STRONGER (2017)

September 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a fine line between getting chewed out by your Costco supervisor one day and having the country claim you as a hero the next. Just ask Jeff Bauman. On April 15, 2013 Jeff was near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, holding a handmade sign in support of his runner-girlfriend Erin. When she was still about a mile away, the two bombs went off, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Mr. Bauman lost his legs that day.

When Jeff regained consciousness in the hospital (after two surgeries), he was able to provide the FBI a detailed physical description of one of the bombers. His information led directly to the identification of one of the scumbag brothers responsible for this atrocity. Immediately, Jeff was hailed as a hero – both locally and nationally. The film does a nice job of telling Jeff’s story and how his life unfolded over the next few months.

Director David Gordon Green is responsible for such disparate film projects as OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, MANGLEHORN, and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. He may seem an odd choice to adapt the film from the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (screenplay by John Pollono), but the story is so moving and heart-warming, and the three lead actors are so good that we immediately connect with each of them.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff, Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) plays Erin, and Miranda Richardson tears up the screen as Jeff’s mother, Patty. Mr. Gyllenhaal is remarkable (as usual) as the working class local boy who truly believes his lucky seat and beer determine success or failure for his beloved Bruins and Red Sox. His initial portrayal is spot on for the normal guy who seems caught in the web of eternal teenage mentality so common in the male species. As he struggles with his new life challenges, he strives to do better, but simply doesn’t understand why he is viewed as a hero … and doesn’t particularly embrace what comes with the label, at least early on. Ms. Maslany is terrific as the guilt-ridden, confused-yet-strong, on-again-off-again girlfriend to Jeff. She fights through being treated as an outsider by the family, and the daily grind of caring for a guy who needs constant help. The twice Oscar nominated Miranda Richardson is unlike we have ever seen her on screen. Despite being a Brit, Ms. Richardson captures the Boston sauciness (in more ways than one) and takes no ‘stuff’ from anyone. Her performance is stunning.

Of course, at its core, this is an inspirational story about how a normal guy became a hero after a tragic event. The recent Mark Wahlberg film PATRIOTS DAY focused on the aftermath and investigation, while here the attention is on the emotional story of one man and one family. We see the recreation of the flag-waving at the Boston Bruins game, and the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park. We also see the obstacles faced when rehabilitation and care-giving becomes too much to bear. Carlos Arredondo and his cowboy hat and heroics are also given much-deserved space here. His back story is heart-breaking, and a reminder that everyone has a story, and each of us can be a hero in some way. Since life isn’t a movie, the realities are that Jeff and Erin have since divorced, but that in no way reduces the impact of their touching story that inspires each of us to be stronger.

watch the trailer:

 


CAS & DYLAN (2015)

April 21, 2015

Cas Dylan Greetings again from the darkness. Jason Priestley is well known for his acting career, and his first feature film as a director combines two of the more familiar movie paths – the odd couple and the road trip. Writer Jessie Gabe jolts the screenplay with enough comedy and poignancy that we overlook the air of familiarity and instead concentrate on the mismatched titular characters. Ms. Gabe also makes a memorable onscreen appearance as a snippy receptionist.

Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Cas Pepper … yep, he is Dr. Pepper (I suspect that’s why he goes by Cas). Thanks to the narration and early scenes, we quickly learn Cas is a widower, a 30 year doctor, and recently discovered to be terminally ill. Cas has perfectly worked out a plan to “head west” and go out on his own terms … if only he wasn’t experiencing writer’s block on his suicide note.

Worlds collide as Cas agrees to give Dylan Morgan (Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”) a ride to her boyfriend’s trailer. Cas wrongly assumes that the energetic and fast-talking Dylan was visiting a relative at the hospital, and soon learns that she was experiencing “suffering vicariously through patients”. See, Dylan fancies herself a writer and has developed a new genre, Action Romanture, which she is convinced will secure a publishing deal and rescue her from a world that doesn’t appreciate her in the least.

An unexpected turn leaves Cas and Dylan on the road together, and quibbling like an old (and odd) couple. Nothing that follows is especially ground-breaking, and in fact, is mostly quite familiar; yet the two leads somehow captivate us with their banter and the understanding that this is leading right where we know it must lead.

Director Priestley wisely utilizes the stunning landscapes of western Canada, and allows the two actors to go at each other in a way that two different generations must – all the while building a friendship that we see long before they do. There are some interesting and effective song choices, but it’s Ms. Maslany’s spunk and depth as Dylan that allows the interactions to click. The legacy note may be the goal here, but the lesson is that no one should be alone … no matter if they be a 22 year old social misfit, or a sixty-something doctor near the end of life.

watch the trailer:

 

 


WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

March 31, 2015

woman in gold Greetings again from the darkness. The responsibility of the filmmaker when the project is “based on a true story” is elevated when the story has significant historical relevance and blends such elements as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those the quest of a remarkable woman whose family was ripped apart by Nazi insurgents, and more than a history lesson, it becomes a poignant personal story.

Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the woman who emigrated to the United States by fleeing her Austrian homeland during World War II, and leaving behind her beloved family and all possessions. After the death of her sister, Ms. Altmann becomes aware of the family artwork stolen by the Nazi’s during the invasion. This is not just any artwork, but multiple pieces from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt … including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. See, Adele was Maria’s aunt, and the stunning piece (with gold leaf accents) has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”, while hanging for decades in the state gallery.

The story revolves around Maria’s partnering with family friend and upstart attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to take on the nation of Austria and reclaim the (extremely valuable) artwork that was seized illegally so many years ago. They are aided in their mission by an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl) who is fighting his own demons. The seven-plus year legal saga is condensed for the big screen and we follow Maria and Randol as they meet with the Austrian art reclamation committee, a federal judge (played by the director’s wife Elizabeth McGovern), the U.S. Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and finally a mediation committee back in Austria. But this is not really a courtroom drama … it’s a personal quest for justice and search for identity. What role does family roots and history play in determining who we are today? It’s the age old question of past vs. present, only this is seen through the eyes of a woman who has survived what most of us can only imagine.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) uses startling flashbacks (with Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) to provide glimpses of Maria’s childhood through her marriage and subsequent escape. We get to know her family, including some scenes featuring Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), and Maria’s father and uncle (Henry Goodman, Allan Corduner). We understand this family’s place in society and just how dramatically they were impacted by the Nazi takeover.

Helen Mirren delivers yet another exceptional performance and manages to pull off the snappy lines without an ounce of schmaltz, while also capturing the emotional turmoil Ms. Altmann endures. Director Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell round off some of the rough edges and inject enough humor to prevent this from being the gut-wrenching process it probably was in real life. This approach makes the film, the story and the characters more relatable for most movie goers … and it’s quite an enjoyable look at a fascinating woman and a pretty remarkable underdog story.

watch the trailer: