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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN might have been called "Women on the Tracks" since all the movie does is run down females for two hours. directed by Tate Taylor and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the 2015 debut novel of the same name. The film stars Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Édgar Ramírez and Lisa Kudrow. Blunt plays Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who divorced her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after she caught him cheating on her with Anna (Ferguson)... Tom's *new* wife who is a catatonic suburban housewife. In a completely pathetic nosedive life, Rachel takes the train to the city every day where she drinks vodka from a sippy cup and wanders around the city drunk until she can take the train home again. In the strangest premise ever she stares out the window and fantasizes about the relationship of her former neighbors Scott and Megan Hipwell (Luke Evans and Haley Bennett), during her sad commute to nowhere. She also stares at her old house that has her ex-husband and new wife. That all changes when she witnesses something from the train window and Megan (who is a sexually promiscuous and broken woman) is missing, presumed dead.
There are a lot of texts, messages, and dropped calls to exes and lovers and former lovers that drive the plot here. Apparently, no one in this community knows how to block a number on a cell phone. Also, everyone lives, works, jogs, and generally exists within 100 yards of a train track. Psychiatrist's offices, houses, walkways, shops, restaurants--all with a train in the background. The plot is told in a non-linear fashion that backs up, moves forward, back again further, then not as far, then a bit further still. Although there are placards indicating these flashbacks, they also work seamlessly running back into the present...which makes for some confusing moments throughout. The film advertises as a thriller but never seems to make its way out of second gear. Although these characters might evoke some sad level of sympathy, they aren't ever very interesting. Instead, they come across like a visual Burberry advertisement. Glassy-eyed and glossy suburbia with enough scandal to move the needle...just barely.
Far worse is the portrayal of women who orbit around abusive men and allow themselves to be manipulated to the point of destruction. Even Allison Janney's local detective role is a bumbling fool that can't seem to figure out what the audience can figure out less than halfway through the movie. Despite all of its attempts to throw out a lot of red herrings, the "mystery" of the film isn't much of one at all. And the tired plot device of "I-Can't-Remember-What-Happened-Until-Just-The-Right-Time-When-My-Memory-Magically-Returns" isn't even used in an interesting or creative way. The film just allows our protagonist in Rachel to slowly piece together what seems to be obvious to everyone except the people up on screen.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN isn't interesting, it is degrading. And not just to women. It does a fine job of insulting your intelligence too.
In his My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin coined the term "shitty miracle" as a twist on the "so bad it's good" movie mentality. For Rabin, though, this designation didn't just mean that the film was enjoyable just because it was bad. These were films that were truly special, a hail mary of perfect badness. Rabin writes:
"In a shitty miracle, everything goes awry. It's not a matter of one sorry element dragging the rest down; it's every terrible component amplifying the awfulness of everything else. These shitty miracles represent the perfect storm of bad ideas and miscalculation. Everything must line up perfectly for a shitty miracle to occur."
REMEMBER THE GOAL is exactly that. A film that should join the ranks of BIRDEMIC, THE ROOM, SHOWGIRLS, and GIGLI as movies so terribly unwatchable that they are fodder for audiences everywhere to watch and enjoy as an epic cinematic car crash. Add the Christian movie element to the film, and miraculous is certainly an ironic term to describe the absolute train wreck of this film.
Where does one start? Is it with the performance of Allee-Sutton Hethcoat as Courtney Smith-Donnelly and her monotone delivery of parables and inspirational anecdotes? Also, note that both actress and character have maintained hyphenated names. Hethcoat's delivery is so dry that it is well after a humorous line is delivered that you have to rewind in your head and realize it is written as a joke. Despite being the coach, she wears shorts to practice and yoga pants to class. As a science teacher at the local Chrisitan Academy, short skirts seem inappropriate attire for a chemistry lab, but director Dave Christiano's male gaze will not be denied. Beyond ogling the lead actress, the film has more than a few uncomfortable montages of teen girls running toward the camera. Feeling more like an 80s sexploitation film waiting to happen, Christiano's choice to shoot the teenage girls full body straight on--bounding and bouncing toward the camera is hilarious and uncomfortable all at once. But the misogyny doesn't end there. Coach Donnelly has a strategy to train her girls to run that the film promotes as some sort of secret and heretical idea (you know...like Jesus). However, even a layman to the sport understands the idea of pacing and training to run a stronger race...so the film sets up a twist ending that has no twist at all. But even Donnelly can't explain it to us. Another male coach from another school must first explain the strategy to the audience, leaving the female coach then to re-explain her master plan, which is no sort of master plan at all. Even here, men are smarter than the women. There is also an inexplicable symbol as the teammates and coach all put their fists together...and somehow that represents a team. Is it a cross? A "T"? Why does that represent team? So many questions.
Why would a coach choose not to reveal their strategy at the risk of getting fired?
I am certain Nashville has people of color in its population. Where are they?
Why would an Athletic Director of a private school fire a coach mid-season?
Why would that same AD hire a parent as a coach?
Why do white girls from Nashville not sweat when they have run 3 miles?
Why... ? (there are about 40 more of these)
The film is filled with problems that aren't really problems. A 15-year-old girl isn't allowed to date, and apparently, that includes just stepping onto a boy's front porch. Friends smoke weed and then immediately give it up for no reason at all except "the power of prayer." A girl has self-esteem issues until her coach lovingly tells her that she wouldn't sell her to anyone at any price which hilariously works as a cautionary tale against human trafficking. One parent exclaims to her daughter after running a race "YOU'RE AWFUL!" as the rest of the team and nearby parents gawk. It is hilariously bad. But that is only one of the gems from the script. There are more like:
"I CAN'T READ!!"
"Christianity doesn't make sense."
"Remember that thing I asked you to do after dinner?"
"If I know Jesus like I think I do, he slipped out the back door."
...and on and on and on. This movie isn't occasionally awful. It is consistent scene by scene and line by line. The parabolic platitudes of a female coach with her plastered smile and varied hair styles solve every issue, heal every wound, and also win championships. How does one then rank a movie like REMEMBER THE GOAL? As a film setting out to do what it is trying to do...it is awful. However, as an unintentional comedy, I laughed out loud more in this film than any other comedy I have seen this year. Choose how you see this movie and you will see either a stinker....or a shitty miracle.
NINE LIVES is a new family comedy film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Kevin Spacey, Robbie Amell, Jennifer Garner, and Christopher Walken in a movie that can only be described as a pure paycheck movie by all involved. As of the writing of this review, the budget for this film was listed as N/A, which seems accurate. The movie begins with a minute or so montage of familiar goofy viral videos of cats. After that, the movie goes downhill quickly. As it opens, we meet Tom Brand (Kevin Spacey), who is a Donald Trump-like billionaire (cause who needs millionaires), who has distanced himself from his 11 year old daughter Rebecca (Malina Weissman) and his wife Lara (Jennifer Garner) because...billionaires. He skydives against green screen, drives his Lexus in green screen, and walks by terrible photoshop versions of himself in his office. In the major plot point of the film, Brand is in a race to build the tallest building in North America. Yes, the entire movie hinges on this goofy idea. His 28 year old son works along side him (Amell) in similar Trump like fashion. Brand is an egotistical blowhard who damages anyone in his wake. (Sound familiar) Under pressure to get a last-minute gift for his daughter's 11th birthday, he ends up in a mysterious pet shop run by Christopher Walken... and buys his daughter a cat. On the way home however, he ends up on the roof of his building with an evil executive (SURPRISE) who wants to take his company from him. In a silly accident Tom finds himself trapped inside the cat's body, Freaky Friday style. However, instead of the cat being in the human body, which would have actually made this movie better, Spacey's human shell is stuck in a coma in a hospital, which, ironically, is where his career is also headed if he keeps choosing films like this. Oh, to have had the human Spacey walking around *meowing* to people the whole time and buying catnip by the pallet. That would have been glorious. Meanwhile, the cat version of Spacey is later told by the pet shop owner (who is a cat whisperer and can understand what they are saying) that he must reconcile with his family within one week, or be stuck as a cat forever.
The next hour of the film is a series of lame attempts to recreate YouTube-like cat videos starring Kevin Spacey and made with digital effects from 1994. Drunk cat, chased by dogs cat, gross cat food eating cat, and on and on. There are times when you see an *actual* cat, but since no less than 7 "stunt cats" were listed, the audience can clearly tell the difference between these cats. They aren't even the same color or size. It is like the film wasn't even trying hard.
And that is the message throughout. A movie about a man that trades bodies with a cat was never going to be good. But this movie doesn't even approach being funny. There were moments watching the film where I actually anticipated something that might have been funny to happen, but those things never surfaced. Instead, the film just skates through with (and I can't emphasize this enough) awful special effects and a plot that feels like a really cheap TV cable movie that Disney might have made in 1994--again... fitting with the level of cheap effects. When the audience can come up with ideas in their head that are more funny than what you produce on screen, again...it is as if they weren't even trying hard.
Spending money on this for a family outing would be an absolute waste. Falling short of wanting to run screaming from the theater, this movie feels more like a film that you might channel surf to...sit on for two minutes...wonder what the HELL...and move on.
My advice is just move on.
PS. Trump followers, I have an idea that might save the election for your candidate. PM for details on where to find a certain pet shop.
When I reviewed DIVERGENT last year, it received a mildly positive review--mostly for its ability to create action and YA romance in an otherwise confusing and nonsensical dystopian world. On a re-watch, I admit my initial review was kind, likely a few ticks higher than what it might score today. Now the sequel INSURGENT has arrived, and after watching it I regret spending any time at all on the series altogether. And based on what some readers of the book series have said about what is to come in the upcoming ALLEGIANT films (yes 2 more), I will make my exit now. No wonder Miles Teller was in the press trying to distance himself from this series.
The movie is chock full of current young talent: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Mekhi Phifer, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller; and they are all fine with what they have, with the exception of Theo James who is still terrible. I previously described his performance as wooden. Now after two films, I can honestly say that remark is an affront to furniture. Maybe it is closer to a synthetic wood, like decking on your porch or a fake tree in your office. Though James is playing a hunky action star and romantic lead, his tattoo offers more to the performance than he does. Teller and Courtney are great as Peter and Eric--one the turncoat smarmy bully and the other an evil meathead baddie. The film actually moves the needle when either of these actors are on screen. Shailene Woodley works hard to carry the film as "Tris" the "divergent" teen who doesn't fit into any of the pre-made factions that were set out precariously in the first film. She cuts her hair in the opening scenes of the film--no doubt in a throwaway explanation of the actress who was playing a cancer victim in *another* movie. Tris sort of whines and pouts her way through the action, but is never believable as the tough as nails action heroine she plays. It is just simply a case of great actress/bad casting. Sadly, Woodley is having to navigate through some of the worst sequences of the film that include terrible green screen effects and dialogue. Worst of all, she has to do battle in the virtual world with what I can only describe as "NEGA-Tris" (by way of SCOTT PILGRIM vs. THE WORLD). It is such a tired device--for one to fight yourself in order to "forgive" yourself.
It is laughably awful, and almost as funny as Miles Teller's outfit late in the film that looks like he might have shown up on some sort of futuristic summer camp for backwards shirt day.
Naomi Watts is added to the cast as as Evelyn--leader of the faction-less outsiders, but is a wasted character that brings nothing to the film, as is Octavia Spencer as Johanna the leader of the Amity faction. Together these women couldn't have had combined lines of dialogue that moved far into double digits. Kate Winslet continues to sleepwalk her way through the series as the cold-hearted villain Jeanine who wants to control all the factions and rule the dystopian city of Chicago.
Worst of all is the actual narrative and the direction that the film takes. In one scene Tris sneaks away from her friends--with no guards or characters spotting her. Moments later, when "Four" runs after her, there are guards standing everywhere. Did they all take a smoke break at 2 am when she sneaked out? The director doesn't even attempt to fix this--showing her leave in a very wide shot, with nary a person to be found, but later "Four" is in a medium shot in the *same* setting with three guards standing around. It is a movie that has problems like this that can take a viewer out of the film altogether. This is one example of several others the movie has. Sequences that feel undone, out of place, or just nonsensical. Characters make ridiculous decisions that aren't even keeping with *who* that character has been built, stamped, and branded to be, even based on the "faction" system. In other words, why would an "Erudite" character be so stupid? Or a "Dauntless" go out alone just to get themselves captured? Finally, the entire crux of the movie turns on one character making a decision that absolutely no one could have predicted, and yet salvages the entire plot. It is the very definition of a Deus Ex Machina storytelling device--a contrivance that used when a story has been painted into a corner with no other way out. Finishing off the film is a final reveal that feels more like a cosmic episode of MTV's PUNK'D. I was waiting (hoping) for a holographic image of Ashton Kutcher to appear during the credit roll.
There is suspension of disbelief, and then there is a complete rejection of human moves and intelligent reason. No doubt that most of these young actors will come out of this series mostly unscathed with careers intact (save Theo James; I see daytime soaps in your future). However, INSURGENT has a derivative plot, terrible effects, and awful dialogue that had my chuckling under my breath, and laughing out loud once or twice. Fans of the book might be able to fill in enough blanks in the storytelling to forgive some of the film, but this is easily one of the worst films in the YA sub-genre of the last several years. AVOID.
For those who are curious, the term "inherent vice" is a description or phrase refers to a hidden defect (or the very nature) of an object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components.
In an ironic twist, director Paul Thomas Anderson has now become a cinematic version of "inherent vice." An arthouse cinema darling, Anderson has directed films I have appreciated in the past like BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD. In 2012, I described THE MASTER as a beautiful mess; a mis-step of a film that had some strong performances.
INHERENT VICE is just a mess.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and Martin Short. Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a sort of shaggy dog private eye living in 1970's L.A. who spends most of his mornings, afternoons, and evenings smoking pot and living as a hippie. One evening, Doc's ex girlfriend Shasta asks for his help to find her ex-boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann-- a powerful real estate mogul who has gone missing. Doc obliges and begins to scour the city and the few leads he has to find Wolfmann. The film is shot with several close-ups, my guess is so that we can see the white ash of Doc's rolled doobie, lest we forget that drugs are a part of the essence of the film. Although, since the character is smoking weed in nearly every single scene and the rest of the movie itself is a sort of cinematic acid trip, drugs are most certainly a prevailing theme moving ahead. Anderson takes a kidnapping, a couple of prison inmates, drug-addled dentists, neo-Nazis, an insane asylum, a TV star wannabe cop, an underground organization called "The Golden Fang" and seven or eight more ancillary characters and wraps them all up in his own cinematic Zig-Zag paper. But when it lights, the audience doesn't take a drag.
It just *is* a drag. At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the film is a rambling disarray. INHERENT VICE nearly seems to want to promote the type of paranoia and hallucinatory experience of the cannabis that Doc is smoking. However, once the stoner comedy gets tired after the first act, the remainder of the film has more than enough pointless characters, MacGuffins and red herrings to confuse the viewer and choke the narrative. It is a litany of bad choices and sequences that just are not successful. The central plot resurfaces from time to time, but has to pull the weight of so much other meaningless sequences that has come before it. By then end, it feels like trying to pull an elephant out of the mud with a tricycle. What little payoff the movie has is so clouded by the haze of smoke and mirrors that the movie has created that the end of the film is neither clear or satisfying. As a result, the manic energy of Anderson feels more like an aimless creation. It is inarticulate. It is indulgent. It is incohesive.
What is there to like? A grand tour of Los Angeles circa 1970 is certainly there to be had. Brolin and Phoenix offer some committed performances to the film and to their craft. However, with reports from several actors of chaos on set, it certainly seems to come through on screen. Fans of the source material from Pynchon might appreciate what happens in the film. To be clear, disciples of Paul Thomas Anderson might bend over backwards, turn themselves inside out, and twist into a pretzel to find something to appreciate here that warrants a positive review. He remains a critic's darling. What is worse is that it seems apparent that Anderson is now only making films for them. INHERENT VICE is a risk that insurers don't take. Moviegoers shouldn't either.
BIG EYES is yet another biographical drama in 2014--a year already terribly crowded with these stories. It is directed by Tim Burton and stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. The film, focuses on American artist Margaret Keane (Adams), whose work was fraudulently claimed in the 1950s and 1960s by her then-husband, Walter Keane (Waltz). It follows their life and marriage, including the story of their heated divorce trial wherein Margaret accused Walter of stealing her paintings.
The movie is a compelling story on paper--a struggling artist Margaret is a single mother and desperate to make ends meet. Her kitschy style of painting waif-like children with oversized eyes goes unnoticed until she connects with Walter--whose ability to sell and market nearly anything begins to work in her favor. Adams plays Margaret as a fairly powerless woman--trapped and co-dependent on Walter. Rather than being sympathetic, her vulnerable woman act becomes tiresome midway through the film. Adams is not a stranger to these type of naive "victim" roles (ENCHANTED, DOUBT, JULIE AND JULIA, TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE) and here she brings absolutely nothing else beyond the same said misty doe-eyed glance to this role. Instead, her Margaret is just a shell of a woman--without much to even offer to explain the how or why behind her "Big Eyes" creations. However, Waltz offers the necessary braggadocio to create a truly insensitive cad. Though Walter starts out as a bit of a greedy salesman with swagger, soon his true colors reveal themselves in a far more sinister fashion. Waltz chews up every scene he is in, leaving Adams silenced throughout. And though that is certainly part of the Keane story, Adams simply cannot share the screen with as powerful a character or performance. The film follows as Walter takes Margaret's work--calling it his own--and sells it to art galleries, celebrities, and even dignitaries across the globe. Not content with that, Walter begins to print and reprint the works until they are sold as postcards in gas stations and posters in grocery stores. The work--tasteless as it is--becomes a story of itself, over saturating the market and frustrating the art world. Terence Stamp has a nice turn as a grumpy art critic, and Jason Schwartzman as an equally stuffy gallery owner--both of which are surprised and irritated by the success of the "Big Eyes" phenomenon.
However, BIG EYES is painted a bit too much by the numbers. The story never really goes beyond the biopic template, and the journey is fairly straightforward. The biggest reward here is Waltz with his Jekyll/Hyde portrayal of Walter--romantic in one moment and sneering the next. The best news here is that director Tim Burton seems to have left behind his dark and angsty period that has plagued his filmorgraphy like a gothic stain over the past dozen years. Easily his most mature work since BIG FISH, this film is also the first time Burton leaves his stable of actors behind and works with an all original cast since 1988. It is clear that Burton has it in him to craft a more familiar and mainstream tale. Sadly, looking ahead to future projects, it seems Burton cannot get enough of the over-stylized films that look like they walked out of a Hot Topic store. But it is a nice turn here for a director whose best work lies outside of the niche he has chosen for himself. Even this pedestrian film still sits above nearly everything this director has done in a dozen years--as mediocre as it is.
UNBROKEN is a dramatic war film produced and directed by Angelina Jolie, and based on the 2010 non-fiction book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The film, which revolves around the life of USA Olympic athlete Louis "Louie" Zamperini, stars Jack O'Connell as Zamperini, and Domhnall Gleeson as his war buddy Phil. The film has all the components for a compelling narrative: based on a true story, an American sports hero, add in some nostalgia with World War II, and a heavy dose of triumph of the will... and you ought to have a hit, right? At least that is what the marketing campaign would have you believe. Problem is, very little of that translates on screen.
It isn't that I doubt Louie Zamperini's story. No doubt, it is a harrowing tale. It seems as if Jolie, her screenwriters--the cinematic legendary pair of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen-- want this tale to come through by way of film osmosis. Louie is a troubled kid early in the film who fights and drinks, until he is introduced to running track by his older brother Pete. In a fairly swift sequence, we see Louie develop from a kid who cares about nothing into an Olympic level athlete. However, he remains a fairly flat character. What drives him to run? What changed? Why is he so disciplined? Why does he choose to continue? What makes him unique... special? Though much of this might be on the page of the book, alas, it never comes through on screen. We are left with a hero who is quickly introduced but never developed. Soon the war begins, and we find Louie in a bombing crew flying over the Pacific. Not long after that, his plane goes down and he and some surviving crew members spend weeks at sea trying to survive on a life raft. This sequence, like several others in the film, drags on and on and on. Though the movie might be attempting to impart the passage of time, it had me glancing at my watch only half way through the film. Eventually, Louie finds his way into a Japanese internment camp--where he faces a brutal Japanese sergeant nicknamed "The Bird" who focuses his energy and aggression on Louie--the former Olympic athlete.
The movie is harsh and unrelenting. However, Louie remains a near silent and stoic victim of this abuse. Though the movie asks you to rally behind him, his character is hardly more realized than the dozens of other nameless men who populate the prison camp. The narrative of the film is just to watch this man be punished again and again. Though that might be offered for effect in a war film from time to time, UNBROKEN is one note. Though the camera finds some beautiful shots, Jolie choices confirm that this is only her sophomore effort behind the camera. O'Connell does a good job with what he is given, but at some point, an actor can only offer so many options as to how he interprets a physical beating. It is serious content, to be sure, but lacks a storytelling balance to add the necessary emotional weight. Louie is far less of a character or even a person. Instead he becomes an idealized concept--the "war hero" who endures beating after beating (after beating). The result is a fairly superficial and, yes I will say it, dull film. And with a 137 minute running time--the internment ends up both on screen *and* in the theater.
By comparison--FURY from earlier in the year takes place over only a day or two and deals with five different soldiers in a much better way than this film does with Louie. Another film that came to mind was THE RAILWAY MAN from earlier this year starring Colin Firth. Another movie based on a true story of a man held prisoner by the Japanese, it brings the characters to life with a stronger narrative. Both of these films ask you to care--and offers a story and characters that are worth investing in. UNBROKEN asks the same, but offers very little on its promise. It isn't evocative; it isn't emotional; it isn't really even interesting. Instead, it is a forgettable, overly-long movie that will fade quickly in the minds of its audience.
In January of 2010 in deep East Texas, ten churches burned to the ground in just over a month's time. The buckle of the Bible belt is rocked by this wave of crimes in so many small communities. LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON catalogs the story of the crime and the greater community's reaction. Part small town detective story and part soul-searching chastisement on our religious institution, director Theo Love weaves a gripping true crime tale.
The film jumps right into the mysterious fires--coming one after another, all in small towns dotting the buckle of the Bible Belt, all in the greater East Texas landscape. The ATF and Texas Rangers are quickly dispatched for what would become the largest criminal investigation in the region's history. Early on, the film presents a message found scratched on a bathroom stall in a department store in Tyler, TX. Its cryptic message is only this: Little Hope Was Arson. It references one of the very first church fires of the Little Hope Baptist Church. As the fires continue--sometimes two a night, the people in these communities show all ranges of response. Many are hurt, scared, while some remain steadfast that the building is nothing more than just bricks and wood. Many rage against the invisible criminals--whoever they might be, calling down for vengeance. Some even look to blame the devil himself. Meantime, it seems that the criminals are outsmarting the ATF agents and the Texas Rangers while the crimes intensify. Along the way, some churches begin to ask volunteers to watch their churches overnight. These members (it is Texas, after all) come armed--ready to defend these buildings and, to a greater degree, what they represent. Soon, evidence begins to mount, the dramatics escalate, and suspects begin to surface. And then the film becomes far more interesting.
LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON chooses to shine a light on the dangers of convenient small town religion and the inevitable hypocrisy that can come from some in these Bible thumping communities. The suspects themselves have terrible stories of addiction, loss, and grief. In a sad betrayal, these church members, pastors, and even family members admit to being unable or unwilling to help when the suspects needed them most. It acts as an indictment on a Christian community that ignores its own damaged parishioners--and ultimately pays a steep price for it.. Families are devastated and lives are ruined. The film offers a raw look at Christian community--giving a very balanced approach to consider those who accept church and religion as only a superficial label, not a lifestyle. There are various forms of forgiveness that the film explores, including giving voice to the suspects themselves in the final reel.
Can churches truly offer restorative love and acceptance? Is small town religion more about hypocrisy and less about unconditional love? LITTLE HOPE WAS ARSON asks some tough questions and gives unflinching responses to how Christians might deal with broken people living among them. Recommended.
INTERSTELLAR is the latest space opera opus directed by Christopher Nolan. The project began in development back in 2006 and had been attached to Steven Spielberg for years, before Nolan took the reins in 2013. The film has been teased with trailers and posters for over a year, building expectations to a fever pitch for fans. Nolan certainly has created a strong following as a director, bringing to screen everything from MEMENTO to INCEPTION to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy. The last chapter of that famous Batman saga almost seemed to try to work in a strange opposition to the previous two... as if Nolan was attempting to apologize for making something mainstream. The result in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (review linked) had been Nolan's worst film to date...rife with plot holes, terrible characterization, and worst of all--devoid of any emotional center.
Though INTERSTELLAR is a completely different film than TDKR, it suffers much of the same ills. And for a film that has had a growing marketing machine behind if for over a year, it might be the most over-hyped movie since AVATAR. It certainly is in a dead heat for Nolan's weakest film--a movie that swings for the fences, and wildly misses in a huff and a heap.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine, the film is full of big ideas about space, mankind, and even relationships. It will also spend a good bit of its three hour running time describing all of those things to you in detail. Laborious detail, truth be told. It is a near future Earth, and the planet is in dire straits. A combination of global warming and man's scavenging of natural resources is quickly making it uninhabitable. When a wormhole (which can theoretically connect widely separated regions of spacetime) is discovered in our galaxy, explorers and scientists (including a crackpot-type Michael Caine) unite to embark on a voyage to pass through it to find another solar system and discover an inhabitable world. A widowed engineer and former NASA pilot Cooper (McConaughey) learns of this expedition in ways that are supernatural, mystical, and also a big part of the film's narrative shortcomings. In fairly short order, Cooper then must face the decision of whether or not to leave his own two children behind to join the voyage and attempt to save humanity by traveling to a new galaxy to discover a planet that is inhabitable.
A film of this nature likely needs some explanation. No worries, Nolan provides with plenty of characters that seem more than happy to explain quantum physics and space-time equations to anyone who will listen. My guess is the script for the film must have looked similar to a rocket science textbook both in content and in heft. This is a chatty film, to be sure. Anne Hathaway plays Dr. Amelia Brand--one of these expositors who lectures enough throughout the film that you may find yourself looking for a spiral and a pen to take notes. However, despite all of the exposition, there are huge leaps along the way that offer no explanation whatsoever. Black holes, multiple dimensions, and even a sort of time travel are all at work, but some of the most tantamount points to the plot are never explained. McConaughey's Cooper certainly carries some of the actor's own ease and swagger--but his desperation and hopelessness seems characterized by the actor breathlessly delivering his lines as if he has just run a lap or two. Other PhD carrying characters are along for the galactic ride, but are nothing more than fodder for the film.
While the space expedition goes on, those on Earth continue to toil away amidst a sort of dystopian dust bowl. Though the movie tries to achieve a sort of Grapes of Wrath feel, it lacks the emotional stakes. There is a lot of blowing dirt and dust, along with nameless faces who seem to suffer through it--but Nolan never really connects with the idea that Earth is truly dying away. Jessica Chastain plays a scientist and mathematician who teams up with the ailing Professor Brand (Caine) to help solve more riddles of gravity and space travel in an effort to save the human race. There is more to be said about all the relational connections that all these characters share, but again, there isn't much of an emotional development. Instead, INTERSTELLAR seems more interested in seeing the audience invest in much of its over ambitious scientific ideals and technological marvels. As a result, it is the characters and plot who are left, quite literally, in the dust. There is more to be discussed here, including a third act that is nearly laughable if it wasn't reaching to try to be something deep and moving. Suffice to say that Nolan reaches for his own apex of a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-type moment and misses wildly with a sequence that will inspire more guffaws than climactic sighs of cinematic wonder.
There is still some aspects to enjoy here, including the deep space exploration, the spectacle of so much new technology, and a vision of a different type of global dystopia. There are glimmers of some interesting characters that are sketched out with a broad brushstrokes, and some scenarios in the plot that should offer more payoff than they actually bring. And for all of the explanations, exposition, and nearly 3 hour running time, the movie chooses some severe narrative shorthand--many times in some of the most critical plot points. At one point, a character shouts "EUREKA!" as if to announce a breakthrough that is a major turning point in the film. Problem is, the audience has absolutely no idea what that scientist has actually discovered, or how they even came to that conclusion. Instead, like other points in the film, the audience is asked just to listen, accept, and even embrace some pretty heady ideas without asking why or how. For a movie about space, the great unknown, and major sacrifices to save humanity--the film feels fairly flat with barely a climax to be found in its center. The harsh reality is that this is a film whose content creates a sort of strange hybrid. A movie designed for science geeks who are willing to ignore huge leaps in logic and care very little for plot or characterization. If that is you, likely this might be the best picture you see all year. However, for most in the audience, INTERSTELLAR will likely have people who are checking their watches about half way through and scratching their heads once they hit the lobby. It is a project that is conceptually bold and ambitious, but suffers from its own tedium. In the end, INTERSTELLAR promises a brave new world, but creates a fairly empty, clunky, and uninteresting one to experience. There is some aspirations of grandeur, but sadly--no emotional guts.
ALONE YET NOT ALONE describes itself as a historical adventure drama that is based on a true story. Taken from the book of the same name, it recalls the story of Barbara and Regina Leininger, who were taken forcibly from their German immigrant family in 1750s Pennsylvania.
Even if the words "loosely based" and "historical fiction" were employed here, it still would be grossly inaccurate to what someone might witness if they opted to purchase a ticket to this film. The box office claimed that over 40 tickets has been purchased for the matinee I attended, though only nine were in the theater. I might speculate that churches and Christian organizations might be buying blocks of tickets for the memberships to attend and support this movie. Who knows. If so, it is a terrible waste of the cash in the church coffers. Lauded by conservative groups and Christian organizations for its story of faith through struggle-- it might work as sort of a 700 Club's Best Picture of the year, or double as a midnight movie that causes audiences to break into spontaneous laughter. I suppose that all depends on your point of view. The author of the book--Tracy Leininger Craven--just happens to also be an author of historical fiction... yet *this* is a true story. RIIIiiiiight. She also claims that her grandmother recounted this epic family story to her... which would make her grandmother about 270 years old. She additionally shares that she began the writing of the book when she was just nine years old. Not sure how many revisions it had since...
The film opens with the German immigrant Leininger family fresh off the boat in America. Why choose America? Because America, offers freedom of religion. That--and the fact that stupid Canada will only accept "those Catholics." (Yes, the film opens with a Protestant knock on Catholicism. Yes, really) We see the Leininger's establish their homestead, read the Bible, and smile... a lot. German immigrants have really white teeth for pioneer-types. Seems as if the frontier in 1755 was pretty awesome. Great enough that every line of dialogue seems like a quote from the dust jacket of any book in the inspirational section of Barnes and Noble. Meanwhile--the French and Indian war rages. Native Americans meet with the British but are turned away because... savages. Undaunted, the tribe leaders decide to leave and create an alliance with the French. At this point, the script becomes a sort of selective delivery of historical factoids of the French and Indian War from lots of actors in bad costumes and makeup using terrible accents.
(At this point in the film, my wife turned to me to point out that apparently by the year 1755 the Native Americans had gained complete mastery of the English language. Hmmm. Indeed.)
The two sisters are taken by the Native Americans after their home is raided and their family is killed. They join several other white kids who are summarily marched around in the wilderness by the evil savages for no apparent reason except to wait for someone to escape... so the savages can kill them, of course.
Note: White kids that walk in the forest for days will have lots of dirt on their faces and terribly matted hair. Meanwhile, the indigenous tribal folks' hair suffer no ill effects. It is so crazy how the frontier works.
The sisters are eventually separated for the purposes of the plot and forced to grow up with the Native Americans--who teach them awful skills like planting crops, orienting their way in the wilderness, living off the land, and spiritual values. Savages, no doubt. Young Barbara's hair is painted by the tribe and mud is rubbed on her body so she can "fit in" with the rest of the savages. The film adds the requisite "a few years pass" phrase on screen so they can switch actresses. Too bad, too because the new Barbara Leininger is played by Kelly Greyson and is a far worse actress than her child counterpart. Not only that, but in just a few years, it seems that Barbara's eye color has changed and she has aged a couple of decades. Those few years *can* be tough out there living on the frontier. Also, that hair dye those tribes use is really effective. It seems to have permanently changed Barbara to a brunette. Now posed to marry the chief's son, Barbara attempts to proselytize her future husband. When that doesn't take, there is only one thing left to do: ESCAPE! Barbara and the rest of the Caucasians flee for their lives to the arms of the loving British.
Undaunted by bad costumes, terrible acting, awful accents, and historical inaccuracies ALONE YET NOT ALONE moves from having its audience break out in spontaneous laughter to being offended by its racism. This includes multiple descriptions of the indigenous native Americans as "savages", watching them eat dead field mice, and having nearly every death on screen happen at their hands. Forget that they were being summarily wiped out at even this early stage of American history... never mind that they had a better grasp on food, care of family, and cleanliness. Once Barbara and her friends are rescued by a fort full of soldiers, one British officer offers the girls an extra perk. We know he is British because he is in a red coat of course-- that IS how you know. You sure wouldn't based on the terrible accent. This kind Brit offers for the girls to have a bath. "These women haven't had a hot bath in years after all..."
Except... you know... history.
You see, it was actually the indigenous Native Americans who were known for their attention to grooming and hygiene. It was the Europeans who feared bathing. Oh... pesky details.
Later--after a bath--Barbara is back to being a blonde. I guess that silly tribal hair dye wasn't permanent, after all. Either that or only the soap of white people could wash it out. Not the rivers she swam in just earlier, or just, you know, TIME could wash it out. Barbara's long blonde coif now has beautiful curls as well. It seems the British also had very early versions of curling irons in their remote frontier forts. The more you know...
Later country music singer Clay Walker shows up as Fritz... a neighbor from the past... to marry Barbara. Being that Walker is actually 44 years old, and actress Kelly Greyson looks to be about the same is seems OK...till the script informs us that only about 10 years have passed. Weird that the two of them are the only characters that actually aged though. Mom, brothers, and other characters from the first reel look *exactly* as they did before. The whole aging, hair thing. Tough to get past. Sort of like the rest of the movie.
Finally, Barbara is reunited with her sister Regina that we saw back in the first reel. They find her by singing an old family hymn. Maybe Regina will hear them sing and she will come home. This hymn happens to also be the same song that shares the title of the film and was banned from its Oscar nomination this year for an attempt at cheating the Awards process! So apparently this song attracts wayward family members--just not Oscar votes.
Taken from their families, enslaved for over a decade, and finally reunited. So--sort of like 12 YEARS A SLAVE for white people. Either really offensive or totally hilarious. Sometimes both.
ALONE YET NOT ALONE encapsulates everything that is wrong with Christian filmmaking. Grass roots attempts to see films that are blatantly racist and laughably inaccurate, and a below average cast whose acting ranges from no reaction to EVERY EMOTION IN THE WORLD ALL AT ONCE! It shouldn't even be screened as the TBN movie of the week. Even among its Christian movie peers, ALONE YET NOT ALONE is the least of these. And when I say "least", I mean worst. Don't go see it. Don't support it. It is all that is wrong with the sub genre of "Christian" filmmaking. Leave this one... alone and really alone.
From the director that brought us THE BOURNE IDENTITY comes a new political thriller that poses a bit more controversy than how shaky the hand held camera is. In this new political thriller FAIR GAME we see a docudrama retelling of the Valerie Plame case. Don't know who that is? I would suggest you could catch up with her story right here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valerie_Plame. For those of you who are familiar with this politically framed story...well depending on what you think of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, and the former White House aide Karl Rove will likely determine if you are going to like this film. I mean, you know a movie is going to be seen as controversial when three different couples in Dallas, Texas get up and walk out.
Naomi Watts plays ousted CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, married to former ambassador Tom Wilson, who is played by Sean Penn. Both performances are really spectacular. I have not been that impressed with Naomi Watts in the past, and as I write this, nothing significant comes to mind of her work. However, this is a really great performance of a woman holding secrets, living a covert life, and acting as wife, mom, and secret agent all at the same time. Less a female James Bond and more of an intelligence gatherer, Valerie's work puts her and others in very compromising positions in terms of physical...and political safety. I actually didn't keep up much with the Valerie Plame case in the media--it just came across to me as another scandal in Washington--with a CIA operative that was hung out to dry. The film here does a great job of mixing actual CNN and CSPAN footage into the mix of the film to give a greater sense of feeling, as a viewer, that you are in the moment. Sean Penn shows himself (again) to be one of the absolute greatest American actors of our time. He plays Wilson well as a white knight taking on Washington with maybe a bit too much ego. I appreciated his performance of a man who stands up for what he believes...even to the point in which those scruples become damaging to others. Penn is vulnerable here as a driven man on a mission. I predict a Best Supporting nomination for him here.
I also appreciated some small performances in the film of a sister and brother trapped in the war in Iraq--those who worked to help stop the war and work with Valerie Plame as informants. These are portrayals of Muslims in film that are neither terrorists nor evil. The portrayal of these people could have been filled with cliches and stereotypes. Instead, they were played as fragile humans trapped in the horrors of war. It is a brave depiction.
The film does get a bit preachy as the web of deceit begins to unwind. As a result, the film loses a bit of steam near the end. However, there is a lot here to admire--and it treats the Plame case with a fair hand--despite what, no doubt, others might argue. If you have a framed photo of Scooter Libby on your desk or a signed copy of Karl Rove's book on your nightstand--safe to say you are likely not interested in watching the Bush administration get another black eye. However, it is a intriguing depiction of corruption, war, and politics at the highest level. Recommended.
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is a film that every educator should see...and every parent with a school age child must experience. This film deals with the growing concern toward public education in our country and is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who has brought us films like AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and IT MIGHT GET LOUD. In fact, these three films together are all in the top 100 grossing documentaries of all time. And for good reason...
WFS does what any great documentary does. When I saw NO END IN SIGHT--I began to look further into our wars overseas. After LOOSE CHANGE, I began to further examine the truth (and lies) behind 9/11. Even the recent film CATFISH brings one to consider the dangers of social media and self-identity. Though I don't know if I agree with everything I have seen in these films, they do call me to learn more...to understand what the film is portraying. In other words, they cause me to care. And in that act, a great documentary is created.
Guggenheim has a difficult job. The education system and its glut of bureaucracy has created a monster that is fairly simple to describe, but much more difficult to rise up and slay. All of the statistics in the film that Guggenheim quotes are made much easier by some of the animations that he uses to show them on screen, though over time, the film gets so filled with facts that by the end they are dulled, just washing over you. Instead, the film works when it personalizes the educational barriers with the portrayals of all the children affected by the system. The film follows several children that are looking for alternative methods to our traditional education system--mostly through charter schools. Their stories are victorious and heartbreaking. Here is where this film draws you in.
It is also most effective in its other nice antecdotes. The story told that offers the origin of the title of the film is particularly effective. The story of Michelle Rhee's controversial rise as the superintendent of DC schools is very compelling. Though Guggenheim never points his finger at any one single culprit in the film--know that there are several potential suspects in the crimes against today's schools. From teacher unions that protect bad teachers, education tracking systems to categorize students in the system, to the glut of school boards, superintendents, and politicians that prevent schools from doing what they need to do to succeed.
Like some of the documentaries I mentioned, all of what the film presents is hard to swallow. No doubt, there are some facts, accounts, and even incidents that have been embellished for the sake of the film. However, one look at the film's depiction of New York State's "rubber room" for wayward teachers is enough to make you stand up and yell at the screen.
I encourage you to find this film. Watch it. Do some research. More importantly...get involved. I have a college daughter who will soon enter this system as a middle school science teacher. For her sake and her future students--I hope something will bring about the changes needed to improve this system. Maybe this film will. Or maybe we all will.
HEREAFTER is a film that effectively entwines the beautiful with the melancholy. Directed by Clint Eastwood, for me--it is one of his strongest films in the last decade. Where INVICTUS lacked good storytelling, and GRAN TORINO suffered at times with the amateur actors that Eastwood surrounded himself with, HEREAFTER brings a story well told together with some great performances.
The film follows three different characters who are all struggling with tragedy in their own lives. Cecile de France plays Marie LeLay--a french news reporter who is victim to a natural disaster--one of the film's most devastating scenes. First time actor George McLaren is Marcus--a young British boy who seeks a spiritual connection to who he has lost. Finally, our protagonist George Lonegan (played by Matt Damon) is a lonely spiritual psychic who has been blessed with a gift/curse of being able to communicate with those who have passed into the hereafter.
Told in a distinctly french film style, the film carefully weaves each of these stories together. As each character struggles with spiritual issues, loneliness, despondency, and depression...they seek hope in something that lies beyond them. Eastwood has touched on spirituality in some of his past films, but never to this level. Without espousing any religion or belief, the film is careful about what truth it does surmise: that there is something else after this life. In addition, there is a marvelous and haunting score, also created by Eastwood, that helped create a somber tone for the film. Matt Damon is absolutely at his best here as a lonely man who struggles in his own life to find love and fullfullment. There is a nice turn here by Bryce Dallas Howard as a friend that George meets along the way, and Jay Mohr is really effective here outside his typical comedy routines. Playing George's older brother Billy, his desire to cash in on his brother's ability seems as bad as those spiritual mediums who are posers and charlatans looking to make a buck. His performance is just subtle enough to make you cringe at his ploys.
For personal reasons, I found this film particularly moving, and for those who have struggled with some of the same questions that these characters do, I expect this film will speak to you as well. Though Damon is effective, it is perhaps the story of young Marcus that will tug at the hearts of the audience, enough to tear them apart. A film much in the same style of THE SIXTH SENSE, it slowly tells its story, develops the characters, and brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.
For a man at 83, Eastwood continues to churn out some of the best films of our time...and is making almost a film a year...far beyond that of auteurs like Scorsese, Fincher, or Spielberg. A true artist, I look forward to his next projects. HEREAFTER is one of his best.
Better than I thought it would be. Good mix of action and laughs.
Nice way to spend a day at the movies.
The BEST time I had at the movies this year. (yes that includes Iron Man).
The action goes over the top and keeps on goin. Fun, great mythology that "weaves" a good enough story to keep you interested. McAvoy does a great turn here...and the rest of the cast delivers as well. This one had me laughing out loud, clapping, and wincing at the screen.
In short--just what you have heard--an action thrill ride. THIS is what Summer Movies should really be all about...