January 27, 2018

ShowbuzzDaily Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Monster” & “Beirut”


MONSTER (no distrib):  There’s less than meets the eye in Anthony Mandler’s Monster.  Based by Colen C. Wiley, Radha Black and Janece Shaffer on Walter Dean Myers’ novel, it seems like it’s going to be a saga of social injustice, dealing as it does with a young black New York honor student (Steve Harmon, played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr) arrested for complicity in a robbery that turned into a murder.  (Harrison, in fact, is also one of the stars of Sundance’s Monsters and Men, another tale of the violently adversarial relationship between NY cops and the African-American community.)  But Monster reveals itself to be more of a potboiler with a postmodern twist and a meta spin.  Steve hasn’t been arrested due to police racism, but because a pair of the criminals have identified him as a participant, and the script toys with the audience’s expectations by drawing out its retelling of the events of that day.  In addition, Steve is himself an aspiring filmmaker, and Monster trickily mixes his projects with the story of his life, complete with explicit references to Rashomon to let us know that truth is slippery.  It culminates in a double-twist ending that invokes another crime classic.  Mendler, previously a music-video director, handles all of this slickly, and there are fine performances not just from Harrison, but from Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as his parents, Paul Ben Victor and Jennifer Ehle as Steve’s prosecutor and defense attorney, and John David Washington as a co-defendant.  The cinematography by David Devlin is filled with fancy combinations of visual styles, and Joe Klotz’s editing smoothly cuts the various elements together.  In the end, though, Monster has less substance than flash, and the way it uses complex issues for shallow ends is a bit troublesome.

BEIRUT (Bleecker Street):  With the exception of occasional John Le Carre adaptations, Hollywood has more or less abandoned the field of intelligent adult thrillers about international intrigue, once a bread and butter genre.  Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, with Michael Clayton and his Bourne scripts, has almost singlehandedly tried to keep the category alive, and Beirut, which Gilroy wrote 25 years ago and recently revised, is a reminder of how satisfying these stories can be.  Jon Hamm, in his best big-screen role to date, plays Mason Skiles, a one-time rising star in the US diplomatic corps who fell into alcohol after a tragedy in the title city; 10 years later, the CIA finds him mediating low-grade labor disputes, and brings him back to the Mideast to help negotiate the release of a kidnapped former friend and colleague.  Skiles, underestimated by just about everyone, has to think on his feet amidst the lies and contradictions of the terrorists, the Israelis, and various branches of his own government.  Brad Anderson’s direction is crisp and creates a believable 1980s Lebanon war zone via Morocco locations, and there’s a bang-up supporting cast that includes Rosamund Pike (a bit overqualified for her limited role), Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Larry Pine, Mark Pellegrino, Idir Chender, and Ben Affan.  Beirut is best, though, as a showcase for Gilroy’s skillful plotting and smart dialogue, and for Hamm’s lived-in performance as a more action movie-ish Michael Clayton.  It’s a little sad that such a mainstream entertainment would even need a slot at Sundance to make a mark, but better that than nothing at all.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."