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Films I Neglected To Review: A Friend In Deed
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "No Man's Land," "Our Friend," "The Salt of Tears" and "The White Tiger."

If good intentions were the only thing required to make a successful movie, "No Man's Land" would be an absolute must-see. Alas, there are numerous other elements that go into making such a thing and it is there that the film ultimately comes up short. The focus of the film is Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Davi Barraza), who, as the film opens, is about to leave his family's ranch on the Texas/Mexico border for the greener pastures of New York City. Because of the ranch's proximity to the border, immigrants from Mexico are frequently found using it as part of their crossing to America, much to the disdain and consternation of his parents (Frank Grillo and Andie MacDowell) and brother Lucas (Alex MacNicoll). While detaining yet another group one night, tensions boil over and Jackson winds up shooting a young Mexican boy to death. While Jackson's dad tries to take the blame for the shooting, the investigating Texas Ranger (George Lopez) sees right through it and when he comes to arrest Jackson for the crime, Jackson flees on horseback across the border into Mexico. There, he begins to make his way to the town where the dead child was from to offer his apologies to the boy's family and as he goes about his journey, it starts to dawn on him that Mexicans Are People Too. Meanwhile, the boy's dad (Jorge Jimenez) is pursuing Jackson in order to gain revenge, employing the violent and hotheaded coyote (Andres Delgado) who instigated the fatal incident in the first place.

Between the elegiac cinematography from Juan Pablo Ramirez, an opening shot that is a direct homage to "The Wild Bunch" and the revelation that Jackson's horse is named Sundance, it doesn't take too long to figure out that director Connor Allyn (Jake's brother) is aching to create modern-day Western--emphasis on the capital "W"--and in terms of the most basic surface details, it is a success. It is when the film tries to be a little deeper that it begins to reveal just how shallow it really is. Watching Jackson being forced to confront the prejudices that he had been raised with for his entire life while at the same time wrestling with the real sense of guilt over his actions (there is a scene taking place the fatal confrontation that suggests that his feelings are not quite as set in stone as those of his fellow family members) is a potentially interesting setup but the film doesn't really have much of anything to say about Jake and his gradual sense of understanding and after a while, his quest begins to feel more like a series of screenplay contrivances than anything else. Most of the performances are pretty good--Lopez, in a non-comedic turn, is actually the best of the bunch--and the film certainly has its heart in the right place but "No Man's Land" just goes on too long without having anything fresh or insightful to say. Viewers would be better off seeking out "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," the 2005 modern-day Western from Tommy Lee Jones that presented a superficially similar narrative but with more sincerely felt emotion and meaning (not to mention a welcome sense of humor) than this one is able to muster.

As a rule, I tend to not be much of a fan of cinematic tearjerkers and the sometime obscene lengths that they will go to in order to provoke emotional reactions from viewers, especially when they are clearly being deployed because the filmmakers have failed to earn those sentiments on their own. As a result, I find myself impressed when a movie along such lines comes along that actually earns its sentimental moments and "Our Friend" is that type of film. Based on a true story, it chronicles the friendship between married couple Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matthew (Casey Affleck) and their best friend, the sweet-but-aimless Dane (Jason Segel) and how the latter comes to their aid when Nicole is stricken with cancer, selflessly helping out with everything from cooking to watching their two young daughters as they all prepare for the inevitable. If you think that I have given a huge plot detail away, I have not since the film itself begins with Matthew and Nicole breaking the news that she does not have long to live to their kids and then pingpongs back and forth in time to present scenes from the earlier days of their friendship as a way of helping to illustrate why someone would essentially put their entire life on hold in order to help see people what is unquestionably the worst portion of their lives.

As you can probably guess, "Our Friend" is not exactly a barrel of laughs (though there are moments of wit and charm scattered throughout) but it is not the unrelenting parade of misery and gloom that one might suspect. This is because the film, written by Brad Inglesby (inspired by a magazine article by the real Matt Teague) and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is structured in a way that shows that it is clearly more interested in making a film about the friendship than in making a film about the disease. This may frustrate those who are looking for the big melodramatic moments that are usually found in films like this but their absence is more than compensated by the performances from the three leads, all of whom do some of their best and most nuanced work of their respective careers here. Although the film sort of stumbles a bit in the beginning in its attempts to establish how Dane became friends with Nicole and Matt (which is by far its most glaring flaw), the three demonstrate a natural chemistry towards each other that helps to sell their relationships and make the big emotional payoffs truly work for a change. I also appreciated the fact that while the film may sound familiar in the broad strokes, it does not approach the material in the standard manner--you may roll your eyes at one point when Nicole announces a bucket list of things she wants to do but even this aspect is handled in a more realistic manner than usual. (I will just say this is perhaps the one time I have ever been happy to not see Katy Perry turn up in a film.) "Our Friend" may be a bit on the bleak and overly emotional side but it earns those emotions with a smart screenplay and good performances to the degree that even the most cynical of viewers may find it getting a little dusty in the room where they are watching it towards the end.

Philippe Garrell has been directing features for more than a half-century by now--most of them (at least the ones that I have seen) dealing with the vagaries of the human heart and centered on relationships involving impossibly attractive Europeans. I confess to being somewhat mixed on his output--for every film of his that I have admired like "A Burning Hot Summer" (2011) or "Lover for a Day" (2017), there is one like "In the Shadow of Women" (2015) that is so aggravating that you almost want to slap the projectionist when it is all over. His latest work is "The Salt of Tears," a depiction of the romantic travails of a spectacularly self-involved twerp that is as excruciatingly annoying of a film as he, or anyone else, has made in recent times. Luc (Logann Antuofermo) is a provincial putz who arrives in Paris to take his entrance exam for a top carpentry school--better to follow in the footsteps of his beloved father (Andre Wilms)--and immediately hits on Djemilla (Oulaya Amamra), a sweet young woman he meets at the bus stop. She is instantly and totally besotted by him but once she balks at going all the way when they do get into bed together, he takes off and when she takes the train to go see him later, he cruelly bails on her and leaves her crestfallen and alone in a hotel bar, crying before an understanding bartender who has seen it all before. The film then follows Luc through two further romantic misadventures, one with Genevieve (Louise Chevillote) that ends in a manner that makes his handling of Djemilla seem gentle and dignified by comparison, and one with Betsy (Soulheila Yacoub) that finds him at long last receiving a taste of his own medicine, a twist which is, of course, escalated here to the level of grand tragedy.

I suppose that I could imagine an interesting and thought-provoking movie being made out of the narrative elements that I have cited above. That movie, however, would bear virtually no resemblance to "The Salt of Tears" because to do that would require some degree of insight into the human condition that is strangely and utterly absent here--this is a film that appears to have been made by, for and about people whose sum total of knowledge about relationships comes from terrible movies about wanly handsome and absurdly entitled young men and the women who unaccountably all but swoon in his presence. None of the characters demonstrate anything reselling a personality--the only thing they all have in common is an inexplicable love for Luc (Luc included)--and since he is as one-dimensional of a character as can be, the fact that the women fall so quickly and completely for him make them come across like knuckleheads since he looks like the kind of guy who you would go to great lengths to avoid standing behind while waiting in line for coffee. There were moments when I began to suspect that Garrell was actually doing an extra-dry satirical roasting of this kind of cinematic storytelling--both from himself and others--but the combination of the total lack of self-awareness and the fact that we are evidently supposed to genuinely feel for Luc during the tragic finale would seem to nip that notion in the bud. As insufferable as it is insubstantial, "The Salt of Tears" is a work so smug, pointless and vapid that I can easily imagine Zach Braff rushing out to acquire the remake rights.

After establishing himself as one of the most intriguing filmmakers of the new millennium with such acclaimed works as "Man Push Cart" (2005), "Chop Shop" (2007), "Goodbye Solo" (2008) and "99 Homes" (2014), writer-director Ramin Bahrani had a major stumble with an ill-conceived and poorly-received take on Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" (2018) that represented the first flat-out bad and misguided work of his career. However, any fans of his who might have worried about the effect that this misstep might have on his career need not panic because his latest work, "The White Tiger," is as boldly ambitious and smartly executed as anything that he has done to date. Adapting the novel by Aravind Adiga, he introduces us to Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a slick social climber who recounts the tale of how he rose from growing up in an impoverished village to becoming a slick and powerful entrepreneur in Bangalore. We see him go from a smart boy whose chance at formal education is cruelly snatched from him to getting a job as the driver for Ashok (Raijkummar Rao), the Westernized son of his village's rich and brutal landlord. Once inside, he continues to hustle his way upward until he gets assigned to go to Delhi with Ashok and his American wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). For a while, Balram thinks that things are pretty good but when a tragedy reveals not only how precarious his position really is but just how completely he has assimilated the servant mindset, it sets him to work on a plan to break free of that mentality and become his own person at last, no matter what the cost to himself and anyone who gets in his way.

Some of you may be getting a certain "Slumdog Millionaire" vibe from the above description but, as Balram proclaims in an especially stinging aside, "Don't think for a second that there's a billion-rupee gameshow you can win to get out of it." As Balram's tale unfolds, he proves to be more Sammy Glick than Horatio Alger and what initially seems to be an inspirational tale takes on darker and more complex shadings as Balram's inner ruthlessness and desire to get a ahead leads him to increasingly morally and ethically dubious acts, only to still face both the in-your-face cruelty of Ashok's family and the more subtle form of condescension demonstrated by Ashok and Pinky. All of this is beautifully conveyed by Bahrani's fast-paced and snarkily self-aware narrative (if one has to compare it to a Danny Boyle film, it comes much closer to approximating "Trainspotting" than "Slumdog Millionaire") and the strong lead performance from Gouray, who nails all the complexities of Balram so that you are simultaneously rooting for him to succeed and appalled by the lengths that he is willing to go to get ahead. "The White Tiger" only really stumbles towards the last 20 minutes or so, which feel a bit too rushed for their own good. Beyond that, this is a film that is entertaining and provocative in equal measure and serves as proof that Ramin Bahrani, after that one misstep, is once again back in top form.

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originally posted: 01/22/21 02:28:43
last updated: 01/22/21 02:44:38
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