Dir. Peter Berg
Peter Berg has carved a niche for himself in the movie world dramatizing our tragedies. Earlier this year, Berg's Deepwater Horizon gave us an action-drama celebrating the working man heroes on board the drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Patriots Day, also starring Mark Wahlberg, similarly takes a tragedy and puts it within the confines of a manhunt thriller. Although I found the results in Deepwater Horizon to be mixed, perhaps straying too far into the land of exploitation, Patriots Day doesn't feel that way at all. It feels completely authentic to the intensity, chaos, confusion, heroism, psychology, and controversy on display during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its following investigation, employing an almost documentary-level of realism to an event most of us remember so vividly, glued to the Internet or TV to check for updates. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and Berg perfectly walks the ethical line with a subject matter that will still feel very raw to many viewers.
Similar to other ensemble pieces like Magnolia or even the show Lost, Patriots Day follows a number of different perspectives surrounding the event, including police Sgt. Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), and Watertown police Sgt. Jeffrey Pugliese to name a few. The film also doesn't shy away from showing the perspective of the terrorists, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, which had to have been the most difficult characters to portray. The actors smartly choose to make the brothers feel like real people without really "explaining" their behavior (you can't - they're sociopaths). Alex Wolff in particular is fantastic at portraying a kid who is more or less trying to impress his older brother, and you can at least understand how the pieces lined up where a person like that could be twisted into believing whatever sick thoughts his brother believed in. Every single actor in this film - heroic or otherwise - is damn good in this movie, and totally respects their real life counterparts (this might be a career-best performance from Wahlberg).
Throughout the film, I really felt like I was "there" as the events were unfolding. Berg is great at creating seemingly-improvised moments that unfold at a breakneck pace. Although it's not a surprise how the events shape together - seeing as this is a true story and all - there were still new elements introduced that I didn't know or really think about before the film. For example, the carjacked driver, Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), played a hugely pivotal role in the capture of the Tsarnaev brothers - and they could have gotten away with another bombing in New York if not for Meng. I also got a better sense of the terrorist's devoted wife (Melissa Benoist), who is fascinating for the sheer fact that she was a privileged white girl-turned-radical muslim wife; her interrogation scene is a great showcase for Benoist and the interrogator played by Khandi Alexander.
I've seen a lot of reviews criticizing this movie, still claiming it suffers from being exploitative, cynically trying to make a profit off of real life horrors - but I just totally disagree. This movie couldn't be a more thrilling, emotional, "Boston Strong" ode to those brave men and women who work to keep us safe. Movies like this and United 93 are difficult reminders of the random evil that can happen at any time, but they also remind us of the power of the human spirit to raise a middle finger to twisted mass-murdering assholes. I love the words from former Mass governor Deval Patrick that ends the epilogue: "The bombers took lives and limbs, they took some of our sense of security.... but they took a lot less than they intended." You're likely to hear audiences clapping at the end of this movie - rare for something outside the opening night of a fanboy Star Wars or Marvel flick - and I consider it wholly deserved.
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese had been trying to bring Silence to the screen for close to 25 years. His passion project, an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, tells the story of two seventeenth century Christian missionaries, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan in order to find their missing mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The problem? Seventeenth century Japan wasn't too kind to Christians. By that I mean they tortured them with scalding hot water, crucified them, drowned them, cut their heads off, and a whole smattering of other unpleasant things if they wouldn't renounce their religion.
While it may sound like a theological Saving Private Ryan, Scorsese's film is much more "still" than you might expect. Moving at a snail's pace for close to three hours, Silence is sadly one of the most monotonous Scorsese movies I've seen, and unless you really connect with the main character's battle with his faith (I'm an atheist, so that's kind of a no-go for me), you're probably going to wonder why in the hell the characters are choosing to torture themselves instead of just saying, "Yeah, I don't believe this - can you let me go now?" If you could stop a murder by just placing your foot on a metal picture of Jesus - why would you even need to think about it? I guess I just don't get faith.
I hate how much I didn't like this movie, because it looks absolutely STUNNING. Scorsese is clearly channeling his love for Japanese cinema and Kurosawa in his richly textured compositions, which really brings seventeenth-century Japan to life. The camera is often placed high above the subjects, subtly suggesting an impassive "god-like" presence throughout the film, waiting to see if his little humans make the right decisions. But besides its surface beauty, I didn't get much out of this movie. It was a true slog to get through and despite my best efforts, I just couldn't understand the main characters' struggle with keeping the faith as much as Scorsese wanted me to.
A Monster Calls
Dir. J.A. Bayona
There's a long line of children-coping-through-imagination movies, from Pan's Labyrinth to this year's The BFG, and A Monster Calls is yet another one to add to the pile. 12-year-old budding artist Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has to deal with a lot: he's bullied at school, he has a bad relationship with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), his dad is mostly out of the picture, and his mom (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. One night Conor imagines a giant Groot-looking CGI tree monster (Liam Neeson) who comes over to his house from a nearby graveyard. The monster plans to tell Conor three stories - each a fantastical tale told via watercolor hued animation - after which Conor is to tell his story, aka, Conor will come to terms with his grief.
A Monster Calls is unadulterated "sad porn." It only knows one tone and it's 'get the tissues.' While the acting and visual flourishes are strong, it beats you over the head with didactic life lessons about overcoming grief. Even though there are moments that are heartstring-tugging (my favorite scene involving a wordless reaction from Sigourney Weaver, who seemingly goes through a whole spectrum of human emotion), the drama and characters are really generic, uninspired, and completely humorless. The best "sad" movies always have bright spots to reflect on the bad (see 50/50 and Pixar's Up, for example), but here emotions are always poured on thick. The only "happy" scene I can remember from the film is watching a brief flashback between the mom and Conor - but even that is sandwiched in between Weaver watching the tape of that footage and crying her eyes out.
Everything starts to feel manipulative and superficial after a point, and despite some clearly excellent, visually creative filmmaking on display, A Monster Calls just didn't have the emotional impact it wanted me so desperately to have.
Dir. Theodore Melfi
Hidden Figures is the latest movie destined to be played in middle school social studies classes everywhere. This historical drama focuses on three African American women - Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) - whose math and engineering skills were pivotal in the success of the NASA space program in the 1960s. This is one of those inspirational stories you can't believe you'd never heard before, providing an inside look at a key point in American history from the oft-marginalized perspective of black women.
While its heart is in the right place and it's a well-made crowd pleaser, the generically feel-good Hidden Figures eventually becomes redundant and overly-schmaltzy. If you want to get black-out drunk, take a shot every time one of the main characters enters a room full of white men who all give them the "stink eye." One of the most memorable, all-too-true moments in the film is when Katherine Johnson has to run back and forth from her desk at NASA (in heels) to a colored bathroom in a completely different building - but these moments are somewhat ruined by an incessantly goofy song from Pharrell "Happy" Williams. Basically The Help-in-space, Hidden Figures is a well-intentioned, competently-made good movie, but I still wish we could've gotten the non-Disneyfied version of this important story.