Transamerica flawed yet compelling
By Lady Liberty
** out of ****
I like Bruce Willis, and have for years. But let's be realistic, folks: he's getting older and is no longer the action hero-type he was in the Diehard movies. After having recently seen Harrison Ford try to play younger than he is in the sub-par thriller Firewall, I wasn't hopeful for an action movie in which Willis played another cop. But as I said, I like Bruce Willis and so I gave it a shot. I'm pleased to report that 16 Blocks avoided the mistakes made by Firewall, and as at least partly as a result was a much better movie.
New York City Detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) isn't anywhere near the cop he used to be. He's surly and inattentive. He's out of shape. And he drinks. A lot. But the brotherhood of men in blue does what it can to keep him from actively doing any harm even as it gives him make-work assignments to get him to retirement age and a full pension. That's how it is that Mosley, after a long night on the job, is given one last chore before he heads home for the day: He is to escort Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) a mere 16 blocks from the police station to the courthouse to testify before a grand jury.
It's only 8 o'clock in the morning, and Bunker doesn't have to be to the courthouse until 10:00 a.m. But Mosley is tired and wants to go home, and he's not thrilled with the last minute orders from his lieutenant. He heads immediately to holding to pick up his charge so that he can deliver the man to the assistant DA (Brenda Pressley) and go home sooner rather than later.
As it turns out, Bunker isn't just a petty criminal with a lengthy rap sheet. He's a non-stop and very annoying talker as well. Patience isn't Mosley's strong suit, so mere blocks from the station he stops at a liquor store to pick up a bottle to help him make it through the morning. As Mosley leaves the liquor store, bottle in hand, he draws his weapon and fires a deadly shot just in time to stop someone from killing Bunker as he cowers in the back seat of the police car.
Other cops arrive shortly thereafter to secure the scene, among them Mosley's former partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse) and several of his men. Strangely enough, Bunker reacts badly to seeing Nugent's crew and, before Mosley can do more than note the strange behavior, Nugent pulls him aside and explains the situation to him. It seems that Bunker is set to testify against a cop, and his testimony could bring down several other officers as well. Mosley listens while Nugent explains that it's important Bunker not testify, and that all Mosley needs to do is what he always does: walk away.
But as Nugent's men prepare to take Bunker down, Mosley discovers that he's not yet ready to give up the last shreds of the decent cop — or man — he used to be. With that decision, the race is on with one cop alone trying to get a witness safely into a courtroom while other cops are determined to do anything and everything they can to stop him from doing the right thing.
Bruce Willis actually looks much better in real life (at least according to magazine photos and TV interviews) than he does in this movie. Detective Mosley wears a weathered face and a bit of a pot belly, and he nurses a bum leg. But those handicaps of age limit what physical measures his character can take, and as such, Willis is more than capable of believably executing all of the action. And make no mistake — older actor or not, there's plenty of action to be had here! Added kudos go to Willis who's willing to appear unkempt for the sake of believability.
Mos Def, who first gained fame in the world of hip hop music, is a surprisingly capable actor. His fear is palpable under a veneer of sunny patter, and it takes a pretty good actor to convey such mixed emotions, something he does very well. David Morse is convincingly creepy as a cop whose blind pursuit of his own definitions of justice leads him to be at least as bad as the bad guys he's spent his career pursuing; supporting actors Casey Sander (who plays captain Gruber) and Jenna Stern (Diane) offer solid performances in limited roles.
Director Richard Donner (who brought us the underrated Timeline and the popular Lethal Weapon franchise) does a good job here of conveying the gritty world of cops, robbers, and New Yorkers who eke out a living day by day. The script, too, is good. Characters speak their lines naturally not only because the acting is good but because the lines are real and believable for their characters (something that's all too often lacking in more mediocre screenplays these days). Unfortunately, the suspense peaks below where it should, and the plot twists are marred by predictability in just enough instances to deflate the point of the surprise.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that the movie takes place in real time, and there's just too much going on for the audience to buy into the timeline. That, in turn, takes away from the movie itself. That's too bad. 16 Blocks is pretty good, but it had the potential to be even better. As it is, if you're in the mood for a little mindless entertainment for a couple of hours, 16 Blocks will fill the bill. If you're looking for anything more, though, 16 Blocks falls just short of expectations.
POLITICAL NOTES: Aside from suggesting that people can and do change, the primary thrust behind 16 Blocks is that even good motivations don't excuse bad behavior. The bad cops in 16 Blocks have done things solely to bring bad guys to justice — or at least to bring those guys they think are bad to what they think is justice. In some cases, they're probably right. But that can't excuse violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, and the film makes that clear. Perhaps 16 Blocks should be required viewing for those in the current administration who seem to think that their motivations (prevent terorrism, fight the war on drugs, or support some other cause du jour) excuse warrantless wiretaps or other searches, censorship, serious violations of personal privacy, travel restrictions, and other infringements of freedom.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: 16 Blocks is rated PG-13 for "violence, intense sequences of action, and some strong language." I think that rating is just about right. Younger kids won't grasp some of the plot twists, but young teens will. And frankly, the violence is probably less intense here than it is in all too many video games today. Between the action, stars kids typically like, and the lessons offered up in a suprisingly palatable way, I can think of worse movies to let your kids see. In fact, you might want to see this one with them. It's not often you can have fun even while you're enjoying an on target ethics lesson!
** 1/2 out of ****
I hadn't heard much about this little film until there started to be Oscar buzz over Felicity Huffman's performance. The plot sounded intriguing, and certainly I'm always game to see high caliber acting. Unfortunately, it wasn't until this weekend that a theatre within driving distance was showing the film. Better late than never, though, I always say, and so I headed out to see Transamerica at long last.
Transamerica tells the story of a man suffering from transgender disphoria, the unshakable perception that he was born with the wrong genitalia. Sabrina Claire Osborne (Felicity Huffman) was named Stanley at birth, but she says she's always felt female and has been living as a woman for some time. After years of relatively minor medical procedures, hormone treatment, and psychotherapy, she's ready for the final step: the surgery that will render her female by altering her genitalia to reflect her true gender. Bree is thrilled to finally have her surgery scheduled, and her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña) is thrilled for her.
Just days from her planned surgery, Bree gets a telephone call for Stanley. She tells the caller that Stanley doesn't live there any more, but she finds the conversation disturbing enough to mention it to Margaret in her next therapy session. Margaret, too, finds the call troubling. It seems that the New York City police are trying to reach Stanley to tell him that his son is in trouble. Bree, who never even knew she might have a son, is appalled. But Margaret insists that she can't sign off on Bree's surgery unless the highly volatile and emotional situation is breached.
Exasperated but desperate to have the surgery, Bree travels to New York City where she meets the troubled Toby (Kevin Zegers). Telling him she's a missionary with an obscure Christian denomination, she bails Toby out of jail and decides to take him back home to Kentucky whether he wants to go there or not. Toby, meanwhile, is determined to make it to Hollywood where he intends to break into acting by making porn films, and Bree represents a way for him to make it at least part of the way there.
On the road together, the two begin to learn more about each other. Bree is stunned to hear of Toby's mother's death and of the ways he's managed to survive in New York City; Toby impatiently puts up with Bree's attempts to civilize and educate him. Once in Kentucky, though, Bree learns more than she'd like about the boy who may be her own child. And Toby's curiosity and their close proximity on the trip represent a real threat to Bree's ability to keep her secret just a little while longer.
After a few crises along the way, the two meet Calvin (Grahame Greene), a kind Native American who offers to help them get a bit closer to California. Eventually, the pair land in Phoenix where Bree's ultimate nightmare is realized: She must face her parents (Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young) and sister, Sidney (Carrie Preston) as Sabrina instead of Stanley. Even more difficult for her, she also has to weigh whether or not to let Toby in on the full measure of who — and what — she is.
Felicity Huffman is very good, but I frankly don't think she's as good as some of the critics are claiming. She talks in a deeper voice than normal, but it's clearly a strain for her and sounds like nothing so much as what it is: a woman trying to talk in a lower vocal range. In many scenes, I think it might have been better had a man played the lead role since it's that transformation the movie is really illuminating. That being said, her anguish is palpable and her hope that the surgery will once and for all enable her to be content in her own body is both overwhelming and exceedingly fragile. In some scenes, she's so good that you'll forget she's acting at all and just feel for her pain as she weeps or bravely lifts her chin up in the face of humiliation or worse.
Kevin Zegers is just terrific. Toby's not a particularly nice boy, but there's some likability to him that a lesser actor probably couldn't have managed when the character is at his worst. Meanwhile, Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young offer dead-on portrayals of parents who simply cannot understand how it is that their firstborn son could actually be their daughter. Peña and Greene give added dimension to Bree's character with their own able contributions to the overall storyline.
Writer/director Duncan Tucker makes his debut with Transamerica and, while there are some mistakes, there's clearly a tremendous amount of promise for him in both arenas. The script is sometimes a little stilted, but on balance gives us a fascinating (and sometimes heartrending) glimpse into a world many of us know next to nothing about (Tucker first came up with the idea for Transamerica when he discovered his female roommate had actually been raised as a boy). And the cross country journey, most of which involves backroads travel, is a treat in and of itself.
The bottom line: Transamerica is far from unflawed, but its unique story and honest telling of it make it well worth the price of admission.
POLITICAL NOTES: There are those who worry that homosexuals or transgendered Americans are working to get "special rights" for themselves. Transamerica shows that "special rights" are the least of the problem for a transsexual. Simply living without fear of harm or humiliation would be a good start! If Transamerica can show just a few people that much, then it's surpassed itself as "just" a good movie. Simply being transgender (or gay, or anything else) shouldn't mean that the Bill of Rights and just plain human decency don't both apply!
FAMILY SUITABILTY: Transamerica is rated R for "sexual content, nudity, language, [and] drug use." The sexual content is fairly graphic, and so are a few of the scenes. Transamerica is in no way suitable for children. But teens of age 16 or so and up who are mature enough to avoid tittering merely at the sight of bare breasts or buttocks would likely benefit from learning about a largely hidden world, and frankly so would most adults (the initial scene between Bree and her mother brought gasps from the audience in attendance when I saw the film). That Transamerica will hold your attention and see you become emotionally vested in its characters as it moves through time while the characters drive across the country is a wonderful bonus.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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