Synchronic


Two EMTs shooting the breeze.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAAnthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ionnides, Bill Oberst Jr., Natasha Tina Liu, Martin Bats Bradford, Devyn A. Tyler, Betsy Holt, Lawrence Turner, Shane Brody, Walker Babington, Sam Malone, Hawn Tran, Carl Palmer, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Adam J. Yeend, Ramiz Monsef, Matthew Underwood, J. Lamb, Sophie Howell. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 

One of the advantages of being a mainstay in the MCU movies as Anthony Mackie is, is that he has the option to fill his down time between MCU epics with movies of his choosing. The downside is that people might see him more as a second banana instead of a lead, so when he does spectacular work as a lead, people might be surprised.

They shouldn’t be. Mackie has been a terrific actor for years now, and he shines in just about every role he takes on. Here he plays Steve, a New Orleans EMT, working the night shift with his partner Dennis (Dornan). Steve is a bit of a party animal, never forging any kind of relationship save with Dennis; Dennis, on the other hand, is a family man with a wife (Aselton) who is becoming exasperated with Steve, and teenage daughter Brianna (Ionnides) who is growing more difficult by the day.

The two have been seeing an increase in gruesome deaths which are connected with the designer drug Synchronic. At the same time, Steve receives some bad news and is forced to face his own mortality. And when he discovers that Synchronic has an unexpected quality that has to do with the disappearance of Brianna, Steve realizes he is the only one to get his partner’s daughter back home.

I’m being deliberately vague here about the nature of what Synchronic does and how it shapes the plot because, quite frankly, the less you know going in the better. I will say that a healthy suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary, and a willingness to accept some lapses in logic. That said, the plot is a doozy and the concept a thoughtful one.  Mackie shines here in a bit of an anti-hero role; Steve is a bit of a curmudgeon and an equal bit of a jerk, but when the chips are down he’s as loyal as they come, so there’s that.

The cast is rock solid and the special effects are, considering the low budget, pretty impressive, but it is Mackie that is the reason you’ll want to see this. It’s fairly thought-provoking sci-fi but as I said there are some “huh?” moments which do bring the movie down some. Benson and Moorhead excel at creating an atmosphere and there is a definitely desperate vibe here, but the movie does take it’s sweet time getting going and the ending is a bit of a groaner. That said, though, this is a pretty solid mid-fall film that is likely to get traction once word gets out about it.

The movie is currently available in select theaters around the country. A VOD release will be coming soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Mackie channels Will Smith in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth directorial collaboration between Benson and Moorhead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jacob’s Ladder
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Exit Plan (Selvmordsturisten)


A cold and clinical beauty.

(2019) Suspense (Screen MediaNikolaj Coster-Waldau, Tuva Novotny, Robert Aramayo, Jan Bijvoet, Sonja Richter, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Slimane Dazi, Lorraine Hilton, Kaya Wilkins, Johanna Wokalek, Peder Thomas Pedersen, Mette Lysdahl, Vibeke Hastrup, Anders Mossling, Per Egil Aske, Kate Ashfield, Christine Albeck Børge. Directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby

 

Sometimes, just coincidentally, more than one movie gets released at about the same time with a similar theme or subject matter, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. This week, there are two movies dealing with assisted suicide, or Death with Dignity (the previously reviewed Here Awhile is the other one). This is the second.

But whereas Here Awhile dealt with the subject as a straightforward drama, examining how the intention of ending one’s life affected those around them, this is something else. Max (Coster-Waldau) is an insurance investigator, although judging from his personality he might have been better suited to be an insurance company accountant. He has a pair of glasses and a moustache, and you think that a hunk like Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) would rock that look. Think Stephen Root in Office Space and you’ll understand nobody could rock this look.

A client of his company, Alice Dinesen (Richter) who most definitely did not have a farm in Africa, wants to collect the life insurance from her husband Arthur (Mossling), who has been missing for more than a year. The only evidence she has that he’s gone is a video that was mailed to her by the Hotel Aurora in which her husband announced that he was taking his own life and that by the time she receives the video he will be dead. Alas, there is no body so the company is not willing to pay – no corpse, no cash, as they like to say in the life insurance biz.

Max is only too happy to look into the hotel, because he has some thoughts in that direction as well. You see, Max has an inoperable brain tumor that is growing larger by the day and soon he will be looking at a loss of identity and dignity. After overhearing his significant other (Novotny) tell a friend that she doesn’t know how much longer she can put up with Max (she’s unaware of his medical condition), he decides he will take advantage of the hotel’s services.

At first, it seems like he’s made a good choice. The hotel is absolutely spectacular, nestled in the mountains of Scandinavia, a modern steel and glass beauty with comfortable Danish design. There are hot tubs for soaking, massage therapists, gourmet meals in a restaurant with a spectacular view, tea laced with opium – all the amenities of a five-star hotel. They offer a passing away experience that is painless (or painful, if that’s what he wants) in the environment of his choice. Sounds like a killer deal.

But Max is beginning to have second thoughts and things turn sinister. He is told “You can leave, but you cannot escape” which sounds to me like writer Rasmus Birch was listening to The Eagles’ “Hotel California” on an endless loop when he wrote this. He begins to see things that may or may not be there – or is that his tumor asserting itself? Or something else?

The writer and director made some odd choices for this film. For one, they take the charismatic Coster-Waldau, a handsome man with a charismatic screen presence, and reduce him to a milquetoast. Fans of Jamie Lannister are going to be throwing things at the screen, although to be fair I’m sure the fact that this role is as far from Jamie as it’s possible to get was part of the appeal for Coster-Waldau.

It’s also got terrific set and production design; the hotel is cold, clinical with odd warm accents but there is no feeling of humanity here. The hotel staff are largely smiling automatons who make the adjective “pleasant” a pejorative. The natural beauty around the hotel is nice as well, but the whole screen tone has a wintry feel, which I do believe is on purpose.

The movie has some high aspirations to examine the relationship between life and death, and the morality thereof. There are some hints of paranormal elements, but they never really come to fruition unless you decide that the fairly ambiguous ending means something along those lines (I’m being purposely vague here as not to spoil things) but if you take into account that a man with a brain tumor might not be the most reliable narrator, well, you do the math.

I have to say that although there were things I liked about the film, I do believe that in the end its reach exceeded its grasp. I don’t think the movie was a failure per se, but suffice to say that I don’t think that it was successful in what I believe it was aiming for. They swung for the fences but ended up legging out an infield single, in other words.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of a cold, sterile beauty.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coster-Waldau and Aramayo were both members of the sprawling Game of Thrones cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark City
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Velvet Buzzsaw

Higher Ground


Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Reagan Leonard, Lucy Owen, Nina Arianda, Dagmara Dominczyk, Molly Hawkey, Warren Haynes, Sean Mahon, Natalie Thomas, Deborah Hedwall. Directed by Vera Farmiga

Karl Marx once described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” There is some truth to this, although as with most pronouncements about faith, religion, belief and the lacks thereof, it comes off as rather simplistic. Religion is many things to many people.

Corinne Walker (V. Farmiga) got married early in life. As a teen (T. Farmiga) she got pregnant by would-be rocker Ethan Miller (Holbrook) and, as Springsteen once said, man, that was all she wrote. While traveling by bus to a gig, an accident changes all their lives and in the aftermath Corinne and Ethan find religion.

Now a grown-up Ethan (Leonard) and Corinne live in what could be characterized as a Christian commune; a community of evangelical sorts in the Midwest for whom folk singing and Bible study occupy large portions of their time. Now with two daughters, Corinne has not questioned her faith and has been a devout follower of Christ.

But doubts are beginning to rear their heads. She feels constricted by the traditional roles assigned her and when she attempts to voice an opinion she feels the disapproval of her community, particularly from the women. Her lone confidante is Annika (Dominczyk), a free spirit who talks frankly with Corinne about her sex life and her female needs. Corinne craves these talks like Robinson Crusoe craves companionship.

But when a further test besets Corinne and the religious community, her faith is tested to the breaking point. When does faith become blind obedience, and how long do you blindly obey before making your own mind up about faith?

Now these sounds like questions that an atheistic Hollywood would be using to attack Christianity but I assure you that’s not what’s happening in this movie. Rather, what Farmiga and screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs (who based her screenplay on a book based on her own experiences) are trying to do is to examine the nature of faith, when it is appropriate to question it and the powerful role it plays in all our lives.

To the credit of writer and director, the believers are not painted with the fanatic paintbrush that believers are often painted with in Hollywood; rather those of faith come by it honestly, either through tragedy or self-examination or more to the point, both. Also to the credit of writer and director, there is no judgment going on here either. Religious faith isn’t portrayed as a crutch but the fact that it can be isn’t ruled out. Instead, it is portrayed as part of the tapestry of our lives. In some ways it reminded me of the 1991 apocalyptic movie The Rapture in which a hedonistic Mimi Rogers is brought to faith by a gentle, loving man whom she later marries, then loses it when her husband is senselessly murdered. While the events her are less epochal, the examination of faith has the same honesty to it.

Farmiga, whose younger sister plays her as a teen, carries the movie. Her Corinne is never shrill but she isn’t meek either. She has questions that need answering and they require answers that aren’t “mind your place.” Corinne is not the sort of woman who can fit in to a mold and indeed most women aren’t. However, there are some that can and do, and some who believe it is their religious duty to do so. That is the part of faith that can be difficult to understand.

The odd thing here is that while these are based on someone’s actual experiences, there is kind of a contrived feeling to the plot – as in that certain characters show up at crucial times when they are needed, or events happen at exactly the right time to have maximum impact on Corinne’s faith and doubts. While the movie doesn’t stereotype the faithful here other than perhaps the disapproving pastor’s wife, it doesn’t really explore them as people as much as I would have liked and the questions of faith that are raised here don’t get more than a very surface examination. While that does leave room for finding your own answers, you don’t get a sense of what the filmmakers think of all this and I would have really liked that insight as well.

This had the potential of being an important movie and indeed I do admire it for raising questions that Hollywood – and independent film for that matter – doesn’t tackle and while it ends up being more or less a morality play without really explaining the morality, you do have to admire its gumption if not its execution.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t sink to stereotypes. Farmiga is a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a bit contrived. Tackles the subject in a cursory manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual situations, as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farmiga directed the film as well as acted in it while five months pregnant.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of outtakes and a production diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $841,733 on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rapture
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Toast

P.S. I Love You


Hilary Swank contemplates Sunday morning alone with the Times.

Hilary Swank contemplates Sunday morning alone with the Times.

(2007) Romance (Warner Brothers) Hilary Swank, Gerard Butler, Harry Connick Jr., James Marsden, Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, Kathy Bates, Nellie McKay, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Dean Winters, Anne Kent, Brian McGrath, Sherie Rene Scott, Susan Blackwell, Michael Countryman, Roger Rathburn, Mike Doyle, Caris Vujcec, Alexandra McGuinness. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Cinema of the Heart 2015

When the one we love passes away before their time, the loss is devastating. Letting go is nearly impossible, particularly when the person who is gone is the person you were supposed to grow old with. I can’t imagine coping with that kind of pain.

But that’s exactly what Holly (Swank) has to cope with. Her husband Gerry (Butler), a charming Irish rogue if ever there was one, has succumbed to a brain tumor, leaving Holly completely devastated. She has trouble leaving her apartment, where her memories of Gerry are vivid. When she does leave, she carries his urn (containing his ashes) with her like the security blanket of Linus van Pelt. She calls her own phone number endlessly so she can hear her husband’s voice on the answering machine.

Then she starts getting letters, notes and missives from her late husband, the first one accompanying a cake on her 30th birthday which falls not long after the funeral. Before he died, he suspected that Holly would have a hard time adjusting, so in order to ease her back into society he has come up with a plan to help her get over the hump. Each letter comes with instructions of things to do – some of them she is kind of reluctant to undertake but bolstered by her mom (Bates) and two best friends (Gershon, Kudrow) she puts herself out there, intending to honor her late husband’s last instructions.

Along the way she meets a bartender with a huge crush on her (Marsden) and an Irish singer who was once Gerry’s best friend (Morgan) and slowly Holly begins to come to life. But will that life ever be as sweet again?

A lot of critics found the movie misogynistic and creepy but I disagree, particularly on the former. One critic went so far to as to say that the movie denigrates women because one of the things that rescues Holly is her discovery that she has a knack for designing shoes. Really? So throwing yourself into creative work isn’t therapeutic?  Some critics really need to have that stick that is firmly implanted in their anus surgically removed.

I will say that it is a bit creepy to have one’s life directed by their spouse after they’ve died (and to the film’s credit the Kathy Bates character says as much) but there is also a tenderness to it, a revelation of the concern of a husband for his wife even after he’s gone. Puts the “til death do us part” thing to shame in a way because this is beyond death. Sometimes, love is looking out for the one you love even when you’re not there to do it.

This is a very different role than what we’ve come to associate with Swank; she’s normally more in her wheelhouse when she’s portraying strong women. And that’s not to say that Holly isn’t strong; it’s just that she’s been completely brought to her knees by a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming loss. It’s enough to bring anyone to their knees, come to that and I found myself relating to her when I thought about how I’d react if Da Queen were to be suddenly taken from me. I’d be a miserable wreck, a quivering mass of goo on the floor and likely I would hide in my bedroom for a very long time afterwards.

That said, you have to give Butler and Morgan credit for playing charming Irishmen. For Butler it pretty much comes naturally but Morgan had to reach a little bit for that bit of blarney. Morgan’s career has cooled a bit since he made this and I don’t understand why; I always thought he had some leading man potential but that hasn’t panned out as yet for him, although he continues to steal the show of just about every movie he participates in.

This is a bit bittersweet for Valentine’s Day as it concerns the loss of a loved one and rebuilding one’s life afterwards. I can’t say as I think this is perfect for couples just starting out but for those who have put some mileage in their relationship it is one that allows them to consider how they’d deal with the loss of the other, and while that sounds a bit morbid in a way, it also serves to remind you that life is a great big chance and that the rock of your life can be snatched out from under you at any time, more the reason to appreciate every last moment you can with them, particularly watching a romantic movie like P.S. I Love You on the couch on Valentine’s Day.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweetly romantic. The feelings of loss for Swank’s character hits home hard. Morgan and Butler are both scene-stealers here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole concept is a little bit creepy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very brief nudity as well as a few sexual references scattered about.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan had to learn to play guitar for the movie; his teacher was Nancy Wilson of the band Heart.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a faux instructional video (done in faux black and white with faux scratchy film) on the game of Snaps which is briefly mentioned in the movie. There’s also a music video by James Blunt and an interview with author Cecilia Ahern whose novel the movie is based on.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Definitely, Maybe
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

God Bless America


God Bless America

WARNING: Blatant "American Idol" rip-off ahead!

(2011) Black Comedy (Magnolia) Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Rich McDonald, Guerrin Gardner, Andrea Harper, David Mendenhall, Larry Miller, Lauren Benz Phillips, Aris Alvarado, Mo Gaffney, Maddie Hasson, Tom Kenny, Geoff Pierson, Tom Lenk. Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait

 

There is plenty of reason to be frustrated at the state of affairs in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Angry, even. Most of us keep our frustrations pretty much to ourselves however and our anger manifests it in a tendency to be more and more self-centered. After all, what can we as individuals do?

Things aren’t going so well for Frank (Murray). He lives in an apartment with paper-thin walls; the couple next door with their bawling new baby are inconsiderate at best, louts at worst. Frank suffers from terrible headaches that keep him up at night, and although he tries to be pleasant enough at work, he is grumpy as all hell and prone to snapping.

After a well-meaning but misguided attempt to cheer up a fellow employee lands him on the unemployment line, Frank gets the double whammy of finding out that he has an inoperable brain tumor that leaves him with a much shorter life span than he anticipated. Divorced from his wife (who respects him about as much as she does….well, she doesn’t respect him at all) and estranged from his pre-school age daughter who is turning out to be a spoiled child who channels Veruca Salt on a daily basis, he sits at home watching the endless, mind-numbing array of reality programming on his television.

At last he’s had enough. When his daughter won’t see him, he winds up watching a reality show starring Chloe (Hasson), a spectacularly entitled bitch who berates her doting dad (Miller) on national TV when he gets her the wrong car for her birthday (“I wanted an Escalade!!!!!” she shrieks at ear-bleeding volume when she views the offending present).

Disillusioned and with nothing to lose, Frank – an ex-military man – decides that this isn’t what he served his country for. He gets his gun and drives out to see Chloe and after a botched attempt to blow up her car, shoots her in the head. This is witnessed by Roxy (Barr), a classmate of the late reality star who is thrilled, not just because Chloe got what she deserved but also because she sees a way out of the boring life she leads.

At first Frank is appalled and wants nothing to do with the young teen but when Roxy confesses that her stepfather is molesting her on a nightly basis, Frank reluctantly agrees to bring her along. They decide to off Chloe’s indulgent parents as a message to parents who give everything to their kids except discipline. That attempt is botched as well but Roxy saves the day just when it appears that Chloe’s mom might actually get away.

Suddenly the two are sort of like a super-liberal Bonnie and Clyde, roaming the countryside to rid the land of those that Frank construes as mean, rude or oppressive. The offending parties include a conservative blowhard talk show host (kinda Glenn Beck-esque), a homophobic Christian preacher (read as Fred Phelps), Tea Party protesters and the most heinous of all, people who talk and text in movie theaters. All of them get a bullet courtesy of the two Liberal spree killers who are giving Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate a run for their money. However, Frank has his sights set on some of the worst offenders of all – a musical competition show called American Superstars, a thinly veiled version of “American Idol” right down to the graphics. He is particularly incensed that a mentally challenged young man with little talent tries out and gets ridiculed, later threatening to commit suicide.

As you might have noticed from the synopsis, this is black comedy and for director Goldthwait, a veteran stand-up comic and writer, business as usual. This is definitely a satire on American life as seen by a card-carrying leftie, and I must admit that watching a stand-in for Glenn Beck being gunned down gave me a curious sense of satisfaction – not that I’d want the real Beck to be snuffed, mind you. I wouldn’t mind an extended case of laryngitis in his case however.

Conservative sorts are going to have issues with the politics of the movie, unless they have a really good sense of humor and an ability to poke fun at themselves (which a fair percentage of them do I must admit). Liberals might just find this a bit too violent, kind of a Death Wish meets Dirty Harry with a dose of Coming Home thrown in for good measure.

Murray, whom most might recognize from his stint on “Mad Men” (and who is the brother of actors Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray), makes a fine sad-sack hero here. His delivery is dry and a bit Midwestern, giving Frank a kind of socially awkward exterior which frames a fairly decent interior (except for his penchant for putting a bullet in people he doesn’t like). For me while I kind of understood Frank’s rage, I never felt the movie explained why such a decent guy snapped so completely.

Young Barr gets the thankless job of playing a precocious teen but she does it without making her relatively annoying (and any teen who rips Cody Diablo a new one is all right by me). She makes a good foil for Murray and even though they are about as odd a couple as you can get (Barr’s attempts to flirt with a suitably appalled Frank aren’t dwelled upon and are done before it gets too creepy) the chemistry seems to be pretty genuine.

There are some pretty great laughs here, some of the sort that will have you feeling guilty a moment after expelling your guffaw. There is nothing remotely politically correct here; Goldthwait has an axe to grind and he plants it squarely between the shoulders of the Republicans. It’s certainly a bit of a one-sided world view (although Frank sheepishly admits to sharing some of the political philosophy of the talk show host – the relaxing of laws advocating gun control which figures when you think about it) but then again, I doubt Goldthwaite wants or needs to apologize to anyone.

The point here is that the movie is funny and even brilliant in a couple of places. I found the scene where the rude theater-goers were gunned down to be vicariously satisfying. When you spend as much time in movie theaters as I do, people who talk and text in theaters are on your ten most wanted list. While I don’t advocate mass murder, sometimes watching some of your favorite targets being used as actual target practice brings a smile to your face. I hope I would find the humor in watching a conservative vigilante take down ACLU lawyers, atheistic political commentators and Greenpeace activists with the same objectivity. I might wince a little more often there though.

REASONS TO GO: A clever satire of American life. Barr and Murray have surprising chemistry.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to take great glee at skewering the conservative/tea party sorts which might offend some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of profanity and a few sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with the Florida Film Festival, this has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Calgary Underground Film Festival and South by Southwest.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: Not available. The reviews are pretty dang positive, at least early on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz

GUN LOVERS: On display is a pretty impressive variety of handguns and other weapons, from Walther PK-9s to AK-47s to a .44 Magnum.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Turn Me On, Dammit!

Submarine


Submarine

Oliver Tate, like many teens, is a bit fuzzy on bathing.

(2010) Dramedy (Weinstein) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Darren Evans, Osian Cai Dulais, Lily McCann, Otis Lloyd, Elinor Crawley, Steffan Rhodri, Gemma Chan, Melanie Walters, Sion Tudor Owen . Directed by Richard Ayoade

We are for the most part the stars of our own ongoing movie, and often we see ourselves in a different light than how we are actually perceived. The younger we are, often the more pronounced this divide is.

Oliver Tate (Roberts) lives in the Southern Welsh coastal town of Swansea (an amusing note from Oliver preceding the credits on the American release reinforces this) as a 15-year-old boy convinced of his own intelligence and popularity. He imagines a national mourning at his untimely death, and a resurrection to delighted teenage girls, prompting a miasma of hormonal bliss.

When confronted with actual female attraction, in the form of the much cooler and cynical Jordana (Paige) who also has a thing for lighting fires, he adopts a deer in the headlights expression, leading to a kiss which he learns later is meant to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It backfires and the two are badly bullied with Oliver getting beat up when he gallantly refuses to say publically that his erstwhile lady is a slut. She walks him home and kisses him for real, leading Oliver to determine that she is now, officially, his Girlfriend (capitalized on purpose here).

But all is not sunshine and mince pies. Oliver’s parents are slowly drifting apart, a malaise that has led to a lack of sex (which the ever-spying Oliver determines by the level of the dimmer switch in their bedroom). That malaise is exacerbated by the arrival of new next door neighbor Graham (Considine, in a role that might have gone to Colin Farrell in a bigger budget production) as a would-be new age guru, who also used to be his mom’s Boyfriend. Oliver’s mum Jill (Hawkins) seems disposed towards re-fanning those flames, attending Graham’s lectures slavishly while her husband Lloyd (Taylor) diffidently drowns in depression, a marine biologist sinking into an ocean of emotional dissonance.

Thus Oliver decides he must reverse this trend because a divorce would essentially inconvenience him. However, Jordana is undergoing a crisis of her own – her mum (Walters) is desperately ill and may not survive the surgery she is about to undergo. Oliver decides that Jordana would benefit by his absence (and Oliver is more wrapped up in his own drama in any case) and deserts her at her most crucial moment. Can Oliver reconcile all the relationships around him that are crumbling?

This isn’t your typical teen coming of age movie, at least not by Hollywood standards. Despite being mid-80s set (and with all the pretension that implies), there is an intelligence here that is sorely lacking in the big studio teen movies. The kids here, while they operate essentially independently of their families (as kids that age often do), are still connected with them and are certainly not smarter than their parents although they fancy themselves to be.

Oliver is genuinely fond of his parents and they of him, which is refreshing – the relationship between Oliver and his folks is a complicated one as parent-teen relationships usually are. None of  the protagonists are perfect; they all are flawed in believable ways, from Lloyd’s inertia-challenged existence to Jill’s indecisive neediness to Oliver’s own search for his own niche and his teen-fueled arrogance.

Oliver himself is so prone to doing unintentionally cruel things that at times you get right angry at him until you think “he’s only a boy.” That is the underlying truth about Oliver. His inexperience and his lack of empathy often motivate those cruelties but if you look deep enough, he’s a decent young lad with the potential to be a good man someday. Roberts, whose narration has all the crack-voiced earnestness of a teen trying to fill an adult’s shoes before he is truly ready, is brilliant here.

Hawkins and Taylor, both veterans of English film and television, make a perfect couple. Both on the mousy side, both intellectual and both somewhat permissive in their parental techniques, they seem on the surface to be enabling their spouse’s behaviors but they are in fact well-suited to one another and there is certainly some hope that they’ll work things out (but as the film makes clear, their relationship is on far from stable ground and could go either way). Considine provides comic relief as the libidinous guru who may be self-absorbed but also has a good deal of pain and compassion deep down.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; there are no pat answers and the ending only hints at an uneasy peace; both relationships are fragile and have much work needed to survive, and there are no guarantees that either one will. Still, Oliver for all his posturing is a character you won’t soon forget and perhaps he has enough will to carry both relationships forward. You wind up kind of hoping that he does.

REASONS TO GO: A smart teenage coming-of-age movie blows most of Hollywood’s entries into the subject, not to mention all the smug Disney Channel characters. Directed with an eye towards innovative storytelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Oliver’s incompetency in social situations can be grating at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Stiller, who co-produced the movie (and has championed it throughout its run) cameos as an actor in an American soap opera that Oliver watches early on in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: This is mostly available in Art Houses in selected locations such as our own beloved Enzian Theater and should be seen there if possible, but at home is certainly ok if it’s not playing anywhere near you.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Resident Evil: Afterlife

The Fountain


The Fountain

Just another 26th Century Icarus.

(2006) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Marc Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Sean Patrick Thomas, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, Richard McMillan, Lorne Brass, Fernando Hernandez, Cliff Curtis, Janique Kerns.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky

There are some mysteries that fire the imagination and others that are so immense that they’re terrifying. Eternal life is like that. We as a species fear the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknown as death. We try to avoid it, we shrink from it, we fight to stave it off and yet inevitably, it claims us all. Some come to embrace it, others in time learn to accept it. Others, however, never quite come to terms with it.

The Fountain is an attempt to breach the mystery and it is done in a way that reading a plot won’t really shed a lot of light as to what the movie is about. The storyline is this; in the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas Creo (Jackman) has been given a mission by Isabel (Weisz), the Queen of Spain who has been beset by the Grand Inquisitor (McHattie) for her heretical thoughts which are a tad more liberal than his liking. A priest, Father Avila (Margolis) under her control has discovered the location of the Biblical Tree of Life which grants eternal life to all those who drink of its sap. Returning to Spain with such a treasure would shift power from the Inquisitor to the Queen, who has pledged that should Creo return successful he would have her hand in marriage. However, to get to the Tree he must fight his way through a bunch of annoyed Mayans in a heretofore lost pyramid.

In modern times, Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman again), a brilliant medical researcher, is racing against the clock to find a cure for the extremely aggressive brain tumor that is slowly killing his wife Izzi (Weisz again), an author who is writing a book about a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life. She has left the final chapter unfinished, wanting her husband to complete the book for her when she is gone. Tommy, for his part, is driving his team relentlessly, causing his boss Dr. Guzetti (Burstyn) to remonstrate with him. She wonders if he shouldn’t be spending more time with Izzi in her last days rather than on this fool’s errand to find a cure. His teammates Antonio (Thomas), Betty (Murphy) and Manny (Suplee) are concerned that he’s lost his perspective. Tommy, however, is working on a plant from South America that may yield the cure he desperately needs for his starry-eyed wife, who is trying to make her peace with her eventual fate.

Five hundred years from now, a hairless astronaut named Tom (Jackman a third time) hurtles through the void in a transparent bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree with the intention of flying it into the center of a dying star. His motives are unclear; whether he intends to restore life to the star, or life to the souls of those the ancient Mayans believe went to this place to rest or perhaps some other theory altogether. He hallucinates the presence of his lost love who looks suspiciously like Izzi, practices yoga and meditates as the sphere speeds towards the nebula.

Director Aronofsky has made not so much a movie you watch passively but an event to be experienced. Critics and audiences alike have lined up on either side of the coin; the movie was roundly booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere and has received a critical pasting. However, those who get this movie absolutely love it. Aronofsky really doesn’t give you much room for anything else but absolutes here, which is ironic since the movie has a tendency to be vague with its message.

That message is left open to interpretation, with Aronofsky asking the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the movie. There is a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, particularly to the 26th century sequence and there has been some grousing that this is a movie best encountered while stoned out of your mind. Not being a stoner, I can only imagine what this movie would be like whilst altered.

Jackman does his best work to date as the three Creos (which is Spanish for “I believe,” by the way). All three characters are alike in that they are extremely driven, but different in that they are driven in different ways. Jackman is at once a brutal conquistador, a brilliant but bereaved researcher and a serene Zen monk-like astronaut. Weisz, who at one time was not one of my favorite actresses but has been on a roll lately, makes the best she can out of a role which really doesn’t require much from her other than to smile beatifically most of the time and give soulful looks from a warm bath.

The effects are not CGI on purpose, as Aronofsky felt that would date the movie (not mentioned is that his budget was cut in half by the studio; undoubtedly he had to get a little bit more imaginative with the effects in order to pull it off, and cutting expensive CGI shots would seem to be the right way to go here). Still, there are some spectacular sequences, particularly on the Pyramid and then again as the spacecraft reaches the dying nebula. The whole she-bang is framed by one of the most beautiful scores you will ever hear, penned by Craig Mansell and performed by the classical group the Kronos Quartet and the rock band Mogwai.

This is not a movie for everybody. Several audience members walked out after about 20 minutes and the teenagers expecting some sort of space opera were completely baffled by what they saw. This is the kind of movie that requires an intellectual commitment, and a lot of people who go to the movies are out to turn their brain off, which is fine – I do it all the time. However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, exploring the mystery of eternal life and our attitudes towards it can make for a fine evening’s mental exercise. I realize I’m something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but The Fountain is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but not many will share that opinion, and that’s fine by me.

WHY RENT THIS: Great performance by Jackman and thought-provoking script. Despite the lack of CGI, still beautiful to look at. Outstanding score by Mansell and performance by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The triple timeline story is often confusing and frustrating to follow.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some surprisingly violent action sequences as well as some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Xibalba Nebula refered to by Mayan astronomers as the place where departed souls enter the afterlife, is located in the constellation Orion.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The movie’s torturous journey to the screen included an aborted first film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that was halted not very far into production after creative differences between Pitt and Aronofsky and budgetary concerns from the studio led to the cessation. The feature “Australia” discusses this, although not in as much detail as we’d like.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.0M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Happy Feet