The Last Shaman


White privilege personified.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) James Freeman, Pepe, Sherry Haydock, Mason Wright Freeman, Ron, Guillermo, Kate. Directed by Raz Degan

 

Depression is not a medical issue to be trifled with. Every year, approximately 40,000 Americans take their own lives; anywhere from 50-75% of these suicides were motivated by depression. It affects over 25 million Americans, many of whom are unable to get treatment for it. In general, the medical industry treats depression with mood-altering drugs although regular psychotherapy is also used.

James Freeman has a severe case of depression. A young man born of wealth and privilege, both of his parents are physicians. They were able to afford to send him to the Phillips Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and a feeder school for Ivy League universities. However, schools of that nature put an enormous amount of stress on the students to excel. As Freeman graduated and later attended Middlebury College, he began to develop suicidal thoughts.

He did what he was supposed to. He saw psychiatrists, took the pills prescribed. He attended therapy sessions. As his condition grew more and more extreme, he even underwent electroconvulsive therapy, a kind of brain reboot which isn’t unlike electroshock treatment that is no longer practiced. Nothing worked. Freeman felt dead inside and his relationships with his parents and his girlfriend Kate suffered. James was a different person.

Desperate for solutions, he discovered testimonies about a plant found in the Peruvian Amazon called ayahuasca which had helped a number of people who were suffering from clinical depression. He decided to go down to Peru and find a shaman to administer the plant to him. His estranged father, who had approved of the electroconvulsive therapy, was not altogether pleased about the ayahuasca escapade; his mother also attempted to discourage him, but James was adamant. He felt that this was his last attempt to save his own life; if it didn’t work after ten months, he would be okay to kill himself as he would have tried everything.

So off to Peru and James finds that in some ways that ayahuasca is becoming commercialized. He meets several shaman and they seem more interested in money than in healing. Even a bantam-like America named Ron who had studied the rituals and knowledge of the Peruvian shaman ruefully exclaims “Every foreigner down here is out to exploit these people, myself included.” At one of the rituals, James witnesses the death by overdose of someone who shouldn’t have ingested the drug (and whom, the shaman emphatically states, he tried to talk him out of doing just that).

Finally, in a remote Shipibo village, he finally meets Pepe who refuses to take payment for his treatment. James is made to undergo a 100 day diet of tobacco and rice in isolation before undergoing the ayahuasca ceremony followed by being buried alive, for seven hours, then dug up and “reborn.”

During his isolation, James keeps a video diary and talks about having visions of the plants themselves (or representations thereof) talking to him and explaining that he is to be reborn. Following all of this we see James smiling, interacting with people and playing with local children. He seems to have been cured – but at a cost. Pepe is removed from the village for giving medicine away without charge. It seems the Non-Government Organization working with the village is trying to get them to use their medicines for profit and the betterment of the lives of the villagers. The capitalist rat race, it seems, has reached the Amazon.

The jungle locations are breathtaking at times, and also Degan gives us a glimpse into the local culture which is also welcome. Both of these items are what make seeing this documentary somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the director makes some serious missteps. Much of the documentary feels staged, from James’ massive mood change and the shots of him interacting with the locals to the mood shots of the mom staring out the window in concern and particularly the sorta-psychedelic shots that are meant to convey the effects of the drug on James. Those moments don’t help the documentary at all and take the viewer out of the experience every time Degan utilizes them, which is fairly often.

The documentary also has to overcome James himself. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is able to afford to fly off to South America for exotic cures; most people who suffer from depression can’t do so. It’s not really fair to minimize depression; it’s a very real and often deadly mental illness and there’s no doubt that James had a severe case of it. Mostly, it’s the perception of the audience; James often comes off as privileged and a little bit arrogant. The scene of him being paddled along a stream to the Shipibo village reeks of colonialism, even if unintentionally.

The film also comes off as an advertisement for drug use. We get almost no scientific reflection on the use of ayahuasca and how efficacious it might be. All we get is essentially anecdotal evidence. It’s like the stoner claims that marijuana is completely harmless; the fact of the matter is that nothing not part of the body that is added in excessive amounts is harmless. Even water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

It also feels that James isn’t confronting the source of his depression but merely medicating it. Maybe that’s something he intends to do and maybe I’m overindulging in armchair psychology but a lot about this documentary feels wrong. This is the rare instance in which I wish there’d been more talking heads; some expert commentary from psychiatrists, pharmacologists and physicians would have been welcome. I have to admit that I would be hesitant to recommend this line of treatment for anyone and despite the disclaimer that comes during the end credits, I can’ help that the filmmaker is advocating for just that.

REASONS TO GO: The Amazonian backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous. The look into indigenous culture is welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very staged and self-indulgent. The movie has to battle “poor little rich kid” syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of drug use as well as a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director got involved in the story after ayahuasca was used to help cure him of a respiratory illness and also helped his mother with her own depression.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mosquito Coast
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pop Aye

Patriots Day


These cops have no idea what's coming.

These cops have no idea what’s coming.

(2016) True Life Drama (CBS) Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Michele Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Christopher O’Shea, Rachel Brosnahan, Jake Picking, Lana Condor, Jimmy O. Yang, Melissa Benoist, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Martine Asaf, Michael Beach, Khandi Alexander, Cliff Moylan, Claudia Castriotta, James Colby, Billy Smith, Paige MacLean. Directed by Peter Berg

 

In many ways, our worth is determined by how our resolve is tested. It is at our worst moments when the best in us is drawn out. When the city of Boston was faced with an attack on their very identity, they showed the world more than extraordinary strength; they were Boston strong.

Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg) is not having a good day. He’s a gifted police officer who also has a gift for opening his mouth at the wrong moment. He has one more punishment duty to deal with – working as a uniformed officer at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. That also means putting on the yellow reflective vest which he thinks makes him look silly. His wife Carol (Monaghan) thinks it looks cute. To top it all off, Tommy’s knee is aching after kicking in a drug dealer’s door the night before and he forgets his brace at home; he asks Carol to bring it down to the finish line for him.

But Tommy’s day is about to get worse. Two Chechnyan brothers, Douchebag #1 (Melikidze) and Douchebag #2 (Wolff) have plans of their own. They plant two homemade bombs among the throngs watching the race at the finish line. After they stroll away, lost in the crowd, the bombs detonate, killing three people (including a child) and wounding scores. All is mayhem at the finish line.

Tommy takes charge, getting ambulances routed in and telling race officials to keep runners away. Medical personnel – some of them ex-military who knew what to do with wounds of this nature – respond immediately. Tommy’s boss, Commissioner Ed Davis (Goodman) takes charge as the FBI, in the person of Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Bacon) who takes immediate charge once he recognizes this was an act of terrorism.

But finding the bombers is like finding a needle in a haystack. Even with all the cameras trained on the event, not many were pointed at the crowd. With Tommy’s help knowing the area as well as he does, the authorities begin to close in on the perpetrators of this vile act but it will take the largest manhunt in U.S. history to catch these guys.

I was really glad I saw the documentary on the Marathon bombing (see below) the night before I saw this movie, mainly because I was able to see how close to the actual events the movie came. While the documentary focused on the victims and their recovery, this movie has more focus on the manhunt and those participating in it.

One of those participating in it is Saunders and while Wahlberg does a great job of developing his character, one of the big problems is that Saunders is wholly fictional. We soon realize that because he appears at nearly every major plot point in the film which after awhile takes me as a viewer out of the realism of the movie because other than that the movie is extremely realistic which is an impressive accomplishment for a Hollywood film.

The recreation of the bombing itself is impressive; Berg masterfully works in actual camera footage of the blast along with staged re-creations of it. Berg repeats this at various portions of the film. The Patriots Day bombing was one of the most documented incidents in history and there is a lot of footage available, some of it wildly seen, some of it not so much. Still, we get a good glimpse of the various stages of the manhunt, from the bombing itself to the capture of Douchebag #1 and Douchebag #2.

If you’re wondering why I don’t use the names of the two bombers, it’s because I don’t want history to remember them. If I could, I’d expunge their names from every document, from every post – from everywhere. People like this should be erased from history. They don’t deserve to be remembered.

On the other hand, the good people of Boston – the survivors of the bombing, the law enforcement personnel who chased and caught those miserable scumbags, the medics and surgeons who worked tirelessly on healing the wounded, even those who came out in support of Boston. There has been some grousing that this was made too soon after the bombing – only three years had passed when this was released. I probably am not someone who can judge this properly; I would leave that to the citizens of Boston, particularly those affected by the tragedy. However, this is certainly a movie that honors and respects the victims and those who fought to bring the douchebags to justice so all in all, I don’t think anyone can complain overly much about that.

REASONS TO GO: The film is surprisingly accurate. Strong performances throughout the cast buoy the film.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a loss of credibility by having Wahlberg play a fictional character.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and graphic images of injuries, some drug use and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Berg and Wahlberg that was based on a true story; the other two are Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Decanted: A Winemaker’s Journey

Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing


An act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sydney Corcoran, Daniel Linsky, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Kevin Corcoran, Deval Patrick, Chief Eduard Deveau, Celeste Corcoran, John Tlumacki, David Filipov, Patricia Wen, Jim Allen, Sgt. John MacLellan, Eric Moskowitz, Cpl. Clark Cavalier, Kelly Castine, Herman Kensky, Daniel Abel, Kieran Ramsey, Sgt. Brandon Dodson, Katy Kensky. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

 

Most of us remember well the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. It hasn’t been quite four years but few of us have forgotten the shock of a terrorist attack on a major city, the loss of life and limb and the intensive manhunt for the bombers that followed.

It was also one of the most documented events of our time; security cameras not only caught the explosions but also were instrumental in helping law enforcement catch the two despicable wastes of flesh whose names won’t be mentioned here; one of the two died in a police shoot-out, the other was captured and sentenced to death – hopefully by having a homemade bomb strapped to his ‘nads and then detonated.

My feelings about cowardly scum who set off bombs in crowds of innocent people aside, Stern and Sundberg have assembled a massive amount of footage and helped piece together the events of the bombing meticulously and clearly. They’ve also followed some of the survivors in their efforts to overcome the horrendous injuries that they sustained both physically and psychologically. They’ve talked to the police who pursued the bombers and the reporters from the Boston Globe who covered the attack and who often received horrible emails and tweets because of it (some people felt the Globe was exploiting the attacks and giving too much coverage to the bombers themselves). The only ones not interviewed that I wish would have been were first responders on the scene – paramedics, ambulance drivers and ordinary people whose actions saved lives that day.

The filmmakers follow mainly Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a pair of newlyweds who were standing by one of the bombs when it went off. Both had run the Marathon at one time; that year they chose to watch. Each lost a leg and Kensky eventually lost both after a valiant effort on her part to keep it. Both were plagued by depression and PTSD and eventually got help from the Walter Reed Hospital which treats those wounded in war by IADs and such. That particular segment is one of the most inspiring in the entire film and was the one that brought the most goosebumps and misty eyes on my part.

It also follows the Corcoran family who had several injured by the bombs; the impact of their agony led to some difficulties among those who were uninjured, including alcohol abuse and withdrawal from life. Celeste Corcoran lost both legs in the blast; she had been cheering on a sister who was running in the race. Sydney Corcoran had her femoral artery severed; only a quick-thinking veteran who reached into her leg and squeezed the artery shut saved her life or else she would have bled out on the sidewalk. That moment was caught by John Tlumacki, a Globe photography who received a great deal of criticism for capturing the moment even though it became a defining one of the entire incident. Finally there were the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, both of whom were gravely injured and taken to separate hospitals, forcing their mom Liz to have to go back and forth to each hospital as the brothers underwent several surgeries apiece.

One of the things that you may want to keep in mind when choosing to view this is that the footage of the bombing itself is largely uncensored; there is a terrifying amount of blood and some who are sensitive to such things may end up being disturbed by the footage. You get a real sense of the carnage and the chaos at the scene but thankfully only that – I can’t imagine the smell of gunpowder and blood and the screams of pain and fear that had to be going on that day.

This is a compelling documentary which could easily have been about humanity’s darker side. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make it about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and how a city stood up, joined hands and supported one another through a dark period. I’ve seen that first hand – not only in Boston but in my home town Orlando as well following the Pulse shootings.

It’s hard to capture all the details of an event as important as this in a single two hour movie but at the very least Stern and Sundberg have captured the essence of it and that is all you can ask of any documentary. It’s life-affirming and haunting and at times hard to watch but it is at the end of the day essential viewing.

REASONS TO GO: It’s very thorough in all aspects of the film both pre and post race. The stories are compelling and there are lots of good feels. The focus is on the survivors as it should be.
REASONS TO STAY: It would have been nice to get interviews from first responders on the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images and descriptions of grisly injuries; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Boston Globe co-produced the documentary; their coverage of the event won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriot’s Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Patriot’s Day

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing

The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

The Automatic Hate


Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

(2015) Dramedy (Film Movement) Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell, Darren MacDonald, Vienna Stampeen, Travis Quentin Young, George Riddle, Sea McHale, Matthew Fahey, Jozef Fahey, Craig Wesley Divino, Mark Andrews, Brooke Stone. Directed by Justin Lerner

All families have secrets; skeletons in their closets that once let out affect the dynamic of the family in unexpected and often unintended ways. Those secrets sometimes die with those who were there but there are occasions when the consequences are passed down the generations.

Davis Green (Cross) is a head chef at a Boston restaurant, but as well as his culinary career is going, there is a lot less to desire in his private life. His emotional girlfriend Cassie (Woll), however, locks him out of the bathroom and can’t stop sobbing. She needs alone time and Davis is inclined to give it to you, especially after he hears why she’s sobbing (although we don’t find out until later). He heads down to his favorite bar to hang out with some friends, when he notices a beautiful blonde there who acts like she knows him. When he approaches her though, she runs away.

She shows up later at his apartment and introduces herself as Alexis (Clemens). She tells him that she’s his cousin, but that can’t be right – his dad was an only child. Nonetheless, she insists that’s who she is. When Davis confronts his dad Ronald (Schiff), at first his dad – a respected Yale-educated developmental psychologist – denies the existence of a sibling. Not one to simply take the word of his own dad who has always expressed disappointment in Davis’ career choice (and choice of girlfriend for that matter), Davis goes to talk to his grandfather (Riddle) who seems to confirm that there’s a long lost brother – “we don’t talk about Josh” he croaks before having a panic attack.

Once again, Davis confronts his dad who reluctantly admits to the existence of Josh (Jay) but won’t explain why the two are estranged. Devastated by this and by a revelation from his girlfriend, Davis decides to take a break from everything and find his cousins.

That’s right, plural. It turns out Alexis has two sisters – Annie (Y. Zima) and Vanessa (V. Zima) and they live on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, although it is not super successful. They live a kind of hippie existence, even to the marijuana dispensary in the consignment store the girls run. It turns out that the feelings Davis’ dad has for Josh are reciprocated. Davis and Alexis try to figure out what would cause such a rift between brothers – and all the while Davis is developing feelings of his own for his first cousin. When a family tragedy forces the two families together, what comes next is inevitable – and awkward.

This is not your average family drama nor is it your average romantic comedy. It falls somewhere in between and is seriously bent, in a good way. It is also bent enough that it may make some feel a little bit squeamish, particularly when you learn exactly what drove the brothers apart. However there is a real heart at the center of the movie that kind of helps drive through the less savory feelings that may occur.

The mystery of that estrangement could easily be a MacGuffin or become a distraction but Lerner never allows it to do so. The casting of veterans Schiff (The West Wing) and Jay (tons of David Mamet films) is brilliant; the two have a bit of resemblance facially and in vocal mannerisms. The two feel like brothers, which is important here, although brothers who have not seen each other in 20 years and have lived separate lives. Everything works here.

The cousins are all extremely beautiful blondes, which makes for a happy reviewer. There’s also some nice cinematic scenery in the upstate New York countryside. While there are a few hiccups – the hoary plot-advancing device of finding home movies in an attic seems a little bit beneath this film – this is one of those gems that come along every once in awhile that flies under the radar and is far more impressive than you would think. However, those who are easily squeamish about unorthodox romantic and sexual relationships should be on notice that this film may be a little bit uncomfortable for them.

REASONS TO GO: Handles the mystery adroitly. The cousins are gorgeous. A lot of heart (oddly enough) at the center.
REASONS TO STAY: The adult relationships are a bit uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, graphic nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in and about Mt. Vernon, New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Eddie the Eagle

Spotlight


Michael Keaton knows he's on a roll.

Michael Keaton knows he’s on a roll.

(2015) True Life Drama (Open RoadMark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amaroso, Billy Crudup, Jamie Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Neal Huff, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlin, Laurie Heineman. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Reporters are sometimes referred to as ink-stained wretches, harkening back to the 19th century when that was literally true. They’ve traded quill and parchment for computers and the Internet, but what remains true today as it was then – few in the general public really have a sense of what goes in to writing and reporting the news.

Spotlight covers the Boston Globe investigative reporting team – also called Spotlight – and their game-changing  2001 investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that was being covered up by the Church. It’s an important enough story that writers McCarthy and Josh Singer felt that it needed to take precedence over the reporters who reported the story – something that journalism films rarely do. Even All the President’s Men, perhaps the most respected journalism film of all time, elevated reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to heroic proportions.

With a new managing editor now in place, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who comes to the globe by way of the Miami Herald and other papers, Baron suggests that a long-gestating story – about Fr. John Geoghan who had been convicted of multiple counts of child abuse – and the Church’s role in covering up the scandal – get coverage by the Spotlight team.

This was no small matter. Boston was and is a very Catholic town. The Church is very much entwined in a whole lot of secular matters, including politics, business and of course, the news. Baron gets an invitation early on by affable Cardinal Law (Cariou) to meet with him so that Baron is made to understand his place in how things work in Boston. Quite frankly, it’s a chilling moment.

Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Keaton) and his team of senior reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and reporter Matt Carroll (James) are turned loose on the story. The bulldog-like Rezendes goes after court documents that lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who is representing several survivors against the Church, informs him have been sealed. The softer Pfeiffer interviews survivors, often seeing them dissolve into tears of shame. Robinson works the golf courses and receives troubling and veiled threats to back off.

Eventually the team begins to realize that the cover-up involves more than one priest in Boston…and eventually more than one city around the world. As the scope of what they’ve discovered begins to unfold, the team realizes that they may be in over their heads. They also realize they can’t ignore their own connections to the Church – but can they ignore the suffering of the many victims, who begin to number in the thousands?

The story is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with as the scandal involving the Church became international news a decade ago. Fortunately for us, McCarthy chose not to make the reporters the central aspect of the story. This movie isn’t about them, although they get the most screen time and they are in many ways our own avatars. No, this is about the victims and the story, which required some often tedious work to bring to print. Many journalists who have seen this have said this is the most accurate depiction of journalism in the history of film. Despite the nature of the work which involves a lot of time on the phones and on the web, McCarthy manages to keep the movie from being boring.

Part of the reason for that is because he has a cast to die for. Keaton, so marvelous in Birdman, is on a definite roll. Not only is he turning in Oscar-worthy performances but he’s doing it in Best Picture contenders, as this will surely be. As for Ruffalo, this is his finest performance yet, playing the pugnacious Rezendes like a heavyweight champion daring his sources to take their best shots. He is passionate about his job and as the scandal deepens to global levels, his frustration with the Church he grew up with and his realization that he could never go back to it now is more than memorable; it’s unforgettable.

=As this took place primarily in the fall and winter – with a notable pause to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center, for which several flights originated at Logan Airport – the screen always has a kind of cold and distant quality, ranging from autumnal rain to winter snow. There are rarely sunny days in a movie, befitting the subject. I’m sure the real reporters felt that sunny days might never come again.

This is most definitely one of the best movies of the year and a serious Oscar contender in a number of different categories. While some might recoil from the subject matter, it is handled delicately and respectfully. While some might think that this is a boring procedural, let me reassure them that it’s simply not the case. Simply put, this isn’t the easiest subject matter to tackle – but it’s done so well that you leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen something special. And it is.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting performances and story. Excellent writing. Powerful and emotional. Accurate rendition of how news is reported.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a tiny bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Investigative reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. is the son of Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depicted in the film All the President’s Men and who was portrayed by Jason Robards in that film. Keaton used Robards’ performance as a template for his own, mixed in with his own observations of the real Walter Robinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Good Dinosaur