The Samuel Project


here’s still a little bit of Barney Miller in Hal linden.

(2018) Family Drama (In8 Releasing) Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Ken Davitian, Phillippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Pia Thrasher, Callie Gilbert, Malina Moye, Lilinda Camaisa, Robert Ochoa, Casey Nicholas Price, Anahid Avanesian, Ken Venzke, Lauro Rocha, Filippo Duelk, Patee Spurlock, Liza Lapira. Directed by Marc Fusco

Back in my day, they called it the “generation gap” – the increasingly difficulty between older generations and younger generations to communicate with each other and understand one another. These days that gap appears to be wider than ever with folks from my generation having a hard time with Millennials and Post-Millennials. I can only imagine that to my parent’s generation Millennials might as well be from Mars.

Eli (Ryan Ochoa) is a teen who is nearing graduation from his suburban San Diego high school. His passion is not girls nor sports but art. He loves to draw, particularly fantasy scenes not unlike heavy metal album covers. He wants to go to art school to his father’s (Silver) chagrin; basically art school is completely out of reach financially. In any case, there’s no money in it; Eli would be better served going to a community college, taking some business courses and with his Associate Degree in hand get himself some paper-pushing job that pays real money.

Eli is also tasked with visiting his grandfather who is essentially estranged from his son, Eli’s father. Grandpa Samuel (Linden) owns a neighborhood dry cleaning business and is more or less content with his life. He is friendly and outgoing but only with his customers; with his own family he tends to be close-mouthed about his past.

When his close friend Uma (Thrasher) arrives in town, very ill, he is thrilled to go see her and takes Eli along because he needs someone to drive him. Shortly after the visit, word reaches Samuel that Uma has passed away. When Eli asks about Uma, Samuel becomes very terse and refuses to talk about her.

At about that time Eli’s media teacher (Bowgen) assigns the class a project to do a multi-media presentation based on something in history that affects them directly. Eli realizes that his grandfather’s story would be perfect. The pot is sweetened that the best entries would be presented at a local competition where they would be seen by those in the business and in education. Eli’s future is suddenly riding on this project, but can he get his reluctant grandfather to talk?

This has a very family-friendly vibe and is meant to be something of a parable about the inability of various generations to connect and see each other as individuals. That’s not a message that has gone unsent by Hollywood films previously, but this one shows a good deal of charm in sending it.

The chief reason why that is so is the presence of Hal Linden. Best known for the cop sitcom Barney Miller, Linden has always been a gifted actor with seven Primetime Emmy nominations and Four Golden Globe nominations to prove it. He shows here that he still has it at 87 years of age; there is that eye twinkle that made Barney such a revered character. Linden’s charm and his ability to communicate so much with small gestures makes this performance well worth seeing for those of my generation and those who just like seeing a master at work.

His chemistry with Disney Kid Ochoa is rocky in places but it’s still there. Ochoa does better with Linden than he does with Arias who plays Kasim, Eli’s metalhead friend from school. Unfortunately, Kasim’s role is completely superfluous and his monosyllabic dialogue does nothing for the movie. The film would have been better off concentrating more on Eli’s relationship with Samuel – or perhaps with a prospective girlfriend, although the filmmakers didn’t choose to go that way.

The ending is definitely a heartstring-tugger even though you can see it coming a mile away. In fact the story is fairly rote throughout with plenty of family film clichés to spare but the cast is charming enough that one can overlook it – although not enough to prevent me from giving it only a mild recommendation. While it’s worth seeing because of Linden, the story around which Linden is given to perform isn’t sadly on par with his talents.

REASONS TO GO: Hal Linden is still a very good actor who has decent chemistry with Ochoa.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a fairly rote generation gap-type of film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some teen smoking and a few adult themes about the brutality of the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 87-year-old Linden recently won the lifetime achievement award at the Heartland Film Festival where this film was shown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Akeelah and the Bee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Free Solo

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Raise Your Kids on Seltzer


Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

Things can get uncomfortable when cracks in a marriage become apparent.

(2015) Drama (Public Shores) Penny Werner, Jeff Kao, Nancy Kimball, Barry Newman, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, William Cully Allen, Alanna Blair, Mark Zucker, Daniel Kremer, Rob Nilsson, Josh Peterson, Pamela Ambler, Leoni Figueredo, Dana Lorena Leon, Natalie Echols, Solomon Zucker, Aaron Hollander, Maryelle Turner. Directed by Daniel Kremer

 

Sometimes we put things behind us for a reason. Maybe the events of the past are just too painful, but other times we’ve simply moved on. Either way, we never completely escape our past.

Terry (Kao) and Tessa (Werner) Wasserman-Wang are a middle-aged couple living in the San Francisco Bay Area. They make their living as corporate videographers which isn’t the most exciting gig in history. Nowhere near as exciting as what they used to do for a living – cult deprogrammers.

They get a letter out of the blue from a former client that tells them that the daughter they rescued from a cult has recently committed suicide, naming the Wasserman-Wangs as the reason for her drastic action in her suicide note. Terry won’t let Tessa read the entire letter, which upsets her even further. Terry seems to be unaffected, busy working on the book he is writing about their years together working in the lucrative but not quite legal trade of what they prefer to call “exit counseling.”

Tessa’s twin sister Willa (also Werner) is getting her son’s bar mitzvah planned and abruptly informs Tessa that Terry is “uninvited.” Tessa is understandably hurt but Terry’s reaction (or lack thereof) further bothers Tessa. She also objects to Terry’s increasing tendency to make decisions for her.

Terry is feeling increasingly constricted by their corporate videography work and the book is stalled by the overbearing daughter (Blair) of Terry’s co-author (Allen). When he is contacted by a friend who has a potential client willing to pay $50,000 to get young Chloe (Kimball) out of a cult, Terry is willing to jump at the chance, particularly since finances are tight. Tessa, on the other hand, is horrified – she thought they’d agreed to leave that life behind and the letter has further strengthened her resolve. The cracks in the facade of their marriage may be deepening into canyons that may not be able to be resolved.

This isn’t Kremer’s first rodeo and there is some self-assurance to the direction. The relationship between Terry and Tessa is strained and feels it, sometimes almost too well; one feels that awkward moment at a party when a couple snipe just a little too personally at one another. While that may make the viewer feel a little bit put off, that’s as it should be; if you’re going to make a movie about a relationship that is strained, the viewer should feel that strain as well.

Werner is mainly at the front and center as the emotional focus of the film. While Kao plays things close to the vest, Werner is outgoing and an open book in many ways. Her Tessa is the kind of Jewish woman that makes the world a better place; she’s funny, pretty and pragmatic. She knows how to have fun but she knows what’s right for her family too. I found myself relating more to Tessa than to Terry, who is very emotionally closed-off.

The script has a tendency to meander a bit and not always in a good way. There are periodic insertions of interviews with the lawyer (Newman) for a cult leader that do nothing for the story and just serve to pad the running time. There are also little bits, like an obsession with a Siamese pickle and the whole bar mitzvah subplot that really distract from what is the most compelling story in the film – the relationship between Terry and Tessa. That distraction really hurts the overall experience and is the one factor I think that damages the film the most.

I like the cult deprogramming angle and how it affects those who do the deprogramming but Kremer doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it surprisingly. Then again, that might be a different movie than the one Kremer wanted to make although I think that would be a fascinating movie as well. Still, one can look at the relationship between Tessa and Terry and find a lot that is fascinating, and a lot that is insightful about long-term relationships. I just wish there had been less distracting the audience from finding those insights.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is intriguing. The dialogue between Terry and Tessa is completely authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-written. The performances can be stiff at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Tessa is watching on TV is A Cool Sound from Hell by director Sidney J. Furie, whom Kremer has written a biography on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Nocturnal Animals

Pawn Sacrifice


Checkmate.

Checkmate.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Sophie Nélisse, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Nathaly Thibault, Aiden Lovekamp, Ilia Volok, Conrad Pla, Andreas Apergis, Katie Nolan, Spiro Malandrakis, Peter Janov, Lydia Zadel. Directed by Edward Zwick

Chess is one of the most complex games ever invented. After just the third move, there are over 40 billion possible combinations that are available. It takes a strong, keen, focused mind to play the game well and to become a grandmaster takes an intellect that most of us can only dream of. To become the world’s chess champion however – well, few ever reach that pinnacle.

Bobby Fischer (Maguire) aspires to that mountaintop. As a young boy (Lovekamp) he developed a passion for the game. His mother Regina (Weigert) raised him and his sister Joan (Nélisse) as a single mom; an American-board Jew who had fled Europe prior to World War II, she had become a communist sympathizer which led to their home being watched by the FBI. Bobby’s chess prowess led Regina to bring him to the attention of Carmine Nigro (Pla), a chess champion who was impressed by Bobby’s skills and even more so by his potential.

As Bobby got older and became renowned as America’s best chess player, he turned his sights to the Russians who were the elite chess players of their day. However, in tournaments the Russians purposely would play Bobby to draws in order to lower his point school, keeping him from qualifying for a championship match with Boris Spassky (Schreiber), then the world champion. Lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg), wanting to see Fischer get a shot at the Russians and help America out of its doldrums caused by economic recession, civil unrest and the Vietnam War. He arranged for Bobby to be mentored by Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard), himself a grandmaster.

At last Bobby got his chance to play Spassky for the world championship but by this time his mental illness began to rear its ugly head. Bobby, beset by paranoia and by hyper-sensitivity to sound, began to make increasingly bizarre demands of the chess federation that sanctioned the match. He would arrive late to matches and on one occasion, not at all. His antics would lead him to go down two points to zero in the tournament against Spassky (in the tournament, players get one point for a win and a half point for a draw; a two point deficit is nearly insurmountable). His now adult and married sister (Rabe) is extremely concerned for his sanity.

Unable to maintain any interpersonal relationships because of his increasing paranoia and his poor social skills (he was demanding, uncompromising and often shrill, even to friends) other than with a prostitute (Brochu) with whom he’d had a brief sexual liaison, Bobby is in danger of losing everything he ever dreamed of and worse, being forced to give up the game that made him famous – but may be part of the disintegration of his mind.

The story of Bobby Fischer is a modern tragedy. Zwick, who directed Glory about 20 years ago, has an affinity for tragic stories but he goes a little overboard here. Fischer’s madness, which certainly has to be at or near center-stage for the film, becomes a little MORE than that; we’re subjected to endless scenes of imaginary pounding on his door, voices speaking in Russian, Maguire looking confused or concerned and so forth. I would have been more interested in how he overcame those things to play one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of chess.

Maguire has turned in some notable performances in films both large and small and while this isn’t one of his best, it is far from one that would earn him demerits. It would have been easy to make Bobby Fischer a series of psychotic tics and screaming rage fits but he resists the urge to let those define the character. Maguire actually makes Fischer, maybe one of the most unsympathetic figures in history, somewhat sympathetic here, a little boy lost amid the growing noises in his head that would eventually overwhelm him.

Part of what is fascinating about this story is the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Fischer; he was playing not just for the championship, but for an ideology. He was playing to show that the West was just as competitive and just as intellectually acute as the Soviets. He was expected to win and the film only touches on that. We don’t get a sense of whether that affected Fischer or not; some accounts say that it did but you wouldn’t know it by watching this.

Schreiber and Sarsgaard are both put in roles that are the sort both actors excel at and they respond with excellence. The former plays Spassky as a man who understands that he is playing a very dangerous game, but knows how to play it very well. He’s a bit of an international playboy but he is also one of the greatest chess players not just of his day but ever. He also works within a repressive system in which he is almost always watched and surrounded by what are ostensibly bodyguards but who are there as much to keep him from defecting as they are to keep him from harm.

&Sarsgaard plays the priest who is also a grandmaster (this isn’t made up; the man really existed) and who served as Fischer’s second, analyzing his game and opponent and preparing Fischer with rapid-fire games. Gentle of demeanor, he doesn’t seem cut out for the cut-throat world of international chess in an era when it was highly politicized. Sarsgaard in many ways acts as the conduit between the audience and the action, letting us know if we should be concerned or overjoyed at Fischer’s various games. The movie spends a good deal of time on Game 6 of the Fischer-Spassky tournament, which many in the chess community view as the greatest game ever played. Certainly to anyone who knows the game, it was a thing of beauty, one which caused even Spassky to applaud his opponent. That doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it’s only happened once.

In fact, this is a solidly acted movie throughout and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if it was going to be; the story lends itself to scenery chewing of the first order, but fortunately we don’t see any of that except for rare instances. Bobby Fischer is a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to younger audiences; people my age probably remember the Fischer-mania that swept the nation, a notoriety the real grandmaster neither sought out nor wanted. The demons that beset the man and ultimately brought him down until he was eventually a man without a country, whom the world had essentially turned its back on. When he died in 2008, it became a sad obituary in what had once been a flame-brilliant career. Is this the movie that could best capture his life? I don’t think any dramatic narrative could. Even the documentary on Fischer scarcely captures the tragic nature of his life and fall and Pawn Sacrifice only hints at the fall.

In many ways, this is set up to be a sports underdog drama, but I didn’t leave with the cathartic feeling that many of those films instill in their audiences. Instead, I left feeling sad; sad for a bitter, unhappy man who happened to be a chess genius but never could master the game of life.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes some of the “going crazy” elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content, a bit of sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Bobby Fischer was a fan of the Manchester United football (soccer) team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Me and Bobby Fischer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

Life After Beth


Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Drop

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

The Lucky One


The Lucky One

Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling save the last dance for each other.

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart, Adam Lefevre Robert Terrell Hayes, Joe Chrest, Russ Comegys, Sharon Morris, Ann McKenzie, Kendal Tuttle, Courtney J. Clark, Jillian Batherson. Directed by Scott Hicks

 

The novels of Nicholas Sparks and the films that are based on them tend to sparkle with a certain patina of sentiment. They are filmed in rich autumnal colors, through hazy lenses smeared with Vaseline. They are the stuff of modern day fairy tales.

Logan Thibault (Efron) is a Marine serving in Iraq. While on his last tour he goes on a raid of a home and comes under heavy fire from snipers. He watches as men from his company and others are cut down by the insurgents.

The next morning he and his men are lounging around the now-secured area when he spies a photograph in the rubble. Curious, he walks over to it, bends over and picks it up to see a beautiful blonde  – when an explosion wipes out the men he’d just been standing with.

The rest of his tour he survives again and again, sometimes without rhyme or reason. One of his fellow Marines jokes that the girl in the picture is his guardian angel. Logan isn’t laughing though; he thinks she might just be.

After leaving the Marines he goes to visit his sister and her family in Colorado but it’s clear he has issues. He’s jumpy, morose and when startled reacts violently. He knows he can’t stay with his sister and her bratty sons; he decides to go find the woman in the photograph. By pure happenstance he stumbles on a picture of the lighthouse in the back of the photo with the woman and decides to hoof it from Colorado to Louisiana.

Six years later, he arrives in Louisiana with scarcely a bunion, his impossibly well-behaved German Shepard Zeus by his side. He shows the picture around town and is led to the local pet groomer’s where he finds the object of his search, Beth Clayton (Schilling). She is divorced from Keith (Ferguson), the town sheriff and son of the powerful Judge Clayton (LeFevre) and at the moment an uneasy peace exists between them, threatened by Keith’s alcohol abuse. Beth lives with her son Ben (Stewart) and her grandma Ellie (Danner) and their business is sorely in need of some help. Beth mistakes Logan for a respondent to her want ad but something about him – the fact that he confessed to having walked from Colorado to Louisiana made her a bit reluctant to hire him. However Ellie – who possesses a Sense About These Things – hires him on the spot, hoping he’ll re-ignite Beth’s spark.

Boy does he ever. It takes a few games of chess with Ben (who takes to the newcomer like a tick to a Golden Retriever), a fully clothed outdoor shower for the two of them together and a couple of beers and before you can say Logan’s Your Uncle, Ben the two of them are canoodling.

But the suspicious Sheriff doesn’t like having his ex hanging around another man and when he finds out that he has the Picture, he blabs it to Beth whom Logan neglected to mention that little tidbit of information to. Who had that picture and why will lead Beth to break things off with Logan, even though everyone and their cousin Moe knows that he’s The One for her. What will it take to get the two of them together? How about a freakish rainstorm?

Yup, this is Nicholas Sparks through and through, laden with coincidences and conveniences. In an interview, he talked about the book having a theme of destiny and fate, items he claims he doesn’t believe in himself. Me, I don’t buy it – most of Sparks’ books have an element of events conspiring to bring true love together by the final chapter, or tearing them apart.

Efron plays the taciturn Logan and we all know that he saw a lot of Bad Things over there because he’s supposed to be haunted. We can tell he’s haunted because his expression never changes. Ever. And his periwinkle blue eyes seem to look right through things. Efron may not be the most expressive actor on the planet but I know he can act. I’ve seen him do it in other movies. I think he either decided to play Logan as a soul-dead person, or he was told to by the director. Either way it was a poor choice. Even so, he has enough natural charisma that I actually liked his character. Go figure.

Schilling doesn’t generate a lot of heat with Efron and really doesn’t do much to make me think Beth is worth walking down the block for, let alone thousands of miles. Danner alone gives her role anything that can be qualified as memorable.

Yet despite all this I liked the movie much more than I thought I would and certainly much more than other critics did. I liked the story line and I liked Efron and I liked the dogs (there are LOTS of them) and I liked the Louisiana setting. I walked out with a good feeling and even though the movie is terribly flawed, I would still count it as a success just for that reason.

REASONS TO GO: Much better than I expected it to be. I liked Efron in this, although I would have liked a bit more expressiveness from him. Nicely photographed.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too over-reliant on coincidence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some war and domestic violence as well as a bit of sexuality and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers changed the location of the film to Louisiana from North Carolina where the book was set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.The reviews are solidly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message in a Bottle

ARMED FORCES LOVERS: The studio screened the film in advance on military installations throughout the world as a way of saying thank you to the men and women in uniform.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Five-Year Engagement

Harry Brown


Harry Brown

My name...is Michael Caine...punk!!!

(2009) Crime Drama (Goldwyn) Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Iain Glen, Jack O’Connell, Liam Cunningham, Amy Steel, Charlie Creed Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jamie Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun. Directed by Daniel Barber

As we grow older, we sometimes find that the world is changing around us so rapidly it becomes virtually unrecognizable from what it’s been. Those changes can be confusing and even terrifying; sometimes we feel helpless in the onslaught of them. However, when the world grows out of control and violent, can we expect the elderly to stand up for themselves?

Harry Brown (Caine) is a pensioner grieving over his wife. He lives in a housing estate that has deteriorated rapidly, becoming rampant with crime and prostitution. He hangs out in a pub owned by Sid (Cunningham), playing chess with his old pal Leonard (Bradley). Leonard is terrified of the gang that runs their housing complex; they keep putting piles of dog excrement through his mail slot, going so far as to send flaming torches through as well. Fed up, Leonard takes a gun out to deal with the ruffians.

Predictably, Harry’s next visit is from Detective Alice Frampton (Mortimer) of the Metropolitan police, and her partner Detective Hicock (Miles) informing Harry that his friend has been murdered. Harry is of course bereaved, and expects the cops to bring those who murdered his friend to justice; however, it quickly becomes evident that the police can’t or won’t clean up the area or find the culprits.

However, when you’re Michael Caine, you don’t let details stand in your way. No, Harry Brown as it turns out is a former British soldier who served in Northern Ireland a.k.a. he’s seen some stuff. It means Harry Brown is Dirty Harry with a Cockney accent, and some punks are about to feel decidedly unlucky.

While there is a bit of an apt comparison with the iconic Clint Eastwood character, the film comes off more like Death Wish than Magnum Force. With first-time director Barber at the helm, the film moves at a kind of a jerky pace – fast and frenetic at times and a bit slow at others. It gives an overall feel of driving a car with a dying transmission in it.

Caine is utterly magnificent here. In one of his best performances in a decade, he imbues Harry with quiet reserve, inner steel and rage. He is a man with absolutely nothing to lose and is willing to die for his cause. He isn’t a super-hero – he doesn’t hit everything he shoots, he can’t run like a track star and he doesn’t knock out behemoths with a single punch. Instead, he relies on his own experience and military smarts. Caine gives the character dignity and a bit of a connection with the past; we can imagine a young Caine sweeping through Belfast, machine gun in hand, rooting out snipers.

Mortimer is a very good actress who tends to play mousy characters. Here she’s playing a cop who is frustrated with the system, knows that its corrupt and is completely sympathetic to Harry’s plight and those of his neighbors but is helpless to really make much of an impact.

The ending is pure cinematic poppycock and the script tends to plod through clichés that were old when Death Wish was new. Still, with Caine’s soaring performance, Harry Brown bears watching, even though the sight isn’t exactly a new vista.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Caine’s best performances of the last ten years.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable revenge thriller plotline. Ludicrous ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is very strong as is the violence. There is also some drug use and sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The woman singing “Gold” in the pub is actually the unit nurse for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $7.3M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Apollo 18