Transcendence


Johnny Depp's salary for the film is displayed behind him.

Johnny Depp’s salary for the film is displayed behind him.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Wallace Langham, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Olivia Dudley. Directed by Wally Pfister

Our attitudes towards technology tend to be split down the middle. On the one hand, we appreciate the wonders of it and become addicted to our laptops, our cell phones, our microwaves and our GPS devices. We eagerly speculate as to what amazing discoveries will be a part of our daily lives ten or twenty years down the line,

On the other hand, technology terrifies us. We tremble at the thought of atomic bombs, killer drones and artificial intelligence deciding that humanity is superfluous and wiping us all out like Skynet and Judgment Day. It isn’t hard to imagine our own hubris creating the seeds of our extinction.

Will Caster (Depp) is one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his wife and lab partner Evelyn (Hall) are on the verge of a major breakthrough, creating a machine that  will not only think analytically but feel emotions, thus having more brainpower than the combined intelligence of every human that ever lived. Scary stuff.

A little too scary for some. A group of what I guess you’d call technoterrorists – a group of angry young people out to stop technology from taking over our lives at all costs – launch a coordinated attack on artificial intelligence labs all over the country. Decades of research is wiped out in the space of hours and the possibility that the scientists will never reach their goal looms large. Worse still, Will was shot – well, grazed – but the bullet that grazed him was coated with a radioactive isotope that will kill him in a matter of weeks. You can’t say these terrorists didn’t learn well from the KGB.

Evelyn kind of loses it. She wants to save her husband but knows his body is doomed. After reading some research from a scientist who was killed in the attack, she realizes that consciousness can be uploaded into a computer – he had done it with a rhesus monkey. With no other option, she determines to follow this course. She needs help and recruits Max (Bettany), a fellow scientist and close friend to both Will and herself.

Because this untested research would never be sanctioned in any reputable lab, particularly with FBI Agent Buchanan (Murphy) keeping a close eye on things. Their mentor, Dr. Tagger (Freeman) is unlikely to be supportive either. As Will’s body deteriorates, the attempt is made. Eventually, Will’s body dies. Did his soul?

At first, it seems the effort went to naught but a single line of text – Is Anybody There? – tells them that their experiment was a success. In fact, better than; Evelyn is convinced that everything that was the essence of what Will Caster was lives on in this machine. In a sense, she has become a modern Frankenstein.

But is this really Will? When circumstances force her to upload Will to the Internet, things begin to take a sideways step. Will manipulates bank accounts and stock, allowing Evelyn to create a kind of data fortress in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Will has started making breakthroughs in cell regeneration, allowing those who are infirm to be healed. However, the down side is that Will’s source code is also uploaded into these recipients of his generosity, making them in essence worker bees with greatly enhanced strength and speed.

Evelyn watches this with horror despite the apparently benign intentions of the new Will machine. However, if he is making fundamental changes to the DNA of the people of this town, will he use this ability to control them? And if so, will there be any true humans left?

Depp has had a string of missteps on the big screen lately and this one, according to the box office figures, isn’t going to break that string although in terms of quality it is certainly an improvement over his last couple of films. This is intelligent sci-fi, raising questions about our increasing reliance on technology as well as how much we’re willing to give up for comfort and safety. These aren’t easy questions to answer nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to give you any.

This is one of Depp’s most low-key performances in ages. Caster talks in a kind of monotone, probably because he’s so busy thinking. We rarely see any emotion out of Depp and therein lies the problem; Caster is already robotic by the time he becomes a machine. The change isn’t terribly noticeable. Hall, with a Cambridge education, seems overly hysterical here in playing a rational scientist although if I’d seen the love of my life waste away after being shot by terrorists, I might be a bit hysterical too.

Only Bettany acquits himself nicely here, although Murphy and Freeman are solid in small roles. The acting here doesn’t really stand out but the special effects and set design do. There is a sleek futuristic look to the Caster compound and the digital effects, while not breakthroughs, are at least wow-inducing for the most part.

I do like the concept although the film isn’t always true to its inner logic and at the end of the day, falls just shy of being a much better film than just merely entertaining. There is a lot to digest here and while it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is at least better than some of the more visceral sci-fi entries of recent years.

REASONS TO GO: Great effects. Nice concept. Keeps you guessing.

REASONS TO STAY: Misses the mark. Occasional overuse of technobabble.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence (some of it bloody), a bit of sensuality and occasional foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pfister’s debut as a director. Previously he has been a renowned cinematographer working for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Kevin MacDonald.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lawnmower Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Heaven is For Real

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New Releases for the Week of April 18, 2014


Transcendence

TRANSCENDENCE

(Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Lukas Haas. Directed by Wally Pfister

A brilliant A.I. engineer is on the verge of a game-changing breakthrough when he is shot with a radioactive bullet by members of an anti-technology group. His wife and best friend know his only chance for survival is to finish his experiment – to download his intelligence and essence into a computer. Unsure about the ethics of such an endeavor, they nonetheless proceed – and soon discover their worst fears being realized.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and sensuality)

2 States

(UTV) Arjun Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Amrita Singh, Revathy. A Punjabi boy and a Tamil girl face overwhelming obstacles in trying to get their parents to allow a marriage between the two of them. This is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Chetan Bhagat.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Bears

(DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (voice). Follows two new mama bears in the rugged, majestic and often dangerous terrain of Alaska as they try to teach their cubs everything they need to know to survive – while protecting them from the many dangers of the Alaskan wilderness.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: G

A Haunted House 2

(Open Road) Marlon Wayans, Gabriel Iglesias, Jaime Pressly, Essence Atkins. After exorcising the demons from his last girlfriend, a man starts fresh with his new girlfriend and her two children in a new house. Unfortunately, supernatural trouble follows him as he starts to realize that it may not be the house that’s haunted – maybe it IS him!

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror Spoof

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violent images)

Heaven is For Real

(Tri-Star) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church. Based on actual events, this details the story of a young boy who lies near death’s door and makes a miraculous recovery. When he comes to, he claims he has been to heaven and while there are those who are skeptical, his pastor father is disturbed that his son knows things that happened before he was born – things he couldn’t possibly know, providing a challenge to his faith and his beliefs.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Faith-Based Drama

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some medical situations)

Le Week-End

(Music Box) Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, Judith Davis. A British company, married for umpteen years, returns to the scene of the crime – their honeymoon in Paris. Trying to rekindle the romance that has been missing from their relationship, they succeed and then some as the romance of the City of Lights takes hold.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Lotoman 003

(Panamericana) Dalisa Alegria, Fernando Carrillo, Julian Gil, Fausto Mata. This hit comedy franchise from the Dominican Republic makes it’s American debut in select theaters in the U.S.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

The Lunchbox

(Sony Classics) Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nakul Vaid, Lillette Dubey.A frustrated housewife cooks lunch for her increasingly distant husband. When her lunchbox is inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient, a correspondence ensues between two lonely souls.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and smoking)

Make Your Move

(High Top) Derek Hough, BoA, Wesley Jonathan, Will Yun Lee.Two young people from completely different worlds meet in one of New York’s hottest underground clubs and discover that they have common ground in dance.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for language including sexual references, and brief violence)

Race Gurram

(Ficus) Shruti K. Haasan, Ravi Kishan, Prikash Raj, Allu Arjun. Two brothers who are polar opposites and constantly squabble and play increasingly spiteful pranks on one another are forced to unite when a corrupt politician wants revenge against the one brother who contested his election.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Under the Skin

(A24) Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell.  An alien masquerades as a human woman, using her amazing sexuality to snare human prey. As she spends more time on Earth however, she begins to change as she finds the complexity and joy of human life irresistible, putting her on a collision course with her own kind.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)

Pacific Rim


Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

Why does this giant robot have a trash bucket on its head?

(2013) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinski, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff, Brad William Henke, Larry Joe Campbell, Mana Ashida, Santiago Segura, Joe Pingue, Milton Barnes, Ellen McLain (voice), Robert Maillet, Heather Doerksen. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

When I was a boy, I used to love Japanese monster movies – men in rubber lizard suits smashing Tokyo to smithereens. My Dad and I loved the kind of cheesy earnestness of the movies and while we both moved on to other genres, we did share that one thing.

For my own son, it was giant robots. Transformers, dude. Things that turned into other things that grew huge and took on other huge things. That was what kids a generation removed from myself cut their teeth on. Now what about combining the two together?

That’s just what Guillermo del Toro, visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth did. In the near future, Earth has been invaded by gigantic beasts that came out of the ocean – or more accurately through a dimensional portal that manifested at the bottom of the Pacific. These creatures wreaked havoc on the coastal cities of Asia and Australia as well as the West Coast of the United States. Conventional warfare doesn’t work on these Kaiju which is Japanese for “strange creature” but over time has come to assume gigantic size as well. In order to fight these creatures, giant robotic creatures – called Jaegers which is German for “hunters” – have been created. These machines are piloted by humans and are so intricate and complex that it requires to human brains, which are psychically linked by a “drift” which allows both pilots to share memories while operating both sides of the robotic brain. At first, these robots are successful.

However as time goes on, more and more creatures pour out of the portal growing larger and more deadly as they do. Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) is a pilot along with his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff) but in a battle with a Kaiju Yancy is killed while connected to Raleigh who experiences his brother’s death. Raleigh leaves the program and becomes a construction worker on a gigantic wall protecting the coastline which the government feels will adequately protect the people and cities of the coast.

Of course, that doesn’t work and the general of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Elba) finds himself in need of pilots as the Kaiju have begun a counter-offensive that has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Stacker knows the only way for humanity to survive is to find a way to close that portal; he has scientists Newton Geiszler (Day) and Helmut Gottleib (Gorman) trying to find ways to do just that. But they’ll need pilots too, even burned out ones and Raleigh is recruited. Japanese scientist Mako Mori (Kikuchi) is his handler; her family died in a Kaiju attack and she yearns to pilot a Jaeger and get some payback. Raleigh might be her best bet for it – but both will have to get over their issues from the past and face gigantic odds because the creatures coming at them from the portal are like nothing they’ve ever seen before.

This might well be the most visually amazing movie of the summer – the battle sequences are worth their weight in gold all by themselves. This is high-tech stuff, even more so than the anime you might remember that featured the giant robots. Del Toro does himself the favor of creating characters with some meat to them, giving the audience a rooting interest which is more than a lot of summer films have been able to accomplish this year.

Hunnam, known to most audiences from his work on Sons of Anarchy is turning out to be quite a promising leading man. Here he has some pretty good cast members to work with, particularly Elba who is one of the best in the business. So too is Perlman (playing a black market Kaiju organ seller) but he has no scenes with Hunnam. Kikuchi is riveting when she’s onscreen; at a very young age she’s become one of the best actresses in the world.

Following a trend that has puzzled me all summer long, the film is a good 20-40 minutes too long; quite frankly the entire subplot with Perlman could have been eliminated or at least saved for a Premium Home Video release. At least however even if the movie drags near the end the eye candy you’re given makes it worthwhile and for geeks of all ages this is manna from heaven, ready to be gorged.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing visuals. Elba and Perlman always interesting; Hunnam is getting to be quite a leading man.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Too much chest-busting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, plenty of violence and  a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Cruise was originally considered for the role in which Idris Elba was eventually cast in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; the critics are pretty solidly behind this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space Battleship Yamato

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: I Melt With You

Parker


Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

(2013) Thriller (FilmDistrict) Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Emma Booth, Micah Hauptman, Kirk Baltz, Kip Gilman, Sharon Landry, Charleigh Harmon. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Most of us have some sort of moral code that we live our lives by, even if we can’t always articulate. We call them “lines” and we try not to cross them (although we aren’t always successful). It’s always somewhat miraculous when someone actually accomplishes it.

A priest and two clowns walk into the Ohio State Fair main office. Sounds like a joke but it’s actually a robbery, one spearheaded by the priest – who is actually Parker (Statham), an expert thief who lives by a rather stringent moral code – never steal from those who can’t afford it, never hurt those who don’t deserve it. It’s served him well.

But when you work with clowns, well, you get what you deserve. One of them, Melander (Chiklis) has an idea for an even bigger score but needs the entire take from the State Fair job to make it happen. Parker, who is already not happy with the crew because one of them (Hauptman) had set a diversionary fire in the wrong place, decides to pass.

Unfortunately, Melander isn’t willing to take no for an answer and leaves Parker shot and nearly unconscious on the side of the road. Fortunately, a farmer and his family spies Parker on the side of the road and takes him to a local hospital. Parker regains consciousness and manages to escape before the cops arrive to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. He recovers in a stolen ambulance in a secluded patch of woods and a helping of Demerol to help him sleep it off.

When he comes to he’s in a pretty foul mood. He approaches Hurley (Nolte), his mentor and also the father of Claire (Booth) – his girlfriend – and the man who set him up with Melander. It turns out that Hurley didn’t know that Melander was extremely connected, in this case to Danzinger (Gilman) a vicious crime boss. Hurley advises him to walk away but Parker can’t do that. He needs his score and he needs justice. He knows that Danzinger will send people not only after him but after Hurley and Claire and anyone Parker knows but it’s the principle of the thing.

After a visit to the brother of the misplaced arsonist (Baltz) in New Orleans, Parker gets wind that the job is taking place in Palm Beach, Florida. From snippets of  conversation just prior to his assault, he knows they were looking for a house down there. He contacts Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), an ambitious realtor trying to get her first commission. She’s in desperate financial straits – a divorce has left her with plenty of bills and precious little cash and she is forced to live with her difficult mother (LuPone) and field calls from bill collectors and repo agencies. She is at the end of her rope.

Parker, posing as an Ecuadorian-born oil baron from Texas (yeah, she doesn’t believe it either), soon discovers where Melander is hiding out and what he’s up to. Even with his atrocious Texas accent, he soon comes up with a plan but he has to dodge a hitman that Danzinger has sent after him and Leslie’s well-meaning interference. He’ll have to beat some pretty stiff odds to get away with this job.

This is based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the Parker series by Richard Stark which is the nom de plume of the late Donald E. Westlake, one of the most respected and honored crime novelists of the 20th century. This was meant to be the ground zero of a Parker franchise, but given the anemic box office and quite frankly the lackluster quality of the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Hackford might not have been the best choice for the director’s chair. While he’s a veteran helmer, he’s better known for movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Noir-ish action flicks, which is what this was supposed to be, are outside of his comfort zone and it shows – the action sequences have almost no life to them and are filmed kind of statically. In fact, the movie is kind of oddly lacking in kinetic energy.

It’s not Statham’s fault. He actually makes a pretty good Parker given the taciturn nature of the character in the books. Parker is meant to kick ass and take names….well, he doesn’t really care about the names so much but Statham inhabits the role well. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Lopez has never really been my cup of tea although I thought she showed amazing promise in Selena back in ’97 but she actually was pretty good here. There’s a scene in which she is reading an e-mail about her car being repossessed and her mom is giving her crap about some inconsequential thing and then she looks up at her mom and you can see in her expression all the pain, the stress and the worry that has brought her to her breaking point. The look is so poignant her mother puts a hand on her shoulder, unsure what to do (inside you’re screaming Hug her you idiot!) but at last her mom walks away and Leslie hides her face in her hands. It’s some really affective acting and tells me that if Lopez could just stay away from the pop star diva thing she’s done she can be a really great serious actress.

The Palm Springs locations are actually quite nice as we see gorgeous home after gorgeous home. Yes, the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Makes me want to punch someone in a Giorgio Armani suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Or at least give them the evil eye.

I would have liked to see a movie with a little more grit, a little less glitz and a lot more spice. For a movie looking to establish a franchise beachhead there isn’t a lot of bang for your buck. It’s basically a mediocre action film with poorly written logical lapses – if you were going to buy a home in which you were going to lay low with tens of millions of stolen jewels, wouldn’t you at least consider some sort of home security system? – that with a little more care and a director more suited to this sort of film might have been the right step towards a profitable action franchise. As it is it’s back to the drawing board.

REASONS TO GO: Statham actually makes a pretty nifty Parker. Gorgeous Palm Beach location. Lopez ain’t half bad here.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything to the mix. Lacks spice.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. A surprisingly small amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the fifth film to be based on a Parker novel, it is the first in which the character’s name is actually used.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100; the reviews are mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

The Perfect Game


Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

(2010) Sports Drama (Image) Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Emilie de Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola, David Koechner, Frances Fisher, Tracey Walter, Jansen Panettiere, Jake Austin, Moises Arias, Ryan Ochoa, Julieta Ortiz. Directed by William Dear

The mightiest heroes can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. You never know where inspiration is going to come from. You never know how.

Monterrey, Mexico is as impoverished as it gets in 1957. It’s an industrial community, dirt-poor and with few amenities. The kids of Monterrey don’t have a lot to do, so local priest Padre Estaban (Marin) encourages them to start playing baseball. When he discovers former major league prospect Cesar Faz (Collins) has returned home after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he enlists him to be their coach.

In fact, the only job Cesar could get with the Cardinals was  as a janitor but still he hoped he could get into their organization but soon it became clear that the ghost of Babe Ruth himself could have proclaimed him a surefire star and the Cardinals still would have turned the other way. Maybe he should have swept the floor for the Dodgers instead.

In any case, he soon realizes that Angel Macias (Austin) has an enormous amount of potential as a pitcher and he takes him under his wing. Under Cesar’s hard but compassionate coaching the Monterrey youngsters soon learn to play as a team and they begin winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, they qualify for the Little League World Series.

But the obstacles are many. To get to Williamsport they will need money and there isn’t a lot of that in Monterrey. Besides that even if they get there no team outside the United States had ever won the Little League World Series. How could they even hope to compete with America in their own national pastime?

Because you’ve seen this kind of movie many times before and once you figure out that this is based on a true story (more on that later), you know that Monterrey is going to overcome all those obstacles. Even though you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat for a foregone conclusion, still you will catch plenty of that feel-good effect that so many sports underdog films bring out in you.

This is based on a true story – not the actual story itself. It is fiction, based on fact. That’s something to keep in mind. Those who want to know the real story behind the team will need to look up Los pequenos gigantes, a 1960 documentary made about that team. It’s in English, but it is extremely hard to find.

There is a bit of Bad News Bears here as well as a bit of Miracle. I don’t think there is anything here that really sets this apart from other similarly-themed movies other than that the heroes are Mexican and much of the movie is set there, and shows some of the poverty that was and continues to be an everyday reality there.

The actors playing the kids on the team do all right but they are basically given one-note characters who exist to fulfill a function either within the plot or on the field. Austin’s Angel Macias is at the heart of the film from the kid’s aspect and he does pretty well. Macias is coping with a father who is disinterested in baseball and whose harsh, critical eye drive the young boy to tears sometimes. Fathers can do that when they see their children only as they want them to be rather than as they are.

Collins does a pretty good job as Cesar who has secrets of his own to hide. Marin, who those who loved him in his heyday will have a hard time seeing him as a priest, makes for a decent one. De Ravin plays a cub reporter looking for a big story and finds one, gets a part that seems to have been lifted from a screwball comedy and transplanted here. She’s pretty and sexy in the role, but that doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie – which is a problem with the script more than with her.

Those who love those sports underdog movies will like this a lot. Those who are sick of them should probably steer clear. This is inspiring sure but not as much as the real Monterrey team whose story is Hollywoodized here.

WHY RENT THIS: Has plenty of heart.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can be overbearing with its message in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements might be a bit over the head of the younger crowd.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real members of both the Monterrey and La Mesa little league teams who played in that championship game can be seen in the stands as fans during the championship game sequence.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a kind of music video (really just a montage of clips from the movie set to music) in both Spanish and English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.9M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the production made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle Match

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Shrink

Brothers (2009)


Brothers

Tobey Maguire reactsas Natalie Portman gives him the news that she likes Thor far more than Spider-Man.

(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan

 

The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).

Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.

But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.

Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.

Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.

Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.

This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.

In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.

Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.

Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.

For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.

Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Scream 4

Babel


 

Babel

The desolation of the Moroccan landscape is reflected in Cate Blanchett's eyes.

(2006) Ensemble Drama (Paramount Vantage) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, .Rinko Kikuchi, Adrianna Barraza, Michael Pena, Koji Yakusho, Elle Fanning, Clifton Collins Jr., Mohammed Akhzam, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mustapha Rachidi, Nathan Gamble, Satoshi Nikaido. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

In our multi-cultural society, conversation has become almost white noise as we try to make some sense out of what is being said. It is not by accident that “Babel” and “Babble” are homonyms.

Two young goatherds (Caid, Tarchani) in Morocco are testing their new rifle to see if the claims that it could shoot a bullet three kilometers is true by firing it at moving vehicles on a nearby road. Instead, they hit a tour bus and wind up shooting Susan, an American tourist (Blanchett). The wound is serious, and it forces the tour bus to divert to the village of the tour guide (Akhzam) which is where the nearest doctor is (the nearest hospital is far enough away that she might bleed to death before they get there). This causes an international incident when the United States government blames the act on terrorists. Her husband Richard (Pitt) is more concerned with getting her to a proper hospital but they are stuck in a small village in the interior of Morocco with no doctor, no medicine and a wound from which her lifeblood is slowly seeping away. The governments posture and issue press statements while the anxious passengers wonder if they aren’t vulnerable to another terrorist attack. Their desire to leave is met with Richard’s insistence that they stay until help arrives.

That’s not all. Her children (Fanning and Gamble) whom she thought were safe at home, were taken by their housekeeper/nanny Amelia (Barraza) and her unreliable nephew Santiago (Bernal) to the wedding of her son in Mexico, necessitated when she cannot find anyone to watch her charges while she’s gone. When they return home in the wee hours of the morning, an overzealous border guard (Collins) causes the inebriated Santiago to panic and run the border. Chased by the Border Patrol, he leaves the children and his aunt stranded in the desert, promising to lose the patrol and come back for them. Dawn comes and they are still alone in the heat of the desert with no water and little shade.

Meanwhile in Japan, Chieko, a young deaf-mute girl (Kikuchi) struggles to cope with the suicide of her mother and her own budding sexuality. She wanders around the crowded, pulsating streets of Tokyo, flirting with guys in J-Pop clubs, and gossiping with her teammates on the volleyball team. She shuts out her father (Yakusho) who is puzzled at his daughter’s hostility towards him. When a handsome detective (Nikaido) comes to their apartment while her father is at work, Chieko sees an opportunity. All of these stories are related in one way or another, and the effects of a single bullet will have repercussions in every one of their lives.

Like last year’s Oscar-winner Crash, the four main stories are told simultaneously with one another with characters from each story running like threads through the others. The stories aren’t told chronologically, so there is some overlap and information from one storyline is received in another, even though those events haven’t happened in the first storyline yet. That serves to lessen the dramatic tension some (for instance, a very important aspect of Susan’s medical condition is revealed very early on in the Mexican portion of the film, even though in the Moroccan portion she hasn’t been shot yet). While I admire Inarritu’s boldness in altering the paradigm of storytelling, it just isn’t executed as well as it could have been. 

There are some excellent acting performances here, particularly from Pitt who turns in the most complete performance of his career to date. As the anguished husband who is already having marital problems with his wife (they go to Morocco ostensibly to work out their problems alone, but as she acidly points out, they are with a tour group and consequently are almost never alone), Pitt displays frustration, despair and fear with much more emotional openness than we’re used to seeing from him. He looks much older in the movie than what he usually plays, which I think makes the role a bit more believable. 

Kikuchi also does a really fine job in a role in which she has no dialogue except for grunts and moans. She has to spend much of her performance naked and displaying her sexuality in ways that many actresses might find uncomfortable (although fans of Basic Instinct might find the performance intriguing). Inarritu has a tendency to use non-actors in some his movies (as he does here particularly in the Moroccan sequence) and they come through nicely.

I like the look into the various cultures that Inarritu provides, particularly the Moroccan and Japanese aspects (which are less familiar to those of us in the States, where the Mexican culture is much more prevalent). I was fascinated particularly by the desolation of Morocco and the North American desert; both are desolate and empty, which contrasts nicely with the lively crowds in Tokyo.

The problem here is that there is too much storyline going on. The Japanese sequence is not really necessary to the movie and quite frankly, the Mexican sequence probably isn’t either. The movie runs at 2 1/2 hours long and is a good half hour too long for my taste. This could have been trimmed without diluting the message or the power of the performance overly much. 

Inarritu is a real talent (he already has Amores Perros and 21 Grams under his belt) and will undoubtedly turn out movies that are going to be classics in the very near future. This, unfortunately, isn’t one of them, although it is good enough to recommend unreservedly. I can recommend it on the basis of some of the performances, and because of the glimpses into different cultures. However, if you’re going to do a movie based on how our lack of communication as a species leads to terrible problems, the least you can do is not keep talking so long that the listener tunes you out.

WHY RENT THIS: Well directed and beautifully filmed. Pitt turns in his finest performance to date. Blanchett and Kikuchi are also solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A good half hour too long, could have done without the Japanese and Mexican segments of the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violent content, graphic nudity and sexuality and a little bit of drug use. Definitely not for the kids.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $135.3M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly the movie was a blockbuster!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Lincoln Lawyer