Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson; 2017)

My full name is Shaun Ferguson.  I’ve been fascinated with film my entire life, and have intensively studied both screenwriting and acting while also dabbling in nearly every element of film making I can including a rather detailed online study of film editing from a person in the industry, lots of time discussing film criticism with fellow critics, worked with close friends and family who have degrees in cinematography or at least a lot of time in classes behind a camera, and so on.  While my majors in college were in English and Theater, my minor was in psychology and I have had a fascination with it ever since and have continued studying it on my own my entire life.  I have always been enamored with comic books and superhero culture, and while I haven’t collected comic books in a very long time, I still continue to follow what is going on in the worlds of superherodom to some extent and I love studying the genre in regard to sociology, culture, politics, and religion.  Also, I was raised in an extremely sexually repressed environment of very conservative Christians both at home and at the school I attended, and as an adult have turned a near complete 180 degrees away from that upbringing.  I say all this so that when I gush incessantly about how groundbreaking, fantastic, and enlightening Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, we will both understand that I realize this is a film that may as well have been written with myself specifically as the target audience, it all hits that close to my home.

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is yet another biopic in this part of the movie season which gives us biopic after biopic about Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the polyamorous trio who created Wonder Woman and made her a household name.  In 1928 he two Marstons were pioneers in the new field of psychology.  He had a doctorate from Harvard and taught at Tufts University, she also had degrees in both psychology and law, though not doctorates because she wasn’t allowed to at the time as she was a woman, and in addition to their work in the psychology department at Tufts they were also developing a brand new machine which they called a lie detector.  Olive Byrne was a student of William’s whom he became quite enamored of largely due to the fact that she seemed to be an exact mirror image of his wife.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows us the story of how all these factors ultimately weaved together to create the comic book character Wonder Woman.

While the writing of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women definitely follows the beats of the stereotypical biopic formula so closely you can practically predict ahead of time exactly when character introductions will move onto the inciting incident then to the next complication and so on, most everything about the way the film’s story is told is quite unique.  It’s neither a life story nor a focus on one specific event.  It doesn’t chronicle primarily one character, but the relationship between three, and it’s not about one specific event but rather how so many events, interests, and interactions culminated in something which not only still resonates today, but has only become an even greater and more beloved symbol than when Wonder Woman was first introduced.  Yet, despite the complexity of the story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman never confuses nor slows its pace to a crawl always keeping up the perfect balance between making sure the story is told in great enough detail and gripping the attention of its audience.

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The way Professor Matston and the Wonder Women treats its subject matter is also noteworthy.  While the character development is fantastic, the fact that it focuses so vastly on psychology sets it apart from standard character development and makes the writing both insightful and educational simultaneously.   It also treats the polyamorous relationship between its three main characters with an incredibly deft touch, never judging it in either a positive nor a negative way and also avoiding ever making it exploitative nor entirely clinical but rather portraying an unusual sexual relationship and the psychology behind it in the most mature manner I’ve ever seen in a film.

The camerawork in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is nothing spectacular overall, but it is a step above your standard biopic cinematography and the occasional scene, such as when Marston first sees Olive in the outfit which inspires Wonder Woman’s appearance, is a downright work of art.  The costumes and art direction are top notch, though creating a look to the film which is both authentic and gorgeous and the costumes in particular could get notice come award season.

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Any biopic’s success hinges on the quality of the acting particularly by its leads and not only does it not disappoint in this area, but everyone here entirely impresses.  The two women, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote, in particular display talent so on point and nuanced that nearly any actor working today would consider what they’ve done in this film a triumph.  Luke Evans despite playing the title character doesn’t have the emotional depth to his Professor Marston that the ladies do, but he still gives an excellent portrayal anchoring the plot and the other characters in what is the best performance of his career.

Final verdict:  It’s rare enough that a film can be complex, emotional, intellectual, educational, and entertaining at the same time, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also has true insight into human psychology and sexual dynamics.  I wasn’t that excited about seeing yet another biopic in a year which seems to be layering them on one after another more than seemingly any other year in at least recent memory, but not only did Professor Marston and the Wonder Women absolutely blow my socks off, it’s one of the best biopics I have ever seen and far and away the best so far of this year.  I fell in love with its characters and its story, and I’m pretty sure I had a personal psychological breakthrough by the time it was over, but the best compliment I can give it is that when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was finished and the credits began to roll I didn’t want it to end.

Happy Death Day (Landon; 2017)

Movies which use the same central conceit as Groundhog Day, that is that a person is reliving the same day over and over again, are becoming regular enough that it’s beginning to become a small sub-genre of its own.  Since the original we’ve had Run, Lola, Run which is different from the original in that Lola isn’t really experiencing the day over and over, the audience is just being shown the same scenario in different ways it could have played out.  Then, there is Edge of Tomorrow (Live, Die, Repeat) in which Tom Cruise relives the same day over and over due to having inherited the powers of an alien, and learns that he is not the first to have gained this power.  In ARQ a science experiment causes a time loop which has a couple of scientists and a crew of mercenaries raiding their laboratory to relive the same day over and over.  So far, the premise has continued to hold up as in each incarnation a new, interesting twist is thrown in to keep the story intriguing in a different way.  Now we have Happy Death Day, which is a film about Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who starts the day waking up in a strange bed in a dorm room after a night of heavy drinking and ends the day by getting murdered by a person in a mask.  This day also happens to be her birthday, and she keeps reliving it over and over again.

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A film like this relies heavily on the talent and charisma of its star.  Jessica Rothe (if she seems familiar, she was the blonde roommate of Emma Stone in La La Land) does have charisma aplenty, but it’s a little hard to determine the depths of her talent.  She does chew the scenery splendidly in Happy Death Day, bringing us a truly over-the-top bad stereotype level sorority bitch as the movie starts and becoming more of a decent person as the film goes on, but this is a film that isn’t interested in the least in realism, nuance, and honest character development.  To her credit, Rothe seems to recognize this and revels in her role for what it is – a walking talking plot device we are meant to root for rather than a fully fleshed out person.  She starts as a stereotype and as the movie moves forward just changes which stereotype she is for reasons that aren’t reasonably explained.  Given that’s what she has to work with, she does as admirable a job as anyone could be expected to.

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Scott Lobdell’s screenplay is another element of Happy Death Day which almost seems to revel in its imperfection.  Happy Death Day very obviously knows what kind of movie it is, going so far as to compare itself out loud to Groundhog Day at one point, and so it plays on the audience’s expectations of what they expect from a time loop movie.   The way it plays with the audience is both clever and fun, but it isn’t internally consistent.  Changes to a person’s character just happen because that’s what these movies do, not because the story gives us a real reason.  The film definitely has fun with and gives us a decent twist on the sub-genre, but it isn’t smart enough to always (and, the always is important here – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t) incorporate those twists in a way that meshes with the story line, and can even seem counterintuitive to it.

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The most important factor of Happy Death Day, though, despite its many flaws and inconsistencies is that it is an entirely self aware movie.  It knows it exists simply to allow its audience to have fun via scares and playing around with our expectations.  Those things it does very well, and while I would have liked to see more from it in particularly the characterization department, I also don’t know what restrictions the cast and crew had to work with.  Perhaps this is a case of focusing almost entirely on the main thing the movie wants to do and letting other factors slide was the wise and not the lazy choice.  I’ll never know, but I do know that Happy Death Day is a film that is a ton of fun most of the time despite its flaws.

Final verdict:  While I wouldn’t quite classify Happy Death Day as a horror comedy, it is such a fun, unpretentious film that it will most definitely scratch that itch should you have it.  Its characters are shallow and change purely because in a plot like this you expect them to, but I can’t deny that all the actors here are charming and likable.  This is the exact opposite of the movie you should go to if you are looking for anything with any level of heft or depth at all, but if you like campy horror meant more to make you jump and laugh than to disturb or scare, then Happy Death Day is a surprisingly fun ride.

 

The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve; 2017)

Making a sequel to the classic 1982 Harrison Ford science fiction film Blade Runner is either tremendously gutsy or stupid or both.  While it initially bombed at the box office, it has always been a critical success and it didn’t take long at all after its theater run for word of mouth to make Blade Runner a film which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made by many, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made by so many that even its few detractors have to admit it’s something special.  In 2013, Denis Villeneuve caught the attention of smart filmgoers and Hollywood executives alike with Enemy.  Two years later he repeated his success in a more acceptably mainstream way with Sicario.  Then Arrival in 2016.  Denis Villeneuve finally gets his career making or breaking job with Blade Runner 2049, and not only is it certainly a career making job it’s one that cements him as one of the finest working directors and a man with the potential to be spoken about alongside the likes of Kubrick, Scorcese, and Hitchcock as one of the best directors of all time for giving us intelligent but also thrilling cinema.

Blade Runner‘s tone is instantly recognizable, yet also a little hard to grasp and explain.  It seems like it should be an action movie, yet it takes its time spacing the action far apart and getting it over with quickly.  It seems like mainstream science fiction, but it has camera work that so lovingly frames its painstakingly built world it’s more an art piece.  It seems like a simple good humans versus evil robots presence, but it’s really a treatise on what it means to be human.  Blade Runner 2049 understands all of this, and not only repeats it but manages to add more to the experience while also raising it to the next level.

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The tone and pacing which was the make or break element in the original Blade Runner for most is repeated in Blade Runner 2049.  Once again, we have a film which takes its time establishing its settings in silence before moving ahead with the action, a film which isn’t afraid to linger for a moment longer than usual on an empty room or a skyline.  While most appreciated this aspect of Blade Runner, there are those who say it makes the film boring.  Blade Runner 2049 uses this same style while also adding 45 minutes to the running time, so if you are in the Blade Runner is dull category, you will most likely feel the same about the sequel.

You’ll notice I didn’t do my usual brief plot summary of the film, and that is because to say anything about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 would be to spoil more than I like.  But, just like the original it is a story integrally tied to its themes.  It’s also a story which piggy backs both its plot and themes directly from the original in a way which both flows naturally and yet is also an entirely original creation.  In Blade Runner we were asked to think about what it means to be human and what our creations say about us, in 2049 we are asked again, and more dealing with memory, success, and the idea of our creations themselves becoming creators.

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The Vangelis soundtrack of Blade Runner was essential in establishing its unique dreamlike tone, and Blade Runner 2049 mimics that original soundtrack excellently with a gorgeous score from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.  Just like the story, the score mimics in exactly the way it needs to, yet still sets is self apart as its own entity showing us that the music just like everything else in Blade Runner 2049 is an evolution not a copy.

The cast of Blade Runner 2049 does the incredible job you would expect from this group of talented veterans.  Ryan Gosling in the lead, point of view role of “K” the replicant Blade Runner, does a fantastic job of portraying the artificial cop torn between doing what he was created and programmed for and his Pinocchio-like journey of self discovery and fulfillment which conflicts with his duties.  Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, now confirmed to be a replicant, and gives us his best stuff despite being very vocal in the past about not liking nor truly understanding the first film.  Robin Wright is excellent as Ks boss/owner in the police department who brings a new twist to the role of hard ass cop with a soft spot for her subordinate, and relative newcomer Ana de Armas is a true revelation and a wonderful surprise in her part as K’s holographic companion.

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The crowning glory of Blade Runner 2049, though, is its visuals.  The special effects, art direction, and cinematography combine to make every frame a work of art.  The original Blade Runner practically invented the visual aesthetic of what we call cyberpunk, Blade Runner 2049‘s advanced technology and bigger budget takes that world we largely viewed from a distance and puts us right in the middle of it.  We get to look out the windshields of the flying cars as we weave between buildings, we interact with the larger than life holographic advertising which fills every available empty space, and we get to walk along streets then into alleys then through doorways filled with the desperate people of an overpopulated resource plundered world.  All this taken in and framed with the eye of a true auteur who makes the dystopia somehow beautiful and haunting and you have a masterpiece of visual artistry.

Final recommendation:  If you found the original Blade Runner overrated and dull, then you are not the audience for its sequel.  If you call yourself one of the millions, if not close to billions, of people who are a fan of the original, though, what you are getting in Blade Runner 2049 is more than just a continuation of the original story, much more than just an homage.  Blade Runner 2049 takes everything that made the original one of the greatest science fiction films of all time and somehow brings it to a level even greater.  Its themes are explored with even more nuance and depth, its characters more three dimensional and fascinating, its story even more gripping and surprising, and its visuals are of the sort that not just win awards, but which are shown off as examples which revolutionize the art of film making.  Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, a more than worthy successor to the original, and of course I recommend it as wholeheartedly as is possible.

 

Battle of the Sexes (Dayton & Faris; 2017)

The story of Battle of the Sexes is a very well known one, well enough that I am going to be a little more free with spoilers in this review than I usually am so consider yourself forewarned on that front.  Battle of the Sexes is a biopic telling the story behind one of the most famous tennis matches in history – the one between fifty-five year-old Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and twenty-nine year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) which was broadcast to nine million viewers and became a symbol of the entire feminist movement in the United States.   The film starts on the day Billie Jean and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) find out that the Pacific Southwest Tournament was offering the women participants 15% the prize money men were getting despite the fact that women drew just as large of a crowd as men did for their matches.  They and many other female pros boycott the tournament and start the Women’s Tennis Association with its own tour, and with the first shots fired our story begins.

It goes without saying that Battle of the Sexes has strong feminist themes.  The entire story focuses on a group of women led by one particularly talented and popular woman who decide they’ve had enough with the rules men set down for them, then go on to prove in no uncertain terms that they can get along just fine on their own without the men getting involved, thank you very much, and not only that but that they can literally beat the men at their own game.   It’s also an excellent hindsight view of where feminism stood at the start of 1970’s, a movement which already had a lot of attention and momentum, but which was largely being seen as a faze and something of a joke by the men in power who honestly could not understand what women were upset about.  This story is about a lot more than just feminism in the ’70’s, though, and Battle of the Sexes does its job of showing us the other myriad forces involved admirably.

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While women’s rights were at the forefront of the American consciousness at the time, gay rights were still very much overlooked.  Battle of the Sexes doesn’t address the issue of gay rights as much as it does show Billie Jean King’s very personal journey of her discovery of her sexual orientation and the very personal reasons she had for remaining in the closet as long as she did.  While the mores of the time must have certainly had some influence on Billie Jean, Battle of the Sexes is somewhat remarkable in the way it shows a life where shame is not the primary motivator in hiding your sexuality, but rather respect, love, and professionalism, all positive reasons making for a story causes you to admire Billie Jean King even more rather than pity her or feel shame for our culture.

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The forces surrounding Bobby Riggs also shed light on a hot topic – depression and gambling addiction.  It would be easy given the feminist themes in the forefront of the film to make Bobby Riggs into a villain, but writer Simon Beaufoy dodges that temptation by showing Bobby Riggs to be a person haunted by his past and who will do anything to recapture his former glory and the way it made him feel.  It shows Riggs as a man who has nothing against women nor feminism, but who saw in what was going on in women’s tennis an opportunity to take center stage again and to fuel his love for high stakes competition.  While this makes him a comic character most of the time, the glimpses into his family life show us the greater truth behind a warm, friendly, loving man being chased by demons of his own making.

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With the deluge of biopics being released right now, Battle of the Sexes sets itself apart largely by being the one that tries to most evenly split the difference where spectacle and realism are concerned, and for the most part it manages that.  The big name stars and the comedy and showmanship inherent in the story make for entertaining spectacle, while the screenplay gives us a depth to the characters and themes which could easily have been lacking.  This leaves us with a film that doesn’t have the sheer entertainment value which American Made gave us nor the remarkably insightful character studies of Strongerrather than looking the worse for not leaning one direction or the other, we end up with a film that will never be seen as great, but will have wide appeal.

Final verdict:  Battle of the Sexes gives us larger than life personalities, character studies and themes with true depth, the spectacle of sports, romance, empowerment – in short, it’s a film that very nearly has it all.  While having it all means that it doesn’t truly achieve greatness in any one way, it still gives us a film that should satisfy nearly everyone excepting perhaps the most obsessive action adventure devotee.  Battle of the Sexes is one of the easiest movies in a while for me to recommend, but don’t take that to mean that I think it’s exceptional, just that it’s a very well done film which should please nearly everyone.

Stronger (Green; 2017)

The Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 is one of those events that will long linger in the collective unconscious of the American public in a “where were you that day?” sort of remembrance.  One of the survivors of the blast named Jeff Bauman gained instant fame when he was not featured in a photograph alongside his rescuer which made its way into national television broadcasts and graced a great many printed publications as well as new websites and also was able to give authorities information which ultimately led to the discovery of the bombers’ identites.  Stronger is Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) story adapted from the book of the same name written by Bauman himself focusing less on the day of the bombing and more on his physical and mental recovery from the permanent injuries he was left with that day.

Your typical biopic is an exaggerated version of the events surrounding a person’s life.  While most writers and directors do honestly seek to honor the subject of their film as well as educate the public about someone they admire or at least find fascinating, they also realize that real life is often dull and able to be better covered in a documentary if accuracy is the goal over entertainment.  Look to my latest review of American Made as a perfect example.  While I’m sure most of the events covered in the film happened, I am just as sure that Barry Seal cannot have been the source of constant “What? Me Worry?” witticisms and unfazeable charm which Tom Cruise portrayed him as nor could the events unfolded in such a laugh riotous manner.  While I learned a lot about the contras and the drug trade during the ’80s, I also understand that American Made needs to grab my attention through entertainment because I am not going to theater to take a history course, and so the portrayal of characters and events need to be tweaked to fit the stylings of a film rather than be shown to us in stark realism.  What sets Stronger apart from the typical biopic is that it seems far more authentic than most films of its ilk for better and for worse.

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You can tell that the characters in Stronger come from a specific person’s, in this case Jeff Bauman’s, point of view.  We see the people in his life as a group of well meaning, but ultimately seriously flawed individuals.  They want to help Jeff, and a great many put their own lives on hold to do just that, but all give in to the temptations of procrastination and distraction because helping Jeff adjust to his new life and situation is really difficult on both a mental and physical level.  Some characters turn to drinking all the time, some make excuses for him and for themselves, some plant themselves in a place of denial, but nearly all show a truly authentic dichotomy in their wanting to help Jeff but then coming up with excuses not to, especially Jeff himself.  But, one character, Jeff’s on and off girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is the long suffering character put high on a pedestal that we all recognize in our lives, that one person we know can rescue us from our travails even if in actuality they can’t and who we come to rely on and take advantage of until we are harshly reminded just how much worse our lives would be without them.

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Stronger also shows wisdom and authenticity in showing that the road to recovery isn’t really about grit and determination or that the most difficult steps take place in rehab.  It shows us people who need to learn about themselves in this new world they have entered, people who are used to things one way and who need to give up that one way no matter how difficult it is.  It’s a film that understands tragedy happens not just to one person, but to everyone around that person whether family, friend, or coworker.  Stronger also shows us that the things hardest for us to overcome are those that are not obvious even to ourselves.  Bauman learning to walk again using prosthetics is barely even an afterthought in the film, Stronger is more about his learning to be in crowds again and recognizing that he even has a problem with it, about not letting other people live his life for him now, and even about the little things we all take for granted that now became entirely different now that he’s lost his legs.  These are the things Stronger decides to show us, and this is why I call Stronger wise.

Since Bauman himself wrote the original book, we can easily understand where the wisdom and authenticity in the screenplay comes from (it comes from an incredible amount of self understanding and introspection – the easily applies to us, not Bauman).  None of that would have played on screen, though, were it not for the absolutely phenomenal performances given by Stronger’s cast.  Jake Gyllenhaal always gives us riveting characters, but here he outdoes even himself in both his physicality and in his character work.  The Jeff Bauman he gives us is a remarkably nuanced character who never falls into any sort of stereotype nor generality and always appears to be the multifacted, often even contradictory personalities we truly are.  Add to that the fact that he has to convince us he is a man who has no legs who once did, and he more than convinces, and you have a portrayal which I can nearly guarantee will be nominated for an Oscar come next year.  Walking down that red carpet with him I could also see Tatiana Maslany in her equally hyperrealistic performance of Jeff’s long suffering on-and-off girlfriend.  She gives us a rock who doesn’t even understand herself why she is making herself into one, who truly loves Jeff, but is also truly constantly disappointed in him, and this is the burden she has to come to grips with.   While Stronger obviously couldn’t have even existed were it not for Jeff Bauman, it wouldn’t have the depth and poignancy it does without Erin, and the title of the film applies just as much to her as it does to him – maybe moreso.

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As fantastic as the characters are and as amazingly insightful the screenplay is, Stronger still has one Achilles’ heel which will turn off many audience members, and that is that with its remarkable realism comes a lack of spectacle and excitement.  Stronger is a character piece and a think piece through and through.  The most exciting events in the movie ever get are the anticipation of the bombing itself toward the start of the film, and the loud arguments shouted between people here and there throughout.  This isn’t a story which features physical struggles nor acts of bravery.  It’s a movie about internal torment and relationships, and thus it’s most often a very slow burn of a film.

Final verdict:  If you are a fan of biopics, then get yourself out to see Stronger sooner rather than later.  This is a shining example of the genre which approaches its subject matter which seems both familiar and entirely new at the same time due to the fact that it tackles its story so realistically.  It’s neither a feel good story, nor is it a total downer, but rather a realistic view of a regular life turned topsy-turvy through unavoidable tragedy.  If you are not a fan of biopics in general, this one is a little tougher of a sell.  You may not want to pay full price in the theater to check it out, but there is so much to take from Stronger, I’d ask that you at least give it a look one day down the line when you can stream or rent it.  You will never be thrilled, but you’ll almost certainly find yourself with new understanding.

American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.