BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

0

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—

 

Advertisements

BABY DRIVER (2017) – A Stylish Ride to Nowhere

0

baby-diver-poster

The word is out.  Critics and fans alike love BABY DRIVER (2017), the new action movie by writer/director Edgar Wright.

I did not.

And now I have the arduous task of telling you why.

First of all, I should have loved this one, and I went into the theater fully expecting to like it.  After all, it’s got a fantastic cast.  While youngster Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead role as Baby, the best getaway driver on the planet, I’m talking about the supporting cast, which includes Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

It’s got an out-of-this-world soundtrack, and it’s full of stylish high-speed chase scenes meticulously crafted by director Wright.  What’s not to love?

I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, here’s what BABY DRIVER is about.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man who works as a getaway driver for the mysterious Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby owes Doc a debt, and so he continually works these jobs to pay off that debt, and he’s in high demand because he’s the best at what he does. His secret is his music, which he is locked into when he drives. Baby had been in a car accident as a kid, which left him with permanent ringing in his ears. Hence, the nonstop music playing through his ear buds, which not only helps him to concentrate, but blocks out all distractions when he drives.

And drive he does.  Doc is constantly organizing heists, and he never uses the same team twice, but he does continually use Baby.  So, depending on the team, Baby drives for the likes of Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his lover/partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the unhinged and very dangerous Bats (Jamie Foxx).

But along the way Baby meets the girl of his dreams, Debora (Lily James), a young waitress at the diner he frequents, who shares his passion for music and life.  They fall in love, and suddenly all Baby can think about is working that one last job for Doc, and then getting out completely to live his life with Debora.

If only things were that simple.

BABY DRIVER is the type of movie where the sum of its parts simply doesn’t equal a whole, and I say this, because there were a lot of parts to this movie I liked.  But for everything I liked, there were also issues.

Let’s start with the soundtrack.  Yup, it’s fun and absolutely electrifying, the most satisfying soundtrack since the Awesome Mix from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). And it plays throughout BABY DRIVER pretty much nonstop.  So much so that it actually drowned out the dialogue at times.  No, I don’t mean it was too loud so that you couldn’t hear the dialogue, but that it was so prevalent it often took the place of the dialogue.  At times, I felt I was watching a feature-length music video, which is not what I’m looking for in a movie.  I wanted more story.  I wanted more characterization.  I got a lot of music.

Then there’s the awesome cast.

As I said, Ansel Elgort is fine in the lead as Baby.   Although there’s not a whole lot for him to do other than exude charm and perform some nifty dance moves.  But he does it all well here. I liked Baby, and of all the characters in the movie, he was the one who was defined the best, and so overall nothing much to complain about here.  Elgort has starred in the DIVERGENT series, and I liked him as Tommy, the young man who becomes Carrie’s prom date in the remake of CARRIE (2013).

Lily James is cute and cuddly as Debora, Baby’s girl, who looks like she walked off the set of a 1950s James Dean movie.

Of the heavy hitters in the supporting cast, Jon Hamm probably fares the best as Buddy. Hamm has that ability to play characters with a dark past and be quite believable at it. He did it with the character Don Draper on the television series MAD MEN (2007-2015), and he does it again here.  He brings an icy coldness to his performance that lets you know that Buddy is not someone you want to cross.

Eiza Gonzalez is beautiful and sexy as Buddy’s partner and lover Darling, but at the end of the day, I wanted to know more about her.

Similarly, while Kevin Spacey is very good as Doc, the man who puts all these operations together, the character is begging for more back story.   Who exactly is this guy?  What are his motives?  Why is he such a father figure to Baby?  Sadly, none of these questions are answered.

Jamie Foxx’s role as Bats, while explosive, and while giving Foxx plenty of opportunities to chew up the scenery, is probably the most traditional of the supporting roles here. Simply put, he’s a hot head whose answer to any problem is killing.

I like Jon Bernthal a lot, and so I was majorly disappointed when his screen time in this one was practically nil.

A much more notable performance belongs to CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s deaf wheelchair bound stepfather, Joseph.  The two care a lot for each other, and Jones and Elgort share some of the more poignant scenes in the movie together.

It was also fun to see Paul Williams on the big screen again in a small bit (no pun intended) as a weapons dealer.

But for most of these characters, with the exception of Baby, I just wanted to know more about them, and the fault here is with the screenplay by Edgar Wright.  This isn’t the first time I’ve had an issue with a Wright screenplay.  While I’ve enjoyed most of his movies, including SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), I was not a fan of THE WORLD’S END (2013), as I wasn’t particularly fond of the script in that one.

Ditto here.

As I said, the majority of the characters here are begging for better development.  Also, the main love story between Baby and Debora was a major letdown.  They fall in love pretty quick, but for most of the movie, their relationship is pushed into the background. Debora doesn’t become endangered by Baby’s criminal contacts and dealings until the end, and by that point, it was too late for me.  I expected their relationship to be in danger throughout, but that’s not the case.

And as flashy and as stylish as car chase sequences are here, directed with near perfect precision by Edgar Wright, I wasn’t won over by those either.  There was something lacking.  I never really got the feel of being in the car with these people.

That was something I definitely felt in the similarly themed and plotted movie DRIVE (2011) by director Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling.  I enjoyed DRIVE more than BABY DRIVER.  DRIVE had a stronger plot, I felt that the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were in constant danger from the very deadly villain play by Albert Brooks, and the car chase scenes really worked for me.  I really felt as if I were in the cars with the characters at ground level.  I didn’t feel that way here about the car chase scenes in BABY DRIVER.

Also, BABY DRIVER is rated R, but for me, it felt like it was rated PG-13.  I never felt the sense of dread I expected when dealing with the types of characters Baby found himself dealing with.

I just didn’t find BABY DRIVER that rough of a movie.  Instead, it’s light and airy, like a chase scene in a TV commercial rather than in an R-rated action movie.  And that’s because at the end of the day, BABY DRIVER is all style, and no substance.

People are raving about BABY DRIVER.

But for the reasons outlined above, I’m not one of them.

—END—