally refuses to eat because of the carbs, as Lori fails to get a word in edge-wise before Tree realizes she is late for class where she may or may not have a thing for her (married) professor (Charles Aitken). Tree continues throughout her day, taking little action that comes from consideration, but more that comes from being so self-absorbed she can barely see what is going on in the world around her. A sorority house meeting at lunch where the girls fat shame a sister who has more than a cracker for lunch and where Tree essentially chastises Carter for attempting to return her necklace to her in public are only a few things that highlight her terrible attitude. That is, until she gets dressed and begins to walk (alone, for some reason) to that night's party of choice where she encounters a concerning set-up of traffic barriers and a creepy musical jewelry box that climaxes with the sight of a hooded figure wearing a Bayfield Babies mascot mask that is just odd enough to make you wonder who decided it was a good idea for a school mascot in the first place. Tree is swiftly dispensed of via the baby killers weapon of choice, a knife, only for Tree to once again wake up in Carter's dorm room only to live her birthday and the day she dies all over again.
With “Happy Death Day,” one must be willing to give the movie a shot. Not only is there patience required in allowing time for the movie to get into the routine of its repetitive nature, but there is also the fact that Tree isn't necessarily the most endearing of protagonists. Tree, for all accounts and purposes, is kind of an asshole as she talks about potential suspects in the form of that "Uber driver I spit on" or "that tiny girl I got fired from TJ Maxx". So yeah, we get to the point fast and early that Tree is a totally terrible person, but we also inherently understand this is necessary because her trajectory must be that of realizing she's not a good person and that she needs to stop being so selfish and start seeing others for who they are rather than only for what they can offer her. As expected, the film goes through the obligatory initial experience of the day by detailing everything that is wrong with Tree's view of her world while the second and third are a mixed bag of, "I can't believe this is really happening," and "How do I fix this?!?!" It is on the fourth loop of this same day that Tree begins to relish in the possibilities she's being presented and the obstacles she must overcome to move forward with her life. With this arc to carry Jessica Rothe, despite looking like a younger version of Blake Lively but being the same age, gives an increasingly appealing performance as the film goes on and the days become less and less like the one before. As Rothe's Tree begins to come to these small realizations of who she really is after seeing herself be put to the same character tests day after day she also begins to come to terms with the fact she's harbored such anger, guilt, and sadness over the death of her mother that she's buried it so far beneath who she thought she'd be that she's completely lost sight of the person she was when her mom was still alive. This slightly unexpected bit of emotional heft stands to make Tree an endearing character which is only somewhat undone by a late scene with her father that rings false. Still, the point is that in realizing her faults and deciding to find ways to improve upon them both the movie and its central character take on this aforementioned tongue in cheek tone that acknowledges this isn't your standard horror movie because they're not afraid to use Demi Lovato's "Confident" for their montage song or acknowledge so much of what they're going for by having a nurse read a cheap and trashy romance novel or other characters watch “Teen Mom 2” so as to say “Happy Death Day” is a cheap and trashy horror movie, but you'll be entertained nonetheless. That said, Landon doesn't allow his tone to slip into a fully self-aware mode, but more one where it only intermittently will wink and nod at the audience-playing with enough genre tropes to be subversive on its own terms while other times intentionally giving into them to rev up the audience’s nostalgia and affinity for movies of the same ilk.
So yeah, “Happy Death Day” is by no means a great or innovative piece of cinema, but it has a very clear and appealing intention that it executes well and in a knowing fashion. Are there things that could be improved despite the screenplay's ability to balance new perspectives with old? Of course. The most glaring of which being the reveal of the culprit. Obviously, this review won't give away any spoilers, but as the film comes to its climactic third act and the plot has become less and less thick there is an air of disappointment despite knowing there is likely a twist of some sort in the works for the denouement. There is a strand of a connection throughout, but it is blink, and you'll miss it (I blinked, apparently, because I had to have a friend catch me up after I had a few questions post-screening) and makes for a kind of lousy excuse for a finale that doesn't satisfactorily answer the questions of motivation, connection, or the all-important question of why? Why does Tree get this opportunity to re-live this day during this time in her life that could alter the direction she goes for the remainder of her life? While that denouement sequence does largely redeem the movie and answers most of the lingering questions over the misdirect this doesn't necessarily make them more satisfying just for being present. Does the reveal hold up? Maybe-it's something I'll be looking for when I re-visit “Happy Death Day,” but the point is I'll be re-visiting the movie due to the fact it is such a good time. Landon's touch is just lighthearted enough to where this isn't so heavy to be draining while it is neither substantial enough to require every ounce of focus to view it while Lobdell's curve ball of Tree having a cutoff of how many times she can wake back up after being killed offers the movie an unexpected urgency in Tree having to solve her own murder. I heard someone describe “Happy Death Day” as a "slumber party movie" and this encapsulates the kind of experience this movie delivers perfectly. Landon knows how to capture an effective action scene while allowing the PG-13 audience to imagine more of the gore rather than show it himself (which is likely even more effective as it's left up to the imagination) while the cast is clearly having a lot of fun, and the familiarity is the kind of familiar that is fuzzy-Halloween warmth to the fullest with a side of wise sarcasm while keeping an unsophisticated edge that makes the message of "today is the first day of the rest of your life" slightly meaningful, but wholly witty and entertaining.
The Mountain Between Us
by Philip Price
Israeli-born director Hany Abu-Assad makes no apologies for the type of movie he's made in “The Mountain Between Us.” There is no reason to, either. The film is a handsomely mounted, beautifully photographed, human drama about two people who become stranded with no documentation whatsoever about where they might be. This is a movie that totally accomplishes what it sets out to do, that completely embodies what it is meant to be, and on most levels you have to applaud a film for being as much. It's admirable that Abu-Assad, working from a screenplay by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) who adapted Charles Martin's 2010 novel of the same name, followed this desire to adapt the source material in the vein of this grand romantic adventure tale of old that so willingly commits to the type of movie it wants to be that we honestly don't see much of anymore. Is there room for criticism? Of course, but it's difficult to balance. The movie is inherently melodramatic and rather frail in its plotting in how it documents the passage of time (hint: poorly), but stars Kate Winslet and Idris Elba always look just the right amount of roughed up to still be attractive in that rugged sense that will surely make couples on a date night want to get lost in the wilderness together. All of that said, this isn't a great movie despite having several positive attributes-most being in the sweeping visuals-but when taken on the terms of the type of movie it is aiming to be and given “The Mountain Between Us” is essentially the most prestigious pile of dopey cheese one could ever create-it works for what it is. It does, it really does. Early in the film a plane flies overhead while Elba's character struggles to shoot off a flare. Winslet's character yells at the top of her lungs, but out of frustration Elba's Ben turns to her and tells her that they can't hear her. "I know they can't hear me! It's just what you do!" She replies. Watching “The Mountain Between Us” is kind of like that as well; even if you're intelligent enough to know the movie isn't a great movie you keep watching out of a need and/or want to feel something specific and have a certain kind of experience. “The Mountain Between Us” fills this kind of quota in spades.
So, brain surgeon Ben (Elba) is in a rush to get home from a medical conference for an emergency surgery on a 10-year old patient while journalist/photographer Alex (Winslet) is set to be married the next day. When they arrive at the airport though, both come to find out their flights have been cancelled due to an impending storm and that there are no other rental cars remaining. Given both are in something of a time crunch, Alex proposes the idea of chartering a small plane from Salt Lake City to Denver. Ben is up for it given his circumstances and somehow the two are ushered to what would seem to be the auto shop on the airport grounds (I guess?) where a pilot, Walter (Beau Bridges), agrees to take fly them to their destination for an additional cost-which, given they both have prestigious jobs (hah!) is no object. Walter, bringing along his dog that goes unnamed for the remainder of the film, always seemed to not be in the greatest of health and so it may come as no surprise (especially if you've seen the trailers) that things go south as does the plane. Upon finding out that they've both survived the crash, Ben and Alex find that they have landed on the top of a mountain and it's cold. Really cold. Beyond that, the conditions are brutal, the food is limited, and both have sustained injuries-Alex's a little more debilitating as it hinders her ability to move or walk or help out in any form or fashion. As stated before, there's not a record on earth that shows where they are and thus they are forced to figure out how to both survive as well as find some kind of civilization that might rescue them from their extreme circumstances. The hook of the story is the fact that, prior to getting on the plane together, Ben and Alex know nothing about one another and now all of a sudden have been thrown into this situation where they are experiencing these events and these conditions that bear their true spirit and will to survive in a fashion that connects them in this undeniable fashion. This idea that they might die together, but don't really no one another is relayed time and time again-essentially forcing this bond whether it would have existed outside of these circumstances or not. It's a fine enough premise if you're going for a love story on this kind of grand scale and Abu-Assad makes sure he can track the progression of the relationship well enough that viewers are never bored, but rather anxiously awaiting that moment the two give in to one another. This kind of anxiety mixed with the added tensions of the survival aspects that factor in threats from all sides whether it be from wild animals, lack of food and warmth, or other natural forces means there is plenty here to justify the price of a matinee ticket even if a movie such as “The Mountain Between Us” only ever stood the chance of being so good.
Watching these two characters run the entire gamut of emotions: the anger, the love, the desperation, and again-that hunger, leads to something that is inherently hopeful; that spirit of the human being and their will to survive that not all can speak to, but that most can appreciate. It is this kind of investment in the characters that would always be key to “The Mountain Between Us” success and for the most part this is accomplished rather effortlessly (or at least appears to be as much) despite the film starting out in something of a clunky fashion. Right off the bat we are made to understand the distinct differences in the characters our principal actors are playing as Winslet's Alex is the inquisitive journalist while Elba's Ben is the serious and rightfully nervous surgeon who prefers logic and precision over Alex's gut reactions that oftentimes seem reckless and selfish. Yes, we get it-the woman is the emotional one who's not afraid to admit she is scared while the alpha male feels the need to control every situation he finds himself in-proceeding to try and fix everything by following the rule book even when such rules may not apply. Whether this is due to the amount of depth (or lack thereof) that Martin provided in his original novel or is the result of a condensed narrative via Weitz's script the two personalities are introduced without a hint of subtlety whatsoever and forced on the audience to the point of absolute understanding prior to the plane crash so that we might be prepared for how things will shake out post-stranded on the top of a mountain. That said, director Abu-Assad and his Director of Photography, Mandy Walker (“Hidden Figures”), do indeed capture this sequence in a thrillingly single take that is quite intense as it doesn't allow the audience out of the confined area these characters are trapped in and are mostly powerless to do anything to avoid their inevitable fate. That said, Editor Lee Percy doesn't allow the audience to exist in this moment long enough to make us really endure it. Rather, it is over before we're squeezing the arm rests as tight as we should be. On top of that, within the first 15 minutes or so of the film there are several fades to black that make it seem as if there were no other options from the footage that was shot; that Abu-Assad had not really defined a language for his film, but rather shot for beauty and coverage rather than to capture a throughline tone. In many of the beautifully epic crane shots “The Mountain Between Us” features there seems no motivation for the way the camera moves other than the fact the landscapes are breathtaking, which they are, but this doesn't aid in the fact the film feels rather aimless until it is allowed to focus in on the survival dynamic between its two lead characters which is where the core investment on the part of the audience lies anyway.
For these reasons it was slightly shocking when it seemed the movie was going to split the two lead characters up about forty or so minutes in, but as the two are quickly reunited (no spoilers here because, c'mon...) and have by then made a crucial decision in terms of how to move forward in the fight for their survival it is here that the development of this aforementioned dynamic begins to genuinely evolve and thus we, the viewers, do naturally become more invested in what might happen. Much of this obviously has to do with the fact Abu-Assad has actors the caliber of Winslet and Elba keeping the emotional trajectory of the film afloat while propping the predictable story up with the aforementioned gorgeous landscapes. As far as the actors are concerned, both Winslet and Elba are able to communicate much of their jumbled emotions about what has happened, what is happening, and what may or may not become of them through facial expressions and unspoken intuitions. There are hints of a broken history between Ben and his wife as there are hints that this is a man who has become severely lonely including the fact he doesn't speak of the wife he's clarified he has. There is a moment, even, where I wondered if Ben might prefer being lost with Alex as opposed to what I imagined had to be a comfortable life in the civilized world or if Ben was simply so convinced the two of them were destined to die that he'd already given up hope. The way in which Winslet's Alex comes to balance this with her determination and simultaneous appreciation of what is happening is enviable and naturally leads to what anyone paying good money to see this movie in theaters wants to get out of this movie. That said, much like the plane crash sequence at the beginning of the film there is a scene near the end of the second act where Alex asks Ben to give her one percent of a song from his cell phone whose battery life is nearly up where Alex's personality is presented in the comfort this music, this art brings to the situation. But again, the shot doesn't linger, the scope isn't allowed to sink in, and the weight of the situation is cut out from under the audience by cutting to the next morning without warning. Nothing is allowed to sizzle here and unfortunately, these choices by Percy come back to undercut the relationship as a whole as this happens again in what is supposed to be a rather climactic emotional scene that ends up going nowhere; the emotional reveal never packing the intended wallop. And so, while Elba is actually pretty fantastic here-he carries so much baggage in his eyes-and Ramin Djawadi's score turns out to be one of the best/most surprising facets of the movie as a whole “The Mountain Between Us” is an admirable effort that accomplishes what it sets out to do in expert fashion even if that fashion is total mush.
Blade Runner 2049
by Philip Price
The plan for “Blade Runner 2049,” the 35 year later sequel to director Ridley Scott's 1982 now classic “Blade Runner,” was to watch Scott's "final cut" of the film prior to seeing director Denis Villeneuve's (“Prisoners,” “Arrival”) follow-up. The original “Blade Runner” is one of those movies that I was always told I needed to watch and indeed started countless times, but never actually made it all the way through. Whether it was due to a lack of intrigue, bad timing, or something of the like I somehow ended up feeling rather familiar with the world Scott created from this Philip K. Dick short story without ever really becoming aware of the narrative it was relaying. Alas, there wasn't time to squeeze in a viewing of the original film prior to my wife and I's planned date night this past Saturday (things happen when you have an almost three year-old and Friday night, “Blade Runner” didn't happen) and so, with little knowledge of exactly what to expect from “Blade Runner 2049” other than a visually stunning experience (cinematographer Roger Deakins is once again responsible for what we see here) this second, seemingly more intrusive story into the world of replicants and their version of the future happened. So, did I understand everything that happened? I think so. Did I appreciate everything as much as the guy behind me who said "wow" out loud no less than seventeen times throughout the two hour and 45 minute runtime? Probably not. Still, “Blade Runner 2049” is a movie that is able to stand on its own to a degree, but certainly benefits from having the knowledge of what occurred in the prior installment. Having gone back since seeing ‘2049’ and watched the final cut of the original film I feel as if I've had a unique enough experience with the larger story being told that my individual experience with the film is something of a reverse of the rose-tinted glasses idiom in that the original film is not one that has been unduly idolized because of its stance in pop culture before I had the opportunity to make up my own mind about it, but rather my perspective on the original is of more significance because I know where these characters go and I know what the actions took in that initial film lead to. This inverse experience while, not necessarily recommended, tends to only make ‘2049’ that much more mystical-that much more epic and that much more meaningful.
Going in with a larger shroud of mystery than even those who might have seen the original prior to ‘2049’ only seemed to amplify the air of preciousness that the first frames of Villeneuve's sequel contain. They are glorious, to say the least and the tone is immediately set, but I digress. This is a movie shrouded in secrecy due to the revelations that come quick and early, but are not obvious from a standpoint of what fans of the first film might expect. Much like the original though, “Blade Runner 2049” is a detective story with elements of noir-even if Villeneuve and screenwriters Michael Green (“Logan”) and original “Blade Runner” writer Hampton Fancher push the noir elements in favor of those traditionally associated with science fiction save for the integrated production design. In ‘2049,’ what Fancher and Green's story (which was apparently based on a novella that Scott wrote) attempts to do though is conceive of more of a mystery for our protagonist, simply referred to as "K" (Ryan Gosling), to work out. The key being that this mystery deals in a particular revelation concerning replicants that could potentially "break the world" as Robin Wright's LAPD Lieutenant Joshi tells us. This is what convinces more casual spectators such as myself to believe in the hype around the “Blade Runner” brand though, as it's easy to see the visuals that Deakins has constructed are jaw-dropping and of the most epic in scope one could ask for while Villeneuve, who was somehow granted a $150 million budget for this thing, has based his characters and scenarios in practical sets and tangible locations that feel as mammoth as the scope the director intended the whole of his film to have. Outside of all of these extraneous elements that naturally enhance the experience overall is a story that is captivating and complex from the word go. That this narrative draws us in and muses on the evolving sciences of artificial intelligence, of what it means to truly be human, and how our memories factor into this perception are endlessly fascinating while filtered through an equally intriguing plot. This is what hooks the uninitiated. Harrison Ford, who returns to the role of Rick Deckard that he originated in the 1982 film, has described ‘2049’ as something with a particular kind of ambition and a film that is epic and huge-a cathedral of a movie, not a little church you stop into along the way. And I think this is an appropriate comparison as there is something inherent to not just the breadth that Villeneuve covers in this sequel as there is the beauty that sweeps the walls and ceilings of a cathedral, but it also has a depth to it much like the book those buildings are built on-both of which no doubt have countless interpretations that come from those who take something from it. That isn't to say I'm comparing “Blade Runner 2049” to the Bible as I'm hardly fit to dissect and criticize this particular film given my history with the series much less the prose of an ancient text, but here we are.
I recall hearing Damon Lindelof say on the commentary track for “Prometheus” that most of the time the mysteries are always going to be more interesting than whatever the solution might come to be. Mysteries and questionable circumstance have always stood to be the more intriguing factor than whatever reveal any number of spectators might imagine in their heads-the reality of such always failing to live up to expectations, but with ‘2049’ the film plays it so straight by essentially giving only a few options that the outcome might be that there are only a few ways in which the conclusion might prove to ultimately be disappointing. Spoiler alert: it is not. For all the visual grandeur, the monumental set and production design, the soundscape between both Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's pulsing score as well as the entirety of the sound department that give each gun blast a jolt and each crunching bone a distinct and hollow sound it is all supported by a story that really digs into what the first film only scratched the surface of. While others may draw this conclusion, having viewed the two films in reverse order it is all the more clear how much ‘2049’ amplifies and examines the themes of what it means to be alive and have memories and how those memories inform our past and future; what "more human than human" actually means. In order to accomplish this, Villeneuve and Editor Joe Walker (a frequent collaborator of both Villeneuve's and Steve McQueen) first approach the subject matter by allowing themselves and the audience time to bask in these ideas. The cutting of ‘2049’ is extremely measured and what some may ultimately find to be boring, but never for a moment was I checking my watch or phone wondering what point of the movie we were at or how long we might have left. Rather, this intentional pacing of the film makes it that much more alluring as we continually inch toward the edge of our seats waiting for the film to deliver on what it is setting up. What it is setting up then, is following through on this idea that wasn't fully presented in the first film, but only hinted at through Ford's character. In Rick Deckard there is much debate over the nature of who he truly is and while you could have it either way even after seeing ‘2049,’ the implications for one are certainly greater than the other despite both being rather groundbreaking. That said, while the original “Blade Runner” took this central conceit of artificial intelligence and kind of streamlined it into a rather simple story about four fugitive replicants what ‘2049’ does is unpack this conceit and the heart of what Deckard may or may not be by utilizing the mystery and moral ambiguity of the noir genre to explore the repercussions and further possibilities of these technological advancements as well as the evolving definition of what constitutes a soul. It is a fascinating deep dive into several other branches of these aforementioned ideas and themes that have been preserved in this narrative that is both compelling, absolutely a continuation and improvement upon the original film, while also possessing its own vision.
So, what I'm basically saying is that “Blade Runner 2049” is a $150 million art house film as it is solely the product of Villeneuve and the team he has put together to bring this new chapter to life in the best and most respectful way possible as it is clear the filmmaker adores Scott's original. This is all without even mentioning much of the actors involved in bringing this story to life. Most of this lack of mention comes from a fear of spoiling the dynamics and story at play between most of them, but much like every other facet of the film the performances here serve the overall purpose of the film very well. As the main protagonist of the film, Gosling's K is a man who is a blade runner for the LAPD that is beginning to have doubts about his job, and as the film progresses these doubts become more about his life, and as the film progresses even further-there are doubts about his purpose. For a fair portion of the runtime Gosling does that stoic, emotionless thing he does so well and perfected in “Drive” while the re-introduction of Ford's Deckard allows for K to become less of a puzzle to himself and more someone who finds that purpose he was beginning to lose sight of. What might go most underappreciated though is that Gosling essentially shepherds this behemoth of a movie on his appeal alone. Our willingness to follow him and stay with him on this unboxing of a decades old mystery is not an easy task, but the charismatic presence Gosling exudes even when he's acting detached is really something that shouldn't be taken for granted-especially when it is so effortless you almost forget to notice it. K's woman of choice is that of a lifelike hologram named Joi (Ana De Armas), a product of the Wallace Corporation that rose up in the wake of the Tyrell Corporation falling into bankruptcy. As Joi, De Armas has the difficult task of being both a broad answer to K's specific needs while at the same time convincing him and us that there is genuine emotion to be felt towards K despite all of what Joi does coming from coding. It is a fine line to walk and for much of the film, De Armas is given the opportunity to pull us into this web of deceit which she does in alluring fashion only for the script and a cold turn by the actress showing us just how tragic those emotions K might have developed for Joi actually are (any hint of a soul we might have seen being taken away through the removal of her eyes is a devastating touch). Sylvia Hoeks, an actress from the Netherlands, gives a star-making performance as Jared Leto's Niander Wallace's right-hand woman stealing nearly every scene she appears in even when she is opposite heavy-hitters like Gosling, Wright, and Ford. A scene between Hoeks' Luv and Wright's Joshi is especially memorable not only for the violence inflicted, but the lack of compassion displayed. Speaking of Leto, while-as my wife pointed out-his CEO is reminiscent of Teiresias, the blind prophet whose help Odysseus seeks in the Underworld in Homer's The Odyssey, his performance itself is so limited in terms of screen time that the indulgence of it all is nearly pitch perfect. Add to this Dave Bautista and Mackenzie Davis making honorable contributions and “Blade Runner 2049” is kind of everything I ever want in a movie. It is a movie I want to see again and for a movie that runs just shy of three hours, that is really saying something.
Battle of the Sexes
by Philip Price
Going into directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' (“Little Miss Sunshine”) take on the legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 I had no real idea of the historical context of the movie or even of the individuals involved and so I was about to get a history lesson from what is arguably the worst place to receive a history lesson: the movies. Still, if one can appreciate cinema as an art form to encapsulate a moment or a culmination of events-a cinematic summary if you will-rather than an accurate depiction of every detail surrounding certain subjects that tend to be true, then we should be okay. While I still don't know much more about the showdown between King and Riggs outside of what I learned in screening “Battle of the Sexes” what I can say and likely what is the best thing the film must offer is the insight into just how average casual chauvinism was in that day and age. Without blinking, in one of the opening scenes, Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer-a former professional tennis player and head of the prestigious tennis association King and many of her female counterparts were members of-tosses out how much of a fact it is that men are not only faster and stronger than women, but more competitive by nature. That it's biology. The most revealing part being that Kramer doesn't mean this to be offensive because he doesn't think of it as being offensive, but rather that it is simply the truth. While this level of arrogance still exists, and is likely even worse in some circles today (don't believe me, look at the YouTube comments on the trailers for this movie) it has been amplified to a defensive level because time has also allowed for women to gain more and more of the equality they seek and so rightly deserve. As a white male I always find it difficult to complain about anything as I've certainly never faced anything insurmountable in my life and while I don't want to make this movie review a discussion about where my opinion falls as far as women's rights and such it kind of shocks me a movie such as this is even considered something of a statement nearly 45 years after the fact when one would imagine human intelligence might have moved on to understanding that women are better at some things than men and men are better at some things than women, but regardless we all deserve the same type and, more importantly, the same amount of respect. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, but if “Battle of the Sexes” is a rather by the numbers sports biopic it at least shows audiences how little we've progressed and how much farther we must go.
“Battle of the Sexes” opens by wasting an opportunity for a rather memorable title screen and it is with this lack of ambition toward highlighting even the simplest aspects of their film that it seemed Dayton and Faris might not be as excited about the material as I'd imagined a 1970's-set movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell that was based on a farce of a tennis match for one and a career-defining turn for the other might be. Given the screenplay comes from Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) I was hoping the script might contain some distinct perspectives on the event and on the characters, that participated. With Dayton and Faris not having directed a feature in five years I wondered if they might have taken the extended break due to the fact they were searching for another project in the vein of their previous work (“Ruby Sparks”) that really inspired them and made them approach story in a unique and fun way. It is certainly easy to see how the story of King and Riggs could serve as both a fun platform for experimenting with an abundance of filmmaking techniques and challenges while also being able to make a relevant statement in today's society, but rather than do anything singular with the material it's as if the directing duo were content with a straight adaptation of Beaufoy's (who has become something of a writer for hire as of late) screenplay which at least attempts to give the film and a few unexpected perspectives and insights by focusing more on King's story, the pressure and responsibility she must have felt towards so many, her tragic love affair with a hairdresser from Los Angeles in Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while still being married to a genuinely good man (Austin Stowell), and the all-around perpetration of her image not by her own free will, but by those she surrounded herself with. While the movie may be called “Battle of the Sexes” and does indeed structure itself well to build up to the titular match in a way that we're invested in the sport and the show of it all, make no mistake that this is a movie about Billie Jean King and not Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs or their relationship. That said, this isn't necessarily a disappointing route to have taken per Beaufoy's script, but it doesn't help that while Stone is in fine form as King and King's trials and tribulations are worthier of the spotlight being shown on her, Riggs is certainly the more entertaining one.
This brings us to the fact of how, despite the trailers positioning it as such, “Battle of the Sexes” or at least its characters are well of aware of the roles they are playing in the public eye and, while willing to, are doing so to make their agenda clear or simply make more money. While Stone's King is initially hesitant to take on Riggs for fear of becoming nothing but a joke in Riggs' circus of an environment she is eventually pushed to accept his offer after he defeats current women's world champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and crowns himself the best women's tennis player in the world. Beaufoy's screenplay is surprising in this way in that it begins with the kernel of an incident that spurned King into really becoming a voice for women's equality and taking us through the challenges of creating the WTA, devising her own tournament with the help of manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), and not just discovering, but acting upon her sexuality. From this angle the movie serves King's vision well as it portrays her in a light that shows how passionate and serious she was about the game of tennis. There is even a line in the film where her husband, Larry, is talking to Marilyn and says, "We're both just side shows. Tennis is her true love and if you get between her and the game-you'll be gone." As “Battle of the Sexes” becomes more and more the Billie Jean King movie and as viewers become more and more wrapped up in the personal aspects of her life it is easy to forget about Riggs and his emotional arc, that is, until the match between the two of them becomes a real thing and then it's easy to see why Dayton, Faris, and Beaufoy likely chose to keep his involvement to a minimum until necessary as Carell steals the show. Furthermore, Riggs isn't the bad guy both the publicity for the match and for the movie have made him out to be and King knows this. For Riggs, this is all an act to drum up sponsorship's and viewers and as much money as he possibly can as the film makes more of an antagonist out of Pullman's Kramer as he's the one who genuinely doesn't feel women deserve a piece of his pie. Rather than assigning this role to Riggs, Beaufoy outlines his marriage with Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) with whom he has a son that he has a fantastic relationship with, but how he is also addicted to gambling and a good drink and how this causes rifts in their relationship for, despite Riggs trying and wanting to be what Priscilla desires, he can't help himself. There is one scene between Carell and Shue that is one of the best moments in the movie as the two have the most adult discussion ever about the state of their relationship which only leads to us, as an audience, liking Riggs that much more.
It isn't a problem that “Battle of the Sexes” positions both King and Riggs as appealing figures though, but rather the issue the film largely comes to face is that it doesn't transcend any of the expectations this story and the credentials they've acquired to tell this story would set. Both Carell and Stone are fantastic in each of their striking, but drastically different roles. Neither of them will get Oscar recognition for their work if that's what they were hoping for by transforming their looks though (those teeth, Carell!) and I also kind of wish the two of them would do a movie together where they share more than a couple of scenes together. Along with the leads, Stowell stands out in his understanding and wholly supportive role as King's husband, Riseborough is fantastic in walking the line as Marilyn, and a host of supporting players like Alan Cumming and Wallace Langham as the stylists for the women of the WTA, Eric Christian Olsen and Fred Armisen as different types of coaches to Riggs, as well as Martha MacIsaac and Natalie Morales as fellow female tennis players that tour with and support one another fully are all great. Oh, and this is without mentioning the fact Chris Parnell, Matt Malloy, Jamey Sheridan, Mark Harelik and John C. McGinley all show up at one point or another so, if nothing else, the film is fun to watch just to see who pop up. In all seriousness, there is no reason for “Battle of the Sexes” to be labeled a bad movie-it isn't. The production designers earn an A+ for scouting real locations that have kept their seventies architecture intact, Nicholas Britell's score is understated yet appropriate and deceptively effective while Dayton and Faris devise a cool aesthetic with their cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) that replicates the photography quality and style of the time-making the movie feel all the more of the period, but while everything is done competently and no doubt includes attempts at cultivating the story and its execution in ways that might serve the film to be more impactful and powerful there is that uncontrollable element of film that seems to have gotten away from the directors here. The duo may have very well done everything they could or everything they knew to do, but the stars still didn't align for their movie to be as exceptional as they hoped it to be. It's difficult to say the fault doesn't necessarily fall on anyone, but while the effort is there and the elements come together well enough the final product ultimately fails to stand as this monumental work about women's liberation, but rather is an informative and broadly entertaining re-enactment of the arm versus the mouth.
by Philip Price
Writer/director Mike White (“School of Rock”) has made a movie meant for the purposes of entertaining about a man who seethes with jealousy from the first frame and who reminds us and, more specifically, men of a certain age that time has or is running out. This isn't exactly the best way to get an audience who likely paid to see your movie on your side, but with the endearing presence of Ben Stiller serving as the conduit for White's exploration of middle age the well-regarded writer, who is only directing his second feature film with “Brad's Status,” is able to perform such explorations with such balance and well-defined introspection that the film mostly transcends its rather grim implications and is able to become one easily appreciated for its reassurance. Leave it to White, who has always excelled at crafting these kinds of human, but uncomfortably so, stories to make this reassurance not in the form of our titular protagonist finding and/or achieving what he so greatly craves for most of the runtime, but for discovering and realizing things he may not have considered prior. It's all about perspective and White chronicles these ideas and themes through Stiller's main character by giving him an abundance of internal monologue, but does it more convincingly by having Brad take part in actions that provoke the progression of these thoughts. Never does Stiller's Brad feel like little more than a man complaining about the sake of complaining, but rather Brad is a guy who is having a real crisis of identity. It would be easy to dismiss “Brad's Status” as another of those middle-aged white guys having existential crisis movies and that's because it is, but there is something to “Brad's Status” that helps it rise above those kinds of dismissive criticisms by being the movie that acknowledges it's about white people problems and owns up to it. Everyone has problems, some obviously vary in degree of severity and repercussion size, but everyone has problems and issues they should deal with and to every person each of their individual problems are as real as anything else. Brad takes real issue with the fact he feels he's cut himself short in this single shot at life he's been given and while White is keen to writhe just about every perspective out of this base of an idea he can what “Brad's Status” ultimately does is provide a way to navigate feelings of inadequacy and jealousy while coming to the realization that because everyone has their own problems that those who make Brad feel inadequate or jealous likely aren't aware of as much because they have their own things they're dealing with that their social media doesn't show.
Initially, we meet Brad as he lays awake at night reminiscing on the fact he feels as if his life has plateaued when compared to that of his friends from college. While Brad has done some credible journalism work and even jump-started his own publication for some time and won a few prestigious awards his most recent endeavor is managing a non-profit that helps to match other non-profit foundations with needy beneficiaries. His wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), works a government job while his son, a high school senior named Troy (Austin Abrams), is getting ready to pick a college as he's an accomplished musician that apparently has his pick of the litter when it comes to the Ivy League's. Brad seemingly hasn't been tuned in too much to Troy's accomplishments over the past few years though, as he is more concerned with the budding successes of his old friends; one of which has become a wealthy Hollywood director (White), another is an entrepreneur who has already sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii (Jemaine Clement), there is a business titan (Luke Wilson) who owns a private plane his family lavishly flaunts, and then there is a celebrity TV commentator and author, Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen), who worked for the White House. For one reason or another, Brad has been unable to shake this feeling of failure that has dominated his thoughts as of late. This idea that there was supposed to be something more in store for him as his life progressed, that he wasn't supposed to simply be content, but rather that his presence would be more prominent than what it has become. In one version of reality, Brad has a modest and comfortable life where there isn't much to complain about-especially when compared to those who have life-threatening issues such as where they might get clean water from-and yet, Brad can't help but feel bad for himself. Brad is self-aware enough to know the blame for any of these shortcomings he ponders over falls on him and him alone, but that doesn't mean he can deal with them any better-in fact, it likely makes it worse he can't blame his fruitless life on a sick parent or working-class circumstances. This inner-conflict is manifested when Brad is set to accompany Troy on a trip to Boston to tour a few colleges including Harvard as well as Brad's alma mater, Tufts. This constant self-analyzing when compared to the perceived wealth and success of his contemporaries might then sound a little tedious or even too self-involved to also be enlightening, but the fact of the matter is White's execution of these thoughts are so perceptive and rather nimble that our gloomy protagonist turns out to be a rather endearing figure.
Of course, it's been a given for a while now that Stiller can play these kinds of neurotic characters in his sleep as he has this ability to exude a simultaneous mix of anxiety and anger without actually speaking a word and he demonstrates that to great effect throughout “Brad's Status.” And make no mistake, this is Stiller's show as he carries the weight of the emotional arc of the film as well as nearly every potent emotion displayed on screen, but as the film itself separates from the "white people problems" stigma by owning up to the fact it is about middle-aged, white guy inadequacies and envies, Stiller separates his performance from that of similar films he might have done in the past (and I love the guys work with Baumbach) by not necessarily making this about his own inadequacies, whatever those might fairly be, but more about how he compares those to these unrealistic expectations he has convinced himself really exist per his college friends and the fact he feels he's somehow missing out on the same type of fabulous lives they're supposedly leading. There is more of an anguish to this-as if we can see the physical toll such thoughts are taking on Brad's posture and his mess of a hair-do. At the same time, this allows Stiller to inflict upon his performance more soul than he might have had the capacity for in the past as Brad is someone living in an age of social media where he has access to other people's lives at the tap of an app with said lives having naturally been organized and presented in a way that is most attractive and appealing to those looking in from the outside. Never do social media profiles tend to be wholly truthful about the person they represent, which is fine as it's unto each their own how they choose to portray themselves, but the result of such visibility has resulted in this unhealthy trend of judging yourself based on these expectations and, in some regards, ambitions that are unnecessary to the point it's impossible to achieve. This isn't because of any lack of talent, skill, or being deserving of as much, but simply because it's not a sustainable structure for society; there must be people who fall through the cracks, who end up working minimum wage jobs so that services like gas stations and 24-hour drive thru's are possible while, on the other end of the spectrum, one must question why a private jet is necessary or if it's even ethically responsible? With “Brad's Status” White as well as Stiller tackle this bigger idea of what pop culture has been to the average consumer, but has been amplified in the last decade by the likes of Facebook and Instagram (hence the film's title).
That said, “Brad's Status” still very much feels like what is just a slightly above average piece of work despite the writing being as sharp as it is. The observational moments, both in terms of honesty and comedy, as well as Stiller's performance can transcend the genre within which this will be classified, but overall this has the feeling of something that is not a major work, but still a notable one. I very much enjoyed myself while experiencing “Brad's Status” which may be the biggest compliment one can pay White and his film as it covers ground that isn't necessary the most appealing. Furthermore, it is somehow able to take this squirm-inducing subject matter that middle-aged folks would likely rather not talk about and/or ignore completely and somehow make it a rather kindhearted tale. This comes through most in the scenes Stiller shares with Shazi Raja who plays a former classmate of Troy's named Ananya who Brad sees a lot of himself in. Ananya now attends Harvard, is in the orchestra, but has ambitions of doing more as she majors in sociology. Brad sees in Ananya this sense of purpose he feels he once had, this longing to change the world, while Ananya sees in him a perspective on his self-pity that even Brad hasn't yet considered. Stiller's character makes what seems to be an unbelievably dumb and cringy decision about an hour into the film (of course, Stiller is all about wanting to be, but having to try so hard to be here) that we think it will most certainly backfire on him in some convoluted, misunderstood way, but rather it serves as the catalyst for Brad to begin to not necessarily come to terms with his life as it is as it seems Brad will always be too ambitious and compulsive to ever truly feel settled, but rather it will allow him a more narrow focus on dilemmas and circumstances that really matter and that have more of an impact on a broader scale, rather than on that of how his lifestyle stacks up to that of his friends. Speaking of his old college buddies though, both Luke Wilson and Michael Sheen have some really striking moments as both actors seem aware of what their role and contributions need to mean to the overall trajectory of the movie, but are still able to sell them as these genuine, authentic moments for these well-defined characters to the point they don't just serve their purpose, but provide some startling revelations for our titular character. The dinner scene between Sheen and Stiller, especially, is so well executed as it essentially must capture something/feelings that are impossible to define. “Brad's Status” is a movie about the envy we all feel and the validation we all need while helping both Brad and its audience to realize that one can love the world without possessing it.
by Philip Price
When you're one of those people that goes to the cinema a lot it is movies such as “American Assassin” that seem to become the stalest and the most generic the fastest. Of course, to audiences that only see a few movies in theaters every year “American Assassin” will be a perfectly acceptable piece of action pulp. “American Assassin” is a film that will no doubt fulfill expectations for those that felt intrigued enough by the trailers to go out and buy a ticket, but while “American Assassin” is acceptable in terms of technical prowess, some interesting performance choices, and a rather straightforward if not clichéd plot it fails to really exceed in any way within the narrow parameters it has given itself to operate and exist within. No doubt hoping to piggy back off the success of last September's secret assassin thriller, “The Accountant,” “American Assassin” has neither the intrigue nor the style that picture had, but rather with this adaptation of the Vince Flynn airport novel director Michael Cuesta (the criminally overlooked “Kill the Messenger”) has settled squarely into middle-of-the-road territory with a story that isn't afraid to go big, with Cuesta (in his first major studio movie) unfortunately deciding it best to stay as safe as possible. This inherent feeling stay as safe as possible is to be understood in many ways for, by making this a competent action/thriller and little more, Cuesta stood more of a chance to please the public than he did taking risks and appeasing a few critics. With such a consensus comes a solid return and more opportunity and eventually, more power over one’s endeavors. Cuesta is playing by the rules in “American Assassin.” To the movie's credit, it does subvert a handful of expectations within certain scenarios while never being afraid to flaunt its more brutal aspects, but it also never embraces its own genre for the more exciting aspects that such a genre must offer. Rather, this is a movie that is given ample opportunity by its genre to do some cool things with the story it is telling, but rather than take advantage of them “American Assassin” seems to consistently waste each one of them.
The titular character at the heart of all of this is Mitch Rapp (played here by Dylan O'Brien). Rapp has been the star of many novels by Flynn, making his debut in 1999's Transfer of Power which functioned as a movie we've seen many times since that novel debuted. In “American Assassin” we are told Rapp's origin story, but through a set of circumstances that are more accustomed to our modern, post-9/11 world. Upon first meeting Rapp in Cuesta's film screenwriters Michael Finch and Stephen Schiff sell us on the fact that Rapp was an orphaned child who came of age and has taken advantage of every opportunity he could thus landing himself at a respectable university and with a girl who is, by all accounts, his dream girl (Charlotte Vega). As he and his beautiful girlfriend vacation in an exotic beach resort where Rapp has plans of proposing to her they are abruptly interrupted when unnamed terrorists open fire on the pedestrians that are doing little more than enjoying their vacations. With writer/director Edward Zwick and his frequent collaborator/screenwriter Marshall Herskovitz having also recently tackled similarly-styled material in the ‘Jack Reacher’ sequel it seemed CBS Films and Lionsgate thought it a good idea to bring them in on the writing process of this film as well which would somewhat explain the kind of drastic shift not necessarily in tone, but in pacing that occurs once Rapp is unofficially recruited into the CIA after his girlfriend is brutally murdered right in front of him. It is the scenes early in the film though that are most interesting as O'Brien is given the opportunity as Rapp to show how much of a real deal his character is and what he can accomplish by his own will. He is a man with nothing to lose who's confident in his abilities. Through the amount of anger, he feels toward the terrorist group that took away the last good thing in his life that no doubt made everything else that had happened to him bearable, Rapp has trained himself in mixed martial arts, in speaking foreign languages and learning the intricacies of their culture, all the way to infiltrating secret terrorist channels on the internet. It is in these early scenes where the audience is allowed to stew with O'Brien's Rapp that we get a sense of the flavor and potential the series contains-that Rapp is unlike his counterparts because he is an aggressive operative who is willing to take measures that are more extreme than might be considered commonly acceptable-and then twenty minutes in the nuclear bomb subplot gets dropped and everything from this point on begins to feel less and less inspired and more and more predictable.
After Rapp's attempt to infiltrate the terrorist group that was responsible for the death of his girlfriend are interrupted by U.S. Special Forces (don't you hate when that happens) Rapp is recruited by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) to be a part of a black operations unit that is led by a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War veteran named Hurley (Michael Keaton) who couldn't be more self-serious if he were dead serious about how serious he is. Seriously. While there is a little (tiny) bit of fun to be had with the interplay between O'Brien and Keaton in these initial conversations as the banter is knowing and hip to the genre it exists within the film soon devolves into more seriousness. We get the obligatory training montage that sees O'Brien's Rapp going head to head with Scott Adkins' Victor that stirs up a little team rivalry that really isn't considering Victor is definitely a more senior member of the team, has a good twenty years of life experience on Rapp (not to mention the fact Adkins is a professional kickboxer that has mastered many forms of martial arts), and is likely of a more sound body and mind given Rapp has yet to be able to truly harness his anger and need for vengeance into something sustainable. Still, the film consistently reminds us that Lathan's Kennedy has never seen another vigilante like Rapp and that his tests are off the chart. That's all well and good, but is that enough for the CIA Deputy Director to go off and fully trust in so as well as to ignore the wisdom and experience of a senior officer who believes the kid isn't emotionally ready to take on whatever it might be that the CIA needs them to do next? Apparently so. Enter again the nuclear bomb plot as “American Assassin” then interrupts its own training montage to jump start the rest of the film by abruptly sending Hurley and his team of Victor and Rapp to meet up with the CIA's agent on the ground in Istanbul, Annika (Shiva Negar), to uncover the truth about who and why plutonium was stolen from what was supposed to be a deal between Poland and a political group from Iran that doesn't like their country's latest nuclear deal with the U.S. As it turns out, the plutonium was intercepted by an operative nicknamed "Ghost" who, it is very quickly made clear, shares a past connection with Hurley. From here, things only become overly convoluted as the story struggles to sustain a feature-length running time and thus feels the need to throw in such classics as double crossings and countdowns via bomb clocks rather than relishing in the brutality and the rawness of the dynamics that the film only hints at in its most emotionally disparaging of character moments.
Wait? There are potentially interesting (def. arousing curiosity or interest; holding or catching the attention) questions posed or ideas pondered in something as seemingly broad as “American Assassin”? Given the state of the world and specifically the U.S. now, sure, why not? Of course, most of these come with the introduction of the previously unnamed "Ghost" who <Spoiler Alert!> turns out to be Taylor Kitsch (though I'm sure you wouldn't have guessed who the only other major name in the movie might be playing) who is playing the scorned, former golden boy of Hurley's that Rapp presently embodies. Essentially, for most of his time on screen, Kitsch gets to wax sadistic about how patriotism is nothing more than a word made-up to give guys such as himself some feeling of a higher purpose. That, turning out soldiers such as himself-taking unstable, often misguided children in at eighteen because they have nowhere else to turn to and no other options and utilizing the scorned feelings they've internalized their entire lives to make monsters out of-is the business America is in. Kitsch's "Ghost" argues that this must be the right path though, because America does it and to question the great United States is wholly unconstitutional. So yeah, it would be wrong to accuse “American Assassin” of having nothing on its mind when clearly it has an antagonist who is both motivated and complex in that what he's doing is not only what he believes is the right thing to do, but also because he's been so damaged by those who he thought he could trust that he must have been pushed even further when those same people are now the ones on his trail. Does the film expand on any of these ideas through the newly minted main character or do other characters seek to correct their past mistakes in present situations due to these former failures that are once again rearing their head? Not really. Whereas Kitsch gets all the substance “American Assassin” has to offer and does what he can to execute the character in a real and affecting manner, Keaton goes fully to the other side of the spectrum. This is disappointing as Keaton has obviously been putting in some work lately, but it seems here the undeniably charismatic actor was challenged to be his least charismatic and thus went with adapting this low, gravely facade and voice that goes full Mike Tyson crazy on what would then be Kitsch's Evander Holyfield. O'Brien is the balancing act here as he is both committed to the technicalities of the role, but seemingly uninterested in the actions his character must take. For example, one can see the fight scenes are heavily and expertly choreographed here, but Cuesta's direction doesn't allow for us to be able to appreciate any of the work that was likely put in and that's how you largely come away from O'Brien's performance feeling-slightly compelled, but not necessarily invested. On top of that, “American Assassin” simply isn't as exciting as it should be as the level of brutality takes the place of absent thrills. There is some cool imagery to be sure and the film does in fact feel very cinematic-even simple establishing shots require big crane movements-but while “American Assassin” might be unique with its R-rating and unflinchingly dark overtones it is also unbelievably pedestrian.
by Philip Price
On the surface, “Stronger” is a movie that looks as if it is trying desperately to be little more than an awards-contender. True Story? Check. Tragedy? Check. Severe disability? Check. Indie darling director? Check. Jake Gyllenhaal being intense? Check. So yeah, taking the main factors into consideration it's not hard to see why this would seemingly be anything more than an attempt at scoring Gyllenhaal an Oscar and maybe, to some degree, the hope is that might work out in the end, but it's not the film’s main objective and it certainly isn't where the intent of the film lies as Stronger is easily one of the most genuine movies I've seen all year. Genuine in that it never cops to sensationalizing anything that would be an easy target given the subject matter. No, “Stronger” is a human story, a story about a relationship more than it is the Boston Marathon bombing and within that the film goes to places where it can cut deeper emotionally than it would had the film simply resorted to recreating the horror of that day. Director David Gordon Green, who came to prominence on the back of indies such as “George Washington” and
“All the Real Girls” only to go on to helm big budget comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” has, in recent years, found a kind of middle ground between these two wide-ranging genres where mid-budgeted, character driven stories featuring big names have become something of the filmmaker's forte. Green only continues to hone this kind of movie-making in “Stronger.” Combining his knack for naturalistic and improvised moments with that of his major studio experience in staging a recreation of the bombing as well as shooting at both Boston hockey and baseball games Green has, in many ways, culminated all his past experiences with “Stronger” and the result is a film that is deceptively simple, deceptively easy to misread and/or label as one thing, but is so much more than it initially appears to be. “Stronger” is a movie that delves into one man coming to terms with a new way of life, a new status among his peers, and a relationship he isn't sure is destined to work out all while recovering from the most traumatic day of his life. “Stronger” doesn't resonate due to big, dramatic moments, but more for the ones that aren't; the quite moments where one can't verbalize why they're significant, but feel that they are. “Stronger” is somehow able to tap into these unspoken moments and is more authentic because of that.
Based on the real-life events of Jeff Bauman and based on a book by Bauman with the help of Bret Witter screenwriter John Pollono has relayed Bauman's story to the screen from the perspective of this single guy's experience rather than trying to make his story a story about all of us. No, this is absolutely and whole-heartily Bauman's story and Green takes this note from Pollono's script and runs with it. From the outset, as we are introduced to Bauman at his place of work at Costco, we become integrated into this blue-collar world of routine and superstitions as it quickly becomes apparent Bauman's enthusiasm for the Red Sox and his belief that his role in viewing the game plays some part in his team winning is of the utmost importance to him. In this opening scene we learn a lot of what we'll need to know about Jeff by the actions he takes and how they indicate where his priorities lie. Jeff convinces his boss to let him off early so that he can go to a specific bar where his brother, uncles and cousins are all watching the game so that he can root them on from a specific seat in the bar. A seat he will swear by helps the Sox win. At this point in his life, Jeff is 26-years old, working at Costco with no seemingly bigger aspirations, and much of his focus on a sports team that neither benefits nor at a disadvantage due to his involvement. And so, when his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), shows up at this same bar looking for donations to run in the Boston Marathon Jeff looks to try and win her back by not only garnering her as many donations as he can, but by promising her he'll show up at the race with a big sign to cheer her on. It's not hard to see Erin doesn't really believe a word Jeff is saying as this clearly had some bearing on their break-up, but still-she is charmed. At the same time, we see how much more inspired Jeff becomes when Erin is around-Gyllenhaal somehow seeming to literally light up when Maslany's Erin walks in the room-and in his excitement to craft his own sign for the race that next morning the film exemplifies the fact Erin inherently makes Jeff want to be a better version of himself. Not 10 minutes into the film we are back amid April 15, 2013 when two homemade bombs were detonated 12 seconds and 200 yards apart killing three people and injuring hundreds, including 16 who lost limbs. Jeff Bauman was one of those 16 people who lost limbs, but not his life as he was saved by a Good Samaritan who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is in the chaos that ensues, not just in the wake of the bombings, but that of the familial kind that drives Bauman to really discover the type of life he wants to lead and who he wants to lead it with; his injury and the baffling attention that comes along with it ultimately serving to make these kinds of definitive decisions all the clearer. And thus, making “Stronger” a movie about self-discovery, but one that avoids many of the tropes of how clichéd that sounds.
Speaking to both how Green has found this middle ground of operating within big studio programming while still being able to evoke the naturalistic and oh so tender moments of humanity that litter his early work as well as the fact “Stronger” is a film more or less about a relationship being put to the ultimate test as framed by an historical event there is a single scene and its execution that exemplifies every good quality and every pure intention that this film has. It comes while Gyllenhaal's Bauman is still recovering in the hospital. Maslany's Erin has chosen to show up thus far-partially because she feels responsible for Jeff being in the position he is and, it seems, partly because she genuinely does care about and miss him. Bauman has seemed pleasantly surprised that his ex-girlfriend has been there and been supportive. The simplest and slightest of affections are heartwarming in the most innocent and hopeful of ways. The moment comes though when Jeff is set to have the dressings on his legs changed for the first time. Green frames it from over Bauman's shoulders so that it is his face that is in focus in the foreground while just beyond his profile we see what is left of his legs sitting on the bed. We don't see the faces of the doctors and nurses around him, but we hear them verbally walking Jeff through what is about to happen; preparing him for the pain and asking him if he wants to look to see or if he prefers to keep his eyes averted. Jeff doesn't want to look, but he's cool and collected. The doctor, continuing to talk, removes the first bandages from Jeff's right leg and Green holds this single shot the entire time. Gyllenhaal never drops from this moment his character is experiencing as he keeps his eyes either closed or locked to somewhere just off screen. The doctors and nurses congratulate Jeff on doing so well throughout the removal of the first dressing, but it becomes immediately apparent as they begin to remove the second that the pain is much worse-the situation and its circumstances that much more real. As Jeff cries out in pain for the first time from out of frame comes Erin. She has been there the whole time. The camera stays on them without a single cut or barely a waver and it is nothing short of a perfect decision. The framing of the shot contrasts the point of the scene with the weight of the emotions occurring during this moment as Green chooses to stay focused on the tight close-up of Gyllenhaal's face while, when Maslany suddenly enters the frame, we understand the patience and healing necessary in this moment and what it essentially means for their relationship on a bigger scale. We understand Jeff is pain, but we also see the curtain being dropped as Jeff allows himself to be vulnerable in front of Erin and Erin actively wants to take care of Jeff. It's a simple shot, but it's perfectly composed in terms of everything that happens within it while getting at the crux of why it is necessary stories such as this are told in the first place.
Though this moment is simple in its execution, but what it contains couldn't be more layered or complex. This couldn't better exemplify that movies are all about the approach to story and the fact that how they are shot greatly influences what we remember about them-if they're memorable at all. Both Green and Pollono seem to understand that, on paper, “Stronger” isn't exactly a movie that is destined to light the world on fire. In fact, they probably realize most audiences will feel as if they've seen something along the lines of this before and we have, but in making decisions such as the one detailed in the previous paragraph “Stronger” is immediately made more memorable not because of what it is saying, but because of the aesthetic serving as something a little more abstract and thus more memorable than the familiar narrative. This aesthetic, that permeates throughout the film, serves to make the purpose of this scene to both help the audience understand something beyond the surface of what is physically happening while keeping a focus on what the movie is about-keeping Jeff and Erin in the foreground and in that tight close-up-holding the shot for as long as he does essentially telling us it's about this love that is meant to last. It's powerful stuff and is only, obviously, made more effective by the powerhouse performances of both Gyllenhaal and Maslany. Everyone knows Gyllenhaal is a master craftsman at this point. The guy, who is only thirty-seven, is so committed to his job and therefore detailing out the accurate emotion and thought behind each line to the point he knows the character and the script back to front in a way that it's almost inevitable that it will be terrific. Gyllenhaal plays Jeff not as the always likable protagonist who we're meant to feel sorry for in that, "why do bad things happen to such good people," sense, but more he is a multi-dimensional human being who is mostly a good guy, but who can be an asshole. Jeff is irresponsible and sometimes infuriating in that he's not mature enough to make the decisions he should so clearly be making, but he's also been through something traumatic and come out the other side a national hero for doing nothing other than becoming paralyzed. We, as the viewer, go through many stages of endearing moments and pure idiotic ones with Jeff, but ultimately this makes the authenticity of it all ring that much truer. And Maslany, as soon as she walks in a room she brings an undeniable warmth with her. It's easy to see why Jeff wants Erin to be there, to serve as a source of comfort, but Erin is equally as complicated in that she is in this position with no seemingly good resolution. Jeff too realizes the situation Erin is in isn't a fair one and while it is this decision to never hold it against her that likely allows for Erin to feel freer about her decision to be with Jeff the two have more than their fair share to overcome including a whirlwind of a performance from Miranda Richardson as Jeff's domineering mother. Each of these narrative details come together to deliver a portrait of lost identity, of dealing with trauma, and the configuring of a new identity in the wake of tragedy to ultimately be a picture of humanity and the fact that while it's not always pretty, it can always prevail.
by Philip Price
“American Made” is one of those "so crazy it must be true" stories that comes to shed light on what was seemingly a mess the U.S. government frantically tried to clean up, but couldn't help only making bigger messes out of. “American Made” looks to sheds light on an individual who was essentially taken advantage of despite the fact he himself took advantage of every opportunity he was given. Never stopping to question the repercussions of his actions, his own moral compass- never mind the ones of those he was in league with, or considering his ultimate role in the scheme of things Barry Seal was a reckless man who lived fast and loose and thus this movie about his life appropriately does the same thing. From director Doug Liman (“Edge of Tomorrow”), “American Made” is one-part Tom Cruise-vehicle, one-part biopic, and just a wholly unbelievable adventure tale that asks the audience to go along with it even as the places it goes that it claims to be true are preposterous. That said, while the film capably chronicles the fast-paced life of one, Barry Seal, it doesn't stop long enough to really meditate on any of the decisions, plans, or ideas that its protagonist might have had or considered when going through with his actions. We get little in the way of motivation other than the fact Seal seems to crave a wilder lifestyle than that of what his life as a commercial airline pilot for TSA was providing. While “American Made” might not carry as much depth as one would expect when discussing past political decisions, drug cartels, money laundering, and the like Liman directs the film, written by man of few credits Gary Spinelli, as if Seal himself was telling it; the filmmaker even including snippets of Seal talking into a VHS camcorder as he recounts his story periodically throughout the feature. This is Barry Seal's story in the style of Barry Steal-fast and loose. And by imbuing this type of style through to the overall tone of the film it allows for “American Made,” while not necessarily deep, to feel authentic and naturally revealing. More than anything, “American Made” is a hell of an entertaining ride and one can't ask for much more than that out of a Tom Cruise blockbuster that isn't an action blockbuster in 2017.
As stated, we meet Seal in 1978 when he was a commercial airline pilot for TSA (where he was fired from in 1972 after being caught in Mexico with explosives that were supposedly on their way to anti-Castro Cubans). In “American Made,” Seal is initially sniffed out by the CIA, and more specifically a man named 'Schafer' (Domhnall Gleeson), for smuggling cigars into the U.S. Schafer enlists Seal to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the CIA over South America and take what Seal affectionately refers to as "snaps". While both Schafer and Schafer's bosses at the CIA are pleased with what Seal is delivering they aren't exactly compensating him in ways that are as enticing as the adventures they're delivering. As Seal's reputation continues to improve in the CIA circles he is asked to act as a courier between the CIA and General Noriega (Alberto Ospino) in Panama. While in Panama, Seal is approached by the likes of the Medellín Cartel that includes Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), about flying their product into the U.S. on his return trips home. The Cartel has seemingly had many failures regarding getting their product into the U.S., but given they're willing to pay a thousand dollars per every pound he delivered, Seal not only agreed, but developed a system of dropping the product off over Louisiana without ever landing. While Schafer is seemingly aware of what Seal is up to, but chooses to turn a blind eye to, the DEA is not and tracks Seal down thus forcing Schafer to move Seal, his wife (Sarah Wright), and their children to the remote town of Mena, Ark. Once in Mena, Schafer adjusts Seal's role to that of a gun runner for the Nicaraguan-based Contras who were a rebel group to their country's Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government that were backed by the U.S. government. The thing is, these Contras didn't really care about fighting or becoming soldiers-when Seal is asked to bring in some of the men to the U.S. for training purposes many of them flee the base once they hit American soil-and so Seal, seeing the lack of desire and skill in the Contras he once again starts helping the Medellín Cartel transport drugs as well as trading guns to the Cartel as well. Seal's operation becoming so successful he has more money than he knows what to do with.
Sounds insane, right? That somehow, over the course of a condensed, two-hour narrative, this guy can go from his humble beginnings as a commercial airline pilot to what could be considered one of the people responsible for bringing the crack/cocaine epidemic Stateside in the eighties and yet, Seal somehow manages to pull that one off. This brings us to the fact that, despite the retrospective of Seal's story being an entertaining romp, his actions were extremely self-serving, irresponsible, and downright shocking when stepping back to consider the fact the CIA essentially looked the other way to Seal smuggling drugs if he was also serving their purpose of getting guns to the Contra regime. So, how does Seal then come out to be the hero of this story? How is this man who did nothing but bad things and brought nothing but stress and hardship down on those he loved to save for a brief period when they had anything they wanted, the same person that is this charming, charismatic, and lovingly foolish rascal that's nearly impossible to dislike? Sometimes it's because he's not the hero of the story despite being the most prominent figure in it, but much of the reason has to deal with the fact it is Cruise playing him. Having not seen the movie star (and man, does he ever prove he is a movie star here) in this capacity in quite some time (2012's “Rock of Ages” was his last non-action hero role) it is kind of thrilling to watch Cruise have so much fun as he gets to fly across beautiful landscapes, act without any constraints while seemingly paying no consequences for his actions as he trusts that no matter what he does, his newest employer will have his back. And, for a long time and for a lot more than one might expect, they do. Schafer continues to give Seal all he needs to play both sides of the rope, but while Cruise's Seal is endearing and his story a wild one, there is still something “American Made” must say about its main character-even if it's not particularly profound. “American Made” isn't a movie about the politics of what is happening (though I'm sure a very serious drama could be made of as much), it is a movie about Seal's shenanigans and how he can in fact get away with them for as long as he does. Whether we like to admit it or not, this country largely rewards bad behavior in that the individuals who typically act in such ways are lauded as the more interesting and appealing for their willingness to go where others won't. Is this revelatory or insightful? No, but the fact this guy, who walks a seemingly perfect balance between genius and insanity, could do what he did with who he did it for any amount of time is insane and that Liman and Cruise have created this confection that I enjoyed makes the bigger statement about the fact it doesn't matter what the movie must say, but that it's more about what they want their audience to realize.
As it is, “American Made” is indeed a good time at the movies and much of that does in fact must deal with Cruise's central performance, but outside of Cruise somewhat re-living his glory days in this roguish/adrenaline-seeking role of Seal the film also gives interesting caveats of characters to the people that surround him. Naturally, the appearance of Escobar and the other founding members of the Medellín Cartel are critical to Seal's story, but what is more fascinating is the role Wright's Lucy comes to play in her husband's life. In real life, Seal was on his second marriage by the time the events in the film take place, with another marriage on the way. Still, while we initially expect Wright's Lucy to despise her husband for his actions and likely leave him taking their two kids and the one on the way with her (again, in real life Seal had five children across his three marriages) she does not. In fact, she somewhat embraces their new-found fortune and prefers to ask as few questions as possible while relishing in the lifestyle she has been provided as much as she seemingly can. While Wright is nearly 20 years Cruise's junior (he was starring in “Risky Business” the year she was born) this strangely makes sense as the real Seal was in his mid-40s when these events transpired (which Cruise can totally pull off) and per his personality, going for a younger woman seems like the type of thing he'd be up for if not intent on. This factors in very little though, which is a credit to both stars, as it is their relationship based purely on love and infatuation for one another with not an ounce of trust between them that somehow manages to work. Add to this Caleb Landry Jones as Lucy's backwoods brother who can't help but to ruin a good thing (it was always his destiny, it seems) as well as Jesse Plemons as the local, Polk County sheriff and the film contains enough character dynamics to keep audiences invested in its eventful, but rather straightforward narrative. Liman and screenwriter Spinelli don't allow themselves to get too deep into the semantics of Seal's many situations and the politics of his circumstances, but rather they allow “American Made” to possess this kind of improvised style that sustains itself by being able to somehow continually up the ante in this true story that reaches levels of genuine absurdity. Liman's greens pop, his camera is shaky, but focused, and as he slyly sneaks in a subtle internal discussion on our inherent preferences for people based on their appeal versus their ethics, “American Made” ultimately comes to be something we can't take our eyes off even if we know we shouldn't reward Seal's shamelessness.