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.

 

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 Assassin (Cuesta; 2017)

1987 called, it wants its movie back.  I suppose I could have also said that about last week’s It, but in the case of American Assassin its even more true.  Whereas It at least had modern sensibilities where its cinematography, special effects, and treatment of the subject matter are concerned American Assassin feels in nearly every way like a 30 year-old movie in which Michael Keaton has somehow aged and they forgot to write in the corny one liners.  This is a movie in which every American but one is a no questions asked good guy and every one who isn’t an American except one is a no questions asked bad guy.  America – yay!  Not American – Boo.

The premise behind American Assassin is that a guy who hates terrorists (Mitch played by Dylan O’Brien) is recruited by the CIA to kill said terrorists, but one guy who used to have the same job the guy who hates terrorists (“Ghost” played by Taylor Kitsch) now has has gone bad for reasons and is helping the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, because all Iranians really want to do is blow stuff up despite treaties they entered into.  The strokes painted here are so broad as to be downright insulting to anyone with enough reason to see the world in anything other than absolutes.  Add in the old trainer who is so much better than anyone else that you wonder why they don’t just send him in to do the job in the first place (Stan Hurley played by Michael Keaton) and an undercover operative whose main skill is being pretty (Annika played by Shiva Negar) and you have nearly every offensive stereotype in the book pretty well covered.  At least the Deputy Director of the CIA is a black woman, I guess (Irene Kennedy played by Sanaa Lathan), but in this movie its the equivalent of someone saying “I have a black friend”.

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Okay, so cliches are rampant and offensive, but how is the plot?  There was not a single beat or motivation in this entire film that was not both telegraphed and, again, cliche.  Even if you’ve never seen a movie before I find it hard to believe that you wouldn’t see every single bit coming in this movie long before it actually happens.  Add to that the fact that the writers didn’t even attempt to come up with plausible bits of action for our characters – for instance, the bad guy who is the world’s greatest bad ass secret agent gets caught showing his face on security camera easily and immediately for no good reason (it’s not part of some ploy) but apparently that’s okay because the Deputy Director of the CIA doesn’t even think to check security footage – and you have writing that is both inept and broadcast.

The best thing that can be said about American Assassin is that at least the acting and camerawork aren’t as bad as the script.  The actors aren’t given anything to truly work with, and they never manage to rise above the material – even Keaton who seems to be in “doing it for a paycheck” mode – but, they at least show that they may have some promise if they are ever given a decent script and director.    As for the cinematography, the opening is probably the worst bit as its meant to be the main character filming on his phone, but even I who have made the claim that I have never taken a decent photograph could do a better job.  After that, though, the camerawork becomes serviceable, if never in any way, shape, nor form artistic.

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You would think a film in this style would at least be over the top with American nationalism, but we don’t even get that.  There’s no American flags to be seen, no cries for God and country (though, there is one call to prayer), no speeches about American superiority, nor worship of the military.  It’s a film based entirely on terrorists being bad, foreigners being terrorists or at least in league with them, and these facts give Americans an excuse to beat them up and kill them.  That’s the gist.

Final verdict:  The only reason I don’t call American Assassin the worst movie of the year is because the plot was at least mostly coherent, if still nonsensical in its own way.  The script is horrible, the action basic and dull, the characters offensive stereotypes, and even the special effects look like they come straight out of the ’80s.  The only reason to see American Assassin is as a bet with someone you dislike to see who can hold out the longest, either disgust or sleepiness will almost certainly overtake anyone before the movie’s end.

War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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