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New films: The Imposter & Premium Rush

"The Imposter"
Directed by Bart Layton

One of the strangest films I’ve seen recently is “The Imposter,” which opens today at the Crest Theatre. It’s strange in that creepy “truth is stranger than fiction” kind of way that often accompanies accounts of real life crime and dysfunctional families – and it becomes compelling viewing as the documentary (with minor dramatic recreations of events) unfolds.

In June 1994, Nicholas Barclay disappeared from San Antonio, Texas. He was a somewhat unruly kid, often in trouble. And he had briefly run away previously, if only for a night or two.

In October 1997, in Spain, a young boy/man is found with no identification and no ability or willingness to tell authorities who he was. He was taken to a children’s home where he might have stayed for some period had the local officials not been intent on determining who he might be.

That same person explains on camera that he had had a bad childhood and just wanted to be somewhere where he might receive attention and comfort and, when pressed, claimed to be American. He also said at that time that he would contact his family, himself, if they allowed him to remain alone in the office overnight. Instead he contacted US authorities, pretended to be a Spanish police officer, and by describing fabricated circumstances (but circumstances which fit his own fabricated story) in which an American boy had been found in Spain, discovered the identity of Nicholas Barclay on the missing persons roster.

And so he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay. The problem for him being that Nicholas Barclay was blond and blue eyed and, despite his young age, had three tattoos. Meanwhile he was dark haired and brown eyed and was actually seven years older, at 23, than Nicholas would have been at that time.

As this unfolds in “The Imposter,” at this stage the story is already getting bizarrely interesting as assorted wheels are set in motion to confirm his presumed identity and reunite him with his alleged family. But it’s also only the prologue to the real story – a story which ought to have ended as soon as a family member (any family member) saw him. Somewhat reminiscent of the recent events surrounding a young man who walked out of the woods in Germany and kept authorities guessing for months about who he might have been, it also makes one think about how police and governments determine identity in such cases and how powerful personal testimony and recognition can be.

What happens from that point on is worth watching and pondering, if only to wonder about human nature and, perhaps, the power of cognitive dissonance. Stories are told, not always matching, and one also wonders to what extent officials involved are inclined to embellish their own recollections to appear less foolish and fooled.

I won’t disclose the outcome but the film never pretends for a moment that the person found in Spain is actually Nicholas Barclay – we know from the start that he isn’t, because the real person is telling us what happened. What I will tell you is that it’s a creepier film than a supposedly creepy fictional thriller I saw on the same day.


"Premium Rush"
Directed by David Koepp

“Premium Rush” is a simple chase thriller, in which a bicycle messenger in Manhattan is given a seemingly innocuous envelope to deliver, only to find that somebody else has a vested interest in making sure that the delivery isn’t completed. At least it would be a simple chase thriller if the writers hadn’t felt the need to overcomplicate it.

The basic premise is one of those high concept (simple idea) movies that can be expressed in a short sentence: A bicycle messenger is chased through New York City traffic by a crazy guy who wants the package he has been tasked with delivering. And it could have been just that – almost to the point of the package being a MacGuffin (something that would never have been revealed or something that wasn’t intrinsically important in terms of the action and story we’re given to watch).

Instead we are told in some detail, not just about the package, the sender, the recipient, and the reason for it being sent – but also about the significant gambling problem that the pursuer (Michael Shannon) has that is causing certain others to be after him, thus motivating his quest to acquire this valuable cargo. We’re also told about the messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his girlfriend, his rival, and a detailed account of the life of a bike messenger (at least as described here).

All of which would be fine, if we weren’t told quite so much in quite so much detail – to the point that we’re given multiple overlapping backstories that include the same scene retold from a slightly different perspective or sometimes, apparently, from the same perspective a second or third time. It’s as if, in the attempt to avoid being a film that’s all action and no story, it starts to get bogged down in too much story. For example, the pursuer turns out to have not just one group of people gunning for him, but three – which is at least two more than is necessary. And we’re constantly reminded how big Manhattan is while being given coincidences that would fit better in a small village.

The same is true of certain special effects, point of view shots, and stunts – all of which seem to be excessively abundant. And we’re given a bike cop storyline that ultimately goes nowhere and which exists purely to introduce a little forced levity into the proceedings. Meanwhile, at its core, we have a very watchable, fairly unique premise and spectacle that is being weighed down by all these details.

It’s also interesting to see how the film will be taken by avid cyclists. The protagonist rides a “fixie” – a fixed wheel bike with no gears, no free wheel, and no brakes. These are bikes that are controversial even within some cycling circles and often illegal for street use. Beyond that, the movie will likely reinforce many non-cyclist’s view of cyclists as road users who never respect the rules of the road. At the same time, it depicts the sheer joy of riding that many cyclists will identify with. And in those respects it has the potential to at least partially annoy everybody and not fully satisfy any – except perhaps fixie riders. It also can’t do much for the image of the Mazda 6 – which apparently can’t catch up with a cyclist even when presented with occasional stretches of open road (and this seems like odd product placement).

Yet throughout this, with all the plot contrivances and despite an unlikely climax, “Premium Rush” still manages to be a fun ride. The simple chase movie that’s almost buried in the middle of it all manages to show itself enough to have a desirable if compromised effect. It’s just a shame that the writers didn’t believe in the idea enough to let it stand on its own more. (Note: There’s a neat piece of behind the scenes footage early in the credits – so don’t be in a premium rush to leave.)

"Premium Rush" opens today in wide release.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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