River of Dreams

The Peanut Butter Falcon

by George Wolf

Zack Gottsagen wanted to be a movie star.

Filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz told Zack there just weren’t many roles available for actors with Down Syndrome.

He asked if they could write him one.

The result is The Peanut Butter Falcon, an irresistibly endearing adventure powered by an unwavering sincerity and a top flight ensemble that is completely committed to propping it up.

Zak (a terrific Gottsagen), getting an assist from his elderly roommate (Bruce Dern), makes a successful break from his nursing home quarters with a mission in mind: finding the wrestling school run by his idol, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).

Tyler (Shia LeBeouf) is also running – from a big debt to a small time tough guy (John Hawkes) – and when Zak stows away on Tyler’s rickety boat, the two embrace life on the lam as Zak’s case worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) slowly closes in.

The quest carries obvious parallels to the real Zack’s Hollywood ambitions, and the Nilson/Schwartz directing team lovingly frames it as a swamp-ridden fable full of Mark Twain homages.

You get the sense early on that this is the type of material that would crumble if any actor betrayed authenticity for even a moment. It also isn’t long before you’re confident that isn’t going to happen here.

LeBeouf is tremendous as the wayward rogue whose inner pain is soothed by his bond with the stubbornly optimistic Zak. The chemistry is unmistakable, and ultimately strong enough to welcome the arrival of Johnson, who gives her Eleanor layers enough to embody our fears of the “real world” puncturing this fairy tale.

The surrounding ensemble (including Jon Bernthal and real-life wrestling vets Mick Foley and Jake “the Snake” Roberts) and rootsy soundtrack color in the last spaces of a world wrestling with convention.

Sure, you’ll find glimpses of feel good cliches. What you won’t find is condescension, or the feeling that anything here – from the characters or the filmmakers alike – is an act of charity.

Often similar to last year’s Shoplifters, The Peanut Butter Falcon is all about embracing family where you find it.

Following a dream, Zak finds it. And we feel it.

Battle Scars

Man Down

by George Wolf

Before it makes a hard left turn down Lifetime Lane, Man Down sets a decent hook. The cast is uniformly splendid, while director/co-writer Dito Montiel displays some effective understatement in the early going, establishing a confidence in the destination that he can’t quite reward.

Shia LeBeouf is outstanding as Gabriel Drummer, a Marine searching for his son in a near future ravaged by some manner of deadly outbreak. Teamed with fellow Marine and boyhood buddy Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), Gabriel scours the terrain for any survivor who might have seen his little boy.

Slowly, Montiel weaves in the backstory, with flashbacks to bootcamp, a happy home life with wife Natalie (Kate Mara), dangerous patrols in Afghanistan and sessions with a Marine counselor (Gary Oldman) who gently pushes a shaken Gabriel to talk about “the incident.”

LeBeouf, regardless of his personal antics, can deliver the goods. Though his character’s arc isn’t presented in linear fashion, LaBeouf mines the resonant layers. Gabriel’s early naivete, hardened intensity and haunted conscience are all fleshed out, while the separate angles LaBeouf  employs in intimate scenes with Mara and Oldman (both stellar) buoy all three performances.

Montiel (Fighting, Robin Williams’s final film Boulevard) again has fine intentions, but is too content to satisfy them with dated predictability. What he’s saying isn’t new, and how he’s saying it is even less so. You’ll most likely guess one major plot revelation early on, then sense the other coming with an “are we going there – yes, I guess we’re going there” type of dread.

There are interesting characters here and fine actors to inhabit them. They just need somewhere equally interesting to go.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 

 





Mr. Furyous

 

Fury

by George Wolf

“See that? That’s an entire city on fire.”

It is World War II, and grizzled combat vet Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is teaching scared rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) about the horrors of battle.

Fury is hardly the first movie to use a naive soldier as an extension of the audience, and that metaphor is just one of the familiar devices the film leans on to craft a competent, if not exactly groundbreaking, drama of war.

Collier leads a 5-man Sherman Tank crew which also includes “Bible” (Shia LeBeouf),  “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal). Deep inside Germany, their combat prowess earns the team a mission with mighty long odds. On their own, they must cut off an entire Nazi regiment before it reaches a defenseless Allied supply station.

Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) presents powerful battle scenes, frequently gripping and bursting with ugly brutality. Less successful are Ayers’s attempts at the humanity the story needs to cut deeper.

The confines of the tank are a good start, as we feel a bond with the five men simply from the claustrophobic closeups. But as the combat scenes stack up, the character development is reduced to quick sketches we’ve seen before.

The scripture-quoting marksman (Saving Private Ryan), the greenhorn not meant for the battlefield (Full Metal Jacket) and the facially scarred taskmaster (Platoon) are all here, instantly familiar and throwing roadblocks into Fury‘s attempt to reach higher ground.

Pitt is fantastic in the lead, with solid support from all his co-stars. Lerman’s effective naïveté, when thrown beside four eager members of an actual killing machine, creates a stark moral ambiguity that lingers, even if Norman’s transformation from “boy to man” is a bit lacking in subtlety.

Same goes for turning “Wardaddy” into a mythic G.I. Superjoe. Pitt has the chops that could have delivered on the chance to peek inside his character’s psyche, but it doesn’t come.

Instead, though the film’s final standoff definitely delivers the tension, Fury can’t go out in the blaze of glory it aimed for.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars