Band Aid


There are few things as musically authentic as a garage band..

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Retta, Hannah Simone, Ravi Patel, Brooklyn Decker, Angelique Cabral, Majandra Delfino, Nelson Franklin, Kailash Banerjee Sukhadia, Vivien Lyre Blair, Colin Hanks, Chris D’Elia, Daryl Wein, Jamie Chung, Erinn Hayes, Jesse Williams, Gillian Zinser. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones

 

Marriages are complex, fragile things that can sometimes be torn apart by the slightest of difficulties. We take it for granted that married couples will argue, sometimes in toxic ways. Relationship experts tell us that arguments are a healthy thing for couples. Experience tells us that they can also signify the beginning of the end.

All Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Pally) seem to do is argue. The arguments are generated by life’s little annoyances – like a chronically full sink of dirty dishes and a leaky faucet that never gets fixed –  and often lead to big underlying issues. Both of these 20-somethings are suffering from failed expectations; Anna once had a book deal that fell through and now she’s an Uber driver. Ben, a talented artist, designs corporate logos when he can actually get his butt off the couch. There are moments that it’s clear that the two still love each other but those moments are becoming increasingly infrequent.

One early hint that things are terribly wrong between them is that when they are invited to a child’s birthday party, Anna has to get really high just to make it through the party for reasons that become clear later in the film. While she is blissed out, she and Ben give an impromptu rock concert on children’s instruments. Later that night, Anna hits on the idea of starting a band – and using their arguments as inspiration for songs.

Considering that their relationship counselor is moving to Canada (quite possibly to get away from the two of them), it seems like all the therapy they can afford. They locate their dusty guitar and bass and start searching for a drummer; they find one in Dave (Armisen), a neighbor and recovering sex addict who probably couldn’t be more creepy if the writer’s tried (and they did).

They play a couple of gigs and they aren’t half bad. In fact, they’re pretty good. Best of all, the impromptu therapy seems to be working; Anna and Ben are arguing less and the dishes are getting done. They seem to be more kind towards each other. A potential record deal is in the offing. Life couldn’t be rosier.

Then they have the mother of all arguments and at last some of their underlying issues begin to surface. Anna throws Ben out and he shacks up with Dave for a bit before running home to Mama (Essman). But there were things said that can’t be un-said. Can their relationship survive? Should it?

There’s a lot to like here. Lister-Jones, more familiar to viewers through her television work including her most recent stint on the CBS sitcom Life in Pieces, proves to be a promising director. She’s no Sofia Coppola – yet – but she has the wisdom to keep her touch light and the skill to pull it off. She also has a ton of chemistry with Pally; the two make a cute couple, too cute upon occasion but always believable. Their arguments hit the right notes and sound pretty authentic to these married ears.

The dialogue is hipster 101 in some ways; everyone talks like they’re in a sitcom pulling off snarky one-liners. The trouble is, I know a lot of people who talk exactly like Ben and Anna and it’s even more annoying in real life. Some people are also not going to be able to get past that both Ben but especially Anna use drugs heavily t get through the pain and have both become somewhat caught in a very deep rut. Go-getters might have trouble with the couple, as those who have issues with hipsters might.

Still, the movie is surprisingly insightful – the conversation between Ben and his Mom near the end on the nature of women had a lot to say and makes the whole movie worth it right there. I was also fond of the dirty dishes as a metaphor for the relationship; the dishes just stood there stagnant in a pile with the couple just piling new dishes on until one of them thinks to clear out the dishes from the sink. So it is with relationships (and Ben and Anna’s in particular); all the negative stuff gets piled on in the relationship and the heap just gets larger and larger until one of them decides to let go of the negatives.

The tone is pretty light and I liked that the humor which was pretty skewed in places kept things from getting too depressing, but some of the humor is a bit cruel and snarky; if you don’t like those sorts of jokes this movie might not be for you. Do look for the cameos of Uber passengers in Anna’s car. This isn’t going to be top ten material for the year but it is a breezy and engaging film that has a surprising amount of depth at its core. Definitely check this one out!

REASONS TO GO: There are a surprising amount of insights, particularly later on in the movie. The music is pretty decent and surprisingly varied..
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is almost unbearably hipster-friendly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a little drug use, plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Decker, Delfino and Lister-Jones all star in the TV show Friends with Better Lives.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Past Life

The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

The Boy


Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

(2016) Thriller (STX) Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson, Jett Klyne, Lily Pater, Matthew Walker, Stephanie Lemelin. Directed by William Brent Bell

When you hire someone to watch your children, you are in effect hiring a security guard for your most precious item. Sadly, we rarely think of it that way and so often we leave our children in the care of people who we know nothing about.

Greta Evans (Cohan) is one such person. She’s an American in a small English country town having applied to be a nanny for Brahms Heelshire (Klyne) who lives on an isolated estate for a mysterious reclusive family. Papa Heelshire (Norton) and his wife (Hardcastle) are leaving on a well-needed vacation and they need someone to look after Brahms.

Greta has a bit of a past; she is on the run from an abusive boyfriend (Robson) and is looking to start over someplace where she can make new memories and at first it seems this situation is perfect for her. Then she meets Brahms and discovers that Brahms is a little bit different than most boys; he’s a porcelain doll.

At first she thinks it’s a joke and then when she discovers from flirtatious grocery delivery man Malcolm (Evans) that Brahms died in a fire nearly two decades ago (there are flame marks on the facade of the mansion) she feels some sympathy for the Heelshire clan. But she is given a long list of rules to follow; she must play music loudly for the doll, read stories to it in a loud clear voice. She must dress it and undress it and kiss it goodnight when she puts it to bed.

At length the rules and the weirdness of the situation begin to get to her. She begins to willfully disobey the rules but then strange things start to happen. She hears noises in the night, and a childish voice seems to speak to her. Then she notices that the doll isn’t always in the same position that she left it and items of her clothing begin to disappear.

She begins to wonder to Malcolm whether or not she is going crazy. She wonders if her ex has been paying her a visit. She also wonders if It might not be that the doll is actually alive – and little Brahms is, as his father so eloquently put it – still with her.

This has been marketed as a horror film but that’s not quite accurate; this is more of a thriller with supernatural overtones. There is a twist near the end and while I admire the spunk of the writer for going that way, it doesn’t really suit the film especially after what transpires in the first hour. Bell has fashioned a kind of Gothic atmospheric ghost tale, with a spooky mansion, things that go bump in the night and inanimate objects that move by themselves. The creepy factor is sky high.

Also sky high is Lauren Cohan’s potential as a leading lady. The Walking Dead star plays a much different role here and fans that only know her as Maggie are going to be a little discombobulated by the change. Greta is a bit less self-sufficient, a little more timid. She is not the sort of woman who takes charge and kicks ass, although when backed into a corner she comes out fighting. I can’t think that this will be her last shot at movie stardom; she has what it takes to be a huge star.

There are a couple of scary moments but the end of the movie is pretty disappointing from the standpoint that as imaginative as the first half of the movie is, the ending just seems to have been purchased at a Hollywood screenwriter surplus store. Endings are a very hard thing to write but this one feels a bit forced to say the very least.

I don’t mind stories that lead you one way and then go another; those can be quite delightful but when the way they were leading is far better than the destination they end up at it can be a problem. The movie looks like it’s going in a supernatural ghost story direction – and the filmmakers are building up a lovely mood without going overt on the special effects scale – and then end up doing an abrupt right turn and going in a more visceral rather than atmospheric direction. I ended up feeling like I’d invested so much into the first half that I left the film feeling a little cheated.

REASONS TO GO: Cohan has serious lead actress potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Creepy rather than scary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror, a little bit of violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film’s exteriors were shot at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Quiet Ones
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Diablo

Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes

The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

The Other Woman


 

The Other Woman

Lisa Kudrow teaches the art of the fake smile.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Charlie Tahan, Lauren Ambrose, Michael Cristofer, Debra Monk, Mona Lerche, Anthony Rapp, Kendra Kassebaum, Elizabeth Marvel, Mary Joy, Maria Dizzia, Ira Hawkins. Directed by Don Roos

 

By its nature marital infidelity is a terrible and unforgivable thing. This is true of the married party who cheats on their partner but it is also true of the one they’re cheating with, especially when they know full well that they’re having an affair with a married person.

Emilia Greenleaf (Portman) is a Harvard grad who works in the law office of Jack (Cohen), a married partner in the firm. She knows of his marital status but she thinks he’s cute and attractive and that attraction only grows the longer she works there. One thing leads to another and soon the two are carrying on an affair.

When Emilia gets pregnant, Jack decides that he would rather be with her than with Carolyn (Kudrow), the driven but successful obstetrician. The two divorce with Jack unaccountably given custody of William (Tahan), their young son.

The baby is delivered and it’s a girl. A few days after coming home, tragically, the baby dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) leaving her parents disconsolate. Emilia particularly has a hard time dealing with the baby’s death, growing more distant and irritable. Her relationship with William has become a war, each side practicing little cruelties upon the other (she encourages the lactose-intolerant William to eat an ice cream sundae; he proposes she sell all the infant furniture and clothes on eBay). Carolyn in the meantime has instituted proceedings to take back custody of William. She has become shrewish and confrontational. Emilia’s parents (Cristofer and Monk), long-divorced after her father cheated on her mother as a result of a sex addiction, are trying to patch things up although Emilia has been unable to forgive him for abandoning her.

Emilia’s life is falling apart and so is she. Everything she touches seems to turn to ash; her close friend Mindy (Ambrose) and Simon (Rapp) are slowly being alienated and her marriage is close to over. Could this be karma finally catching up with the other woman?

Portman is showcased here in this film by veteran indie director Roos (The Opposite of Sex), based on the book Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman. This is a bit different than we’re used to from Roos who specializes in clever and light relationship comedies. The cinematography is strong here which makes for beautiful pictures telling a bleak story. That story is told mostly in flashback which requires a deft hand. It’s not a new method of storytelling but it is often botched, leaving the viewers confused and frustrated. That doesn’t happen here.

Portman is a gifted actress and she makes good use of her talents here. Emilia is far from being a saint – after all, she did initiate a relationship with a man that was already taken. She also shows a streak of arrogance and insensitivity, as well as a bit of temperamental cruelty that particularly surfaces after the baby’s death. This isn’t a character that invites audience identification and yet we wind up doing just that; Emilia’s deeds aren’t likable but Portman makes Emilia herself so.

Kudrow, who has appeared in several of Roos’ films, is usually a bit of a charming ditz in most of her roles but here she’s capable, a little cold and VERY pissed off. She’s justifiably angry too but as in the case of a fairly significant percentage of women whose husbands left them for the women they cheated with, saves her vitriol for the woman and not so much for her husband. One thinks Carolyn blames the entire affair on Emilia, even though it takes two to tango and Jack is quite the willing dance partner.

In fact, Cohen’s Jack seems a likable fellow and we don’t get any sense of why he felt compelled to cheat on his wife other than that the woman coming onto him is Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful and desirable women in Hollywood today. The movie never really examines too closely Jack’s culpability which I suppose is fitting since the title is The Other Woman, not The Cheating Husband.

I guess in a way the subject matter is a bit of a soap opera by nature, but it certainly feels as such in execution. There are some pretty adult subjects here, given the infidelity and the baby’s death and subsequent grieving of the mother but the handling is a bit heavy-handed whereas a more sensitive touch would have been appreciated.

This can be recommended for the performances of the lead women, although Tahan also turns in a good job. His byplay with Portman feels authentic and the strain between them is palpable. Those aspects of the movie work. What doesn’t is the apparent blameless nature of the man and the daytime drama approach of the screenplay, but it’s still worth seeing thanks to Portman and Kudrow.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Kudrow and Portman.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat soap opera-esque. Sensitive subject matter handled with an iron fist.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is fairly adult with a good deal of sexual content and a bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shelved for nearly two years during which time Portman won her Best Actress Oscar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $452,191 on an unreported production budget. The movie might have broken even but I suspect that’s quite unlikely.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stepmom

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)


A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi react to questions from the press as to whether she's a natural redhead or not.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Marila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Mohammadhassan Asghari. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

Human relationships are very complex and fragile things. They are constantly changing and often confusing. We are all alike in that regard – whether we live in the United States or China or Iran. We are all slaves to our emotions.

Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) are in an adjudicator’s office in Teheran. Simin wants a divorce. It’s not that Nader is mistreating her or that they don’t care for each other. It’s just that Nader’s father (Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s and he’s not willing to leave him to the tender mercies of the Iranian public health system. She wants to move abroad where their daughter Termeh (S. Farhadi)  has a better opportunity to make something of her life. However, since Nader won’t agree to letting Termeh go Simin moves in with her mother (Yazdanbakhsh) instead.

Nader has to work and even if Termeh didn’t have school she is only 11 and far too young to watch over an Alzheimer’s patient so Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to keep an eye on dad and do a little light housecleaning. Razieh is an extra-devout Muslim whose chador hides a secret. She lives in a dicey part of the city so the commute is nearly two hours long each way.

Her family desperately needs the money. Her husband Hodjat (S. Hosseini) is a cobbler who has been out of work for six months and his creditors are threatening to take him to jail. She brings her young daughter with her but the strain of caring for the old man and the house proves to be too much for her.

One day Nader comes home early from work and finds things in chaos. This leads to a confrontation with Razieh that has unforeseen consequences for both Nader and Razieh as well as both their families. Consequences that might not be entirely predictable.

This was the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and deservedly so. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. It isn’t just the story or the setting that grabs your attention, it’s also the way the story is told. Asghar Farhadi is a legitimate talent, one who understands his craft well and is a master at it. He knows which facts to let you know and which to hide so that when the final denouement comes, you are not so much surprised as you are thrilled.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this would probably have been a by-the-numbers thriller as Nader races to discover the truth about Razieh and he would have ended up with the girl at the end. Instead, this is a slice of life about deeply flawed people interpreting events in their own way with their own self-interest front and center. In other words, they act the way people all over the world would act – including here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

There are going to be some who will be tempted to turn this into an indictment of Iran and Sharia law (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly…Rick Santorum…etc. etc.) but this isn’t really that. Certainly the justice system in Iran is imperfect – but then again, so is our own. Any legal system that has jurisdiction over other human beings is going to be flawed by definition – people are flawed. Whenever you have laws that are inflexible being interpreted inflexibly justice is going to suffer. It isn’t like every case that goes before an American judge winds up exacting justice.

The movie is well-acted with particular kudos going to Hatami who not only resembles a young Susan Sarandon facially but also in her inner strength and conviction. Simin is a formidable woman who wants only the best for her daughter and her family; she understands Nader’s stubborn stance but doesn’t share it. She places more importance on her daughter than on her father-in-law which is at the crux of the divide between Simin and Nader.

Nader doesn’t look at his stance as a choice between two people; the fact that he is taking care of his father who has nobody else to care for him is the right thing to do. His daughter not only understands but supports this – she is given the opportunity on several occasions to leave and go with her mother but never takes it.

On the other side of the fence Razieh is completely devout whose actions are for the most part charted by the Quran until desperation forces her to do something of which she knows her husband will not approve. She is intimidated by Hodjat but when it comes to her faith nothing can dislodge her leading to a crucial scene near the end of the movie. Hodjat is a hothead who believes strongly that his wife has been wronged and is tired of being stepped on by those in positions of power and authority. He is like the man the world over who has been kicked once too often – at some point you have to stand up and say enough, which is exactly what Hodjat does.

All of the characters withhold information from one another, choose to interpret things in their own way and are mulish about what they believe. This isn’t a film about compromise – that never enters the equation here. This is about people caught up in a situation that spirals out of control largely due to their unwillingness to face the reality of their circumstances (and yes I’m being deliberately vague as to not spoil some of the more intense plot points). These particular humans live in Teheran but they could as easily exist in Atlanta, or Rome, or Kyoto. But that is not the heart of the message director Farhadi is trying to deliver; that’s merely a corollary that comes with it.

I was mesmerized from beginning to end. This is one of those movies that simply takes you down a path that looks everyday and familiar and gives it a gentle tug until things start to unravel. That’s pretty much the way real life works as well. There are those who are going to avoid this movie just because it comes from Iran. People like that should remember that our grievances are with their government, not the Iranian people – and this movie is very much an insight into those people. We turn away and refuse to learn from it to our discredit.

REASONS TO GO: A powerful film that depicts Iranian life warts and all. Well-directed and well-written, hitting all the right notes.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly shot with hand-held cameras, creating some dizzy-making shaky cam effects.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes and situations might be a bit too much for all but mature children and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Termeh is played by the directors daughter. She was one of the recipients of Best Actress (ensemble) at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, one of three Bears won by the film, the first movie ever to accomplish that feat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100. The reviews are sensational.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Syrian Bride

LAW LOVERS: A fairly intense and dispassionate look at how Sharia law actually operates.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT:Hotel Rwanda

Saw IV


Saw IV

Betsy Russell finds out she's been cast in a Saw film.

(2007) Horror/Torture Porn (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis, Simon Reynolds, Donnie Wahlberg, Angus Macfadyen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Bahar Soomekh. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are storms in life that are particularly vicious, doing damage to property, life and limb. We can only hope to ride out those storms and hope to escape if not unscathed, at least mostly unscathed. There are storms however that when we think they’re over, we come to the sick realization that they may only be beginning.

John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw (Bell), the notorious serial killer, is dead. His reign of terror is at an end. At least, that’s what everybody thinks. During his autopsy, a micro-cassette player is found in his stomach, the contents of which are heard by Det. Mark Hoffman (Mandylor). You just know what’s on the tape isn’t going to be Perry Como. It’s just not going to be a very good thing at all.

When a missing detective (Meyer) is located, Hoffman cautions Lt. Rigg (Bent) from entering an unsecured door but he does anyway and the girl is killed. Rigg is hoping that he’d find information about his missing partner, Matthews (Wahlberg) whom Rigg is convinced is still alive. The murder brings FBI agents Strahm (Patterson) and Perez (Karkanis) into the picture. They quickly discover that the late Jigsaw and his apprentice (Smith) couldn’t have been responsible for the death of the detective since neither one of them was strong enough to load her into the machine she’d been left in. It becomes increasingly likely that Jigsaw has another apprentice.

It isn’t until Rigg is attacked at home that he discovers that Matthews is still alive, but held by the new apprentice of Jigsaw. Rigg has 90 minutes to find Matthews or he will die horribly. Rigg must make terrible decisions that will cost people their lives in order to save the innocent Matthews…but can he negotiate the tricky moral currents of a Jigsaw puzzle?

Bousman, who helmed the second and third installment of the series, was reportedly ready to turn down directing this film but the end twist really grabbed his attention. He brings to the table a solid understanding of who Jigsaw is and what the man is all about.

Which makes this movie all the more mystifying. Throughout the series to date, Jigsaw was about having people confront their own sins but there is much less of that here. We do get much more of Jigsaw’s backstory – what drove him to psychosis (the death of his unborn son at the hands of a junkie, leading to his wife divorcing him) and what kept him there.

Still, the series is written into a corner. With its most iconic and compelling character dead and available only in flashbacks, what we are left with are the lethal traps and while they are fun and interesting, they aren’t enough to carry a movie. For the most part, you know that nobody is going to escape – why would any competent Hollywood horror director give you that kind of building only to have nothing happen – and after awhile it becomes just torture porn. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I’m finding myself getting more and more jaded when it comes to the genre.

That isn’t to say the movie is without its merits. The traps are clever and Jigsaw’s backstory does help fill in the blanks. The next movie in the cycle is set up nicely and while we know the series ended with a total of seven films in it (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the series got resurrected in a few years), the fourth one gave the series enough impetus to continue on course for awhile, both creatively and at the box office. This isn’t the best film in the series, but it isn’t the worst either – it’s just a solid horror movie to liven up your next Halloween.

WHY RENT THIS: If you like the first three films, you’re gonna adore this – much the same as the other three with a nice twist here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There really isn’t much here you won’t find in the first three movies. There’s only so many ways to be shocking. The plot is a bit convoluted and you’re going to have a hard time if you haven’t seen the first three films, particularly Saw III.

FAMILY VALUES: Ummm, its Saw IV…just what kind of family values are you expecting exactly?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the series not to be written or co-written by franchise creator Leigh Whannell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video and a video diary from director Bousman that’s pretty amusing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $139.4M on a $10M production budget (unconfirmed); the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Letters to Juliet