If I Stay


A dream that is a waking nightmare.

A dream that is a waking nightmare.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Aisha Hinds, Stacy Keach, Liana Liberato, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Gabrielle Cerys Haslett, Lauren Lee Smith, Adam Solomonian, John Emmet Tracy, Chelah Horsdahl, Christine Wiles, Arielle Tuliao, Sarah Grey, Aliyah O’Brien. Directed by R.J. Cutler

There is a fine line between cathartic and manipulative. We can generally use the former, but we usually get the latter instead. One doesn’t necessarily mind being manipulated though, as long as it’s done for a good cause.

Mia Hall (Moretz) – no relation to Monty – has a great life. She lives in Portland, Oregon with exceptionally cool parents. Dad (Leonard) was a member of a seminal alt-rock band from the 90s and Mom (Enos) was and is an artist. She has a little brother (Davies) she adores and has discovered a talent for playing the cello that might just get her into Julliard if she isn’t careful.

Even better, she has a boyfriend named Adam (Blackley) who fronts his own indie rock band that looks like it might be getting signed to one of those hip indie labels – not those un-cool dinosaur major labels that haven’t been relevant since the iPod came out, mind you. Because everything connected with Mia’s life is unmentionably hip.

It all changes in an instant. A car crash on a snowy road leaves Mia hovering between life and death. Her body is in a coma, tubes sticking out of every which way (and she manages to look angelic in her coma, rather than like the gaunt entity most coma patients tend to look like. Of course, most coma patients don’t have a Hollywood make-up man to help them look their best while they’re fighting for their lives.

However, Mia’s spirit is running around, flashbacking like crazy and going through a period of terrible angst. You see, Adam and Mia had just split up when the crash occurred. She might be waking up with nobody in her life except her heartbroken grandpa (Keach) to take care of her. Does Mia want to stay in a life that would be intolerably painful, or does she want to slip into oblivion?

Based on a young adult novel, the movie neatly sidesteps any spiritual discussions although we are at times treated to bright lights which indicate some sort of afterlife I suppose, although Mia doesn’t see any dead people which is proof positive that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t make this movie. She doesn’t have any encounters with anyone in fact – she is all alone even though she is surrounded by everybody including a sympathetic nurse (Hinds) who implores her to fight.

Moretz has emerged into a bright young talent with all sorts of cinematic presence. She needs to expand her emotional repertoire a little bit but otherwise she is fully capable of being an A list star for the next 30 years if she chooses the right roles. She has the most impressive doe eyes in Hollywood at the moment and the camera loves that but she has a tendency to be a better actress when she lets loose a little bit more than she does here. Mia is fairly closed-off and that kind of role doesn’t suit Moretz as well.

I did like Leonard and Enos very much as Mia’s folks. They are down-to-earth and still clearly in love with each other. They are perhaps a little too cool to be true – I can’t imagine there’s a teen who sees this film that wouldn’t want them as their own parents. While I loved the characters a lot, I ended up wondering if it would have served the movie better if they had been a little less perfect.

I did like the irony that while Mom and Dad love the hip rock that the kids love, Mia rebels against them by going full-on classical. Alex from A Clockwork Orange would have made a fine Droog out of her no doubt although I’m not sure Mia would have loved the ultra-violence as much as she loves good ol’ Ludwig van.

There was a really good, insightful movie to be had here but having not read the book this is based on, I’m not sure if it is the fault of the source material or the screenwriter that interpreted it. The basic question is whether or not life is worth living in the face of intolerable pain and rather than talk to the target audience as if they had brains and ideas in their head, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out and go with the slam dunks instead of the three point shots that would have made this truly memorable. One of the big mistakes that I think the movie makes is at the very end it tells you how she chooses. I think had they left her final choice ambiguous – did she stay or did she leave – the movie would have been far more powerful.

Cheap tears can make the viewer feel good but when all is said and done, the viewer is more than an emotional marionette. Give them credit for being thinking people who can handle tough questions and complicated concepts. While I realize that most people are lazy and will choose spoon-fed nearly every time out, maybe if they had the option to go to movies that engaged not just their hearts but their heads we might all end up surprised.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz is rapidly becoming a strong leading lady. Enos and Leonard as the indie rocker parents are wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing ending. A little bit too manipulative for my taste. Needed a dose of reality particularly in the characters who were largely caricatures.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little teen sexuality, some fairly adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz had a very difficult time learning the cello. At last a cello-playing body double was enlisted and Moretz’ head inserted into the frame digitally.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heaven Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: When the Game Stands Tall

The Soloist


The Soloist

Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx try to get away with some loot from the Disney Theater.

(DreamWorks) Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Nelsan Ellis, Rachael Harris, Stephen Root. Directed by Joe Wright

Friendships can sometimes be formed in the most unlikely of places between the most unlikely of people. These are the sorts of friendships that can be life-altering for both of the parties involved.

Steve Lopez (Downey) is a successful columnist for the Los Angeles Times. While his marriage is on the rocks (to his editor Mary (Keener) no less) and he has been injured in a bicycle accident, his career is at least doing well.

One afternoon he hears music coming from Pershing Square near the Times building and discovers a homeless man sawing away on a two-stringed cello and making astonishing music. This is Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and as Lopez later discovers, he was once a prodigy who studied at Julliard before his schizophrenia forced him to drop out of school and essentially from life.

Intrigued, Lopez writes a column about Ayers. A reader, touched by the story, sends a new cello for Ayers which Lopez delivers. This touches off a friendship between the two as Lopez acts as something of a guardian angel for the highly erratic and sometimes explosive Ayers. Lopez follows Ayers to a shelter in downtown L.A. (filming took place on Skid Row where the shelter is located and actual homeless people were used as extras) and inspired, writes a series of articles on the homeless situation in the City of Angels.

This leads to awards and acclaim for Lopez but he feels conflicted about this – like he’s profiting on the plight of his friend. He tries to help him, sets up recitals and an apartment for the former prodigy but Ayers’ mental illness is once again getting in the way. Will the demons in Ayers nature prevent him from leaving the mean streets of L.A.?

Like real life, the movie doesn’t answer this question because this true story is continuing. The real Nathaniel Ayers still lives in Skid Row and while his fame has allowed him to leave the streets, he still grapples with his mental illness.

Director Wright (who previously directed Atonement) has a good eye for detail and uses his L.A. locations to make a gritty, grimy portrayal of the streets which exist in a truly tragic juxtaposition within blocks of the glamour of the Walt Disney Theater in downtown L.A. Oscar-nominated (for Erin Brockovich) screenwriter Susannah Grant has the thankless job of trying to capture Ayers’ madness without compromising the story’s realism and for the most part, she succeeds although she does wander into maudlin territory from time to time though not enough to torpedo the movie.

At the center of the film is the relationship between Ayers and Lopez; if the actors can’t capture that then the film is a disaster. Fortunately, Wright cast two of the better actors working today in Downey and Foxx to tackle the roles and they both do stellar jobs. Downey has the more nuanced role in Lopez; he’s flippant and cynical but with a soft heart. He’s not the stereotypical driven and ambitious journalist; he’s more of an observer than a reporter.

Jamie Foxx resists the urge to over-dramatize the mental illness of Nathaniel Ayers but still manages to effectively portray the demons that torment him. This performance required a master’s hand to pull off and fortunately it got one. I don’t know if this is Foxx’s second Oscar-winning performance (it’s unlikely – the movie was postponed from its original November 2008 release date and relegated to the relatively barren April, when few films get any Oscar consideration) but it certainly merits a look.

Wright and Grant set out to make the movie as real and believable as possible and except for a few hiccups were successful. I like that the movie ended without tying things up in a neat package. I also admire the performances of the lead actors which are so compelling that some fine character actors also cast here are almost shuffled off to the wayside not through any fault of their own.

This movie, possibly because its release date was mishandled, didn’t get the kind of box office love it should have gotten (and might have gotten if the studio had stuck to a fall release date). Still, if you didn’t see it in theaters (and you probably didn’t), this is worth seeking out on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Both Downey and Foxx turn in outstanding performances. The relationship at the heart of the movie is believable. The resolution of the movie is not really a resolution but ties the events together nicely while ringing true to the realism of the story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story occasionally meanders into the maudlin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of crude language, some drug use and the overall theme of mental illness and homelessness might be a bit much for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the final concert scene in the movie, the real Nathaniel Ayers Jr. can be seen in the front row of the concert hall.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers Jr. in which the interplay that the actors modeled the relationship on is clearly visible. There is also a feature and an animated short on the situation with homelessness in Los Angeles which has one of the largest homeless populations in the world.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Astronaut Farmer