REVIEW: Patriots Day

15 04 2017

The narrative elements of “Patriots Day” show Peter Berg at the top of his game. As a film that recreates the terror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search to catch the perpetrators, it’s every bit as taught and harrowing as “Lone Survivor.” Critique ideology all you want – and I had my fair share of issues with the comforting yet alarming deployment of the surveillance state – but objectively speaking, Berg and his technicians know how to edit for maximum tension around an event whose outcome we already know.

Now, you might have noticed that I specified “narrative elements.” That was intentional. “Patriots Day” ends on a lengthy postscript of talking-head style documentary footage with survivors of the bombing. It’s stirring, sure, but it left me wondering – why not just make a non-fiction film? The appetite for documentaries exists now thanks to platforms like Netflix and HBO.

In “Patriots Day,” fictionalization began to feel like trivialization. If the words of real people are powerful enough to end a film, they ought to be powerful enough to sustain a film. Why does Berg think we need Mark Wahlberg sermonizing from the back of a truck bed over sappy, inspiring music to care about the heroism of Boston’s finest? Why does he feel the need to compress the valiant actions of several police officers into one composite, Teddy Saunders, for Mark Wahlberg to play?

Berg tries to have it both ways in the film, leaning on both the authenticity of the survivors’ pain while also shoehorning reality into a convenient narrative device about one police officer who cracks open the case with a hobbled leg. (At times, his lickety-split reactions don’t even make logical sense!) If recent yanked from the headlines stories are going to continue to serve as fodder for cinema, we need to have a larger debate about how filmmakers can and cannot rely on actual participants. B+

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 21, 2016)

21 04 2016

TruckerDo you ever stop and think about what could have happened in an actor’s career if they had caught the right breaks? If people had paid more attention to them when they were younger? (It’s a fascinating thought experiment, if you ever have the opportunity to daydream.)

In such an alternate universe, I wish Michelle Monaghan were a far greater star than she is today. And if not a star, at least she would be recognized for her vast array of acting talents. 2009’s “Trucker” might be for Monaghan what 2013’s “Short Term 12” was for Brie Larson – a showcase of tremendous ability that in turn serves as a valuable stepping stone towards wider renown.

The film, written and directed by James Mottern, does not necessarily bring much new to the table. Its story of an adult reluctantly assuming the duties of parenthood is something we have seen before. But the kind of selfishness and feet-dragging displayed by Monaghan’s character, the titular truck driver Diane Ford, is the kind usually portrayed by deadbeat dads.

Mothers usually must stay strong and unfailing in their love or face vilification. Mottern refuses to do that, letting Diane crave what any person being wants – a space to relax, a moment to breathe, an iota of satisfaction – without passing judgment. That quiet dignity and soft-spoken feminist angle on a traditional domestic drama gives “Trucker” just enough edge to put it in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.

Monaghan matches Mottern’s tenor beat for beat, constantly spitting in the face of conventional moments for either demonization or lionization. Diane is not there as an object for our scorn or admiration. She is just fully human like us – probably a little more selfish than selfless, more stubborn than sociable. Diane does not move towards reconciliation with her son, forgiveness from her ex-husband (Benjamin Bratt) or love with her platonic pal (Nathan Fillion). She just moves from day to day, taking life like it is.

Sometimes, that’s nice. Sometimes, that’s the best way to really understand the experience of someone else.

REVIEW: Source Code

9 07 2011

Part “Inception” and part “Groundhog Day,” Duncan Jones’ sophomore directing effort “Source Code” is a fully engrossing thriller that blends the best aspects of both and reminds us how a good action movie should make us feel.  It’s cleverly written, masterfully directed, and potently acted.  It maintains an uncannily even keel while juggling action, mystery, and even some wit and heart.  Come December, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is still one of my favorites of the year.

The movie’s captivating sci-fi premise is executed admirably and with precision, largely thanks to how screenwriter Ben Ripley insists on making it so simple.  “Source Code” reminds us that original and complex aren’t necessarily synonyms on screen.  In about the time that it took “Inception” to lay out its exposition, Ripley gets us in and out of the source code, never making us feel lost or confused for a second.  Even at its short running time of under an hour and a half, we never feel like shorted in terms of story or entertainment.

The titular program allows Captain Colter Stevens, played with cunning and intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal, to relive the 8 minutes before a bomb explodes on a train outside of Chicago in the body of teacher Sean Fentress.  As he switches back and forth between finding the terrorist inside the source code and figuring out his own status outside, Stevens is putting together more than just an elaborate puzzle – he’s piecing together his life.  The stakes are high, and Gyllenhaal along with Vera Farmiga’s stone-faced – but not unemotionally robotic – webcam operator play them as such.  The result is that we don’t just want to sit back and watch the characters put the pieces together; we want to join in from the other side of the screen.

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REVIEW: Due Date

29 11 2010

The straight man-fat man road trip routine has been done before (see “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”), but just because John Hughes milked that cow first doesn’t mean he milked it dry.  There’s still plenty of humor left in the sub-genre, and “Due Date” manages to find quite a bit of it.  With Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in great comic form, director Todd Phillips of “The Hangover” fame makes a movie that really delivers in the laugh department.

All plausibility is thrown out the window as Peter (Downey) makes an all-too-difficult return voyage home to Los Angeles for the birth of his child.  Each step of the way is only made more challenging by aspiring actor Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis), a magnet for disaster with no filter blocking thoughts from words.  As they traverse across America with a coffee can of his father’s ashes and his carry-on sized pooch Sonny, Ethan’s ineptitude makes sure Peter won’t arrive prematurely for the due date of his wife (Michelle Monaghan).

The situations are fairly well-crafted, ranging from a grumpy Western Union employee played by the always hilarious Danny McBride to Jamie Foxx as a smooth-talking Texan football player.  There are also plenty of conflicts with national security from the TSA to Border Patrol to keep things interesting too.

But what saves “Due Date” from being average and raises it to the level of decent entertainment is the talent of its stars Downey and Galifianakis.  They inject the movie with their hilariously polar opposite personalities, and their sheer presence is enough to garner multiple outrageous bursts of laughter.  Galifianakis particularly lights up the screen with his dynamite energy, and he shows that his ability to spin little lines into comedic gold is not limited to the character Alan in “The Hangover.”  With him in full gear, there’s no shortage of laughs here.  Cheap, sure, but nonetheless, laughs.  B

F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 15, 2010)

15 10 2010

While my struggles to choose this “F.I.L.M. of the Week” were documented in today’s factoid, I finally found a perfectly acceptable movie to feature here: Shane Black’s noir sendup “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”  Starring a pre-anointed Hollywood savior Robert Downey Jr. and a post-Batman Val Kilmer, the movie is a hilarious and thrilling story of murder, intrigue, betrayal, and cinema.  (And, as Downey’s character reminds us, ultimately a tale of friendship.)

The very meta movie works largely in part to Downey’s irresistible narration.  A part of the events yet telling them from afar, his perspective is certainly a strange one.  At times, he is omniscient; at others, limited.  Yet almost all the time, he’s a bumbling genius flying by the seat of his pants through a set of unforeseeable events.  After robbing a game store, his Harry runs unknowingly into a casting session for a role that is eerily reminiscent of the events of his law-breaking night.  Taken for an incredible method actor, the producers claim him to be their “big discovery” and fly him out to Hollywood for the next round of preparations.

Once in Hollywood, Harry deals with culture shock at a party, a little unsure of how to act around California socialites.  However, he reunites with his high-school sweetheart Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) unexpectedly and a romance begins to bloom.  Taking him for a detective, not an actor (which he also is not), she involves him in the investigation of her sister’s curious death.  Harry, along with actual investigator Perry van Shrike (Kilmer), probe deeper and find themselves entangled in a web involving two murders and some very scary connections.

While the plot may get a little confusing at times, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is incredibly entertaining because of its clever blend of humor and mystery.   The performances from Downey and Kilmer are dynamic and light up the screen.  The plot is intelligent, and the fresh narrative style makes the somewhat hackneyed plot very fun to watch again.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 5, 2010)

5 02 2010

The “F.I.L.M of the Week” is not independent, just to get that out of the way.  “North Country” is, however, first-rate.  The movie’s critics will probably say, “Haven’t I seen this movie before?  Oh, right, every two hours on Lifetime and Hallmark channels!”  To them, I say – yeah, maybe a little bit.  Sure, it doesn’t stray too far from the stock story of courage in the face of terrible circumstances.  But it has a tremendous power which can make you forgive the formulaic nature of the movie.

This power comes from a fantastic ensemble cast, led by Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances.  Theron plays Josey, a determined woman with two children that she needs to feed.  She moves back to her hometown and takes a job at the local mine, where she can bring home the biggest paycheck.  There are very few women employed there, and the men go out of their way to make sure they know that they aren’t welcome.  Horrible epithets fly and despicable deeds are committed.  The men succeed in their goal of making the women dread coming to work.  Josey and the other women, including the tough-as-nails Glory (McDormand), try to stand up for themselves, only to be told to “take it like a man.”

But what they don’t count on is Josey’s iron will.  She calls friend and lawyer Bill White (Woody Harrelson) to take on a landmark case – the first ever class action sexual harassment suit.  The town instantly turns against her, thinking she might be trying to shut down the mine.  Josey even manages to earn the ire of her father (Richard Jenkins).  But, as all these movies tell us, humanity and courage triumph over all perils.

Keep an eye out for Jeremy Renner, the now Oscar-nominated star of “The Hurt Locker,” who delivers a particularly haunting performance as one of the main perpetrators.  He also has a unique position in the conundrum because he was an old flame of Josey’s during high school.  It’s another role filled with emotional depth that Renner absolutely nails.  If anyone had any doubts, he’s definitely not a one-trick pony.

I’m sure the real events that inspired “North Country” were much less campy and melodramatic.  Nonetheless, the film gets you worked up, emotional, and impassioned.  For just another inspirational movie, that’s about as good it gets.