Selma


Marching into history.

Marching into history.

(2014) True Life Drama (Paramount) David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Colman Domingo, Omar J. Dorsey, Common, Tessa Thompson, Dylan Baker, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Henry G. Sanders, Keith Stanfield, Charity Jordan, Tim Roth, Stan Houston, Stephen Root, Nigel Thatch, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Jeremy Strong, Lorraine Toussaint, Tara Ochs. Directed by Ava DuVernay

Selma is a watershed moment in American history and in particular the history of the civil rights movement. The brutality of Southern oppression on its African-American citizen was beamed to all our living rooms for all to see. Martin Luther King’s efforts to organize and call attention on the suppression of voting rights for African-Americans would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that he had long championed and ended decades of African-Americans having no voice in the governing of their communities, states and country.

In 1965 the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has just come into law and while it is a magnificent piece of legislation preventing discrimination, in the South it may not have been signed into law at all. Those African-Americans attempting to register to vote, much as activist Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey) was, were met with poll taxes, or impromptu quizzes that nobody could answer, white or black in a desperate attempt for white racist Southerners to hold onto power in Dixie.

Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), already a landmark civil rights activist or, as he is known by those who oppose him, agitator as J. Edgar Hoover (Baker) puts it, approaches President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation that will prevent the kinds of abuses taking place in voter registration in the South but LBJ is less inclined to do that; he has his War on Poverty to consider, which he feels will ultimately be more beneficial to the black community. He has just too much going on to put any energy into King’s demands at the moment, but being the consummate politician he assures the civil rights leader that he will get right on it…in a couple of years. Hoover, on the other hand, wants this whole civil rights thing nipped in the bud. His surveillance of Dr. King has revealed some strain in his marriage to his wife Coretta (Ejogo) and he wants to exploit that, but Johnson prevents it.

With the violence escalating in the South, King knows he can’t wait. He decides to go to Selma, a small town in Alabama whose sheriff Jim Clark (Houston) is particularly mean and stupid and likely to do something that will give King the ammunition he needs. Activists in the Selma area are only too happy to see a national figure like Dr. King arrive on the scene, although John Lewis (James) – a future congressman who is still serving today – and James Foreman (Byers) of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, are suspicious of his motives.

During an evening non-violent march, the protestors are attacked by police. Three of them – Cager Lee (Sanders), his daughter Viola Lee Jackson (Jordan) and his grandson Jimmy Lee Jackson (Stanfield) are chased into a diner. When the police arrive, they make a point of beating the crap out of the old man and his kin. When Jimmy Lee tries to protect them, he is shot in the abdomen and killed. This galvanizes the organizers, leading Rev. James Bevel (Common) to suggest a march from Selma to Montgomery.

This is exactly what Governor George Wallace (Roth) doesn’t want. His right hand man in the state troopers, Colonel Al Lingo (Root) is enlisted to take care of things. In the meantime, in order to prevent the march, the President allows Hoover to carry on with his plans, delivering a tape of Dr. King allegedly having sex with another woman. While the tape is clearly fabricated, she gets King to admit to having had affairs. In order to repair things with his family, King decides to skip the March which is set for March 7, 1965. On that day, Alabama troopers face about 600 marchers and attack them on national television, bloodying the peaceful protesters – some of them, like Amelia Boynton (Toussaint) into unconsciousness – and horrifying a nation.

King, horrified beyond measure, returns to Selma with his wife’s blessing. He knows that the march needs to take place or else it would all be for nothing. He calls on the nation, to people of conscience of all colors to come to Selma and march with him. Many do come, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Michigan activist Viola Liuzzo (Ochs) and Unitarian minister James Reeb (Strong). With a tense stand-off between the forces of racism and the forces of freedom, would the march take place and would change come to the South?

History tells us that the March did finally take place successfully and that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 that Johnson championed would become law (until it was dismantled by the Supreme Court two years ago). Like Titanic, most of us know how the story ends. In the hands of a gifted director, we would feel the tension of those participating because they, unlike us, did not know how the story would end.

DuVernay for the most part accomplishes this. She is aided in this to a very large extent by Oyelowo who delivers a remarkable performance as the late Dr. King. There is a tendency for us to deify certain people – Dr. King, Gandhi, President Lincoln and so forth – to the point that we forget that they are human beings, far from perfect and full of frailties. DuVernay impressively gets that point across that Dr. King, as great a man and courageous a man as he was, also did things that he wasn’t proud of, also made mistakes and also had a playful sense of humor. At times he needed encouragement, phoning Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night to hear her sing a gospel song so that he might be reassured. At times he wasn’t as strong as his iron-willed wife Coretta was. Oyelowo captures these moments and makes the man relatable to all of us.

In fact most of the cast is impressive although Wilkinson is miscast as LBJ. The LBJ I remember was a force of nature and larger than life and Wilkinson makes him more of a backrooms conniver, which he also was but there was a charisma to him that Wilkinson doesn’t capture. Many who knew the late President have complained that the film does an injustice to his memory in its portrayal of him as obstructive and unsupportive which history tells us he was not, but this isn’t the LBJ story.

It’s not even Dr. King’s story, although he naturally dominates the screen time here. It is a story for all of us, about the tribulations of the Civil Rights activists and what they actually went through to get the rights we take for granted today. It also is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go, with events in Ferguson, Missouri mentioned pointedly in the movie’s post-credits Oscar-nominated song and parallels to modern oppression of the African American community.

Near the end we see footage purportedly of the actual March with some of it archival, although we mostly see celebrity marchers like Davis and Belafonte. Due to the rights to Dr. King’s speeches being owned by DreamWorks for a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil Rights era that has not yet come to fruition, we don’t get to hear the actual words of Dr. King’s speeches; instead, DuVernay had to rewrite them so that they were in the style of his oratory but not his actual words. Shame on DreamWorks for not allowing the film to use the words inspiring to so many.

This is one of the better movies of the Holiday Awards season and it justly received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some are moaning about DuVernay not receiving a nomination for Best Director but truth be told those that did receive the nomination also deserved to be nominated; what separated the five films that got the nod and this one are essentially splitting hairs; to my mind, she had a tendency to be a bit ham-handed in some of the activism scenes with swelling strings to the point that you couldn’t hear the dialogue but were supposed to feel inspired. It is a bit manipulative and could have been handled better. She should have trusted the material to bring out those feelings without hitting us in the head with them.

Nitpicking aside, this should be mandatory viewing for all of us who think that the need for activism has ended. We should all understand what was endured by those who fought for the rights of African-Americans and continue to be endured. Freedom is not given, it must be fought for and so many continue to fight. The legacy of Selma is with us still and should inspire all of us to rise up and support those who still need to shine the light on practices that should outrage all Americans – but still doesn’t. We shall overcome indeed, but we haven’t yet.

REASONS TO GO: MLK is humanized here. Captures the scope of the march and the events surrounding it. About damn time there was a movie about Selma.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure about the LBJ portrayal. Could have used archival footage better.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some disturbing violence of defenseless people being beaten, some brief strong language, adult themes and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Free screenings of the film were made available to 275,000 high school and middle school students.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Detachment

New Releases for the Week of January 9, 2015


Taken 3TAKEN 3

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Dougray Scott, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, Al Sapienza, Judi Beecher. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Bryan Miller is a man with a particular set of skills. His work with the government had essentially put his marriage into Divorce-land and left him with an estranged wife and a daughter who adored him but for whatever reason was constantly getting into trouble. Sadly, Bryan’s reconciliation with his wife is cut tragically short by an old enemy. Framed for the crime and on the run, he is determined to protect the last person he has left while avoiding the cops, the FBI, the CIA – and the killers, who mean to kill his daughter before taking him out. Bryan Miller has other ideas, most of them involving killing them first.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Inherent Vice

(Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro. In L.A. at the tail end of the psychedelic era, a rumpled private investigator is visited by an ex-girlfriend who explained that her current beau, a billionaire, is being kidnapped and held in a loony bin by his wife and her boyfriend. It’s all a bit confusing but the private eye consents to take the case, and with a boatload of characters that could have only come from the mind of Thomas Pynchon, the game is afoot. Or a leg.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Crime
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence)

Selma

(Paramount) David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tim Roth, Tom Wilkinson. In 1965, voting rights in the South were essentially limited to whites and African-Americans were often violently discouraged from demanding the right to vote. Into this came Rev. Martin Luther King and his decision to stage a high profile march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, a march that would be met with violence that would shock a nation and lead to President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the Voting Rights Act which until the Supreme Court recently dismantled it, protected the rights of all voters to go to the polls.

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: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including violence, a suggestive moment and brief strong language)

New Releases for the Week of January 17, 2014


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, David Paymer, Colm Feore, Peter Andersson, Nonso Anozie, Gemma Chan. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

A young CIA analyst uncovers a terrorist plot on US soil to throw the American financial market into chaos. His mentor lures him deeper into the shadow world of international espionage, putting a strain on his marriage as he faces off with a Russian master spy.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Spy Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence and intense action, and for brief strong language)

Back in the Day

(Screen Media) Morena Baccarin, Michael Rosenbaum, Nick Swardson, Harland Williams. Making a surprise visit to his high school reunion, a still-single ladies man from back in the day manages to convince his now-married friends to go out on one final fling, leading to some issues with their wives and friends.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

Devil’s Due

(20th Century Fox) Allison Miller, Zach Gilford, Sam Anderson, Catherine Kresge. A newlywed couple discovers that they are pregnant a bit earlier than anticipated. Still, it is welcome news but as time passes and the due date becomes closer, the wife’s personality begins to change and strange unexplainable things begin to occur around them. Soon the husband must face the unthinkable if he is to save his wife – and himself.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for language and some bloody images)

Life of a King

(Millennium) Cuba Gooding Jr., LisaGay Hamilton, Dennis Haysbert, Rachel Thomas. While doing an 18-year prison stint for bank robbery, a young con learns the game of chess. Hoping to help his neighborhood turn things around and to prevent others from going down the same tragic path he did, he founds a chess club which despite the skepticism of others both inside the neighborhood and out, does exactly what he hopes it will do.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some drug content and brief violent images – all involving teens)

The Nut Job

(Open Road) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl . After accidentally destroying the park’s winter stores, a brash and independent squirrel discovers squirrel nirvana – a nearby nut store. But to get at the goodies he’s going to have to make a brilliant plan and that’s not something he or his friends are particularly good at.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)

Ride Along

(Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, John Leguizamo, Tika Sumpter. Ben, a security officer at an Atlanta high school, longs for two things in life; to become a police officer and to marry his girl. When he is accepted to the police academy, he’s well on his way to achieving the first but the second is a little more problematic. Standing in the way is his girlfriend’s cop brother who doesn’t like Ben at all. Ben must prove himself worthy and what better way to do that than to take him on a ride-along into the worst part of the city?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Crime Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, sexual content and brief strong language)  

Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend

Radio


Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Revolution) Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Brent Sexton, Sarah Drew, Chris Mulkey, Patrick Breen, Bill Roberson, Kenneth H. Callender, Michael Harding, Charles Garren, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Michael Tollin

A good cry can be as exhilarating as a good laugh. Any movie that can move viewers to tears, then leave them marveling at the triumph of the human spirit, is the aces.

Harold Jones (Harris) is a successful high school football coach in Anderson, South Carolina. As he enters the 1976 season, his mostly untested young team has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to character. When the star running back (Smith) and some of his cohorts lock a young man (Gooding) of diminished mental capabilities in a shed after tying him up and terrorizing him, Coach Jones and his assistant, Honeycutt (Sexton) step in and punish the boys.

Gradually, the taciturn Coach befriends the young man, who at first is unresponsive, unable even to tell the coach his name. Because of the quiet man’s attachment to transistor radios, Coach Jones dubs his new friend Radio (his real name turns out to be James Robert Kennedy) and begins an amazing, unusual relationship. Jones takes Radio under his wing, despite the suspicions of his mother (Merkerson) and the misgivings of the school’s principal (Woodard).

Radio blossoms, finally having people in his life who accept him instead of humiliate him. He goes from barely able to mutter more than a word or two at a time to an enthusiastic, talkative person, a regular at athletic practices and at the school itself, where he becomes an unofficial hall monitor and broadcaster. Gradually, he becomes an important part of the community.

But all is not perfect. The football team is not performing to expectations, and some believe that the distractions that Radio brings are to blame, particularly the town’s banker (Mulkey) whose son is the star running back who caused the initial trouble with Radio. His son plays an even crueler joke on Radio which causes the school board in the person of Tucker (Breen) to cast a suspicious eye on the situation. Radio overcomes the adversity, but nobody is prepared for the greatest obstacle of all.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Gooding. At times his expression is so truly vacant it seems that nobody really is home. And he skillfully makes the transition to an open personality, capturing the effusive personality of the real Radio to a “T”. After capturing an Oscar in Jerry Maguire, Gooding had undermined himself with a series of terrible choices (Snow Dogs, Boat Trip et al.), but Radio puts him back on the right track, at least temporarily – he still continues to be plagued with movies that are unworthy of his talents..

Harris is one of the most distinguished actors of our time. He is rarely seen in a role that he doesn’t elevate and I can’t remember him ever giving a bad performance. Here, he is low-key, a Southern gentleman desperately wanting to do the right thing, but reluctant to explain why his relationship with Radio is so important to him. It puts a strain on his relationship with his wife (Winger) and daughter (Drew), but Harris underlies the flawed goodness within the man that makes him believable and real.

Enough can’t be said about Winger. She make movies very infrequently, and that’s a shame. She has a tremendous presence, and here shows particular restraint in a thankless role that isn’t developed terribly well (she is seen reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique early on, but her character is hardly a feminist here), but Winger carries it off well. I hope she can find the time to return to the big screen more regularly but it really hasn’t happened up to now.

Director Michael Tollin captures the importance of high school football in a small Southern town, and sums it up neatly in a speech Harris gives hear the end of the film: “There’s nothing better than looking for a win on a Friday night, and waking up on Saturday morning after you found one.” He wisely concentrates on the relationship between Jones and Radio, how it develops and why. He cast Gooding and Harris well; the two work well off each other, and in one of the most gripping scenes of the movie — when a distraught Radio is kneeling in the center of his room, inconsolable, the taciturn football coach, never a demonstrative man, opens up and comforts him. The charm of Radio is that he treats everyone he meets with joy and love, as Coach Jones explains, “He treats all of us the way we wish we could treat half of us.”

Be warned; this is the kind of movie that doesn’t just elicit a sniffle; it’s a full-on, tears-streaming-down-the-face weepy that leaves viewers feeling awesome when the lights come back up. The real Radio continues to be a presence at T.L. Hanna High, where he can be found regularly during the football season leading the Yellow Jackets onto the field and joining the cheerleaders when the spirit moves him. He’s as important to Anderson as the air they breathe, and one can only feel good that the rest of us get to share him. Feel-good movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but as manipulative as this one sometimes get, it certainly worked its magic on this cynic. Don’t forget your hankies.

WHY RENT THIS: Utterly cathartic. Terrific performances from Gooding, Harris and Winger. Captures the mentality of a Southern high school football town.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit too tear-inducing if there is such a thing.  Sometimes a bit formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few bad words scattered here and there. Some of the thematic elements might be a bit too much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was primarily filmed in neighboring Walterboro because the town looked more like the era depicted here. The real Radio and Coach Jones are seen at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The making-of featurette contains input from some of the real people depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.3M on a $35M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Happy Feet Two

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere

Instinct


Instinct

Cuba Gooding Jr. marvels at Anthony Hopkins hair growth after a wild weekend.

(1999) Thriller (Touchstone) Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Maura Tierney, George Dzundza, John Ashton, John Aylward, Thomas Q. Morris, Doug Spinuzza, Paul Bates, Kim Ingram, Paul Collins, Louanne Stephens. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

What makes a human being? What separates us from the animals? And are we necessarily better off that way? Tough questions, any one of which would make a pretty fascinating movie. Instinct tries to tackle all three and winds up satisfactorily addressing none. However, it does make for a fine character study.

 Dr. Ethan Powell (Hopkins), a noted anthropologist, disappears while observing gorillas on a scientific expedition to Africa. When he resurfaces two years later, he is feral, homicidal, unwilling to speak and seemingly psychotic. No amount of therapy seems to be able to help, but Dr. Theo Caldwell (Gooding), a self-possessed and career-oriented psychologist with bigger ambitions, lobbies to assess Dr. Powell’s mental status and wins the job.

At first, the relationship is adversarial, but with the help of Dr. Powell’s photographer daughter Lynn (Tierney), Dr. Caldwell begins to make progress, getting the heretofore silent anthropologist speaking and finally the two begin to teach each other about life, humanity and everything else important, as we find out what really happened in Africa. Meanwhile, the brutal conditions in the prison Dr. Powell is residing in threaten that progress completely.

The cast here is uniformly fine, with Hopkins – perhaps the best pure actor in Hollywood today – giving a positively eerie performance. Gooding is likable enough, able to project the vulnerability beneath the self-confident veneer of the ambitious psychologist. Also worthy of note are Donald Sutherland as a mentor figure for Dr. Caldwell, John  Aylward as a bureaucratic warden and John Ashton as a sadistic guard.

The problem with Instinct is that for all its good intentions, it really doesn’t explore the underlying questions with anything resembling depth. Dr. Caldwell’s personal transformation is the focus here, but it seems a bit too pat. Powell’s own change of heart is a bit too abrupt and is never really explained much. It’s along the lines of “You need to see your daughter.” “I don’t want to.” “Why not?” “OK, OK, stop hassling me, you win, I’ll see her.” You get the drift. It’s like arriving at the destination without taking the journey – it may be more efficient, but then you miss the framework. Even the Mona Lisa needs a frame.

Instinct is all about veneer and the true person that dwells beneath. Civilization, according to the filmmakers, is a corrupt expression of our own vanity and greed, and should be excised. It ennobles the animal kingdom to almost preposterous dimensions. The truth about critters, folks, is that they live in the here and now, and have no other frame of reference beyond that. No right and wrong. The gorillas that Dr. Powell studies so rapturously would not hesitate in real life to tear the throat out of any crybaby scholar who violated their territory as thoroughly as he does.

Is the forest safer than an American city, as Dr. Powell suggests? Perhaps it is. But I guarantee you that the jungle has its own dangers that will take your life just as ruthlessly. Instinct posits that humans more in touch with their animal side are better for that connection may play well at PETA benefits, but shows absolutely no insight or understanding of animals…or humans.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Gooding and Hopkins. Interesting subject matter.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Takes shortcuts. Lacks understanding.

FAMILY MATTERS: Hopkins’ Dr. Powell exhibits intensely violent behavior and the subject matter might be a little much for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Dr. Powell was originally offered to Sean Connery who declined it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.1M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Congo

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Skin