Chasing Mavericks


Beefcake on the beach.

Beefcake on the beach.

(2012) Sports Biography (20th Century Fox) Gerard Butler, Jonny Weston, Elisabeth Shue, Abigail Spencer, Leven Rambin, Greg Long, Peter Mel, Zach Wormhoudt, Devin Crittenden, Taylor Handley, Cooper Timberline, Maya Raines, Harley Graham, Jenica Bergere, James Anthony Cotton, Channon Roe, Thomas Freil, L. Peter Callendar. Directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson

Some of the things that drive us are merely preferences. Others are compulsions. Some of those are absolutely irresistible; we are driven to those things with the same necessity as breathing, even if those things are dangerous to the point of being life-threatening.

Jay Moriarty (Weston) was a 15-year-old Santa Cruz boy who was into surfing in a big way but he longed to prove himself. Maybe to the father that abandoned him and his mother (Shue) when he was little. Maybe to that same mother who seemed more in love with getting drunk or stoned than with her son. Maybe to the bully (Handley) who tormented him. Or maybe to the girlfriend (Rambin) who wanted to keep him at arm’s length.

Who knows what reason or reasons it was – maybe a little bit of all of them. In any case, he longed to surf the ginormous waves in Half Moon Bay known as Mavericks. These weren’t just ordinary waves; when the right conditions were present, they were as tall as five story buildings and even veteran surfers shied away from them.

After a spectacular wipe-out attempting to surf them on his own, Jay knew he needed help. One of his neighbors was pro surfer Frosty Hesson (Butler), someone who had surfed Mavericks and lived to tell about it. At first the old pro wants nothing to do with the insistent teen, but as it becomes evident that Jay is determined to surf those waves with or without Frosty’s help, the older man capitulates, figuring that he can at least give Jay a fighting chance to stay alive.

The training is rigorous and not at all what Jay expected. However, he sticks to it and soon comes the time that he is ready as he’ll ever be, but is that ready enough?

The film has the benefit of not one but two decorated directors; I’m not sure if that helps the movie or not however. An awful lot of time is focused on Jay’s training and while some of it is interesting, after awhile it gets to be a bit tedious, particularly for non-surfing sorts. I will admit to being surprised that there is a very technical end that comes with riding the big waves that requires a lot more brainpower than one would expect from dudes that say “dude” and “bro” interchangeably.

Butler is one of those actors who seems to get overlooked a lot of times but is a tremendous talent with tons of screen presence. He has a couple of blockbusters on his resume, but seems to be relegated to the Clive Owen strata – good actors who do good work but at the end of the day seem just outside the top strata of stars. Here he plays a gruff surfer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and has some issues of his own, issues that his wife (Spencer) thinks that Jay would cure.

Young Weston, best known to audiences at this point for John Dies at the End, is actually the lead here and carries the movie solidly. He’s since gone on to do some solid although unspectacular work, but seems to be building into a nice career. He and Butler play well off of one another, creating a believable onscreen relationship with Butler playing the surrogate father. Weston could have used a little more character development – I’m not sure that the real Jay Moriarty was well-served here.

We do see a little bit of the real Moriarty towards the end – the real one passed away tragically at the age of 23, but doing what he loved most. I agree with the critics who are of the opinion that this story would have made a better documentary than a feature film. Certainly those who are into the surf lifestyle or at least appreciate it will like this film more than those who aren’t or don’t. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie. The capturing of the giant waves at Half Moon Bay, which are utterly terrifying as presented here, show the grand madness that is big wave surfing. But while this gets through the technical end, I don’t know if it gets to the heart and soul of the surfer as much as I personally would have liked.

WHY RENT THIS: Butler and Weston have excellent chemistry. The cinematography is amazing.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too long and way too technical. It might not appeal to non-surfers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and surfing action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hanson had to pull out of the director’s chair when poor health forced him out. Apted directed the final three weeks of shooting and all of the post-production without any further involvement from Hanson.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on Half Moon Bay and the surf culture there, interviews with people close to Jay Moriarty in real life including his widow and the real Frosty Hesson, and interviews with surfers on the philosophy of surfing. Dude!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.0M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 10 Cloverfield Lane

The Divergent Series: Insurgent


In the future there will be no chairs.

In the future there will be no chairs.

(2015) Science Fiction (Summit) Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Naomi Watts, Jonny Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Zoe Kravitz, Janet McTeer, Lyndsi LaRose. Directed by Robert Schwentke

These days, dystopian futures seem to be all the rage. No longer does one need to wear shades when viewing the future; we can look forward to darkness, pain, despair and hopelessness. I suppose how we see the future tells us a lot about how we view the present.

For those who don’t remember Divergent or the book series it was based on, the world has been beset by some sort of apocalyptic event and the population has been herded into Chicago and divided into factions according to their gifts – Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (truth), Dauntless (military) and Abignation (service), the latter of which was essentially wiped out at the end of the last movie. There are those who display none of the five qualities; those are called Factionless and live in abject poverty on the edge of society. There are also those who contain two or more qualities – they are called Divergents. Our heroine is one of these.

Speaking of our heroine, now that Tris (Woodley) and her lover Four (James) have foiled the plans of Jeanine (Winslet), the power-mad evil leader of the Erudite faction, they have taken refuge with the pastoral Amity along with Tris’ none-too-brave brother Caleb (Elgort) and the snarky Peter (Teller) who seems to live to push buttons. As for Amity, their leader Johanna (Spencer) is providing them shelter although she’s not entirely happy about it. Jeanine wants to round up the last of the rebellious Dauntless group that has split from the main group that is now commanded by the evil Eric (Courtney) but she seems far more obsessed with a metal box found in the wreckage of the home of Tris’ parents Andrew (Goldwyn) and Natalie (Judd) who both bit the big one in the first film.

That box contains symbols for all five of the factions and seems sealed with even the technology of Erudite unable to penetrate its secrets. Jeanine believes that the box contains a message from the Founders, one which will confirm her campaign to eliminate the Divergents although, ironically enough, it seems that only a Divergent can open the box by passing the simulations of all five of the factions. Naturally Four and Tris are pretty certain that Jeanine must not find out what’s in the box. In the meantime, Jeanine is having Eric and his Dauntless minions shoot nasty little tracking devices that can also allow Jeanine to control the subjects to the point of forcing them to commit suicide.

The odds against Tris and her remaining allies are formidable although she receives an unexpected ally in Factionless who are now being led by, of all people, Four’s mother Evelyn (Watts) who everyone belied was dead and had in fact faked her own death for reasons that are unbelievably flimsy. However, in order to save the Divergents who are being hunted down and forced to undergo the ordeal of the simulations which is killing them off in short order, Tris will have to go to the heart of the beast and face down Jeanine herself.

Somewhat ironically, Insurgent apparently diverges from Victoria Roth’s source novel fairly radically. Being as I’m not familiar with the books, I can’t say whether that’s necessarily a bad thing or not but I can say that the illogical world of the Divergent book series is so full of lapses and plot holes that it’s hard to believe that anyone buys any of this. Any rudimentary student of human nature knows that we are not just one thing; we are many, and to think that keeping all people with a common trait in a society is not a sure way to eliminate conflict. If anything, people with like ways of thinking tend to get in a lot more conflict

The action sequences are pretty good and the special effects are even better, particularly in the sim sequences. There’s definitely plenty of eye candy, particularly for young pre-teen and teen girls who will find young hunks James, Elgort, Teller, Courtney and Phifer making their hearts beat faster than the adrenaline-fueled action scenes.

Unfortunately, one of the movie’s main drawbacks is Woodley. She’s a fine actress as she’s shown in The Descendents but here…I don’t know. She’s supposed to be a strong female role model but she’s stubborn, makes really illogical and foolish choices that put those she’s close to in danger, she wallows in self-pity and she is known to panic occasionally. There are some that will defend her character as being admirable for overcoming her own human frailties and I have to acknowledge that as a salient point, but even so I never really admire Tris so much as feel dismayed by her. Woodley isn’t responsible for the way the character is written but she comes off as shrill here, which is not how Jennifer Lawrence comes off as Katness Everdeen, a female role model who is beset by self-doubt and fear just as much as Tris.

While some of the supporting characters have some depth to them – particularly Spencer and Kim as the leaders of their respective factions Amity and Candor, and Courtney as the deliciously evil Eric – the acting here tends to the scene chewing sort. I can live with that though ahead of the movie’s two most egregious sins; first, that in order for audiences to make sense of this movie you need to either be familiar with the first film or the book series. Those who aren’t are going to have a very hard time following this, so it doesn’t stand on its own very well. Secondly and perhaps more damning is that the movie follows the young adult franchise formula to the “T” – a plucky heroine of strong will is reluctantly put into a heroic role while deeply in love with hunky hero who steps aside to be second banana to his girlfriend who saves the day with her self-sacrifice and love for her man, not to mention wicked fighting skills.

Yeah, you’ve seen it all before and done better than this. This is definitely a step backwards from the more entertaining first film. I really can’t recommend it other than to those who really liked the first movie and are eager to see the franchise played out to its conclusion which, true to recent young adult book series form, will see the final book in the trilogy split into two movies. After this debacle, I’m not sure I want to see either of them.

REASONS TO GO: Some very intense action sequences. Some decent supporting performances by Courtney, Spencer and Kim.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of over-acting. Requires that you either are familiar with the books or saw the first movie. Too much like other young adult franchises.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some foul language and thematic elements and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the first movie was filmed mostly in Chicago (where the action is set), the sequel was mostly filmed in Atlanta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host (2013)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: People Like Us

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