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 ~ All I See Is You


The Facts
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Synopsis: A blind woman’s relationship with her husband changes when she regains her sight and discovers disturbing details about themselves.

Stars: Blake Lively, Jason Clarke, Yvonne Strahovski, Danny Huston, Ahna O’Reilly, Wes Chatham

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s a strange little movie for you, not necessarily a bad one, just a strange one. At a time when we’re coming out of a slump summer at the box office and into the terrain of Awards Season, All I See Is You has the visual panache of a major blockbuster helmed by smart filmmakers but is ultimately more interested in the art-house vibe. This creates a discord between two distinct notes that never totally synch up, though it does have a few fleeting moments of harmony that have kept it lingering in my mind several days after seeing it.

Blinded by a childhood accident that left her parents dead, Gina (Blake Lively, The Shallows) lives with her husband James (Jason Clarke, Lawless) in Taiwan. She’s adjusted to her life living in the shadows, only able to see brief glimpses of light (fabulously photographed by cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser) but when an opportunity presents itself for an experimental surgery that could give her back her sight in one eye, she grasps the opportunity with both hands.

As her sight returns, her relationship with her supportive husband changes as she becomes less dependent on his care and more independent in her needs. The life she thought she was going to lead now has more opportunities and both husband and wife start to realize at the same time that their union may have been fortified by her disability. A visit to her sister and brother-in-law (Ahna O’Reilly and Miquel Fernández) raises more marital strife, compounded by a painful trek to the place where she lost her sight many years earlier.

As the movie develops, it becomes less of the psychological thriller it feels like it wants to be and more of an erotic drama that pushes the boundaries for both Lively and Clarke. Lively seems especially game and she’s continuing to become an actress unafraid of a little risk in her roles. Clarke, too, brings some painful pathos to the part, culminating in a wordless exchange between the two in a very public setting that’s awkwardly intimate though they are surrounded by a crowd unaware of the matrimonial fissure that has cracked wide open.

Director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) co-wrote the script with Sean Conway and as mentioned above it’s a sometimes off-balance mix of soapy melodrama and kinky canoodling. Up until the last moment, I kept waiting for one tone to come out clearer than the other but it never happens. Even the ending fails to dig its feet in and put a period on its lengthy rambling sentence. While it’s hard to empathize with the two leads that live in a fantastic apartment and jet-set to luxury locales, it’s not easy to write them off for the same reason. Flawed through its characters may be, there’s a voyeuristic interest at play in All I See Is You which makes most everything you see watchable.

Movie Review ~ Fruitvale Station

fruitvale_station

The Facts:

Synopsis: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: There’s little doubt as to how December 31, 2008 will end for Oscar Grant…we’re shown the actual footage of the shooting at the hands of a police officer that led to his death before the first five minutes of Fruitvale Station have elapsed.  For a movie that starts and ends with death it says something that you come away with powerful thoughts on your own life and the path that we’re all on.

One of the most buzzed about films at the recent Sundance Film Festival, I’d already read a lot about Fruitvale Station, the family that the film was based on, and the journey the movie took to the screen.  Being released at the tail end of a very busy but not totally memorable summer movie season was a bold move of counter-programming and I think that the film was timed right for audiences that were ready to put aside overblown superheroes and frat boy comedies for a more serious movie-going experience.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler favors efficiency over showmanship with a script filled with scenes that pull no punches and a reserved directing hand that guides his actors to strong performances.  It would have been easy to paint Oscar Grant as a tragic hero but Coogler and Michael B. Jordan let the flaws show…giving  way to a leading performance that’s honest and grounded.  Oscar had run-ins with the law and dealt with problems that many inner-city youth face and if he had lived maybe things would have changed or maybe they would have stayed the same…but the tragedy of it all was that we’ll never know what could have been.

As a young father, the movie really crackles when Jordan and the mother of his daughter (Melonie Diaz…another vastly underrated actor) have moments of anger and intimacy over the course of the day.  Their relationship may have had its ups and downs but these two people understand each other…which makes the disappointments hurt that much more.  Same goes for Oscar’s relationship with his mother (stoic Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer).  In a powerhouse flashback, Oscar’s mother visits him in jail and delivers a galvanizing tough love speech, proving that Spencer’s Academy Award was no fluke.

If I had to quibble with the film (and, let’s face it, I have to quibble with something) it’s that perhaps the 24 hours we spend with Oscar Grant seem a bit too packed with forward-motion developments.  By the time he boards the train that will lead him to the Fruitvale Station platform he seems to have figured out a lot of things like work, love, and future plans.  It makes the tragedy to come that much more painful but also seems like a small manipulation in a film that has eschewed any easy outs until that point.

I was surprised that when the reenactment of those final moments came how much of a gut-punch it actually was to watch.  We know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen the camera footage 80 minutes prior…yet by this time we’ve gotten to know the man who died that day.  We’ve met his daughter, visited his mother for her birthday, watched him care for a wounded dog….so to see him cut down in such a way is chilling and numbing.

Aside from any award recognition this will garner (expect Oscar nominations for Jordan and Spencer), the movie is a testament to the influence of restrained direction and committed performances.  It’s a motion picture that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater and had the chance to hug your loved ones.  When you do, chances are you’ll be like me and remember Oscar Grant, his death, and the family that misses him.