Movie Review ~ Our Friend

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After learning his terminally ill wife has six months to live, a man welcomes the support of his best friend who moves into their home to help out.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson, Jason Segel, Gwendoline Christie, Cherry Jones, Ahna O’Reilly, Jake Owen, Denée Benton, Marielle Scott, Isabella Kai Rice, Violet McGraw, Michael Papajohn

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As we kick off a new year here and cross our fingers that 2021 will signal the start of better things to come, I’m also looking forward to movies getting back to business and releasing some titles that have been hovering around in limbo for a while.  Sure, there are the blockbuster properties that keep getting pushed back (the latest James Bond film No Time to Die just moved its arrival date yet again, this time to October 2021) or released directly to on demand/subscription streaming (Wonder Woman 1984) but then there are the more niche movies that showed up at film festivals in late 2019/early 2020.  Some of these may have had a distributor lined up that fell through when the pandemic hit or are going through their own release date shifts on a smaller scale.

Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2019 when it was still called The Friend, the new drama Our Friend is one of those movies that has gotten lost on its way to a general release but is finally seeing the light of day.  Now, for some reason the delays and distributor shifts have cast a small cloud of strangely bad press over the film and that’s unfortunate because Our Friend signals the return of two important things that have been missing from movies for a few years.  The first is Jason Segel’s welcome appearance after a small hiatus and the second is the true-blue five hankie weepie that seemed to go out of fashion in the mid ‘90s.  Both are reason enough to cheer on this solid effort but it’s richly rewarding in other areas as well.

Based on Matthew Teague’s article in the May 2015 issue of Esquire magazine (read it here, but it does contain spoilers from the movie), Our Friend tests your mettle within the first five minutes, almost as a way to prime you for the next two hours to see if you’ll break easy or if you’ll need an extra dose of sorrow to get those tear ducts flowing.  Nicole Teague (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a limited amount of time to live.  Her journalist/author husband Matthew (Casey Affleck, The Old Man & the Gun) is at-first ill-prepared to deal with the enormous responsibility of caring for their two young children as well as his increasingly fragile wife while staying afloat personally and professionally.  That’s where Dane Faucheux (Segel, Jeff, Who Lives at Home) comes in.

A friend from Nicole’s theater days (she was a semi-professional actress, he was on the tech side), Dane steps away from his life, his job, and a budding relationship to live with the Teague’s, eventually staying for the duration of Nicole’s illness.  While he’s a bit of a schlub, he’s the perfect breath of fresh air the household needs, especially the daughters that aren’t aware of the severity of their mother’s illness and who are growing to recognize their resentment toward their father for his absence earlier in their lives when he was often traveling internationally for work.  Isolated once well-meaning friends have moved on with their own lives, the job of caregivers falls to Matt and Dane exclusively.  Through this time together, the men form a stronger bond over the love they both have, in different ways, for Nicole and learn how to care for her individually and as a unit with the aid of a professional nurse that arrives at just the right moment (Cherry Jones, Boy Erased) so her final days are as full and memorable as possible.

After seeing the movie but before writing this review I read Matthew Teague’s original article that inspired the film and was struck by how well Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) brought the characters to life for the screen.  Now, there are some situations not covered in the article that delve into more personal issues within Matt and Nicole’s relationship and I’d be interested to know if they were imagined or factual but I appreciated the small details Ingelsby worked in throughout.  The article was praised for its raw, unglamorous, unflinching reaction to the death of a loved one and the description of what it’s like to live through that and I think the movie naturally recoils a bit from going that far.  While to some that may rob the movie of its street cred authenticity to its source material, what it’s been replaced with calls forth many of the same emotions…just in a different way.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite made a significant impact with her documentary Blackfish in 2013 before transitioning into narrative features with 2017’s Megan Leavey and she brings her good instincts for drama and humanity to the table for her second full-length feature.  Ingelsby’s script isn’t linear, broken up into scenes that jump from the present to the past to the present to the not quite as past as before and onward.  It’s strange but in other hands that jumping around could drain the film of its emotional build-up but it actually works in the opposite.  Knowing where the film is heading and then seeing where these characters began makes the heartbreak have that much more of an impact when we jump back to the present and see Nicole in the final stages of a ravaging disease.

As much as the jaded movie-goer (and critic) might think it’s every actor’s dream to play a dying swan of a role, it’s such a demanding task that requires some careful skill and thankfully Johnson is cast perfectly as Nicole.  Never laying it on thick, she fades in health with a slight delicacy, and you’re reminded again that Johnson continues to be quite the underrated actor.  No stranger to aching sorrow-fests, Oscar-winner Affleck’s character has so many qualities we can all relate to that you can’t help but cast yourself often as the protagonist…when you’re not seeing the situation through Dane’s vantage point.  Matt Teague has some interesting quirks about him and Affleck captures those nicely, feeding off the warmth of Johnson and the fervent support Segel is offering up.  Speaking of Segal, what a fantastic role for him and it’s another step away from the types of characters he was known for playing a decade ago.  Showing a staunch commitment to going outside of the box but also not playing inside the sharp edges of a triangle, Segel knows where he’s comfortable now and that ease translates into a character built from the ground up.  I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention Jones, who just exudes warmth whenever she enters a movie, even if she appears only briefly.

If you can get through Our Friend and not choke up just a little bit, especially the last thirty minutes, then you are made of stronger stuff than I am.  Maybe it’s because I have personal experience from a similar situation to what this family went through and some of the finality portrayed onscreen, but the movie hit a nerve that hasn’t been tweaked in some time.  Do you want it totally truthful?  Honestly? I don’t think the movie even overdoes the emotional manipulation and forces the tears out of you…for once they actually spring naturally based on the quality of the performances, direction, and writing.  It feels good to have a reason to cry for all the right reasons.

Movie Review ~ The White Tiger

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The Facts
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Synopsis: An ambitious Indian driver uses his wit and cunning to escape from poverty and rise to the top.

Stars: Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Mahesh Manjrekar, Vijay Maurya, Mahesh Pillai, Nalneesh Neel, Aaron Wan, Vedant Sinha, Abhishek Khandekar, Solanki Diwakar, Ram Naresh Diwakar, Harshit Mahawar, Sanket Shanware

Director: Ramin Bahrani

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When examining a movie, I’m finding more often that narrative structure is becoming more of a hot button issue for me.  How a filmmaker chooses to tell their story is a key indicator not just in how each particular project will establish tone from the start but on a larger scale the creation of their own future calling card for style.  Obviously, the best kind of auteurs are those that never let you pin them down – their style is constantly being reenvisioned by the work that is in front of them yet they manage to still put their stamp on it in a way that is uniquely theirs.  Director Ramin Bahrani is one of those creative-minded people who, based on his list of credits so far, isn’t content to being boxed into a certain corner.  That has allowed him to make films that might not be commercial successes but are usually followed by a trail of good notices from reputable outlets.

Standing to score his biggest breakthrough yet with his newest film, Bahrani has adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel The White Tiger for Netflix where it premieres as a streaming title on January 22.  It’s easy to see why Bahrani would be drawn to this Dickens-by-way-of-Mumbai rags to riches tale that reveals a surprisingly sinister dark edge in its third act.  With a flair for the dramatic and flights of fancy both fun and fearsome, the movie is almost always angling for some higher level.  There are ample opportunities to stretch the medium of storytelling by jumping around in time from the present to the past and allowing Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), our older and wiser narrator look back at his younger self and recount the story of how he left his tiny village and came to the big city to seek his fortune.

The film begins in the middle of Halwai’s journey, on a fateful night of celebration with Halwai a backseat passenger enjoying himself as Pinky Madam, the wife of his boss, careens down the vacant streets of the city as her husband Ashok looks on from the seat next to her.  What happens next changes the course of the lives of all three…but it will take over an hour of Halwai-narrated catch-up to rejoin the trio to see what transpired.  During this time, we see India through the very one-sided eyes of Halwai and come to understand that success is determined on the spirit of the individual, not on any opportunities that just fall out of the blue.

A once promising student held back from furthering his education by family obligation, Halwai grows to resent his family trade and takes the first opportunity he can to flee the small town in favor of a larger city that better represents his interests.  Joining the staff of the very same family that are imperious land barons in his village, he becomes the driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), the son of the head boss.  As his allegiance with Ashok and his wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Isn’t It Romantic) grows, the ties with his family diminish and soon Halwai is rejecting many of the tenets of morality in favor of getting further ahead with his own plans for the future.

In essence, there’s not a lot in the bones of The White Tiger that we haven’t seen told numerous times before in different cultures and periods throughout time.  There’s always some poor person that longs for a better life tempted away from the “good” by the “bad” who eventually makes the choice to turn their back on the right way for their own advancement…often to disastrous results.  The same is (mostly) true in The White Tiger and it’s why the movie, as lively as it is, never feels like the full meal is it clearly meant to be.  At best, it’s a satisfying treat with the occasional energy boost from a charming star and a director that keeps things interesting visually, if not plot-wise.

With the plot being more than a little also-ran, the key factor to The White Tiger being worth the time is Gourav’s pretty astounding work as the boy with big plans that becomes a man willing to do most anything to get what he wants.  At the time, I found the performance to be a solid effort and definitely regarded him the strongest player of the group but the longer I sit thinking the more I see just how big of an arc Gourav took Halwai over the course of the film.  The physicality changes as well as Halwai’s understanding of his surroundings and ability to survey a situation, especially after a pivotal shift when he realizes the only one looking out for him is him reveal a detailed character that has been realized and the results are fascinating.  The rest of the cast, including Chopra Jonas who also serves as a producer, handle the twists in tone well, a benefit to the director being able to keep things largely under control so the satirical comedy aimed squarely at India’s class system that forms the backbone of The White Tiger doesn’t tip the scales over to cartoonish farce.

Stretched too long by a lengthy run time, The White Tiger is a rare flower that loses steam rather quickly at the outset and struggles to regain its footing for a time that thankfully bounces back with a somber reminder of the consequences of trusting too much and wanting it all at the same time.  I left the film respecting the story it was telling but wishing it was more efficient in its delivery, admiring the lead performance but thinking the entire movie shouldn’t have had to depend on Gourav for it to succeed, and hoping the director will continue to surprise us with future projects.  I wouldn’t pounce on The White Tiger immediately, but it’s a movie to keep in your back pocket if this location and story speak to you.