Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

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ADDicted (2017)


The joys of home study can’t be understated.

(2017) Drama (Vision) Luke Guldan, Lauren Sweetser, Kathleen Quinlan, Gil Bellows, Thom Christopher, Ezra Knight, Taylor Gildersleeve, Tyrone Brown, Morgan Roberts Jarrett Worley, Aaron Bickes, J. Tucker Smith, Danielle Marcucci, Mark Tallman, Ben Kaplan, Sarah Kaplan, Sal Belfonte, Delia Cai, Joe Greene, Ryan J. Murray, Sue Ellersieck, Jon Drtina, Katherine Ashcraft. Directed by Dan Jenski

 

College is a pressure cooker, even more so now than it was in my day. Every professor seems to be of the mindset that theirs is the only class you’re taking. Most students have to take on a job in order to make ends meet while they’re in school in addition to their class loads and if they intend to go further in their education with an advanced degree, the pressure is really on to keep the grades high in order to be in the mix for those coveted grad school slots.

\Drew Dawson (Guldan) has more pressure on him than most. Although he comes from a background of wealth and privilege, he is a star football player who loves playing the game. His overbearing and demanding mother Kate (Quinlan) has his future all planned out for him; law school, a job at his grandfather’s prestigious St. Louis law firm and then maybe politics. She herself is running for a seat in the House of Representatives and needs Drew to be at his very best.

But all this is much more difficult because Drew has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He has a hard time focusing and keeping his grades up, so he has been taking Adderall for a decade, not long after his father passed away in a car accident. On top of that, Drew has broken up with Ashley Ross (Sweetser) after he caught her cheating with an ex. A sorority queen and journalism major, Ashley is a favorite of Kate’s who knows she will write complimentary material for the school paper and Kate needs all the good press she can get. For that reason, Drew hasn’t told his mother about the breakup.

Things being what they are, Drew is starting to crumble a little bit. A paper he has turned in to Professor Mueller (Bellows) has been flagged for plagiarism; actually, Drew didn’t mean to plagiarize the material he’d just failed to attribute the quotes he was using to the proper sources. If Drew gets turned in for plagiarism, he could lose his scholarship and certainly his place on the team. After some pleading, Drew is given a second chance.

Drew’s doctor (Smith) ups the dosage of the Adderall and at first that seems to settle Drew down but Drew is also providing pills to Ashley and his good friend “Radar” Robson (Brown) who uses the pills to help him focus on the field. But the straw tower is collapsing and Drew is floundering; his mother isn’t very sympathetic and soon an innocent study session leads to a decision that could have devastating consequences.

In all honesty I didn’t know Adderall addiction on campus was a thing but apparently it is. Set at the fictional Missouri A&M University, the movie does a pretty realistic job of capturing the pressures of college life although most college students don’t have the resources that Drew has; as I said earlier, most have to maintain some sort of job in order to pay for their living expenses while Drew doesn’t have that problem. Still, even he is under the gun of high expectations.

Guldan is a good looking young man but throughout the film his delivery is low-key; I’m not sure if this is to portray the effects of the drug on Drew or if it’s his natural delivery. It makes his performance a little bit stiff and wooden though. Quinlan is given a character who isn’t very realistic and who isn’t a very good mother and she does her best with it but at times I thought her character should have been twirling a metaphorical moustache a la Snidley Whiplash. Bellows, a solid character actor, fares best with the hip and cool professor who really Cares About His Kids. He comes off as very down to earth and the kind of professor who made learning fun when I was in school back in the stone age when we didn’t bring laptops to class. We – horrors – hand wrote our notes; oh, the humanity!

Some of the plot elements are a bit over the top in a soap opera sense and that doesn’t do the movie any favors. The whole subplot about Kate’s Congressional campaign could have been jettisoned without adversely affecting the movie; in fact, I would have loved to have seen more material on the effects of the drug on Drew and the people around him and gain a sense of how widespread the problem really is. While the movie has some missteps, the subject matter and main focus are to be congratulated and it is worth checking out for the scenes that do seem to be more on mission and less concerned with unrealistic plot twists.

REASONS TO GO: The issue of Adderall abuse on college campuses is brought into focus. Bellows gives a down to earth performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie would have been better without the soap opera elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drug abuse, adult themes, profanity, some sexual references and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the college campus scenes were filmed at the University of Missouri.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Basketball Diaries
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Uncle Gloria: A Helluva Ride

Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

Everybody Wants Some!!


The 70s become the 80s.

The 70s become the 80s.

(2016) Comedy (Paramount) Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Courtney Tailor, Taylor Murphy, Christina Burdette, Zoey Deutch, Sophia Taylor Ali, Austin Amelio, Tanner Kalina, Forrest Vickery, Jonathan Breck, Ernest James, Justin Alexio, Celina Chapin, Shailaun Manning. Directed by Richard Linklater

College circa 1980 was a different place than it is now. Back then, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet. There was a lot of sex and while there were sexually transmitted diseases, they could be cured with penicillin. There was a lot more facial hair and your music collection didn’t fit in a small box; you used a milk crate to carry your records around. A lot of things though, haven’t changed.

Linklater, whose last film was Boyhood and elevated him to perhaps the most successful indie director in the business, calls this film a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. None of the characters from that film appear here but I can see his point – while that film took place in the last year of high school, this one takes place in the first year of college.

It follows the members of the fictional Southwest Texas University baseball team during the three day weekend prior to school starting and the fall preview games for the team. It is August in Southwest Texas which means, well, heat, lots of beer and pretty girls wearing hardly a thing. There’s a lot of what we now call “Classic Rock” on the radio (but back then we just called it rock) and it’s about to be morning in America.

Jake (Jenner) is our proxy amongst the jocks. We see things unfold through his eyes. He’s smart enough to know that while he was the star of his high school team, he may not be talented enough to be a starter on this team and as for moving on to the major leagues, probably only McReynolds (Hoechlin) has a shot. But in the meantime, he’s making friends with the other players, including Willoughby (Russell), a California stoner who is kind of a Deepak Chopra of the pitcher’s mound, Finnegan (Powell) who knows that this will be the best time of his life and plans to make the most of it, Jay (Street) with an explosive temper, and Beuter (Brittain) who is an unsophisticated rube.

Over the weekend, the guys bang back beers, smoked a little leaf and do whatever it takes to get laid. All of that rings true to the college experience, then and now. Jake meets a comely freshman theater major (Deutch) and the two begin to hang out and develop something of a romance. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess – after all, we’re talking about the first weekend at college for the both of them.

I think that for the most part Linklater nailed the period (as he usually does) with a few quibbles; the guys play The Legend of Zelda which didn’t come out until the following year, for example nor would it have been likely that a college student had a VCR, which retailed for about $600 back in August 1980. Still, he gets the flavor of the period right.

This is very much a guy’s picture; only the theater major is given any sort of character and most of the women in this film are reduced to being the sexual prey of the baseball players. In a sense, we’re getting the worldview of the jocks – all bros and no hoes. Some viewers might have a problem with that. Still, this is a Linklater film so it’s thoughtful right?

Not so much. In many ways, this is one of his most mindless films yet. I kinda got the sense that this was almost a throwaway movie, one that he didn’t give a lot of thought to (even though it arrives in theaters a year and a half after his last one). To me, it doesn’t have the depth of character that is a hallmark of Linklater’s movies; the characters all seem much more to be stereotypes.

The acting is a little bland as well. The cast is largely unknown and while Jenner stands out by default, the rest perform their roles without distinction but at least without making a mess of it either. Damned by faint praise, I know.

But there is more to the movie than just a great soundtrack (and it really IS great) and capturing its era nicely. This is a Richard Linklater film and even though it will likely not be considered one of his best works, there are still moments that show you how good a director he is and how gifted he is at structuring comedic sequences. There are some really good light-hearted moments. Not the big laughs of a big Hollywood comedy, but the introspective chuckles of recognizing something as ridiculous that perhaps you took part in when you were younger.

I will admit that I’m definitely the target audience for this thing. While I didn’t go to college on an athletic scholarship, I knew some who did and I was there during this precise era (in August 1980 I was starting my Junior year). While I like to think I wasn’t quite so sex-obsessed as these guys were, I probably was – guys that age are hormones on legs. So while this isn’t one of Linklater’s best, it certainly isn’t his worst and even a subpar Linklater movie is worth checking out, and this clearly is worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the era dead to rights. Terrific soundtrack. Some really funny sequences. Doesn’t overstay its welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little sexist. Bland cast. Not as thoughtful as previous Linklater films.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of profanity, plenty of drug use, a good deal of sexual content and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The credits include one for a cat wrangler credited to Bernie Tiede, who was the subject of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Angry Birds Movie

Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie


A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

A little less-than-enthusiastic nuzzling.

(2015) Coming of Age Drama (Self-Released) Christine Ryndak, Mira Furlan, Fredric Lehne, Vincent Piazza, Leah Yananton, Dennis Hill, Joshua Zirger, Kevin Murray, Mikayla Park, Patrick Welsh, Rusty Clauss, Marycarmen Wila, Joanna Becker, Stefan Stratton, Matt Cannon, Ellana Barksdale, Marjo-Riikka Makela. Directed by Leah Yananton

Finding ourselves is no easy task. At 20 years old, we are expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives and who we want to be. The truth of the matter is this; at 20 we don’t have the experience to really know ourselves, and how can you figure out who you want to be if you don’t know who you are to begin with?

Sophie Hofkind (Ryndak) is entering her junior year in college. She is a poet of some talent, having been taken under the wing of her English lit teacher Professor Slateman (Lehne). Her free-spirited BFF Keira (Yananton) seems to have a moral compass that points directly at her own crotch; she pretty much bangs anything that moves and has quite a sexual attraction to Sophie, even if Sophie chooses to ignore it – most of the time. Once in awhile, Sophie isn’t above leading Keira on.

Sophie also has Jimmy (Piazza), who wants very much to be her boyfriend. Each gave their virginity away to the other; while Jimmy is hopelessly in love with Sophie, Sophie keeps a bit of a distance with Jimmy. Oh sure, she has sex with him, but it wouldn’t exactly be called making love, at least not for her.

Sophie is in a good spot. She has mostly paid for her tuition through private funds, refusing to utilize her mom as help – the two have been estranged essentially since Sophie left for school. However, the thing about life is it rarely stays in the same place for long. Sophie develops more than a crush for Professor Slateman and the professor’s enigmatic wife Jacqueline (Furlan), which begins to take its toll on all of Sophie’s relationships. Also, she has begun to run out of money for her schooling, which means she’ll have to work and given that she has an 18 credit workload means that she’s going to have little time for socializing and sleep.

Still, Sophie is making a go of it, but she runs smack into some life-altering decisions that will change her life forever but also the lives of everyone around her. These are the kinds of things that give us a road map to “finding ourselves.”

If you ever wondered what being a young co-ed in the 21st century is like, the movie gives the old college try at showing you. Not being a young 21st century co-ed I can’t really vouch for the accuracy here, but I have to admit that the dialogue doesn’t always ring true here. While college students of both sexes have a tendency to mistake literary quotes and highfalutin’ language as depth, most discussions that take place between college students has little to do with the meaning of poetry. Rather, like most young people, college students spend more time discussing social activities than they do literature and philosophy.

Fortunately, the two leading ladies – Ryndak and Yananton – are both charming, smart, pretty and sexy. While Ryndak’s character isn’t always likable in that she is capable of great self-absorption, she has a light about her that makes the audience want her to do the right thing and end up happy. Yananton, who has to portray a girl whom the judgmental among us might call a slut – although I have issues with labeling a woman who happens to enjoy sex – makes the character the sort of girl you want to hang around with, even if you have zero chance of sleeping with her.

The supporting cast is pretty good as well, but delivering an exceptional performance is Mira Furlan. Most remember her from Babylon 5 and J.J. Abrams’ Lost but she is a superb actress who has never really connected with American audiences to the degree I thought she would. She doesn’t have a huge role here but it is a memorable one and Furlan fills it with personality and emotion. Her scenes with Ryndak in the cabin late in the film are really superb.

The problems that Sophie encounters are for the most part very realistic. Young women enter an environment where their sexuality is both encouraged and discouraged at once; it can be very confusing to navigate the treacherous waters of human relationships at any age, let alone so young. Sophie makes some poor choices here but she also makes a few good ones. Whether or not she has truly learned from them is an enigma; how often do we truly learn from our mistakes? Not always. Some less often than others, but all things considered I have high hopes for Sophie.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. It occasionally falls into pretentiousness but of the kind that might come with characters who have more intelligence than experience. Particularly near the end of the film, Yananton sets up some beautiful shots and utilizes some artwork throughout that’s very feminine to the point of being yonic (the “9” in the opening titles looks decidedly ovarian). In fact, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to label this a bit of a woman’s film, although that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude men from enjoying it, but it certainly is aimed at young women with a young woman’s point of view. Using the structure of Dante’s Inferno to structure the movie is fairly interesting for the most part, but some of the segments feel like the subject matter was shoehorned in a little bit. An ambitious idea but one that I think ended up inhibiting the filmmaker somewhat.

Summing up, not all of this works but that’s okay – enough of it does that I can give it a reasonably solid thumbs up. The film is just beginning to hit the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it at your local film fest. Don’t be surprised if it turns up at one near you.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting artwork with a decidedly feminine bent. Mira Furlan is a criminally underrated actress. Some really nicely set up shots.
REASONS TO STAY: The lead character’s behavior can be frustrating. Occasionally pretentious. Some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like 20-year-old girls talking.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sex and some nudity, adult and sexual content, some foul language and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere last weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Mistress America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Key

San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

Boyhood


Life is an ongoing investigation.

Life is an ongoing investigation.

(2014) Drama (IFC) Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Steven Prince, Bonnie Cross, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham, Nick Krause, Angela Rawna, Evie Thompson, Brad Hawkins, Barbara Chisholm, Jenni Tooley, Savannah Welch, Taylor Weaver, Jessi Mechler. Directed by Richard Linklater

Seinfeld was famously a sitcom about nothing. Here we have a movie, filmed over a 12 year span, in which nothing much happens. Nothing much, maybe, except life.

That is what this movie is all about. Richard Linklater, one of the more respected directors in the indie ranks who has such seminal films as Dazed and Confused and Slacker to his credit as well as the ambitious Before trilogy, took the time to film this movie with the same core cast of actors over a 12 year period. What he ended up doing is filming a series of short films which he later stitched together into a full-fledged feature film as we watch the cast grow up and age before our very eyes.

Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) who is divorced from his dreamer of a father (Hawke) and his sister Samantha (Linklater) with whom he bickers constantly. She’s got a bit of the princess to her and she knows how to stomp her feet and declare her position without equivocation.

They live in various locales in Texas as mom takes on a series of boyfriends and husbands with varying degrees of success. She also goes back to school and gets her degree, enabling her to teach at a local community college. Dad in the meantime returns back to Texas from Alaska and means to take on a more active role in the lives of his kids. At first he’s just another, larger-sized kid along with them, but as time goes by he starts to change and becomes more the father he should have been all along.

Critics have been falling all over each other to praise this movie as you can tell from the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, so much so that I can’t help wonder when the inevitable backlash is going to hit. All I can say is not now and not here. This is a magnificent film, one that will engender discussion for a very long time; certainly when you leave the theater you’ll be talking about it.

This was always a project that was going to need a little bit of luck. Getting the parents of the child actors to agree to taking a couple of weeks each year to film for 12 years is quite a commitment to ask for, even from the professionals. What if the kid actors turned out to be terrible? What if one of them decided they didn’t want to do this anymore – and in fact one did. Surprisingly, it was the director’s daughter who asked her daddy to kill her off in the movie. Thankfully, Linklater had enough vision to insist his little girl see it through – and eventually she came back on board.

The point is, there were a lot of ways that this project could have been torpedoed but in every sense of the word this movie was charmed. For one thing, who would have guessed that Coltrane would turn out to be a charismatic young actor? Linklater may well have suspected but there really was no way to know for sure when a kid is eight years old how he’s going to react to things when he’s eighteen.

Nonetheless, Coltrane gives an unexpectedly terrific performance. Sure there are times when as a young boy his acting is a bit forced by as the movie continues you see him grow more and more confident in his ability. By the time Mason heads off to college, there is a maturity to the boy and the performance that simply put gives the movie a grand shot in the arm. I don’t know what Coltrane’s future plans are but he certainly has the presence and the talent to make a go of it in the motion picture industry.

Arquette, who filmed concurrently to her work in the TV show The Medium for a good portion of the movie, has a complicated role. In many ways, her character is the least defined; while Hawke’s dad has a defined journey from flamboyant and immature daddy wannabe to responsible and surprisingly wise father, her character is always the most responsible one of the two. Her issues stem from her very poor choices in men, some with devastating consequences to her family. She’s a very bright, attractive woman but by movie’s end she’s alone. One wonders if her character deserved that fate.

We watch Mason and Samantha grow up before our very eyes while their parents grow older and wiser. One of the complaints that I’ve heard is that there are stretches where nothing happens, but those who make that complaint miss the point. Life happens, and sometimes life happens subtly. It isn’t just the big watershed moments in our lives that make us what we are – it’s the little things as well, sometimes as small as bowling without bumpers.

The late Gene Siskel was a huge fan of slice of life films and undoubtedly this is the kind of film he would have championed. There is no slice of life movie that takes such a slice out of life and makes it seamless and organic. We don’t watch this movie so much as live it; throughout we are reminded of the events and situations in our own lives either as children growing up or as parents raising children, or even both. Those of a certain generation will find nostalgia in Harry Potter book release parties, a spot-on soundtrack, Ninetendos and campaigning for Obama. Others will recognize the kinds of challenges they faced growing up in the era, or raising kids in  the era.

Either way, this film will move you and take you places that while you may have already been there, will give you a fresh perspective on the matter. We all react to movies based on what we take into them from our own experiences, but this is one movie that most people are going to find value in, even in its quietest moments.

REASONS TO GO: Incredibly authentic. Basically appeals to kids that age. A primer for what to expect when raising kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Long periods of “inactivity.”

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of swearing, some sexual references and teen sex, drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Morgan and Samantha’s dad take them to an Astros game against the Brewers and tells everyone that the Astros won on a three-run homer by Jason Lane in the bottom of the ninth. In reality the game, filmed on August 18, 2005 was won by the Brewers and Lane’s homer was a solo shot in the second inning.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 100/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinema Paradiso

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Get On Up