Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother

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Everest (2015)


Climb ev'ry mountain!

Climb ev’ry mountain!

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Martin Henderson, Justin Salinger, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Reilly, Ang Phula Sherpa, Tim Dantay, Charlotte Bᴓving. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

There are a certain type of people who feel compelled to push themselves to the limits. They don’t feel truly alive unless they are facing down death. Most of us don’t require this kind of validation of our own supremacy, but those that do can’t live without it. Thee and me will never climb Mt. Everest simply because we don’t need to. Others, however do it because they have to.

\At one time, Everest was the province of experienced mountain climbers and at that only the best of that breed. However, New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) figured out that there was money to be made in getting ordinary travelers (who could afford it and were in good enough physical condition) to the top of Everest. His company, Adventure Consultants, specialized in getting people to the summit of Everest – the highest place on Earth.

The 1996 climbing seasons sees a proliferation of these sorts of outfits, all clustered in Everest’s base camp. Rob Hall is bringing an experienced team of climbers including Sherpa Ang Doree (Sherpa), Andy “Harold” Harris (Henderson) and clients Doug Hansen (Hawkes) who had nearly made it to the summit the previous year but was turned back by Hall 100 meters from the top, Yasuko Namba (Mori) who was summiting the final of the Big Seven – the seven highest peaks on seven continents – which is an accomplishment only elite climbers ever meet and Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Brolin). Accompanying them is respected writer Jon Krakauer (Kelly) who’d be providing much needed publicity for the company.

At base camp is den mother Helen Wilton (Watson) who would be overseeing the operation from there as well as team physician Caroline MacKenzie (Debicki). A close friend of Rob’s, American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) runs a rival team. Scott is known for being more of a go-for-it guy whereas Rob tends to be more methodical. As the two discover that the sheer number of climbers are creating bottlenecks on the mountain, they determine to work together so as to reduce traffic. Scott’s Russian right hand, Anatoli Boukreev (Sigurösson) is there to lend a hand.

Waiting at home is Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) who is about to give birth to their daughter, an event Rob is planning on being home in Christchurch for. Also at home is Peach Weathers (Wright), a no-nonsense Texas woman who is a mite ticked off at her husband who is undertaking this adventure despite her distinct disapproval – and despite having had eye surgery recently.

After months of preparing, the time for the final ascent to the summit arrives but things start to go wrong almost right away; the Sherpas who were supposed to have fixed the ropes had inexplicably failed to do so, leaving the guides to fix them on trail, causing long delays. The teams end up staying on the peak long past the turnaround time of 2pm. And headed towards them is a monstrous rogue storm. This would be the worst day of fatalities on the mountain (until 2014 when ironically enough an avalanche occurred while the second unit was filming in Nepal would break the record) and who survives and who doesn’t is an act of will and sheer luck.

The story itself is riveting. Those who have read Krakauer’s book on the subject or watched the documentary that was made in 1998 will know in advance who survives but even so there’s a tension here that is right up there with any movie released this year. The performances are for the most part terrific; Clarke has become a very reliable lead although he hasn’t ever had a breakout performance that would mark him as an A-lister and this won’t be the one that does so either, although in many ways it is one of his most memorable pieces of work. Brolin and Hawkes, solid actors both, continue to do impressive work. Watson ends up being the emotional core of the film.

There are some truly heartbreaking scenes here, the most notable being one where the wife of one of the trapped climbers contacts him on satellite phone, urging him to keep moving forward, pleading with him all the time knowing that he is dying even as he speaks to her. We see the horror unfold as Helen keeps in contact with survivors, discovering the grim toll taken by the mountain.

This is almost an impossible story to tell properly; for one thing, giving audiences a sense of the mountain’s size and grandeur really can’t be done with just pictures. Some of the footage was taken on Everest itself but a lot of studio re-creation was done, particularly for some of the more perilous scenes and in all honesty I wasn’t convinced. Still, the story is so compelling that I was able to overlook the flaws of the film and enjoy it for what it was; an adventure and tragedy rolled into one.

Like Meru, this isn’t a movie that really motivated me to want to go and climb Everest on my own. Everest at least makes an attempt to explain why men are willing to climb up to the cruising altitude of a 747 where the air is so thin that the body begins to die, but in the end we never really get a clear picture of why – perhaps because the men doing this thing don’t really know themselves. Oh, Doug Harris does say he’s doing it to prove to his kids that nothing is impossible – even a letter carrier on the summit of Everest – but is the price for a lesson like that truly worth it? I think that a lot of kids whose mothers and fathers didn’t come back from this trip would say it wasn’t.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat filmmaking. Some very solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t give us a sense of the majesty or the size of the mountain.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of intense and graphic peril, some gruesome images and a bit of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the bodies of all the victims of this expedition have been found, all but one remain on the mountain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air: Death on Everest
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sicario

Chronicle


Chronicle

Dane DeHaan wants a Ferrari and he wants it NOW!!!!

(2012) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, Anna Wood, Rudi Malcolm, Luke Tyler, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Adrian Collins, Grant Powell, Armand Aucamp, Nicole Bailey. Directed by Joshua Trank

 

The saying goes absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that is true even of people in the best of positions. When it comes to teenagers, they are still developing their value system and their moral compass is still under construction. That’s not a knock, that’s just how people grow – some may develop sooner than others but for the most part most teens are just kind of making their own way through the best they can. Making mistakes is part of growing up; but when you have super powers, those mistakes become amplified exponentially.

Andrew (DeHaan) is a bit of a loner. His mom Karen (Petersen) is slowly dying, her lungs eaten up by cancer. His father Richard (Kelly) is a former firefighter who is out on permanent disability and copes with the family’s financial ruin and impending death of his wife by drinking and beating up his son who is a disappointment to him.

Andrew copes by documenting everything on an ancient video camera he’s found – why I’m not really sure except a desire to relive every moment of his teenage years’ misery when he gets older. He has few friends at school, let alone a girlfriend. He’s not a bad kid but he’s clearly troubled.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Russell) who is smart and outgoing although a bit socially awkward himself. He reads books of philosophy, quotes Plato and Schopenhauer and ferries his cousin around to school. Living in the Seattle area, cars are a must unless you’re fond of getting soaking wet in the frequent rainstorms.

Matt drags Andrew to a rave and Andrew decides to go, camera in tow. Predictably he gets bullied and goes outside to sit, despondent. Matt’s friend Steve (Jordan), a popular athlete running for student body president finds Andrew and brings him to a mysterious hole in the ground that he and Matt found. Matt wants Andrew to take pictures of it; the three go down into the hole and find…something.

Three weeks later that something has started developing telekinesis – the ability to move objects with the power of the mind – and their powers are growing stronger and stronger. At first it’s a big goof for the three of them, moving a leaf blower to send an updraft up the skirts of cheerleaders, or bringing a stuffed animal to life to terrify a young girl in a toy store (boys will be boys and sometimes they’re jerks, to paraphrase something Martin Zellar once sang).

Soon though Andrew’s inner rage (as the bullying intensifies as does his mother’s illness and his father’s abuse) begins to burn through and he is rapidly becoming the most powerful of the three of them. An incident causes Matt to establish some rules – no using the powers in anger, on humans or in public, all of which Andrew will soon violate.

This is Trank’s first feature film and he’s already being considered for the high profile Fox reboot of Fantastic Four. He is very successful with taking a movie in the found footage genre and augmenting it with some pretty nifty special effects (although some of the flying sequences look patently green screened with harnesses). The script by Max Landis (son of veteran filmmaker John Landis, the man behind An American Werewolf in London and National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) is smart and authentic. Not only are these high school boys who talk like high school boys (perhaps only Diablo Cody is as good with young people dialogue) but they act like them too. Full of mischief, a little bit of cruelty and plenty of insecurity yet absolutely sure they are the top of the human food chain – yup, just like every teenager I’ve ever met – or the one I used to be.

The movie could easily have taken the easy route and just had three kids becoming Gods with all sorts of wisdom and benevolence and become Superman or even Spider-Man but instead their powers play into their issues and their inexperience leads to tragic circumstances.

DeHaan is the lead here and he does the best job artistically – he has much more to work with in a lot of ways as the troubled boy who slowly comes to realize that he doesn’t have to take anybody’s crap anymore. Still, I think the handsome Russell may wind up with the most success later on down the line – he has that movie star charisma and looks that studios find irresistible. Don’t be surprised if he gets a franchise role somewhere down the line and not too far, either. Ditto for Jordan who has an easy charm and might do real well in some Tyler Perry-like comedies for a younger audience.

Hinshaw as a v-blogger who captures Matt’s attention and Wood as a classmate of Andrew’s who decides to take his virginity after a successful talent show appearance (augmented by his powers) are both nice eye candy but not really called upon to stretch their talents very much. Hopefully we’ll see them do just that in some juicier roles eventually.

This was a bit of a surprise I have to admit – judging on the trailer I expected another teen-centric found footage piece that would grab the high school audience but not much more; quite frankly I thought this was a solid movie with broad appeal and certainly a nice showcase for both Trank and Landis, who I believe have awfully promising careers ahead. There’s actually some stuff to think about here along with the strictly visceral appeal – and that’s a win for a broader audience anyday.

REASONS TO GO: The teens act like teens. Some impressive effects work despite the budget.

REASONS TO STAY: More than its share of angst.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a few cuss words, some sexuality, teen drinking and some of the themes here are pretty sophisticated for the Nickelodeon set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Wood, whose character makes out with Andrew in the film, is Dane DeHaan’s girlfriend in real life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are raves.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

RAIN LOVERS: It rains all the time in Seattle, dude. It rains here a lot too.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Man On a Ledge

Tenderness


Tenderness

Russell Crowe isn't happy that some joker put his running shoes on the memorial.

(2009) Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Jon Foster, Sophie Traub, Alexis Dziena, Laura Dern, Michael Kelly, Vivienne Benesch, Tanya Clarke, Tim Hopper, Brian Russell, Lee Sellars, Lou Sumrall, Arija Bareikis. Directed by John Polson

We are all of us victims of our own nature. We can’t escape it, although we often try. We can’t fight it, although we make the attempt. We can hide it, but sooner or later our true nature emerges, the face behind the mask; sometimes, heaven help the person who witnesses it.

Eric Komenko (Foster) was brought up by strictly religious parents who blew a gasket when they found out he was having sex. Eric didn’t like that; he didn’t like it at all – so he killed them. He was arrested and tried, where a persistent pattern of abuse emerged. A sympathetic jury gave him a light sentence so he was sent to juvenile detention where he is just being released after a few years, now an adult.

He is being watched by Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe), the tenacious semi-retired police officer who originally arrested Eric and who thinks he will inevitably kill again and has killed others before, people whom the parole board didn’t take into account. The policeman’s wife is in a coma (for reasons never fully explained in the film), so he spends a good deal of time (when not stalking Eric, who now goes by the last name of Poole) at the hospital – when he’s not pontificating in the form of voiceovers. Then again, his name transfers as “Christ’s fire” so you do the math.  

He’s not the only one watching Eric. Lori Cranston (Traub), an abused girl who has a prior connection to Eric, stows away in his trunk as he drives to Funland, where he has agreed to meet a girl (Dziena) that he’d met in prison. What Eric’s intentions are can be summed up thusly – not good. What Lori wants isn’t clear; a quick way out – maybe. Romance with a convicted killer? Possibly. Revenge? The Magic 8-Ball isn’t clear on that point. Maybe she’s working with the police to get Eric arrested and sent back to prison; maybe she isn’t. What is clear is that by the time the movie ends, someone is going to see Eric’s true nature, for better or for worse.

While the movie is based on a Robert Cormier novel, it is more of a mess than you might think. There doesn’t seem to be any clear point to the film; there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo uttered by a bored-sounding Crowe on the voiceover on the roles of pleasure and pain in life but by and large, we do get (most of us anyway) that pain sucks for a lot longer than pleasure doesn’t with or without the help of the filmmakers.

Crowe is the nominal star of the movie but it’s a glorified cameo; he does do the voiceover narration but most of his scenes are without the leading players. He’s solid enough as the rumpled cop, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Foster is pretty much the main man here, and his character is a walking jumble of complexities; he doesn’t really have the chops to pull it off but quite frankly, I’m not sure anybody does.

Traub doesn’t do a bad job as the somewhat conflicted Lori, but the script is so all over the map that it’s hard to really get a line on what she wants and what motivates her. There is a little epilogue that gives you some insight into her mindset but at the end of the ballgame, it’s too little too late.

I wish I could have liked this movie more – there were some interesting concepts and some nice psychology to it. Unfortunately, the script never really develops them and by the time the movie comes to a grinding halt, you might well be too involved in texting your friends or playing on your laptop to notice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting psychological studies are to be found. Crowe is solid although unspectacular.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of potential but doesn’t quite deliver. Foster doesn’t quite carry off the complexity of the lead role.

FAMILY VALUES: Along with the inevitable bad language, there’s some disturbing sexual and violent content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crowe was only on set for nine days and filmed all his scenes in that time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Wicker Man

The Adjustment Bureau


The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon tries to explain that the Sarah Silverman music video was a joke.

(2011) Science Fiction (Universal) Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Anthony Ruvivar, Lauren Hodges, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by George Nolfi

There are a couple of schools of thought about how the universe works – one in which things are pre-determined, planned in advance and that we are helpless to escape our destiny. The other says things are random chance and our own free will determines our choices.

David Norris (Damon) is an ambitious politician who was the youngest man ever elected to Congress. He’s running for Senate and has a big lead in the polls until a photo from his college days sinks him. He is in a hotel bathroom, running over his concession speech when he meets Elise Sellas (Blunt) who was hiding from hotel security in a stall when he walked in. They meet, flirt, kiss…and Norris is inspired to deliver a speech that makes him an immediate frontrunner for the next election.

David goes to work for his friend and former campaign manager Charlie Traynor (Kelly), a venture capitalist. David is on his way to work when he meets, quite by chance, Elise on a bus. A man in an old-fashioned suit wearing a fedora who we later found out is named Harry Mitchell (Mackie), chases the bus, trying desperately to spill coffee on the former Congressman. He is unsuccessful and David not only gets Elise’s phone number, he gets to work on time.

There he finds things a little strange. Nobody is moving…the people are frozen in position. Strangely dressed men are holding up strange instruments to Charlie’s forehead. David takes off in a dead run to try and escape but he’s captured. He is brought to a large warehouse-like space where another man – dressed similarly to Harry in a grey suit and a fedora – named Richardson (Slattery) tells him that he’s seen behind a curtain he wasn’t supposed to know existed.

You see, life is supposed to go according to plan – a specific plan – and they’re the guys who make sure it does. David and Elise were not supposed to meet again, as it turns out – they’re not meant to be together. Richardson burns the number Elise gave him and sends him on his way with a warning never to tell anybody about the Adjustment Bureau – or else he’ll be lobotomized.

Thus begins a cat and mouse game between David and the Adjustment Bureau. David trying to get back together again with Elise…the Bureau trying to keep them apart. Eventually, a higher-up named Thompson (Stamp) is drawn into the case but how can David find the love of his life when men who can alter reality itself are arrayed against him?

George Nolfi is directing for the first time; he’s better known as a writer for such movies as Oceans 12. He shows a surprisingly deft hand at the helm – he’s got a solid future in directing if he continues to direct.

He also scripted, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose works have been turned into such films as Minority Report, Total Recall and Blade Runner. Movies based on Dick’s work have varied in execution; this one, I’m happy to say, is one of the better ones. It brings up an age-old argument in a sci-fi setting and while Dick was firmly on the free will side of the discussion (as is Nolfi), he does make a credible argument for the other side as well.

Damon is one of the more appealing A-list actors; he has become a terrific everyman in the vein of Jimmy Stewart, and he continues to improve with every performance. This is another one, and he is certainly solid again, dependable and likable. He also has good chemistry with Blunt; while her character is a little bit bland, she does an admirable job filling it. Their back and forth reminds me a bit of the romantic comedies of the 50s.

There aren’t a lot of special effects; mostly the effects are optical, particularly in sequences involving doorways that transport the bureau men from one place to places far away. There’s a chase sequence involving David and the Bureau men late in the film that’s dazzling but also dizzying…it’s a little disorienting even as David goes by a variety of New York landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. It’s on the breathtaking side.

Mackie is emerging as a tremendous actor. An Oscar nominee for The Hurt Locker, he is very solid here as a Bureau man with a conscience. Slattery, who is one of those “you’ve seen his face but don’t know his name” kind of guys, also does real well as the bureaucrat (pun intended). Terence Stamp is, well, Terence Stamp.

While the movie is being marketed in Bourne-like fashion (Universal has worked with Damon on those films) this really isn’t. It’s a bit of a pastiche – part romantic comedy, part morality play, part sci-fi action thriller. It’s unusual and while not innovative, it fits the bill for a springtime action movie that probably would have drowned in the summer with all the more spectacular blockbusters. Still, it’s a solid and surprisingly thoughtful movie that even has a few religious overtones – you draw your own conclusions as to who the chairman is. This is the kind of movie that has good juju – it’s entertaining and smart. You can’t ask for more than that.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting concept nicely accomplished. Damon is becoming a 21st century Jimmy Stewart.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot ideas are a little hard to follow and the final chase scene is disorienting.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence and a little bit of strong language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the short story which the movie is based on, the lead character is an insurance salesman rather than a politician.  

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the overhead city shots benefit from the big screen, most of the rest of the movie works on the small screen just as nicely.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: What Goes Up