An Acceptable Loss


Tika Sumpter speaks truth to power.

(2018) Thriller (IFC) Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, David Eisenberg, Alysia Reiner, Rex Linn, Carmen Roman, Henry Godinez, Tim Hopper, Rashaad Hall, Troy West, José Antonio Garcia, Peggy Roeder, Jin You, Patrick Mulvey, Jack Ball, Bella Wholey, Brittany Baker. Directed by Joe Chappelle

 

In this modern age, the government has thorny problems to wrestle with. How to deal with a threat which defies national boundaries but is just as deadly to its citizens as an attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. How does a nation react to terrorism without becoming terrorists themselves?

Libby Lamm (Sumpter) is part of an administration that had to face that question but her boss Vice-President Rachel Burke (Curtis) had no qualms about the answer. It has made Libby a social pariah, as her recommendation to the President (Linn) in her capacity as a security adviser led to a tragedy of 9-11 proportions. Libby is now in the academic sector, teaching an inflammatory political science course amid campus protests and drunken confrontations by self-righteous faculty members demanding to know how many people she killed.

Libby has chosen to write a book on her experiences, a book that the new regime, now led by the former Vice-President, desperately wants to see quashed. Libby, the daughter of a respected newspaper editor (Peters), is feeling a tremendous load of guilt and needs to write this book and have people read it in order to make some sort of emotional catharsis for herself. President Burke has sent oily Chief of Staff Adrian (Hephner), not coincidentally an ex-lover of Libby’s, to reason with her and bring her back into the fold but Libby is having none of it.

In the meantime creepy grad student Martin (Tavassoli) is breaking into Libby’s home and planting cameras in addition to stalking her in a way that says “terrorist” although in one of a series of plot twists we see that he’s much too academic for mere violence. In fact this whole movie is an endless series of plot twists, signifying nothing.

As potboilers go this one has its moments, particularly when Curtis is onscreen. There is an interesting concept in that Sumpter’s character is essentially a young Condoleezza Rice crossed with Jack Ryan which ought to be a delight for conservative moviegoers except that the rest of the film is essentially an indictment of conservative policies in the middle east which will no doubt get some eyes to rolling.

Chappelle and cinematographer Petra Korner seem to have made the conscious decision to overexpose the film, giving everything a nearly colorless, washed-out look. The effect is like watching a movie with your eyes dilated. I’m not so sure what prompted the look but it gets annoying after a while.

For the most part the acting is solid with Curtis setting the bar higher for everyone. She’s truly exceptional here, steely and completely sure of herself. She is confident in her beliefs and is quite frankly willing to do anything to support them and I do mean anything. She’s a cross between Dick Cheyney and…well, Dick Cheyney without the annoying heart condition. Her absolute certainty in her position puts Rachel above any moral concerns; it allows her to sleep at night knowing that anything done in service to her country is intrinsically the right thing to do, regardless of he consequences. It does bother me however that while Libby is considered a pariah as architect of the policy, the chief proponent of it (Burke) was elected President. The two don’t seem to add up logically.

The film suffers from a fairly bland script that utilizes a whole lot of dramatic reveals that don’t deserve the fanfare they’re given. The movie could have gone two ways – it could have been a standard direct-to-home video mindless thriller or it could have been a serious drama about how those in the corridors of power cope with their decisions when their decisions cost lives. Chappelle opts to go both routes which was too bad; the second half of the film which was the standard thriller is almost disappointing compared to the first half, the political drama which had a lot more potential. That’s a movie I really would have liked to see had they continued down that route.

REASONS TO GO: The film is a reasonably well-constructed thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The colors are washed out throughout, looking like a drab attempt at noir or a bad day at the development lab..
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappelle also directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curtis starred in four films in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Adult Life Skills

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

John Wick


Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn't have taken the other pill.

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn’t have taken the other pill.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Keith Jardine, Tait Fletcher, Kazy Tauginas, Alexander Frekey, Thomas Sadoski, Randall Duk Kim, Kevin Nash, Clarke Peters, Gameela Wright. Directed by Chad Stahelski

If action movies teach us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a man’s family. You DEFINITELY don’t mess with his car. But if you steal his car and kill his dog? Not a good idea, even if you’re the son of a Russian mobster.

But that’s just what Iosef Tarasov (Allen) does. But it’s not the act itself that pisses off his father Viggo (Nyqvist). It’s who he did it to. Check out this conversation the Russian mobster had with Aurelio (Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop;
VIGGO: I understand that you struck my son.
AURELIO: He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.
*pause*
VIGGO: Oh.
*click*

There are some things you just do not do. You don’t walk on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you do not steal the car and kill the dog of John Wick (Reeves), particularly when the dog was the last gift from his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). Who is John Wick may you ask? He’s a retired contract killer. He’s the sort who can walk into a room and kill three guys with a pencil. That’s right, a pencil. If you want someone who is untouchable dead and in the ground, you’d call John Wick. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t kill. Even other contract killers were terrified of him; that’s why they call him The Boogey Man. And not the one that KC and the Sunshine Band sang about either.

Viggo knows that John Wick won’t stop at his son; he’ll go after his entire organization, everyone who ever knew his son and a lot of people who didn’t. John Wick is like the ice age; where he comes through nobody lives. The only people who like John Wick are funeral directors. You get the general idea.

And that’s all you need to know about the plot. Mainly the movie goes from one action sequence to another. Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background (he was in fact Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and his experience shows. The fight sequences are mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed and exciting as hell. They are most definitely the highlight of the film, kinetic whirling dervishes of leaping assassins and flying bullets.

Reeves, never the most charismatic of actors under the best of circumstances, has a role that really plays to his strengths here. John Wick rarely shows any emotion, although he has one speech to Viggo late in the movie where all his rage seethes out of him like a terrible demonic presence and Reeves actually does an outstanding job with it. He is also a fairly graceful action hero, and is said to have performed about 90% of the stunts himself.

The supporting cast is very able, with Palicki showing her fangs as a gleeful assassin, Nyqvist showing his villain chops and Dafoe has a role as a kind of Zen Yoda-like assassin/mentor for John Wick. McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick are reliable and Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, may be setting himself up for a career portraying men the audience would like to see die painfully.

If you go looking for something that breaks the action film mold, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of that here – or anywhere else given the state of action movies in 2014. There isn’t much of a plot (the revenge thing has been done to death) but the action is so outstanding that you don’t much care. There is a place in this world for mindless entertainment and as that kind of movie goes John Wick is better than most.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action sequences. Right in Reeves’ wheelhouse.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a series of action sequences in search of a plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence, some of it bloody. Loads of foul language. Some drug use as well. Dog cruelty may be upsetting to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time Reeves has played a character named John in the movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic (2011)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Small Town Murder Songs