Coming of Age in a New Age

Back in the 1980s, the John Hughes coming-of-age flicks became a fixture of the
Cineplexes. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and others were embraced by the youth of that day – people the youth of today know as mom and dad. Since then there have been some excellent examples of the genre that are less formulaic and more heartfelt than humorous, such as Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Juno, An Education, and Thirteen, among others. One of the accomplishments of The Edge of Seventeen is it blends serious with silly to capture the highs and lows (real and imagined) that pretty much everyone faces on the way to adulthood.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is the one on the edge. She’s been an outsider at school all her life, though she was fortunate when young to find a best friend who’s stuck with her ever since, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). It’s hard for Nadine because her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is firmly in the In Crowd at school, while her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) spouts platitudes as advice even as her own life is a mess. As a substitute father figure, Nadine has latched onto her favorite teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), even though he’s not happy to be cast in the role.

Then Nadine is thrown into a crisis when Krista falls for her brother and Nadine can’t handle sharing her. Swirling around like an uncontrollable whirlpool, Nadine becomes obsessed with a boy she only knows from a distance while missing a boy who sits near her in class (Hayden Szeto).

Writer/Director/Producer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a coming-of-age story that rings true to everyone who’s survived high school. While it fits with the current generation’s more profane style – things that would have caused angst in the 1980s don’t rate a bat of an eye here – the underlying traumas that life can throw at you are all too familiar. Yet Craig leavens the traumas with a bright wit and a light directorial touch that serves the movie well.

Given a fully-formed role to play, Hailee Steinfeld slips into Nadine and gives her best performance since True Grit. At 20, Steinfeld has begun to show that she will be a major performer for many years to come, with a successful start to a recording career to go along with carrying a movie like Edge where she’s center stage in almost every scene. I would not be surprised if Steinfeld winds up an EGOT before she finishes her career.

A delight of this movie is it’s not just one excellent role in a half-baked stew. Craig has invested the other roles with heart and character, and the actors deliver wonderful embodiments of these characters. Harrelson’s scenes with Steinfeld are a particular joy to watch, and Sedgwick is first-rate as a mother with her own maturity issues. The film’s almost stolen by Hayden Szeto whose character Erwin is almost as awkward and mixed up as Steinfeld’s, though with a desert-dry sense of humor.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen. It manages to tickle your funny bone and touch your heart at the same time.

It All Adds Up

In the movie The Accountant, there’s a telling exchange between a parent whose child’s been diagnosed with autism and a clinician. The parent asks, “Can our son lead a normal life?” The clinician comes back with, “Define normal.” Autism is an umbrella diagnosis rather than a specific. How it manifests itself differs widely. It can also bring with it gifts. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found children who have autism and average IQs may have math skills far superior to non-autistic children with similar IQs. It’s believed the condition allows the autistic child to reorganize their brain. Some people who would today likely be diagnosed with autism are Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton, Amadeus Mozart, and Thomas Jefferson.

The Accountant is a quite effective thriller that plays off of this fact. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an accountant with a small practice in Illinois. In flashback we see him as a child at a center in New England for children with autism. While his parents discuss his case with the director and Christian’s brother waits in obvious boredom, Christian dumps out a puzzle and begins to quickly assemble it upside down. He gets to the end but finds a piece missing, which sends him into a frenzy. He has to finish the puzzle. Christian calms when another resident, a young girl, finds the piece and gives it to him. Other flashbacks show how his father, a Marine, taught both his children to be strong and fight for their place in the world.

Thirty years later, Christian is asked to do a forensic audit for a robotics firm that’s about to go public. A young bookkeeper, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), has discovered irregularities and has alerted the two people in charge of the firm (John Lithgow, Jean Smart). At the same time we see Brax (Jon Bernthal) threaten a European trader with death if he doesn’t stop shorting stocks on the company owned by Brax’s employer. Also concurrent, the head of financial crimes at the Treasury, Ray King (J.K. Simmons) calls one of his investigators in for a meeting. King starts by revealing he knows Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) lied about her background to get the job, omitting juvenile convictions. He offers her a chance expunged her history if she can track down a man King calls the Accountant. There are pictures of him consorting with drug cartel kingpins, organized crime bosses, and other criminal organizations, though none catch his face.

The plot of The Accountant flies along from the start like a jet plane doing an acrobatics routine with plenty of twists and turns. Writer Bill Dubuque only has two previous credits, including co-writing the screenplay for the Robert Downey Jr/Robert Duvall legal thriller The Judge, but with this original script he’s created a story that thrills but also humanizes and personalizes autism. Director Gavin O’Connor has worked as both a director and producer in film as well as TV. He directed Miracle in 2004, starring Kurt Russell, and Warrior with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, and he directed the pilot and executive produced “The Americans,” one of the best series currently on TV. He works the script with a firm and dexterous hand.

Affleck gives one of the better performances of his career as the withdrawn, honorable Wolff. He captures the oddities of the character without show or flair but with an interiorization of the person. Kendrick gives her own twist on awkward as she finds herself attracted to Wolff. She had some help preparing for the role. Her mother is an accountant and tutored her daughter in the financial aspect of the story.

The other cast members are effective in their roles, in particular Bernthal as the lethal Drax. The movie also has Jeffrey Tambor in a small but pivotal role as Wolff’s mentor and entre into the world of criminal accountancy.

You could think of The Accountant as Jason Bourne meets Rainman, with The Firm thrown in. Those aren’t bad movies to be compared to, but The Accountant actually stands strong on its own. In the future it could be the movie to which other films are compared.

A Cut Above Performance

Sometimes it takes a while for the film world to find historical stories that should have been told years ago. Two recent examples came out in 2014, seventy years after the events: The Imitation Game with the story of Alan Turning, who helped create the computer revolution with his work during WWII but who was destroyed because of his homosexuality; and Unbroken, with Louis Zamperini’s experiences at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as a POW in Japan during WWII. Now another fascinating story from WWII is finally being told in Hacksaw Ridge: the story of a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss was a Virginia farm boy who, because of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs as well as experiences when he was young, refused to carry a weapon. However, he felt convicted to help in the war effort, and became an Army medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was credited with saving 75 soldiers who were injured during a battle on top of the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts of the story, but how they’re assembled is important. Director Mel Gibson has done thrilling war stories as a director and actor, such as Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, and the war scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are effective. There’ve also been times when he’s compromised on history, especially in Braveheart where you have the Battle of Stirling Bridge take place without the bridge, which was central to the Scottish strategy. (Having Robert the Bruce consort with William Wallace even though they lived a century apart more properly is the fault of the screenwriter.) In Hacksaw Ridge Gibson, working from a script by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote several episodes of HBO’s The Pacific) and Andrew Knight, exaggerates some parts of the story while underplaying others, including some aspects of Doss’s heroism. For instance, the story presents Doss’s participation on Okinawa as his first experience of war, where he’d actually been in combat on several islands over the course of a couple of years before Okinawa. From here on I’ll focus on the movie itself, but the website History vs. Hollywood has done an excellent breakdown of what the movie gets wrong, as well as what it gets right. Warning: it is, of course, full of spoilers.

Hacksaw Ridge breaks down into three acts. In Act I we’re introduced to Doss (Andrew Garfield), a poor farm boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia. Doss’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran of the First World War, an experience that left him a broken alcoholic with a propensity for violence, often focused on his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Living with that violence along with his deep faith leads to Doss’s decision not to take up arms. By accident he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a young nurse at the local hospital, and proceeds to woo her. But the coming of the war interferes with their courtship. Act II covers Doss’s basic training, where his refusal to take up arms leads to constant conflict with his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and his trainer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Act III covers the fight on Okinawa, which was one of the most violent of the war because the island was considered Japanese soil. The Japanese suffered over a hundred thousand casualties, including boys as young as fourteen who were used as suicide bombers against tanks. It’s believe the experience during the 84 day campaign, which cost nearly 20,000 US lives, was a major factor in Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb to end the war.

What elevates the movie from simply an effective war story to a deeply powerful and thrilling experience is the performance of Garfield as Doss. His recent outings as Spider-Man were not high quality acting experiences, but with Doss Garfield fulfills the promise that was seen in his first major role as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Garfield makes Doss’s convictions not only understandable but completely believable. The convictions cost him dearly, as shown in the film, but he has the audience rooting for Doss to make it.

Weaving, Palmer, and Worthington all turn in sterling performances. Vince Vaughn, though, rises to the top with the best dramatic performance of his career. His Howell is the sharpening stone to Garfield’s steel, and the sparks that fly between them grab your attention and won’t let it go. It’s also through Vaughn that you first see the grudging respect and eventually full-fledge honor for Doss by his comrades.

While Okinawa is only a third of the film, Gibson pulls out the stops in the portrayal of the violence. It is not for the fainthearted, and some scenes, while accurate for the war, are extremely disturbing. Still, that makes the contrast to Doss’s position stronger. What brings home the reality even more, though, is the end of the movie that features clips of the real Doss talking about his experience on Hacksaw Ridge shortly before his death in 2006. Garfield’s performance squares perfectly with the real man, and that is an accomplishment.

Strange Magic

When I read Marvel Comics as a kid, Doctor Strange was never a character I followed. He’d show up regularly in other stories, a brooding character with his dark hair and high-collared cape. I never knew his origin story, so I came into seeing the movie version of Doctor Strange without a lot of expectations, other than that the cast was jam-packed with excellent actors.  They deliver, but the story also delivers both thrills and more wit and intelligence that you normally expect in a superhero movie.

In the hands of Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange is a smarter and more mature Tony Stark. Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon, and is often the case with such doctors he has a massive ego. They can’t afford any doubt in their trade. It’s good for their patients – in the opening scene he saves a man who’s been listed as dead and ready for organ harvesting – but it’s horrible for his relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an emergency room doctor and the closest thing he has to a girlfriend. Strange has it all, until an accident snatches it all from him when it ruins his hands.

Strange pursues a cure through Western medicine with maniacal obsession and at the cost of everything he has. Then a man who’d suffered paralysis but recovered (Benjamin Bratt) sends him to Nepal to pursue an Eastern answer. There he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who brings him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). The Ancient One opens his mind to the multi-verse and sorcery. But at the same time danger has arisen from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a sorcerer who has tapped into the power of the Dark World and threatens to destroy the Earth.

Writer/Director Scott Derrickson is known mostly for horror films, though ones that are a cut above the usual slasher fare (you could say). He did The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil. On the down side he directed (but didn’t write) the awful remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Derrickson had two co-writers: Jon Spaihts, who penned the Alien prequel Prometheus but who also wrote another movie out this year that looks really good, Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt; and C. Robert Cargill, who’d worked with Derrickson on Sinister. The basis for the movie is the origin comic written by Steve Ditko, who’d worked with Stan Lee to create Spiderman. It helps that Derrickson is a long-time fan of the Doctor Strange comics, and his desire to do the story justice comes through clearly in the film.

Cumberbatch is an actor that could read a phone book and have people on the edge of their seats. He throws himself into the role completely, and carries us along on the adventure. One fun bit of trivia is that Cumberbatch spent his gap year in India as a volunteer English teacher in a Buddhist monastery.

The casting of Swinton as the Ancient One did cause some backlash before the film came out. However, it has the plus side of breaking any possible racial stereotyping with the role. It makes the title more of a job title than a physical description. Ejiofor brings his own exceptional presence to the role of Mordo, a role that will grow in prominence in the sequel based on the original story line of the comics and the tag at the end of this movie.

The special effects truly are special, though they don’t overwhelm the story but instead support it. If you don’t mind the surcharge, see this one in 3D so that you can experience the full scope of the visuals. Doctor Strange had the second best opening for a Marvel origin story, behind only Iron Man. For a character outside of the five premier Marvel characters (Ironman, Spiderman, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk), that is a major accomplishment. After this movie, though, the top of the class may expand to be the six.

There are two tags during the credits, one which leads into another Marvel movie next year, and one that sets up the next Doctor Strange film.

To Serve Mankind

The idea of first contact with an alien species has been a part of science fiction for as long as there has been science fiction. H.G. Wells raised the specter of invasion and conquest with “War of the Worlds” in 1898, and that strain has continued through books and movies since, especially with the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and on up through Independence Day. On the other side, books and movies have had the aliens as an advance race come to help us, such as in the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (not the awful remake) and through to Contact. The Twilight Zone had one of its best episodes when it blended the ideas in “To Serve Mankind.” If you somehow haven’t seen that episode, I won’t spoil it. This weekend marks the arrival of Arrival, a new entry in that genre, and one of the best ever.

The movie was directed by Denis Villenueve, who has fast become one of my favorite directors. He did two of the best thrillers in recent years, Prisoners and Sicario. Now he does for science fiction what he did for thrillers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer is known mostly for horror movies such as Lights Out, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Here, working from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, he’s crafted a screenplay that thrills but also completely engages your intellect. Think of it as a more intelligent version of Contact.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a college professor whose specialty is linguistics. After a short introduction, the story begins on the day monolithic black spaceships appear in twelve locations around the world. Each country with a ship deals with them independently, though at first they share some data. After a few days, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) comes to her office. He’d worked with Banks to translate chatter from a Farsi terrorist cell, but now he wants her to figure out why the visitors have come to earth. She refuses to give him a quick answer and points out the pitfalls of language. Instead she says they must create a full lexicon for communication to avoid possibly catastrophic misunderstandings.

Weber leaves, but returns later and agrees to let Banks work her way. On the helicopter to the American site in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s in charge of the team making contact. The military has placed a wide perimeter around the ship which floats just above the ground. Nearby they’ve created a camp for investigating the aliens that’s more like a temporary military base. There’s a strong element that believes the ships in the sky are not there on a peace mission. As one character say, if they came in peace, “why did they bring twelve ships?”

Villenueve doesn’t rush the story. He gives it plenty of time to grow and breathe and sink into your mind until you’re completely involved. The portrayal of linguistics is fascinating and deep, as is the whole science of the film. Villenueve worked with scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram to ensure all the technical aspects of the story are correctly depicted.

Amy Adams is the lynchpin of the film. It’s through her eyes that we see what’s happening, and she gives one of her best performances ever. Both Renner and Whitaker are first-rate in their embodiments of their roles, as are several character actors such as Tzi Ma as Chinese General Shang and Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern.

Normally it’s dangerous to use the word “classic” when referring to a movie that has only been released this weekend. But Arrival is not a normal movie. I saw it with my adult son, and after the credits finished I asked him for his reaction. His first two words: “Holy crap!” While you’ll each have your own words for expressing reactions, it’s safe to say they’ll be along those lines. See this movie.

In Truth

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It is perhaps fitting that this quote, attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, actually comes from the preacher C.H. Spurgeon in the 1850s, while a different version was written by Jonathan Swift in 1710. If anything, the Internet has supercharged this statement. These days whole sites are dedicated to trumpeting conspiracy theories.  The truth requires thought and effort, while falsehoods only need a loud voice and no shame. And perhaps one more thing is needed – an audience who finds the falsehoods easier to live with than the truth. Denial is a powerful temptation: no, 20 kids and their teachers didn’t die at Sandy Hook, it was actors creating and excuse to wipe out the 2nd Amendment. We didn’t go to the moon, it was just special effects. And on, and on, and on.

The apex event for deniers is the Holocaust. There are multiple books, articles, websites, etc., that push the position that it didn’t happen. Instead, it was a conspiracy by the Jews to get their own homeland in Palestine, or a few people died in the camps but there was no systematic extermination, or Hitler knew nothing of what was happening and has been completely misunderstood. Many rationals, but one outcome. In the 1990s, a major voice of the deniers, British historian David Irving, filed suit against an American history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, for defamation of character in her book about Holocaust deniers. Rather than bring the suit in US where he’d have to prove libel, Irving sued in England, where the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt was put into the position of proving the Holocaust actually happened.

Now that event has come to theaters. Denial tells the story of the trial, beginning with how Irving (Timothy Spall) targets Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for his suit. Lipstadt then must navigate the arcane terrain of British jurisprudence, including dealing with both a solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), and a barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).

The story was adapted by David Hare (Damages, The Hours, The Reader) and directed by Mick Jackson. Jackson has worked mostly in television, where he won an Emmy for his direction of “Temple Grandin.” It’s been a decade and a half since he directed a feature, though in the 1990s he did L.A. Story, The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston, and a personal cheesetastic favorite of mine, 1997’s Volcano (with one of the best tag lines ever: “The Coast is Toast.”) Jackson and Hare illuminate the legal case beautifully – in the trial scenes, only the transcript of the actual testimony is used for dialogue – and they also delineate the denier mindset to make it understandable for the audience.

Weisz is excellent as Lipstadt, nailing the professor’s Queens accent along with the emotional truth of the situation. Wilkinson makes a brilliant legal mind accessible while Spall manages to humanize Irving even as he also shows his deplorable and pathetic nature. Scott is known to most these days for his portrayal of Moriarty on “Sherlock,” though as Julius he imbues the role with a steely intellectual control. There is another connection to “Sherlock” as the series co-creator and writer, Mark Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft Holmes, appears here as a historical expert on Auschwitz.

The emotional heart of the movie comes when Lipstadt and Rampton travel to Auschwitz in preparation for the trial. Seeing the scope of the camp, with a perimeter that ran for miles, along with what’s left of the gas chambers – they were dynamited by the Nazis before the camp fell to the Russians to hide the genocide – is powerful.

If anything, the problem of denial has grown greater in the years since the trial. Religion has always had trouble with Gnosticism – those who feel they have “special knowledge” to which regular people have no access. These days there’s a secular Gnosticism that shares the claim of special knowledge, even though it indulges in circular logic, and in many cases flights of intellectual fancy. I’ll end with another quote, this time from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” As Denial makes clear, it’s imperative that people such as Irving are denied any validity, for their intellectual hubris removes honor from those who have suffered and died, in truth.

Diving In Deep

The Deepwater Horizon blowout that dumped thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day for months was the worst environmental disaster in US history. Its long-term effects continue to be felt in the Gulf States. Most news focused solely on the oil spill while BP tried to cap its well along with the recovery efforts of Gulf State residents. Lost in that story, though, was the struggle to survive fought by the 100-plus people on the platform in the aftermath of the explosion. Now Mark Walberg and Peter Berg, who collaborated three years ago on Lone Survivor, bring the story of that fight to the screen in Deepwater Horizon.

Along with being a decent actor, Walberg has become an effective producer, both for his own films such as The Fighter and Lone Survivor, and shows where he stays behind the scenes like the HBO series “Entourage,” “In Treatment” and “Boardwalk Empire” as well as films like Prisoners. Berg started as an actor as well but has grown into the ultimate movie hyphenate as actor-director-producer-screenwriter (he produced the last movie I reviewed, Hell or High Water). For Deepwater Horizon Berg directed and did the small role of Mr. Skip, and Walberg executive produced along with starred.

The movie focuses on Mike Williams (Walberg), the chief electronics technician on the rig, beginning on the day he travels out to the platform to begin a multi-week tour of duty. Over breakfast, his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and he watch their daughter practice her school presentation on what her father does, using a can of soda, a sharp tube, and a honey bear to explain the drilling process, thereby giving a simple but effective primer for the audience as well. Also introduced are Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin”), who is in charge of controlling the rig’s placement, and Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the supervisor of the platform for its owners, Transocean.

The “Deepwater” in its title was descriptive, since it was a semi-submersible platform. Berg does an excellent job of explaining its operation. It wasn’t a standard platform on stilts embedded in sea bed but was actually a ship that was kept in position over the drill site through a dynamic system of propellers. In effect the Deepwater Horizon was constantly sailing in one spot 40 miles out in the Gulf. This allowed it to function in water much too deep for the standard platforms. Supplies were delivered by boat while the crew arrived and departed via helicopter.

Once we follow the characters to the platform, the seeds that grew into the disaster are on display. There’s a split in control between the operator of the platform and BP, the oil company that leased it to drill the well. (Though not highlighted, another company involved was Halliburton, which made the blowout protector placed on the ocean floor.) The well is weeks behind schedule, and Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) the main representative for BP, is pushing to get it completed. That includes bypassing expensive concrete work to secure the well. The Deepwater Horizon itself had multiple system failures that Mike Williams runs through when asked by a BP representative. As is usually the case, it’s not just one item that fails but instead a multitude of missteps that lead to the blowout.

The movie production was originally announced by main producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura in March 2011, less than a year after the disaster. The story was based on a New York Times article about what happened on the platform that fateful night. As usually happens, the movie went through several years of development hell with different directors attached to the project. Berg and Walberg came on board in early 2015, following their success with Lone Survivor, and it jumpstarted the production so they began filming within a few months. The Times article was adapted by Matthew Sand while the actual script was written by Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, The Kingdom).

The special effects and visual effects crews who worked on the movie deserve kudos for recreating the Deepwater Horizon’s destruction in a fiery, explosive maelstrom. But kudos are also deserved by the art department and set decorators who make you feel like you’re actually on the platform.

Deepwater Horizon is a thrilling piece of movie making, and it also manages to clarify the events of that April night in 2010. The cast perform their roles with restraint, and in doing so honor the real people who survived the tragedy – and those who did not. Real heroism doesn’t brag; heroes are people who do what they need to do because others are depending upon them, all the while knowing it could lead to the ultimate sacrifice.

Walberg and Berg will be back early in 2017 with their next collaboration. As with the previous two, it’s a true-life story, this time about the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m looking forward to Patriot’s Day.