Travolta, Heist Drama Not Quite Convincing Enough in 'Forger'

Directed by: Philip Martin; Runtime: 92 minutes
Grade: C-

John Travolta continues to search for the right kind of role for his maturing poise, shifting gears from a flamboyant CIA operative in From Paris With Love and a brutal mass kidnapper in Taking of Pelham 123 to a murderous, thick-accented Serbian soldier in Killing Season. There's one thing that all these films have in common, aside from lackluster critical and audience reception: Travolta plays colorful caricatures of the renegade mindset, exaggerating traits and borrowing ticks from his previous works that end up being, by and large, unconvincing. The Forger takes the tempo down a few notches by giving him a pensive, muted ex-con on an emotional journey back into the world of organized crime, one where Travolta's simply allowed to direct his dramatic talent into a genuine individual. Birdsong director Philip Martin makes the most of this patchy, unfocused heist-drama hybrid by extracting suitable performances and a flair of appreciation for the art of painting; however, even with this restrained character, it still works against a cumbersome turn from Travolta as the emotive cornerstone.

There are a lot of moving pieces in The Forger that aren't limited to its expected orchestration of an Ocean's Eleven brand of "last hoorah" heist, since the history and current conditions of imprisoned criminal Raymond J. Cutter (Travolta) tend to be equally as important. For unknown reasons at first, Cutter chooses to pull a few strings by making a phone call to a former boss, the ruthless and unpredictable Keegan (Anson Mount), to cut his sentence by ten months, even though things don't appear to be all that bad in his prison environment. His early release comes at a price: Keegan demands that he must throw together a credible forgery of a late-1800s painting -- "Woman With a Parasol", by Claude Monet -- against a highly demanding deadline, then switch it out of its museum installation. Seems like Cutter would know he'd have to repay this kindness in a big way instead of waiting out the ten months, but once it's revealed that his son, Will (an appropriately pensive Tye Sheridan), has a terminal and rapidly progressive illness, the pieces of his rationale start to fit together.

A curious, lopsided mixture of mawkish family melodrama and incremental crime-planning takes shape in The Forger, complicated by Cutter's desire to fulfill a mini bucket list for Will at the same time, forcing a lot of things to transpire in an incredibly short amount of time. Even with a different lead, it'd be difficult to buy into the legitimacy of this chronology, but Travolta's subdued, mumbling performance as Cutter doesn't do it any favors. Like this, he's essentially limited to one hardened expression and an inconsistent New England accent, over-correcting the intensity of his previous roles. Granted, Cutter has plenty of reasons to be dour, from his son's prognosis and his head-butting with his father (a cheeky, tenacious Christopher Plummer) over the conditions of his release to the uncertain demands of the counterfeit job, but Travolta's inexpressive responses to any dramatic conflicts never really underscores the character's inner turmoil. Without that dramatic anchor in such a character-driven piece, attention instead starts to wander towards the common sense of the situation, which isn't a good thing.

That's a shame, too, because the premise hiding underneath the messiness of The Forger has a nice thematic edge that occasionally stands out, mostly whenever Cutter focuses on the painting aspect of the job. Travolta might not be compelling as an ex-criminal here, someone who can victoriously bounce back during a gang beating and who can make long jumps across rooftops, but there's something that works about him as an unsuccessful painter who took to forging artwork as a lucrative outlet. Wedged between uninteresting heist machinations and heavy-handed wish fulfillment for his son, Cutter studies the nuanced brushstrokes of the original Monet work, breaks out his easel and other supplies, and starts down the path of creating a credible reproduction of a masterwork from 1875, unbelievable as it may be. His methodology makes some headway towards saving the film, adding richness to the subtle tension of the drama where he's reverently duplicating the techniques and conveyed emotion of the piece, leading one to ponder why he didn't stick with his creative endeavors considering his passion.

The lead-up to the heist itself builds very little suspense in its flow, though, weighed down by a hesitant police investigation -- equally powered with compassion and diligence by Agent Paisley (Abigail Spencer) -- and an unsurprising endgame to Will's final wishes, the consequences of The Forger's wandering, many-sided intentions. That lack of culminated anticipation can be felt throughout the job itself: it's a messy, humdrum climax in both subdued attitude and common sense, an uninteresting switcharoo event not without blunders in their strategy, execution, and general believability. Throughout, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too by depicting three generations of Cutter men who exercise aptitude and fallibility as criminals when it matters, feeding into a sneaky twist and a heartening resolution to Raymond's ordeal based on redemption and fatherly bonding. This attempt at painting a satisfying ending with broad strokes seems blissfully unaware of the phoniness dragging the big picture down, though.

Myopic, Frustrating 'Blindsided' Should've Stayed in the Dark

Directed by: Joseph Ruben; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: D

Perhaps expecting more from the quietly-released Blindsided (aka Penthouse North) was a bad idea, but it's hard not to get caught up in some of the potential with the talent involved. Michael Keaton playing a cunning gangster who's attempting to persuade a recently blinded war photojournalist, played by the delightful Michelle Monaghan, to fork over something secret and valuable? Sounds promising, if familiar, especially considering the buzz that Keaton recently earned for the addled lunacy of his performance in Birdman. Little more than a boilerplate one-location thriller emerges from Sleeping With the Enemy and The Forgotten director Joseph Ruben, though, whose idea of novelty comes in how far the film can push the audience's buttons while confronting a sightless, shell-shocked woman. An unpleasant and dopey piece of exploitation comes into view that overlooks the nuance of these characters in pursuit of shallow manipulation, mustering only trivial interest due to the dedicated performances of the central leads.

Blindsided begins by following a squad of soldiers through Afghanistan, where embedded photojournalist Sara Frost (Monaghan) captures the rigors of combat. An unfortunate situation and judgment call leads her towards a suicide bomber in an abandoned building, the explosion which leaves her permanently blinded. Cut to several years later, where Sara continues to acclimate to her new life without sight, aided by her relationship with handsome dude Ryan and a sparse, beautiful apartment high up in a New York building. On one of her rare walks out into the city, a vandal (Barry Sloane) uses her absence to plunder the home -- and assault her boyfriend -- in search of something valuable, and his failure to locate it puts Sara's life in danger by both he and his "boss", Hollander (Keaton). With Ryan's body incapacitated and bloody on the kitchen floor, Sara's left to her own devices and knowledge to get through the ordeal.

The circumstances of Sara's blindness can be frustrating due to the naivete and questionable awareness built around her combat situation, but they'd be passable for the sake of sympathizing with her had Blindsided followed through on that dramatic foundation and deepened the character. Unfortunately, the script from Obsessed and Nurse 3D writer David Loughery limits her prior history to little more than plot devices, topping off her lack of sight with post-traumatic stress not as a means of depicting her steadfastness against adversity, but as a way of merely hiding details around her and shaking Sara up where needed. Since these are the only elements that really separate Blindsided from its obvious but unmentioned inspiration, the pseudo-Hitchcockian Audrey Hepburn vehicle Wait Until Dark, it's disappointing to see something as profound as Sara's harrowing, worldly experience get wasted on superficial machinations. Come to think of it, aside from the ending, even her blindness doesn't really factor into the story's progression all that much, merely forcing her into the limitations of a powerless victim who may or may not know where something's located in the apartment.

Instead, Blindsided merely uses Sara's condition for an added layer of pity atop what's unleashed on her by two physically capable, dangerous men driven by greed and malice, and that's about it. A contemptible tone fills the classy metropolitan apartment as a result, punctuated by their torment towards the woman whom they're fully aware is blind and battle-scarred: hurling heavy objects at her feet for a loud bang, tossing her body around like a rag doll, even waterboarding her later on. Her assailants are straight-up volatile bad guys who take pleasure in both the physical and verbal attacks, producing a rather spiteful cinematic endurance run once the threats lead to more unsavory abuse and animal cruelty. Keaton turns in a menacing, loathsome performance as Hollander and Michelle Monaghan filters her innately sympathetic -- yet subtly devious -- attitude through on-the-nose blind mannerisms as Sara, yet they're both wasted on simplistic renditions of a twisted criminal and their prey respectively. Barry Sloane's brutish enforcer, whose empathy and survival instincts are manipulated by both Hollander and Sara, possibly shows more complexity than either of them.

A few mysteries remain hidden under the floorboards of Blindsided leading up to the end, about the identity of Sara's wealthy boyfriend and about the stash of riches in their apartment, but they're about as insignificant as the rest of the film's pursuits. Happenstance and contrivance make the suspense ring false as Hollander forces his way closer to revelations, putting Sara -- and the audience -- through the ringer with manipulative tactics, further pursuing that objectionable mood. Thing is, this doesn't shape into the tale of Sara's perseverance and resourcefulness that it seems to think it's becoming, or would like to become, where scenes of physical and psychological torture come across as ruthless for no other reason than shock value. Whatever significance or enjoyment there might be in rooting for Sara to gain the upper hand gets lost in a haze of fireworks, broken pots, and a woman going into labor, never managing to blindside those watching with any worthwhile surprises.

Singer Returns to X-Men In Mature, Brisk 'Days of Future Past'

Directed by: Bryan Singer; Runtime: 131 minutes
Grade: B+

Brisk pacing, teamwork, and the gray-area motivations of antagonists are some of the big benchmarks of Bryan Singer's first two X-Men films, the first of which recently celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of its theatrical debut. These strengths commanded enough attention to begin the revival of the comic-book subgenre into the thriving pop-culture machine it's become, for better and for worse, so it naturally came as a blow when Singer pulled out the third installment, the now much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, in pursuit of ... well, you know, someone something else. A desire for a follow-up to Matthew Vaughn's rebooting of the universe in X:Men: First Class opened the door for the chance to right some of those wrongs, evolving into a take on a two-issue comic story from the '80s, "Days of Future Past", deliberately built to circumvent future events that lead the universe down a dismal course. With Singer retaking the reins, which he does as a director with a darker sensibility and a less heavy-handed perspective on diversity, what results is a vigorous and consequential tabula rasa for the X-Men franchise.

Look, Days of Future Past is a comic-book movie through and through. Even within a universe involving an energy wave that transforms humans to mutants and a mind-control serum that can send mutants to do whatever someone pleases, sending a consciousness back roughly fifty years into their younger body crosses most of the franchise's remaining lines of "groundedness". As with most things, however, it depends on how the writers use those devices, and the idea of desperately changing the past to prevent the dystopian future first depicted in the film -- one of mutant mass killings and concentration camps -- justifies that element. Only instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) transporting back to the '70s, to the origin point of this perception of mutants after a murder carried out by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) on a prominent human scientist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), it's the enduring face of the franchise, the self-healing and gristly Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who travels back into his younger form with her aid to persuade Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to help prevent this war between species from ever happening ... by stopping their old friend and comrade.

Penned largely by Last Stand writer/producer Simon Kinberg, who himself has claimed that mistakes needed to be made right in the cinematic X-Men universe, Days of Future Past establishes a bleak pathway for the future of mutants in a way that gets everyone up to speed without absolutely needing a refresher on either Singer's X-Men mythology or Vaughn's retooled origin story in First Class. Naturally, it helps to have those previous installments for an emotional foundation, especially in the complicated relationship between the young iterations of Xavier, Erik, and Mystique in the aftermath of events that sent them in diverging ideological directions. Singer gives the audience almost all the tools they need without relying on those previous films like a sequel crutch, though, from quick flashbacks to emotional reunions and a clear emphasis on the reason that humanity's war against mutants -- driven by near-invincible murder machines, called sentinels -- came about. Balancing all those components proves to be a tricky endeavor; however, Singer and his writers are not only up to the task, but embrace the opportunity.

Similar to what Vaughn -- also one of the story's writers -- accomplished in First Class by involving mutants in the events of the '60s Cuba conflict, Days of Future Past smartly uses the Vietnam War-era setting to propel the story's momentum and deepen the characters through the time-travel. Hugh Jackman's vascular, charismatically grumpy turn as Logan flexes some more pensive muscle as a version of the character burdened by heavy losses and the rigors of a genocidal war against undefeatable foes, while James McAvoy embodies a wayward, self-medicating iteration of Professor X who's lost even more after the events in Cuba during his era's own static conflict. Against the backdrop of wartime protests and the fear-mongering involved with preventing further casualties with militaristic control, the layers involved with the story's ten-year progression in time weave together with a burgeoning dread of what mutants could do if unchecked. That ties into the pervasive theme of fearing the abnormal from Singer's older X-Men films, only not nearly as on-the-nose in its allegory to modern diversity struggles.

Nitpicks are to be found in Days of Future Past, naturally, hiccups in logic within the numerous superpowers and the time-traveling, but director Singer orchestrates the crossing paths and grandiose set-pieces with a real appreciation for the scope, wonder, and danger behind the mutants' abilities. He brings back cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel to recapture the expressive visual language and kinetic energy of the first two films, juxtaposing the future's desolate atmosphere of purple neon and shadowy cobalt blue with the warmth and gravitas of the '70s. Immersive computer-generated effects involving the morphing, relentless forces of the sentinels and the malleable powers of Michael Fassbender's dark-gray machinations as Magneto provide many stunning displays of prowess, while a gleefully outlandish sequence featuring Evan Peters as the lightning-fast Quicksilver almost steals the show, brilliantly using slow-motion and particle effects. The action at work here isn't just a rehash of previous films, either: Singer and his writers explore clever, menacing uses for the mutants' powers, from controlling bullets to creating teleportation portals and blasting aircraft in the sky.

A vigorous, inspired hybrid of superhuman subterfuge and blockbuster spectacle takes shape, but Singer also understands the core of what really ups the stakes in Days of Future Past: the melancholy tipping points between defeat and victory, hinged on the determination of the characters to forge a better future and the ability to empathize with why certain villains might do what they do. Very little disposable content emerges in its two-hour rush against the clock, where every explosion and brush with danger crafts an intelligently bittersweet tone, centered on the irreconcilable clash over the next steps for mutants in society -- cooperative or domineering -- as Logan's window of opportunity nears its close. To be expected from time-travel movies of this type, nothing remains the same once the events in the past take hold, forcing an alternate universe into existence following an uproarious, crowd-pleasing ending. There's no telling where things might head with zero baggage and endless opportunities to explore untapped potential, something Singer affords the X-Men franchise in his triumphant return.

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