Arctic


The deadly desolation of the Arctic circle beckons a plane crash survivor.

(2018) Adventure (Bleecker Street) Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir. Directed by Joe Penna

 

There is something magnificent and terrifying about the polar wastes. It is awesome in its desolation and yet beautiful, the endless vista of snow, ice and rock outcrops. Little survives here but polar bears and fish.

Also, the occasional plane crash survivor. Overgård is the sole survivor of a light plane crash above the Arctic Circle. His plane is done for; one wing twisted and the nose blackened after an engine fire. He goes about the business of survival methodically, tending to the grave of the co-pilot who didn’t make it, scraping snow down to the base rock to spell out “SOS” and fishing through ice holes. From time to time he comes across polar bear tracks which cause him to scan the horizon nervously. He also tries to get his radio to work without any success so he essentially waits for someone to come and rescue him.

Eventually someone does but that ends up in catastrophe, the helicopter losing power and buffeted by polar winds and crashing to the snow. As in his situation, one of the pilots doesn’t make it. The other (Smáradóttir) is seriously injured, falling in and out of consciousness. Overgård tends to his new charge, trying to get her to eat the raw fish he is able to catch. He scavenges what supplies he can from the downed helicopter and comes to a decision; the girl won’t survive if he can’t get her to safety. He decides that he will leave the shelter of the plane where he might have been able to hold out for weeks and constructing a makeshift sled, determines to transfer her to a seasonal camp on the detailed map that he found in the copter.

That’s a far more dangerous thing to do than it sounds; the way is through a mountain range where the weather is even worse than on the plain. The footing can be treacherous and there are crevasses hidden from view that he can fall into. He is more exposed to the weather as well as to roving polar bears who are as likely to make a meal of him and his defenseless charge. Can he get her to safety or will they be just two more frozen bodies awaiting discovery in the Arctic?

First time feature director and YouTube veteran Penna crafts a pretty strong debut. The movie was filmed in Iceland and the natural surroundings are put to good use. While the desolation is well-represented, the peril of the Arctic really doesn’t come to the fore until the second half of the movie while Overgård is on the move. There are long stretches of time in between where there is little in the way of action but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t carry its own fascination.

What this movie really has going for it is Mikkelsen. He has long been an actor who has always garnered my attention and he rarely delivers anything less than a solid performance. He does much better than that here, showing alternately quiet resolve and overwhelming despair. His character’s name is a bit of a giveaway; Overgård guards over his patient. There are also other unexpected Easter eggs in the film; I’ll leave it to you to find them.

This is not as compelling a film as it might have been. While I think it is a good idea that Penna doesn’t reveal too much about the characters or the circumstances focusing entirely on the survival aspect, there are times it feels like we’re watching parts of movies we’ve already seen. Some of the mechanics of survival become a little bit overdone; while I understand that the fishing lines are necessary, we don’t need to see him checking them as much as we do. A little cinematic shorthand might have been nice.

In some ways it might have been better had this movie come out later in the year. Mikkelsen’s performance might have had an outside shot at Oscar consideration then; in February he has virtually no chance barring an aggressive marketing campaign by Bleecker Street. However, seeing as many of us are in Oscar mode with the ceremony coming up the weekend this is being released in Orlando, it might get some folks who love great performances to check this out. However, some readers in Northern climes may not be too eager to see a movie given the recent Polar Vortex that reminds them of the weather outside their door.

REASONS TO SEE: Mikkelsen doesn’t need dialogue to deliver a scintillating performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where the film feels like it’s caught up in itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The picture on Overgård’s ID badge is the same one that was used for Mikkelsen to show a younger Hannibal Lecter in the TV show Hannibal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
We Are the Heat

Rampage


George of the Urban Jungle and the Rock try to out-scary face one another.

(2018) Adventure (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, Matt Gerald, Will Yun Lee, Urijah Faber, Bruce Blackshear, Jason Liles, Mat Wells, Stephen Dunleavy, Danny Le Boyer, Alan Boell, Alyssa Brooke. Directed by Brad Peyton

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies, it’s that when you mess with mother nature it tends to come back and bite you in the ass eventually. That’s a lesson that seems lost on modern corporate America (and the regulatory agencies that are supposed to reign them in but that’s a different story).

When a space station explodes after a lab rat gets loose and tears the crew apart, the pathogen that caused the rat to mutate falls back to Earth, affecting a gator in the Everglades, a wolf in the Minnesota woods – and a gentle albino ape who dwells in the San Diego zoo. The primatologist who is studying George, Davis Okoye (Johnson) is understandably peeved but when government sorts led by the cheerful and shamefully Texan Harvey Russell (Morgan), the Rock’s biceps begin to twitch. When George, like the wolf and the alligator, begins to grow in size to something approaching a Japanese monster movie, behave aggressively and even savagely (they’re animals; who knew?) and for a fairly ludicrous plot reason decide to converge on Chicago and tear the city limb from limb, well the eyebrows arch and the people’s elbow start itching for a fight.

Based on an Atari-era videogame (the console box for which can be seen in the background of the office of the sibling corporate types (Akerman and Lacy) who are behind the pathogen, the movie seemed to have all the elements of a summer blockbuster, particularly Johnson whose easygoing charm and likability have propelled him onto the Hollywood A-list. However, Johnson is essentially on autopilot here. This is far from his finest hour and although he’s not the reason this movie fails to succeed (a painfully cliché script is largely to glame), he certainly doesn’t elevate it either.

Morgan as the federal agent who really wants to be a Texas Ranger and Akerman as a heartless corporate bitch are actually the actors who are the most watchable here. The CGI creations are also pretty nifty. However the mayhem – like many Transformers movies – is so overwhelming it becomes almost too much to take in; the mind becomes numbed to the carnage as buildings fall, helicopters are swatted from the sky and people are eaten like…well, energy pills in a videogame which in the original game, people were.

I’m not against mindless fun but the filmmakers ask us to take an awful lot on faith and after awhile the plot holes become too enormous to overcome. The human characters tend to be more like cartoons than the CGI which I find ironic in an amusing kind of way but I didn’t at the time I was watching this. There were a lot of things that could have been done with this premise to make this film better than it turned out to be but Peyton and perhaps the studio suits went the tried and true safe route and ended up making a cookie cutter movie that is neither satisfying or even more than barely recommendable.

REASONS TO GO: Morgan and Akerman acquit themselves well. The CGI is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie is dumb as a rock. Most of the characters are straight out of cartoons.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of video game-like violence, destruction and general mayhem. There’s also some brief mild profanity  and some crude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the tepid aggregate score, Rampage is currently the highest-scoring video game adaptation in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kong: Skull Island
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Mercury 13

The Mummy (2017)


Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis are up in the air waiting on the future of the Dark Universe.

(2017) Horror (Universal) Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Mitchell, Rez Kempton, Erol Ismail, Selva Rasalingam, Shanina Shaik, Javier Botet, Hadrian Howard, Dylan Smith, Parker Sawyers, Bella Georgiou. Directed by Alex Kurtzman

 

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a license to print money for Disney, it’s no wonder that shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood. A shared universe differs from a franchise in that whereas franchise films feature the same characters appearing in different films that are literal sequels, a shared universe has different characters appearing in different films that share a common background and often different characters appear in the films of other characters.

Universal has decided to throw their hat into the ring with the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe featuring their classic monsters which if you ask me is a tip-top idea; back in the heyday of Universal monster movies, the studio made big bucks when they would have films with three or four of their monsters sharing screen time in the same movie so in a way they have already done the shared universe thing. Can they it work in the 21st century?

Nick Morton (Cruise) is a U.S. Army officer who moonlights as a soldier of fortune “liberating” ancient artifacts from the various countries he serves in and selling them on the black market. Nick is not so much amoral as he is self-serving and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) knows it. When they are ambushed by insurgents during a long reconnaissance in Iraq, Nick calls in an airstrike which in turn reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Nick’s superior Colonel Greenway (Vance) enlists archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis) to examine the tomb which she reports is more like a prison. Nick discovers a sarcophagus inside a pool of mercury and raises it. With the insurgents returning, Greenway orders the sarcophagus put on an army transport plane and sent to England for further study.

What Nick doesn’t know is that the tomb is that of Ahmanet (Boutella), an ambitious Egyptian princess in line for the throne until one of Pharaoh’s concubines gives birth to a son. Knowing this will relegate her to the sidelines, she slaughters her entire family and prepares her lover to be sacrificed so that the spirit of the evil god Set can take over his body but the pharaoh’s guards discover what she is up to and for her awful crimes she is sentenced to be mummified alive.

What Nick also doesn’t know is that his pal Vail has been bitten by a camel spider which was controlled by the evil princess and is now controlled by Ahmanet. On board the transport he goes on a rampage in an effort to free the mummy but is killed; Ahmanet instead sends a massive flock of crows to bring the plane down. Nick at the last moment puts a parachute on Jennifer and sends her out the door. He is apparently killed in the plane crash.

The thing is, he’s not quite dead yet. He wakes up and nobody is more mystified than he as to why he’s still alive. However, Vail’s ghost informs him (in a conceit right out of American Werewolf in London) that Nick has been marked by Ahmanet to be the new vessel for Set, completing her bargain with the god and giving her unlimited power on Earth. However, in order to do that she’s is going to have to find two relics – a ruby and a dagger – that are hidden in England.

Nick finds out that Jennifer is an employee of a company called Prodigium which was created to fight supernatural enemies on Earth by a man named Henry Jekyll (Crowe), a brilliant scientist who harbors a secret that pretty much everybody knows he won’t be able to Hyde. Stopping Ahmanet is job one at the moment. However, Ahmanet has been busy. She’s been regenerating by feeding on the living and her powers to control the dead are growing. Nick knows he can run but he can’t hide – he and Ahmanet have a psychic connection now. How do you fight against a monster that has virtually unlimited power?

Most people are going to compare this to the 1999 version of The Mummy. Do yourself a favor and don’t, as hard as it is not to have that film in your head when watching this one. The Brendan Fraser version is a rollicking roller coaster ride that is sheer entertainment from beginning to end. This one is far more ponderous. Kurtzman, a veteran writer, has penned some big movies for some big franchises and who has been placed in creative control of the Dark Universe. He’s indulging in some world building here and that might be understandable but the problem is that he’s really cramming way too much into a single movie. Things get convoluted and while the Prodigium stuff is fascinating, the ancient Egyptian backstory is not. This feels less fun and more of a chore to get through so that the other movies can come along and fit in to the sandbox Kurtzman and his fellow writers are constructing. That’s not how you want to feel coming out of a big summer tentpole movie, particularly one in which you want to establish a billion dollar franchise. This has the feel of a movie-by-committee.

Cruise is beginning to show some signs of middle age but he still has the smile wattage and the screen presence to pull this off. Crowe makes Jekyll an enigma who you want to learn more about; both of these performances bode well for future ventures. Boutella also makes a pretty decent movie monster. She’s sexy AND scary, a nice combination. Wallis is less memorable although I think that’s more a function of the writing and less of her performance.

The CGI is less than sparkling; it’s not that it is out and out bad, it’s just not exciting. These days the CGI has to dazzle to a certain degree and here it merely fills in the gaps. I will say that the plane crash sequence here is flat-out amazing; it’s truly the highlight of the film and is a scene I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not enough to want to buy the movie though.

Kurtzman is packing too many elements in here. We see bits of Indiana Jones, of the aforementioned American Werewolf and even Aliens. The whole movie feels ponderous and derivative where it should be fun and exciting, or at least scary as hell. The movie ends up being not so much boring as unimaginative and lacking in any reason to want to see the scheduled follow-up Bride of Frankenstein (which has since been yanked from the Universal release schedule – something tells me some major re-tooling is underway). When you’re trying to establish a new cinematic universe, that’s the opposite of the effect you want your movie to have on your audience.

REASONS TO GO: The character of Henry Jekyll and the Prodigium backstory have potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many elements borrowed liberally from much better films make this less of a thrill ride than the 1999 version.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, action and scary images; there’s also a smattering of sexually suggestive material including some brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With this film and his starring role in American Made, this is the first time since 2012 that Cruise has starred in more than one film in the same calendar year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Loving Vincent

The Little Prince (2015)


On top of the world.

On top of the world.

(2016) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Mackenzie Foy, Jacquie Barnbrook, Jeffy Branion, Marcel Bridges. Directed by Mark Osborne

 

In 1943, French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the novella The Little Prince which while ostensibly a children’s book has become one of the most beloved books of all time. Poetic, bittersweet in places, joyful in others, it examines the difficulties of growing up, the importance of love and the journey of life. It not only appeals to the young and the young at heart, but also reams of material have been written on the underlying themes. A 1974 live action film was until now the best-known adaptation of the book.

This, the first animated version of the film, pads out the original story with a framing story. A stressed out Little Girl (Foy) is pushed by her overbearing mother (McAdams) to ace an interview into the prestigious Werth Academy, which would guarantee her a productive future. Her mother, who wears business suits with ties in the style of men, is gravely disappointed when the Little Girl blows her interview when a question she didn’t study for is asked.

Discouraged but not defeated, her mother moves the Little Girl to an area where she has a repeat chance of getting into Werth. There her mother outlines a Life Plan for her daughter that she expects the young girl to stick to, but fate has other plans. It turns out they’ve moved next door to an Aviator (Bridges) whose attempts to start his airplane ends up in disaster. In a neighborhood of block house conformists, he is the odd man out. Naturally he and the Little Girl bond and he tells her the tale of a strange thing that happened to him when he crashed in the Sahara desert years earlier.

There he’d met a Little Prince (R. Osborne) who had was visiting our planet from Asteroid B612, a tiny place which was always threatened to be overrun by insidious baobab trees. One day, he discovered a beautiful rose was growing on his tiny world. The Rose (Cotillard) implored him to protect her with a glass cover, which the adoring Prince did. He and the Rose were deeply in love, but he was disturbed by her vanity. At last, feeling abused by the Rose, he decides to leave his asteroid and see what else was out there. He discovered several other asteroids, each inhabited by an adult with a failing; such as the Conceited Man (Gervais) who took bows whenever he felt the need, or the Businessman (Brooks) who endlessly counted the stars so that he could own them all. Finally he had come back to Earth only to discover thousands of Roses and realized that his own Rose was nothing special.

=However, a Fox (Franco) that he’d tamed informed him that his Rose was special because he loved her and urged him to see things with his heart, which would allow him to see much more clearly. Desperately lonely and wanting to see his Rose again, he travels home to the stars the only way he knows how – to allow the Snake (Del Toro) to bite him and allow him to leave his cumbersome body behind. The Aviator grieves for the loss of his friend but is mystified when his body disappears.

The Aviator, now an old man, succumbs to illness and has to be hospitalized. Disillusioned and wanting to escape her life, the Little Girl goes in search of the Little Prince along with a fox stuffed toy which has magically come to life. Using the Aviator’s plane, she flies to the asteroids and eventually finds the Prince (Rudd) who is no longer little and has forgotten everything. Can she help him remember?

Mark Osborne is best known for directing Kung Fu Panda which had to its advantage some cultural exploration. This is a much tougher sell; for one thing, while kids today are fairly familiar with The Little Prince it doesn’t really translate well to the screen. It is also a short book; the 1974 live action version padded itself out with musical numbers and dancing. In some ways this is way more ambitious; not only does it add to the story with the Little Girl and the old man Aviator but it mixes techniques; the Little Girl’s story is told in CGI, the Little Prince with stop-motion animation. The Little Prince section also takes as its inspiration the original illustrations Saint-Exupéry hand-drew for the book. It’s not quite uncanny, but the stop-motion is enough like those original drawings to make one feel quite at home, especially if you grew up with them.

One of the chief complaints I have with the movie is one I have with the book; with the exception of the Aviator, all the adults in the book are pretty much jerks. They are way self-involved, uncaring of the needs of a child to be a child, they put far too much emphasis on achievement and material things and worst of all, they are soulless. The Little Girl’s mom is completely unsympathetic and the Aviator is at best eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic. Even the grown-up Little Prince is frightened and spineless. Granted, some adults are some of these things but what the movie is in essence telling children is not to trust adults AT ALL. Not even their parents.

The animation is quite stylized and while the CGI looks pretty standard (even sub-standard in places), the stop motion is beautiful and wondrous, capturing the wide-eyed amazement of childhood. While some of the details of the original story are changed and some characters eliminated (for example, the drunkard is cut out of the movie), the essence of the story and more importantly the spirit of the story are both intact.
The movie enjoyed a successful theatrical run globally and Netflix gave it a fairly limited theatrical release and I have to say it’s a bit of a shame. I’d love to have seen this on the big screen. Perhaps an enterprising art house near you will book it even if it is on Netflix. I suspect seeing this in a theater will make this an even more riveting experience for young and old alike.

REASONS TO GO: Much of the spirit of the beloved book is captured here. The mix of stop-motion animation and CGI is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: The animation can be a bit primitive looking at times. Few of the adults in the film have any value to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril and violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the highest-grossing animated film to be made in France to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lights Out

Finders Keepers (2015)


An unusual confrontation.

An unusual confrontation.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) John Wood, Shannon Whisnant, Peg Wood, Lisa Whisnant. Directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. In this case, they’d be absolutely right. I can’t imagine anyone no matter how imaginative they are could make this story up.

Shannon Whisnant, a North Carolina junk dealer, had just purchased the contents of an auctioned storage unit. In that storage unit was a barbecue smoker, which was the prize item he had seen in the unit when he bought it. He put all his new items into his truck and drove it home, wheeled the smoker into his front yard and opened it – and just about had a heart attack.

In the smoker was the mummified remains of a human leg. Whisnant of course did the right thing – he notified the police who confiscated the leg as evidence and having nowhere to store it, left it with the local funeral home. Eventually they tracked down the owner of the storage unit who had defaulted on his monthly rental fee; John Wood.

Once the scion of a well-to-do family in Maiden, North Carolina, he’d fallen on hard times. But not hard enough to make him a killer – no, the leg was his. He’d lost it in a plane crash in which his father had lost his life. He’d asked for the leg back from the hospital once it had been amputated, intending to create a memorial to his father using the skeletal remains of his own leg but couldn’t find anyone to remove the flesh from the limb. He’d thrown it in the smoker and forgotten about it.

He wanted the leg back, however, still intending to eventually create that monument. However, Shannon wasn’t willing to give it back. After all, he’d bought and paid for the contents of the storage unit, including the smoker – and including the leg that was in the smoker. You wouldn’t ask for the grill back from the smoker after all; he’d paid for it fair and square.

So why would Whisnant want a human leg? Fame, pure and simple. He saw it as an opportunity to put his name on the map. At first he saw it as kind of a tourist attraction and being a fair man, he discussed going in with Wood on the deal Wood balked and the two geared up for a fight in the courtroom.

Some of you may remember the story when it hit all the tabloids a few years ago, but maybe you didn’t hear the whole story; how Wood had become addicted to painkillers while recuperating from his amputation, how he graduated to harder drugs, how he had been thrown out by his mother Peg recognizing that she was enabling his decline towards an overdose; how he had become homeless and alone.

Nor may you have heard how Whisnant had grown up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, how he had tried to gain his dad’s approval and never gotten it. How he was always a decent sort whose only aim was to make people happy around him.

This peculiar “only in the South” might induce giggles from some. They may look at these two men as ignorant hillbilly sorts that confirm the stereotype of Southern rednecks. And yeah, there are a few things here that head down that trail a bit, but as the movie unspools, you begin to see beyond the ridiculous and into the human story that is at the heart of the matter.

Both Wood and Whisnant are wounded human beings, and maybe they’re not likely to be employed by NASA anytime soon, but they are no less worthy of respect and empathy. These are both men who have gone through hard times; Wood, who was in attendance at the opening night screening at the Enzian, described Whisnant as “the yin to my yang.” They aren’t friends, not by any stretch of the imagination; Whisnant, who always saw Wood as uppity, described him as being “born with a silver crack pipe in his mouth.” They are inevitably linked by Wood’s leg and likely always will be. Maybe there is some comfort to be had in that.

One thing that is admirable is that as the movie goes on, we see Wood’s recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. An appearance on the Judge Mathis show (which resulted in Wood keeping the leg but having to pay Whisnant $5,000 for it) led to Wood receiving treatment at one of the nation’s premiere rehab centers. Since them, Wood has been sober and drug-free for nearly eight years and has also since gotten married. As important, Wood has gained wisdom; he has reconciled with his family and is slowly working to building back their trust after years of breaking their hearts. He recognizes that it is a slow and ongoing process but worth his effort. He understands what is important now and has put much of the sickness that led to his drug addiction behind him.

That’s a big deal; not all of us have the will to make that kind of turn-around and you have to respect the story of someone who has. Still, you will probably giggle fairly regularly, as Wood jokes about his leg, or Whisnant consistently mistakes “perspire” for “transpire.” But this is, as Peg Wood puts it in the movie, a funny story with its roots in tragedy. Fortunately, it’s a tragedy that looks like it will have a happy ending.

REASONS TO GO: Takes an unexpected turn. Oddball enough to keep your interest.
REASONS TO STAY: The pictures of the leg may be too stomach-turning for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some gruesome images, drug references and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whisnant once appeared on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your local cable/satellite provider), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Final Member
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

We Are Marshall


They are Marshall.

They are Marshall.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Warner Brothers) Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Katie Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Tommy Cresswell, Christian Kanupke, Nina Jones, Kevin Atkins, Mark Patton, Robert Patrick, Katie Kneeland Directed by McG

The American Experience 2015

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane carrying the football team of Marshall University, the Thundering Herd, back to Huntington WV where the University is following a loss to the East Carolina Pirates clipped some trees on the approach to the runway and crashed into a gully a mile from landing safely. Every one of the 75 souls on that plane died in the horrific, fiery crash.

It remains the worst loss of life regarding an American sports team in history but it was more than that. Along with almost the entire Marshall football team, the plane carried the athletic director for the university, four trainers, all but one of the coaches, a state legislator, a city councilman, four physicians and 25 boosters. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash and 18 were orphaned.

The effect on the community was devastating. Huntington was then (and is now) a small college town; much of the town’s life revolves around the university and their football team, though it had been mediocre in recent years, still was a source of pride to the town. With the town paralyzed by grief, Marshall’s acting president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) was ready to discontinue the football program. However, Nate Ruffin (Mackie), a wide receiver who hadn’t gone on the trip to East Carolina due to an injury, convinced Dedmon (with the help of the student body) to keep the team.

The surviving coach, Red Dawson (Fox) was offered the head coach position but was too grief-stricken to accept. After a long, fruitless search, Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) from tiny Wooster College, was given the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. Essentially, they’d be starting a team from scratch, utilizing athletes from other sports at the University and former members of the Junior Varsity. Dedmon, at Lengyel’s urging, petitioned the NCAA to allow freshmen to be eligible to play on the Varsity. At the time, Freshmen were forbidden to play for the Varsity, the line of thought being that they didn’t have the maturity to handle the pressures of big time college athletics and that a year adjusting to college life would be more beneficial; the NCAA has since changed their rules on that matter.

Still, it would be an uphill battle and everyone knew that the team would be just awful that year. Would a team woefully unqualified truly be able to honor the memory of those who had died, or would they tarnish it? Is just stepping on the field enough?

While We Are Marshall disappointed at the box office when it was released, it has since become something of an icon of the true sports drama genre. Certainly the story is compelling enough; watching an entire town and university grieve for an unimaginable tragedy is almost mind-boggling. Even now, almost a decade after the movie came out, I still mist up just thinking about it.

For the most part, McG handles the tragedy with sensitivity. For one thing, he doesn’t show the actual crash, just the aftermath. He doesn’t beat the audience over the head with grief, although certainly the grieving process is a part of the film’s story. Less is more in this case.

McConaughey at the time this was made was best known for romantic comedies in which he usually found an excuse to take his shirt off. In many ways, this was the movie that led us to reconsider our opinion about the actor and reveal that there was more to him than a laid-back romantic lead. The guy can act, as was revealed more recently with an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination.

There are some other performances here that are worth knowing. McShane plays a University trustee in favor of discontinuing football; his son – the starting quarterback – had died in the crash and in many ways his grief had overwhelmed him. Fox is outstanding as Dawson, a man with survivor’s guilt who slowly comes on board with the idea of resuming his life. Mackie’s Ruffin provides leadership for the team and University. Strathairn gives Dedmon gravitas and the reliable character actor is at the top of his game here.

One of the few things I can fault the film for is its dialogue. It doesn’t sound like human beings talking; it’s mostly a series of inspirational quotes. I would have preferred fewer platitudes and more realistic conversation. While it might have looked good in the script, it creates a gulf between audience and character that is unnecessary; we really want to relate to them and it’s harder to when they sound like Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s final speech.

That said this is one of the most moving sports films ever made, right up there with Hoosiers and The Miracle. Some might find it to be manipulative – the subplot involving Katie Mara’s waitress character (she was the fiance of Ian McShane’s son) certainly is – but overall I thought the movie comes by its emotional impact honestly. It can take more courage to get up in the morning and move on with your life than it does to step onto a battlefield, and in the face of overwhelming grief, the courage and heart of an entire town and University is to be admired.

WHY RENT THIS: McConaughey breaks out as a dramatic actor. Deeply moving and effective subject matter. Handled with reverence and respect.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subplots are occasionally manipulative and the characters tend to speak in platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: The material can be very emotional and those who are sensitive about such things should probably steer clear. There’s also some mildly harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While much of the movie was filmed in Huntington, the stadium that the Thundering Herd played in back in 1971 – Fairfield Stadium – had been demolished in 2004. The filmmakers used Herndon Stadium in Atlanta for Marshall’s home games in the movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray both include an ad for West Virginia tourism, a featurette on legendary college coaches and what techniques they used to motivate their students and a brief look at Marshall University today.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.6M on a $65M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Unbroken


I've got some good news and some bad news...

I’ve got some good news and some bad news…

(2014) True Life Drama (Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Louis McIntosh, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, John D’Leo, Alex Russell, Jordan Patrick Smith, Spencer Lofranco, Stephen J. Douglas, Morgan Griffin. Directed by Angelina Jolie

Live doesn’t treat us all the same way. Some people it throws greater challenges to than others. While we often think of the things life hurls at ourselves personally as things that are enormous obstacles at least to us, there are people who, when we see what life has thrown at them we can all agree they had a really rough time of it.

Louis Zamperini (O’Connell) was a bombardier in the Pacific theater during World War II. Before that, he had been something of a hooligan as a child (Valleroy), picked on for his Italian heritage but convinced by his brother Pete (D’Leo) to try out for the track team. Louis is a strong runner and eventually makes the U.S. Olympic team and has the highest finish of any American in the 5,000 meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He’s expected to medal in 1940, but by then the world was otherwise occupied.

While out on a search and rescue mission, the plane he’s on basically falls apart, three of the four engines fail and the pilot is forced to ditch the plane into the Pacific. Three crewmen survive the crash – Pete (Gleeson), Mac (Wittrock) and Louis. The men are adrift for 47 days and are eventually picked up. Unfortunately, they are picked up by the Japanese navy.

Taken as prisoners of war, the men are separated and Louis is sent to a camp where the vicious Corporal Watanabe (Ishihari) is in charge. A petulant man used to wealth and privilege, he is seething that he couldn’t get an officer’s position and is instead relegated to duty he considers beneath him. He takes it out on Louis, an Olympic athlete who is already far more successful in his life than Watanabe, whom the prisoners have nicknamed the Bird, has been. Louis is often singled out for savage beatings and cruel punishments. What he endures is far more than most of us would be physically able to and survive, but Louis isn’t like most of us.

Jolie had been taken by the bestselling book based on Louis’ experiences and had been amazed to find out that Zamperini’s home was in sight of her own Southern California abode. The two became friends and Jolie was determined to make this movie about his life. Unfortunately, the real Zamperini passed away in 2014 well before the film was released, although he did live long enough to see a rough cut of the film in the hospital shortly before he passed away.

Jolie has a good eye as a director and her first film in that capacity, In the Land of Milk and Honey was an encouraging debut. There were some decisions here that she made that I don’t think worked in the film. For example, the first sequence in the movie is Louis and his crew on a bombing run. The scene highlights Jolie’s strengths as a director, keeping the camera inside the plane for the most part, giving us an idea of what it’s like to be in a tin tube being shot at while trying to complete a precision bombing run. The scene is very compelling and tense and yet Jolie chooses that moment to break away and do a flashback of Louis’ boyhood shenanigans. That’s all well and good but what she wound up doing was undercutting the audience’s connection to the scene. She would have been better served in this case to tell the story in a more linear fashion and skip the flashbacks but in her defense, flashbacks have become a much more common element in films over the past few years. Some films shouldn’t have them.

O’Connell has to carry the film and he does a credible job. He shows a great deal of potential (and has already gotten a couple of high-profile roles in upcoming movies largely due to his performance here) and while he didn’t knock it out of the park completely, he did get a solid base hit and I don’t doubt there are some good things to come from this young English actor.

The mostly-male supporting cast has some good young talent, including Gleeson, Wittrock and Garrett Hedlund as a sympathetic American officer in the P.O.W. camp. A lot of focus will be on Ishihara as Watanabe; the baby-faced young actor brings out the monster in Watanabe, giving him three dimensions when the tendency would be to make him less human. Making him more human really makes him more of a monster, in my opinion.

This has to be one of the bigger disappointments of 2014. I was really looking forward to this film and thought it might well be an Oscar contender, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of people hated on this movie which was why we got to this movie so late in the season, but it was a lot better than I’d heard it was, but still not as good as I’d hoped it would be. Zamperini was an extraordinary man and definitely deserved to have his story told. I just wish that the movie based on his life could have been a bit better.

REASONS TO GO: O’Connell does a fine job. Zamperini was an amazing gentleman deserving of a cinematic biography.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks aren’t as organic as they should have been. Too many platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence including scenes of intense brutality in the POW camp along with some brief rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ishihari is actually the Japanese pop star Miyavi but his iMDB credits list him under his given name. He actually had a very difficult time with some of the cruelties he had to perform and actually vomited on-set during one scene. The real Watanabe was unrepentant about his actions in a 1998 interview on the occasion of the Olympic torch run depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Railway Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Blackthorn