Film reviews round-up: Stronger, Human Flow, The Dinner, Brigsby Bear

Also: ‘Menashe’ and Christmas horror film ‘Better Watch Out’

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 07 December 2017 15:21
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The drama is based on the memoir of Jeff Bauman Jr, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing
The drama is based on the memoir of Jeff Bauman Jr, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing

Stronger (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. David Gordon Green, 119 mins, starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr, Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke

“Boston Strong” was the defiant motto the American city came up with after the bombing of the Boston marathon in 2013. The slogan is heard several times in David Gordon Green’s rousing drama based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, one of the victims of the blast, who lost both his legs.

The film is less about the bombing itself (that story was told in last year’s Patriots Day) than about the indomitable will of blue-collar, working-class Bostonians. Jeff Bauman is the everyman who (eventually) becomes a symbol for all that is best about Boston.

Stronger is also a love story. What it isn’t is remotely pretty or escapist. Director Green wants to rub our noses in the squalor and the suffering that Jeff endures after his double above the knee amputation. We see him writhing on the floor after falling off the loo seat, or stuck in the bath, or trying to pull himself across the asphalt of a car park after a row with his girlfriend.

The remarkably versatile Jake Gyllenhaal gives another outstanding performance as Jeff. Gyllenhaal has played his share of oddballs (Nightcrawler), neurotics (Nocturnal Animals), romantic leads in cowboy films (Brokeback Mountain) and dashing heroes (Prince Of Persia).

Here, he’s a likeable but feckless ordinary Joe who has a job in the food warehouse of his local Costco. When he goes out on dates, he’ll often still have chicken legs in his hair. Jeff likes to drink beer in his lucky seat in the bar, watching his beloved Boston Red Sox. He still hasn’t left home or really grown up at all. He’s a charming but infuriating slacker whose main characteristic in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is that he’s late for everything.

Jeff wants to get back together with Erin, which is why, in spite of waking up late, he hauls himself off to the finishing line of the Boston Marathon to wait for her as she finishes the race. On the one day Jeff turns up on time, a bomb is let off beside him. “Your fucking legs, they’re gone bro,” Jeff wakes up in the hospital to be told by a relative.

We know how Stronger is going to unfold. This is yet another story of American heroism and resilience in the face of terrible odds. Green, thankfully, avoids most of the glutinous sentimentality which generally comes with such a story. Instead, he takes a gritty, naturalistic approach to the subject matter.

At times, as the camera roams around the hospital waiting room where all Jeff’s relatives are bickering and swearing, the film takes on the quality of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. In one sequence, held for a very long time, the camera remains trained on Jeff’s face as he endures the agony of having his bandages ripped off from the stumps of what were his legs.

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Green is always ready to address the everyday problems that Jeff now faces. How does he get in and out of a car? How do his family get his wheelchair up a flight of stairs with him sitting in it?

Jeff isn’t always admirable or courageous; he’s prey to extreme self-pity. It’s not as if he was used to doing things for himself anyway. Even before the bomb blasted away his legs, he was doted on by his blowsy, outspoken, hard-drinking mother Patty (a vivid performance from Miranda Richardson.) Now, he has to rely even more on others.

Erin’s rekindled romance with him isn’t always straightforward either. There are hints she is staying with him partly through guilt. It was because of her that he was at the Boston Marathon in the first place. “He’s fucking wasted and covered in his own shit and I have to clean him,” she yells in exasperation at her role as his nursemaid as well as his lover.

From time to time, Jeff endures flashbacks to the chaotic moments after the bomb went off, when he was photographed being taken to the ambulance. That picture made him a celebrity. Everyone wanted to know what had become of him. He was invited to wave the flag at sports events. Even Oprah Winfrey asked for an interview.

His pre-ordained role was that of the plucky survivor, showing resilience and good humour in the face of his own suffering. It wasn’t a role Jeff always wanted to play. The filmmakers continually contrast Jeff’s public image as the face of “Boston strong” with the much more complicated reality of his domestic life as he struggles to adjust to his condition.

In the end, the film endorses the public view of Jeff as an all-American hero. The emphasis slowly shifts as Jeff accepts the way the outside world sees him and as he realises that he is helping other overcome suffering in their lives.

It’s at this point the film risks becoming trite. Everybody comes together. Jeff tells his bickering family that he wouldn’t swap them for the world. The entire city suddenly seems united. The traumatised man in the photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the bombing valiantly puts his life back together.

Of course, it was never that simple. There is something glib about the way the film delivers its inevitable upbeat ending. Stronger is at its best in its harshest moments, when it acknowledges the contradictions in its hero’s story and portrays his bitterness and self-loathing as well as his courage.

Human Flow (12A)

★★★★☆

Dir. Ai Weiwei, 140 mins, featuring: Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s magnificent documentary stands as a companion piece to the BBC’s series, Exodus: Our Journey To Europe. Both projects are epic in scale, often heartbreaking to watch, and both put the current refugee crisis in a historical and political context.

In Exodus, the refugees told their stories from the inside, with cameras given them by the producers. In Human Flow, Ai Weiwei is the godlike figure, looking into the refugees’ worlds from the outside.

One astonishing shot sums up the Chinese artist’s approach in a nutshell. We see from very high up what appears to be some abstract shapes far, far below us. The camera descends and we think it is showing us an ant colony as we see tiny mites moving in the distance. The camera continues to head downward and eventually, at ground level, plunges us into the middle of a seething, bustling refugee camp.

There is no voice-over here. Instead, intertitles will appear on screen quoting poetry and philosophical reflections on the plight of refugees; headlines from newspaper articles will be shown discreetly. There are also several interviews with politicians and NGO representatives as well as many interviews with refugees themselves, often with their backs to camera. T

he constant use of drone-operated cameras enables Ai Weiwei to show scenes of thousands of people at once, walking or on boats or packed into camps. At the same time, the film is very intimate. The Chinese artist is pictured again and again interacting with the refugees, cutting people’s hair, cooking or mingling in crowds everywhere from the “Jungle” near Calais to Lebanon, Macedonia, the isle of Lesbos and the indoor camp in the hangars at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport.

Over 20 crews worked on Human Flow, which was shot in 23 countries. The documentary could easily have seemed disjointed in the extreme, but it is edited gracefully and is easy, if frequently shocking, to watch.

Ai Weiwei is never overtly polemical. He is interested in the human stories, not in unpicking the root causes of the feuds and injustices that have led to so many millions being displaced from their homes. The majority of the refugees he shows are Muslims. He doesn’t ask why this is the case. Nor does he try to make glib connections between refugees in different parts of the world. The implicit point is that they all suffer in the same way.

At times, there is a deliberate ambiguity. One of the most striking sequences is of a tiger imprisoned in Gaza. We hear that this beautiful animal strayed into the Palestinian camp through one of the tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt. The image of the tiger confined in a tiny space so far from its natural home has an obvious metaphorical power.

At the same time, Ai Weiwei is letting us know that animals are treated better than human refugees. To get the tiger to safety in South Africa, different governments signed forms and overcame considerable bureaucratic hurdles. No-one pays this level of attention or care to the human refugees, who are ignored and marginalised.

The film captures the surrealistic and cruelly absurdist quality of the refugees’ everyday experiences. One mother talks about wandering with her child for 60 days in no particular direction, with no-one to tell her where to go. We see 13,000 refugees in a disused railway station in Macedonia as torrential rain pours down on them. They have no way of keeping dry.

Ai Weiwei is fascinated by a tiny gateway into western Europe through which apparently more than a million people have passed. There are scenes of Afghans who’ve lived for generations in Pakistan, packing all their possessions onto very unsteady looking trucks and heading home, which in their case means taking a huge leap into the unknown.

Often, the landscapes or maritime scenes are incongruously beautiful. Out of an idyllic looking moonlit sea will suddenly appear a dinghy overcrowded with desperate refugees in life jackets. Individual scenes, whether of a cow walking down the middle of a street as if it owns it or of a horse being trained in the middle of a garbage-strewn city square, have an unlikely lyricism.

Wherever he goes, Ai Weiwei always pays attention to the kids, showing them playing or getting up to mischief, seemingly oblivious to the squalor of their surroundings, or trying to make sense of the captivity in which they are forced to live.

On a logistical level alone, Human Flow is an astonishing piece of work. It is very different from TV reportage on the same subject. Ai Weiwei is offering a panoramic view of the world of the refugees. He treats these refugees with dignity and kindness, insisting on seeing every one of them as an individual with a story to tell, rather than as a part of some abstract mass of suffering humanity that those in more fortunate circumstances would far prefer to ignore.

The Dinner (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir. Oren Moverman, 120 mins, starring: Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall,

Dutch writer Herman Koch’s controversial 2009 novel Het Diner (The Dinner) was a huge bestseller in the Netherlands and internationally. The book tells of two bourgeois couples (brothers Paul and Stan and their wives) who meet in an upmarket restaurant.

As the meal progresses, after the usual small talk it becomes apparent that an act of extreme violence by their teenage sons threatens to tear their seemingly contented and privileged lives apart. The book has already inspired two other films versions in Dutch and Italian – and now it has been made as an English-language movie by Oren Moverman, with a big-name cast.

It turns out to be a very sour affair. The charisma of the two leads, Richard Gere and Steve Coogan, can’t hide the unpleasantness of the characters they are playing. Gere is Stan, a narcissistic and very shallow politician who is running for governor. He can barely stay at the table for a moment without being distracted by a call he has to take or some business matter, and is used to everybody doing his bidding.

Coogan is an embittered and misanthropic academic, jealous and resentful of his brother. He brings anger and intensity to the role but hardly a touch of the humour you expect as soon as you see him on screen. The wives (Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney) are as miserable as their husbands. The teenage sons aren’t any more pleasant, especially when they’re setting fire to a hobo.

Moverman (screenwriter of such films as I’m Not There and Love And Mercy, and also director of the excellent Time Out Of Mind) probes away in forensic fashion at the tensions between the brothers. The film also asks how far the characters will go to protect their families, and what responsibilities they’re prepared to take for their children’s actions.

You can see the points Moverman is trying to make, but it’s just a pity that the dialogue isn’t sharper and that the protagonists are so thoroughly unsympathetic. “I just don’t want to be with these people,” Coogan’s character complains early on. We know exactly how he feels.

Brigsby Bear (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir. Dave McCary, 97 mins, starring: Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins

Brigsby Bear continually confounds audience expectations. In spite of the title, this is no cuddly kids’ movie – but it does feature a giant teddy along with large helpings of whimsical and sometimes juvenile humour.

At times, it plays like a version of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, re-imagined for a social media generation. It is ingratiating and creepy by turns.

The holy innocent is James (played by comedian and co-writer, Kyle Mooney), a young man first encountered living in an underground bunker somewhere in the desert. He is not allowed to go outside because he has been told by his “parents” Ted and April that the air is toxic. (They wear gas masks if they leave the bunker.)

James spends his days watching videos of a show called Brigsby Bear and then communicating with fellow Brigsby enthusiasts on a “Brisgby fan forum”. It’s a bizarre show which plays like a clunky children’s sci-fi drama, but also contains New Age elements and instructions in advanced level mathematics.

We learn quickly that James is actually a kidnap victim, taken as a baby by Ted and April who aren’t his real parents at all. When James is sprung from captivity and reunited with his real parents, he can’t help but yearn to be back underground watching Brigsby videos. His real parents don’t seem to “get” him at all.

Ted is played in incongruously cheery and avuncular fashion by Mark Hamill. If he is a child snatcher and a bully, he’s a very goodnatured one. The other characters in the film don’t behave as expected either.

James is a curious mix of resourcefulness and naivety. He learns to his utter dismay that Brigsby isn’t real and that Ted and April made the videos themselves, and constructed the fans’ forum. He also discovers that he can make movies himself, bring the bear back to life and create a story in which Brigsby finally defeats his arch-enemy, the Sunchaser.

Just as Brigsby never gives up “even when everything is against him”, James is heroically persistent in his efforts to bring Brigsby back to the screen. It helps that he has the assistance of the detective (Greg Kinnear) who “rescued” him and who turns out to be a stagestruck, would-be actor.

The tone here oscillates wildly. One moment, it’s as if we are watching a family outdoors adventure. The next, James is being arrested as a terrorist for staging a spectacular explosion during filming for Brigsby. There is a satirical element to the film too as it depicts Brigsby becoming an online sensation and everyone assuming that the series is being made in ironic and tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Against the odds, Brigsby never descends into cynicism. The film-within-the-film that James, his family and friends makes about the bear is unexpectedly charming, with Melies-like special effects and a beguiling innocence to it.

James, the seemingly autistic and emotionally stunted hero, has the ability to touch people and to understand them in a way that his frosty psychotherapist (Claire Danes) does not.

There is something refreshing about the carefree way the filmmakers here ignore genre rules and develop their story in such eccentric and offbeat fashion. What is not clear, though, is at whom the movie is aimed. Kids will find it quirky and baffling while fans of broader comedies may be put off by its more bizarre elements. It’s stuck in some no-man’s land between the arthouse and the mainstream, between children’s drama and adult-oriented comedy. That’s bad news for the bear.

Menashe (U)

★★★★☆

Dir. Joshua Z Weinstein, 82 mins, starring: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz

Menashe is a rough gem of a film, a small-scale but delicately observed and quietly funny Yiddish-language drama, about the tribulations of a Hasidic Jewish widower in Brooklyn.

The endlessly beleaguered protagonist Menashe just can’t get his schtick together. He has a young son to whom he is devoted but there is a very real danger he won’t be allowed to keep the boy. Hasidic tradition demands the boy should have a mother and a stable family – and that’s what Menashe can’t provide

The film is reportedly inspired by the real life of its Hasidic star, Menashe Lustig. He gives a wonderful performance as the well-intentioned but bumbling and chaotic father. Menashe has a job that he does very badly in a local food store. He is in debt to his boss. The elders and his own relatives are critical of everything from how he dresses to his unorthodox behaviour. He is given a deadline to find himself a new wife and to pay off his debts.

Director Joshua Z Weinstein extracts plenty of humour from Menashe’s misfortunes. Everything the poor schmuck tries to do turns out wrong. He can’t even deliver a consignment of fish without catastrophe striking. When he approaches the community’s matchmaker and arranges a date with a recently widowed woman, the result is predictably disastrous.

Menashe is determined to prove himself a mensch by organising a memorial tribute to his late wife, but he can’t cook and he lives in a tiny apartment. He can barely raise a chicken, let alone a child. At the same time, he is a devoted father to his son Rieven. In his own erratic way, he is sweet-natured and even quite resourceful.

The film works both as a documentary-like inside view of life in New York’s close-knit, tradition-bound Hasidic community and as a stirring tale of a father who will go to almost any lengths to keep his son.

Whatever pickle he gets himself in, we can’t help but root for Menashe. We witness his humiliations in the presence of his peers but see many examples of his kindness and his attempts to do the best by his son.

Better Watch Out (15)

★☆☆☆☆

Dir. Chris Peckover, 89 mins, starring: Dacre Montgomery, Olivia DeJonge, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould

With its cynicism, violence and black humour, Better Watch Out is an antidote to the typical Christmas movie – but it is an exploitative, silly and thoroughly unpleasant affair, with a premise that defies credibility.

The film is billed as “‘Home Alone’ meets ‘Scream” and is also clearly an attempt to emulate the much slicker youth-oriented horror movies made by Jason Blum. Levi Miller plays the demonic12-year-old anti-hero Luke, who wants to get it on with his babysitter but ends up terrorising her instead.

The film completely fails to explain how or why politely spoken, slightly nerdy little Luke has turned into an adolescent psychopath or why no one has noticed before quite what a scumbag he actually is.

Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), the babysitter, is about to leave town for a new life in Pittsburgh. It’s the festive season and she is looking after little Luke while his parents go out to a party. No sooner have they left the house than the shock tactics begin. There are spiders to scare her, bricks through the window, prowlers in the grounds, a masked invader, and trip wires.

At the grimmest moments, carols or Christmas music will blast away on the soundtrack. The film, though set in the US, is Australian-made – and one or two of the young actors have an Aussie twang in their voices.

Early on, the film appears to be tongue in cheek. We are told that when you are frightened, your body releases the same dopamine as when you are aroused – one reason why horror movies are sometimes so pleasurable to watch.

The best scenes are those involving the parents – the sarcastic, acidic tongued mother (Virginia Madsen) and her browbeaten husband (Patrick Warburton) in his ridiculous Christmas tie. The parents, though, are only on screen for a few minutes. After that, we’re left in the hands of the Tom Ripley-like Luke and his best friend, Garrett (Ed Oxenbould.)

Attempts at giving the film a comic dimension are undermined by the sheer viciousness with which Luke behaves. Smashing a snowman with a baseball bat is one thing, but it’s quite another to show the same malicious glee when hitting one of Ashley’s ex-boyfriends in the head.

The filmmakers come up with some striking imagery for example, the blood of one victim mingling with yellow paint in a colourful gouache, or a gruesome but cleverly staged scene of a hanging. Overall, though, this is grim and repellent fare.

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