by Philip Price
It's weird. With everything “The Martian” has going on and going for it you'd think it might be more of a straightforward action film, but rather this is a movie about problem solving. Problem solving in the cheesy sense of never giving up, but legitimate in that our protagonist’s circumstances have him stranded on Mars. These days, one almost goes into a Ridley Scott picture with the expectation of receiving something handsome without necessarily having any sustenance and that reaction has been warranted over the last few years (“Prometheus” has it's lovers and it's haters, but I'm in the former camp). What makes “The Martian” different than say “Robin Hood,” “The Counselor” or even “Exodus” though is that it once again sets the director up in what seems to be his most comfortable and inspiring setting: space. In going back to the cosmos, the director does his own problem solving and dives head first into his grand new science fiction film by embracing every aspect that makes up this story. Whether that be in the Mars-based segments with Matt Damon's astronaut Mark Watney or on Earth at the various NASA headquarters with engaging intellects like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels. Beyond having rounded up a stellar cast Scott has more or less crafted his most entertaining film in years by really seeming passionate about the material. Of course, rather than space, this could be the reason all of his films taking place out of our planet's orbit tend to generally turn out for the best. Scott is an explorer, a man who likes his scope large and his stories fairly bombastic. What bigger canvas is there to paint on than space?
Before we know anything else in the film we know there is a strong camaraderie between the crew of the Ares III mission. Led by Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the rest of the team includes Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). It is when an unexpected storm rolls up on the crew as they walk the surface of mars that they are forced to evacuate their mission. In making their way to the escape pod Watney is impaled by an antenna during the storm destroying his flight suit's bio-monitor computer, rendering his crewmates unable to detect him and leaving them to believe him dead. In reality, Watney's injury proves to be relatively minor, but with no way to contact Earth, he is forced to rely on his scientific and technical skills to survive. Given Watney is a botanist and mechanical engineer though, he has a leg up on the typical competition. While the odds still seem insurmountable there is certainly hope. Enter the problem solving skills. Watney begins growing potatoes in the crew's Martian habitat (or Hab as it is referred to) and burning hydrazine to make water. On the other side of things, millions of miles away, NASA is working tirelessly to bring Watney home. While Ejiofor's Vincent Kapoor (Head of NASA Mars Missions) and Daniels’ Teddy Sanders (Director of NASA) feel it best to not allow the information that Watney did indeed survive and is still alive to reach the ears of his crewmates for the sake of their own sanity the world looks on anxiously. And so, with those odds stacked against them NASA and Watney work tirelessly to come up with and conduct a plan that will guarantee his safe return.
If you've been living under a rock as of late “The Martian” is actually based on Andy Weir's best-selling novel that he originally self-published. Having read the book I was curious as to how Scott, but more screenwriter Drew Goddard would go about adapting the dialogue heavy narrative. While the NASA segments and much of the third act are told from a third person omniscient point of view a large portion of the first half of the book is strictly Watney's logs that he creates to keep a record of his activity. These log entries are plagued with massive amounts of scientific verbiage as much of the time I wasn't exactly sure what I was reading was supposed to add up to, but trusted that by the time Watney made it around to his point I would understand. This of course worked out fine for my brain to process when reading the words on a page, but Goddard wisely streamlined much of this information into clips of Damon talking straight into the camera while at the same time working on whatever he was describing giving audiences a visual feel for what was necessary to continue to survive.
Damon, who at this point kind of seems like the obvious choice, is really terrific as Watney. He fully embodies the laid-back All-American astronaut who has a generous sense of humor while never not being able to convince us that he's indeed as intelligent as he's supposed to be. What is refreshing about “The Martian” is that the majority of the time Scott keeps things rolling by having his editor give the film a breathless pace, but every once and a while he'll stop to take a breath and let the bigness of the situation sink in not only on the audience, but on Watney. Watney is like the movie in this sense. He is constantly working, figuring things out, planning his next excursion, attempting to fix communications, plotting how to grow things on a planet that doesn't typically stand for such things, but every once in a while he'll stop and look around. There is a specific sequence such as this late in the film where Watney discusses the fact that any time he does something on Mars he is the first person to do so. That the planet has existed for billions of years and yet he is the one to accomplish a number of firsts on its surface. It is a wonder what that kind of realization does to a man psychologically and if you're wondering you can guess as much by the ticks and body language that Damon puts into his performance. Moments of simple realizations within confined spaces draw tears from him and send chills down us, but the realization that he might die there is the one that continues to push him to solve problems. Without this kind of can-do mentality that is so present in Damon's interpretation the film wouldn't feel nearly as weightless or fun, but Damon is our All-American boy and he hits a sweet stride here that truly makes the film more than entertaining, but affecting.
While all of the credible facets that “The Martian” has going for it make it seem like it would be a very serious, dramatic picture about saving a man's life there is plenty of humor here as well. It's funny. Just like it would seem to be an action film it seems its main genre distinction would be drama, but that the film turns these expectations on their head and delivers a frequently humorous film with more focus on the details than the broad missions make it all the better. This is clearly taken from the novel as Weir provided his lead character with a great, relatable sense of humor while making jokes concerning how bad ‘70s disco is that are both safe enough to guarantee a laugh while being safe from criticism for being too safe because of the dire circumstances. Scott takes advantage of this inclusion in the book to provide a lively and uniquely fitting soundtrack rather than have the typical orchestral swells at the expected turns. That isn't to say there aren't moments of tension. There certainly are and enough bad things happening and enough plans failing throughout that we never feel assured throughout the entire runtime that Watney will necessarily end up safe. Even better, these obstacles never feel like a reason to extend the runtime, but rather natural obstacles that a company and a mission as large as the space program would encounter.
This is all to say that Scott seems to have at least returned to ground where he can feel a purpose in his work because there is real weight to the motions that take place here. Sure, there are times when we wonder why Donald Glover or Kristen Wiig were cast for what essentially add up to be cameos or if there wasn't a better, less overly dramatic and ridiculous (no matter how scientifically accurate) way to stage the final act, but the good outweighs the bad. The film is beautifully shot (no surprise there) and gorgeous to behold on the big screen. The NASA scenes are as modern, but lived in as we could expect from those working around the clock while the Mars scenes are claustrophobic when necessary (in the rover, in the hab) and sweeping when reminding us of just how lost Watney really is. Ejiofor is especially terrific while Sean Bean is more or less rendered moot by the presence of both he and Daniels. It's also a shame we don't get to spend more time with the Ares III crew as there is both a lot of talent and chemistry there between the actors. Chastain, as always, is especially effective in her few larger moments. All in all though, “The Martian” is a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction film that puts the science front and center while allowing the human characters to serve as the most exciting aspects. More exciting than any battle scene could have proved to be. It's weird. Apparently not all space adventures have to include aliens or extravagant spaceships to be exciting, but sometimes the will to live is enough to create something truly compelling.
by Philip Price
Man, that Nicholas Hoult really likes himself some Romeo & Juliet stories, doesn't he? If you recall, he made a little subversion of the zombie genre back in 2013 that also borrowed from Shakespeare's doomed story of young lovers. While “Warm Bodies” at least had the sense to have a sense of humor about itself “Equals” is not that kind of movie, but instead plays it completely straight allowing it to end up completely boring. From the outset of the film it all feels familiar. One can see where this thing is going from a mile away and I'm not even sure how anyone read Nathan Parker's script and thought it was a good idea to make this movie again. Again you ask? Yeah, do you recall a little 2005 Michael Bay film by the name of “The Island”? Remember how that film was accused of ripping off another movie? Well, I'm sure the makers of the 1979 film, “Parts: The Clonus Horror,” found inspiration from another source (George Lucas?) and there source before that (George Orwell?). This happens all the time. I'm not saying “Equals” has done anything wrong as far as copyright infringement goes, but I am saying it feels like they took out the clone aspect of “The Island,” added in some aspects of “The Giver” and threw in a third act R & J twist and called it a day. Director Drake Doremus made a nice little examination of young love with his breakout hit in 2011, “Like Crazy,” but this utopian set version of that story yields nothing fresh or interesting.
In this futuristic society Doremus and Parker have set up, human emotions have been eradicated and everyone lives in peace. They all wear nicely pressed white suits and live in modern apartment buildings where everything comes out of the wall and is prepared for them beforehand. Everyone has a specific job that contains a workday filled with little interaction before going home to their assigned living quarters and playing virtual Jenga until their eyes cross. It is when a new disease surfaces that everything changes for illustrator Silas (Hoult). This disease, that is called SOS, is explained as having any kind of emotion whatsoever. It has levels of severity marked by stages that essentially seem to determine at what point you should off yourself. Silas goes to the doctor after feeling, well, anything and is diagnosed with SOS. As a result he becomes an outcast and is drawn to his writer co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart). Turns out Nia is also infected, but has been hiding her condition for over a year. While I actually wondered for a split second if this film wouldn't contain these two pretty people falling in love and fighting to defy the system it was pretty clear that they would and that, in order to survive, they would have to somehow escape together.
There really isn't much more to be said about the film. I could tell you that the production design is nice, that the tone is much starker than something like “The Island,” but similar to last year’s “The Giver” adaptation or even that some of the sound design is interesting as everything that requires some kind of signal is that of a piano key note, but despite that all being true it does little for the overall affect the film had on me. Sure, it was pretty to look at. Sure, it has a nice little supporting cast that features Jacki Weaver and Guy Pearce with smaller contributions from up and comers Bel Powley and Kate Lyn Sheil, but they either add nothing or are under-utilized to the point it would only seem to be promising more than what the film can deliver. Does the film then attempt to make some kind of social commentary? Is there room for giant metaphors that make “Equals” a mirror to our current society where cell phones and other technology have drained the life from us and render emotions moot? Is it saying how wonderful things might be again if we could get back to talking face to face and truly experience one another? Maybe, but what of those things have you not heard before? Even if these were the themes and main ideas behind the film there is no new perspective or fresh ideas used to convey these tired topics. And so, there is only the lead performances left to consider and they don't offer much either despite feeling like they're doing all they can.
For the record, I like both Stewart and Hoult. They have each made a number of interesting films and were they not a part of this production I doubt I would have had any interest in this film at all. In fact, now that I've seen the film I wish I would've seen Hoult's other offering at TIFF this year, “Kill All Your Friends,” which I at least heard was good fun. “Equals,” unfortunately is no fun. Like I said, both of these talented actors do what they can to make the story work. We buy them as a couple. We buy their arc from stilted awkwardness to the emotional development of being head over heels for one another. There is chemistry between the two and some of the scenes in which they first touch one another (that sounds dirtier than it actually is, trust me) are genuinely able to elicit some kind of emotional response, but past this the story is so predictable it's hard to invest in any of it. The film gets points for its two lead performances as well as for the sleek, but unoriginal production design. What is really a shame is that this project didn't even deserve the efforts of those trying to make it work as they would've been better off dedicating their time elsewhere. Given the film was always going to be made though, Doremus could have at least tried a little harder to do something different with his bigger budget. Instead, he plays it safe and creates a run of the mill futuristic film for this day and age. Most will see “Equals” as perfectly fine, inoffensive and probably even adequate compared to most of what they see this year, but for me this was a dull excursion to a familiar future that I never cared to visit again.
by Philip Price
Alice in Wonderland has been used as inspiration for what are surely an innumerable number of stories. The idea of getting lost down a rabbit hole or your life not going the way you'd imagined it would when you were a child is universal. The metaphors and analogies to be made are no doubt endless with any aspect of any single person's life, but “Room” is a certain kind of ‘Alice’ story as you can feel the loss of our protagonist both physically and psychologically. Loss is a key word, a key theme if you will given the circumstances of the situation presented in the film, but if you don't know that situation going in you're all the better for it. All that is necessary to know is that Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, a woman who has seemingly been trapped in a single room shack for an ungodly amount of time while having raised her five year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), in this confinement for the entirety of his life. There is only a single door in their room and it is protected by a locking system that only a mysterious visitor (Sean Bridgers) knows the code to. This stranger, referred to as "Old Nick," brings Joy and Jack food once a week, but like the majority of the supporting characters in any ‘Alice’ story, he is cruel towards our heroine. Knowing little more than this myself before walking in, “Room” operates as a tense and unnerving thriller for its first half before becoming an intense psychological trip in its second. Both are equally engaging as is the film as a whole.
Director Lenny Abrahamson, who directed last year’s “Frank,” begins his adaptation of Emma Donoghue's best-selling novel (she also penned the screenplay) by giving us a glimpse of the daily routine for Joy and Jack. It is Jack's fifth birthday and the first time he and his mother will bake a real birthday cake together. When Jack wakes in the morning he says hello to every item that is contained in their small, square world. He is affectionate toward a dresser he must sleep in when "Old Nick" comes to visit, he has names for his spoon and a special place in his heart for his TV. In order for Jack to understand why they can't leave this shelter Joy has made up numerous stories to convince him it is for their own safety. Jack believes the world is a disaster, a post-apocalyptic wasteland of sorts and that there are aliens beyond their walls with everything he sees on TV being a work of fiction. This kind of twisted mentality obviously gives Jack a warped view of the world and only breaks Joy's heart further as she continues to raise her son day after day, with zero room to breathe on her own. One can only imagine how this leaves her state of mind all the worse for wear as well. It is best not to watch the trailer for “Room” as certain plot points are given away so I'll stop there before I tempt you too much, but if you've read Donoghue's novel or have already seen the trailer you know that the story only goes on to explore the repercussions of this kind of nurturing and the adverse effects it has on Jack.
Again, without going into too much detail what “Room” really enjoys mining is the psychology of the traumatized mind. With both Joy and Jack we enter into two extremely different sets of emotional trauma. In dealing with the experience of being confined to a single space for a number of years on Joy's end and with Jack knowing nothing else of the world other than "room," as he affectionately refers to it. As far as Joy is concerned she begins to question herself and her choices. Was it best to even raise a child under such conditions? Was she being selfish in keeping Jack with her? Is Jack better off without her? These all come flooding in at a time when Joy should indeed feel the emotion her name inspires, but instead she can't shake the idea that she has scarred her child forever. Maybe even more so than anything "room" inflicted upon him. Throughout all of the highs and lows that Joy and Jack come to encounter it is Larson's consistent fragility that makes us unsure of what might be around the corner. It can't be easy for what seems like would be a typically strong woman to submit to such restrictions, but Joy clearly does this to protect her son. As she is the only one for the first half hour or so that knows the whole truth of the situation Larson plays the role with as much effortless care as one would likely expect. Larson displayed a knack for compassion and empathy in 2013's “Short Term 12” and she again utilizes that ability here in order to make us feel the dire circumstances she has suffered. When it comes down to it, “Room” is really the story of the love between a mother and her child and without Larson's vulnerable yet synonymously bold turn the film wouldn't resonate nearly as much.
As good as Larson is though, Tremblay is equally as impressive. It is almost impossible to even conceive of how to visually show what it must be like to experience the world for the first time and even harder to find a child actor who could hope to convey that mentality, but with Donoghue's keenly observational dialogue and Tremblay's innocent voice and wandering eyes Abrahamson somehow manages to pull it off convincingly. Tremblay is especially effective in scenes where he interacts with Joan Allen and Tom McAmus. Without giving away the context of these scenes, trust that they are some of the most affecting in a work that provides one of the most heart-pounding and tense sequences I've seen in a film for some time. This sequence also hinges solely on the performance of Tremblay and the physical performance he delivers. It is something we don't consciously consider when watching the film, but every bit of what we see Tremblay do on screen in this scene matters and builds it to an exceptional moment in a rather outstanding film. The film hinges on these two performances, this mother and son relationship and both Larson and Tremblay dig deep to deliver an idea of what it might really be like in situation similar to those news stories we tend to find so fascinating.
In the first half of the film, once we realize the circumstances of our characters, we begin to root for them as opposed to simply being fascinated by their situation. When the second half of the film begins we then dig into that process of exploring the damage that has been done. That is all to say, the film keeps up the tension and mystery enough in the first half to make this exploration of the second all the more worth finding interest in. Sure, the score is a little intrusive at times, telling us how we should feel and the last scene more or less feels tacked on so that Abrahamson can end on a specific shot, but overall “Room” is one of the better films I've seen this year. And like Alice, both Joy and Jack seem to relegate their experience in "room" to something of a nightmare. Not necessarily something that lends itself well to finding a resolution and while nothing good or worthwhile comes from this type of solitude our characters are able to come to some kind of piece with their existence, to be able to begin dreaming again instead of constantly living a nightmare.
by Philip Price
There is something to a Stephen Frears’ picture that is always appealing. I never expect much from them, but I typically end up with something pretty great. I've probably watched “Philomena” a handful of times since 2013 because I tend to show it to people who have never heard of it. The same could be said of “The Queen” or “High Fidelity.” These aren't major, milestone pieces, but they are always quenching in a way only Frears can seem to deliver. Maybe I should have went in with those same non-existent expectations to the English director’s latest, but either way “The Program” would probably be something of a minor letdown. This isn't to say the film isn't good, in fact it has a lot of positive things going for it and I honestly wasn't ready to see it come to an end when it did, but the typical pop that comes with a Frears’ production just isn't at play here. Given Frears had painted a moving and somewhat revealing picture of Queen Elizabeth in his Oscar-nominated 2006 film I thought he might be up to something similar with his Lance Armstrong biopic, but alas there is no alternate version of Armstrong's life that the news reports haven't already divulged. Instead, Frears recounts the highs and lows of Armstrong's career with a compelling flow and solid performances, but nothing to give it that extra oomph to make it something truly special.
Based on the book by Irish sports journalist David Walsh (portrayed by Chris O'Dowd here) the film follows Walsh's account to prove that Lance Armstrong was always an athlete who experimented with banned substances and won all seven of his Tour de France titles by doping on a substance called EPO. Armstrong of course used other performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormones and blood transfusions, but EPO is where it all began with the help of Dr. Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet). The film begins in 1993 with a 21 year old Armstrong being interviewed by Walsh before his first Tour. The film hits on Armstrong's body type not being of the right proportions for Ferrari's program upon their first meeting, but after battling testicular cancer, surviving and losing a considerable amount of muscle and weight in chemo Armstrong returns to the doctor with a new will to win. One thing the film doesn't seem to zero in on is how much Armstrong's battle with cancer likely pushed him to do whatever it took to beat the odds. Still, we then move forward to 1998 when Armstrong took on the United States Postal Service endorsement and hired Bill Stapleton (Lee Pace) as his lawyer and publicist and former cycling competitor Johan Bruyneel (Denis Menochet) as the team’s new coach. Between 1998 and 2000 Armstrong won his first two Tours, founded the Livestrong foundation, got married and became the most famous cyclist in the world. Frears’ film hits each of these points up through to the conclusion two years ago where Armstrong admitted on Oprah Winfrey's show that he did in fact use performance enhancing drugs the entire time he was competing, an accusation that Walsh was raked over the coals for when he became convinced Armstrong's performances during his early Tour de France victories were fueled by banned substances.
While Frears’ film more or less ticks off the boxes of Armstrong's career highs and lows what it does best is give us access behind the scenes of the cyclist’s extravagant program that puts his team and himself ahead of everyone else. From the opening shot Frears puts on full display the intensity of the exertion necessary to compete in such a sport. As we get to know Armstrong better though we come to understand his psyche more as well. Of course, this intimate view is due in large part to the performance of Ben Foster. Foster has always been an actor who embodied dedication and crafting something specific and I can only imagine he went to even greater lengths with this role given he is the lead and it being based on a real person. Foster plays Armstrong with something of smugness throughout, a man so tipped by his celebrity and what the medicines have made him that he actually believes himself invincible. At the same time, there are scenes in which Foster's Armstrong is a man who seems to sincerely want to help others with his Livestrong brand and more or less raises his profile so that his charity might be more successful. Foster feeds Armstrong a look of genuine guilt when visiting children at a cancer hospital who he knows don't have the best coming for them. At the flip of a coin though, Foster's version is the one forcing anyone in his camp to participate in, the disposal of and/or the acquiring of the drugs needed to ensure their victory. He has no limits, he will do whatever it takes and we see in his narrow eyes the mind working to create the facade of the handsome cancer survivor who inspires millions.
There is something chillingly psychotic to it. To be able to lie on that level for so many years and knowingly ruin so many lives. There has to be something severely distorted about the way your brain works to be able to live with one's self. Is it that though or is it simply that of an athlete’s brain? An individual who lives for little more than the thrill of competition? Athletes feel this immense pressure to be super human and champions, but to default to cheating automatically removes the point of any competition. Everyone wants to win honestly, there would be nothing better, but when sports are determined by factors out of one's control what are they to do? Lance Armstrong was not genetically blessed with the best body build for cycling, but because of his will and desire, heart and motivation there was no way this guy was going to take a back seat. Nature then more or less determines who will be the winners and who will be the losers, but as is clear in Armstrong's case the God-given talents of some don't always match up with the unstoppable mentalities of others. While “The Program” more or less feels by the numbers, it is in these insights, these contemplations and a handful of strong performances that make it more than a newsreel, but largely fascinating.
To watch the deceitful web that Armstrong built for so many years come crashing down was something he had to see as inevitable. There was never going to be a way that this ended good for him given all the wrong he'd done, but as with most cases concerning egomaniacs they can't help themselves. They have to see how far the lie can go and how much they can gain for themselves from it. Foster is undoubtedly in control here as he brings a depth and soul to a man much of the country now believes doesn't have one, but his supporting cast is just as up to task. Whether it be the wonderful Chris O'Dowd who plays Walsh with such passion that he can hardly stand to watch Armstrong kill the sport he once believed in or Jesse Plemons as 2006 Tour de France winner and longtime Armstrong teammate Floyd Landis. Landis' narrative is inherently interesting from the moment we meet him, but it is the vindication that slowly builds in Landis that Plemons plays up allowing it to really pay off in the last act. Pace and Menochet are fine in their supportive roles while Canet creates a memorable presence almost immediately and infuses the movie with his blasé outlook on pushing the boundaries of science and sports medicine to the point we almost believe Armstrong had reason to believe it wasn't that big of a deal.
Overall, “The Program” is a bit patchy (there is one scene showing Armstrong marrying Kristin Richard and then nothing more of it) and spoils a perfectly good Dustin Hoffman by never having him do anything a smaller, character actor couldn't do. It sometimes feels it's playing exclusively as a highlight reel, but when elevated by the bits of introspection from Foster between the headlines there is much to be taken from this portrait of one man's rise and fall for being a fraud to all that came to be inspired by him. A fraud that even a cancer shield couldn't protect. And while the film may not be the defining piece concerning Lance Armstrong's life it's no doubt better than whatever movie Hollywood might have made prior to the allegations being confirmed that would have apparently made Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal look like an ass.
by Philip Price
I don't typically watch the news anymore. If I do it is only because it's on in the background at a restaurant or friend’s house. I don't even have cable. I get my news updates and read the latest stories on the Internet. Naturally, that means “Truth” makes me feel like a horrible individual. This is the case because “Truth” deals in the purity of investigative journalism, the integrity it was once synonymous with and the standards that every great reporter would ideally hold themselves to. Of course, the truth is also relative and in his directorial debut James Vanderbilt (who has written screenplays such as “Zodiac” and “White House Down”) explores this idea by telling the behind-the-scenes story of the 2004 “60 Minutes” investigation of then-President George W. Bush's military service in the Texas Air National Guard. This investigation, led by producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), comes under heavy scrutiny concerning the legitimacy of a handful of documents that question the conduct and participation of Bush while in the National Guard. Vanderbilt ultimately plays this safe and goes with a rather trusted formula and conventional approach a la any newsroom drama you've ever seen, but because the story in and of itself is so interesting (as is also typically the case) and given the way the film deals with the subsequent firestorm of criticisms and accusations that cost anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mapes their careers it more than sustains itself and delivers a solid if not exceptional venture.
Beginning with the safe bet of having Mapes enter an office to conduct a meeting with someone who is clearly very important and or powerful due to the quality of his suit and the level he works on the film recounts the story through Mapes’ perspective by having her relay it to who we come to find out is her lawyer (Andrew McFarlane). The movie naturally violates this rule a bit given there is no way Mapes could have known all of the discussions that take place in the movie, but we get the picture and we go with it. After closing out a successful story, Mapes is briefed by her new boss, Josh Howard (David Lyons), and is asked to provide any leads for the upcoming season of “60 Minutes.” Having received an email that puts her on the trail of the aforementioned documents that would paint Bush as AWOL during a large period of his service in the ‘70s Mapes pitches the idea with the intent of following through on this story that she originally began investigating four years earlier. Rounding up a team that includes Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace) Mapes jumps on the trail of her story and begins an investigation that has to be completed in a matter of days when the only available air date is rearranged because of Dr. Phil. Because of this rush it is easy to see how so much surrounding this story could come back to bite our protagonist in the ass, but the film is firm in its perspective that the documents Bush supporters find issue with are not the point of the story and that the public, per usual, is made to get wrapped up in the details and not the broader picture.
While “Truth” will no doubt come to be known for the film in which Redford portrays Dan Rather this is clearly Mapes' film and therefore Blanchett's to own. The superb actress does well to display her domineering presence early as it reigns over her assembled team with determination and vigor. Where the film really shines though is in the entertaining ensemble it has compiled that allows Blanchett's performance to become even more effective. It is the chemistry between the group that Mapes puts together that gives the film an energy and excitement that comes with digging into a story, following leads and every now and then stumbling upon something significant. Much of the more "fun and entertaining" aspects come from the camaraderie between Quaid and Grace as their odd couple relationship elicits the lighter side of the film while keeping the focus on the facts and providing the necessary insight and context to make this story as compelling as it is conveyed to be. It's something of a shame that Elisabeth Moss is underused and never feels as much a part of the team considering Quaid and Grace pair up while Mapes more or less sticks close to Rather. In terms of Redford's performance, he is more an intermittent presence, an extended cameo if you will that is present because he's the face of the story and because his paternal relationship with Mapes serves as a basis to address Mapes' actual father and the motivation behind her drive. While "daddy issues" may sound a bit hackneyed it is potent in this context as Vanderbilt layers in the necessary elements at the right times in the script allowing for this plot strand to reach a breaking point providing a moment for Blanchett to really deliver.
As the film comes to its third act and it's revealed our listener is Mapes' lawyer for the purposes of an upcoming internal investigation that the President of the CBS news division, Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood), authorized the film really begins to let its agenda show. “Truth” still gives the relativity of the titular word its due, but it is clearly labeled as the enemy. This positioning is ultimately unsurprising though and what is more important is that Mapes' interview with a board of intimidating, intelligent lawyers (no matter how biased they're made to look) is that it presents how easily oppositions can be swayed in either direction given how someone is coming at a situation. Through this delegation of opinions and the presentation of the facts less as facts themselves, but as actions that can be twisted and turned in any fashion “Truth” gets across its main idea that the world is too big to have become so small. "There is no public trust in the news anymore," Rather tells Mapes at one point. Despite the market being saturated and every news station preaching little more than the agenda of their parent company one has to wonder how bad it is for society to have so many voices shouting their opinions through "infotainment" and make you question if a single voice like Rather's, that claimed to present the basic facts and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions, would even still work. Was this ever really true? Was the news ever that pure? These aren't new things to wonder, but “Truth” does a fine job of harping on them and getting into the small details that make the world turn and a journalist’s career live or die. For that, it's both tremendously involving and entertaining.
by Philip Price
Amber Heard certainly seems to have an affinity for playing the film noir types who elicit little more reaction than the understanding that she is little more than a pure representation of the male fantasy. Heard has done this for years whether it be in “Drive Angry” or “Machete Kills,” but in “London Fields” we are operating in a film that is actively trying to become a member of the noir genre rather than riffing on it. In “London Fields,” Heard plays a character who is clairvoyant and a total femme fatale named Nicola Six. Seriously. All of that is true. Nicola is a seductress by way of having lost her parents at a young age and making up imaginary friends that automatically tells us she is tormented and taking it out on every man she encounters with her natural gifts from God. She enjoys playing this role to large effect with her many worshipers. Nicola's exploits are made all the more heightened by the arrival of Billy Bob Thornton's writer in a London that is on the brink of nuclear war. Thornton's Samson Young is looking to write a new novel when he stumbles upon Heard's Nicola who just so happens to live in the same building he's staying in. It always feels like a risk including a writer in your film as it easily sets one up for more direct criticism than the film might receive otherwise, but while “London Fields” recognizes this possibility and even addresses it to a certain extent the somewhat interesting ideas at play here are still not able to convey themselves as a good movie. At all. In fact, this is pretty terrible all-around.
With the arrival of Thornton's Samson whose intention is to write a new book, but look around to find inspiration we know he'll quickly stumble upon interesting characters and the first of them just happens to be his cab driver, Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), who never drives a cab again in the movie after this first instance. Keith takes Samson down to the local pub where he introduces him to a few of his friends including Guy Clinch (Theo James) just before Nicola walks in and all the men stop to watch her walk through to the bar. It is immediately clear to Samson there is a competitive edge between Keith and Guy for the attention of Nicola despite the fact both are married with children. It is only after this introduction that we learn Nicola lives just above where Samson is staying. In light of the impending war in London people have begun deserting the area and Samson has traded his place in Brooklyn with another, seemingly much more famous author by the name of Mark Asprey (Jason Isaacs). After seeing Nicola clean out a large portion of her apartment Samson follows the femme fatale and goes through her trash to discover that this exotic flower is not only clairvoyant, but has been living with a dark premonition of her impending death by murder. Samson has found his story and begins to piece it together as Nicola entangles herself in a love affair with three uniquely different men: one of whom she knows will be her murderer.
Apparently this mess is based on an actual novel by Martin Amis and I'd be interested to know if the tone of the book is anything similar to this or if the thick plotting plays out any better than the way Roberta Hanley's script cobbles together multiple strands to barely make any of it coherent. What is even stranger are the amount of extraneous characters at work here and the rather impressive casting job that's been done with them. Besides the leading roles that are taken by the aforementioned Heard, Thornton, Sturgess and James there are roles here for Jaimie Alexander, Cara Delevingne and Johnny Depp that ultimately add little to nothing to the proceedings. It is beyond confusing what some of these typically well-regarded actors saw in a script such as this or if Cullen's pitch made it sound as if he planned on doing something truly experimental. Were the project to have had that appeal I could see how some might be interested as actors really have no control over the final product, but this seems strange even for those you'd normally expect to see in a smaller side project. Cullen is a music video director working on his first feature film and you can see this influence throughout as the editing is rapid and the colors vibrant, but why this much talent was attracted to such a tepid story and even more how they were wasted on such a vapid film is beyond me. The worst offender here is Sturgess though, who is trying so hard to create a character and over-acting so much that I literally cringed any time the guy was on screen.
The worst part of the film though is simply how lifeless it feels and how cheap it looks. The film legitimately comes off like a bunch of adults gathering together to play dress-up and walking around with ridiculous clothes, over-the-top accents and making complete fools of themselves for what feels like forever. The film just keeps going on, attempting to throw one twist at us after another and none of it seems like it makes much sense, but worse we don't even care to try to put it together. The only interesting way to look at the film and what might have made it more bearable is the idea of purposefully playing on the archetypes of a crime novel so as to play on the tropes of the genre given the writer is technically intertwined in the story. When your story consists of little more than a love triangle and a dart competition you should know already that you're in trouble and there's probably no helping your picture. It's too bad “London Fields” is as terrible as it is because it has enough solid credentials to have made something more than decent, but there is no rescuing what I saw, not even if you were to cut everything involving Sturgess. It's that bad.
by Philip Price
“Legend” is a movie that aspires to be a great gangster epic and in some regards it is, but this is not the gangster epic in the same vein as something like “Goodfellas.” It is more a representation than an adaptation, which is fine because it works for the characters at play and never fails to be thoroughly entertaining. Director Brian Helgeland delivered a straightforward, but rousing biopic of Jackie Robinson two years ago in “42,” but has written films such as “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River” in his 27 years in Hollywood. With “Legend,” Helgeland tests his directorial prowess by taking on a much bigger scope and a more complex story that features a diverse set of personalities. Each of these things having to be managed and pieced together in a way that feels coherent and there are times you can almost feel the structure creaking under its own weight. Near the end of the second act the film almost gives way to a full on tsunami of varied tones and plot strands falling in on themselves and flooding out to leave behind nothing more than puddles of once strong and vibrant storytelling methods as well as the exceptional double performance of Tom Hardy. Lucky for Helgeland, he hired an actor with as much gravitas and ability as Hardy allowing him to pull off this stunt and leave the audience ruptured in his showing to the point we don't so much care about what else is going on around him. We acknowledge the given circumstances the real-life people fell into, but we're all just watching to see what Hardy does with the situation.
In the East End of London during the 1960s the Kray twins were kings. Reggie (Hardy) is the brains of the operation. The smooth, attractive, charismatic and smart entrepreneur who dismisses the thought of himself as a gangster despite enjoying spending his time at the clubs he owns, making large sums of money and getting the respect of a gangster. Reggie is building an empire, partnering with Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) who essentially does all of Reggie's bookkeeping and keeps his affairs in order while his brother, Ronnie (also Hardy) is an out of control eccentric who suffers from schizophrenia and just so happens to be hilarious. After getting Ronnie out of the crazy house and putting away their competition in crosstown rival Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany) the Kray's set their sights on London and making it the Vegas of Europe. Meeting with American gangster Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) they cut a deal to open a casino in London that is an instant hit and thrives beyond their wildest dreams. Things seem to be going as well as can be imagined for the twins, especially with Reggie meeting Frances Shea (Emily Browning) and developing a genuine relationship with her. While this is clearly the Kray's story, Frances is actually our narrator and thus we are given a certain perspective on the twins that allows for the film to glamorize and make sexy the gangster lifestyle that we tend to idolize for its power and unflinching brutality, but also making it apparent why such a lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling and vapid. That it is no way of sustaining a content lifestyle, but one that will instead only ever lead to some kind of inevitable tragedy.
While “Legend” would like to have you believe there is some major scheme or turf war that serves as the basis for the film’s plot the truth is the film is really only about the tumultuous relationship between Ronnie and Reggie and how it influenced everything else either of them ever did in their lives. Ronnie is a brute of a man, but also an admitted homosexual that has no qualms about telling people what he is and how he likes to do things. At the same time, the guy is clearly afraid of change and the thought of no longer being in business or continuing his routine with his brother terrifies him. Reggie, on the other hand, is typically level-headed until he is ultimately forced to choose between the loyalty he feels to his brother and the loyalty he should feel with his wife as he and Frances eventually wed. In their relationship, things suffer once they are married and if anything Reggie becomes more of a gangster than he's ever been despite Frances encouraging him to go straight. When Reggie has to turn himself in on a hiccup and do three months of jail time Ronnie comes between Payne and the prospering business eventually setting himself up as too big a risk for the brother’s partners overseas. More than anything, Reggie wants to do away with his brother as he causes him more heartache than anything else, but knowing he is the only one who will genuinely take care of him and look out for his best interests Reggie goes into a downward spiral, blaming his frustrations on Frances and destroying their relationship over his own with Ronnie.
These two battling mentalities give way to what is most interesting about the film as this premise in itself affords Hardy an opportunity to show us how these guys really tick. In an attempt to not state the obvious, Hardy is magnificent as he truly embodies the physicality, the speech patterns and the internal conflicts of two separate entities in the same film, many of which are in the same scenes. The Kray's are the star of the show and that Helgeland and his star so effortlessly pull off the tricks of the trade that gel both of these distinct performances together deserves a round of applause in itself. That Hardy is able to consistently keep up with the different temperaments and emotional mindsets of where each brother is at during any given scene is almost incomprehensible and even more impressive. “Legend” doesn't just get by on its technical achievements though as Helgeland and his team have constructed an entire world out of East End London. The period details are simply an extension of the characters while the film also possesses a certain energy that's no doubt a result of the expert pacing and impressive camera work, especially in a long single-take near the beginning in the Kray's club that defines the craftsmanship we're in for. Helgeland may not be able to balance his story, intended tone or even main ideas throughout the film as well as he could have, but Hardy is the one constant holding this thing together and he does it with such appeal and charm that we can't help but be fascinated by these men. The Kray's are not admirable men, but the fact they somehow managed to remain so dedicated to one another that they don't only ruin their own lives, but everyone else's around them is endlessly fascinating. Helgeland has enough of that in his film that to Hardy's introspective double performance to last long past the two hour and 11 minute run time.
by Philip Price
Despite “The Danish Girl” being one of the more anticipated premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this year (it's technically just the North American premiere if you’re paying attention to those types of things) I couldn't have been more hesitant to embrace the film. This has nothing to do with the fact it consists of a story about the first man to undergo a sex reassignment surgery, but more it so blatantly felt like awards fodder. Everything about the film screams Oscar. It is directed by Tom Hooper (Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech”), is a period piece, deals in a very hot topic at the moment and stars Eddie Redmayne who won the Best Actor award last year for playing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” After playing a real-life person with a severe disability what is the second most obvious choice for an actor to play if they hope to be nominated or win an Oscar? Well, playing a woman of course. Beyond this, I haven't been a fan of Redmayne's up until this point either. I'd not seen him in anything prior to “My Week With Marilyn” and thought him fine in that, but he only irritated me as Marius in ‘Les Mis,’ he was gloriously bad in “Jupiter Ascending” (I know, what wasn't in that film?) and I personally didn't think he deserved the Best Actor statue over Michael Keaton last year. And yet here we are with Redmayne having delivered a performance I would have no issue with him winning for because despite all its obvious pandering “The Danish Girl” is an affecting and beautifully captured story of bravery and inspiration that shouldn't be boiled down to or judged by its perceived intentions.
Based on a true story and set in Copenhagen in 1926 the film introduces us to Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), and her husband Einar (Redmayne). Einar is also a painter, but he prefers landscapes while Gerda is known for her portraits. In a fleeting moment of need Gerda has her husband model a pair of shoes for her and hold up a dress to himself so that she may see how the lace falls in order to complete a painting. In doing this, it taps into something that Einar has apparently been denying for years. As Gerda gains notoriety as a painter she begins drawing her husband with longer, flowing hair. As a joke one night Gerda and Einar fully immerse themselves in the role that is dubbed "Lili" by their close friend Oola Paulson (Amber Heard) when attending a party together with Einar dressed in full drag. It is when Gerda catches her husband kissing a man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw) though that things are no longer funny. When the paintings of Einar as Lili begin to gain popularity it only liberates Einar more to who he truly believes he is. Clearly confused by what is happening, Gerda seeks out Einar's childhood friend and current art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) to possibly help Einar and herself figure out what is going on. This new identity that is Lili continues to take over though and despite countless doctor’s examinations and psychological evaluations Einar cannot deny that he feels like a mistake of nature, a woman trapped in the wrong body.
Given this is a Tom Hooper film it is without question that it will look jaw-droppingly gorgeous. From the opening establishing shots of Copenhagen and the seeming inspirations for Einar's paintings there is a sense of place and of the unrelenting beauty that appeals to a visual artists delight such as those of the couple at the center of this story. Hooper uses mirrors and reflections to his advantage by framing his shots to include them consistently as if to suggest the characters constantly think about what they see in themselves. He also continues to utilize different camera lenses so as to distort and bend the picture in stylistic ways that seem to be becoming something of a staple of his. And while the Alexandre Desplat score is rather standard for a Hooper picture it is still enchanting and adds to the elegance and allure of the overall aesthetic.
Only layering on the beautiful aspects are the two lead performances from Redmayne and Vikander. A lot of performances get called brave and completely uninhibited, but Redmayne embodies those adjectives here like no other performance I've seen in some time. He completely immerses himself in this mentality of a man lost in his own psyche. Einar is dealing with balancing two people, two personalities and feeling as if subduing the one he favors is the only choice he has. Through the performance one can tell Redmayne has crafted the character carefully by not only studying the movements and posture of women, but by coming to terms with a perspective most men would be afraid to even dip their toes into. Not only does Einar have to become comfortable with being ogled when going out, but when he becomes Lili he takes on feeling guilty for feeling like himself. Most reactions are little more than persecutions, but Redmayne infuses Einar with a sense of invincibility while physically presenting a frail and fragile human being that only continues to be broken down by the torturous societal rules that place him as certifiably insane. It may sound rather trite, but Redmayne is truly inspiring. As good as Redmayne is though, Vikander does him one better as it is her compassion-filled performance that sells the film and almost guarantees her the Best Supporting Actress win this year. As Gerda, Vikander has to essentially say goodbye to her husband who we know she loves as much as a wife can love a husband. Despite Einar's plight being the reason for telling this story, the heart rests with Gerda and her willingness to understand that her husband is no longer the man she married.
The loving relationship between Einar and Gerda only make this transition all the more affecting for before the script from Lucinda Coxon as adapted from David Ebershoff's novel even gets into the territory of Einar's confused sexuality it establishes how deep the bond is between these two. The film also does well to not push the love triangle concerning Schoenaerts' character too hard and only utilizes Henrik as a way for Lili to explore her sexuality. While the presence of Hans may have made the transition easier for Gerda in the broad scope of things in the small moments that deal with Einar becoming Lili she can't help but to focus on nothing else. I enjoy Schoenaerts as an actor and he is perfectly measured here so as to not seem too imposing, but willing to lend a hand if the situation so calls for it. In a word he is perfectly fine without feeling imperative. Heard has little to do besides provide an ideal picture of a woman for which Einar can look to, but that doesn't matter as this is clearly Redmayne and Vikander's film and they deliver on the rather taboo topic that people like to think is new because we hear more about it now thanks to social media, but “The Danish Girl” makes it abundantly clear that there is nothing new about such disorders and does so without seeming to have any other agenda than telling one woman's harrowing journey to get to know herself.
by Philip Price
Most will likely walk out of “The Lobster” either loving it or hating it. It's easy to see why this will be something of a divisive film given it's weird as hell. With all its observational humor conveyed in static, dry tones and cynical quips that paint the Internet culture into a real-world society it will surely have its fans. Undoubtedly, there is much to like and appreciate here, but while I laughed several times and found the overall sentiment of the film to be a rather sweet one that is conveyed in a ridiculous yet inventive way I couldn't help but feel this just wasn't my thing. The strangeness of the set-up to this world is so out there that it can't help but feel weird solely for the sake of being weird. Weird is fine and all, but “The Lobster” is really stretching it. Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, in his English-language debut, certainly has a lot to say with his high-concept comedy, but until the last half hour or so of the film things are more about the concept than they are the points he's trying to make. Lanthimos spends so much time trying to make sure his audience will understand this world without blatantly spilling tons of exposition that all of the dialogue in the first hour feels like a sly way of explaining the rules of this world where you check into a resort to find a mate and if you don't successfully do so in 45 days, you're turned into an animal. So, yes, the film is conceptually striking given it is all a large metaphor for the way in which society tells us our lives are better when lived with a partner, but never does it transcend this gimmick until the moving final shot.
In what is apparently a dystopian future (though you could only guess this from the information the movie provides), single people are taken to "The Hotel" in accordance with the laws of the city where they are obliged to find a matching mate in the aforementioned 45 days. The hook here is that if they fail to do so they are turned into an animal of their choice and sent off into the woods that surround the hotel. The other half of the information essential to knowing about this world before going in is that the woods are also populated by what are called "Loners." These loners keep to themselves and live off the land, but oppose the system by never mating with one another.
We are first introduced to David (Colin Farrell) who shows up at the hotel with his dog (which is actually his brother) and begins the process of meeting a match. He quickly becomes friends with a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw) and a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly). Whishaw's strange bird finds a mate rather suddenly by lying about having severe nosebleeds while Reilly's character has his hand stuck in a toaster for masturbating. Apparently the guests of the hotel are not to pleasure themselves so as to put greater emphasis on finding a partner for them to do such things with. The hotel guests are also taken out rather often to hunt for the loners in the woods. They shoot them with what appear to be tranquilizer darts and if they're so lucky to tag a few they get days added on to their stay to allow them more time and opportunity to find someone. It is the struggle of David to not conform, but to escape and find love on his own terms that pits the man against the system and more than seeing this absurd concept play out it is the performance from Farrell that is what makes this an endeavor worth undertaking.
When we meet David he seems to be a man of little aspiration and even fewer social skills. He is a man we peg as unlikely to succeed the moment we understand the circumstances of the situation and yet he somehow manages to be the most level-headed character in the entire film. Farrell guides us through this strange world with an unassuming manner and a pot belly that does everything but make him stand out to those around him. He doesn't seem to care to talk to people or get to know them and has already decided that he would like to be a lobster if his last day comes and he's found no one else to be with. His justifications for this choice are plenty and rather convincing, but the real point of this exercise is so that these "unfortunate souls" might have a second chance at becoming a companion as an animal. As David comes closer to facing the reality of being turned into an animal though (which is done through a procedure, if you were wondering), he finds it harder to accept and begins posing as an emotionless and heartless being so that a fellow guest (Angeliki Papoulia) might find him a suitable match. When this doesn't work out as planned David escapes to the woods to become a loner and there he meets the loner leader (Léa Seydoux) as well as a short sighted woman like himself who he begins to actually fall for played by Rachel Weisz.
As one watches the film there will be an abundance of questions pop up before the full extent of this society's requirements are laid out. We wonder who these people are and what might have happened in their lives for them to want to come to such a place. Why are most of these folks blunt and straight-faced every time they speak? What are the loners? Where did they come from? Where do the children that are assigned to struggling new couples come from? They consistently roll in as the film moves along-new questions for every answer that is provided. This certainly keeps the interest high and the intrigue available, but again it is more for reasons of curiosity in this strange idea than it is for the biting satire that is supposedly being conveyed. The film is especially gorgeous to look at and this is especially true of the last half of the film when David enters the woods and the relationship between him and Weisz's character heats up. This is also when the more vital questions come up. What is true love actually made up of? What is it worth? What does compatibility truly mean and how much would you sacrifice to be with someone else? When you have enough love to sacrifice at all there is likely something genuine there, but “The Lobster” wants to be sure you understand the commitment you're making fully just in case you feel the pressure of our love-happy society to settle down in the suburbs with a wife or husband in order to live for nothing more than pro-creating. Got it? Lanthimos sure hopes so.
by Philip Price
Hank Williams doesn't seem to have been that great of a guy. He became addicted to the drink, morphine and other painkillers as well as fathering several children, only one of which he ever married their mother and this all before his untimely death at the age of 29. While Williams may not have necessarily been the best guy (and possibly one of the worst parents) it is usually these types of people that stand to create the most interesting stories and in Williams’ case, write the most interesting ones as well. Before becoming popular as a singer Williams was primarily known for being one of country music’s top songwriters. Williams penned and performed countless tunes for a radio show in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala. before securing a deal with the music publishing firm Acuff-Rose as a professional songwriter. All of that taken into consideration, you wouldn't really come to learn much of it from the Marc Abraham biopic concerning Williams as it tends to only patch together a few story points in the singer’s life rather than dig in and find out what really made him tick. It's admirable that Abraham doesn't take the easy route of opening his film backstage before one of Williams’ last shows and using it as a framing device for a period of reflection in which the movie's told, but he also doesn't come up with an alternative way to tell us anything insightful about the man and a movie needs to offer more than a Wikipedia page does.
Based on the book Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William (Bill) MacEwen, “I Saw The Light” begins in 1944 when Tom Hiddleston's Williams marries Audrey Sheppard (Elzabeth Olsen) in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Ala., with a justice of the peace. The film never touches on exactly when or how these two met or even provides any reasoning as to why they actually love one another, but instead assumes the audience trusts that they do despite the whole of their relationship being soaked in turmoil. If it's not the bickering back and forth between Audrey and Williams’ mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), concerning who gets first dibs on the money in Hank's pocket it's Audrey wanting to be a singer herself without owning up to the fact she doesn't have the talent to do so. She insists her husband let her sing on his radio show or at gigs on the road, but while Williams is more than aware of his wife's vocal shortcomings he can't bring himself to tell her no. It should also be noted that Williams is 23 at the beginning of the film and while Hiddleston is a good looking, well-groomed guy he never pulls off looking this young. It is almost immediately that the fighting begins between Hank and Audrey while Hank is still attempting to get out of Montgomery and on to the Grand Ole Opry stage. Getting to the Opry is the sole objective for the first hour or so thus allowing for the film to focus on the aspect that one would assume would make the film stand apart from something like “Walk the Line” in that the core relationship here is more of a competitive one where both parties are more interested in themselves and their own successes than the each other. It would no doubt have been an interesting angle to explore more, but again, Abraham simply skims the surface never allowing any of the scenes to breathe.
After hitting on the ups and downs we're in for concerning Hank and Audrey the film skips forward to 1947 when Williams records, "Move It On Over," for Acuff-Rose and it becomes a hit. The family moves to Nashville and begins to get comfortable with their new roles in "Music City," but Hank's drinking gets in the way and Audrey leaves him for what feels like the first of a hundred times in the movie. We get the obligatory rehab scene where Hiddleston shakes and sweats in a straight jacket before running back to Audrey for her forgiveness. We then get the moment where Williams begs Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) to let him record his version of "Lovesick Blues," that Rose doubts, but allows anyway only to see it become Williams’ ticket to the Opry stage. It is this episodic nature of the film that makes it feel like little more than one moment after another strung together in order to inform us of Hank Williams’ life and times, but never does the film settle into a groove that feels natural to the people it is describing. The whole thing is rather stilted as we can see the recreation happening instead of becoming so involved with the characters and their plights that we forget we're watching actors on a screen. One character in the film describes Williams’ music as being able to, "expose the darkness inside us all through song so that no one has to take the baggage home with them," and while this may be true (the pioneering facet of country music is how it relates to its target audience) this film about one of country music's actual pioneers never mines its subject’s own soul to expose his many darknesses.
“I Saw The Light” tells us that Williams published songs under a pseudonym in order to get the less commercial stuff off his chest, it displays a deep bond between Williams and his steel guitarist Don Helms (Wes Langlois), it even has a doctor explain to Williams and his second wife, Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson), that Williams has spina bifida that has been the cause of Williams back pain his entire life, but with none of these things do we ever get any real context. We never hear any of "Luke the Drifter's" music, we never see Hank and Don have anything more than short conversations that display their shorthand and we can only guess Williams returned to the drink and popping pills as a way to numb the pain from his spinal defect. More than any of this, we never see Williams writing a song much less any insight into what inspired him to write as much as he apparently did or how he came to love music in the first place. The usual critique of the performances being good, but the movie failing to live up to them can easily be applied here, but not even Hiddleston's efforts and Olsen's attempts at crafting a complex female character could save this.
While Hiddleston has Williams’ signature singing style down, his southern accent is a bit off on certain words. And while the story does Hiddleston's performance few favors in allowing him to ever really dig into the psyche of Williams the actor is able to get across the singer’s inability to ever control his impulses and in one of the few exceptional scenes Hiddleston squares off against David Krumholtz as a reporter making an argument for the sincerity of folk music in one of the few instances it feels we catch a glimpse of what the real Williams might have been like. While this aforementioned scene is the one time in the film we cut to the core of the main character there are others, such as when Rose and Williams go to MGM headquarters to visit Dore Schary (Josh Pais), that are only present to solidify the mythology of how Williams is thought of today-as this mysterious, but stern godfather of country music that didn't care if you liked him or not.
All of that said, the film plays it so straight that it's not unsurprising it goes the way it does and thus we don't really feel anything when the inevitable conclusion comes around and the credits begin to roll. The film looks gorgeous as it is handsomely mounted to capture the warmness and welcoming nature of the south and the period details are more than superior as are the handful of performance scenes we get. Hiddleston does favor the late Williams in facial structure and he pulls off his outlandish suits well. If one is looking for an unsurprising, completely traditional music biopic this wouldn't be a bad way to go as it delivers exactly what one would expect, but the absence of any real heart or soul is apparent and made this a rather stinging disappointment for me considering I typically fall head over heels for movies about the process of creating music. If “I Saw The Light” is to be taken at face value it seems Williams never really had an opportunity to enjoy his success and was more a professional at making a mess of things than a singer. Hopefully this isn't the absolute truth and maybe one day we might get a Williams biopic that does the country legend justice, it's just a real shame this couldn't be the one to do that because it certainly had all the right parts in place.