Category Archives: drama film

“Marshall” is just fine which is just a little sad

The story of Thurgood Marshall is an inspirational American tale. The descendant of slaves, Marshall graduated from Howard University law school, argued before the Supreme Court (winning the landmark Brown v. Board of Education) and was appointed to the US Supreme Court. With all of that history, it’s surprising that the filmmakers of Marshall have chosen to focus on none of that.

Written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff and directed by Reginald Hudlin, the film tells the story of Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) in 1940 when he works for the NAACP. A white woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), has accused a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), of rape in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Insurance lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) is picked to represent the defense by a racist judge, leading Thurgood to act as his silent co-counsel. The case proves complex however and both Sam and Thurgood must grapple with outside repercussions that threaten their commitment.

The most interesting aspect of the film is its reversal of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Much like the classic Harper Lee story, the film frames the same type of story around the same themes and instead gives us an uplifting ending, presenting us with an alternative portrait of justice. As well, there’s a bit of “In the Heat of the Night” to accentuate racial tensions.

The film is fine. It hits all of its beats, the acting is good and the story arcs work. It’s just so strange that a movie about Thurgood Marshall features so little Thurgood Marshall moments. No Brown v. Board of Education, no Supreme Court seat. He’s not even the main character of the story. That is Sam with Thurgood serving as his mentor. These strange choices hinder the film somewhat and while it’s appreciated that Marshall isn’t sentimentalized by Hollywood, recognizing the man for his greatest accomplishments would be a tribute to him.

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“Miss Sloane” not as smart as it thinks it is

Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, “Miss Sloane” is the story of Madeline Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a political power broker who takes on the gun lobby and tries to press a gun-restrictions bill through Congress. As her enemies mount, including Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow), her old boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and personal nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), Sloane is pushed her to ethical and legal limits.

The film does a good job of upping the stakes. At first, it’s just another case for Sloane and her colleagues. Then she takes the opposite position. Then friendships are splitered. Then things become personal. The deeper stakes raise the tension.

Chastain does a good job as Sloane in a role that could have been beefed up more. We know very little about her background and her internal motivations other than to win. What is her relationship with her parents? What led her down this path? Is she compromising her morals? Such details would help us identify with her.

The film is not as smart as it thinks it is. The audience can see the twist ending coming, and the quick dialogue is trying too hard to be Aaron Sorkin and not succeeding. It seems to be trying so hard to be a hot political drama with an urgent message about current times, but its story is just not interesting enough to warrant that consideration.

“Passengers” lost in space

“Passengers” should have been a slam dunk. John Spaihts, the writer of “Dr. Strange” (2016). Morten Tyldum, the director of “The Imitation Game” (2014). Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the biggest, if not the biggest, stars in the world. But “Passengers” is a flop on pretty much every level.

The film follows Jim Preston (Pratt), a passenger on a spaceship accidentally woken up from cryosleep 90 years too early. Unable to go back to sleep, Preston grows lonely on the giant ship all by himself, his only confidant a bartender robot named Arthur (Michael Sheen). He is doomed to die before reaching the new world. In a fit of despair, he wakes up another passenger, Aurora Lane (Lawrence), and lies to her, telling her that an accident has woken both of them up. Stranded together, they fall in love, but will Jim’s deception cost them everything?

Jim’s decision to wake up Aurora immediately sets the audience against him. How could someone do that to another person without their permission? For our protagonist, we lose empathy. Such a loss is irredeemable.

Perhaps if they knew each other beforehand, it would alleviate some of the problem. But the best move would have been if Jim’s decision were just taken out of the film. Two random people awaken on a spaceship and face a lifetime together with no hope of reaching their destination. Now what? Such a premise has such promise and could have delved into deep themes of life’s purpose, isolation and romance.

Or, what if the entire ship had woken up? You would have different responses to the situation spread over a socioeconomic situation. How do people cope as a society trapped on a spaceship? Some may decide to kill themselves, others learn how adapt to this new life. You would have real social dynamics.

Instead, we get a horrible man taking away the life of a random woman. And (spoiler alert) she somehow takes him back at the film’s conclusion, an idiotic, anti-feminist finale. She should have kicked his lonely ass into Venus the moment she found out what he did.

The film is trying to be a “Titanic” romance in space. Instead, it’s just an unfeeling iceberg. The protagonist is unsympathetic, Lawrence and Pratt are miscast and have no chemistry together and the space set ending is unoriginal and contrived.

Danger. Danger Will Robinson.

Oops, Will Robinson is dead on arrival.

“The Machinist” has promise but the ending leaves you wanting

“The Machinist” fits very succinctly into that genre of film that focuses on the lost and confused protagonist whose reality may not be as it seems and whose past, present and future may be in fact be interchangeable. David Fincher is an expert at this type of plot, where the audience keeps guessing about what is real and what is actually happening. It is the ending, or really the twist, that really define the film, answering all the questions the film has been building up to. “Fight Club” and “Gone Girl” have twists that surprise you and require repeat viewings to fully grasp the intricacies of the story. Not only that, but the twist elevates the themes of the story. Even though repeat viewings may lack the suspense of the viewer’s first time, the twist keep the film theme’s relevant. “The Machinist’s” twist and ending are unfortunately lacking in this regard. What was a clever mystery for 90 minutes reveals itself to be a rather mundane story about regret, a rather one-and-done type of viewing experience. It’s a shame, especially considering the transformative performance by Christian Bale.

Written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson, the film follows Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), an industrial worker who hasn’t slept in a year. His body is withering away. As he writes himself little notes and tries to find some solace, he forms a relationship with a prostitute, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a single mother who works as a waitress in an airport, Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). As his paranoia ratchets up, events possible and impossible begin to work on his mind and his past and future catch up to him.

The film does a good job of building up the mystery, making little hints at what troubles Trevor’s psyche. The surrealism of the industrial plant, Trevor’s apartment and the carnival attraction ride are great cinematic sequences, creepy and unsettling. As the pressures on Trevor mount, the tension builds and the viewer becomes very invested in the story.

And then the ending ties everything together in a neat bow. It’s too simple, too on the nose for what the plot had been building. Instead of blowing us away, we are somewhat let down and for a film of this style, that is a disappointment.

Christian Bale demonstrates a remarkable commitment to the film and his role as Trevor really stands out, but that is what is most memorable about the movie. It should have been the story.

 

“Suburbicon” has elements of quality, but lacks coherence

George Clooney, as a director, has a spotty record. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a great film. “The Monuments Men” is not. Now with “Suburbicon”, Clooney finds himself with a mixed bag of some interesting elements, some dull ones and a general lack of cohesion.

“Suburbicon” tells the story of a 1950s community in upheaval. When a black family movies into the neighborhood, the dark underbelly of the town begins to reveal itself. Gardner (Matt Damon) is a father who lives next to the new family with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law, Margaret (also Julianne Moore). When a home invasion turns the family’s world upside down, Nicky discovers the secrets that his family have been hiding and that all is not well in the happy-go-lucky neighborhood.

Written by the Coen brothers and Clooney’s usual partner, Grant Heslov, the film has some promising setups and payoffs and some memorable plot twists that keep things interesting. Some sequences at the end of the film are exciting, and the acting and directing are fairly well-balanced.

Where the film struggles is its characters, tone and its theming. The characters are more stereotypes, one-dimensional goodies or baddies who don’t have a lot of remorse or second thoughts. For the Coens, one need only look at Anton Chigurh or the pair of kidnappers in Fargo to find examples of nefarious characters who are still interesting. The film is part murder mystery, part dark comedy and part social critique and these tones bump heads against each other. Some clearer direction would have gone a long way. And the theming is nothing original. There’ve been plenty of films about the “evils” of suburbia and their underlying racism. David Lynch has made an entire career out of it. If the film had something new to say about the matter, it would feel weightier, but as a whole, it just feels like it’s retreading old ground.

Nevertheless, “Suburbicon” is a somewhat enjoyable film that utilizes filmmaking (acting, cinematography, camera movement) to tell a familiar if flawed story.

“Darkest Hour” a vehicle for Gary Oldman’s performance

Actors who transform themselves into historical figures win Oscars. If it’s a famous Brit, all the better. If it’s a famous Brit who battles Nazis, you’re practically a shoo-in. It might not even matter whether the movie is good or not. Add some lush cinematography and a rabble-rousing plot and you can start working on your acceptance speech.

“Darkest Hour” tells the story of the fateful month of May 1940 in the life of newly-minted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). With the Nazi forces having driven the British army to the seas of France in Dunkirk and the Western powers falling around them, efforts in Parliament are underway to attempt peace talks with Hitler. Churchill, knowing this to be a foolish and likely fatal endeavor, must fight to stay strong and continue the war even with such a bleak outlook.

The film is pretty much a vehicle for Oldman’s performance. It’s pretty obvious where the story is going, with the film setting up the unease over Churchill’s ascension, the backstabbing behind him and the threat of annihilation barreling towards Britain. Cue the deep introspective, the theme of nationalism over individual plight, the rousing speech at the end. It’s all very textbook.

This is not to say that “Darkest Hour” is a poor film. It’s a fine film. It hits all of its beats very well, all of the ones you’ve seen before. It’s purpose isn’t to tell an original story that might move you. It’s to display craftsmanship and win Academy Awards.

This is also not to take away from Gary Oldman’s performance. He really is fantastic in the lead role and probably deserves his Oscar. The entire movie is simply a driving force to showcase his acting ability and transformation into Churchill and in so doing, win accolades.

Those who go into “Darkest Hour” know exactly what they’re getting: a period piece that emphasizes strong acting and a forgettable plot. They just shouldn’t expect anything more.

“Like Father” a sweet but slightly bland drama

“Like Father” follows the story of Rachel (Kristen Bell), a career woman whose fiance, Owen (Jon Foster), leaves her at the altar. When her lost father, Harry (Kelsey Grammer), shows up out of the blue and tries to reunite with her, they delve into booze and wind up on the honeymoon cruise she was supposed to go on with Owen. Now trapped on a boat and with nowhere to go, both Rachel and Harry must try to mend the fences that pushed them apart.

The film is sweet nearly to the point of schmaltz, teetering right on the edge of soap opera, but just barely not going over it. Grammer and Bell are great and bring a hefty amount of regret, nervousness and acceptance to their roles. Their co-stars, a collage of honeymooners and newlyweds, are entertaining, but somewhat stereotypical and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Sometimes feeling a bit like an ad for Carnival cruises, the film does a good job of using the trappings and corniness of the cruise to bolster the film’s message of feeling release and overcoming the persona we give to others.

What’s missing is a sense of comedy and build-up. Rachel is annoying, combative and high-strung. Harry is solemn, regretful and nervous. There are plenty of opportunities for them to butt heads on the cruise (“How did we get here?” “I don’t know where here is.” “It’s a boat.” “What kind of boat?” “Does it look like I know what kind of boat?”, etc.) and get some laughs out of the audience. There’s a few funny lines and instances, but neither really gets on the other’s nerves enough to generate comedy. The film feels like it’s trying to be a dramedy, but can’t quite get there.

And the film doesn’t have much arc. Harry and Rachel meet. They end up on the ship. They reconcile. The End. There’s a little bit of a secret Harry is hiding, but it’s resolved pretty easily and doesn’t contribute to a major falling out between the characters. It’s all rather ho-hum and the story could have gone further to build up obstacles that the characters need to overcome.

But it’s hard not to be overcome by the film’s charm. It wears its heart on its sleeve and Grammer and Bell work seamlessly as father and daughter, full of regret and hope. For a world of cinema so often focused on explosions and sequels, it’s nice to just watch a simple story that takes place over a week on a cruise ship.