Win It All


This is what tired of winning looks like.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Jake Johnson, Keegan-Michael Key, Joe Lo Truglio, Aislinn Derbez, Rony Shemon, Arthur Agee, Steve Berg, Cliff Chamberlain, Jose A. Garcia, Tiffany Yvonne Cox, Edward Kaihatsu, Nicky Excitement, Morgan Ng, Kris Swanberg, Kristin Davis, Rashawn Scott, Howard Sudberry, Salome St. Clair, Freddy Gonzalez, Ali Bathwell. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 

The gambling addiction is one that is particularly hard to shake and particularly difficult for others to understand. It’s the adrenaline rush that the gambler is really addicted to, not even the winning so much. The action becomes the be-all and end-all for the addict as it saps all of their self-control. In some ways it’s like any other addiction but most people treat it differently. “Why don’t you just stop gambling?” they wonder, not realizing it’s a physiological addiction just like alcoholism and sex addiction.

Eddie (Johnson) knows it only too well. He is in the throes of a serious gambling addiction. Unable to hold down any job or maintain a relationship, he does a series of cash under the table blue collar odd jobs. When he gets paid, he finds himself a poker game or underground sleazy casino and spends – make that loses – his hard earned dollars there. Constantly asking for loans, not so much to pay bills but to pay down his gambling debts, his brother Ron (Lo Truglio) has essentially given up on him although he is one of the few people left who actually talks to Eddie although he’s done loaning him money.

Then loan shark Michael (Garcia) approaches Eddie with an intriguing offer; Michael is about to do a short stint in jail, six to nine months, and he wants to leave a black bag with Eddie to watch over. Keep the bag safe, Michael tells him, and don’t look inside. Do that and when Michael gets out, Eddie will get paid ten grand. Easy money, right?

Not for a guy like Eddie. It is not a spoiler at all to tell you that curiosity is going to get the better of him and what he’s going to find in the bag is a lot more than $10,000. And it is not a spoiler to tell you that Eddie won’t be able to resist temptation. And yet it seems at first that this unearned money begins him on the road to redemption; he actually wins some money, enough to pay off some of his debts. He meets a girl (Derbez) whom he falls for and who inspires him to reform. He joins his brother’s landscaping company and discovers he actually likes the work.

However you know that this isn’t going to last and of course it doesn’t. Eddie falls deeper and deeper in the hole as he tries to win back the money he keeps taking from the bag. Then comes the news that is the stuff of his nightmares; Michael is getting out early and will be collecting his property in days, not weeks. With his options starkly limited, Eddie is going to have to take the biggest gamble of his life.

Swanberg is one of the most prolific and talented directors working today. Like most prolific directors, sometimes he loses something in the zeal to get a new project completed and here I think the tone in many ways doesn’t work the way I think he envisioned. Re-reading the synopsis above, I was struck that this sounds very much like a drama; it’s not. This is a comedy and given the seriousness of the subject matter the disconnect is a bit jarring.

Swanberg is known for being a keen writer of dialogue as well as insightful into the foibles of the human condition and both of these elements are in full flower here. Eddie isn’t the first movie character to suffer from gambling addiction and he won’t be the last but he may very well be the most realistic. He’s not a bad man; he’s not a good man; he simply can’t control his gambling impulses. Most of us have some sort of thing that we simply can’t resist; some are into videogames, others into sex, others into alcohol, others into beauty products, still others into sports. Whatever it is that floats our boat we have a hard time resisting the siren call. You may chalk it up to a simple lack of self-control or even a waste of time, but often people with these sorts of addictions can no more control their impulses than they can control the color of their eyes. Even 12-step programs, which are often helpful in handling addiction, don’t always work.

Swanberg has kept the cast to be mostly lesser known with the exception of Key who plays Eddie’s not-entirely-helpful Gamblers Anonymous sponsor and Key is one of the best things in the movie. Derbez, an up-and-coming Latina actress, also shows some promise. Johnson has the lion’s share of the screen time and he carries it pretty well; he has a decent future ahead of him if he can continue to write roles like this for himself.

With a soulful soundtrack that is at times overbearing but for the most part dovetails perfectly with the theme and mood of the film, this is a reasonably cool although I suppose it might have been cooler. This is not one of those Steven Soderbergh films that just oozes cool. This is more a poor man’s cool, an ordinary cool. It’s the kind of cool we can actually aspire to. There is something comforting about that alone.

REASONS TO GO: As usual for a Joe Swanberg film, the writing and particularly the dialogue is extremely strong. Johnson shows some promise as a lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The outcome is a bit predictable. The subject matter deserves a more serious tone.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie contains profanity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Swanberg and star and co-writer Johnson.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gambler
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Wonder Woman

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Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception

The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train


Deidra and Laney are on top of the train situation.

(2017) Young Adult Comedy (Netflix) Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Sharon Laurence, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Myko Olivier, Sasheer Zamata, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe, Brooke Markham, Cj Strong, Deborah Lee Douglas, Tua Kealoha, Lance Gray, Chad Wright, Gerry Garcia, Nick Moceri, Kami Christiansen, Monica Moore Smith. Directed by Sydney Freeland

 

When you’re a single parent, making ends meet can be no easy task, especially if your employment options are limited and your ex isn’t paying the child support they owe. It’s a difficult situation, one which can go from precarious to catastrophic in a single moment.

Deidra (Murray) is the class valedictorian in a small Idaho town where she is the oldest of three children, including her middle sister Laney (Crow) and her youngest brother Jet (Gray) who likes to play with action figures. They live on the wrong side of the tracks (literally; the train tracks border their back yard) with their mom Marigold (Nicolet) who works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

One afternoon she unexpectedly loses it at work and goes on a rampage, smashing a big screen TV to pieces. Her erstwhile employer not only presses charges, they insist on making her out to be a domestic terrorist, raising her bail to unaffordable heights. There are bills to pay and Deidra realizes that not only can they not afford to keep food on the table or the electricity turned on, a social welfare worker (McInroe) is threatening to move Jet into a foster home if they can’t demonstrate that the environment is suitable.

In desperation, Deidra visits her ex-con dad Chet (Sullivan) who works as a technician for the railroad. He only has $13 to give them but he gives Deidra something much more valuable; an idea for a way out. He offhandedly mentions that there have been a spate of train robberies lately that have gone unsolved and the railroad brass has sent a security specialist named Truman (Nelson) to investigate. Vaping incessantly, he also has a checkered past in which he’d been drummed out of law enforcement for excessive use of force. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

Nonetheless Deidra figures out that she can hop aboard a freight car, break the lock and take whatever she can find in them. She knows she can’t do this alone so she enlists her sister Laney – who is embroiled in the Miss Teen Idaho pageant which she had only entered to support her “friend” Claire (Markham) who immediately turned her back on Laney when Laney was also selected as a finalist . Laney is at first reluctant but when things start to get desperate she agrees to help.

Deidra also enlists her ex-boyfriend Jerry (Olivier), who she dumped for selling pot, to sell the stolen merchandise on E-Bay. She’s set a goal of $12,000 which would be sufficient to catch them up on their bills and get their mom out on bail. She’s also pressured by the guidance counselor Ms. Spencer (Zamata) who believes that if she can get just one student out of town on a scholarship she’ll get promoted and Deidra is her best shot at it. With all this going on, the social worker and the railroad dick both sniffing around their lives and her dad trying to make up years of neglect to his kids, can this high school senior and her sister pull off the larceny they need to get their family whole again?

Those who have paid attention to my reviews over the years should by now realize that I’m not a big fan of the programming on the Freeform cable network. This movie positively reeks of the things that really make me frown about the cable network’s offerings. The script is absolutely ludicrous; for one thing, can you imagine a mother, particularly one who realizes she is the sole support for her kids, melting down like that and then treating her jail time as a vacation? None but the most irresponsible of parents would react that way and even then if they were of that nature they likely would have had their kids taken away from them long before. For some reason (and this goes back a long ways before Freeform was a gleam in Disney’s eye) kids movie/TV show writers delight in making adults be absolutely incompetent so that they can show how kids can solve their own problems.

Of course, normally Freeform and other Disney outlets don’t approve of using crime to solve the problems that their heroes and heroines are grappling with, but these are interesting times. For the working class, these types of conditions are reality and while the mom being hauled off to jail would in reality have ALL the kids taken to foster care, life for the working class particularly in rural towns is bleak and hopeless in a lot of ways – you can see why they chose to vote for the maverick outsider when it seemed like neither political party gave a rat’s behind about their situation. The movie reflects that frustration.

Murray, who also starred in the CW series Riverdale this spring, is a find. She plays Deidra as smart without being condescending and compassionate while being fierce. She avoids the clichés that so many young adult actresses fall into. Sadly, the material she has to work with here isn’t really up to her performance.

While the movie is entertaining for the main part, it’s clearly meant for a young adult audience and will offer little for audiences with a “two” or more as the first number in their age. I’m of the perhaps misguided belief that you can write terrific material for young adults without talking down to them as this movie does; it creates a world where the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do also. While empowering the girls in the movie, it also empowers them without consequences to their actions, something that really doesn’t happen often in the real world, even for adults. I applaud the filmmakers for making this an inclusive film that looks at the real economic situations faced by working class families everywhere; I just wish they could have presented real solutions and real information that kids who find themselves needing to be empowered can do so without fear of being jailed for it.

REASONS TO GO: Murray avoids young adult actress clichés. There is a decent entertainment value here.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a Freeform/Afterschool Special vibe (not necessarily a good thing). The ludicrous plot is clearly meant for youngsters, not adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some just as mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The high school scenes were filmed at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meghan Leavey

Pandora (2016)


Disasters bring chaos.

(2016) Disaster (Netflix) Nam-gil Kim, Jung Jin-Young, Yeong-ae Kim, Junghi Moon, Kyeong-yeong Lee, Myung-min Kim, Shin-il Kang, Se-dong Kim, Seong-mok Yoo, Dae-myeong Kim, Joo-hyeon Kim, Gang-yoo Bae, Han-jong Kim. Directed by Jong-woo Park

 

Nuclear power has been controversial for nearly half a century; the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have only furthered that controversy. While some countries have moved to phase out nuclear power as part of their energy production, South Korea continues to support their nuclear power program and in fact is moving to expand it.

Jae-hyuk (Nam-gil) is a technician at the Hanbyul nuclear plant near Busan. He is unenthusiastic about his employment there; his father and brother both died because of their work at the plant and he wonders if he is meant for the same fate. He lives with his mother Mrs. Seok (Yeong-ae), his sister-in-law Jung-hye (Junghi) and his nephew. He has a girlfriend, Yeon-ju (Joo-hyeon) who is pretty and encouraging but he finds it tough to get out of bed in the mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, the country’s young President Kang (Myung-min) reads a report from the Hanbyul chief engineer (Jin-young) detailing safety concerns and the company’s corner-cutting when it comes to maintenance. The idealistic President means to investigate but is thwarted by the Prime Minister (Kyeong-yeong) who is in the pocket of the corporation that runs Hanbyul.

Things are about to come to a head however; a 6.1 earthquake rocks the village and the gaskets on the coolant pipes spring some terrifying leaks. The maintenance deficiencies come to roost as the plant comes closer and closer to a major meltdown. With the cowardly management backed by the sniveling Prime Minister try to cover things up and refuse to allow the Chief Engineer to implement the measures he needs because they don’t want anyone to know what they’ve been up to. Finally, when all seems lost the technicians of Hanbyul will face an impossible choice.

Disaster films are all the rage these days in Korea and Jong-woo Park has a good one under his belt (Deranged) and this one did some major box office damage in December of last year. While most of the actors will be unfamiliar to Americans in general (unless they happen to be fans of Korean cinema) this is definitely an all-star line-up in Korea. Given the impeachment proceedings going on against the South Korean president and the extraordinary mishandling of the Sewon Ferry disaster by his government, it’s no wonder Koreans are flocking to these sorts of movies.

The movie is a mixture of disaster action and political/corporate intrigue and Park melds them seamlessly, with a slight edge going to the intrigue portions. Not that the action sequences are any slouch; some of the best effects houses in South Korea were utilized to make the nuclear plant set realistic (as no Korean power plants would allow filming in or near their facilities) and the damage is realistically done.

Also realistic is the reaction of the town populace which is mostly panic and chaos with a few notable exceptions. Nam-gil makes a decent hero and while his last scene is stretched out to near ludicrous length, his performance is nonetheless heartfelt. American audiences may have issues with the dialogue which is nearly all shouted as is traditional in Asian films. There is also an extraordinary amount of puking going on which I suppose you’d expect in a movie which depicts radiation poisoning to the levels you would imagine to be a given with a radiation leak of this magnitude.

The comic relief may be a bit too broad for American tastes and might feel inappropriate given the gravity of the subject. Still, I think American audiences who are willing to forgive that sort of thing will find this extremely entertaining and while the specific political references may go shooting over our heads, we can certainly relate to the collusion between politicians and corporate weasels to screw over the environment and the people living in it for the sake of profit. That sort of thing is sadly quite universal.

REASONS TO GO: The movie succeeds on a technical level. The general panic is accurately depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit over-wrought in places. The comic relief might be a bit too broad for American tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of disaster violence, some gruesome images, a bit of mild profanity, more puke than you can shake a stick at and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to be pre-sold to Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The China Syndrome
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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