by Philip Price
It's hard to remember, but there was a time when a new M. Night Shyamalan film was an event in and of itself. In 2002, at the ripe old age of 32, there might have been no more hotly anticipated film of the year than the director's fifth film, “Signs,” but what was only his third feature since defining himself as the auteur he seemed destined to be. Fifteen years later and we are in a very different time and space. After the success of “Signs” (over $400 million globally on a $72 million budget) the studio system continued to only throw more and more money at the writer/director and increasingly his films became examples of trying too hard to do what his first few features had seemingly done with such ease. After 2008's utterly confounding “The Happening” it seemed Shyamalan might have given up completely as he then resorted to being a director for hire on projects like “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” but even in these endeavors he experienced some of the more scathing reviews and certainly some of the worst box office returns of his career. Where was the director to go? What was there to do next that might reinvigorate his career? Did this once glorious storyteller that TIME magazine so famously labeled "The Next Spielberg" even care to continue to put forth effort and/or art into the world or was he done? In one way or another it feels like we haven't had the real Shyamalan with us for some time. That the person he was in his early thirties had been lost to the grueling system and there was no certainty as to whether he'd ever come back. In truth, Shyamalan hasn't taken a break longer than three years in between films since 1998 film “Wide Awake” and those three years came in between ‘Airbender’ and “After Earth.” It was only two years after the nepotism on a spaceship tale that was Will Smith's “After Earth” that we caught a glimpse of who we thought Shyamalan was and might become again. I didn't write about “The Visit,” Shyamalan's 2015 feature that experimented with the found footage approach, but it was a deliciously pulpy little thriller that not only provided a signature Shyamalan twist that worked with the rest of the narrative, but melded the humor, the uncertainty, and the tension of the situation in ways that felt organic-as if the marriage of story and image were flowing out of the director like they hadn't in some time and this upward trend in quality only continues with “Split.” Like “The Visit,” “Split” is set in a single location and relays a rather simple story in both interesting and horrific ways. It is a portrait of a character and in being that it explores a subject with multiple personalities it might be something of a twisted self-portrait from a director who was labeled as one thing, attempted to remain that thing until he was told he wasn't good at that thing anymore and then tried something else only to fail thus forcing him to re-invent himself once more.
This could easily be taken as something of a stretch. I can see that, but in both a strange and very earnest way it feels the idea for a film like “Split” could have very easily come to a man who felt pulled in several different directions while having expectations already attached to his name whether he was making something in his wheelhouse or experimenting with something new. No matter what he might have done there was an inherent fear he wasn't good enough and when you create something that comes from a place of genuine effort, a piece of yourself if you will, and it is immediately trashed and/or dismissed it's not hard to see how one might find it difficult to recover; to co-exist with those you know have already judged you and so what other option is there but to keep re-inventing yourself until you find a facade others seem to take a liking to. Of course, this all depends on if one’s inherent personality desires to be liked and admired, but this is straying from the subject at hand. If “The Visit” was a pilot for a new phase in Shyamalan's career then Split is the darker, more disturbing and much less hopeful second act that is fascinating due to its opposing attitude towards what has been deemed acceptable. In theory, we should like nothing about what “Split” has to offer in that its main character is a man with a serious mental disorder who kidnaps three young girls to which his objective is never fully clear, but we get the hint he'd like to strip them of as much clothing as possible. Add into this that one of the young ladies, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), has a troubling past and likely a continued path of troubles into her now formative years and there is nothing to necessarily feel good about when walking out of the film. That said, the intent of a horror film is to horrify and “Split” has the ability to do this in spades. We don't know much about the context of the situation given the film opens at the birthday party of the token popular girl, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) as she, her father, and best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) wait for Casey's ride to pick her up. When it becomes evident no one is coming Claire's father offers to give Casey a ride setting up a perfect scenario for who we come to know as Dennis (James McAvoy) to kidnap the three girls and take them to his living quarters. We aren't privy to where this underground living quarters is located or what it might be under, we don't know Dennis' intentions, and we don't know what stage of maturity or intelligence these young girls have attained leaving the movie to piece together such pieces to rather terrifying results.
Though it is Dennis we initially meet this is only one of the 24 personalities that live inside who we come to learn was once a man simply referred to as Kevin Wendell Crumb. In this leading role, McAvoy is rather fantastic if not doing anything we didn't already know he was capable of. If you're only familiar with the actor due to the latest series of ‘X-Men’ films or maybe even “Wanted” this might be a rather surprising turn, but if you've kept up with McAvoy's range in such campy filth as “Trance,” “Welcome to the Punch,” and well ... “Filth” this may not come as much of a surprise. That said, the performance(s) on display here is magnificent and McAvoy more or less chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth on. From Dennis, a straight-laced blue-collar type with a Northern accent and a pension for dancing women, to Patricia, an older woman who keeps her living space spotless and her sandwiches perfectly cut in half, there is no shortage of personalities waiting within Kevin to try and take the spotlight. The interesting thing Shyamalan does with “Split” though (and minor spoilers ahead) is make the audience believe this is about bipolar or multiple personality disorder when in reality he means these not to be just different personalities or extreme bouts of depression with alternating periods of elation, but rather different individuals altogether who are simply inhabiting Kevin's physical form as a shell for their existence. They aren't the same person no matter the mindset, they are each a different human being-one left handed, another right handed, one with a higher IQ than another, each with different strengths and weaknesses and they are each aware of one another. This leads to some fascinating discussions and theories that are tossed out via Dr. Karen Fletcher (Shyamalan regular Betty Buckley) who refers to her patients as if another species altogether. It is mentioned early that Dr. Fletcher seems to have positioned the idea to Kevin that he and others of his kind-or maybe just the many personalities within him-are fighting against a system that can't accept them, but more than fighting against something Kevin is fighting for something; what exactly that is we are unsure. For all the admittedly interesting psychobabble its script spews though, Split more or less rests on the shoulders of McAvoy's performance and whether or not he can convincingly transform into these different people at the drop of a hat. It is in these moments, when we see McAvoy create a flamboyant fashion designer by the name of Barry or a nine-year old troublemaker by the name of Hedwig and transition from one to the other seamlessly that not only is the film completely enrapturing, but it can be downright stomach churning given the circumstances Shyamalan has placed these characters in.
What serves as both a comment on his most recent work as well as the trajectory of his career as a whole is also the filmmaking style the director uses here. Shyamalan, though obviously accomplished, never had a signature look of his own, but rather after “The Sixth Sense” and in those next four or five films the aesthetic was more prestigious rather than anything especially singular. There was a scope to his projects, but not necessarily anything striking that would signal to an avid cinephile that this was an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Shyamalan left this distinction more in his conveyed tone than visual style, but as with “The Visit” in its approach to the found footage genre Shyamalan has approached “Split” with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and there is very clearly an intentional and carefully crafted visual approach to be noted. Given the film mostly takes place in the confined spaces of small rooms and cluttered offices there isn't much in the way of design to work with and so the film utilizes both the framing and the movement of the camera to relay its visually interesting ideas. Much of the time the camera remains stationary in the same spot the scene opened in no matter how much the characters move within the scene. The camera simply continues to pan as characters walk across a room with the frame not being bothered with whether it cuts off heads or legs. Other times the camera is not only stationary in its placement, but in its framing. A sequence in which the Hedwig persona, the nine-year old boy who likes to dance to Kanye West, takes Casey to his room to show her his CD player and proceeds to show her a few dance moves perfectly encapsulates the comically twisted sensibilities of the film, the tour de force performance McAvoy, as well as the sheer terror Casey must be feeling as we experience much of the film from her perspective. All of this is captured in a single, static shot that is effective due to the fact it lets the elements prove their worth in their own capacity rather than forcing the camera to pull something out of those elements that might not be there. Speaking of Casey, it should be noted that Joy is rather exceptional in her role as well. McAvoy will garner the greater amount of attention for his more showy role and rightfully so, but Joy's Casey is required to convey a lifetime of experiences largely through quiet looks and empty stares and she never fails to communicate what the character is thinking and feeling. Split hints at themes dealing in the value of life, the purity of innocence versus experience, and the limits of what a human being can and should become-all of which are interesting facets the film decides to let simmer rather than address outright, but if you stay through the tag on the credits you might just get a hint of what conclusions Shyamalan might draw and though it may not be a "twist" in the traditional sense it is truly both satisfying and shocking.
by Philip Price
“Silence” is director Martin Scorsese's 24th narrative feature and one the auteur has been longing to make for quite some time. With that, “Silence” is a nearly three-hour epic that feels as if it has so much on its mind while at the same time not exactly conjuring much thought about anything other than what is physically presented. This is somewhat troubling considering “Silence” is a movie wholly about spirituality and the fact it isn't so much the traditions and exteriors of a religion or set of beliefs that matter, but whether the individual practices what their faith teaches daily while realizing how best to do so when that faith is inevitably tested. There is clearly a lot going on in “Silence” and much Scorsese seems to want to discuss, but the final product we've been delivered is so subtle about its deeper meanings and feelings around the people and subjects it is taking on that the viewer really has to reach into the depths of their attention to pull something substantial from the experience. One can counterpoint with the fact that Scorsese simply isn't spoon feeding viewers what he wants them to think and how he hopes they perceive his ponderings, but rather that he gives the facts of these "based on true life" events with limited shades of interpretation to allow the audience to have their own. This is fair. We have so many churches and/or places of worship these days due to the fact so many couldn't let their interpretations settle into an already established denomination, but this isn't the same kinds of conflicts of faith our characters in “Silence” struggle to comprehend. More, this a film about the thought process, the heart of the teachings Christianity and other religions preach, and how these intangible things define who we are as individuals and the role they play in determining the tone of humanity. There are no concrete definitions, no absolutes, no black or white, but instead Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks have adapted Shûsaku Endô's 1966 novel into a meditative film that has the odd distinction of both being completely about what lies beneath the surface yet oftentimes feels only surface level as far as impact and effectiveness are concerned. There is no denying that the film has layers upon layers from which numerous conversations can be elicited while featuring gorgeous photography, a couple of committed and rather brilliant performances, as well as some genuinely heart-wrenching moments that, depending on beliefs prior to seeing the film, will either reaffirm your faith or cast greater doubt than even before. For such factors alone, “Silence” is a staggering piece of work that should be commended, but on a basic level of raw emotional response the film didn't leave the lasting impression or transcendent experience great sermons hope to accomplish.
Sermon is an accurate word to describe just what “Silence” is. Though not based specifically on any passage from the Bible, the film is a conversation around topics cupped from the waters of the good book that means to ask what the right, just, and humble things to do are when applying its teachings to situations such as those our three main characters encounter during their specific time on earth. Scorsese's film opens in 1633 introducing us to Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) as he witnesses the persecution of hidden Christians in Japan. Ferreira is among a select few priests attempting to spread the Gospel in the country that, at that time, felt they had lost control over what their nation once stood for and thus outlawed all outside factors that lay claim to any influence on its people. After seven years in Japan the last letter Ferreira wrote finally reaches Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) who relays it to two of Ferreira's former students in Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver). Though not stated in his letter, Valignano shares that he has received word Ferreira apostatized from the church meaning he has denounced the faith. Rodrigues and Garupe find this hard to believe, arguing Ferreira risked his life to spread their faith across Japan and requesting they be sent to try and find their mentor as well as assist in aiding the persecuted Japanese Christians in any way the can. Valignano grants them this journey, but not without warning. "The moment you step foot into that country you step into high danger," says Valignano, but with no luggage other than their hearts and what God has put on those hearts do they enter Japan, an army of two. It is from here the film begins to feel less like it has a driving narrative and more as if it is simply present to document the types of tortures and trials Japanese Christians were made to deal with on account of their beliefs. Rodrigues and Garupe are introduced to a guide of sorts in the disheveled Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) and they first come in contact with a village of genuinely devout believers who they find hope and a refreshing amount of motivation in. The strength on which “Silence” rests is in the conflicts our two protagonists begin to encounter as they become more aware of both truths about the Japanese Christians they're leading as well as the ever-present threat the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) poses.
The layers of what Scorsese is meaning to tap into begin to become more evident as Rodrigues and Garupe better acquaint themselves with the villagers on the outskirts of Nagasaki. The faithfulness and general devoutness of these villagers is astounding, but in a scene that occurs within the first hour where a young couple hopes to have their baby baptized in the Christian faith it becomes apparent they don't actually understand the concepts on which they are submitting themselves and their child to. If they don't understand or fully grasp the teachings of Christianity how can they be so devout? It might be that Christianity, like the religion the Japanese are touting as their own despite Buddhism technically being another non-native religion, more or less teach the same ideas when it comes down to it. The presentation might be different, but these people are simply looking to lead lives steeped in forgiveness and faith. They can do this by following the religion their country has deemed acceptable in Buddhism and yet, for one reason or another, they have chosen to defy and risk their lives for the sake of growing Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is where the point of real struggle, authentic inner-turmoil, and confusion begin to seep in as the film more steers away from the journey of the stout and unwavering Garupe and more in the direction of Garfield's empathetic Rodrigues. Just how much of them attempting to spread the word of God does actual good for the world? Rodrigues can't help but question what he sees and doubt what he's devoted his life to in light of such revelations. The young priest attempts to remind himself that God sends trials to test us, but can' help but to ask why these trials are so terrible? Why were these people, these Japanese Christians in particular, chosen to carry such a burden? How is he to explain God's silence in response to their screams? And why is it that when he does offer an answer or psalm that such responses feel weak? A picture begins to form of just how selfish these priests could be perceived as-hoping to convert a country to what they (arrogantly?) believe to be true, for the glory of the God they just so happen to believe in only for that glory to come at the hands of innocent people suffering. “Silence” never flat-out calls the priests wrong, but it does offer perspective in that faith is necessary, but not necessary in the extravagant ways of the church, but rather more in the lead by example train of thought. It isn't the institution that matters, but the faith felt inside that determines the solace of the soul.
Of course, as presented here, the Japanese are inherently thought of as the enemy, but whether it be in Ogata's performance as the ultimate defiant of Christianity or the way in which Garfield conveys Rodrigues' internal conflict it is clear it never means to say that one side is more in the right than the other. To come away from the film thinking Scorsese has picked one side over the other is to miss the point of the film altogether. Rather, as the film somewhat resets at its hour and 15-minute mark it intentionally becomes more about the deeper meanings, the real value in what Rodrigues and Christian Europe are fighting for. Sure, they believe in spreading the word of God because that is what God is quoted as saying in the Bible, but by doing so-by submitting some of their own to be martyr's-just how selfish are they actually being? Valignano even states in the opening act of the film that thousands of Japanese are dead because of what they brought to their country and it is said with regret in his voice. That weakness and doubt will always rear their heads to be wrestled with, but that rather than being absorbed by the technicalities of making sure as many people are labeled as Christian as can possibly be in the world that it might be more productive and more meaningful to Christ if individuals simply led their lives by the virtue of forgiveness-quietly demonstrating their faith in their acts rather than loudly proclaiming them from the pulpit. In the end, “Silence” doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but more it and eventually Rodrigues draw the conclusion that faith will always be a struggle. It should be. It won't always feel natural or the best fit for your life, but to discard it would be as selfish an act as those on the other end of the spectrum have committed.
It is conversation such as what the previous paragraphs have described that make “Silence” a rather incredible achievement. Not because it blatantly attempts to stir up religious debate and conversation, but because it quietly rouses such thought while on the surface being rather boring in certain sections. One can understand why Scorsese felt the nearly three-hour runtime was essential given the amount of time and thought the director has clearly invested in the project, but as a movie-going experience “Silence” certainly has the power to test your endurance. This is especially true in the second act of the film where Garfield is taken to a prison of sorts where he is subjected to watching people he and his faith have more or less sentenced to death die at the hands of the Inquisitor and his peers. It is through the telling eyes of Garfield that the film retains much of its weight in these otherwise muted sections. Despite still feeling somewhat out of his depth due to his rather gawky facade as opposed to the strong presence he might seemingly represent Garfield's performance as this pious individual leaves a mark. The film leans heavily on narration from the actor, who perfected a Portuguese tongue for the role, and his clear commitment in both physicality and most importantly, in spirituality, is on full display in some of the more tough-to-watch sequences. Kubozuka's performance as the consistently weak and unfailingly regretful Kichijiro is a highlight of the film as well in that his arc never ends up going or resonating in the way one might expect after each sequence he appears in-even so much as to be surprising in how much of a role he comes to play in our protagonist's life overall. “Silence” has many other laudable factors such as the specific sound design and lack of any traditional score as well as being outright gorgeous in the cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto, but it is none of these that redeem the film from being a mostly tepid experience when watching it top to bottom. It is only in the reverberating themes and ideas of the business of our faith being of little difference at the time of our death, but more how we exuded such faith and how it touched the lives of others that lives on that we come to understand the real power of “Silence” and Scorsese's exercise in restraint by how much it continues to fulfill when thoughts return to it.
by Philip Price
The problem with “Live by Night” is that it is both too much and never enough. Ben Affleck, who has proved himself a strong storyteller in his screenwriting and directing skills, certainly has a fine ambition in his latest effort, but it simply never seems to pan out the way he originally imagined it. This is to the point that “Live by Night” is as big, extravagant, and sexy a gangster drama as one could hope to get made in the studio system today and yet the story is nowhere near as compelling as it should be to make the amount of effort put into the costumes, production design, and other period details matter. The question on my mind as the film came to its one too many endings-none of which are satisfactory, I might add-was, "how did this happen?" How did a filmmaker such as Affleck, with a story he himself adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, in this time period, and with a star-studded cast that features stand-out performances from the likes of Chris Messina and Elle Fanning end up sinking as quickly as a dead body attached to a boulder in a river? There is seemingly never a clear answer as to how so many promising parts can come together to form a subpar whole, but with “Live by Night” the majority of as much seems to fall on the script never knowing exactly what type of story it wants to tell and as a result, the momentum of the pacing never finding its footing well enough to keep viewers invested. There is always more material in a novel than a two-hour movie can handle and it seems rather than relay what was more or less the same story the source material was telling through the prism of a single perspective or theme that Affleck instead attempted to cram in as much of Lehane's novel as he could resulting in the film feeling more than overstuffed while still leaving the viewer hungry for more. When talking of adapting a book for the screen director David Fincher said, "The book is many things. You have to choose which aspect you want to make a movie from." It seems Affleck might have learned a thing or two from his “Gone Girl” director as this lack of a singular viewpoint is exactly what “Live by Night” is missing; delivering so many characters, ideas, and plot strands it's hard to care about any of them.
“Live by Night” begins with this notion that our protagonist is this damaged war hero who came home from World War I and was never the same man again. That he left a soldier and returned home an outlaw, if you will. The problem with this is the fact we never feel we really come to know who Joe Coughlin (Affleck) actually is. Besides the facts-those of which state he is the son of a veteran police captain in Boston (Brendan Gleeson) and that he's a self-proclaimed outlaw rather than that of a gangster, but for all we don't know about Coughlin one thing is for sure-the guy is a gangster through and through. Opening in the latter half of the roaring twenties we become privy via voice over to the fact that Boston is experiencing its most deadly year in the city's history to date and that much of this has to do with the turf war between the Irish, led by Albert White (Robert Glenister), and the Italians, led by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Coughlin comes to be a driver/bank robber for White's gang, but things get sticky when he falls for White's girl on the side, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Things go as south as one might expect given these set of circumstances with White finding out about the affair and essentially sentencing both Coughlin and his mistress to death. Being the son of a cop has its advantages though as Gleeson's elder Coughlin shows up just in time to save his son from being beaten to death opting to sit him in prison for an abbreviated amount of time despite his crimes rather than lose him completely. Gleeson is a ray of hope in these otherwise dark moments; offering funny, insightful, and charming deliveries on clever little pieces of dialogue. It's a shame his character doesn't last as long as the younger Coughlin's prison stint for as soon as Affleck's character finishes serving his time (reducing the prison sequence to less than five minutes when it was a considerable portion of the narrative in the book), we are more or less put back into the system of more gangster-like activity without any real objective or overarching arc to propel such actions forward. Teaming up with Pescatore to run out White's moonshine operation in Florida, Coughlin and longtime partner Dion Bartolo (an unrecognizable Chris Messina) travel to Tampa to set up shop and cut profits from the man who killed his beloved and tried to do the same to Coughlin. It is when the movie reaches the more unique, more flavorful vibes of the Latin-inspired streets of Southern Florida that it seems the film might finally find its footing, but while Coughlin comes to a head with interesting adversaries in Matthew Maher's KKK member RD Pruitt and Elle Fanning's evangelizing Loretta Figgis it still feels the movie never knows exactly what to do with such interesting dynamics.
The thing is, “Live by Night” is nowhere near a bad movie. It's a film that doesn't meet its potential, but it's not a bad movie. What saves it from being a totally wasted effort though, is mostly what has been put into the visual elements of the film. Shot by cinematographer and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, the film is gorgeous to behold on the big screen. The attention to detail only enhancing as much. It is early in the film where we witness a high-speed chase through the streets of 1926 Boston and in every frame there are multiple cars from the era in the background-not just the ones being used in the action. This scene and all of the action scenes are executed in ways that we feel the repercussions of the violence whether it be in this well-timed car chase or the early montage in which the film never looks away from a man being thrown to his death-all of it is brutal enough and depicted as so to the point we flinch at the idea of what is occurring. The issue is that there simply isn't anything within the context of the story the film is telling to make these well executed scenes, stunts, and even individual shots feel heavier or even as relevant as they should. Affleck clearly has a flair for visual storytelling as there are several instances of note here in which single compositions tell as much as they show, but as they are in service of a narrative that never really deserves such depictions it ends up feeling like a whole lot of wasted effort. The same is true with a number of the performances. That said, as the star of the show Affleck is surprisingly on auto pilot for much of the picture. One might imagine that with having adapted the screenplay and playing a key if not the key role in developing the project that Affleck would be well attuned to the mentality and ideologies of his main character, but as portrayed by the writer/director/actor Joe Coughlin comes across as more an amalgamation of clichés from the time period rather than a fully realized individual. At the same time it is easy to see how Affleck, who wore many hats on (and in) this production, might have become so caught up in one area or another that the portrayal of the lead character was left on the backburner. There was certainly reason to believe such multi-tasking could be accomplished given Affleck did much the same on his Oscar-winning last effort, “Argo” (sans the screenwriting), but with “Live by Night” the multi-hyphenate has exhausted himself to the point all of his efforts off screen will go overlooked due to his most visible role being the one most lacking.
“Live by Night” is a gorgeous movie about some ugly people. It's too bad the film never takes the time to zero in on this idea thus becoming little more than a project Affleck can pull from to make his reel look all the more visually impressive. There is so much clarity in some of the images and those of the boat gliding across the sunset reflected waters and through the pieces of land cutting into such scenery are beyond mystifying. Were the film itself able to capture an ounce of such mythos in its story this would have been a towering achievement, but rather Live by Night is destined to forever be relegated to the pile of "what might have been" motion pictures. If Affleck were to latch onto a theme or idea with this film it seems the one he is most interested in exploring is that of what individuals put out in the world always coming back to them, but never in the ways they expect. This is stated early in the film when Gleeson's character tells his son that he was conceived with the hope of fixing his parents' marriage. To place such a burden on an innocent life is to automatically cast blame on the innocent when things don't go the way of the hopeful party. Coughlin was set-up to fail in ways and so, in putting this child out into the world with such expectations, the world returned him to his father by making him that of what exactly contradicted what he'd worked his entire life to repress. This comes to simply be a vicious circle through Coughlin's life as, after he moves down to Tampa, he meets brother and sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and Esteban Suarez (Miguel) who have the most profitable rum running ring in the region leaving Coughlin to naturally fall in love with Saldana's character. Through this relationship and through the relationships Coughlin establishes with the local police chief (Chris Cooper) things are shown to come back to Coughlin in ways he might not have hoped or expected, but that line up with the type of morals and ethics he was exhibiting. That this through line of an idea is present shows that Affleck put in serious thought in his screenplay and how he would not only depict this prohibition period, but how he might encapsulate the time period through a theme, but the fact of the matter is he can't nail the landing. Were it not for the sections of the film that include Fanning's scene-stealing Figgis or Messina's consistently entertaining sidekick character “Live by Night” would easily be more of a drag than it already is, but that the film can't illustrate the tragedy of each of these people winding up playing a role in life they never expected is the biggest disappointment as one can feel such ambition boiling just below the surface.
by Philip Price
“Miss Sloane” comes from first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera and promotes the idea that to get ahead in the vicious game of D.C. lobbying one has to know their subject. Perera obviously knows his subject. How Perera, who was living in Asia at the time he wrote the screenplay and who only optioned his work to literary agents over the internet before securing a production deal knows so much about the inside dealings of those hired to persuade legislators to support particular businesses or causes is a mystery, but he seems to have done a fair amount of research. Either that or what he feeds us in “Miss Sloane” is a huge pile of eloquently written BS. Like an Aaron Sorkin script where dialogue is almost more important than emotion, “Miss Sloane” fast tracks the audience through a deluge of day-to-day activities that a lobbyist at the top of their game such as the titular Sloane played with vicious velocity by the one and only Jessica Chastain might engage in. We are given little time to keep up and even less to really gauge what Sloane and her team are working on as the focus is not meant to highlight what kind of case our titular lobbyist and her team are working on, but more how keenly they are framing it to their client's advantage. While the objective for a lobbyist is the end-game it is the getting there, the journey if you will, that requires the creativity of someone in Sloane's position and the more creative one is the better the reputation they garner in their professional circles despite undoubtedly garnering a worse one among friends. Of course, this is why it is also made clear Sloane has no family or friends to speak of or to. It is a vicious circle of sorts and Perera makes that evident by reiterating the importance of how information is framed by framing his own film with that aforementioned end-game. In “Miss Sloane” the end-game is a hearing on Capitol Hill in Caucus Room Four of the U.S. Senate. What is she doing here? What has brought her to this point? What accusation is being thrown around and what does it have to do with her abilities and/or the moral ambiguities of her techniques? Each are questions begged as small increments of information are fed the viewer within the epilogue of the film, but once the main narrative takes over it is easy to forget that framing device and simply go along for the ride which is exactly what Perera would prefer you do as he finds trouble in both sticking the ending and making it credible enough that we don't question how well he really does know his subject.
“Miss Sloane” is a perfect example of a movie that weighs itself by the quality of the average movie surrounding it. There is nothing overly exceptional about any one facet of the film, despite every aspect of it being accomplished in a precise and professional fashion. Professional may actually be the best word to describe “Miss Sloane” as everything from the aesthetic of the shiny white board rooms that make up a majority of the environment here to Chastain's sharp as a razor hairstyle are in line with what one would expect from a film about D.C. lobbyists. That may sound as if “Miss Sloane” packs nothing in the way of surprise and that would be false considering Chastain spews a monologue in the opening frame of the film about how lobbying is about foresight and how it is necessary to anticipate your opponents’ moves and to make sure they don't anticipate yours -- an idea Sloane takes to her grave -- but as far as the filmmaking aspects are concerned: the look, the feel, the music, the color palette, they are all in line with pieces of entertainment we have seen spawned from this world before. And so, it is left to both the screenplay and the performances to elevate the conventional mechanics of the presentation and elevate they do. Not only do we have Chastain leading the charge here in what may be one of her most impressive performances to date (and that's sincerely saying something given her body of work over the past few years), but Alison Pill manages the fine line of portraying someone intended to be invisible while making her presence known among a roster of all-stars. Among those well-groomed in the art of spouting lengthy speeches compellingly is Michael Stuhlbarg as Sloane's boss turned opponent when a representative from the Gun Lobby enlists her employer, chaired by Sam Waterston's George Dupont, to support their cause and kill a gun registration bill. Sloane, for untold reasons, will not support such action and is instead enlisted by the head of the firm that supports the bill (Mark Strong) to lead their uphill battle in winning. Filling out her team are singularly defined members played by appealing faces such as Douglas Smith and Al Mukadam who make one note characters likable while Gugu Mbatha-Raw becomes something of a teacher’s pet to Sloane within this new crop of assistants showing both a strength and vulnerability in her characters complicated and emotionally hilly arc. John Lithgow is also a notable presence as is Jake Lacey (“The Office”) who turns a character only present to withdraw small excerpts of backstory from Sloane into a flesh and blood character.
“Miss Sloane”, directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”), may come off as something of an extended episode of what one could find on cable TV on any given night, but given we're in the "Golden Age of Television" that might not be as big of an insult as it once was. And while “Miss Sloane” is the perfect type of feature to spurn a TV series of its own Perera does well to deliver a contained narrative with only hints of extraneous material informing the main storyline. Perera never allows such influencing factors to infiltrate the actual film and distract from the mission at hand though. It is easy to see how this might have been tempting given the history of Chastain's titular character and her reasoning for acting the way she does is brought into question a handful of times though never explicitly addressed. This brings around the idea of just how effective Chastain is in her performance given what she has to work with in Sloane is more or less a blank slate that is quickly filled with assumptions the moment she opens her mouth in that first frame. Chastain demands our attention be on her every time she enters a room. She has cultivated a reputation of serious influence and that is apparent in how we see her peers respond not just to her words, but to her presence. When she does inevitably speak these responses are even more telling; it is in the way Chastain lends Sloane an effortless fist of control over her linguistics that is absolutely terrifying and thrilling all at the same time. The character is a master manipulator, willing to go to any length to show she's willing to go to any length. Sloane is a pro at straight shooting and positioning the idea of staying two steps ahead of your enemy is not enough, always remaining three steps ahead of whoever might dare cross or challenge her. It is the juiciest of juicy roles an actor could ask for and Chastain seems to realize this as it almost feels like she is gripping the camera every time she speaks; not letting loose until she catches her first breath. As the film hints at the past that might have brought such a character into being, it compliments this lack of shading by displaying moments of vulnerability -- though only two or so times total. Such vulnerability is necessary when one of the big mysteries around a character is how they get to the point in which Sloane has reached -- an insomniac workaholic who pops pills to keep her energy up -- but neither Madden, Perera, nor Chastain are willing to allow Sloane to completely give herself over to any one individual. Instead, they keep her convictions and humanity in line not by appealing to our pathos, but rather the ethos of the subject “Miss Sloane” is keen to bring attention to.
That subject of course, is gun control. The key word there being "control" as in making it difficult for dangerous people to get a hold of dangerous things and not simply taking things away from those who qualify. The film hits the nail on the head over and over again in saying that the supported gun bill is not born out of a desire to confiscate all guns, but rather the desire to keep such weapons out of the hands of as many psychopaths and criminals as possible. Perera phrases it in a handful of different ways so as to make sure those who possess guns legally don't view the film as an attack on their Second Amendment rights, but rather as a logical way to keep people safer. In illustrating why certain characters are motivated to feel the way they do “Miss Sloane” gives credence to either side of the argument and that both sides have valid reasons to act in the way they see fit. It is appreciated that small, but true facets of the battle being fought are brought up and debated rather than the film’s characters simply resorting to soundbites that form easily misconstrued generalities. The film as a whole embraces these small details and intricacies addressing the issue at its heart with a maturity and common sense that is too often lacking when topics are taboo to the point of nervousness when discussed in public. That said and as admirable as “Miss Sloane” tends to be for a vast majority of its running time, it does inevitably falter when it begins to take turns that feel more outlandish than the first two acts hint at or prepare us for. Considering the blistering pace with which the film barrels through those first two acts it feels a bit deflating when, in the last half hour, “Miss Sloane” loses a bit of steam. The back and forth is consistently engaging and the debate and particular points characters make are naturally intriguing, but that back and forth goes on for just a tad too long. Overstaying its welcome to the point it seems the film itself doesn't exactly know how to wrap up all facets of the plot it has laid out thus forcing it to come up with some rather fantastical plot devices in order to give our protagonist the edge when much of what we've seen prior only needed determination and a brass-tacks mentality. That said, “Miss Sloane” has her heart in the right place and her head on sturdy shoulders -- never attempting to necessarily provoke or condescend, but more to expose the idea our system doesn't have to reward the rats and con artists of the game, but those who genuinely vote with their conscience. That may be a fantasy of sorts, but “Miss Sloane” lends a specific type of optimism and hope that we need now more than ever.
by Philip Price
“Passengers” is a movie of ideas that doesn't necessarily know how to expand on those ideas and so it ends up devolving into and relying on conventional blockbuster factors. The third act of “Passengers” requires some amount of action and thus the reason for the inciting incident gets a pass while the personal turmoil this movie could have zeroed in on gets passed over. As viewers conditioned to the standard three act structures of most modern screenplays it is easy to see where things are headed for “Passengers” as soon as the MacGuffin at the beginning of the film becomes the central focus rather than the conflict between what are essentially our only two characters in the film. The movie, and the script, try to justify this decision by having the resolution of that MacGuffin allow a certain character to come around to what had previously caused them great strain and shock. In essence, “Passengers” takes the easy way out and we all know taking the easy way out more times than not is also the least rewarding route. By choosing to travel the path of least resistance screenwriter John Spaihts sentences the second half of his film to that of just another in a long line of big budget Hollywood blockbusters that favors spectacle over substance. I realize that such a complaint might sound as rote as I'm describing the last act of this movie to be, but when the main idea of your film turns out to be little more than, "Don't get hung up on where you'd rather be, but make the most of where you are," and that idea is ultimately conveyed as cheesily as it sounds there's a serious issue with Hollywood's aversion to risk. One can feel the board room manipulating what might have been a more interesting or at least more complex character piece dealing in intense moral conflict being turned into an action set piece that is never really clear on the mechanics of what all it is trying to accomplish as far as making sense to the audience, but at the very least communicating that our main protagonist wasn't totally wrong in doing what he did and therefore giving him no reason to feel as bad or as conflicted as he might have would the film have not given him the best possible outcome considering the scenario. “Passengers” had potential, it surely did, and there is still much to admire here, but when Hollywood takes the safer route over the more challenging one it gives audiences no option but to be lazy and not the least bit surprised.
The set-up is the best thing “Passengers” has going for it. We are dropped into space without any hint of opening credits or buffer-only an elegant title card as the Starship Avalon, a spacecraft traveling to a distant colony, floats through space at speeds the visual undoubtedly doesn't do justice. The picture is elegant though-the countless clusters of stars and unexplored galaxies creating swirls of light colors and inspiring ethereal thoughts. All seems to be as intended upon the ship-each of its 5,000 passengers and 258 crew members asleep in their chambers. Being 30 years into a 120 year journey every soul on board is meant to stay in this stasis up until a few months prior to the Avalon reaching its destination called Homestead II where humans will be able to start anew. The film doesn't go into much detail around exactly how far into the future this is though clearly there have been certain advancements to the point we assume it's over a century from now and beyond the cliff notes facts of Earth becoming overcrowded and over-expensive there isn't anything in the way of an Armageddon happening, but more the fact Homestead II simply offers a new option if you can afford it. It is when this highly stylized and highly advanced spacecraft runs into a meteor field that plans are disrupted and things begin to unfold that were never intended. Coming into contact with an object larger than it was prepared to handle on autopilot the ship takes on a fair amount of damage inadvertently causing a power outage or short that for one reason or another only effects a single passenger. Waking from what he believes to be a 128 slumber Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) comes to quickly realize he is the only one awake on the ship. He goes through the routine of trying to figure out what went wrong very much in the same vein any one in that position would. The film does well to answer any questions viewers might come up with were they in the situation themselves and in the meantime does a rather exceptional job of relaying the functionality of the ship, breathing life into the atmosphere that will contain the entirety of the story. Of course, if you've seen the trailers/posters/anything concerning “Passengers” you know Preston isn't alone for long and that Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) is also awoken 90 years too soon. What the marketing material doesn't tell you is that *SPOILER* Pratt's character intentionally wakes up Lawrence's character. Though some may consider this a spoiler this felt like an inevitability considering the likelihood of such happening and the obvious factor there had to be more to the story.
Much like with “Collateral Beauty” I'm not typically one for spoiling movies in reviews, but when such spoilers are plot points in which the basis of the movie hinges on and need to be known in order to discuss both the highlights and downfalls of what the movie does/does not accomplish it's impossible to avoid certain elements. The marketing certainly suggested there was something deeper, maybe even more vile to the premise it promoted of two attractive stars being stranded in space together and so I don't know that divulging such a detail will really change one's outlook or expectations were they going to see the film based on what they saw in the advertisements. That this plot point also occurs within the first act makes it less the main dramatic beat of the film and thus leaves room for more fertile ground to be explored in the second half of the film before things go from contained character drama in space to full on action movie. All of that said, the first hour of this thing is paced pretty perfectly. As mentioned before, the way in which Spaihts' screenplay and director Morten Tyldum stage the premise is genuinely engaging in that we become immersed in this world of the Avalon. The production design is as flawless and sleek as one might expect a futuristic sci-fi film on a $110 million budget to look and most of the quirks and creativity in the film comes from the neat things passengers can do aboard the craft. Whether it be the way in which it relegates interstellar space travel to something of a normality or a swimming pool that, when dropped into zero gravity, can form bubbles of water around beings that present a cool visual if not an entirely necessary one. “Passengers” is also one of those movies that takes advantage of the fact it has two of the biggest stars on the planet walking around within it and throwing as much charm at the camera as they can. Is there a need for Lane to visit the swimming pool in her chic white swimsuit as often as she does? Of course not, but as it's Lawrence in a chic bathing suit the thought is it alone will be enough to sell tickets to the male demographic. Is it necessary to have multiple shots of Pratt's derrière as he takes a shower or wanders through the barren halls of the Avalon? Of course not (though it does make some sort of sense given he's by himself on this huge spaceship), but the thought is it alone will be enough to sell tickets to the female demographic. If as much is transparent from the trailers alone though, then go for Michael Sheen's android named Arthur who is the one consistently reliable source of intrigue on both the Avalon and in the film.
As it turns out, this is very much Pratt's movie to carry with Lawrence serving more in a supporting role, but nonetheless both stars are giving it their damnedest. The chemistry is naturally the key and as they've displayed in movies before both Pratt and Lawrence have enough charisma to fill the entire Avalon two times over; Pratt showing something of a side we haven't seen when within the first half hour he is reduced to genuine desperation. Of course, as this montage of Pratt's Preston attempting to fill his time with "Dance Dance Revolution," playing basketball, and breaking into the command deck is undercut by Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation," it seems the film itself doesn't quite trust its star. As for Lawrence, she is tasked with the role of having to both be a victim and an equal to the conflicted and seemingly disagreeable Preston. The best aspects of Lawrence's performance come from always being aware and making present that no matter the distraction-it only serves for so long before the reality of their situation rears its head. We understand the conflict presented to Preston and may even have made the same choice he does were we in his situation, but that doesn't make the implications of it any less nauseating. This is the grey area in which the film might have otherwise prospered and become something truly engaging, but if this is indeed the ending Spaihts originally wrote then it seems there was never any concrete direction as to where to take this kernel of a fascinating idea. And as said before, the first hour unravels the story beats, characterizations, and arcs that are hinted at in a fashion where everything feels organic as if building to a pure euphoria just as it becomes clear all is about to come crashing down. As the inevitable does begin to happen and the last fifty minutes begins to devolve into those aforementioned conventions the film also loses any semblance of what might have made it riveting or more substantial. Rather than furthering its discussions on love, betrayal, humanity, or the guilt of having to live with some morally reprehensible actions or having to live without anything at all the film ignores such ripe facets in favor of explosions in space. Though “Passengers” may come to be enough to satisfy the masses with its expensive set design, pretty actors, and cool visuals it will leave their memory as quick as it enters making the real offense of the film not what Pratt's character decides to do, but the potential it ultimately spoils.
by Philip Price
Editing. Editing is key in director Tom Ford's follow-up to his 2009 debut “A Single Man” titled “Nocturnal Animals” as the narrative begins by introducing Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) as a woman who seemingly has it all together, but whose world it tears to shreds in less than two hours. It accomplishes such a visceral effect on the viewer due largely to the skill in which it is cut. To unravel the neatly wrapped facade of Morrow's life is to cut back and forth between her present timeline, her past detailing how she reunited and fell in love with first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), as well as the story in which she is reading. The key factor being the story that she is reading comes to her from Sheffield as a novel he wrote that will soon be published, but as it was inspired by Morrow he thought she deserved to read it first. The book, also titled Nocturnal Animals, is the story of a family on a road trip whose car is hijacked by a band of troublemakers that includes a nearly unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson where terrible things happen. The representation of this novel as put to screen is what will come to garner the most attention from the viewer as it is high-tension drama filled with moving and effective plot points as well as performances. What makes “Nocturnal Animals,” the film, more than just a stirring adaptation of the work within the work though, is the foresight it utilizes in the outside stories and how they will influence our reactions to the actions taking place within that most engaging storyline. How is this accomplished though? How are these two outlying narratives so effective in both supporting and drawing from the narrative that undoubtedly holds the weight of the film on its shoulders? Through the editing. The film is cut in such an extraordinarily unpredictable fashion that, as an audience member, when it cuts we are never allowed to know what it might be cutting to. There are even long pauses that fill the screen with darkness designed to make the audience think a certain segment is over only to drop us back into the same story moments later. This unpredictability not only ups the tension in terms of seeing where certain plot strands might go, but in ultimately structuring the story in such a way that when the payoff for everything each of the three individual storylines has been building to finally arrives it hits you. And I mean really hits you. “Nocturnal Animals” is an exercise in sheer audacity and nearly every one of its risks pays off.
And that is only discussing the single aspect of the editing in the film which ultimately relies on everything else in the process of making the film to have been done right for the editing to work as well as it does here. That is not even to mention much of the performances from an across the board stellar cast or the drop dead gorgeous cinematography that combines Ford's flair for the stylistic with the photography skills of Seamus McGarvey who has worked as the cinematographer on many of Joe Wright's films as well as on big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers.” That is not even to mention the classy yet cutting score from Abel Korzeniowski or the lush dialogue adapted from Austin Wright's novel of the same name by Ford himself. For a director who is only working on his second film and his first in seven years, it seems Ford has a very clear vision for the types of stories he wants to tell, but almost more importantly is his vision for how he wants to tell those stories. To tell this story in the way his brain no doubt imagined it as he read through the novel the first time Ford begins by framing the life of Morrow as one filled with absurdities meant to be enjoyed and indulged in while pushing one's thoughts of happiness or what (little) value they might be bringing to the world out the window so as to ignore the harsher life those existing outside their bubble deal with. Morrow says in the beginning that despite not being happy that it would seem, "ungrateful not to be happy. I have everything." And this is true from an outside perspective-the woman seemingly has all she could ever dream of: a job curating an art gallery, a sleek, modern home in the Hollywood hills that she shares with handsome husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), and friends such as Carlos (Michael Sheen) and Alessia (Andrea Riseborough) who flaunt the absurdities of their lifestyle to full effect; possibly leaving Morrow to only further question her decisions and if they've been true more to herself or more in accordance with her mother's (Laura Linney in a brief, but stinging scene) wishes. This superficial world of hers comes crashing down the further she reads into her ex-husband's novel revealing itself to be an introspective truth Morrow had hoped was long forgotten and that she'd long repressed.
As Morrow's history is peeled back Adams is left with little more to do than sit in various environments within her house and look both enthralled and stunned as she reads on, but what makes Adams performance noteworthy is that of the character development she is able to unfurl in the limited amount of screen time her younger self is given during the flashbacks chronicling the rise and fall of her relationship with the young Sheffield. It is in these brief sequences that we also see only glimpses of the man that informs who Gyllenhaal plays as the protagonist in his own novel. Gyllenhaal gives the young Sheffield a slight twang, a comfortable stride, and strict code of thinking, but there is also a humility to the guy-something one can tell will influence his writing in a positive way where things don't need to be flowery or pretentious, but more straightforward and very matter of fact. A no frills approach that won't hide his writer's intent, but rather will gut you where it hurts the most. All of this, glimpsed through small moments at the beginning of the relationship between Morrow and Sheffield, is played particularly by both Gyllenhaal and Adams as their scenes together are placed precisely where Ford wants them so as to build the dynamic to its breaking point just as the story Sheffield is telling in his novel reaches maximum violence and grief. As stated, the editing is more than commendable and ultimately what makes the film work as effectively as it does, but right near the top of the list of reasons the film works so well is how strangely compelling the story of Nocturnal Animals the novel is. Would it be as compelling without the framing devices and points of reference? Absolutely not, but that's why the film is such a unique, introspective, and bold piece of work. In the main narrative that makes up “Nocturnal Animals” we are privy to the story of Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) as he and his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) set out on a road trip across West Texas. Traveling through the night rather than stopping to rest, Hastings and his family encounter a gang led by a long-haired, crazy-eyed schizophrenic by the name of Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who runs them off the road. One thing leads to another and without giving anything away law enforcement becomes involved in the form of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).
It is in this story dealing with the Hastings clan, that of Ray Marcus, and the classically dismissive type that Shannon perfects with his ailing Texas Ranger that the film shows its real merit. It is within this narrative that we are shown the decisions and misfortunes that have led not only to the Hastings' sad predicament, but that of Morrow's seeming constant grief. What is so curious of the story within the story narrative here though, is that we're not sure where things are going the moment they take off. The first time we glimpse Gyllenhaal as Hastings we're unsure whether or not what we're seeing is a parallel storyline or the novel brought to life. There are no indicators as to what direction we're heading, so when Hastings and his family all of a sudden and for no reason find themselves at the mercy of Taylor-Johnson's Marcus we are beyond frustrated at the situation, but more it is made all the more tense by the fact we're unsure whether what we're seeing is real or not. Of course, as we learn that what is happening is intended to mirror the history between Sheffield and Morrow's characters things begin to fall more into place, but that doesn't make it any less riveting. In this dual role, these two different angles on essentially the same man Gyllenhaal shows why he is again one of the best actors working today. Hastings is a man unable to chase away his anxiety even when he comes face to face with pure evil. Hastings is the personification of the man Morrow's character repeatedly called weak and Nocturnal Animals, the novel, is Sheffield's analysis and evaluation of himself that accounts for his supposed weakness, but comes from a place of cynicism-a place Morrow knows much better than he. In one of the few flashbacks Morrow reads over Sheffield's work only to offer him the advice that, "maybe you shouldn't write about yourself." Of course, all writers write about themselves-it's inescapable, but with his novel Sheffield is able to write what he knows while giving Morrow insight into how other people see how she sees herself. It's a perspective that quickly gets confusing, but which Ford makes clear in his intent to open his female protagonist's eyes to just how much Morrow's life turned into something she never intended. Shannon being pitch-perfect in his role and Taylor-Johnson being genuinely unpredictable in his only adds to the overall pristine quality of the story while the score lends the film a real presence that allows the entire experience to feel like a symphony that builds tensely until it crescendos-culminating in one of the most devastating shots and realizations in film all year.
by Philip Price
“Lion” is one of those films that is as pure in its intentions as it is obvious in them. There is no hiding the fact that this "based on a true story" Oscar-hopeful adapted from Saroo Brierley's account of his own journey in the book, A Long Way Home is meant to be anything less than an inspiring and uplifting experience. The good news is that those intentions are so genuine that one can't help but to be unconsciously or willfully manipulated by the emotions the film plays on. If one is willing to submit themselves fully and without any kind of pessimism or outright cynicism then “Lion” is a treat that will garner your investment first in the life of its protagonist and then in their plight. There aren't many flourishes here and the storytelling is rather straightforward and predictable, but there is something to the way that director Garth Davis moves through these familiar beats that lend them such an authenticity that it never feels as if the movie is attempting to create false emotion where none exists. Rather, it is simply presenting the facts of a story that elicit such natural responses. There is nothing overly exceptional about the film and Davis doesn't exactly place a particular visual or directorial style on the piece, but rather “Lion” is very much a middle of the road awards contender that appears to be little more than as much based on its story and credentials. It transcends such labels through the process of the otherwise humbling experience it creates. Much of the films heavy lifting is done in the first half where Saroo is portrayed as a child by the infinitely precious Sunny Pawar as opposed to the second half where face on the poster Dev Patel searches for interesting places for the script to take him as his more matured Saroo deduces his place of origin through the help of the then just-launched Google maps. It's not so much that the second half of the film falters, but more that it is never able to keep pace with the more insightful and moving first half. Given we become so invested in Pawar's performance and Saroo's predicament though, we're naturally inclined to be interested in the details of how his story wraps up. It is in this conclusion that Lion shows its greatest strength in that all that has come before truly pays off in the most affecting and sincere of ways.
Adapted for the screen by Luke Davies, “Lion” tells the story of Saroo Brierley who was once a five-year old boy who got lost on the streets of Calcutta. This happened thanks mostly to his reluctance to stay at home when his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) left for work and Saroo insisted he go with him. This work took Guddu and Saroo to the barren subway stations of India in the middle of the night where, after a long train ride, the young Saroo was tired and the not much older Guddu had to go to work; realizing he shouldn't have brought his younger brother despite his wishes. This would ultimately be a decision that would serve as the catalyst among all catalysts as the lives of both Saroo and Guddu would forever be changed due to both admirable traits and the inability to say no. On this fateful night Saroo is left to sleep on a bench at the station while Guddu goes off to work. Five-year old Saroo wakes hours later unable to recall where he is or where his brother has gone. Getting up and immediately calling out for Guddu the young Saroo searches everywhere including an empty passenger car in which he again nods off in. Upon waking up this time Saroo finds the train to be moving-taking him somewhere only God knows and where Saroo will certainly have no idea how far he's gone from home. It is in this furthering of the distance between Saroo and his loving, appreciative mother that the stakes of “Lion” continue to grow and grow. Davis recounts instance after instance in which both the mental and physical strength of the young Saroo is put to the test as Pawar displays both a strong will and resourcefulness for a boy his age while at the same time wearing a constant look of hopelessness that will crush even the coldest heart. Through a series of circumstances that Saroo is truly lucky to fall into he is adopted by a couple in Australia (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) where he goes on to live a privileged life. The couple end up adopting a second boy from India, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa), who is damaged in the sense Saroo again has to step up to drown out his own issues and troubles in order to guard his mother's heart. Moving 20 years into the future Saroo (now played by Patel) readies himself to enter the professional work field with a girl he loves by his side (Rooney Mara) when he is reminded of his home and a longing to locate it becomes inescapable.
It is upon reaching this second hour of the film in which Patel takes over the role of our protagonist that the film loses some of its muster. This is not due to Patel, Kidman, Mara, or Wenham giving especially bad performances as each do a commendable job with the difficulties their character’s encounter. Rather it is the pacing of this second half and the inevitable comparison of troubles that the young Saroo faced that make the amount of whining and moping about that the older Saroo does seem uncharacteristic and slightly maddening. Davis establishes, and I'm sure this mentality is evident from Brierley's first-hand account in his book, that Patel's Saroo has accepted his cushy lifestyle and the glowing prospects his future brings-displaying he has more or less put behind him any thought of where he came from or the family he lost. This is key to understanding the amount of guilt Saroo later feels when he considers how his mother and brother who likely blamed themselves for his disappearance must feel every day-blaming themselves for the fact they will likely never see their son and brother again. Davis, as well as Patel's performance, make it clear that Saroo is experiencing something quite profound when he tastes a desert at an Indian-themed party that sparks a memory of the hometown he mispronounced and that no adult could then find on a map. This spark of a memory is only the tip of the iceberg though, as this reminder to Saroo that he had a life before being brought to Australia and what and who that entailed rocks him to the core. Davis is given the unenviable task of conveying these emotions that could bring anyone to a standstill through a moving, visual medium and thus the reason the second half of the film feels like it sometimes intentionally stalls. True to Patel's Saroo it's as if the movie has as much to figure out about where it's going as he does. While this gives a sense of the confusion, the longing for certain outcomes, and the like to the viewer it also gives hesitance to fully get on board with a character we don't always feel convinced is a true extension of the young child we found great sympathy for. Once Saroo decides to dedicate his time and resources to the cause of tracking down his biological mother Lion begins to pick up the pace, but the relationship drama involving Rooney is ultimately unnecessary as is the amount of times Saroo goes back and forth about deciding whether or not to pursue this seemingly impossible journey. Had “Lion” given more weight to the conflict of Saroo telling his parents in Kidman and Wenham what he desired to do and that once he broke through that wall moved full steam ahead with his plan there might have been a more consistent pace overall which then would have also kept audience investment consistent throughout.
Understanding that critics are to discuss the movie they saw and not the movie they wished to see though, it is easy to applaud “Lion” for all that it does accomplish effectively. For as much of that last hour can feel uneven the final 15 minutes or so make it well-worth the investment both in your time and emotions. It is in these big moments that Patel captures the small emotions one couldn't ever anticipate feeling until being in the midst of such a moment. Part of the intrigue of stories such as this is the anticipation of not knowing what sort of emotions response those that are the subject of such experiences will have and while I hate to get too spoilery, but if you've seen any movie ever I'm sure one can guess the conclusion to “Lion,” Patel delivers a heartfelt showing of simultaneous joy and heartbreak. The memories or lack thereof that must have been rushing through the real Saroo's mind at the sight of his mother who had aged 25 years in the time since he last saw her must have been incomprehensible, but through Patel's emotive face we catch a glimpse of something there are still not words to justly describe. In short, “Lion” is a film that will shake you, that will elicit an authentic emotional response all while being rather standard if not handsomely constructed in its style. Thus meaning cinematographer Greig Fraser lends the film something of a subdued aesthetic that likens itself to grand emotional dramas of another decade whereas Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka's score underpins what could easily be viewed as manipulations on such emotions with music that compliments the rich visual style and rich emotional investment the film asks the audience to take on. “Lion” is a competently made film that excels in welcoming the viewer into what will likely be a foreign world for most giving India a voice and distinct look that doesn't compare to the likes of “Slumdog Millionaire” or any other notable depictions of the country. To use the word again, there is a subdued nature, a somewhat haunting nature to how Davis presents his vision of India and how that begins to close in on the young Saroo. Of course, what will remain with the viewer long after the credits have rolled is that of the face of Pawar as his small, screaming voice that yells his brother's name is drowned out by the sound of the train on which he rides. A tragedy of Greek proportions wrapped in the culture of modern India the first hour of “Lion” and the earned emotional payoff make it one not to miss despite the stakes somewhat lacking in the muddled middle.
by Philip Price
“Moonlight” is one of those films that anytime your mind tends to float back to it inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come with it. It is a film that both simply and oh so complexly transcends all barriers of politics and beliefs and presents a bare bones human story that just so happens to deal with being black and being gay. It's always been clear, especially from the outside looking in, that the culture that forms young black men is one of the most high-pressure environments for one to be tough, hard, or essentially show little to no feeling at all. "Toxic masculinity" as it has been labeled in recent writings. There has long existed the stigma that to be hard or worthy of being a man one must be largely indifferent to those things that naturally give us weaknesses in the world. By tackling this idea and how it affects the growth and development of one underprivileged youth is at one time to present exactly what it promises while at another-painting a much broader picture of this toxicity that has been constructed by society for which many young men are led to believe there are certain actions that have to be taken or certain attitudes that must be adopted in order to make them worthy of being a man. This doesn't have to necessarily deal with sexuality, but more this condition is about those stereotypes of men-emotionless, dominant, violent-that society has relayed to determine certain levels of masculinity. That “Moonlight” addresses such expectations and the baggage, the torture, and the living hell such expectations can carry when not met in the judgmental environments of the projects or of high school or even of one's mother who knows the essence of her son, but isn't strong enough herself to stand up to such stigma's thus leaving that child for the wolves of the world is powerful enough. That “Moonlight” is able to explore these largely ignored aspects of manhood in such poetic and provocative ways as through the lens of a young man growing up black, poor and gay only makes these points that much more enlightening and subsequently-that much more powerful. “Moonlight” is a film that, anytime you think about, are reminded of, or even consider the ground it covers and the essence of what it embodies not only in its ideas and themes, but in its nearly flawless execution inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come as well. More than anything, writer/director Barry Jenkins understands the human element at the core of these issues and by parlaying as much through the single perspective of Chiron at three different stages of his life we are delivered a fleshed out portrait of the true internal tendencies versus the ideals we're taught we should become.
Adapted from the unproduced play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by MacArthur Fellow (a prize awarded annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to between 20 and 40 individuals who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" in any field) Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” takes us through three stages of the life of Chiron. Chiron was born into near poverty in South Florida and recognizes there is something different about himself from all the other boys very early on. In the first sequence of the film dubbed "Little" we are introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) at the age of nine as he is chased through the streets by a gang of bullies and fellow classmates who hurl the word "faggot" at him in condescending ways only for young Chiron to find refuge in what we assume is an abandoned crack house off the beaten path. Left to be alone by his peers Chiron is discovered to be hiding by drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes Chiron into his surprisingly pleasant existence whose work doesn't seem to interfere or even make an appearance in conversation when it comes to his home life with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Teresa takes in Chiron as if he were one of her and Juan's own giving him a hot meal, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and the kind of reassurance his real mother can hardly provide. As things come to be discovered it seems Chiron's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug-addled junkie who finds her supply in the dealers Juan oversees on the streets. In essence, the cushy lifestyle of Juan and Teresa that Chiron comes to find solace in is fueled by the addiction of people like his own mother. Chiron feels betrayed by the man who he'd come to see as something of his savior. We are then flash-forwarded six or so years into the future where Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school and is more or less living in that aforementioned living hell where he is teased incessantly only to find a glimmer of hope and of something to potentially look forward to in a moment that develops with classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It is only after the two share an intimate moment though, that Chiron once again feels betrayed by someone he thought he could trust. This development pushes the third sequence of the film to depict a nearly 30-year-old Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) who has repressed everything that once made him who he was and who has instead embraced the thug stereotype of black culture as Chiron is now virtually mirroring the existence of his one-time mentor, Juan.
To make this world of South Florida that begins in what seems to be the early to mid-nineties come to life in vivid and believable ways Jenkins not only employs the use of time-stamped clothing styles and technology, but more he builds the aura of this era through the way he decides to visually display such markers of the era. There is an intentional brightness to the "Little" section that radiates the supposed and inherent wonder of childhood that should always be allowed to be expressed mixed with the heat of the summer sun to the point one can almost feel the relief of the heat when a character steps indoors. In the second section of the film, dubbed simply "Chiron", the brightly lit aesthetic is still intact, but Jenkins seems to remain more focused on the characters in terms of close-ups rather than exploring the atmosphere that helps define the nurturing aspect of Chiron's development in the first act. All of these strict aesthetic choices indeed feel wholly calculated and precise in a manner that certain scenes have an almost staged quality to them in order to make the overall artistic ambition of the film's message that much clearer. To paint a truly distinctive portrait of who Chiron is at these certain points in his life. The performances of Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are beyond great and do this on a level all their own, but Jenkins' visual prowess only stands to add reinforcement to each of these three distinct periods. That isn't to say “Moonlight” is a film that speaks down to its audience by painting too obvious a picture of what it is attempting to convey-it is exactly the opposite if anything at all, but that Jenkins doesn't shy away from his stylistic choices and that they stand out to be as stunning as the revelations that come forth concerning masculinity is a match that perfectly encapsulates the yearning and the repression. This becomes even more of a prevalent factor when such imagery is paired with Nicholas Britell's score. As equally haunting as it is subtle the string-heavy music underpins the emotions expressed on the faces of the three actors playing Chiron that they may not speak of, but that we can see in their expressions and that are pulled out even further by the certain themes assigned to each stage of Chiron's growth. Jenkins is also able to reinforce the multiple aspects of his major themes by lending the style a fearsome and unrelenting tone of anxiety. Whereas the first two sections of the film are brightly lit and take place mostly during the day the third act of “Moonlight,” labeled "Black," is marked by nights and Chiron's dark wardrobe. Turning the feelings of animosity and terror that lurked at every turn of the first two acts into that of a life conquered by a fear of emasculation through the facade necessary to preserve what most consider masculine.
Saying that “Moonlight” accomplishes so much of what makes it great through the direction and vision of Jenkins would surely be true, but without the right actors in place to pull of this difficult triptych storyline it's hard to imagine “Moonlight” having the same impact or resonating as much as it does in those aforementioned recollections. Within this tale of three time periods exists several solid performances and not just within the main character and the comparison of how well each stage compliments the next, though that achievement is not to be taken away from. Each of the three actors portraying Chiron give this character a calmness and quietness that resonates throughout the film. There is much for the movie to be angry about in light of the treatment its main character receives and yet “Moonlight” never feels harsh or aggressive, but rather it basks in the fact it's not trying to solve its subject’s problems-it is simply observing them and allowing the viewer to take away from it what they will. Despite the fact none of the three actors playing Chiron met one another while shooting there is a clear and very vivid interpretation of the character that comes through in each of the performances in those moments when Chiron allows himself to drop his guard. The same could be said for André Holland who plays the older version of Kevin and who somehow, despite also never meeting Jerome during shooting, matches the temperament and speech pattern of the earlier portrayal of the character in the small, but necessarily delicate ways. Holland is especially effective in the final act of the film as the tension at the sight of his and Chiron's reunion and what might happen is cut before the big speech is ever made. Rather, as is the theme in “Moonlight”-only enough is said to where its point can be understood. There isn't a large amount of dialogue and when there is it is generally to make aware a very pointed idea or observation. In this way, such conversations remain striking and easy to remember when those inevitable recollections again beg for your empathy. The truth is though, “Moonlight” doesn't have to beg for either empathy or sympathy for by the time the film comes to its quietly powerful and immensely moving conclusion you're more than willing to hand over such understandings. Harris and Ali will be rightly praised for their performances that form the basis of who the central character becomes and Rhodes and Holland will garner much attention for their show-stopping performances based solely around conversation and looks in the final sequence of the film, but “Moonlight” is a film made as impactful as it is by the sum of its parts-a barrier breaking piece of work that makes a statement by being wholly vulnerable or, in other words, the exact opposite of what societal standards tell men they need to be in order to be worthy of anything.
by Philip Price
There's a moment that comes 45 or so minutes into “Jackie” where the former first lady boldly strides into her husband's quarters for the first time since his death and proceeds to play what she recalls as his favorite number from the musical, "Camelot," while trying on much of her wardrobe, sitting in chairs, smoking, sitting in rooms, and admiring swatches of material she no doubt had glorious plans for; soaking in all that will soon be gone, the tragedy, the full comprehension of what our titular character is going through just washing over Jackie herself-maybe for the first time since her husband's death with the full force of reality. There is a plethora of delicious dialogue in Noah Oppenheim's screenplay, but it is moments such as this-moments that require no words where director Pablo Larraín excels at cutting to the heart of what motivates our titular character, what allows her to push on with life, and most impressively what gives “Jackie” the ability of allowing the audience to understand an individual's challenging ideas and decisions in the midst of unfair circumstances that are also undoubtedly the worst days of her life. “Jackie” follows former first lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the week following the assassination of her husband in 1963, but that is what is to be expected from a biographical film concerning Mrs. Kennedy. What one might not necessarily be prepared for, but that “Jackie” certainly delivers, is a closely compacted study of the balance a woman in her (singular) position must pull off when concerning themselves not only with the here and now, but what people will write about her and her husband for decades to come. The ideas of legacy and of shaping that legacy come easier to viewers who obviously know what the myths around the ever-regal Kennedy clan have come to be, but “Jackie” opens our eyes to the fact such myths have to be constructed in some form or fashion. People like to believe in fairy tales and, for Jackie, it seems the goal was always to purport this facade that embodied the noble and majestic lifestyle of her husband's favorite musical. While “Jackie,” the film, looks to more or less deconstruct those myths-revealing the thought process and truths behind the scenes-the film also weirdly works to build up that myth even more albeit with more of an eerie tone than that of the mysterious one Jackie might have preferred.
Framed by the presence of Billy Crudup as a journalist who has come to the current estate where Jackie is temporarily staying in order to conduct an interview we are quickly taken into how adept the former first lady was at distilling negative perceptions into logical truths. There was never such an intent with her televised tour of the white house that aired in 1961 to draw attention to herself, but rather for the American people and to give the everyman a glimpse inside the President's home; to "impart a sense of America's greatness," or so she says. There was never an intent to exploit her children by having them walk by her side as their father's casket was being moved from the church to the capital for the whole world to see, but rather as a means to show those who'd killed her husband what they had actually taken from the world in a loving father, or so she says. There is an acute sense of just how aware Mrs. Kennedy was concerning her actions or lack thereof and how they might feed into the image she wished to project. Larraín tracks his titular subject through the course of this interview that is intended to give us Jackie's version of the story while cutting back and forth between it, the aforementioned tour of the white house, as well as the events that followed in the week of JFK's death on November 22, 1963. Through these intercut timelines Larraín is able to paint a full portrait of his subject that feels as immersive at it ultimately does due to the fact the director hones in on certain qualities of the character that tell us as much about the bigger picture situation as they do the nature of Mrs. Kennedy. Could Jackie Kennedy be wholly defined by this facet of her personality Larraín explores in depth? Probably not, but the fact Mrs. Kennedy was clearly very sharp when it came to managing her image and thus, shaping the legacy of her husband's short-lived presidency into what it has now become lends viewers this single facet through which the remainder of Jackie can be viewed. Creating a more exact vision of this human being that sees every side of her personality filtered through this single aspect rather than allowing self-conflict to step in the way gives us more of an honest sense for who Mrs. Kennedy was as opposed to a film that attempts to run the full gamut of emotions all humans deal in.
In essence, by showing viewers a glimpse of who this woman was and how she conducted herself during the most trying time of her life we get a sense of how Mrs. Kennedy might have conducted herself in every other aspect of her life. What Larraín chooses to focus on specifically in highlighting this single week of his subject’s life is her emphasis on the need for legacy. That, in light of her husband's untimely passing, he be remembered in a way that he might approve of. Jesus left his legacy in parables. Jackie leaves hers through her husband's legacy and the myth-like stature of the family name she married into. She too knows that people like to believe in fairy tales and that those we read about can become closer to us than those physically standing next to us. This is what Jackie desires for she and her husband when people read about their Camelot decades on. By delving into the depths of this fleeting Camelot the Kennedy's built together in the short two years, 10 months, and two days that she and "Jack" were President and First Lady Jackie is able to give its titular character a sense of authenticity in a time of her life that otherwise would seem to have been constantly staged. Of course, such authenticity could not be conveyed without the centerpiece performance of Portman. There are numerous faces one will recognize throughout the cast of Jackie including Peter Sarsgaard as a complex Bobby Kennedy who must walk both sides of the line between respecting Jackie's wishes and adhering to what new President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) thinks is best. Great character actor Beth Grant inhabits Lady Bird Johnson in a few short scenes and completely relays the awkward tonal shift in her role change and where her limits lie with Mrs. Kennedy. Richard E. Grant, Greta Gerwig and Max Casella each provide memorable touches to what could have easily been thankless roles-Grant especially excels as the White House interior designer who has established an affection for the First Lady during her time there. They clearly shared a sense of style and found comfort and trust in one another's ideas and suggestions-extending beyond the simplicity of what color drapes should go in which room. Some of Oppenheim's best material goes to John Hurt as a priest that councils the grieving Mrs. Kennedy though, offering a hell of a final summation that it genuinely seems the newly-widowed Mrs. Kennedy is able to find solace in.
It is Portman who carries the majority of the weight here though. As the third youngest of the wives to live in the white house Jackie Kennedy was admired for her high class tastes and enviable wardrobe-she was the first First Lady who somewhat glamorized the role and Portman embodies this sense of flawlessness in nearly every frame-the actor and her director only showing Mrs. Kennedy at her most vulnerable when she is completely alone. Portman adopts the debutante speaking patterns of that era adding to the stagey appearance Mrs. Kennedy was always sure to keep up. While the accent could easily become grating, Portman is able to lend an endearing quality to the character due to her admirable plight of building her husband's legacy through the spectacle of his funeral despite the fact they had nothing short of a strained relationship. The magic of Portman's performance though is that it indeed conveys this train of thought, but as her arc progresses and we see the full realization of her proposals there comes a duality to Portman's portrayal as even she begins to wonder whether all of this was in service of her husband's legacy or was some of it done for her own satisfaction? As some type of vanity project. Larraín would like to think it sways back and forth as, in the final frames of his film, he keenly shows Mrs. Kennedy noticing mannequins styled after her being set-up in the window of a department store as Portman slyly communicates a sense of satisfaction. Moreover, Mrs. Kennedy simply understood the way in which she could communicate the ideas and persona she desired through unexpected avenues whether that be in her fashion or in her lack of action and it is in this, to repeat myself, acute awareness of such actions that Portman is able to provide the most insightful material in Oppenheim's screenplay a real sense of weight. This is undoubtedly a difficult task as much of it has to be sensed through body language, sideways glances, and facial expressions just as much as it is lines of dialogue communicated with certain tones or inflections. It is through the seeming choice of Larraín to hold the full impact of being in the moment that would forever change and define Mrs. Kennedy's life until the climax that viewers realize no one else could ever fully comprehend the trauma this woman experienced and had to deal with making Portman's performance that much more penetrating.
by Philip Price
John Hamburg hasn't directed a feature film since 2009, but that film was “I Love You, Man.” Seven years and several television directing gigs later and Hamburg has delivered “Why Him?” Personally, I love “I Love You, Man.” It has become one of those reliable movies you can put on at any given time and are guaranteed to laugh and enjoy while having the added bonus of intelligently breaking down the barriers of masculinity and the weird culture surrounding male friendships. This automatically sets up an expectation that the follow-up won't be nearly as good, especially based on the rather outlandish trailers we received for “Why Him?” The thing is, it wasn't that “I Love You, Man” had a more seasoned or credible screenwriter, but in fact Hamburg himself seemingly had a lot to do with both screenplays with his co-writer on “Why Him?” admittedly having more promising if not limited previous works on his resume whereas Hamburg's co-writer on “I Love You, Man,” Larry Levin, has such credits as “Doctor Dolittle” and “Dr. Dolittle 2” to his name. Of course, comedy does and doesn't have a lot to do with the writing as the funniest jokes in the world can be written down, but if they don't have the right people to execute them they'll still fall as flat as the worst types of jokes. What is on the paper provides only a basis for the type of comedy hoping to be obtained as well as a launching pad for talented comedians and improvisational actors to take the material to new heights. And so, it isn't that “I Love You, Man” necessarily had better writing going for it, but rather that it was a novel premise that thrived on the chemistry and appeal of its two stars. “Why Him?” doesn't necessarily have as interesting a dynamic at its core and its stars aren't nearly as charming as Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, but that doesn't automatically render the film a failure on the comedic front. By all accounts, “Why Him?” is a perfectly accessible broad if not rather crude comedy that utilizes said broadness to relate to whole families in Middle America, teenagers and older parents that walk into the film because the trailers featured a scenario familiar to them or because they saw the guy from “Breaking Bad” being funny. “Why Him?” is a perfect example of why mainstream comedies both work on certain levels and why they can easily fail on so many others. Though it may not garner me much credibility I rather enjoyed “Why Him?” to the point I'm not grumpy enough to get mad at a movie for failing to be as introspective about the dynamics it means to document while instead making up for such a lack of substance with easy laughs.
Things begin predictably enough when we get a slight introduction to Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch) and her boyfriend Laird Mayhew (James Franco) and how comfortable Laird is in their relationship when Stephanie, who is a senior at Stanford, invites him over to her dorm to "Netflix and chill" whereas Laird responds by completely undoing the subtlety of what his girlfriend was trying to convey by asking explicitly if that means they're going to have sex once he arrives. Given the next scene starts by establishing the rest of Stephanie's family is back in good ole Michigan celebrating her father's birthday along with all of his employees that work at the printing company he runs (and at an Applebee's no less) where her younger brother, Scotty (Griffin Gluck), has set up a surprise Skype call with Stephanie one can guess where things are going. That said, this sequence still garnered a handful of gasps and "oh no's" from the rather small audience I saw the film with. This more or less encapsulates the tone of Why Him? as it repeats this joke of Laird barging in and doing something brash or idiotic in front of Stephanie's parents, Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) Fleming, time and time again before Barb is finally seduced by Laird's charm and Ned eventually blows up and says things he'll undoubtedly learn to regret two scenes later. This, of course, all leading to a climactic third act moment where Ned and Laird realize they're not so different from one another, make up, and welcome a depressingly old looking Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in full KISS regalia into their home because, "why not?" These are things that are easy to complain about and “Why Him?” will give any seasoned movie goer reason enough to do so, but “Why Him?” is a movie designed for viewers who only venture out to the cinema once or twice a year with an excursion including this movie undoubtedly being part of a group decision around the holiday season. To this effect, it is easy to see how such a film might be a pleasant enough distraction while providing enough consistent laughs to make audiences feel they didn't waste their money. That may not be the most resounding of endorsements, but there is a clear effort on the part of “Why Him?” and especially Franco who, while seeming to know the type of movie he's in, is having a blast playing-up this ludicrous archetype.
Granted, “Why Him?” is the movie James Franco makes in order to pay for all his other endeavors. It's a solid paycheck, keeps him in good standing with a major studio, and cements the fact he's still a recognizable face to mainstream viewers when most of his work is aimed at more niche audiences. And while such conditions may apply to this project in particular the plus side is that Hamburg more or less allows Franco to be an unabashedly James Franco-type with all formalities and inhibitions thrown to the wind. Franco having crafted the public persona he has it's not hard to believe the multi-faceted actor has thrown himself totally into the skin of this brash tech billionaire with a heart full of good intentions. As a result, Franco going full throttle is inevitably humorous from time to time with the extended bits concerning how much Laird influences different members of the family leading to solid moments for both Gluck and especially Mullally who takes advantage of every minute of screen time she is afforded. While other bits including a running joke about Laird's futuristic toilets, his paperless house, and his five star chef that makes portions so small and so unique it's impossible to enjoy what a five star chef actually makes mostly fall flat if not garner an occasional chuckle, but don't worry-the movie never stops trying. This is to say the best moments come from the strained character dynamics presented in the core narrative. And, as stated, Franco's central showcase is as giving as his alter ego which bodes well for Bryan Cranston who seems to now be picking projects based solely on how much the paycheck is. Were it not for how well Franco bounces off of Cranston's flustered father figure it would seem exhausting just to watch Cranston go through the motions. In what was one of the more anticipated transitions from the small screen to the big in quite some time Cranston is quickly losing much of the credibility he built as Walter White. It doesn't take long for audiences to forget the one good thing you did in favor of the several crap pieces you made and Cranston's good will seems to be beginning to slip. That isn't to say the actor is necessarily terrible here or that he doesn't fit the bill of average Midwestern dad that refuses to adapt and who says he trusts his children, but is still overbearing. After all, the guy essentially played this character for seven seasons on “Malcolm in the Middle,” but in “Why Him?” it can't help but feel as if Cranston is above this material and that he's fully aware of that. His character is meant to be frustrated much of the time, but it can't help but feel Cranston genuinely feels the same way for signing on to such a project.
With everything “Why Him?” attempts to cram into its story those who are easily offended by such things will find it frustrating that the woman at the center of this back and forth between father and potential husband is never really given the time to flesh herself out as well as her feelings not necessarily being taken into consideration. That can be said and complained about, but the movie makes a point of stating this so as to say both the Ned and Laird characters, by the end of the film, have lost sight of the real purpose to their even knowing one another. Deutch has proven herself to be a capable talent and charismatic presence (see “Everybody Wants Some!!”) despite being the product of pure nepotism and though the movie is clearly about the predictable confrontations that can arise between and father and son-in-law it would have been nice had the film given the catalyst female character a little more depth. We understand that the premise is not meant to serve as a story for Deutch's Stephanie, but in order to understand why Laird might fight so hard to win over her resistant father it would have been nice had Hamburg and Ian Helfer's screenplay given her a little more reason as to why she's worth fighting for. Rather, the film allows for random supporting characters to be more memorable, most notably in Keegan Michael-Key's Gustav that sees the ever-charming comedian doing an ever-changing Indian/European accent as Franco's right hand man that makes sure the house and Laird's affairs are in order as well as being something of his spiritual guide and trainer as, at times, Gustav will jump out of nowhere and try to catch Laird off guard. It is through Key's performance that some of the best moments of the film are born and the same can be said for when the likes of Cedric the Entertainer, Adam Devine, Andrew Rannells and Casey Wilson show up to provide a needed reprieve from the antics of Franco that, while humorous, can be so profane to the point of trying so hard they stand to sometimes be more off-putting than pleasing. Hamburg seemed to recognize this in the editing room the closer he got to the end of his film though, as he piles in more characters and more heartfelt moments as the movie enters its third act, but while predictability was always going to be a factor in this rather safe studio comedy that only wants to pretend to be daring it comes down to the fact that at the end of the day I laughed enough to recommend putting “Why Him?” on in the background at your Friendsmas next year if not for nothing else, but to provide intermittent laughter between your own conversations. It's at least good for that.