Movie Review ~ Semper Fi


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A police officer who serves in the Marine Corps Reserves is faced with an ethical dilemma when it comes to helping his brother in prison.

Stars: Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Nat Wolff, Beau Knapp, Leighton Meester, Arturo Castro

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Coming from a large city, I’ve always found myself drawn to movies about small towns and the people that live there.  I’m used to the noise and the constant motion, so much so that when I do find myself in a tiny township the peacefulness found there can almost make me a little too restless.  As a child, I would tire easily anytime I traveled to my mom’s hometown in the southern part of our state because I had to exert so much energy to entertain myself.  Now, I value that slower pace and understand better the appreciation for, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the land.

A slower pace is something I noticed right off the bat in Semper Fi, a drama opening in limited release this weekend and also available steaming/on demand.  Setting his movie back in 2005 in a NY town bordering Canada, writer/director Henry Alex Rubin adopts a rhythm early on the film where conversation drives the movie forward, not necessarily action.  Cutting his teeth working as a second-unit director with James Mangold before moving on to direct the acclaimed documentary Murderball and the vastly undervalued Disconnect, I was familiar with Rubin’s favored approach to character driven dramas.

Four life-long friends and members of the Marine reserves are enjoying a night of bowling at the start of the film and Rubin introduces them by, of all things, their bowling balls.  Cal (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner) is a police office in town and the unspoken leader of the group alongside ladies man Jaeger (Finn Wittrock, Judy), the hard-working and loyal Snowball (Arturo Castro, Snatched), and Milk (Beau Knapp, The Finest Hours), a family man walking the straight and narrow.  Tagging along is Cal’s half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars), a screw-up they all take turns playing big brother to if Cal isn’t available.  There’s an instant rapport established between the men so that we believe they’ve known each other all their lives and we’ve just happened to drop in on an ordinary night for them.

The time we spend getting to know them is brief because the men are soon to receive their orders to serve in the war on the other side of the world.  This means leaving their friends and family, some of them for the first time.  The men are about to ship out to Iraq when Oyster gets into a drunken brawl.  Fleeing the scene, he’s eventually picked up and turned in by Cal who is only trying to protect him from further harm.  Winding up in prison for manslaughter based on shaky testimony, he’s serving his sentence as the men head overseas on an eight month deployment.  During this time, Oyster suffers under the watch of vicious guards while the four friends experience their own hardship on the battlefield, coming home heroes but paying a price for their efforts.

The first 1/3 of the film where we are introduced to the guys is your standard bro-tastic passage where the characters are quickly defined and Rubin leaves it to his talented cast to fill in the gaps along the way.  To their credit, all five men take up the challenge nicely with Castro and Knapp delivering the most interesting performances in probably the smallest roles.  Courtney, Wittrock, and Wolff all have showier parts but it’s the quieter moments and decisions that are made in the final 1/3 of the film that made Castro and Knapp stand out for me. I do wish, though, that the one female character that’s given anything to do (Leighton Meester, The Judge) was written with a bit more depth. The middle section where the men return home wasn’t presented in the same PTSD tortured way I’ve grown accustomed to seeing and I was thankful for that.  The men return to a town that hasn’t changed much, and that proves disappointing to them.

I wasn’t quite sure what kind of movie Semper Fi was going to be even at the 60 minute mark and once Rubin landed on a final destination the movie starts to pick up steam.  Though a change in tone does come out of left field (from a different movie all together, if I’m being honest) it at least snapped my attention back into focus and held me there until a rather perfunctory ending.  It’s almost as if Rubin didn’t want to fully leave the quiet of this small NY town so he just turned the camera off…I get it but the movie calls out for something a little more solid to round off some sketchy edges.  There’s some hint of deeper family trauma with Cal and Oyster but it’s only touched on briefly and never fully resolved, it’s almost as if Cal’s actions later in the movie are a substitute for a large discussion he needs to have with his younger sibling.

There are so few dramas out there that show vulnerable side to men and while Semper Fi doesn’t mine the depths of the range of emotions it could have, it does provide some nice moments for its talented cast.  I think it makes a mistake in dovetailing toward a more genre-specific film near the end that it didn’t need to be, adding some useless plot contrivances that cheapens some of what came before.  It’s still a worthy endeavor and interesting watch, but there’s a part of me that wonders what another draft of the screenplay would have looked like with a different third act.  Rubin is on to something here, but it doesn’t totally come together.

Movie Review ~ Disconnect

disconnect

The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Haley Ramm

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewDisconnect is that rarest of films…the kind that works like gangbusters while you’re soaking it in at the theater but one that gradually erodes away with each day that passes.  It would be easy (and fair) to call this Crash 2.0 or Crash Online as the film is an ensemble drama with intertwining plots that circle around a single topic.  Where Crash took a hard look at race relations, Disconnect takes a timely look at how the internet has worked its way into our lives with troublesome results.

As is the case with many of these films with large casts and multiple story arcs, some of them work well and some of them fall flat.  For me, the most effective of these involves a news reporter (UKer Riseborough, sporting a flawless American accent) doing some investigative journalism into underage teens using the internet to provide sexual favors/shows in return for gifts/money.  Lured into this life, these teens are exploited and put into dangerous situations and it isn’t long before the FBI gets interested in the reporter and her relationship with an older teen (Thieriot) that agrees to go on camera to tell his story.

Riseborough is a fascinating actress to watch and though she does equally good work in the sci-fi actioner Oblivion, it’s in Disconnect where we enjoy her more because the character has some interesting moral dilemmas to go through.  Thieriot is impressive too as he graduates from Disney-fied teen films to a raw and revealing look into some dark material.

There’s also a Catfish-y story about two young high schoolers (Ford and Avian Bernstein) that use Facebook to pose as a girl interested in an outcast (Bobo).  Not just cyber-bullying but using the boy’s desire to connect against him, the two take their joke too far and soon find lives and futures are put into question when their target goes to drastic measures to free himself from their humiliation.  Grillo (building quite the impressive resume recently with films like The Grey, End of Watch, and Zero Dark Thirty) and Bateman (Hit and Run, Identity Thief) are fathers that are directly affected by the actions of their sons and both do solid dramatic work.

The least effective section involves Patton and Skarsgard as a couple with a marriage in trouble further put to the test when they are the subject of identity theft.  Was it Skarsgard’s online gambling habit or Patton’s online support group friend that opened them up to having their bank accounts drained?  That’s the back and forth issue they bicker about a lot…leading them to a confrontation with a man (Nyqvist) that may have the answers to their questions.  Patton and Skarsgard don’t have the right chemistry to sell this and I found myself squirming anytime the movie shifted focus.

How these different stories connect are mostly interesting and maybe sometimes too convenient but I won’t spoil how these overlap lest it ruin some of the discoveries the movie reveals as it goes on. Director Rubin (of the great documentary Murderball) and writer Andrew Stern clearly used Crash as an inspiration for the resolution (everything comes to a head in one high-tension series of slow-mo throat grabbers) and for the most part the film works. 

It was on my way home and in the days since that I saw how manipulative the film was.  Though there’s a connection that most audiences will make with the movie, if you sit down and consider the film you’ll see some of the plot holes and disconnecting contrivances that don’t seem to be a big issue when the fast paced movie is being taken in.  Perhaps because I enjoyed the film so much at the time and thanks to several strong performances, I’m giving it a higher rating than it deserves.

The Silver Bullet ~ Disconnect

disconnect

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Release Date: April 12, 2013

Thoughts: As our reliance on technology grows, so our connectivity with living and breathing beings seems to be waning.  The upcoming ensemble drama Disconnect seeks to explore the emergence of how much of our lives are spent on the internet and how intertwined we’ve become with the online world.  From cyber bullying to identify theft to “catfish”ing someone, the internet has become a place for people to lose themselves.  These types of films are always very interesting…especially when they are centered around a central theme as timely as this one.