The Company You Keep
Jim Grant (Redford), a civil rights lawyer, had once been a member of the activist group Weather Underground, but has since gone incognito after a botched bank heist ended with the killing of a security guard over thirty years ago. Other members of the group also assumed a false name. When FBI agents arrest one of the members, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), Grant realizes that he might be the next one captured by FBI agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard), so he drops his 11-year-old daughter (Jacqueline Evancho) off at his brother's place and goes on the run from the authorities. He reunites with the other members of Weather Underground, namely, Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins), Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) and Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte). Meanwhile, an ambitious young journalist, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), investigates the connection between Grant and Solarz after he learns Grant's real name and his participation in the Weather Underground. The deeper that Shepard digs throughout his investigation, the more he realizes that there's more to the story than meets the eye, especially given what police honcho Harry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson) tells him, which won't be spoiled here.
The Company You Keep can best be described as a slow-burn political thriller with a few minor missteps that make it fall short of being new classic. Those shortcomings include underdeveloped, somewhat distracting subplots such as one involving a romance between Shepard and Osborne's daughter (Brit Marling), and the clunky, convoluted ways that certain twists become revealed later in the second act. Despite those shortcomings, The Company You Keep, is much more intelligent than your average modern-day thriller because it favors character development over action sequences. It's safe to say that the film is a true ensemble in the sense that every actor and actress gets his or her chance to shine, and plays an integral role in the story. Kudos to casting directors Avy Kaufman and Maureen Webb for selecting such a superb, talented cast. Seeing those actors work together is among the film’s many pleasures.
Director Robert Redford and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have woven a quietly suspenseful thriller that's complex without being too complicated or hard-to-follow. Not only are the performances solid all across the board, just as expected, but the characters hold your interest because they're not cartoonish or simple. Grant, Shepard and even police chief Osborne each has plenty of moral ambiguity, and there's room for interpretation. You may like them one minute, but dislike them the next which makes them all the more compelling as characters. While the screenplay doesn't really have crackerjack dialogue, depth or memorable lines, the actors' performances compensate for the screenplay's weaknesses or holes and, more often than not, make you forget them completely. The top-notch cinematography and musical score also help to further enrich the film and to raise it well above mediocrity.
Playing at the Film Forum starting Wednesday, April 3rd is the doc André Gregory: Before and After Dinner, directed by Cindy Kleine, André Gregory's wife, and distributed by Cinema Guild. Throughout the film, Gregory discusses his childhood, the relationship with his parents, how he met and fell in love with his current wife, his process working with actors as a theater director, and the dynamics between him and his longtime friend/collaborate, Wallace Shawn, whom you may remember from My Dinner With André. He comes across as a candid, perceptive, funny, intelligent and witty mench. Not only does he get naked, figuratively speaking, via his thoughts and feelings here, but also literally in one scene where he bares his body. Emotional nakedness is probably the most challenging form of nakedness, so it makes sense that his beloved wife is the one who points the camera at him and asks him quite personal questions. The most fascinating bit among all of André's revelations is that his father, a Jew, might have aided the Nazis. In some ways, this doc seems like it serves as a form therapy or catharsis for him, but in other ways, it's a warm, tender and thoughtful glimpse of André Gregory behind the curtain, so-to-speak, warts-and-all. By the end of the doc, you'll feel like you've gotten to know him as a human being, and you'll be glad to have spent 1 hour and 48 minutes listening to him. A doc that comes close to the level of warts-and-all, but not quite, is Bert Stern: Original Madman opening at the Cinema Village through First Run Features. Bert Stern certainly undeniable talent for photography as is evident by the many archival photographs and ads displayed here. He's responsible for that iconic photo of actress Sue Lyon sucking on a lolipop while wearing heart-shaped glasses for Lolita movie ad. Director Shannah Laumeister gives you a highly entertaining reader's digest version of Stern's rise to fame, his fall to poverty and drug addiction, and his comeback. Stern comes across as articulate, but he doesn't reveal enough that would make this rise above a TV doc for BRAVO. He does briefly discusses his addiction, and talks openly his constant love of beautiful women throughout his life, which makes him seem somewhat shallow. Laumeister misses the chance to add more meat on this doc's bones when she doesn't ask Stern to elaborate on what makes a truly good photograph. For those of you who interested in historical documentaries, there are two of them opening this week. One of them is Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922opening at the Quad Cinema via Proteus, Inc. Director Maria Iliou deftly weaves talking heads with archival footage to chart the destruction of a truly cosmopolitan city, Smyrna, in the early 20th Century. What made it cosmopolitan? It mixed Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Muslims and Levantines side by side in quarters throughout the city. The economy flourished, and there was plenty of diversity, peace and harmony. Iliou provides you with an coherent history of the ancient city and riveting descriptions of its destruction that culminated Greco-Turkish War. Moreover, via interviews with author Giles Milton and second and third generation descendants from Smyrna, it also celebrates how vibrant the culture in Smyrna was before the war broke out. The doc serves as a vital, heartbreaking and informative history lesson as well as a cautionary tale.
Oona (Bridget Collins) arrives at her recently-deceased mother's cottage located off the southern coast of England. She cleans up the place in hopes of selling it. When a homeless man, Mani (Adeel Akhtar), trespasses into the cottage expecting it to be empty, Oona kicks him out, but not before he happens to leave his art sketchbook. Her hostility towards him gradually evolves into a unexpected friendship that changes both of their lives.
Co-writers/directors Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal explore the themes of grief, compassion, friendship, kindness and love in its platonic form. The gentle, sweet and understated way in which they explore those themes is what makes Stranger Things so beautiful and quietly moving. It takes roughly 20 minutes or so for you to get totally engrossed in the minimalist plot as you wonder in which direction it will be going. It could have easily turned into horror film had Mani been malevolent, but, lo and behold, there are no bad guys to be found her.
Burke and Eyal trust that you're intelligent enough to piece together the backstory involving Oona and her mother, rather than have you spoon-fed the info all at once. They wisely cast two actors, Bridget Collins and Adeel Akhtar, who give natural performances that never go over-the-top. Both actors have highly expressive, interesting faces that speak volumes even when they're silent. Some comic relief would have been beneficial because much of the film feels a bit dry, although there's plenty of warmth and humanism to compensate for the dryness. Moreover, the picturesque southern England setting becomes a character in itself. Fortunately, the film ends after 1 hour and 17 minutes because if it were any longer, it would have overstayed its welcome and started dragging a lot.