Stronger


Love makes us stronger.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Katherine Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia, Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis, Rena Maliszewski. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

In the aftermath of tragedy, it is perhaps the glory of humanity that we rise up and overcome. Even the most horrific of circumstances can bring out our resilience to an almost miraculous degree. It is in these situations that we as a species ten to show the most grace.

Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a working class guy from Chelmsford who lives and breathes Boston sports, carves roast chicken at a local Costco and hangs out with his friends after work. There is the matter of a girl, Erin Hurley (Maslany) whom Jeff is absolutely crazy about but he always seems to find a way to mess it up. She justifiably complains that he never shows up; he promises that this time, he will.

This time is at the Boston Marathon in which she is running; he promises to show up, awaiting her at the finish line with a goofy sign. Well, this time he shows up and happens to be standing right next to one of the homemade bombs that went off at the 2013 Marathon. Both his legs are blown off by the blast. When he wakes up in the hospital and is informed about the extent of his injuries, he cracks a joke about being Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

He is unprepared for the public adulation that comes from being a survivor. An iconic photo of him being cared for by an unknown man in a cowboy hat (Sanz) has made him a celebrity. His blowzy mom (Richardson) is all about using his new-found fame to his advantage. Erin, overwhelmed by guilt, reconnects with him and becomes nurse and lover.

But Jeff is not the most mature of men to begin with and he self-medicates as the pressures of fame and the pain of physical therapy begin to become unbearable. He has become a symbol but he doesn’t want to be one; he is not interested in offering hope to the people of Boston and his old habits that tore him and Erin apart initially begin to resurface.

David Gordon Green is one of those directors who seem to have a loyal hardcore following but rarely gets the recognition he deserves. This is probably his most commercial film yet (which considering that one of his movies is The Pineapple Express is saying something) and certainly his most accessible.

He pushes all the right buttons here but admirably doesn’t make the film as cliché-ridden as it might be. He keeps things low-key and realistic. Bauman is far from heroic for most of this although by the end of the movie he seems to be accepting his role and begins to use it in a positive way.

Gyllenhaal is at the center of the film. He has become a regular contender for Oscar gold and this performance might very well put him in the mix again this year. He makes Jeff very human, very vulnerable and very flawed and yet charming enough with just enough heart o’ gold kinda stuff that we root for him even as his drunken antics and commitment phobia make us clench our collective teeth. One must also point out that the CGI that renders Gyllenhaal as legless is some of the most seamless and well done I’ve seen.

Maslany has been acclaimed for her performances in Orphan Black, shows that she has the chops to become a serious movie actress. She is much more low-key than Gyllenhaal here but she is really the heart and soul of the film. She is wracked by guilt, knowing if not for her that Jeff wouldn’t have been in harm’s way that Patriot’s Day. She recognizes that deep down Jeff has a good soul but he is also weak and this kind of burden doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of a relationship but as long as he is trying, she knows she must hang in there for him.

The supporting cast is pretty strong as well, with particular kudos to British actress Richardson as Jeff’s overbearing mom and veteran character actor Clancy Brown as his estranged Dad. They are a bit New England Working Class typecast, but not knowing Bauman’s family at all I have to think that there is at least a germ of truth in there at least.

This isn’t always an easy film to watch. The movie doesn’t really dwell on the crime so much as the recovery and that’s a good thing – you can always watch Patriots Day if you are more interested in the hunt for the bombers. Still, the filmmakers pull no punches. We don’t get treated to endless scenes of agonizing physical therapy but more Bauman’s reaction to it. He becomes depressed and frightened of the staggering unwanted responsibilities he is forced to face. And he turns away from it, until he finally agrees – reluctantly I might add – to meet the angel of mercy who helped him on the worst day of his life.

Bauman doesn’t change overnight although it’s pretty close. There is certainly a turning point and it seems that Bauman makes a decision to live and be the kind of man he always had the potential to be. While I might question the night and day presentation of Bauman’s change of heart, there’s no doubt judged by his activities of late that there was one – a determination to become better. That’s what true strength is.

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal could have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. The CGI is absolutely perfect. The film is emotionally gritty and cathartic. The portrayal of Jeff Bauman pulls no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is occasionally guilty of being a bit manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity, some disturbing images of carnage, violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The release date for the film comes on co-star Tatiana Maslany’s 32nd birthday.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
TBA

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The Apparition


When the going gets tough, the tough go camping.

When the going gets tough, the tough go camping.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan, Tom Felton, Julianna Guill, Luke Pasqualino, Suzanne Ford, Rick Gomez, Anna Clark, Tim Williams, Marty Martulis, John Grady, Meena Serendib, Melissa Goldberg. Directed by Todd Lincoln

6 Days of Darkness 2013

There are a lot of things that are at the moment unexplained. Ghosts, for example; while there is yet no definitive proof of their existence there’s enough anecdotal evidence that the possibility remains that there is something there. Some scientists in an effort to make a pre-emptive strike in case that definitive evidence comes to light are positing that ghosts (and other paranormal phenomena) are the results of disturbances in electromagnetic fields.

Science by its nature strives to understand the hitherto unknown and the supernatural would certainly fall into that category although science also has a tendency to pooh-pooh the existence of such things with a kind of snarky arrogance that comes from thinking that science has any sort of grasp on how the universe actually works. For the record, if everything that was knowable could be condensed to all the hot dogs ever consumed, human knowledge would constitute less than a bite of a single hot dog. Then, of course, is the maxim about not messing with things we don’t understand.

A group of student scientists do exactly that as they attempt to use scientific means to replicate an experiment that attempted some thirty years earlier to communicate with a recently deceased student. What happens is well nigh impossible – something powerful manifests itself and one of the researchers (Guill) is sucked through a vortex in a solid wall. Sucks to be her.

Cut to modern day suburbia. Kelly (Greene) and Ben (Stan) live in a new home in a nice development that her parents are renting to them (they had bought it as an investment). They’re the first occupants and it’s so new that most of the other homes in the subdivision are as yet vacant, although that may have as much to do with the economy as it does to the recentness of the construction.

But weird things begin to happen. Things move seemingly on their own. Lights turn on and off. Strange noises can be heard in the night. Weird mold appears on the walls. Soon those things begin to get more and more disturbing as Kelly’s clothes are shredded and a neighborhood dog ambles into their home and drops down dead.

Not a little freaked out, Ben and Kelly leave and move into a hotel room but the attacks continue. Finally they are contacted by Patrick (Felton), one of the researchers among the student scientists who explained that a malevolent entity had used their experiment as a kind of portal into this world. But why are they targeting Kelly and Ben? I’ll bet you can guess.

Horror movies tend to borrow from several different sources and quite frankly, I don’t have a problem with that as long as it’s done well. Here, you’ll see bits of Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity and Incubus in the mix and unfortunately, not done particularly well. For one thing the first twenty minutes of the movie is made up of trips to Costco and chores around the house, all set to dialogue that no real human being would utter. A test a screenwriter can always use to determine if their dialogue is authentic is to actually say it out loud; I doubt the writers of this movie used that method.

Another issue is Greene. She’s actually not a bad actress, one of the better ones to come out of the Twilight series but here she has absolutely no charisma or life. She’s portrayed to be a pretty self-confident woman but then she’s objectified by being dressed in the skimpiest of outfits, and at the end of the day her self-confidence seems to descend into bitchiness. Her character is as thoroughly unlikable a scream queen as I’ve ever seen and I wound up feeling kind of bad for her. Hopefully next time she’ll choose her project more wisely.

Stan, who has garnered some attention in Gossip Girl as well as Captain America: The First Avenger is actually pretty strong as a leading man. Even though he doesn’t generate much chemistry with Greene, nonetheless he does capture your attention when he’s onscreen. He has some decent potential which hopefully will get realized further down the line.

There are a few decent scares and the presence of Draco Malfoy…er, Felton…in a good-guy mad scientist supporting role is a plus as well. Still, suburban ranch homes are a little harder to generate scares from than the spooky Victorian down the block. It is established near the end of the film that in order for the entity to do any harm to you, you have to believe in it first. I suppose I’m safe from this guy because I didn’t believe it for a second.

WHY RENT THIS: Some decent scares. Stan is promising as a leading man.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ghastly performance by Greene. Takes way too long to get started. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing and horrible images as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Warner Brothers was required to release this film to finish out their contract with Dark Castle, the production company that made it. They delayed the movie for over two years, spoiled the ending in the trailer and booked the fewest number of screens for a wide release in the studio’s history.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are several featurettes having to do with Joshua Warren, the film’s consultant on the supernatural, including a tour of haunted Asheville, North Carolina (apropos of nothing  since the movie was filmed in the desert community of Palmdale just outside of Los Angeles) and a re-creation of the experiment depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.6M on a $17M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grudge

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!!

Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III

The Watch


 

The Watch

Ben Stiller finds another teen who thought Night at the Museum sucked.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Mel Rodriguez, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, Nicholas Braun, R. Lee Ermey, Joe Nunez, Liz Cackowski, Johnny Pemberton, Billy Crudup, Sharon Gee. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

 

There are things that define a neighborhood that we seem to have lost sight of for the most part in the 21st century. Neighborhoods were once places where neighbors looked out for one another; where we shared lives with those who lived around us. Those kinds of neighborhoods are becoming increasingly rare.

Not in Glenview, Ohio though and that’s why Evan (Stiller) loves it so much there. He and his wife Abby (DeWitt) emigrated from New York to escape the cold, impersonal big city life and find a place where they could raise their children the right way – not that they have any children quite yet but they’re working on it.

When a security guard (Nunez) is gruesomely murdered in the Costco that Evan is managing, that galvanizes Evan. He has already founded a running club and a Spanish club in his neighborhood; now it’s time for something a little more useful – a neighborhood watch. The police, in the person of Sgt. Bressman (Forte), are doing little to find the killer and in fact Bressman thinks Evan is a strong suspect.

However, his neighborhood is less enthusiastic – only three other guys show up to the meeting that he calls. Bob (Vaughn) is a contractor with an epic man-cave who sees the Watch as an opportunity to hang out with the guys and drink plenty of beer. Franklin (Hill) is a bit of a nutcase who failed the psychological tests in order to join the Glenview Police Department; he lives with his mom and longs for police-like action. Then there’s Jamarcus (Ayoade) who sees the Neighborhood Watch as a means to meet women. Not exactly the battalion of crime fighters Evan was looking for.

Still, they are at least willing to play along for the most part, although much of their crime work has beer involved, and much talk of male penises. Bob and Evan start to bond in an odd way; Evan confesses that the reason he and Abby haven’t been able to conceive a child is because he’s sterile; Bob expresses his frustration over his teenage daughter Chelsea’s (Moriarty) increasing infatuation for Jason (Braun), a super-arrogant teen with designs on just one thing – the thing most teenage boys have designs on.

In the meantime, their investigation is leading them to the killer – and that killer isn’t local. And by not local, I mean not of this earth. When their beloved Glenview looks to be ground zero for an alien invasion, can these four screw-ups suck it up and become earth’s last line of defense?

Veteran SNL director Schaffer has a script co-written by Seth Rogen to work from but this isn’t one of his better efforts. Mostly what the problem is here is the unevenness. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but not of the sort that will leave you sore from laughter as the better comedies will. The sci-fi aspects are for the most part pretty cheesy; why does every alien have to have lime green goo dripping from them? Just saying.

In any case, the two don’t mix well. At times we have some pretty odd moments of a joke in the middle of a serious scene that cheapens the drama; at others, a more dramatic episode in the middle of some of the more really funny moments. The effect is to keep the audience off-balance and not in a good way.

Stiller, Hill, Ayoade and particularly Vaughn are some of the most talented comic actors on the planet and they actually perform pretty well here. Vaughn is memorable even though his shtick is pretty much the same one he usually uses – the loud and aggressive manly sort with a heart of gold – we see the latter most clearly in his relationship with his daughter which is, as most dad-teenage daughter relationships are is a bit on the love-hate side. However, the relationship is depicted here a bit simplistically.

And what’s the deal with all the phallic references? There are so many references to the male sex organ that you have to wonder if there’s some sort of fetish being played out here. Hey, I’m as proud of my equipment as the next guy but sheez, I don’t feel the need to mention it quite so often.

So what we have here is a sci-fi comedy with some talented people in it (and lest we forget, the very sexy DeWitt who has some nice moments here) and simply not living up to its own potential. As much as I like Vaughn, Stiller and company, I think that talent like theirs deserves more than just an onslaught of dick jokes to deliver. So do we.

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic actors at the moment.  

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the humor feels forced. Serious and funny stuff don’t flow well, leading to some jarring moments.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sexual content and a bit of sci-fi violence. The language is universally foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch but the title was changed due to sensitivity over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100. The reviews are uniformly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night at the Museum

COSTCO LOVERS: Evan is the manager at the Costco and the climax takes place there; as you might expect there are several jokes about bulk buying throughout the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Sympathy for Delicious

King of California


King of California

Michael Douglas is clearly up to no good.

(First Look) Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber, Kathleen Wilhoite, Anne Nathan. Directed by Mike Cahill

Don Quixote tilted at windmills and searched for the perfect woman, and for his troubles was labeled insane. Even today, those who search for the impossible dream are often considered lunatics and are treated as such.

Miranda (Wood) has a fairly atypical and comfortable existence. She’s managed to fool the authorities and her estranged family into thinking that she’s living with relatives. The truth is that the teenaged girl is living alone in her family home, her mother long since deceased and her father Charlie (Douglas), an ex-jazz musician, is spending his days at his new address in a local mental institution.

One day however, Charlie is released from the nuthatch and she is forced to deal with him again. He has a peculiar gleam in his eyes and an appetite for things that makes her think he’s up to something. He denies it at first, claiming he’s just going for a job interview at a local Applebee’s.

Except that he’s not. He is, in fact, up to Something and it is not in error that I capitalize. Using the internet for research, he has locked into the idea that a Spanish conquistador once buried a treasure full of gold in the Santa Clarita valley, where the two of them live. He is positively giddy with the idea.

Miranda doesn’t have time for the lunacy, at least not at first. Their ramshackle house, virtually falling apart around them, is theirs only by the skin of her teeth. She is working double shifts and overtime at McDonald’s to make ends meet. She has managed to purchase a car – nay, a hunk of junk that runs by the grace of God – and it is her pride and joy. It is the one tangible proof that she has accomplished anything in life.

Soon, Charlie’s quest, like Don Quixote before him, overruns her life and begins to take it over. He discerns, using the translated maps and adjusting for the terrain changes in the intervening years that the gold is buried beneath a palate of toys and a slab of concrete at the local Costco. He hatches a plot to go retrieve the treasure, but is there really anything there or is this just a product of Charlie’s mental illness?

This movie came and went on a limited release and now is getting a bit of airtime on cable. The allusions to Cervantes’ iconic character aren’t lost on Michael Douglas, who plays Charlie with a wild, unkempt beard (making him look oddly Spanish) and a gleam in his eyes that could be madness or could be Gordon Gekko messin’ with ya. It’s been years since we’ve seen Douglas perform as well as he does here, having mostly done mediocre supporting roles in forgettable comedies recently. This is certainly a comedic role, but Douglas plays him in a sympathetic vein, making it very easy to root for the clearly unbalanced Charlie, even though we know he’s probably out to lunch.

Against this backdrop we have Evan Rachel Wood, a competent actress in her own right and she makes the best of a thankless role. Although she narrates the film, still the movie is Charlie’s and it is him you will remember from the movie, which is the way the filmmakers want it. Wood is no Dulcinea here – she’s far too worldly for that – but she plays the role as a girl wise beyond her years. Miranda humors Charlie mainly to give him something to do at first, but eventually she buys into his madness. It is charming to watch, and some of the later scenes in the movie are some of the best Wood has ever done.

The difficulty here is in balancing the story with the impulse to over-emphasize Charlie’s quirks, an impulse Cahill fails to resist. At times, Charlie’s screwloose charm dominates the movie overly much, making it nearly impossible to follow the story because the movie stops dead in its tracks in those instances. Still, for the most part, it moves nicely at a pace that isn’t too fast which might irritate those of the post-MTV generation who don’t like staring at the same shot for more than five seconds.

The story doesn’t really mine any new territory, and that’s okay. What matters here is that the movie’s point about the mind-numbing blandness of modern suburban life is well-taken and well-illustrated here. Few of Costco’s customers notice the wild-looking man pacing about Costco with a metal detector, all lost in their own banal nightmare. Charlie is a spark of life in an ocean of conformity, one who embraces life and seeks out adventure even when such acts are frowned upon and thought insane. One wonders if perhaps Charlie is the only sane one of all those living in a colorless world of interchangeability in which people all over the country in cities and suburbs identical to this one buy the same products in the same stores and eat at the same restaurants afterwards. If Charlie’s insane, then commit me now. I’d rather live in his world than in the other.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas gives one of his best performances in years. The film pointedly illustrates how bland, banal and interchangeable modern suburban/city life is.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie sometimes goes a bit overboard with the quirkiness. No new territory is really mined here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of off-color language and references to past drug use but the kicker here is the portrayal of mental illness. More mature kids might be okay with this, but certainly fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed in a working Costco during the nighttime hours when the store is normally closed. A cash register was kept open so that the crew could make purchases during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This carries with it one of the strongest audio commentary tracks you are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended for that alone.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili