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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 13, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 15
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
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Emotionally austere Pete a heartbreaking inspiration
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LEAN ON PETE
Now playing


Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) has just moved to Portland, Oregon. The 15-year-old spends his summertime mornings running the streets surrounding the local horse racing track in order to stay in shape for the upcoming high school football season. His lovably affable father Ray (Travis Fimmel), more big, dopey brother than he is a protective parent, is a little down on his luck, holding down consistent employment not his forte. So when Charlie literally runs into Del (Steve Buscemi), a horse trainer in desperate need of assistance due to a bum hand, after helping him out, the teenager just up and asks for a job.

Next thing the kid knows he's helping clean out stables, washing horse trailers and making friends with Del's current stock. With no prior familiarity with horses, to Charlie's surprise he ends up becoming infatuated with a Quarter Horse named Lean on Pete. The pair bond immediately, their walks around the track's training areas a daily delight. But as eye-opening as trips to county fairs and horse racing tracks throughout Oregon and Washington might be, Charlie can't help but think Del's treatment of Pete, his constant usage of him in race after race with almost zero rest, will destroy the horse sooner rather than later, the emotional toll almost more than he can bear.

Based on the book by author Willy Vlautin, 45 Years and Weekend writer/director Andrew Haigh returns with the devastatingly evocative and hauntingly emotional Lean on Pete, a mesmerizingly austere drama filled with sincere truths that are frequently startling. What starts as a self-contained coming of age character study quickly blossoms into an impromptu road trip that that will take Charlie across the western United States, almost all of it on foot and with Pete sauntering slowly behind him. While the reasons for his leaving are better left unsaid so as not to spoil any surprises, Haigh grounds things with a deft precision that makes the teen's decision to head out on his journey, no matter how foolhardy it might be, come from a place of authentically realized truth that's heart-wrenching.

There's just so much to love. I felt like I was living inside this Pacific Northwest world Haigh had manufactured. I knew these people. I'd been to these places. I'd eaten an Elephant Ear and have jogged along the unknown back roads of the city I lived in marveling just how close the quiet countryside and the noisy cacophony of an urban downtown core could somehow coexist. I could relate to what it was Charlie and Ray were dealing with, and while my family's money troubles were never as overtly critical as theirs prove to be, I can still understand the oceanic expanse of the emotions they were swimming through as each tried their best to do the right thing for the other.

Once Charlie does start his long trek with Pete I found it impossible not to urge him forward even if he was making a huge mistake stepping out that door. From that point forward there is an observational poetic resonance that I couldn't resist. Charlie has a number of individual encounters, all of them opening up additional themes for Haigh to explore. The nature of these vignettes are varied, each spotlighting an element of the human condition that's as familiar as it is complicated. It's memorable stuff, Charlie's understanding of each situation changing and becoming more nuanced and complex as he attempts to get to his ultimate destination.

Plummer is in virtually every scene and the young actor proves to be more than up to the challenge. The King Jack and The Dinner actor delivers an extraordinarily complex performance, traveling through an emotional maelstrom with astonishing clarity. He has a scene in a hospital talking with the doctor who had been treating his father that had me clutching my armrests, the expressiveness of Plummer's reactions crushing. Later on, he has a moment with a young woman he meets on his travels that had me holding back different kind of tears, the level of kindness and compassion flowing out of the actor as the two conversed and connected while washing dishes simply sublime.

Haigh manages to get the best out of his supporting cast as well. Not just out of the familiar faces like Buscemi, Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn or Chloë Sevigny, but also out of the mass of newcomers who comprise the majority of the people Charlie comes across during his trek. Whether movie star, veteran character actor or unrecognizable novice, all feel entirely suited to the respective role they are playing, allowing the film to achieve another level of authentic resonance that significantly augments the emotional components that drive the plot onward. Best of the bunch might be Alison Elliott, her character's brief speech to Charlie near the end of the story carrying the same sort of hypnotic empathetic grace that Michael Stuhlbarg's deservedly lauded climactic monologue in Call Me by Your Name brought to that critically acclaimed Academy Award winner.

Beautifully shot with a stark sensitivity by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck (A War), Lean on Pete achieves a visual elegance that grows more expansive and expressive as it goes along. As lovely as it all looks, however, Haigh never loses sight that this is Charlie's story and his story alone. Even sudden plot turns that, unless they are familiar with Vlautin's source material, will catch almost every member of the audience by surprise only exist to add to the teenager's tale in ways that are effectively genuine. The bitter truths of life's regrets and hardships are all ones Charlie gets to look upon with a forceful clarity that is rare for a teenager to experience, his ability to persevere and still cling onto the aspirational hopes and dreams of a future adulthood that's right around the corner unforgettably inspiring.


For Pete's sake - Andrew Haigh keeps things real with Lean on Pete
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LEAN ON PETE
Now playing


I've spoken to Andrew Haigh three times now. The first time when he was in Seattle for the local premier of his sensational romantic drama Weekend about a couple of men who meet at a club, hook up for what they believe will be a one-night-stand, only to instead spend the entire weekend learning all there is to know about one another. The second time was two short years ago right before the local release of 45 Years, the superb observational drama about a married couple on the verge of celebrating their 45th anniversary who suddenly find a reason to question the validity of their relationship after a long-buried secret is literally found inside a Swiss glacier, the film garnering an Academy Award nomination for iconic actress Charlotte Rampling.

This time I caught up with Haigh via phone to talk about his Portland-set slice of Americana Lean on Pete, the filmmaker's ambitious adaptation of author Willy Vlautin's best-selling novel of the same name featuring the likes of Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn in key supporting roles. The story revolves around Charley Thompson (magnificently portrayed by newcomer Charlie Plummer), a 15-year-old kid living with his juvenile, if loving, father Ray (Travis Fimmel) in a ramshackle shack near a horse-racing track. While out jogging, he runs across local horse trainer Del (Buscemi), and after helping him out the kid is able to convince this stranger to give him a summer job as his assistant.

Things move forward from there, Charlie learning a lot about the horse racing community as he travels from fair to fair, in the process falling in something akin to love with Del's quarter horse named Lean on Pete. After having his world rocked by a variety of devastating tragedies, the teenager feels the need to try and track down his estranged aunt Margy (Alison Elliott), heading out on an impromptu road trip with the horse by his side as he attempts to track her down.

The movie is an authentic emotional marvel, moving from one spellbinding scene of truth, consequence and understanding to another. As such, I was understandably excited to have the opportunity to chat with Haigh once again about his latest motion picture. Here are some of the highlights from our all-too brief conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: Am I correct in that you discovered Willy Vlautin's novel while you were working on Weekend and then decided to marinate on it for a little while?

Andrew Haigh: Yeah. Sort of. The timeline is just a tiny bit off. I'd actually read the book right after I finished Weekend. I was able to get the rights to the story from Willy pretty quickly after that. I just loved it so much. But this was all before I made 45 Years, so we had to sit on the rights for a little while so I could go off and make that as well as try to figure out how to write a script from Willy's novel. But then I was also working on 'Looking,' so the time from when I discovered the book to the time I could get around to writing that script just kept getting longer. These things do tend to stack upon themselves after a while.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What was it that captivated you about Vlautin's novel? Why was this project you seemed so determined to return to even with so much else on your plate?

Andrew Haigh: It was just how I felt about Charlie, I suppose. I fell in love with that character, and I really found his journey both incredibly heartbreaking and tragic, but also inspiring and uplifting. His resilience in the face of so much hardship, and his determination to find some sort of comfort, I found all of that incredibly touching. After I'd read the book I kept talking to people about Charlie and I'd suddenly start to cry as if he were a real person.

I have to feel real strongly about a project in order to do it. As you observed, it takes years sometimes to get these projects off the ground. But I just loved Charlie so much. I just knew this was a story I wanted to keep hold of.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I love how your films just ooze authenticity. I always feel like I could step right through the screen and start living in them. But both Weekend and 45 Years are, in many ways, such inherently British stories. What was it like immersing yourself in Pacific Northwest culture to prepare to make Lean on Pete? It's such a uniquely American story, and yet, at the same time, you have made it feel so delicately universal.

Andrew Haigh: Oh, that's great. Thank you for saying that. I think, once I got the rights, I decided to spend a good four months up in the Pacific Northwest right around the Portland area just soaking up everything I could. We'd go into the city. We'd go out into the suburbs. We'd go out to different farms. And we would spend so much time at Portland Downs observing the horse racing and that culture, just trying to learn and understand as much as we could.

It is the little details. Those are the things you have to pick up on and learn about. Those are the things that make your film authentic. We had to go to those fairs and eat those Elephant Ears. We needed to know what they were. This was important, because it's just one of the many little details you need for the movie to work.

But each state in the U.S. is so inherently different. You have to find those differences in all those numerous environments otherwise Charlie's journey just won't work. That's why I spent a good additional four months just driving around. I drove all the way down to Denver. After that, I actually continued up going all the way to Montana. Staying in motels. Eating in diners. Camping outside. I did all that type of thing. Again, just to soak up the atmosphere a little bit. I needed to do all of that otherwise I don't think I could have written a script.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Speaking of Portland Meadows, was it difficult to get them to sign on to the film?

Andrew Haigh: It was really difficult. It was very, very touch and go for a while. There was one point where it wasn't going to happen and we were thinking about trying to go up your way to Seattle to Emerald Downs. But finally at the last moment they gave their approval although we had to change the name of the park from Portland Meadows to Portland Downs. But, I understand why it took so long. Filming on their property, especially on the backside where all the trainers are, it's rather intrusive. Yet I'm so glad they finally gave their permission. It's such an important location in the book. Shooting there just felt right. I think I would have been devastated had they not allowed us to shoot there.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, from an authenticity standpoint, I do have to give you a little bit of hard time. Charlie keeps talking about being from Spokane, WA, which just so happens to be my hometown. So what's with this 'Forest Creek High School' t-shirt that he's wearing? None of the actual high schools in Spokane would lend you a t-shirt?

Andrew Haigh: Ha! Oh no! You've ruined it! I guess I need to go back into the film and redub it. Do a little CGI on the t-shirt. [laughs] I'm going to have to blame Willy. That school is from the novel, so we can blame him. What do you think?

Sara Michelle Fetters: Works for me. [laughs] So, I knew Charlie Plummer was a decent little actor with tons of potential the first time I saw him in something. Even then, I was not remotely prepared for just how fantastic he is here. He's extraordinary.

Andrew Haigh: He's just so talented, don't you think? He really is. Just a wonderful young talent. He finds things in scenes, certain kinds of emotional levels, that I didn't even know were there. That's such a difficult thing for actors to do.

I've said this before in other interviews, but he really does remind me of Charlotte Rampling. They both try and find something unusual in a scene, something surprising. It isn't like, I'm going to cry in this scene, or I'm going to do something melodramatic in this scene, it's instead about finding something more interesting, more internal, more authentic, and I love that. I don't need to know everything what a character is feeling. In fact, I don't want to know. I just want to know something is happening behind their eyes, I want to see it there, and Charlie is incredible at that.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Those early scenes, between Charlie and Travis Fimmel, who plays his father Ray, even though we as an audience don't know a lot about the two characters and their backstory, their performance and the ease in which they interact with one another ends up telling us all we need to know.

Andrew Haigh: That's so true. For me it's always a thing that I think most movies do give away too much. In this case, you don't really need to know that stuff. Instead, it's about finding the small little details that make a relationship feel real. The fact that his dad is not a one-note character dad, that's important. He loves his son. He cares about his son. But he also isn't the best dad. He's sort of a big kid himself. More a big brother than he is Charlie's dad. It's little moments, like where Travis steals the hat off of Charlie's head. Or the stealing of food off of a plate. It's all about finding those little tiny moments that make you feel that there is a history between these people. I don't think you need the other stuff.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Do you find that, for actors like Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn, that it's become easier to convince them to appear in a little low budget drama like this one after the success you've had with Weekend, 45 Years and 'Looking'?

Andrew Haigh: I think it definitely helps. Yes. But I also think it takes a certain type of actor to pursue a role in a film like this one. These supporting roles, they're really rather odd. They drift in and out of the story at different intervals. They don't get their big dramatic endings. They don't reappear. Which, for me, is what I always found so fascinating about the story. It feels so much more true to life. People come into our lives and they drift out of our lives. They don't all always get to stay a part of our lives forever. And all of the actors understood that. They embraced that challenge. And they're all incredible. I'm so happy they all wanted to be a part of the film.

But, yeah, I never would have gotten any of them without the other movies. It certainly helps to get actors like Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny when you've had a bit of success.

Sara Michelle Fetters: When Steve Buscemi does show up, what was it like shooting those scenes with him? He's just wonderful.

Andrew Haigh: He really is. But we talked a lot about the character and his place in the film. I just didn't want him to pop up out of nowhere and have people be like, 'Oh look, that's Steve Buscemi!' I didn't want it to be this big thing. And he totally bought into that. So, when we first see him, we don't actually see him at all. We hear him. Charlie finds him. And so, even though we're introducing this new, vital character, the scene is still all about Charlie and his story.

But Steve Buscemi was just such a great presence on set. He's so thoughtful and kind as an actor. He was so generous to Charlie as an actor. I couldn't have asked for more. It was really great.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I think, for people who have never read or are unfamiliar with the book, this is an easy movie to get a false sense of security about. You really think you know where things are heading, that you know what is going to happen. Then you pull the rug out in an entirely unexpected way. Were you worried at all that, what worked so well in a book, might not work as well in movie? Were you worried you might potentially lose the audience?

Andrew Haigh: It's tricky. I believe I know what you're referring to, and I appreciate your not spoiling it for the audience. But, that moment, it's a tricky moment in the book and it's an especially tricky moment in the movie. It ends up being all about balance. It's also about how much are you willing to show. I mean, you need to show the incident, but, if you go too far, it might become exploitive or sensationalistic, and you don't want to lose the audience emotionally.

I do think, when you have a story that seems like it's about a boy and his horse, certain expectations come along with that. As such, it's really hard to change those expectations. I mean, even if the movie is called Lean on Pete, which is also the name of the horse, the story has really always been about Charlie. That's always the focus. But, yes, those changes, those shocking moments, they are tough. Figuring out what an audience can deal with and what they cannot deal with. It changes for every person. So we spent a lot of time on that scene. A lot of time.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I noticed going through the production notes, Allison Elliott isn't mentioned anywhere. Am I not supposed to mention her? Is there some sort of spoiler involving her character I'm supposed to be keeping secret?

Andrew Haigh: Well, if there was you just ruined it with that question. [laughs] But, no, we're not trying to hide anything. I just think when we were writing those production notes we just didn't want to leave any clues as to where Charlie might be ending up. But her performance and her character aren't some big secret.

And Allison is terrific, isn't she? It was such a great thing casting her for that role. There's some sort of ideal, I think, about who that character is supposed to be, and we wanted someone who could make a more grounded version of that ideal, a more complicated version of who that character might be. And Allison just does a wonderful job of that. She's very good.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Changing gears for a moment, what were the conversations between you and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck like? How did you achieve the visual look of the film, especially during that poetically lyrical midsection after Charlie hit the road?

Andrew Haigh: We talked a long time about how we wanted to feel. That was really all it was. It's all about how you get across certain emotions especially if you're not using a lot of music and there really isn't any dialogue. You're not manipulating the audience through those kinds of means, so you have to find a visual way to tell your story from that emotional perspective.

We wanted it all to feel grounded in reality. The film needed to have a beauty to it, but hopefully not in a traditional sense. We wanted there to still be a gritty feeling to it all. So, gritty but still beautiful, and doing it without pushing too hard with that visual poetry. And Magnus truly is an artist. His work speaks for itself.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I have to wrap things up, and I know I've asked you this question in both our previous two interviews, but it just feels so appropriate once again considering this is such an emotional story that really asks its audience to feel something as they watch Charlie's story play itself out. With that in mind, what do you hope people are talking about as they exit the theatre? What do you hope they are feeling?

Andrew Haigh: Those are the key questions, aren't they? It's really interesting what people are feeling and talking about after the film. For me, I always want the film to linger on in someone's mind. I want them to go home and then maybe some random image will pop in their head and they'll suddenly smile. Personally, I think the movie is about the importance of kindness, about having compassion for those that are having such difficult lives. I think that's what I would like people to take away, the thought that maybe we could all be a little bit kinder to one another.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Andrew, I lied. I do have one more quick silly question. Your first film way back when was Greek Pete. Now we have Lean on Pete. Is there going to be a capper to what is obviously a 'Pete' trilogy?

Andrew Haigh: That's hilarious. [laughs] I think there's going to have to be, don't you think? Things can't come in twos. It feels like the Universe will collapse if you don't complete the trilogy. I think at some point, maybe when I'm like 70, I'll just have to make something else with the name 'Pete' in the title. You know. For the Universe.


Unbearably tense Place monstrously entertaining
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A QUIET PLACE
Now playing


A secluded farm somewhere in America's heartland. Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) continually works augmenting his gigantic ham radio setup, constantly hoping he can amplify the signal to the point he can hopefully converse with every corner of the globe if the need were to arise. His wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) does their laundry almost entirely by hand, hanging the wet clothes out to dry constantly on edge that an unseen evil might be lurking somewhere in the cornfield. Their deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and her younger brother Marcus (Noah Jupe) play their nightly board games on the floor, rolling dice on a cushioned rug and utilizing a variety of stuffed and cloth-like tokens as playing pieces instead of utilizing anything made of more solid material.

Running around barefoot, creating pathways of softened sand in order to cushion their feet and to avoid the inadvertent rustling of leaves or the shuffling of gravel, removing most of the doors from the buildings on their property, they've done just about everything possible to reduce the sounds they might make to practically nothing. Why? Something is hunting, not just them, but all of humanity. Something drawn to sound. Something that, if it were to find them, would instantly devour them, and as this is a family of fighters each member is determined to do whatever it might take in order for all of them to survive.

Krasinski's sophomore directorial outing after the little-seen comedy-drama hybrid The Hollars, the unsettling creature feature A Quiet Place is a superlative genre gem that held me nervously spellbound for each second of its 90-minute running time. Reveling in silence, utilizing an uncomforting sound design mix that puts the viewer right into the center of the action, featuring a crackerjack score from veteran composer Marco Beltrami (Logan) that's just as much a character inside the movie as any one of the Abbotts prove to be, this is a spectacularly tense adventure that ratchets up the suspense with something akin to Hitchcock-like confidence. Krasinski hasn't just hit it out of the park, he's made a science fiction-based horror opus that's the best thing to hit theatres since 10 Cloverfield Lane snuck into theatres back in 2016. This is a strong, imaginatively spine-chilling shocker, and the less one knows about what is going to transpire before watching the greater their enjoyment quotient is likely to be.

With that being the case, I'm not going to say a heck of a lot more. I will add that the acting is terrific across the board, especially from Blunt and Simmonds. The former has long been a magnetic talent who always seems to have an uncanny ability to make any movie she's appearing in hers with what feels like very little effort. Here, Blunt mines emotional territories that are positively voluminous, Evelyn's saga a never-ending series of protectively maternal highs and lows that all revolves around her unceasing desire to see her children survive this surreal, monster-infested apocalypse. It's a masterful tour de force that builds to a ferociously compelling climax, the actress holding things together in a manner that's unquestionably divine.

Then there is Simmonds. After making her stunning debut in Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck just last year, the young newcomer once again amazes. The deaf actress conveys so much through her eyes and body language it is absolutely impossible to take one's eyes off of her. The level of rage building inside of Regan, the regret, the shame, the feeling that she is not worthy of the love her parents proclaim they are sending her direction, all of that and more comes through. But when the time comes for this little dynamo of courage and enthusiasm to become a hero, it's never a question that she'll shirk her responsibilities, especially as it pertains to protecting Marcus. Simmonds makes all of this feel genuine in a way that's heartrending, this performance a thing of beauty I was thoroughly captivated by.

Krasinski never lets up, his directorial hand moving various pieces this way and that as he plays his little cat and mouse most dangerous game with astonishing virtuosity. He allows Bryan Woods and Scott Beck's scenario the freedom it needs into order to breathe and grow, rarely allowing his imprint to feel heavy or authoritarian in a way that might dilute the constant stress the scenario inherently overflows in. Krasinski also does marvelous things with both Charlotte Bruus Christensen's (Molly's Game) eerily sumptuous cinematography and Jeffrey Beecroft's (Dances with Wolves) suitably weathered and lived-in production design, the visual allure of this opus every bit as important as the sound design and complex character constructions both prove to be. A Quiet Place is close to perfect, this monstrously entertaining chiller a nightmare-inducing smash I'm going to be screaming the praises of for many years to come.


Tensely invigorating Beirut a satisfying espionage thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BEIRUT
Now playing


Beirut. 1982. It's been ten years since former U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) was witness to senseless tragedy. Now working as a corporate negotiator, he has allowed himself to become nothing less than a chain-smoking functioning alcoholic, and while his mind is as sharp as ever, his desire to do much more than the bare minimum isn't strong. But now he's back in Beirut, and he's not so much of a drunk to not realize the 'cultural attaché,' Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike), assigned to escort him around the bombed-out city is actually a covert CIA analyst who must be working for his former best friend and diplomatic co-worker Cal Riley (Mark Pellegrino).

It soon becomes clear why Mason was summoned. CIA and Embassy officials Donald Gaines (Dean Norris), Gary Ruzak (Shea Whigham) and Ambassador Frank Whalen (Larry Pine) need him for a job, and it's one he's been asked for personally. Terrorists have taken Cal hostage, and their price for his return is the release of their leader Abu Rajal (Hicham Ouraqa) whom they believe is secretly being held by the Israelis. Mason understands the international implications of what this swap would mean for maintaining peace in the Middle East. At the same time, estranged or not, he's also equally motivated to find a way to save his friend's life. It's a quandary, and Mason is going to need all his faculties in working order if he's going to come up with a plan that will send all parties away from the negotiating table happy and ensures Cal goes back to his wife and family alive.

The espionage thriller Beirut is not based on a true story. Writer Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Star Wars: Rogue One) has fashioned his hot-button tale utilizing real places and incidents for inspiration even if the narrative itself is a fictional one. Yet Gilroy's script overflows in authenticity. Much like his work on The Bourne Identity and three of its subsequent sequels (but notably not Jason Bourne, and it showed), there is a level of tactile validity that runs through the entire story from start to finish. Like all the best fictional spy melodramas, truth must course through them in order for their crazy twists and turns to resonate. That is happily the case here.

What's great is how Gilroy utilizes so many different genre clichés and yet still finds ways to make them feel fresh. Mason is a burnout. He's a drunk. He's disheveled and has trouble putting the pieces of his life together into a finished puzzle. But while his brain might be a little weakened to all this misuse, that doesn't mean it can't be sharpened into something intellectually lethal if he's suitably motivated. Gilroy gives Mason those reasons. Not just because he's driven to help an old friend, but also because there's joy to be found in suddenly feeling useful and valuable once again. Additionally, there's another personal reason relating back to the tragedy a decade prior which makes him sit up at attention, a realization as to the part he helped play in Beirut's current situation that supplies him with extra impetuous to get the job done that might not have been there otherwise.

For Brad Anderson, the film is a triumphant return to form reminding me just how strong a filmmaker the Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9, The Machinist and Transsiberian director can be. He doesn't sensationalize the material, balancing all the different political and moralistic elements in a way that's suitably compelling. What's even better is that he allows audience members their freedom to make up their own individual minds as to what the lessons born out of this chaos, deception, turmoil and bloodshed end up being. This allows the inherent tension driving things forward to feel achingly personal, and by the time Mason started laying the groundwork for his final plan of attack I almost felt like I was just as emotionally invested in the outcome as he was.

Hamm is superb. He's like a 1980s version of a 1940s cynical American expatriate like the ones Humphrey Bogart used to play to such perfection, guys who put up a tough, drunken façade but underneath it all were still heroes willing to do whatever it took, no matter how nasty, to ensure the day was saved. Hamm saunters through the film with a world-weary bravado that's sadly understandable, the personal familial losses Mason endured during his original tenure in Beirut indisputably beyond the pale. But Hamm refuses to pity his character, doesn't allow him to descend into a state of maudlin melancholy that might have made him insufferable. Instead, there remains a roguish charm sparkling in those otherwise beleaguered eyes, and watching the actor transform that little twinkle into a determined fiery blaze is nothing short of magic.

The rest of the cast does what they can, but most of them are playing archetypes and caricatures, not fully fleshed out human beings worthy of much in the way of attention. Whigham has a few nice back and forth comedic moments with Hamm that are noteworthy, while Pellegrino has one terrific scene on a military runway where Cal watches Mason walk away for what might be the last time that's sublime. Pike also has a handful of strong individual moments, but sadly none of them add up to much, Sandy so ill-defined some of her character's actions feel more born of narrative necessity than they frustratingly do anything else.

But the movie works, sometimes brilliantly. Gilroy's script nails so many of the key elements it's hard for me to be all that angry that it isn't perfect, while Anderson directs with confidence, refusing to accelerate the pace or toss in an extra action sequence just for the sake of doing so. Instead, the pair let suspense build gradually, putting their primary character front and center for the audience to focus upon, each and every one of this man's shortcomings and insecurities on naked display for them to see. As such, watching Mason do his thing as he uses his wits and his intelligence to bring his friend home is undeniably tense, Beirut a handsomely mounted Middle Eastern Bridge of Spies I almost couldn't help but enjoy.


Funny Blockers a knowing multigenerational comedy
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BLOCKERS
Now playing


Speaking with her best friends Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) at lunch, Julie (Kathryn Newton) reveals she and her longtime boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) are planning to have sex on prom night. Not wanting to be left out, Kayla states she's going to do the same. After a little thinking, and feeling a little accidental peer pressure, Sam also goes along with losing her virginity on prom night, even though she's personally not certain the person she wants to be popping her cherry with is the guy that asked her to the big dance.

After the ladies leave for the evening in a limousine, Julie's mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) inadvertently stumbles upon text messages between the three friends cleverly talking about their secret sex pact in colorful emoji code. Joined by Kayla's overprotective father Mitchell (John Cena) and Sam's estranged dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), she decides she is going to stop her daughter from losing her virginity. The three parents head into the night not really knowing what it is they are attempting to do, their only real goal to meet up with their children and hope that their advice, no matter how misguided it might be, will lead them to make the best choice possible.

What on the surface looked like some gender-flipped American Pie but with an intrusive parental twist, the new R-rated comedy Blockers proves to be a far more intelligently stupid thing than I thought it would be. While silly, while obviously spawned from a 1980s and '90s comedic mindset that gave the world favorites like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science and the aforementioned American Pie, there is still something sweetly genuine about this motion picture that caught me by surprise. There is a knowing warmth to it all, not only amongst the interactions of its teenage cast but between its adult members, too, and while no The Edge of Seventeen or Diary of a Teenage Girl this is still a knowing, wonderfully endearing character-driven romp I'm devilishly happy I took the time to see.

The directorial debut of Pitch Perfect writer Kay Cannon, where the film excels is in how deftly it balances its two competing storylines. The parents are just as important as the teenage girls are, each half of the tale running parallel to its sibling, everything tying together during the climax in a way that is charming, humorous and emotionally pure. Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe have written a script that's shrewdly complex on a relationship level. Julie, Kayla and Sam are real friends, three people who have been there for one another through thick and thin practically from the first moment they stepped inside a kindergarten class. Yet they don't tell one another everything. They still conceal facets of who they are and what they want out of life in fear of being judged. Rightly or wrongly, as open as they are with one another, some aspects of their personality still remain hidden, and it is the ability to look beyond the known and the unknown that truly makes this trio's friendship unbreakable.

It's not quite the same for the parents. Even though their kids are BFFs, they've spent the last decade-plus doing their best to remain strangers. At least that's the case with Lisa, the single mother so wounded by past relationships she has difficulty forging friendships with others, especially men. While Mitchell would rather this wasn't the case, this Type A personality still respects the boundaries his fellow parent has established for herself. More, both adults choose to distance themselves from Hunter after his divorce from Sam's mother is finalized, never taking the time to find out what happened between the two and instead thinking the worst about him even though each knows better.

Granted, it's the parent stuff that is home to the best and the worst that the film has to offer. Some of the humor is just plain priceless. The banter between Mann, Cena and Barinholtz is strong throughout, each bringing their own sense of pace and timing, yet all three finding a way to make their differing styles mesh together in a consistently appealing manner. But it is in their story where the most misbegotten and childish pieces of this comedic puzzle also fit together, and while some of the gross-out gags provoke their fair share of belly laughs, others are just too icky and too slavishly infantile to be anything but embarrassing.

The stuff with the teenagers is also fairly wild, booze and drugs flowing freely as the three ladies throw off childhood with as much wild abandon that each is individually comfortable with. But Julie, Kayla and Sam's prom night isn't all about excess and debauchery. The real emphasis is on the young women's friendship, their sisterly bond, and it's the naturalism of their interactions that gives this story its heart. Cannon doesn't sensationalize their actions, doesn't try to transform any of the teens into some male fantasy only designed to focus their sexualized gaze upon. While the central thread revolves around the potential loss of virginity, the real point of this journey is all about fairness, equality, trust and honesty, the film ending up being all the stronger because of this.

Cena is a laugh riot, proving once again he's a force of comedic nature who also just happens to be a far more confident actor than I think he's typically given credit for. Mann is also superb, and while Lisa isn't too far removed from characters she's portrayed in films like This is 40, The Other Woman or Vacation, that does not make her performance any less divine. As for the three young newcomers portraying the daughters, all of them are excellent, Viswanathan arguably standing out the most if only for a third act scene between her and Cena that noticeably tugged at my heartstrings. Blockers is a really funny motion picture. Better, it's also an emotionally authentic one, that combination making this comedy something of a minor sensation I'm certain to be watching again soon.


Seattle comic book fan and gay author Bill Schelly
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