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Stronger (2017)

An inspiring true-life story that still manages to stay grounded on its own terms, Stronger is an emotionally affecting movie buoyed by two sensational performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, an ordinary guy who is present at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and loses his legs in the attack. He was there to support his on-again off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Needless to say, his whole world changes and he has to adjust to a new life, a new identity, and the hardships placed upon others within his family sphere, especially Erin. This is a very solid meat and potatoes kind of drama. It’s not flashy or inventive but it has serious human drama and it treats it as such. I was on the verge of tears for a solid thirty minutes. Gyllenhaal delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, burrowing into an average screw-up thrust into the national limelight. Everyone tells him he’s a hero, but he doesn’t feel it. Everyone wants a piece of him and his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) often blurs the line between pride in her son and exploitation. The colorful, coarse, dysfunctional family dynamic will remind many of 2010’s The Fighter. I greatly appreciated that even after the terrorist attack Jake is not canonized. He’s no saint just because something terrible happened to him. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) takes great care to keep the movie grounded even as it hits the standard inspirational notes, finding moments of grace in unexpected places and people. The backbone of Stronger is the thoroughly moving relationship between Jake and Erin. They have exchanges of both ferocious anger and deep tenderness. A post-amputation sex scene between them is so intimately filmed by Green that you almost feel like you’re intruding. Maslany (Orphan Black) can break your heart or make it melt just with an expression. The non-verbal acting in this movie is truly exceptional. Stronger is a strongly developed drama with characters that earn every one of your hard-fought tears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Theory of Everything (2014)

TheTheoryOfEverythingPoster-01A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Rust and Bone (2012)

1929The French film Rust and Bone’s U.S. release seemed to hinge entirely on whether star Marion Cotillard would garner a coveted Oscar nomination. When that didn’t happen, it seemed like the studio just threw up its hands and said, “Well, that’s it.” Rust and Bone, co-written and directed by A Prophet’s Jaques Audiard, has been given a very ignoble release, an afterthought for an awards season that didn’t go Cotillard’s way. While I would have nominated Cotillard for her powerful performance, I certainly wouldn’t think much else about Rust and Bone, a frustrating film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling or what movie it wishes to be.

Alain van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is struggling to take care of him self and his young son, Sam. Alain’s ex-wife, and Sam’s mother, used the boy as part of her drug trades. Alain moves in with his sister and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. It’s at the club where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a marine trainer. She’s also feisty and getting kicked out for starting a fight. Stephanie works at a Sea World-esque water park, and one horrific day one of the whales makes a wrong turn. It runs into the stage, knocking Stephanie unconscious into the water where, we learn, a whale has eaten her legs below her knee. She contacts Alain and the two form an unlikely friendship, one that turns physical as Stephanie worries what her sexual performance will be like under her new circumstances. Alain dreams of becoming a professional kick boxer/MMA fighter, and he performs in underground fights as another means of income. Stephanie tags along and helps motivate him win his fights. The two grow closer, but Alain struggles with what real feelings might mean.

96134_galRust and Bone has a serious case of multiple personality disorder. It looks like it’s going to be one movie, then all of a sudden it changes into another, and then when you think you’ve got a handle on that, it suddenly transforms into another. I’m perfectly fine with a movie switching gears suddenly, however, with Rust and Bone, I felt like I was getting three different half-hearted drafts rather than an actual movie. I went into the film knowing little other than the selling point, that Cotillard was playing a woman readjusting to life after a freak accident took her legs. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I didn’t get a shred of this. I got a single father trying to scrape together what he could for himself and his son, often resorting to sneaky and illegal measures. Then shortly after Stephanie is introduced, the movie becomes all about her. We’re dealing with her recovery and her anger and her loss. Just when I think I’ve settled onto the narrative direction of the movie, it becomes Alain’s movie again. Now we’re following his budding career as an amateur kick boxer, with Stephanie as his cheerleader. Then she dissolves into the background of the movie yet again, and it’s all about him. I don’t think the movie knew which character it wanted to be its focal point, so we get a sloppy interspersing of storylines vying for dominance. Personally, I was much more invested and intrigued by Stephanie’s recovery than anything having to do with Alain trying to be a better father and failing. Then there’s other muddled storylines like hidden cameras in the workplace that only further distract. It’s just all too much and at the same time not enough.

Then there’s the matter of the romance between Stephanie and Alain. I suppose you could say they are both wounded people trying to gain a greater sense of independence, battling new concepts of self-identity, but I think I’m doing the film too many favors. The sad part is that these two people are extremely shallow and limited form a characterization standpoint. The only defining quality about Stephanie is her injury. Sure she’s feisty and can get into bar fights, and that fact that she’s attracted to Alain says something about her, but really, her only characterization is her new physical limitations and her adjustment to them. Her physical needs are given much more attention by the screenplay than her emotional resonance. It makes me sound like a hardhearted bastard but I’ve said it before, I need characters that have more depth to them other than that they suffer. Alain, on the other hand, is even worse. He’s a pretty flat character who’s actually a really terrible father. He loses his temper easily, chooses quick sex over picking up his kid at school, plus there’s the whole abandonment thing. It’s hard for me to believe that anything really sinks in with this lunkhead. His relationship with Stephanie, meant to open him up, instead reconfirms what a jerk he is. He uses women as sexual playthings, and treats Stephanie with this same careless abandon. He clearly doesn’t see her as anything but a comfortable fling, which he shows through his actions. If Alain’s romantic views have changed, the film doesn’t show any of this progression. I didn’t care about him and I certainly didn’t care about the two of them together.

Acting-wise, Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises) is quite moving throughout as she tries to come to grips with everything that has been taken from her. Her more traditionally dramatic crying scenes are powerful, sure, but it’s the quiet moments that Cotillard nails. There’s a moment where she goes through her former routines hand motions, and in that moment, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” it becomes clear she is moving beyond her accident, accepting and getting stronger. It’s a subtle celebration of the human spirit’s ability to rebound, and Cotillard makes sure the moment is moving rather than cheesy. Also, there’s a very tender moment when she returns to the water park and reunites with the whale that took her legs. Through the glass, she goes through her training motions and the whale still resounds accordingly to her commands. It’s a wordless, touching moment that communicates so much, the nature of forgiveness, the culpability of an animal, but really about the connection between man and nature. Also, the fact that these two scenes are available on YouTube means somebody else must have seen them as standouts as well. She’s also naked frequently, if that matters to you.

89482_galSchoenhaerts (Bullhead) is too opaque for his own good. He seems to settle for his brute physicality, and as such the movie does little to flesh him out further. He has a couple nice moments, especially at the film’s climax, but it’s too little to overturn the prevailing notion that his character is unworthy of co-lead status.

Probably the most impressive thing from Audiard’s film is the special effects to remove Cotillard’s legs. While the technology doesn’t seem like it has changed since Lt. Dan’s days in 1994, it’s still a striking image to process. I’m still wondering why exactly Stepheanie gets tattoos on her (remaining) thighs, reading “Right” and “Left.” Is she worried about going under the knife and the doctors taking more away from the wrong limb? That seems past the point of return. With the special effects technology, and the film’s quotient for sweaty sex scenes, this is the art house equivalent of erotica for those discerning few with amputation fetishes.

When it came time to determine which film would compete at the Academy Awards, France chose the feel-good buddy comedy The Intouchables over Rust and Bone. It’s easy to see why. Except for Cotillard’s fierce performance, and some spiffy special effects, there is nothing remarkable about this ultimately frustrating and shallow movie. The mismatched love story between Stephanie and Alain feels implausible and too focused on surface-level desires; not enough to justify some statement of personal growth on both their parts. There needed to be a complete restructuring of the screenplay. Too often it keeps switching focus, changing gears, mixing in other subplots until it all feels like one big mess lacking firm direction. I might have loved a movie that focused on Stephanie and her recovery, perhaps even one about Alain, though I doubt it. What Rust and Bone offers is a movie that’s persistently in doubt of its own identity, trying its hand at everything, forging necessary care to its lead characters. It’s a fine film that could have been a great one, if only it really knew what it wanted to be in the first place.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Sessions (2012)

When The Session (formerly The Surrogate) debuted at the Sundance film festival, it seemed like Oscar catnip. You’ve got Oscar-pedigree cast, the limitations of disability (iron lung), and writer/director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance) certainly knows a thing or two on the subject. He’s a polio survivor himself. But the story of a man in an iron lung’s sexual reawakening, as my mother would say, is a harder sell to the public. The movie has enough bizarre intrigue to garner a curiosity factor in many, and the sweeping acting and light-hearted tone will win over many a follower. I just wished that Lewin had focused more on his central character than what’s below the waist.

Mark O’Brian (John Hawkes) is a 37-year-old virgin looking to fix that oversight. The problem is that he’s suffered from polio all his life and can only be outside of his iron lung for upwards of a few hours. He’s not paralyzed, mind you; it’s just that his muscles don’t work too well. To move forward, Mark is set up with a sex surrogate, a sort of alternative therapy that is intended to help the disabled learn how to take control of their bodies for healthy physical relationships. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has a set of rules as she goes about her business. There will only be six sessions to limit any emotional attachment. Mark is certainly a challenge, a man who doesn’t have muscle control below his neck (he confides that he hasn’t seen his penis in over 30 years). Together they work on getting Mark experienced and aware of his own body and abilities.

The Sessions is essentially a two-actor showcase (William H. Macy as a helpful priest is really just an ear to listen/audience surrogate), an ongoing dialogue and set of interactions between Mark and Cheryl. The script could have worked as a play though film certainly does open up the viewing possibilities when you’re dealing with an immobilized character. From that stand point, The Sessions is often a fascinating and funny portrait of a world that few of us will ever comprehend. We seem to have this concept that immobility is a death sentence; In Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank preferred death over disability. There’s the standard uplifting personal tales of success, the triumph of the human spirit, that sort of thing when we talk about disability in the movies. The Sessions is different. It’s all about sex, and it’s refreshingly frank about the realities of sexuality for those with disability. The human body is an amazingly adaptable creation, so no matter the setback, there is still plenty hope of having a relatively healthy sex life. Beyond a section in Murderball, I cannot think of another movie to explore the reality of sex for those with disabilities. It’s like a wondrous combination of two topics that makes people feel uncomfortable. So, in short, this is not going to be a movie for everyone.

That’s too bad because The Sessions is an engrossing story of a man trying to experience a world of human sexuality denied to him due to cruel circumstance. Mark is a relatively nice guy, a poet, though he can be a little quick with the emotional attachment and declarations of love. Can you blame the guy? I believe some will argue that limiting the focus to Mark’s sexuality, and his desire to shape himself into a better lover, is a misuse of the narrative potential. Some will chide that the film could be the indie version of any number of horny male sex comedies. To some degree, I can agree with this assessment, mostly because I wanted to follow more of Mark’s life and the movie is only 90 minutes long. But I also think the strict focus on human sexuality is also a boon for a movie like this. The fact that you could place a movie about a man in an iron lung and, say, American Pie in the same conversation is a testament that we are losing some of the stigma of disability. This guy wants to get laid. Period. And we can be grown up about this.

Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is excellent in a role that requires him to do all his acting from above the neck. He’s convincing in every detail, down to his pained, willowy voice and his handling of a pointer for his mouth is first rate. Beyond the physical tics, Mark exists as a complex character that Hawkes is able to fully open up. He’s caustically funny, overcome with self-doubt, sweetly naïve, yet he’s also just like every other man on the planet. Hawkes doesn’t overplay the physical restrictions so it doesn’t end up being a performance dominated in showy actor traits. It’s a sweet and affecting performance that moves in small waves but makes a noted impact. Expect the man to get his second Oscar nomination this winter, as respected actor + disability is a combination they cannot refuse. Also, Hawkes is completely deserving of praise.

Hunt (Soul Surfer) has been grabbing a lot of headlines for the amount of skin she exposes, but her performance deserves more attention than a secondhand reference to her nudity. To be fair, it is copious nudity of Helen Hunt. I think she recites more lines while in different states of undress than clothed. It’s so much nudity that when you close your eyes, you may still be able to see it (not complaining here…). She does a lot of fine acting while naked. It’s hard exactly to get a bead on her character. She seems displeased with her insensitive husband, though he has to have some level of understanding to be okay with her profession. It feels like she’s looking to Mark as… something more, something else, but then it feels like her rationality returns and she returns back to the parameters of her job title. It’s a strong performance and the movie is at its best when Hunt and Hawkes are together. I just can’t help but feel if the ending wasn’t so blunted (more on that below) than maybe her performance would hit an even higher register.

The actors are so good and the movie is so tender, I almost forgive it for lacking a proper third act (some major end spoilers to follow). Naturally the number one concern you’d imagine for a sex surrogate would be the danger of building emotional attachment. This is why Cheryl limits her sessions to six max. That doesn’t stop attachments from forming. Mark and Cheryl are dreading the conclusion of the sessions, having grown close emotionally as well as physically. So to spare them lingering pain, Cheryl suggests they stop early. Mark reluctantly agrees. There, ladies and gents, is your second act break. But then rather than get a third act, the movie simply gives you a slightly extended resolution instead. Mark meets a nice volunteer at the hospital and flirts with her, crowing with pride to inform he is no virgin. But then… we cut right into Mark’s voice over telling us that he spent the last five years of his life with this new woman. We get an introduction and then immediately jump to the end of the relationship. I understand that without Cheryl’s kindness and education, Mark’s long and healthy romantic relationship would not have happened. I understand that he’s able to succeed because they broke down barriers of confidence together. This doesn’t stop the ending from feeling missing, absent the payoffs we yearn for in drama. It’s a curious and muffled close to a movie that was so interesting and audacious.

The Sessions is more than just an Oscar-bait disability movie. It’s really an arty version of a sex comedy with some extraordinary participants played by skilled actors. It has a frankness that’s refreshing and it’s never less than interesting, exploring the minutia of Mark’s life and the difficulties he overcomes. It’s not exactly a triumph of adversity, per se. It’s not exactly a chamber piece devoted to characters even though two dominate the conversation. The Sessions is a hard movie to pin down. It’s perfectly enjoyable and funny, touching, disarming, and well acted, but I can’t help but feel like Lewin should have aimed higher. To focus solely on Mark’s budding sexuality seems rather limiting for the character, and the disappearance of a final act proves bewildering, blunting the dramatic climax, thwarting further involvement. I’ve seen the film twice now and my opinion of it improved slightly the second go-round, but I’m still left scratching my head over that ending. I get it, I just don’t get why Lewin felt like racing to the end rather than exploring the conflicts and personal struggles of his characters. I suppose there’s some testament to sticking to the facts but that doesn’t matter when it comes to telling me a good story. I’m of a mixed mind here because The Sessions has plenty to recommend but I also feel that the film’s finale and light-hearted, limited sense of purpose hamstring the emotional impact of the whole enterprise. Disabled people can lead healthy sex lives. I get it. Now show me more signs of that life.

Nate’s Grade: B

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