Stronger


Love makes us stronger.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Katherine Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia, Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis, Rena Maliszewski. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

In the aftermath of tragedy, it is perhaps the glory of humanity that we rise up and overcome. Even the most horrific of circumstances can bring out our resilience to an almost miraculous degree. It is in these situations that we as a species ten to show the most grace.

Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a working class guy from Chelmsford who lives and breathes Boston sports, carves roast chicken at a local Costco and hangs out with his friends after work. There is the matter of a girl, Erin Hurley (Maslany) whom Jeff is absolutely crazy about but he always seems to find a way to mess it up. She justifiably complains that he never shows up; he promises that this time, he will.

This time is at the Boston Marathon in which she is running; he promises to show up, awaiting her at the finish line with a goofy sign. Well, this time he shows up and happens to be standing right next to one of the homemade bombs that went off at the 2013 Marathon. Both his legs are blown off by the blast. When he wakes up in the hospital and is informed about the extent of his injuries, he cracks a joke about being Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

He is unprepared for the public adulation that comes from being a survivor. An iconic photo of him being cared for by an unknown man in a cowboy hat (Sanz) has made him a celebrity. His blowzy mom (Richardson) is all about using his new-found fame to his advantage. Erin, overwhelmed by guilt, reconnects with him and becomes nurse and lover.

But Jeff is not the most mature of men to begin with and he self-medicates as the pressures of fame and the pain of physical therapy begin to become unbearable. He has become a symbol but he doesn’t want to be one; he is not interested in offering hope to the people of Boston and his old habits that tore him and Erin apart initially begin to resurface.

David Gordon Green is one of those directors who seem to have a loyal hardcore following but rarely gets the recognition he deserves. This is probably his most commercial film yet (which considering that one of his movies is The Pineapple Express is saying something) and certainly his most accessible.

He pushes all the right buttons here but admirably doesn’t make the film as cliché-ridden as it might be. He keeps things low-key and realistic. Bauman is far from heroic for most of this although by the end of the movie he seems to be accepting his role and begins to use it in a positive way.

Gyllenhaal is at the center of the film. He has become a regular contender for Oscar gold and this performance might very well put him in the mix again this year. He makes Jeff very human, very vulnerable and very flawed and yet charming enough with just enough heart o’ gold kinda stuff that we root for him even as his drunken antics and commitment phobia make us clench our collective teeth. One must also point out that the CGI that renders Gyllenhaal as legless is some of the most seamless and well done I’ve seen.

Maslany has been acclaimed for her performances in Orphan Black, shows that she has the chops to become a serious movie actress. She is much more low-key than Gyllenhaal here but she is really the heart and soul of the film. She is wracked by guilt, knowing if not for her that Jeff wouldn’t have been in harm’s way that Patriot’s Day. She recognizes that deep down Jeff has a good soul but he is also weak and this kind of burden doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of a relationship but as long as he is trying, she knows she must hang in there for him.

The supporting cast is pretty strong as well, with particular kudos to British actress Richardson as Jeff’s overbearing mom and veteran character actor Clancy Brown as his estranged Dad. They are a bit New England Working Class typecast, but not knowing Bauman’s family at all I have to think that there is at least a germ of truth in there at least.

This isn’t always an easy film to watch. The movie doesn’t really dwell on the crime so much as the recovery and that’s a good thing – you can always watch Patriots Day if you are more interested in the hunt for the bombers. Still, the filmmakers pull no punches. We don’t get treated to endless scenes of agonizing physical therapy but more Bauman’s reaction to it. He becomes depressed and frightened of the staggering unwanted responsibilities he is forced to face. And he turns away from it, until he finally agrees – reluctantly I might add – to meet the angel of mercy who helped him on the worst day of his life.

Bauman doesn’t change overnight although it’s pretty close. There is certainly a turning point and it seems that Bauman makes a decision to live and be the kind of man he always had the potential to be. While I might question the night and day presentation of Bauman’s change of heart, there’s no doubt judged by his activities of late that there was one – a determination to become better. That’s what true strength is.

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal could have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. The CGI is absolutely perfect. The film is emotionally gritty and cathartic. The portrayal of Jeff Bauman pulls no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is occasionally guilty of being a bit manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity, some disturbing images of carnage, violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The release date for the film comes on co-star Tatiana Maslany’s 32nd birthday.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
TBA

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The Dry Land


The Dry Land

Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera look towards an uncertain future in the Heartland.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Ana Claudia Talancon, Evan Jones, Zion Sandoval, Benito Martinez, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams

 

Some see war as a grand exercise in duty and honor, a means of achieving personal glory or perhaps advancing a cause through battle. Those of that mindset are not the ones usually on the front lines. Those warriors who actually fight, who risk life and limb are the ones who pay the price – even if they survive.

James (O’Nan) has returned home to Texas from his tour of duty a damaged soul. His body is OK, but the trauma of surviving unscathed sometimes is just as bad as the trauma of suffering grave injury. He can’t stop thinking about an ambush in which his buddy Henry (Klattenhoff) got hurt.

His wife Sarah (Ferrera) is only happy to have her man home at long last but it doesn’t take long for her to notice that he’s not the man who left for war all those months ago. He’s changed; he has become distant and brooding. She tries her hardest to break through; his best friend Michael (Ritter) tries as well but to no avail.

He takes a job in his father-in-law’s (Martinez) slaughterhouse but the scenes of death and butchery only serve to remind him of the carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan. He also begins to get suspicious of Sarah and Michael, wondering if they have a different agenda than his well-being.

James starts turning towards people who might have some frame of reference in understanding him, like his combat buddy Raymond Gonzales (Valderrama) who has returned home to a neighboring Texas town as well. Raymond is a volatile powder keg who is steadfast in his loyalty to his friends but with an unbelievably short fuse when it comes to everyone else. Together they decide on the spur of the moment to go visit Henry in the VA hospital. That meeting has unexpected consequences that lead to both James and Raymond going in unexpected directions – and Sarah may end up being caught in the crossfire.

The return of veterans home from war has been fodder for Hollywood for ages and none did it better than The Best Years of Our Lives which in essence set the template for movies like this one. In all honesty, I’m not sure what sort of experience Williams has with the military – whether he himself served or someone close to him – but he has the feel of it right.

Williams captures the camaraderie between brothers – as those who serve under fire inevitably are – with brevity and depth. There isn’t a lot of posturing here, the kind of lovefest you might find between drunks which is often how Hollywood portrays it. Instead there’s that simple, quiet knowledge that something has been shared that nobody else can understand unless they were there.

It helps that his cast does an excellent job here. There are no histrionics, no grand speechifying – just people trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping their heads down as much as possible and in general just getting on with things. It’s a quintessinally American outlook, the U.S. version of the stiff upper lip and Williams captures the attitude well.

I’ve been a big fan of Ferrera since I saw her in Real Woman Have Curves during Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s Floating Film Festival several years back and this might be her best performance to date. Sarah is a complicated character, a good woman who wants to be a good wife but one who has been alone for a long time and who now finds herself alone even though her husband is back home. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the emotional center of the movie.

O’Nan plays James as a cypher who keeps his emotions close to his vest. It’s not always an easy task to figure him out, but I think that it’s an honest portrayal; James should be difficult to peg. It gives the viewer a sense of what his family and friends are going through. It’s not a sympathetic performance maybe but it is a gutsy one.

Leo is one of my favorite actresses today and even though her part is small and very much in the vein of part she has been cast in seemingly every time out, she at least gives it enough subtle shading to make it unique. Ritter is showing signs of breaking out into legitimate stardom; he could be one performance away from achieving it.

The bleak and barren Texas landscapes are fine companions to the brutal images of the slaughterhouse. Some of those images might be disturbing to the sensitive; I understand the need for them though, although I might have used them a bit more sparingly. A little brutality goes a long way in a movie as understated as this one is.

Not everything works. Some of the more talky scenes seem to be at odds with the overall feel of the movie. The Dry Land is at its best when it is quiet. This isn’t a movie about bombast and noise; it is a movie about people quietly and perhaps desperately trying to cling to something while the world strips them of their dignity and even their humanity. There are some powerful messages to be had here when the movie is at its best; I would have wished for some more consistency  but there is enough worthy material to warrant keeping an eye out on Williams as  a potentially great filmmaker in the nascent stages of his career.

WHY RENT THIS: Taut performances from nearly all the cast. Some tremendous images, disturbing and otherwise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uneven. The reach exceeds the grasp but just by a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language, some sexuality and violence as well as some disturbing situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A number of the lead actors are TV sitcom veterans (Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Valderrama in “That ’70s Show” and Suplee in “My Name is Earl”).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,777 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Wild Target