Project Almanac


Now let's see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

Now let’s see Criss Angel do THAT!!!

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount/Insurge) Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks, Macsen Lintz, Gary Grubbs, Michelle DeFraites, Curry Stone, Jamila Thompson, Katie Garfield, Hillary Harley, Courtney Bowers, Patrick Johnson, Joshua Brady, Danielle Rizzo, Onira Tares. Directed by Dean Israelite

Most scientists with any sort of background in physics will tell you that time travel is not possible, but the concept has certainly excited the imagination of cinemaphiles the world over, as well as filmmakers. It does make for some interesting “what if” discussions, no doubt about it.

Teenager David Raskin (Weston) is in his senior year in high school and has a brilliant scientific mind. He yearns to matriculate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but has some stiff competition and even if he’s selected to go, will need a good deal of financial help to get there. He sends the selection committee a video of a new gadget that allows him to control drones remotely without the need of a joystick but through sensors in a glove he wears. This gets him accepted to the prestigious university; unfortunately, it doesn’t get him the scholarship money that is crucial to him actually attending.

With his mother (Landecker) willing to sell the house to raise the funds for his schooling, David feels obligated to try and get scholarship money with some other project, but it needs to be fast. He goes through the papers of his late father (Weeks) in order to find something that he might be able to work off of but nothing jumps out at him. What he does find is a camcorder which recorded scenes from his seventh birthday party, which sadly was the day his father died in a car crash.

He and his sister Christina (Gardner) – who incessantly video records everything – see on the tape something they don’t expect to – the reflection of the 17-year-old David at his party ten years earlier. This should be impossible, but clearly David has traveled in time, or is about to. Grammar can take a beating in a time travel movie, particularly where tenses are concerned.

As it turns out, his daddy was working on a time travel device for the military when he died and was close to getting it to work. David decides to build this just to see if it works. As you can guess, it does. This leads to David and his nerdy science class friends Quinn Goldberg (Lerner) and Adam Le (Evangelista) hanging out and getting involved in the construction of the device. Eventually popular girl Jessie Pierce (Black-D’Elia) discovers what they’re up to and joins the Scooby Gang. As it turns out, David has always had a huge crush on Jessie but has never had the gumption to talk to her. Now, she’s talking to him.

At first they start doing things that you would expect teenagers to do; going back in time so that Quinn can ace a chemistry test he needs to pass in order to graduate. Of course, it takes more than a few attempts before he gets it right (one of the more amusing ideas in the film). They also use the winning Lotto numbers to get rich; except they write the numbers down wrong so instead of getting a huge jackpot to set them up for life, they win not quite two million bucks to split among the five of them.

It’s all fun and games until David decides to break the rules that the group agreed upon. It seems like a harmless change at first but like the Butterfly Effect, it has enormous consequences and the teens begin to notice that each time they come back from a time travel trip, something horrible is happening in the world. And then horrible things begin to happen to them.

This is a movie that is very aware of other time travel movies, ranging from Back to the Future to the Bill and Ted movies to more recent films like Looper. Israelite, who has written a number of genre films, takes the director chair out for a spin and doesn’t do too bad a job, particularly in the very difficult time travel genre which tends to get confusing and overly involved.

Israelite, who also wrote this, doesn’t go into too many specifics of how it works (other than it takes an enormous amount of power). He does allow us to see the actual transition which involves a lot of magnetism, a vortex and bodies and debris being thrown about like rag dolls. Time travel is, in Israelite’s imagination, painful.

The young mostly unknown cast neither distinguishes themselves nor disgraces themselves. They play teens adequately, which means us grown-ups will be banging our heads in frustration as what are supposed to be super intelligent kids do incredibly dumb and dangerous things, but you have to remember – teens. To a teen, dealing with those emotions that are so incredibly intense and painful at that age take precedence over things like safety and sanity.

This is a found footage film, although it has a soundtrack and uses some camera tricks like slow motion, but it is still here in all of its shaky cam splendor. Those who are sensitive to such things – as I am – should be warned that the visuals can be fairly vertigo-inducing and I was very thankful that the screening I attended was less than a five minute drive from my home. Also, I think the whole subgenre of found footage has been overdone and needs to be given a rest for awhile as it seems to be more gimmicky than anything else these days. But that’s just me.

Still this is stylishly done and should appeal to your inner high school senior. Given its history of having been delayed a year (see below) and then dropped into the doldrums of late January most of us didn’t really expect much out of this, but quite frankly considering the limitations it turns out to be a pretty good diversion for this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty visuals. Well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable teen idiocy. Found footage has kind of had its day.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some light sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be released in February 2014 under the title Welcome to Yesterday but was re-titled and re-branded with MTV Films helping with marketing, and the release was delayed nearly a full year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Turner

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Black Sea


Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2014) Adventure (Focus) Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Karl Davies, Jodie Whittaker, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Bobby Schofield, Daniel Ryan, Branwell Donaghey, Sergey Puskepalis, Paul Terry, Sergey Kolesnikov, Sergey Veksler, Yuri Klimov, David Threlfall, Gus Barry, Paulina Boneva, June Smith. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

For ratcheting up the suspense, few venues rival that of a submarine. A handful of submariners, trapped in a metal tube below the sea where one tiny mistake, one critical bad break can quickly turn things into a bad day for those aboard.

Captain Robinson (Law) has been cashiered for the underwater salvage company he has worked for nearly 20 years, a victim of robotics. As it turns out, sending unmanned drone subs to the bottom is far less dangerous and far more practical – and economical – than sending humans to investigate wrecks. For his service, they give him a parting sum of 8,000 pounds. That’s just over $12,000 U.S. That isn’t a whole lot of gratitude.

Robinson has no family; they left him because he essentially was never home. His ex-wife Chrissy (Whittaker) and his son Martin (Barry) have lives much better than the one he could have provided them. He misses them both terribly.

So he does what any good red-blooded Scottish man would do; he finds the nearest pub and drags a couple of his fellow unemployed mates to drown their sorrows in a pint or six. And then, he hears something interesting from one of his fellow captains (Ryan): that shortly before being terminated, he located the wreck of a World War II Nazi U-Boat in the Black Sea in Georgian waters. That wreck is very likely the one that sank in 1940 carrying an enormous amount of Nazi gold that Hitler had been sending to Stalin to keep his then-ally in the fight. Because of certain geo-political realities, the salvage company hasn’t been given permission to bring the treasure up yet, but if it is what they think it is the prize is worth many millions of dollars.

So Robinson hits on the nutty scheme of salvaging the wreck himself with a crew of others. Daniels (McNairy), an accounting sort who was also let go from the salvage company, thinks that he can get financing from the mysterious Mr. Lewis (Menzies) so that they can rent and refit an old Soviet attack sub and go grab the treasure waiting on the bottom.

Aiding him are some of his mates as well as a few Russian submariners who know how to run the Russian sub; there’s also the son of a friend, Tobin (Schofield) who Robinson takes a fatherly interest in and the unstable Aussie diver Fraser (Mendelsohn) who is like a loaded gun in a crowded room but the best when it comes to salvage.

Taking the rickety boat down to the bottom is dangerous in and of itself but with the Russian fleet above due to the dubious legality of what they’re doing, things are a lot more dicey. What’s worse that as things start to get more real, some of the men begin to crack. They will have to work together just to make it back home, let alone get the gold which if they do find it, well, you can add greed to the equation that no matter how you write it means that not everyone is going to get out of this alive.

This is a reasonably taut and well-made thriller. Law makes for a pretty solid lead here, making Robinson a believable leader that would inspire most anyone to have confidence in him – when he’s not taking insane risks to get all the gold to the surface. Law has been making some interesting choices of late in the roles he’s been choosing, and this is a very good thing. He’s been challenging himself, playing a Cockney safe cracker, a manic Internet blogger, an ethically challenged doctor and an officious Russian military man along with this somewhat angry sub captain with a “Screw the Man” attitude and an access from deepest darkest Aberdeen.

Macdonald, who has directed such fine films as The Last King of Scotland shows he knows how to keep the tension nice and high. Once the sub sets sail, the movie really hits its stride although there are a few too many scenes of sailors sitting around and reminiscing about their lives. I don’t have a problem with character development which these sorts of scenes often provide but it needs to be more concise given the very tense atmosphere. Some of the information that you get about the background of the characters isn’t really germane to the plot and quite frankly, not all of it is all that interesting. We get that sailor A is lonely, or having financial difficulties, or loves the sea. We just don’t need to have a ten minute conversation about it.

There are a lot of twists and turns and while the plot twist isn’t necessarily innovative, it is nonetheless a big game changer and very welcome when it kicks in near the end of the movie. The script is well-written, giving very logical reasons to why certain things happen the way they do without having totally random events occur, or turn the captain into Superman. This is an example of a good sub thriller that is intelligent, well-written and still tense as all get out. This hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention or support but it is certainly worth checking out. It’s no Das Boot – then again, what is? – but it is a satisfactory new entry into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice tension. Doesn’t always go the way you expect it will.
REASONS TO STAY: Should have trimmed about 20 minutes. Too many conversations about personal lives that add little value to the plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some fairly gruesome images and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sub used in the film is an authentic Soviet-era submarine which is normally moored in the river Medway in Kent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: U-571
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Paddington

Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

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

5 Days of War


5 Days of War

Another New York City marathon gets underway!

(2011) War (Anchor Bay) Rupert Friend, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Heather Graham, Jonathan Schaech, Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer, Richard Coyle, Rade Serbedzija, Dean Cain, Ken Cranham, Mikko Nousiainen, Mikheil Gomiashvili, Antje Traue. Directed by Renny Harlin

 

There is nothing good or noble about war. Men have waxed poetic about war and its virtues, but the truth of war is that it is savage and horrible, appealing only to the base instincts of men in reality – the need to take by force that which isn’t given freely. There is nothing noble about war.

War correspondent Thomas Anders (Friend) knows that better than most. The girl he loved (Graham) was caught in the crossfire during one of his assignments and left him alone and bitter. Then, a colleague, a cheerfully debauched Dutchman (Kilmer) points Anders in the direction of Georgia – not the state, the Russian republic – which was on the brink of war with Russia. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakshvili (Garcia) frets and wonders why the West isn’t helping his tiny Republic take on the Russian juggernaut but the West is mostly focusing on the Beijing Olympics. Priorities.

Anders brings along his trusty cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Coyle) and manage to get in the thick of a wedding that winds up being scattered to the four winds when shelling interrupts the ceremony. They wind up hooking up with Tattia (Chriqui) whose sister’s wedding it was. She agrees to serve as their interpreter in exchange for them helping her locate and reunite with her family.

They witness the Russian army committing some atrocities and get it on film. The Russian commander Aleksandr Demidov (Serbedzija) gets wind of this and sends his brutal mercenary commando Danlil (Nousiainen) after them. Anders and Ganz get their footage onto a flash drive and try to escape to a place of safety where they can get their footage to the authorities. The trouble is, the authorities are corrupt and the major networks disinterested. Somehow Anders is going to have to find a way to make the world listen.

Harlin has directed some pretty nifty action films in his day including Speed but has hit a dry patch of late. This isn’t going to help him get back into the game to be honest. I understand that the film was at least partially financed by Georgia and the country allowed some of their military equipment to be used in the film and quite frankly part of the film’s highlights are the very realistically staged battle sequences.

However in a very real way that’s a deal with the devil; the film is certainly from the Georgian point of view with the Russians being loathsome monsters and the Georgians martyrs. The real war – and it was a real war – wasn’t like that. Like most conflicts, there wasn’t one villain and one hero although as with most conflicts both sides saw it that way.

Anyone who’s seen films like The Year of Living Dangerously will recognize most of the clichés about war correspondents in war situations. Whether or not they’re true (and for the most part they’re based in truth but like most Hollywood clichés made extreme) they still ring hollow here; it feels like a movie we’ve seen before only not as well made. Sure it’s not completely without value but it just feels more like propaganda.

When a film quotes “The first casualty in war is the truth” and then goes on to show only an aspect of it, two things happen – first, we are reminded that truth is often a matter of perspective. What one side considers unshakable fact the other usually considers to be an outright lie. Second, the filmmakers lose their credibility amid the further hypocrisy of trotting out Georgian survivors of war atrocities to tell their stories. At no point is any Russian allowed to refute any of this.

I’m not saying that the Russians didn’t do some of the things you see here – I have no doubt that they did. I’m certainly not excusing the behavior; it’s just that I don’t believe one side was made up of saints and the others sinners. The Georgians have their own culpability to bear here and we don’t get to see it, leaving the proceedings uncomfortably one-sided. A little more honesty would have made for a better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic war action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One-sided to the point of ridiculousness. Overwrought and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of war violence and bad language but there are also some scenes of war atrocities that might be a bit too intense for younger and more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on President Saakshvili can be seen chewing on his tie; this was based on an actual incident in which the real President Saakshvili was accidentally caught on-camera when he didn’t think that it was filming munching on his tie. The footage can still be found on the Internet if you Google it.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,479 on a $12M production budget; even those without math skills know this was a box office dud.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bang Bang Club

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Meet the Parents

Bully


Bully

Being a victim of bullying is a lonely occupation, as Alex Libby knows.

(2012) Documentary (Weinstein) Kirk Smalley, David Long, Tina Long, Alex Libby, Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Bob Johnson, Phillip Libby, Maya Libby, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace, Kim Lockwood, Londa Johnson, Teryn Long, Troy Long. Directed by Lee Hirsch

 

There is no doubt that bullying is an epidemic problem around the United States; it has replaced parental abuse as the most common source of violence most kids will experience.

This documentary looks into the effects of bullying on five different families. Alex Libby is a sweet natured 12-year-old kid who enters East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa with a mixture of fear and resignation. He has difficulty making friends and is tormented with verbal and physical abuse from bullies who take delight in disparaging his looks, calling him rude names.

Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old in Tuttle, Oklahoma who was a star athlete and whose parents were active in their local church. When Kelby comes out as a lesbian, she is ostracized, tormented and run over with a mini-van. Her parents find that their conservative Christian friends will no longer speak to them. Her dad offers to move to a larger city to escape the abuse but Kelby, showing great resolve, refuses. She has a support system of a loving family and loyal friends to back her up.

Ja’Meya Jackson has some of that as well but it’s difficult to get a lot of support in the juvenile lock-up facility in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The 14-year-old had been bullied so thoroughly and was so angry and afraid that she took her mother’s handgun on board the school bus in a misguided effort to get the bullies to stop.

David and Tina Long are loving parents. Their sons Teryn and Troy are pretty well adjusted but there is a great deal of sadness in their household. Their eldest son, Tyler Long committed suicide at the age of 17 years old, found by his father hanging in his closet after years of unrelenting bullying in their Murray County, Georgia community and little to no help from school officials after numerous complaints. The Longs are determined to make Tyler’s action count for something.

Kirk and Laura Smalley feel the same way. They have just buried their son Ty who at age 11 killed himself after non-stop bullying. Kirk, outwardly a simple man in a rural community, Perkins Oklahoma, is determined to help other kids who went through the pain his son did and put a stop to bullying. He founds an organization, Stand for the Silent, dedicated to providing a voice for children who are being bullied.

All of these stories (and many others like them) are heartbreaking and inspire feelings of compassion. Watching Alex stoically endure the abuse certainly makes the heart ache for him, not to mention bring forth feelings of admiration for a young man who has an enormous reserve of strength (he also has a great smile that lights up a room). His mother is torn apart by feelings of inadequacy, thinking that she is failing as a mother because she’s not protecting her son.

The truth is that the failure isn’t hers. School districts have long treated bullying as a natural product of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” seems to be the most common response, delivered with a shrug and a pair of “what can you do?” outstretched arms.

There are no easy answers and the film provides none. However there doesn’t seem to be much of a message here beyond “bullying is bad” which is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s no attempt at trying to understand what causes kids to bully. I would be willing to bet that there is something going on in their homes that creates such fear that causes the need to take it out on other kids, because bullying is and always has been an outgrowth of fear. Whether it is fear of something different or fear of being bullied themselves, most bullies are reacting to something. Of course, there is always the occasional sociopath who gets their jollies from inflicting pain but by and large bullying is learned behavior. It doesn’t occur without a cause.

I would have also appreciated more diversity in the stories here. Not that Ja’Meya (whose mother shows great compassion and tenacity) and Kelby (who I also admired for her courage in refusing to run from the bullying) didn’t deserve to have their stories told. However, judging from the film bullying is a small town problem, mostly confined to the Bible Belt and more rural communities.

Bullying is in fact a universal epidemic. It exists nearly everywhere that there are kids, from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast to urban schools in big cities to enlightened communities in California. Hirsch should know that; he was a victim of bullying in his youth in Long Island (as I was in mine in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). You don’t get that sense here and I think it does a disservice to its own message because of it.

However despite these flaws the message here is still a powerful one, so much so that I’m willing to ignore some of the film’s missed opportunities in order to call attention to it. This is a movie that should be seen by every student in America, and by most of their parents. This should be a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Bullying can be stopped; it takes the unity of students, parents, teachers and administrators in order to do it. Standing up together makes us stronger; it also protects us from bullies who tend to prey on the weak and the defenseless.

Seeing this makes me regret that in my own school days I didn’t stand up for those who were isolated and alone. I wish in my own school days I had befriended those who needed it. It also bears repeating that bullying isn’t always done just with fists or physicality; it’s also done with words. Joking about sexual orientation, physical appearance or socially awkward behavior might be good for a few cheap laughs but you never know how devastating those words can be in someone’s life. Whether in your workplace, your church, your neighborhood or your school, there are usually people who don’t fit in and who whether consciously or unconsciously get excluded. Adult or child, taking the time to reach out to those who don’t fit in seems to me to be the right thing to do and if this movie gets across that message, then it is as important a film as any you’ll ever see.

REASONS TO GO: Excellently captures the effects of bulling on kids and their families. Heartbreaking at times but a message that needs to be seen by kids and their parents everywhere.

REASONS TO STAY: No interviews with bullies or their families to get any sort of insight as to why kids bully. Fails to get across that this is a universal problem that is prevalent in all social stratums and all over the country.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language, depictions of kid-on-kid violence and some fairly adult conversations about teen suicide.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for bad language which was appealed by the distributor, arguing that would exclude the audience the movie was intended for. When that appeal was denied the rating was surrendered and initially the plan was to release the movie unrated. However after a large outcry the MPAA relented and the filmmakers edited some instances of bad language (although a crucial scene in which a child is bullied on a school bus was left intact) and the film finally received a “PG-13” rating.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The movie can be considered to be critically acclaimed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laramie Inside Out

ELLEN DEGENERES LOVERS: The movie has been championed by the talk show host and was at least partially inspired by an appearance on her show by the mom of Carl Walker Hoover, a young man who endured anti-gay bullying until he was driven to commit suicide at the age of 11 in 2009.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lady

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion