Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

Advertisements

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

Fast Five


Fast Five

If you don't go see Vin Diesel's new movie, Paul Walker will shoot you.

(2011) Action (Universal) Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Joaquin de Almeida, Gal Gadot, Matt Schulze, Tego Calderon, Don Omar. Elsa Pataky, Michael Irby. Directed by Justin Lin

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Fast and Furious series. Street car racing doesn’t appeal to me much and the scene behind it really doesn’t do anything for me either. While I’ve always liked Vinnie D, Walker is a bit on the wooden side for my tastes.

So I really didn’t expect to want to go see Fast Five – I waited until the previous entries in the series were on home video in most cases before seeing them (Tokyo Drift I never saw at all). So when I found out that Dwayne Johnson was in the new one, my curiosity was piqued – Johnson is to my way of thinking the future of the action hero.

The movie takes a sharp left turn from the previous entries in the series. As it begins, Dominic Toretto (Diesel) is broken out of the prison he was being sent to at the end of the last movie. The escape is a daring one and involves his sister Mia (Brewster) and her boyfriend (and Dom’s best friend) Brian O’Conner  (Walker) – the former federal agent from the first movie – driving muscle cars recklessly to the sound of pulsating rock/rap music going to extravagant lengths to get the bus carrying Dom to crash.

Mia and Brian flee to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with Vince (Schulze), one of Dom’s crew from the first movie. Wait – ‘scuse me, he’s more than that. He’s family (as everyone who works with Dom apparently is). They’re running low on funds and on the run from the law. Vince has a job for them – stealing some cars from a moving train. Child’s play, right?

Wrong. The cars were apparently impounded by the DEA and one of them has a chip in it that contains all the secrets of the operation of Reyes (de Almeida), the drug kingpin of Rio and he’s kinda anxious to get it back – so much so that he sends out head thug Zizi (Irby) to kill everyone who gets in the way. That includes the federal agents on the train, who are murdered by Zizi and his men, although Reyes – through his control of the police and the media – makes sure that Dom, Mia and Brian are blamed.

The death of the agents is enough to make the U.S. Government sit up and take notice, so they send their most ruthless, dedicated manhunter, Hobbs (Johnson) after the trio. Hobbs is like a pit bull; he doesn’t care about guilt or innocence, he just cares about getting his man. He enlists the help of patrol officer Elena (Pataky) whose husband was gunned down in front of her doorstep (slum), prompting her to enlist in the police force. She is at least for the moment non-corrupted, her motivations to carry on in her husband’s memory. At least, I kinda think so.

Being chased from every direction makes Dom realize that in order to get out of this he’s going to need to attack the corrupt Reyes directly – and the best way to hurt him was to take his money. Thankfully, the chip tells him where it all is – sitting in a vault at Rio’s main police station. They realize they’re going to need a team in order to pull it off.

They pull friends they’ve worked with from the previous films, including Tej (Ludacris), Roman (Tyrese), Han (Kang) – who died in one of the earlier films if memory serves – Gisele (Gadot), Leo (Calderon) and Santos (Omar). They will need to be at their best to take on the corrupt Rio cops as well as Reyes’ thugs and the best protection money can buy to get at the cash – not to mention having a very angry Hobbs, whose team was killed off by Reyes, on their tail.

Those who loved the street racing element to the first four movies are going to be very disappointed with this installment. There’s only brief mention of street racing and only one scene essentially set at one. No, this is more of a heist flick, all about the car chases, the beat downs and Vin Diesel in a wifebeater.

The action sequences are beautifully choreographed and executed. There’s a chase sequence on the rooftops of Rio’s favelas (slums) that is kind of nifty, not to mention a car sequence involving two cars working in tandem dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio. The movie has a fluid tempo that only rarely lets up. While the other F&F films were equally action-packed, they were mostly with car racing scenes but quite frankly, you can only do so many of them before they start to look the same to the untrained eye, which is what most of us have.

Diesel is solid as ever as Toretto, a role that seems perfect for Diesel’s skill sets; lots of glowering, a strong moral core and a good deal of swagger. Adding Johnson – the Rock – to the mix is a masterstroke. He and Diesel have a good deal of chemistry even in adversarial roles. The two have a big fight scene in third real that just frankly rocks; I wonder if Diesel was hoping he might get a people’s elbow at some point.

Walker is an actor who has never resonated with me, at least to this point. I’ve always found him wooden, although there’s a certain charisma that he displays from time to time. Here, I didn’t see it at all to be honest; he didn’t really add anything to a role that was pretty much has no color to it as written anyway.

While having all these extra characters from the previous films might have some nostalgia value, it rapidly becomes a “too many cooks spoil the broth” with too many characters taking too much screen time. Still, many of them (particularly Kang and Ludacris) make the most of their time onscreen.

This isn’t particularly smart filmmaking but it is solid and quite frankly, in a very disappointing first quarter of the year this is a glimmer of hope that Hollywood was looking for. The box office was the biggest so far this year, the biggest ever in the month of April and the biggest opening weekend in Universal history.  The American public seems to be waiting desperately for a movie that just blows stuff up and in that respect Fast Five delivers. It’s not a great movie but it’s a solid movie and the box office seems to be more of a commentary on the desire of the moviegoing public to see a decent action movie than an endorsement on what is an above average – but not great – movie.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and Diesel vs. the Rock makes a great battle. This is by far the best movie of the series to date.

REASONS TO STAY: More of the same; muscle cars, cliché dialogue and barely-clothed women with nice butts.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some fairly big action sequences, a bit of sexuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, each of the main actors is shown with footage from their previous appearances in the series.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, definitely the theater. It’s big, it’s brainless and it needs to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw IV