Who exactly could get that excited about a movie about selling a shoe? Apparently, plenty of critics and audiences judging by the success of Air, the dramatization of the eventual formation and presentation for the first Air Jordan sneaker. It’s Amazon’s first original movie that they’ve given a theatrical release since 2019’s Late Night, and it proved a moderate success for a mid-range adult drama before debuting on its streaming service. I was intrigued by the creative pedigree, as I’ve been an ardent fan of Ben Affleck as a director, and the uniformly strong critical reviews, but I kept thinking, “It’s just a shoe.” It was hard for me to imagine getting that drawn into a drama about a bunch of guys trying to get Michael Jordan’s endorsement. I just couldn’t see the movie in this scenario. Now that I’ve actually watched Air, I can credit it as a well-written and well-acted movie about passionate people putting forward a presentation. That’s the movie, and while entertaining, it’s still hard for me to understand all the fuss.
It’s 1984 and Nike isn’t the market-leading trend-setting company that we think of today. They dominated the running world but few if any saw them as hip. They were struggling behind Adidas and Converse in popularity and cultural cache, and CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) had tasked his basketball head of operations Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) with snagging endorsements from the new NBA rookies. Sonny wants to go all-in on just one athlete, a special case that Sonny thinks can revolutionize the game, and one that could propel Nike to the next level. But first he’ll have to convince Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), that this smaller company with its smaller reach is going to be the best fit for her son’s potential future earnings.
This is still a movie about a shoe, but it’s really a movie about people who are good at their jobs and trying to change a paradigm of thinking and the Way Things Are Done. I’ve seen it said that Air is “Moneyball for sneakerheads,” and that’s an apt comparison. It’s about a bunch of smart guys fighting for clout, a group of underdogs going up against the entrenched winners, but it’s really about passionate people trying to get others to recognize their passion. So it’s scene after scene of Sonny trying to break through and get others to understand why his way of thinking is going to be the best. It’s also structured entirely around the big presentation with the Jordans, with each stop at a competing shoe company as its own act break. It makes the movie feel very streamlined and focused. It allows moments for minor characters to get their own moment, to make it seem like there’s a larger world behind every scene. It makes the team feel more filled out, and as each person and artist comes together, it’s reminiscent of movies in general, about various talents coming together to put on a big show. With our hindsight already locked in before the opening credits, it’s got to be the journey that matters here, because we know the eventual coupling, so Air has to justify why the before time could be captivating. It’s engaging because it’s a story built upon underdogs and smart people getting to flex their smarts.
Of course, it’s also not too difficult to make someone look smart with the power of hindsight. This was one of the more maddening features of Aaron Sorkin’s frustrating HBO series, The Newsroom. The focus was on a TV show on a cable news network but it existed in our universe, covering the big stories from the recent past. Rather than providing insight into the struggles of journalists trying to break big stories and follow their leads, Sorkin’s show was his turn to rewrite the news, showing how the foolish journalists should have covered these major events. It was his condescending attempt to tell professionals how they should have done their jobs. However, he had the extreme benefit of 18 months or so of hindsight and seeing what was important and what was less so, which just made his critiques all the more condescending (“Why don’t you know all the things that I know from the future, stupid present people?”). I could do this myself, writing a story about a guy in the 1930s talking down to these people hoarding their gold and how they should, instead, invest in a burgeoning computer industry. It’s not hard to look smart when you have history already in your pocket. This is also the case with Sonny in Air, who says over and over how special Michael Jordan is, and we know this too with our personal hindsight, so it makes him look transcendent. However, there could be any number of guys in history that had a similar hunch about Sam Bowie, the player picked one spot ahead of Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft and whose career was cut short by rampant leg injuries. That could have happened to Jordan too. Sometimes the greatest athletes are the recipients of just horrible luck (look at Bo Jackson, a modern-day Greek God who could have been an all-timer in two sports).
Where Air glides is with its snappy dialogue and attention to its supporting cast, thanks to debut screenwriter Alex Convery. Despite my reservations on the subject matter, this is proof that a good writer can make any story compelling as long as they channel into the right universal elements. A movie about selling a shoe to a future billionaire becomes an underdog story and one about a group of middle-aged guys trying to live out their dreams by picking the right player to become their vicarious capitalistic dream. The side characters played by Chris Messina as a foul-mouthed agent, and Jason Batemen as an exec who mostly just wants to spend more time with his kids following a divorce, and Matthew Maher (Our Flag Means Death) as a lonely shoe designer, are welcomed and I enjoyed spending time with them all before the big decision. It’s pleasurable just to sit and listen to the conversational banter. If you can find a way to make characters debating the particulars of their industry and make it interesting regardless of industry, then that’s the sign of a good writer. There’s plenty of conflict thrumming throughout, like Sonny pushing to spend his entire department’s budget on one player rather than spreading the risk around, and the climax involves whether or not a billion-dollar company is willing to split some of its earnings with the athlete they’re making mega-million from. It was a first-of-its-kind deal that changed the industry, giving athletes more leverage and direct money for the use of their likenesses, and considering how integral Jordan was to the explosion of the NBA’s popularity, it was money well spent.
There’s no distinct directing flair from Affleck, as I think he recognizes the strengths of this script and how best to utilize them, which is to support his actors and give them space. The most noticeable directing feature is the repeated use of period-appropriate songs and archival footage, which might explain the movie’s staggering reported $90 million budget (for a shoe movie?). Affleck keeps things moving at a light-hearted tone but knows when to slow things down too.
Air is an amusing drama with good performances and good writing and direction that understands how best to hone both of those selling points. It’s very streamlined while still feeling developed, and it manages to make a decades-old shoe deal feel interesting in 2023. I enjoyed it but I would have enjoyed this cast in just about anything, and I feel like the screenwriter and Affleck as a director have better stories on their docket waiting. It’s an enjoyable and intelligent drama with crackling good dialogue. It’s a solid movie but I guess I won’t ever understand the adoration it received, and that’s fine. Air proves you can indeed tell a compelling movie about a shoe deal. There you have it. Now back to that chicken/egg dilemma.
Nate’s Grade: B
She Dies Tomorrow (2020)
She Dies Tomorrow has unwittingly become a movie of the moment, tapping into the encroaching anxiety and paranoia of our COVID-19 times in a way where the horror of newspaper headlines and existential dread has been transformed into a memetic curse. The new indie thriller is an uncanny and unexpected reflection of our uncertain times and it makes She Dies Tomorrow even more resonant, even if writer/director Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color, 2019 Pet Sematary) doesn’t fully seem to articulate her story. We’ve dealt with curses in films before and we’ve dealt with foreboding omens of impending death, but how would you respond if you knew, with certainty, that you were going to die the next day? How would you respond if you knew that your existence was itself a vector for this mysterious contagion and that by telling others you are dooming them to the same deadly fate, as well as their loved ones, and so on? Sure sounds similar to a certain invisible enemy that relies upon communal consideration to be beaten back but maybe that’s just me.
Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a recovering alcoholic who knows, with complete certainty, that she will die the next day. Her boyfriend killed himself after saying he was cursed to live one last day, and now she’s convinced the same fate awaits her. Her sister Jane (Jane Adams) is worried about her mental state and then becomes obsessed with her warning. Jane then believes she too will meet the same fate, and discusses this to her brother (Chris Messina) and his wife (Katie Aselton) and two of their dinner guests. Each comes to believe that this deadly declaration is true. They must decide how to spend their remaining hours and whether the curse spreads beyond them.
It seems like with Color Out of Space and The Beach House, 2020 is the year of movies where characters slowly succumb to forces beyond their understanding and that they cannot overcome. Halfway through She Dies Tomorrow, we have a half dozen characters that have been infected, and we watch how each respond to the recognition of their impending doom. One man wants to take care of personal decisions he’s been postponing. Another decides to come clean about wanting to end their relationship. Another debates whether it’s more humane to allow their child to pass in her sleep rather than rouse her to expire aware and conscious. That’s the kind of stuff that is intensely interesting, allowing the viewer to question what their own decisions and thoughts might be under these unique circumstances. I also liked that Seimetz keeps some degree of ambiguity (though perhaps too much for her own good). The curse is never fully confirmed. Could it simply be people going crazy and giving into a mental delusion that their fate is decided beyond their governance? Could they all be hypochondriacs giving into their worst fears and finding paranoid community? Is there a relief is adopting self-defeating fatalism?
The slow, fatalistic approach of the storytelling and the spread of the curse channels the crushing feelings of depression and helplessness, an emotional state many can identify with right now. There’s a heaviness throughout the movie that feels like an oppressive existential weight. As soon as these characters recognize the truth of the “I’ll die tomorrow” creed, they don’t fight. They don’t run. They don’t even rage against the unfair nature of their imminent demise. There isn’t a cure or even a mechanism for delay. The rules of the curse are fairly vague but it seems to follow the specifics of once you’re been exposed to an infected individual, and they mention their own impending death, that this starts the clock for your end. The characters lament how they’ve spent their lives, what they might like to have done differently, and come to terms with some marginal level of acceptance. Amy wants her body to be turned into a leather coat after she’s gone. Another woman opines how much she’ll miss trees, something that she took for granted. Another character marvels at the beauty of the sunset, which will be his last, drinking in the natural splendor with a new appreciation that he never had before. One woman says she regrets spending so much of her days talking about dumb nonsense, and then her firend disagrees, saying he enjoyed her nonsense and it brought him laughter. Taking stock of a life, there will always be regrets that more wasn’t accomplished or appreciated, and many of these same characters are determining how to spend their last hours, whether they prefer a partner or going it alone. In that sense, She Dies Tomorrow reminds me of the mopey indie version of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or the more palatable, less operatic version of Melancholia.
At barely 90 minutes, this is also a very slow and meditative movie that will likely trigger frustration in many a viewer. I’ll admit that my mind wandered from time to time with some of the, shall we say, more leisurely paced segments or redundant moments. There is a heavy amount of ennui present throughout here, so watching a woman listen to the same classical record, or laying on the floor in a catatonic daze, or staring off uninterrupted into the middle distance adds up as far as the run time. There isn’t much in the way of story here to fill out those 90 minutes. Amy infects her sister, who infects her brother and his wife, and from there they all deal with their new reality. From a plot standpoint, that’s about all She Dies Tomorrow has to offer. It has flashes of interesting character moments, like the couple who talk about their long-delayed breakup, or the couple discussing the ethics of letting their child die in her sleep, but too often the movie relies on mood over story, letting a numbing futility wash over the characters and conversely the audience. I’m not saying that mood can’t be the priority. It feels like apocalyptic mumblecore but with a screenplay with too much internalization to really take off. It can seem like an overextended short film. I can’t help but feel that Seimetz is just scraping the surface of her story potential and that these characters could have been even more compelling if they were given more than resignation.
Sheil (Equals, House of Cards) gives a suitably withdrawn and shell-shocked performance. She reminded me of a cross between Katherine Waterston and Dakota Johnson. The other actors, including familiar faces like Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez, all adjust their performances to fit the tone and mood of this world, which means much is dialed back. I wish I had more moments like when Aselton (The League) viciously unloads what she really thinks about her aloof sister-in-law. The cast as a whole feel overly anesthetized, a bunch of walking zombies bumbling around the furniture, and while it’s within Seimetz’s intended approach, it does drain some of the appeal from the film.
Given the overwhelming feeling of daily unease we live with during an ongoing pandemic, I can understand if watching a movie like She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t exactly seem desirable. It can prove engaging while also airy, navel-gazing, and adrift. It’s several big ideas spread thin with overextended melancholy and nihilism. In a way it reminds me of 2016’s A Ghost Story, another indie reaching for some big statements about the human condition and grief and our sense of self and legacy. But that movie didn’t quite have enough development to make those ideas hit. Instead, I’ll remember it always as the Rooney Mara Eats a Pie For Five Minutes movie. There’s nothing quite as memorable, good or bad, here with She Dies Tomorrow. It’s mildly affecting and generally interesting, though it can also try your patience and seems to be missing a whole act of development. If you only have one more day to live, I wouldn’t advise using your remaining hours on this movie but you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Live by Night (2016)
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.
In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.
Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.
Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.
Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying. We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.
The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.
The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.
Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Sandberg) have been best friends ever since high school, the couple everyone admired. They’ve been married for six years but now they are in the middle of divorce proceedings. Why? Celeste loves her longtime best friend but worries he’s not maturing or stable to be her marriage partner. During their separation, Jesse admits he’s found another woman whom he cares about. Celeste professes to be happy but deep down is troubled, second-guessing her decision now that there’s a real threat she might lose Jesse. The two buds act like nothing has changed, goofing around and paling it up, but how long can they keep up this façade? Eventually, someone is going to get hurt because divorce cannot be shrugged off. Reality has a way of outliving ironic detachment.
Can you remain best friends with someone you once loved? How about someone you once knew as your spouse? Celeste and Jesse are certainly trying but their idealistic “BFF” status seems destined to meet a harsh reality. Celeste and Jesse Forever is labeled as a “loved story” and I think that’s a pretty apt description. These two characters clearly have a deep affection for one another, but after six years the feelings just aren’t enough. What happens when you marry your best friend but that just isn’t enough? I was hoping for some greater answers from the movie, or at least a harder examination on why some relationships fall apart when things look like they should work. That’s not exactly what the movie offers. For a film with an aim to be more realistic about the fallings out of love, the movie follows a familiar formula. There’s the cute guy at yoga (Chris Messina) into Celeste, but first she has to get settled. I think I wouldn’t have minded this character if he didn’t feel so much like a plot device, a hasty happy ending meant to be put in a holding pattern until called upon. The “Jesse” half of the title will be gone for lengthy chunks of the movie. His portrayal also borders on simplistic. I wish we got more of his side of the relationship, especially since he’s going through sudden change himself. After seeing the trailer, I thought I was going to find the movie immensely relatable. Maybe I just got all the recognizable personal drama out of my system with The Five-Year Engagement (double feature for bitter lovers?).
Fortunately, the movie is also fairly funny. The comedy can feel a tad sitcomish at times with misunderstandings and catching people in embarrassing situations. The screenplay by Jones and co-star Will McCormack (TV’s In Plain Sight) is routinely amusing, settling with soft chuckles rather than anything histrionic. It fits the subdued tone of the movie, since it’s about people coming to terms with messy emotions and not whacky mishaps. Then there’s a whole subplot involving a teen pop star (Emma Roberts) that feels recycled from a whole other movie. This storyline leads to a few good jokes but it doesn’t seem to add anything of value to the plot. The comedy doesn’t overpower the dramatics, and Celeste and Jesse Forever finds a nice tonal balance between the heartache and humor. I wouldn’t say the film is necessarily quirky but it certainly operates to an offbeat comedic rhythm. There are a few cringe-worthy editions but the characters and the actors make it worth any personal discomfort.
If Jones (TV’s Parks and Recreation) needs a good boyfriend I will gladly volunteer my services. My God this woman is beautiful. I don’t want to set off any alarm bells, but this woman is a goddess. She’s also extremely talented and a naturally charming presence. Her chemistry with Sandberg (That’s My Boy) is out of this world. They are so relaxed together, so amiable, so enjoyable, that it really does come as a shock when their unamused friends have to sternly remind them they are getting a divorce. They have a wealth of in-jokes and secret couple codes, and they’re so cute together that you wonder if maybe, just maybe, they’ll reconcile by the end. Sanberg is better than I’ve ever seen him, giving a strong, heartfelt performance as a nice guy trying to make sense of his eroding situation. But this movie is Jones’ movie, and she shines. While her facial expressions can get a little overly animated at times (TV-ish mannerisms?), this movie is a terrific showcase for her dramatic and comedic talents. This woman will excite you, frustrate you, break your heart, make you laugh, but you’ll be glued to the screen.
The tricky part is that Celeste is both our protagonist and antagonist. She is the root of her own unhappiness, and coming to terms with the fact that she was wrong is a big moment of personal growth, however, it’s not exactly the direction audiences may be happy with. It’s harder to root for a character that is sabotaging her own progress. Jessie, especially as played by Sandberg, is pretty much an adorable puppy dog throughout the whole movie; it’s hard to stay upset with him, and occasionally Celeste will lead him on and then punish him for following. She tells him to move on but then pulls him back to her when he threatens to do just that. She chastises him for not being serious enough, for not having direction, yet you get the impression throughout the movie that Celeste bares some responsibility in this situation as well. Jesse is laid back, though hardly the arrested development slackers dotting most of modern comedy these days. As one character notes, perhaps Celeste enjoyed keeping her husband grounded, limited, stuck. I don’t chalk it up as malice, more a comfortable situation that Celeste is afraid to disrupt. She’s the overachiever, he’s the underachiever, they compliment one another, that is, until Celeste decides they don’t. Then when it looks like Jesse’s growing up, she wants him back, or thinks she does, at least this newer version of Jesse. As you can see, it’s complicated. At no point would I dismiss Celeste as a callous person, but the movie is tethered to her personal growth of being able to admit fault. Her window with Jesse has passed. The movie is about her journey to realizing that.
Celeste and Jesse Forever feels like a movie of small waves. It doesn’t have the Big Declarative Moments of most rom-coms or indie romances, and that’s because it’s not a romance as much as an autopsy on why a romance went down for the count. It’s melancholy without getting mopey. It has certain hipster tendencies but nothing that rises to an insufferable level of twee; it’s routinely adorable and rather heartfelt in places, though I wish it had offered more potent insight into its characters. This isn’t going to be a movie that people build up great emotion for. By nature it’s pretty low-key, choosing to handle its emotional pyrotechnics with delicacy and the occasional comedic set piece. For a comedy about divorc,e this si surprisingly sensitive. These are nice people, good humored, and you sort of wish the movie would just scrap any indie ambitions and substitute a happy ending. You want to shout at the screen, “Just reconcile already!” Maybe that was me just using the movies as good old therapy again (see: The Five-Year Engagement review, or don’t). Celeste and Jesse Forever is an agreeable, affable, bemusing movie, with enough laughs and emotion to justify giving it a chance.
Nate’s Grade: B
Julie & Julia (2009)
Meryl Streep is as she always is, which means to say she’s terrific as famous jubilant chef Julia Child. She’s got the sing-songy voice down cold, and Julia comes across like a spigot of joy, yelping with delight like a child. It’s hard to not find it adorable, and her husband (Stanley Tucci) is a kind, caring man who complements her well. The scenes between the Childs can be heartwarming and delightfully comic. However, for some weird reason, the Julia Child section is only half of this movie. Writer/director Nora Ephron decided to frame the movie with the biography of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) writing a blog in 2002. Huh? Powell wants to prepare all 500 recipes from Child’s best-selling book on French cuisine in one year. As you might expect, this whole section turns into a lot of narration over food preparation and Powell becoming increasingly narcissistic about her blog fame. The only real purpose this modern storyline serves is to add perspective to the Julia Child storyline, giving historical context to what we see Streep and Tucci struggle over. The real resonance is with Streep as the larger-than-life cooking personality and her upward climb to be taken seriously as a chef and as an author. I don’t care about Julie Powell. She keeps interrupting a better storyline. Apparently the real Julia Child didn’t care for Powell either, because late in the movie Powell discovers that the real Child (who died in 2004) thinks the whole blog thing is a gimmick. And isn’t it? Then again, isn’t having Streep as Julia Child a gimmick of casting? Julie and Julia would have been better served if it had completely carved off the Julie section.
Nate’s Grade: B
Away We Go (2009)
Away We Go sort of came and went in the blink of an eye over the summer. Some critics dinged the indie production as being insufferable, hipster, smug, and unlikable. I agree that the plaintive guitar-strumming score grates, and the costumes have that trying-hard-not-to-be-hip coolness, which can be insufferable, but Away We Go is more than just faulty hipster packaging. There is a moving and entertaining drama inside here. The problem is, you have to sift through some of the junk to reach it.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties and about to have a baby. They aren’t exactly hipsters but they have been living a somewhat fringe existence; Verona even points out that they have a cardboard window. Their existence has been mostly ramshackle and now its about to change forever. Burt and Verona decide to journey across the country and reunite with family and old friends. They’re studying widely different family units across the country to discover not just what kind of parents they will be but what kind of family they will be.
Just by the fact that nobody dies at the end, this is a big departure for director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). This low-key road trip comedy is quite different from the meticulous prestige pictures associated with the Mendes name. Away We Go is a scruffy, small, and disarming little picture that wants to say something. I was taken aback at how affecting I found moments of Away We Go, though it is only moments. Burt and Verona are not exactly the best equipped to start a family right now, which makes them anxious and nervous, and anxious about not being more nervous. They haven’t exactly matured much since graduated college years ago. But amidst their search for the definition of a “working family” they must accept the uncertainty of life. Burt and Verona have a comfortable interaction, from his upbeat sarcasm to her grounded realism. There’s a great running gag where Burt tries to raise the baby’s heart rate, so his goofy bouts of fake agitation will be immediately followed by a stethoscope and an adorable grin of satisfaction. They are a compatible couple and it is refreshing to see a movie couple that compliments each other in personality. They actually love each other, are good for one another, and are not beset with contrived conflicts. In fact, the movie ends up pretty much exactly where it began, only with a smattering more of wisdom. The lesson learned in Away We Go is that it doesn’t matter what the bumps in life may be, it’s all about who you have as your co-pilot.
Screenwriters and married partners, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, mix in small moments of weight and an overall tone of genial sweetness. The drama and the comedy are given equal share of the script, though the elements don?t mix that often. The funniest moment, by far, is when a little boy tells his mother exactly what he knows about babies (I won’t spoil the guffaw-inducing surprise). There are some quiet yet weighty moments of human observation here. There was a tender exchange between Verona and her sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) that had me on the verge of tears. The sisters reminisce about their parents, long dead, and then Grace says that having this baby keeps their parents alive; the sisters can see parts of their mother in the baby’s face. Verona is giving back life to her dearly departed mother and keeping her parents’ legacy ongoing. This lovely thought struck me with such sudden force that I felt overcome with emotion. It could be dismissed as a common sense fact of genetic proliferation, but I had never thought of the birth of a child as a means of keeping the past alive and honored. To me, this is a simple yet wonderful and powerful statement. Another great moment is when Burt and Verona make lifelong promises to each other on a trampoline. Verona doesn’t want to marry, so the scene is the equivalent of the two lovebirds exchanging vows. It’s heartfelt and sincere and well within the bounds of the characters.
What?s frustrating to me is that the movie?s poignancy is undercut by its excisions with grotesque cartoon versions of bad parents. Burt and Verona visit different imperfect family units, but it isn’t until the end of the movie where we see anything resembling a semi-authentic brood. Alison Janney plays an obnoxiously loud parent who berates her children for laughs and accepts the brokenness of children; to her, she can’t fight against genetics and thus gives up parenting. On the flip side, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a narcissistic earth mother who still nurses her children and condemns the very idea of strollers (“I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away?”). In each case, the depicted family is a caricature and readily ridiculed for some easy and snide laughs. Even Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara) are figures set to be mocked for their self-absorbed bourgeois values. In some ways, Away We Go started to remind me of that awful movie North, where a young Elijah Wood travels the globe in search of new parents. At each stop, Wood encounters broad caricatures of different family units. In Away We Go, half of the movie is spent palling around with repulsive idiots who overstay their welcome fast. What’s even more frustrating is that the script becomes locked into a pattern, meaning that we spend the same amount of time (10-15 minutes) with each family. This is not helpful when Burt and Verona finally reach the relatable families, in Montreal and Miami, then the movie shortchanges the palpable drama. In Miami, Burt’s brother has had his wife run out on her family, abandoning their daughter. We’ve finally reached interesting and complex character, each with an aching sadness just below the surface about the hardships of parenthood, and the movie has to keep on moving because we spent too much time with the crazies for easy laughs. You’re supposed to spend more time with the good stuff, not the bad.
The noisy, exaggerated supporting characters are balanced by the believably baffled Krasinki (TV’s The Office) and Rudolph (Idiocracy). He’s effortlessly charming and Rudolph plays her character with subdued texture, uneasily taking everything in for due consideration. Both actors are likable and we grow in empathy with them as they go from stop to stop. The couple is so charismatic that it makes the drama-free reality of functionality forgivable. The rest of the cast play their parts to the hilt, but special consideration should go out to Melanie Lynskey (The Informant!, Heavenly Creatures) who plays the mother of a large adopted clan of kids in Montreal. Her problem is that she cannot conceive and she’s endured five horrible miscarriages. Her slow and melancholy dance around a stripper’s pole is heartbreaking, and that?s something I thought I would never write in my life.
Despite some missteps, Away We Go is a sweet and affectionate little movie that fights against being overly twee and precious. It’s definitely not sentimental but at the same time it rejects cynicism and detached irony, embodied by the compatibility of a couple that truly love each other. At the same time, the movie can be annoying with its loud side characters that act as distractions. The best moments in Away We Go are the small ones centered on Burt and Verona. It’s those handful of small moments that pierce your heart. It’s strange but after writing this review, I realize that I like the good moments even more and the bad moments even less. It’s like Away We Go has become more entrenched in my mind. This is a sometimes promising, sometimes frustrating, drama that knows enough about life to not settle for easy answers. If only it didn’t settle for easy jokes with stupid characters.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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