BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT_poster

BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

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THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018) – Clint Eastwood’s Decision To Cast Real Life Heroes Ultimately Fails

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There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

In Clint Eastwood’s latest film, THE 15:17 TO PARIS (2018), based on the true story of how three Americans thwarted a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris, the iconic director made the curious decision to cast the three men who performed this act of heroism to play themselves in the movie.  And it was a decision that certainly caught my curiosity, as this unusual casting idea was the main reason I wanted to see this one.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the final ten minutes of the movie, where we witness the intense fight aboard the train, the lack of acting experience from the three leads really hurts as they simply can’t carry the story, even with its brief 94 minutes running time.

We meet the three principal characters right away- Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler, and they tell us they have been best friends since middle school and that to understand their story they have to tell it from the beginning.  And so the story jumps back in time to show us how they met in middle school, and then it continues through their adult lives, leading all the way up to their fateful decision to take a road trip together through Europe, a trip that eventually led them to being on that train that day.

As you can see, the bulk of the movie is back story, and so to ask these three men to play themselves is asking a lot.  They never really seem comfortable with the whole thing until the climactic reenactment of the terrorist attack.

It’s a funny thing to say because after all, they’re playing themselves.  Who would know better what they thought and felt than them?  But that’s where things get interesting. See, this is a movie, an art form, and as such that’s why you need professional actors who make it their living to be able to convince an audience exactly what their characters are thinking and feeling.  Halfway through this movie, it dawned on me that these three guys were rather boring. Don’t get me wrong.  I liked these guys a lot, but I didn’t buy a ticket just to see three friends chat and re-enact their life stories.  I bought a ticket to a movie, which is not real life, and as such, has to work through the artists who make them to come off as more true than real life.  That’s not the case here.  These three gentleman, as likable as they are, simply don’t possess the charisma to carry a movie or to make it a convincing 94 minutes.

And there is more that is wrong with THE 15:17 TO PARIS.  The script by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern is incredibly dull.  There’s just not much to this story of how these guys became friends.

That being said, the three boys who played Spencer, Alex, and Anthony when they were in middle school, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, and Paul-Mikel Williams were very good, and I really enjoyed watching them.  Their scenes worked.  Although the school they attended was horrible. If the boys’ school was as bad as it’s depicted in this movie, it’s one of the worst schools going.

Judy Greer plays Spencer’s mom Joyce, and she too is very good in the role of the single mom who struggles to raise her son on her own.

But the film never becomes truly watchable until its final reel.  The climactic scuffle on board the train is by far the best part of the movie.  Eastwood does a terrific job here, and it’s also the one sequence where the three real-life characters seem to come to life.

Is it enough to save the movie?  Not really.

It would have been a far more suspenseful film had it been all about the train ride and the subsequent attack, but that is clearly not Eastwood’s purpose here. His purpose, which is highly commendable even if the film doesn’t really work, is to honor and celebrate the heroism of these three men. I think it would have worked better had this been shot as a documentary, where the story could have been told through interviews and anecdotes rather than flat reenactments.

I also appreciated Eastwood’s decision to pretty much exclude the terrorist from this movie.  It’s clear that Eastwood is saying that this is not the terrorist’s story.  It’s the story of the three Americans.  As such, we barely see him until the end, and his face hardly at all.

On the other hand, the main theme here of one’s inevitable fate didn’t really work for me. The three friends constantly talk about the feeling that they were born for a singular purpose, which of course turns out to be their successful thwarting of a terrorist attack. But the screenplay hammers this point home nonstop, and the result is nothing more than stating the obvious.

Clint Eastwood made an intriguing decision to cast the real life heroes in his movie, THE 15:17 TO PARIS, but it’s a decision that ultimately doesn’t work, as these three young men simply can’t carry the movie on their backs.  The best part is the final ten minutes, which chronicles the actual terrorist attack, but what comes before this exciting finale is tedious and mundane.

You might want to skip THE 15:17 TO PARIS and take the next train instead.

—END—

 

 

THE POST (2017) – Mild Retelling of Important Moment in U.S. History

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Remember The Pentagon Papers?

If you’re not a student of history, you may not, since a much bigger story broke right after their release to the public, the Watergate burglary. But if you see THE POST (2017), Steven Spielberg’s latest movie about this U.S. government bombshell and subsequent court battle which nearly put a dagger in the heart of freedom of the press, you might—

—still not remember it.

Spielberg’s latest film, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, in spite of its impressive look, strong performances, and timely subject matter, somehow just doesn’t resonate all that well.

It’s 1971, and The New York Times has just published an explosive article revealing the U.S. government— going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration— had known the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and yet they proceeded anyway, lying to the American public that the war effort was going well. When the Nixon administration orders the Times to cease publication of these articles, pending criminal charges, the paper concedes.

Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees this as a chance to save his newspaper, which is facing financial hardship and lack of readership, in spite of the efforts of its publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).  Bradlee sends his reporters in search of a copy of the source document, the Pentagon Papers, and when they subsequently find it, Bradlee is ready to print as much of the controversial information as possible, but members of the paper’s board hesititate, knowing that the government could take legal action and shut them down.

Bradlee sees this as a battle for freedom of the press, claiming that it is the job of the press to keep the government honest, because if they can’t do it, who will?  And when Kay bucks the board and backs Ben, the battle lines are drawn.

The story told in THE POST is a good one, and it’s timely, since here in 2018 the press is sparring with the Trump administration, and yet, strangely, the film as a whole did not hold my interest.

The best character in the film is editor Ben Bradlee, and Tom Hanks nails the role in the film’s strongest performance. His fight for freedom of the press is the most compelling part of the story and really should be the centerpiece of the film, but it’s not.  When he sends his reporters out to find the Pentagon Papers, these scenes should have made for compelling cinema, but they don’t.  Compared to another recent newspaper movie, SPOTLIGHT (2015) which brought its audience in close to the plight of its journalists, THE POST fails to capture that feeling of what it’s like being a newspaper reporter.  The storytelling here is simply not as gritty as it needs to be.

Meryl Streep, in spite of an impressive performance as Kay Graham, doesn’t fare as well as Tom Hanks. Her story of Kay fighting to gain respect among men is also timely and yet her scenes are never as powerful or as memorable as they could have been.  They all come off as rather passive and quiet.  I expected her scenes to be rousing and inspirational but surprisingly they were not.

The fault here is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer.  With the exception of Hanks’ Ben Bradlee, the rest of the characters are not that memorable or fleshed out. Nor is the dialogue all that noteworthy.  Hannah and Singer go through the motions telling the story, but this one never reached out and grabbed me. The biggest knock for me was, in spite of this being based on a true story, the characters just didn’t seem all that real.

And Spielberg’s direction didn’t help either.  The film looks great, as everything about 1971 looks authentic.  But the pacing here was dreadfully slow, and I just didn’t feel the suspense, even during the film’s climactic moment where everyone at the paper waits to hear the Supreme Court decision which will decide their fate.

I enjoyed Spielberg’s previous movie, BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) much more.

In addition to Hanks and Streep, THE POST also features a fine supporting cast.  Bob Odenkirk is very good as Post reporter Ben Bagdikian, in a role that is unfortunately under written.  Tracy Letts fares even better as Post chairman of the board Fritz Beebe. Letts is an excellent actor who we just saw in a completely different yet equally impressive role as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD (2017). He was also in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Bruce Greenwood has some fine moments as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, as does Bradley Whitford as Post board member Arthur Parsons.

And John Williams, at age 85, provides yet another music score, this following upon the heels of his score for STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).  Pretty awesome!

But awesome is something THE POST is not.  Overall, I was disappointed with THE POST. I found it slow and only mildly intriguing, which for a story of this magnitude, should not have been the case.  The characters, in spite of being based on real people, never really came to life, and the story was told in a rather low-key and passive way that never really grabbed me.

It also didn’t really work as “newspaper movie” as I hardly got the feel of what it was like to work as a reporter at The Washington Post during this time.  As a result, the entire movie lacked the edge it should have had.

In spite of its impressive look and quality acting, THE POST is simply a mild retelling of an important moment in our nation’s history.

No front page headlines here.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) – Authentic Movie-Making at its Best

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Willem Dafoe and young Brooklyn Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017).

If I were to tell you that THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) was about life at a Florida motel that housed low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends, you probably wouldn’t be rushing out the door to your local theater to see this one.

And if I told you it was rated R and starred Willem Dafoe, you’d probably be scratching your head saying, “Whaaat?” because that’s exactly what I did when I first heard about this movie.

But what I heard was all good, and being a fan of Willem Dafoe, I decided to check this one out, and I’m glad I did.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT takes place at The Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, Florida, just outside of Orlando, and it caters both to tourists visiting Disney World and to low-income families.  Six year-old Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the motel with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), who’s on welfare. They and other families in similar situations are allowed to live there because the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) knows they have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children.

The film takes place over one summer where we mostly follow Moonnee and her friends doing what most kids do over the summer, hanging out and getting into mischief, but it’s also the story of Moonnee’s mom Halley, who due to her work situation will never win a mother of the year award, yet she is certainly a caring mother, just not in the traditional sense.  It’s also the story of motel manager Bobby, who really looks out for these folks, and we catch a glimpse as to why he’s so soft-hearted towards the kids, as his adult son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones) helps out around the motel and through their conversations we learn that Bobby’s family life has long since ended, and it’s just these occasional moments with his son that he has left.

But the driving force behind THE FLORIDA PROJECT is Moonnee and her young friends. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when the children are giving people the finger and spitting on cars.  There are a lot of precious moments in this movie, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

And when she’s trying to get free ice cream and approaches a woman outside the ice cream stand and says, “Excuse me, could you give us some change? The doctor said we have asthma and have to eat ice cream right away!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors, as they are amazing and pretty much steal this movie. He also captures the feel of Florida, as you can almost feel the humid heat and smell the acrid air.  More importantly, he’s masterful at telling these folks’ stories.

Again, the children steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated Bobby are worth the price of admission alone. You wouldn’t know their lives were difficult, because they have so much fun in and around the motel.  Kids being kids, and there are some truly hilarious moments, like when they shut the power off at the motel, much to Bobby’s chagrin.

There are also serious moments, like when they are playing in some nearby abandoned homes and start a fire which burns them down. They are also in one very brief yet poignant scene which serves as a metaphor for the entire story.  Moonnee and Jancey are sitting by a tree, and Moonnee says, “You know why this is my favorite tree? ‘Cause it’s tipped over and it’s still growing.” And then we see a shot of the fallen tree, indeed on its side but still alive, a metaphor for the broken lives of the folks in this movie.  They’re fallen, too, but they continue to live, grow, and endure.

Young Valeria Cotto as Moonnee’s friend Jancey is also a joy to watch, and it’s fun to see the two become closer friends as the summer goes on.  And Cotto’s best scene may be her last one, when she sees Moonnee breaking down for the first time.  No spoilers here, but the film ends on a strong note.

As much as I enjoyed the kids here, I thought Bria Vinaite was phenomenal as Moonnee’s mom Halley.  Again, the word “authentic” comes to mind.  Vinaite completely loses herself in this part and becomes Halley.  It’s a spot-on performance. And she really is a caring mother.  Everything we see her do in this movie is for her daughter, even if most of it is flat-out sketchy and oftentimes illegal.  But desperate people do desperate things, and she has a six year-old daughter, and she’s got no job and no money.  You do what you have to do.

I also really enjoyed Willem Dafoe as Bobby.  It was fun to see him cast against type, as he plays a sensitive caring guy who is always there for these people in his quiet unassuming way.  One of his best scenes is when he spies a weird man talking to the kids when they’re playing across from the parking lot, and so he approaches the man and— well, it’s another scene that is worth the price of admission.

Dafoe recently had a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), a film that largely wasted Dafoe and the rest of the cast of A-list actors.  If you want to see a top-notch actor like Dafoe strut his stuff in a movie, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is the movie for you.  Like everything else about this movie, Dafoe’s performance as Bobby the motel manager comes off as wonderfully authentic.

You might not be hearing much about THE FLORIDA PROJECT, but it’s a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate.

The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

—END—

 

 

WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss

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GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.

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DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

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DetroitMovie

The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

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