Weed the People


A father teaches his son to “grow your own”.

(2018) Documentary (Mangurama) Mara Gordon, Bonni Goldstein, Tracey Ryan, AJ Kephart, Amanda Reiman, Sunil Agarwal, Shirley Kephart, Josh Ryan, Sharon Lane, Angela Peterson, Yohai Gulan Gild, Jeffrey Rabe, Donald Abrams, Adrian Peterson, Chris Kephart, Angela Smith, Ethan Nadelmann, Stewart Smith, Angela Harris, Alice O’Leary-Randall. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

Marijuana has been demonized for decades in this country. The FDA has placed marijuana on an equal footing with heroin in terms of enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the country wants it legalized, particularly for its medicinal benefits but our government refuses to even consider it, largely because Big Pharma wants it to remain criminalized.

This film argues the case for legalization rather effectively, following five families with children who are afflicted with cancer. Desperate for relief from pain and suffering both from the disease and the chemo treatments, the parents turn from traditional medicine to alternative cures. California, where medical marijuana has been legalized for years, is the setting here and a family from Chicago, which sets up residency in California in order to get the cannabis oil that might be keeping their son alive, is also followed here.

Physician and advocate Bonni Goldstein counsels family through the sometimes confusing process of qualifying for the medical marijuana program is profiled as well as Mara Gordon, a former process engineer who has become a cannabis oil cooker, helping patients determine the dosage needed for their children. “We are lab rats,” she states grimly and indeed it’s true; there has been very little research done into the use of cannabis to treat cancer and much of what Gordon does is through trial and error. Sometimes the results are spectacular, bordering on the miraculous as tumors shrink and cancers flees. In one case here, the usage of the cannabis cannot stop the child’s death from his disease.

There are a lot of talking heads and a lot of scientists and doctors giving mainly anecdotal evidence – as I said there is little in the way of formal studies – about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating cancer, improving appetite and reducing pain. The science and logic are well supported even though some of the science (particularly when they talk about cannibinoids and chemistry) went sailing over my sadly non-scientific head but the filmmakers do make a very good case.

However, one can’t help but feel manipulated. Any good will that the movie generates for its cause disappears in light that the filmmakers use children exclusively to make their point. Adults need cannabis oil just as desperately as children do but sick kids make more of an emotional impact. It reeks of dirty pool and while I suppose that the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window when a family member is in a life or death fight, it still rubbed me the wrong way and felt a little exploitative to boot.

I also felt that the filmmakers were presenting cannabis as a cure that can’t fail, like penicillin was once. The fact is that cannabis is ineffective for some people (one of the children, as I stated, didn’t survive) and that may well be due to the lack of clinical studies – and I totally agree that such studies should be undertaken forthwith. Still, it seems a bit cruel to build up the hope for parents of sick kids or families of sick adults. Even Gordon, who approaches the subject with level-headed perspective born of an engineering background, cautions “I can’t promise anything,” as she sits down with those who are desperate for anything. The treatment is prohibitively expensive and isn’t covered by most insurance policies.

One physician early on cautions “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence’,” and the filmmakers seems to lose sight of that here. The stories are indeed compelling, the subject is indeed worth exploring, the advocates interviewed are indeed passionate and the children quietly courageous. All that is to the good. If Epstein had handled the subject with a little bit more of an even hand, I think her documentary would have been far more persuasive. I support the conclusions more in spite of the film than because of it – not what I’m sure any filmmaker wants to hear about their documentary

REASONS TO GO: It’s an important topic that needs to be addressed. The advocates are engaging and truly passionate. The children with cancer are resilient, courageous and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads and the science sometimes goes over mine. The filmmakers are a little too biased.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references although mostly in medical terms.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, it has only been illegal in this country for about 75 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super High Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bodied

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The Lazarus Effect


Olivia gets a little Wilde.

Olivia gets a little Wilde.

(2015) Horror (Relativity) Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Scott Sheldon, Emily Kelavos, James Earl, Amy Aquino, Sean T. Krishnan, Ator Tamras, Liisa Cohen, Jennifer Floyd, Bruno Gunn, Scott L. Treiger. Directed by David Gelb

There was a horror movie back in the 60s that was somewhat ironically titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. In the decades since, we have learned that adults pretty much shouldn’t either.

Zoe (Wilde) and Frank (Duplass) are young doctors in love. Well, actually they’re more like medical researchers than actual MDs but you get my drift. Along with young researchers Clay (Peters) and Niko (Glover) they have created a formula that, with judiciously applied electricity (shades of Frankenstein) can extend the life of the dying, allowing doctors more time to repair what is killing the patient and saving lives. They bring in a comely videographer named Eva (Bolger) to document their impending breakthrough.

Except it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it revives a dead dog. Brings it right back to life, and even cures the cataracts which were the cause that the dog’s owner had their pet put down for in the first place. Cause to celebrate, no?

Well, not quite yet. For one thing, the dog is moody, refuses to eat or drink and is mostly lethargic except for bouts of absolute mother humping menace that have the researchers freaked out, particularly the e-Cig puffing Clay who is normally the prankster of the bunch. He’s a little freaked out by the pooch who certainly looks to have a bit of the devil in him.

Well, their research also has the effect on the marketplace as well. The small pharmaceutical company which underwrote their research at the university has been gobbled up by a bigger one who really want their Lazarus formula. The smarmy CEO (Wise) shows up to collect it, which because Frank, the author of the grant proposal, didn’t read the fine print on the contract, is entitled to lock, stock and barrel, although the comely videographer manages to spirit Fido away before the vivisectionists get hold of him.

Frank is quite properly cheesed off about the whole situation and in a fit of pique, decides to recreate the experiment while their equipment is still in the lab. So late one dark and stormy night – well, it’s a night anyway – they sneak into the lab and attempt to revive one last frozen but dead dog.

But something goes horribly wrong and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what it is and without going into too much detail, they are forced to conduct human experiments a little sooner than they had intended to. However, what they don’t realize is that the Lazarus formula plucks the soul right out of the afterlife and if that afterlife happened to be Hell, then the thing that comes back isn’t quite human and isn’t quite happy about it. A childhood trauma becomes the basis of a hell all of the team is going to go through, alive or not and before the night is over there will be a lot more bodies available to use the Lazarus serum on.

This is a short but sweet little thriller clocking in at well less than 90 minutes which is a good thing because I don’t think the story could have sustained a whole lot of extraneous business. Most of the action takes place at the lab (although a few scenes take place in the lobby of the building, in the office of the dean and in the apartment that Zoe and Frank share) which may be the most underlit medical lab in the history of college research facilities. You half expect the Boogie Man to reside here on a permanent basis.

Duplass, who has become something of an indie film darling for the movies he’s co-directed with his brother Jay (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) as well as his television work on The League and more recently the HBO series Togetherness. He’s actually pretty charismatic as an actor and he works really well with Wilde, who has been on the verge of breakout stardom for awhile now. In a lot of ways it’s frustrating to watch Wilde who is so very good in most everything she does and she’s just so close to making the next level but the right role to put her over that hump eludes her. This isn’t the movie that will do it, although she is very, very good in it.

The movie was made for next to nothing and relies more on practical effects than on CGI for the cool factor. Horror fans are going to find this a bit light on scares, although there are a couple of good ones. What is to be commended is that there is a great deal more character development than is typical for low-budget horror movies. What is to be condemned is that the film’s plot relies overly much on smart people – these folks are educated after all – doing dumb things. Even the scientifically challenged like myself could have told Frank and Zoe that their bright idea of recreating the experiment so that they could prove that the research was theirs would end badly.

There’s stuff here to like, but there is also a lot of stuff here to not. My big problem is that the atmosphere of fear that is vital to any horror film just isn’t pervasive enough. I can forgive a movie that starts slowly and builds to a roller coaster of a climax, but The Lazarus Effect is more of a kiddy coaster that could have used a few inversions and taller lift hills to give its audience a better ride.

REASONS TO GO: Duplass and Wilde make an attractive pair. Does a whole lot with a little.
REASONS TO STAY: Smart people doing stupid things. Not as scary as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome subject matter, intense horror violence, some sexual references and a surprisingly small amount of merely mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually filmed in 2013 and was scheduled to be released by Lionsgate. However, internal management changes at the studio led to the movie being shelved for a year and a half with Lionsgate selling the U.S. distribution rights to Relativity although they did retain the overseas rights.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Home of the Brave

Daybreakers


Ethan Hawke tends bar.

Ethan Hawke tends bar.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Vince Colosimo, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas, Claudia Karvan, Paul Sonkkila, Mungo McKay, Emma Randall, Charlotte Wilson, Christopher Kirby, John Gibson, Carl Rush, Tiffany Lamb, Robyn Moore, Michelle Atkinson, Glen Martin, Damien Garvey, Jay Laga’aia, Chris Brown, Kirsten Cameron, Candice Storey. Directed by Michael and Peter Speirig

Don’t we all just love those movie trailers that begin with the immortal words “In a world…”? This should have had a trailer like that (and maybe it did) but it might begin “In a world where 95% of the population are vampires.” Now wouldn’t that grab your attention?

Edward Dalton (Hawke) is a hematologist. No big deal to thee and me but in a world (there’s that phrase again) full of vampires it’s an important position, particularly in a world (and yet again) where humans are dying off, meaning the planet’s food supply is hitting critical mass, it’s an important job. Dalton has been tasked by the vampire equivalent of Big Pharma, a company called Bromley Marks, to develop a human blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. Easier said than done since vampires by their nature have rather delicate constitution; a test sample literally causes the subject’s head to explode. Yikes!

This does not make chairman Charles Bromley (Neill) a happy man needless to say and Edward’s day only gets worse on the drive home when he gets into a car accident. Worse still, the car is full of renegade humans. Edward, more of a reluctant vampire who has an aversion to human blood, protects them when the police arrive.

More bad news when he gets home. Edward’s brother Frankie (Dorman) pays him a surprise visit. The brothers have been estranged for some time; Frankie works as a soldier in the human-hunting vampire army and the two have shall we say severe philosophical differences. The two are attacked by a subsider, a bestial vampire who haven’t fed for some time who have lost their memories and identity and exist solely as a slave to their hunger for blood, doesn’t matter whose. The entire vampire race is in danger of becoming these subsiders if a new blood source isn’t found soon. In fact, Bromley candidly admits that Bromley Marks only has about a month’s supply left.

Audrey (Karvan), the leader of the humans that Edward had encountered the previous night, sends him a note to meet her in a desolate spot. There she introduces him to Elvis (Dafoe), a former vampire who has returned to human form again. Edward is excited at the prospect of regaining his humanity and once more venturing out into the sunlight, something vampires are unable to do. He agrees to help Elvis discover how to safely administer the cure.

In the meantime desperation has led to chaos in the vampire community and Edward becomes cognizant of the fact that those who stand to benefit from a blood shortage are the ones who would also benefit from a cure never reaching the vampire community. Games of politics and power are afoot and both the human and vampire species hang in the balance. Can Edward and his human allies get the cure out to the vampires before both species go extinct?

The brothers Speirig got this gig on the strength of Undead, their clever and innovative 2003 zombie movie. This isn’t quite up to those standards, although I will admit their vision of a vampire society ruling the globe is intelligently thought out. The vampire society is believable as an extension of our own, with similar values albeit a more cavalier attitude towards morality. Although not by much.

For those of us who love B-movies, there is plenty here to love – nasty creatures, plenty of gore and violence, a bit of sexiness and some over-the-top visuals. Everything to pander to the baser instinct of the moviegoer which is not in and of itself a bad thing. Sometimes we need the schlock entertainment of a good grindhouse movie. Quentin Tarantino recognizes that and more and more filmmakers have come to understand just how informed our society is by these movies.

The sense of humor here is quirky and a bit on the sick side, so if you like your jokes punctuated by exploding body parts, this will no doubt appeal to you. Most of the action sequences with a couple of exceptions are well-staged and exciting, although not what you would call game-changing. Nothing new here, but what is here is well-executed.

I wish I could say the same about the cinematography and visual effects. Due to their aversion to UV light, the vampires live their lives essentially indoors and in bunker-like conditions. This makes for murky atmospherics made worse when there seems to be a constant out-of-focus element to the photography. Now perhaps I got a poorly processed disc for home viewing but everything looked like it was filmed with bad fluorescent lighting, making everything look dreary. The CGI are likewise slapdash and could have used a bit of refinement.

Other than that this is solidly entertaining and Hawke, while not one of his better roles, at least makes a game effort for a genre he has admitted he’s not terribly fond of. Dafoe is, well, Dafoe and that should tell you all you need to know about his performance. Most of the rest of the cast are fairly unknown here in the States (this is an Australian production; the German-born brothers Speirig have lived there since boyhood) but are pretty competent. While this is more of an action film, I did miss the sensuality that most vampire films tend to have; it could have used a little more of it.

Still in an era where vampire movies have essentially lost their luster due to the Twilight/Vampire Chronicles generation, this is one of those rarities – a vampire movie that actually appeals to more than the preteen female audience. It is appealing in an ironic sort of way that the vampire protagonist here shares a first name with the romantic focus of Twilight. I for one am happy to champion these sorts of films if it means that we can get the nastier monsters of old that we used to love to fear.

WHY RENT THIS: B-Movie goodness. A sick sense of humor while not for everybody, was good for some intentional laughs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dark and murky cinematography. Cringe-worthy CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly strong bloody violence, brief nudity and a fair amount of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2007, the movie sat on the studio shelf for more than a year before being released overseas. It’s American release was on January 8, 2010 – nearly three years after filming had been completed.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film the Speirig brothers directed from 2000 that gives a good sense of their visual style, as well as a gallery showing the various lobby posters and marketing for the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.4M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stake Land
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Case 39

Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating

Love and Other Drugs


Love and Other Drugs

Jake Gyllenhaal and Oliver Platt practice their Blues Brothers routine.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Josh Gad, Hank Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Geer, George Segal, Jill Clayburgh, Katheryn Winnick, Kate Jennings Grant, Kimberly Scott, Nikki Deloach, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold. Directed by Edward Zwick

We’re obsessed by love and its close physical cousin, sex. We write songs about it, make movies about it, write reams of poems and self-help books about it, and pray for it in our most fervent nights of loneliness. We’ve even tried to make drugs that will improve it, but in the end the human heart cannot be saved by any pills or salve.

Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is the kind of guy that can sell anything. He is suave, sure of himself, charming and handsome. He can sell stereo equipment – or himself as a bed partner, and does both with equal success. Well, one more than the other to be sure.

After being fired from his latest job for sleeping with the manager’s girlfriend (in the storage room in the back to make things worse), he has to face his parents (Segal and the late Jill Clayburgh). His dad is a successful doctor in Chicago as is his sister (Gold). His brother Josh (Gad) is a software geek whose IPO has made him wealthy and whose trophy wife has made him crazy. Jamie, a chronic underachiever who dropped out of med school, is a disappointment.

Josh gets him an interview at Pfizer and Jamie does well enough to get a job in the heartland (I hear Ohio although the movie is filmed mostly in Pittsburgh and environs) pimping Zoloft for Bruce Winston (Platt), who dreams of a promotion to Chicago where he may spend more time with his family. He recognizes that Jamie might just be the guy to get him there.

The tough nut to crack here is Dr. Stan Knight (Azaria), a dedicated Prozac guy who is tight with Trey (Macht), the matinee idol ex-Marine rep who sells it. After being rebuffed time and time again about placing free samples in the doctor’s pharmacy, he at last wins Dr. Knight with a thousand dollar check that allows Jamie to “shadow” Dr. Knight for a day. It is then that he meets Maggie Murdoch (Hathaway), a 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient who needs her meds replaced. She also has a blotch on her breast, which she shows to the good doctor – and Jamie, who is introduced to her as an intern. When she later finds out he is a pharmaceutical rep, she hits the roof. However, the charming Jamie is taken by her and manages to sooth her enough to get an invite for coffee. This leads to frenzied sex on her living room floor.

Thus begins a strange courtship that both agree will be strictly physical. Jamie is perfectly all right with that – Maggie is a tiger in the bedroom (or any other place the urge to fornicate takes them) and a no strings attached situation is perfect for him. Maggie has her own reasons – she doesn’t want to get close to someone only to have them leave once they figure out how exactly what being in love with a Parkinson’s patient entails. It’s happened to her before, after all.

Jamie is struggling as a rep until Pfizer comes out with a new wonder drug – a little blue pill called Viagra. Once that comes out, Jamie’s career is blazing. He is writing more prescriptions than the company can keep up with, which is just fine with them. He is certainly on the fast track for Chicago, and he has an in with Dr. Knight who is a wannabe ladies man which Jamie can certainly relate to – and assist with.

In the meantime, his relationship with Maggie has taken a strange turn – he’s fallen in love with her. It’s never happened to him before, a man who has committed to nothing or nobody before in his life. Now that he has, he doesn’t know what to do. For Maggie’s part, every instinct in her is screaming to get out of this relationship but against her better judgment she is falling for him too. She has to wonder what is going to get in between them first – her illness or Jamie’s career.

This has all the elements of a Hollywood romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, things go great until either a misunderstanding, a pre-arranged event or a lie get in between them, boy wins back girl in the final reel. However, this isn’t a romantic comedy per se. What it really is about dealing with obstacles.

Director Zwick has some pretty big canvas films on his resume (Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) all of which are among my favorite films of the past two decades. He is also one of the creators of the TV series “Thirtysomething” which I think is closer in tone to this movie which is kind of odd because I really didn’t like “Thirtysomething” – I found it whiny. So why did I like this movie?

There are a number of reasons. First and foremost are the performances of the leads. Gyllenhaal has made a number of really good movies (Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko, October Sky) but really hasn’t gotten a multi-layered role that he can truly sink his teeth into until now and he does very well with it. Jamie is basically a good guy wrapped up in layers of self-loathing and oversexed frat boy marked by an ambition to prove his father wrong and a willingness to go through people instead of around them to get what he wants.

As marvelous as Gyllenhaal is, he takes a backseat to Hathaway here. This is her coming out party as a serious actress after years of Disney Channel-esque roles. The potential she hints at in Rachel Getting Married is realized here. She is a scared and lonely woman who desperately wants to reach out and be held but realizes that nobody will want the baggage that comes with her. The pain is palpable and so is the compassion, and at every turn you are simply taken by her. It’s easy to see why Jamie falls in love with her; half the men in the audience would be too.

There is a good deal of sexuality in this movie; in that sense it is honest and true to its own convictions. While the kind of nudity and sex that is shown in this movie was common in the 70s, it is relatively unusual in 21st century Hollywood. Of particular note is that the sex and nudity are germane to the story and the characters, not merely inserted for titillation purposes (forgive the pun). I admire Zwick for having the courage to stick to his guns for the movie; it couldn’t have been easy to convince the studio to allow it and it certainly must have been difficult to get it past the MPAA who are notoriously rough on sex scenes as opposed to violence lately.

Ambition and tenderness can be opposing forces, but one can be a great motivator for the other as well. This is a movie about a real relationship, one that doesn’t go smoothly but could be the salvation of both parties involved. Yes, there is a bit of Hollywood in the mix – too good to be true syndrome – but nonetheless the relationship at the heart of the movie rings true. That’s more than I can say for the great majority of movie romances today, so when you find a good one, you mark it as precious. This isn’t mindless entertainment by any means – a wrenching scene when Jamie meets the husband (Friedman) of a Parkinson’s patient in the advanced stages will cure you of that notion. He details to Jamie what he can expect and tells him in no uncertain terms that his advice to him is to get out of the relationship while he still can. It’s the best scene in the film that doesn’t involve Hathaway.  This is a very good movie that is a little bit flawed to be great but nonetheless it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Hathaway that is worth seeing on its own. You might miss this one among the more hyped films like Burlesque and Little Fockers but this one might be the one you should see.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Hathaway and Gyllenhaal, as well as fine supporting performances by Platt, Gad and Azaria. Takes a good hard look at the cost of loving someone with a degenerative illness.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really the hard-hitting look at the pharmaceutical industry that the book is. Swings wildly between the romantic elements, the drama and the comedy and never really takes a stab at any of them.

FAMILY VALUES: You will see a lot of female breasts and most of them are Anne Hathaway’s. There is also Jake Gyllenhaal’s tush for those keeping track of celebrity flesh. There are also a whole lot of bad words as well as plenty of sexual innuendo not to mention actual sex. In short, probably okay for raging teen hormones but not for those who might not understand the ramifications of sex quite yet.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” by Jamie Reidy. His book is a non-fiction account of his time as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer. After the book came out, Reidy – who was then working as a salesman for a different pharmaceutical firm – was fired from his job.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of intimate movie that might make for a peculiar date night, but it also could be enjoyed just as easily at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men