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BEYOND THE LIGHTS Review: Story Light, Star Bright

Beyond the Lights PosterI’ve always had a soft spot for movies where music or musicians are central to the story (favorites include 1982’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; 1984’s This is Spinal Tap; this year’s terrific We Are the Best!; and my top pick, 1996’s That Thing You Do!).  Regardless of the genre of film or music within it, if people are singing, I’m watching.

People are certainly singing in Beyond the Lights, a film that opens in the late 1990s to find Noni (India Jean-Jacques), a 10-year-old child with the voice of Nina Simone, entering a low-rent talent competition. When she finishes as first runner-up, her mother (Minnie Driver) rushes her out of the hall before the emcee can thank everyone for coming.  Second place simply won’t do.  Fast-forward to present day, and Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is still being handled by her “Momager,” but now she’s an on-the-verge-of-superstardom R&B singer (not quite Beyoncé … more like Rihanna).

But the pressure of it all – the fame, the lifestyle, the drive to succeed, the image she needs to maintain – takes its toll on Noni, and she contemplates suicide as she sits on the wrong side of the railing of her high hotel balcony.  Enter Kaz (Nate Parker), an LA cop with political aspirations who is in the right place at the right time.  He saves Noni from herself, and in the process begins a slow-burning romance with the singer that takes their lives in directions they never expected.

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With Beyond the Lights, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood creates something of a fairytale.  In her story there is the Princess, Noni, who is trapped in the castle of her own fame, constantly thwarted by the paparazzi and social media, her misogynistic rapper boyfriend (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly, credited here as Richard Colson Baker), and her controlling mother (more like a wicked step-manager).  The Princess, facing certain death, is rescued by Kaz, her knight in shining body armor.

With Kaz, Prince-Bythewood continues the fairytale.  Kaz is handsome and noble and righteous and strong, battling evil as both professional and moral obligations.  He also hopes to one day rule the kingdom in the form of holding elected office.  He, too, has parental complications as his father (Danny Glover), who has worked hard to groom his son for this future, wants him to stay out of the glaring (and sometimes embarrassing) spotlight that Noni’s hip-hop world would expose him to, thus jeopardizing his good standing with local religious leaders, which in turn would jeopardize fundraising and vote-getting efforts.

That’s right, not only is there a tragic damsel in distress and a stalwart but hamstrung hero, there is also the conflict of opposite sides of the tracks.

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And yet it all just sits there on the screen, as two-dimensional as a page from a book of fables, despite the efforts of its talented and charismatic cast.  This is one great flaw of the film. Prince-Bythewood focuses so much on coloring within the lines of what each character should be (tragic damsel, hero, villain), she routinely forgets or ignores all of that great space around the lines – the space that defines the lines.

It’s unfortunate.  There is great opportunity here to explore character and motivation – the greatest missed opportunity being Noni’s decision to commit suicide.  Prince-Bythewood deftly moves the character from childhood aspirations to near-global success with organic efficiency, then leaves it as nothing more than a plot-point, asking the audience to simply accept “they won’t let me be me” as the motivation for the attempt.  Other assumptions are demanded by the filmmaker as well, including the Momager being THAT Momager so often depicted on reality TV, the rapper being THAT rapper, and so on.

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The other great flaw is that real conflict only ever comes into play when Prince-Bythewood thinks it’s about time it should.  The media routinely disappears when the couple needs some alone time, only to return to make a specific moment awkward.  Momager is demanding – when she’s around; Kaz’s job as a police officer never seems to be in jeopardy despite his chronic absenteeism as a result of living Noni’s jet-set lifestyle; and the cop’s political aspirations are only ever passively handled, with mentions serving more as reminders that there is this thing out there, as opposed to actually developing the thing that’s out there.

For wanting to present a pair of star-crossed lovers, Prince-Bythewood certainly doesn’t put much of substance in the couple’s way.  It becomes apparent fairly early in the film that the things that go on around the couple – the things that are supposed to form the lines Prince-Bythewood colors within – are underdeveloped to the point of feeling like they are inserted to meet a minimum requirement.

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Despite this, the film’s stars absolutely dazzle.  Parker is handsome and chiseled and everything you want in a leading man (though dramatically unchallenged), and Driver is just great in her small but pivotal (all things considered) role as the bad mom/great manager.  But it’s Mbatha-Raw who makes the film.  Her onscreen wattage cannot be quantified – it’s as if there isn’t enough camera to love her.  She even does her own singing on the film’s soundtrack (and does a pretty good job of it).

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Beyond the Lights wants to be this generation’s The Bodyguard – that music-heavy romance between two unlikely people that may or may not be destined for greater love.  It even has the potential to be better than that.  With issues ranging from suicide to self-image, and from misogyny in rap to mixed-race relationships, and from paparazzi to politics, the film is positioned to go to greater depths in any of these areas in an effort to tell a better story.  Instead, it prefers to wallow in shallow gloss of the imagery its own subject falls victim to.


WILD Review: Take a Hike

December 14, 2014 3 comments

Wild PosterI have no regrets in my life.  None.  While there are times I think a different decision in my past may have resulted in a better outcome, that view is 20/20, and I have always believed the decision I went with at the time was the best one I could have gone with given the knowledge I had.  This is why I won’t be taking a cathartic, 1,000-mile hike anytime soon.  I don’t need to.  Well, there’s that … and I’m not really fond of the outdoors.  Or hiking.

The story of someone who has taken a cathartic, 1,000-mile hike is told in Wild, a film based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.  Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a woman with a bleak past.  In addition to having lost her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer at an early age and becoming estranged from her brother (Keene McRae), Cheryl developed a pair of very bad, very self-destructive habits.  One was heroin use.  The other was having sex with anyone who was interested, a problem that ultimately ended her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski).  To come to terms with her life and her life-choices, she decides to hike over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, with the hopes of finding herself along the way.

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There are two main stories being told in Wild, from director Jean-Marc Vallée.  One tells the tale of Strayed’s physical journey during the thousand-mile hike.  The other tells the tale of Strayed’s emotional journey in her past.  While the latter is the motivation for the former, the trick Vallée faces is to integrate the two in such a way that something spiritual occurs (or, at the least, some type of lessons are learned).  Sadly, those efforts fail.

Aside from the film’s brief open, which takes place well into her hike, Vallée presents Strayed’s thousand-mile journey as the main linear narrative, marked by titles on the screen in measurements of time and/or miles.  During these parts of the story, Vallée spotlights the physical struggles Strayed faces – the weight of her backpack, the extremities in weather, a shortage of water, and so on.  It is all ultimately an exercise in recording diary entries, though – a “Top Moments” collection that certainly highlights the struggles of Strayed’s journey (with very little peril, actually), but a collection without any greater sense of purpose.

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Vallée then integrates flashbacks of Strayed’s past throughout the film (some with fully developed scenes, others with only snippets of events, and others still with brief flashes of imagery), but he does so with a randomness that cripples the film.  Sure, something going on in the hiking moment might remind Strayed of a moment from her past (there isn’t always that link, however; some of Strayed’s thoughts are as random as Vallée presents them), and of course those memories aren’t going to be linear, but the sum of them never adds up to a pre-hike portrait of Strayed.  Like the hiking moments, those moments from the past are presented as a collection of things that happened over a given period of time, and nothing more.

Even Strayed’s decision to embark on the journey – that key moment in her life when past meets present – offers absolutely no greater sense of calling.  It’s just another random moment in a collection of random moments.

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This mishandling of both sides of Strayed’s tale exposes the film’s fatal flaw: Strayed’s backstory, while tragic, is (sadly) common.  Long is the list of people who have engaged in self-destructive behavior after a personal tragedy.  It is terrible what happened to Strayed, and that she pulled herself out of it (regardless of method) is deserving of praise, but Vallée never offers any sense of why Strayed’s story deserves to be told over anyone else’s … other than the fact that she walked 1,000 miles to better herself.

That takes the film full-circle to those interesting but uninspiring diary-entry scenes of Strayed’s journey.  By the end, never does Valée make a connection to how Strayed’s journey healed those old wounds.

The only thing that prevents the film from devolving any further is the level of Witherspoon’s performance.  She is in almost every scene, and while she rises to the physical challenges of the present-day hiking tale, it’s her moments in those flashbacks that shine.  That’s saying something, considering how disjointed those scenes are.

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The great challenge in adapting someone’s story for the screen is that the filmmakers might not do the story justice.  Vallée did great things with Ron Woodroof’s story in Dallas Buyers Club, a film similar to this one in that it is a true story of a protagonist with a reckless past who goes on to something loftier.  Unfortunately,Vallée doesn’t have that magic in him again.

I don’t know Strayed’s book, but given the fact it made it to print in the first place, and given the positive comments I’ve heard from friends, tells me there is a pretty good story there.  Wild isn’t that story.


FOXCATCHER Review: Surface Tension

Foxcatcher PosterYou can’t have lived your life in the greater Delaware Valley in the last century and not know the name du Pont.  The family, which emigrated to the area in 1800, has a rich and powerful history, including involvement in the Louisiana Purchase, membership in state and federal government, and, at one time (and for a long time), being the largest private employer in the state of Delaware.  With heritage measured in centuries and a fortune measured in a string of endless zeros, the family has always been ripe for scandal, and it has had its share of them.  None, though, were as shocking, or devastating, as a murder that took place on Foxcatcher Farms in 1996.

The du Pont at the center of Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher is John E. du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir to the family fortune, philanthropist, published ornithologist, and rabid amateur wrestling enthusiast.  When du Pont decides he wants to open a wrestling training facility on his estate, with the hopes of fielding a team of wrestlers to send to the 1988 Olympics, his first recruit is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), winner of Olympic wrestling gold in 1984 and younger brother of Dave (Mark Ruffalo), a fellow Olympic wrestling gold medal winner and much-sought-after wrestling coach.

As the program grows and succeeds under Mark’s leadership, he and du Pont begin to form a strong emotional bond.  But when the affluent du Pont lifestyle takes its toll on the young wrestler, the successful program begins to falter.  When that happens, du Pont, who suffers not failure, brings in Dave, creating a tenuous alpha-male triangle consisting of the financier/enthusiast, the fallen hero, and the legendary salvation.  This triangle eventually collapses under its own weight with devastating consequences: the murder of Dave Schultz by John du Pont.

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There are two scenes early in Foxcatcher that are emblematic of the film’s core, and ultimately fatal, problem.

The first scene involves Mark Schultz speaking to an auditorium of school children about being a champion and so forth, and when the school secretary writes his check, she mistakes him for Dave.  It’s an honest error; Mark was a last-minute replacement for Dave and the secretary might not have known that and might not follow amateur wrestling.  But it still stings Mark in a way that suggests he is tired of living in his brother’s shadow.

The other scene takes place when Mark is on a helicopter, en route to Foxcatcher Farms to meet du Pont for the first time.  One of du Pont’s handlers tells Mark that du Pont wanted to fly the wrestler personally, but he had been summoned by the Newtown Square (PA) police for “tactical support.”  (There is a later scene where du Pont is on a pistol range taking practice with local police.)

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Both scenes suggest the two men at the heart of the film have deep psychological issues.  Not only are those issues never addressed, they are never explored nor even substantiated.

Mark’s sense of inferiority to Dave simply doesn’t make sense, at least on the surface.  Each is a gold medalist in his own right.  And where Dave was at the end of his career, Mark was in the prime of his and already training for 1988 before du Pont entered the picture.  Yet there is no indication as to why Mark feels this way, which drives why he clings to du Pont so tightly.

For du Pont, the issues are greater in number and complexity, yet no more considered or revealed.  His attraction to law enforcement – such as it is – appears to be mentioned so as to make a weak connection to his use of a gun to kill Dave.  In fact, it feels like the combination of his penchant for police (who use guns), his unexplained yet overt patriotism (because patriots like guns), and his tenuous relationship with his oppressive mother (because guys with mommy issues are angry) all lead to his final act.  Only they don’t; they merely act as symptoms to an illness that is entirely ignored.  (Jean du Pont, John’s mother, is played by Vanessa Redgrave.)

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And it’s not as if Miller didn’t have enough time – he had 134 minutes of film.  But rather than use it to delve into the psyches of his characters and how those psyches meshed and clashed over the course of their relationships, the director takes an inordinate amount of time fawning over everything in the frame of his lens.  There isn’t a lingering establishing shot the director doesn’t love, but each extended look at things like the affluence of the du Pont residence is done to the detriment of the story.

It’s also done to the detriment of the actors, who all do great work here.  Ruffalo is in terrific form here as the family man tasked with managing relationships between (and with) his brother and du Pont, and Tatum delivers his best performance to date as the simple but easily influenced young wrestler looking to become something greater.  But it’s Carrell who is transformative as the obsessive, controlling du Pont heir.  It’s a Carrell who showed flashes of dramatic potential in last year’s The Way Way Back, but this performance – it’s other-worldly.

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A film, however, is more than stellar just acting, and while the trailers promised so much more, stellar acting is all that was delivered.  Foxcatcher will go down as my greatest disappointment of 2014.  It is a psychological drama completely devoid of psychological exploration, and buoyed only by the might of the three leads.