Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

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Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

The November Man


One Bond reference too many.

One Bond reference too many.

(2014) Spy Action (Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Akie Kotabe, Will Patton, Patrick Kennedy, Dragan Marinkovic, Ben Willens, Milos Timotijevic, Dragan Dvojakovic, Tara Jervrosimovic, Nina Mrdja, Milutin Milosevic, Lena Milan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, in describing his character from the film A Walk Among the Tombstones, declared that people need a hero who is a bit of a loner; one who has one foot on the side for justice and one foot on the side that is lawless. Our heroes can’t be completely pure, otherwise we have trouble relating to them.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is an operative for the CIA, a veteran and crafty one at that. His partner and protégé is David Mason (Bracey), a brash and arrogant sort who doesn’t always listen to those with years of experience on him. When on a mission to protect an American ambassador targeted for assassination, Mason’s inability to follow orders ends up with an innocent child getting killed in the crossfire. Devereaux takes early retirement soon after that.

He is running a small bar and cafe in Lausanne, Switzerland when his old friend and handler for the CIA Ray Hanley (Smitrovich) turns up, telling him that a double agent buried deep in the employ of Arkady Federov (Ristovski), a war hero from the Chechnyan civil war and favored to become the next Russian president, has discovered something big and needs to be pulled out. However, Peter is the only agent she trusts to get her out of Russia.

So, reluctantly, Devereaux heads to Moscow to pull out the secretary Natalia Ulanova (Musliovic) and get the flash drive with her information on it. However, things go sideways quickly and Russian security is hot on their tails. A CIA higher-up, Perry Weinstein (Patton) gives the order to terminate the asset. The woman is then shot by a company sniper.

Furious, Devereaux gives chase to the assassins and takes out most of the team. When he discovers who the trigger man is, he is momentarily shocked and walks away. The man who killed the asset – David Mason.

Now, Devereaux and the CIA are in a race to find the one connection that can take down Federov – a girl named Mira Filipova (Mrdja). The girl however seems to have completely disappeared off the face of the Earth – the only link to her is Alice Fournier (Kurylenko), the director of a refugee agency. Luckily, Devereaux gets to her first. However, now the race becomes a game of cat and mouse between Devereaux and the CIA. Just who the cat is and who the mouse is in the equation is anyone’s guess.

Based on the seventh in a series of novels by Bill Granger written back in 1979 in this specific case, the movie combines the action of a Bond film, the realistic spycraft of Le Carre and even elements of the Bourne series. That kind of leaves one with a been there-done that feel pretty much throughout.

The saving grace is Brosnan who steps into the shoes of a superspy and finds them a comfortable fit. He is just as suave and sophistication as he was in his heyday as Bond nearly twenty years ago. He dominates the screen and adds a hint of sadness and weariness to the character that was absent from Bond. Brosnan has done some really good acting jobs in films like The Ghost Writer since hanging up his Walther PPK and there is a level of depth here that wasn’t really necessary in the Bond films but adds additional flavor to the role. It might be the best action hero performance of the year. Devereaux is also far more ruthless, willing to slice open the femoral artery on an innocent girl in order to get in the head of Mason.

The action itself is pretty old school with plenty of car chases and Devereaux being chased by dozens of lethal, highly trained agents but getting away with some ease. He has survived as long as he has by always being a step ahead of his quarry or his pursuers and that aspect of the character looms large throughout the film.

The movie seems anachronistic at times, with modern cutting-edge technology on the one hand, but cell phones with flip cases – which have been out of style for almost a decade now – are everywhere. I’m wondering if that is what is new and cutting edge in Belgrade, where this was mostly filmed. I think not however and no mention is ever made of the action taking place in 2005 or thereabouts which it sometimes seems to be.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you’d expect in an espionage thriller, a little too many for my taste. While I understand the need to keep your audience guessing and as off-balance as the filmmakers can make them, the movie seems overly complicated which it really doesn’t need to be. A story like this can be told without quite so many moving parts and still be quite effective.

As action and espionage thriller material goes, well, it’s what you’d expect to find in the dregs of summer. It’s not anything that is going to make you want to run right out to the theater, but it isn’t anything that will make you regret being there either. It is nice to see Brosnan in the type of role that is right in his wheelhouse and I can’t help hope that there are more roles like it in his future, although he is getting on a bit. Still, while the Devereaux series doesn’t seem to be likely to be continuing any further given the anemic box office for this film, the acclaim for Brosnan makes me think that there may be other producers perhaps ready to hand over to Brosnan the types of roles that Neeson has been getting for the past decade now.

REASONS TO GO: Brosnan is an old pro at these sorts of movies. Some fairly nifty old school action scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems oddly dated. Plot unnecessarily over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, some of it brutal, as well as a sexual assault. There’s a good deal of foul language, some sexuality, brief nudity and one scene in which drugs are used.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When we glimpse Devereaux’s file, the birthday given for Devereaux is the same as Brosnan’s actual birth date. Also, along with Brosnan, Kurylenko also has Bond experience in Quantum of Solace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Life After Beth

The Impossible (Lo imposible)


Mother and child reunion.

Mother and child reunion.

(2012) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Maura Etura, Geraldine Chaplin, Sonke Mohring, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Jan Roland Sundberg, Nicola Harrison . Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 was an event that captured the attention of the entire world. In little more than an instant the coastlines of Southeast Asia came flooding inland, taking with them debris and lives. More than 300,000 people lost their lives in one of the deadliest natural catastrophes of all time. Many of them were vacationers enjoying the sunshine for the holidays.

Henry (McGregor) and his wife Maria (Watts) – a doctor who has given up practicing medicine temporarily to raise her children – have checked into a beautiful Thai resort on the ocean. Their three children – the eldest, Lucas (Holland) who in the manner of kids approaching puberty basically doesn’t want anything to do with his family and tunes them out whenever possible with a pair of earbud headphones, the middle child Thomas (Joslin) who has a love for the heavens, and the youngest Simon (Pendergast) – are enjoying the sunshine of the pool and beach and the joy of Christmas presents.

Henry works in Japan and is concerned that someone has been hired to do his job, which may make him redundant. The family is considering moving home to England but that is a discussion for another day. The day after Christmas while the family is poolside, a gigantic wall of water taller than the roof of their resort rushes at them without warning. Henry is with his two youngest sons in the pool; Lucas is on the deck. Maria is by the glass wall of the pool deck. All are swept away in the frothing brown deluge.

Maria is bounced about in the raging tide like a rag doll. Tree branches and shards of glass slice into her and add a red hue to the brown waters. She manages to resurface and as the tide sweeps her away she sees Lucas and manages, after a good deal of trouble, to reunite with her son. The two huddle together as they wait miserably for the floodwaters to subside.

In the aftermath, all is silent. The two make for a tall tree they see towering over the landscape which has been flattened, like a petulant child had brushed everything off of a table with a careless sweep of his arm. Lucas sees a flap of skin hanging off his mother’s leg; she is grievously injured. They hear a child crying and Lucas is not inclined to rescue anybody, wanting to get his mother whose strength is rapidly fading, to a place as safe as possible should another wave hit the shore. After some gentle persuasion from his mom, they rescue a little Swedish toddler named Daniel (Johan Sundberg) and the three sit in a tree, awaiting rescue.

It eventually comes but there are no cars or transport in the area so Maria is dragged across the mud flats with Lucas clearing out debris ahead of the rescuers. The two are eventually taken from the small village they are brought to initially to a completely overwhelmed hospital in Phuket where it soon becomes apparent that Maria’s injuries are much more severe than it first appeared. Lucas becomes her guardian angel, but after Maria sends him off to help reunite people who had lost each other in the chaos, he returns to find her gone and a new person in her bed. It appears he is alone in the world.

But he’s not. Henry survived the disaster as well, and also found Thomas and Simon and is camping with them in the ruins of their resort. However, it is clear that the resort is uninhabitable plus the thread of further tsunamis caused by aftershocks make it imperative that the survivors be evacuated to higher ground. Henry reluctantly agrees to send his boys into the mountains but he cannot bring himself to leave until he has some idea of the fates of his wife and eldest son. He is assisted by the sympathetic  Karl (Mohring) whose family was on the beach that day and whose survival is unlikely at best.

Scattered around Thailand, not knowing what has become of one another, this family must somehow find a way to get through the chaos and find each other, but will all of them survive? And how will they have changed if they do reunite?

The movie is based on the real experiences of a Spanish family which has  been incomprehensibly switched to an English one; I supposed the producers thought that the movie would play better in English-speaking territories if the nationality was changed. I guess we all do what we have to do.

Fortunately this led to some superb casting. Watts in particular stands out here (and she has the Oscar and Golden Globe nominations to prove it). She spends much of the movie flat on her back in a hospital bed and undergoes privations that a lot of other actresses might handle with less forthrightness. There was a scene early on when she and Holland are trudging towards that tree when he points out to her that her tank top strap is ripped; her breast is hanging out and it is in none too good shape. She ties up her top and without much fanfare continues; the way Watts handles it is without self-consciousness. She has other things more important than modesty on her mind. Maria’s character is in full-on maternal mode and Watts captures it perfectly.

Holland has to shoulder much of the acting load; as his mother’s injuries grow in gravity, Lucas must grow up quickly and become her protector and advocate, all the while grieving for his dad and brothers with whom he had a fractious relationship at best. We watch a child grow into a man before our very eyes and it is quite moving.

McGregor gives a solid performance but is given not nearly as much to work with as Watts. Most of the time he’s showing despair and searching for his family while yelling their names in stubborn desperation. He does have one scene where he’s calling home to let them know he and the two youngest are okay and he’s searching for Maria and Lucas…he’s using a borrowed phone and he completely breaks down, all the stress and fear and pain overwhelming him. He finally hangs up, not willing to waste what little battery life is left on the phone – and the phone’s owner extends the phone to him gently, telling him he can’t leave off that call like that. It’s a powerful scene and if only McGregor were given more like it he’d probably have an Oscar nomination as well. But basically from that point, Da Queen was misty-eyed for the rest of the movie.

A word about the tsunami sequence itself; it’s impressive. Done with a combination of practical and computer generated effects, it is as harrowing a scene as you’re likely to see. It is one thing to watch home video of the tsunami hitting a resort made by a cell phone; it is quite another to see it like this where you get not only a sense of the size of the wave but of its power.

Some critics have complained that all the victims in the film seem to be white which isn’t true; if you watch carefully in the hospital and refugee sequences you’ll see plenty of Thai faces – the film is focusing on a single family which does happen to be European but then again the filmmakers are also European. I think most thinking filmgoers realize that there were more Asian victims in the tsunami than European ones.

This is a very emotional movie that is going to make every mom who sees it a wreck and a whole lot of dads as well. The experience is an incredible one and all the more so because it is real. I do hope that when the DVD is released we’ll get to hear from the actual family (a photo of them is shown during the end credits) because quite frankly I’m interested to hear how realistically the film depicted what happened to them. Nonetheless this is a movie worth looking for; it’s not on a lot of theater screens sadly, although Watts’ nomination for Best Actress might generate a little more interest. It deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Powerfully emotional and brutal in places. Great performances from Watts, McGregor and Holland. Tsunami scenes are amazing.

REASONS TO STAY: Harrowing in places. Unnecessarily Anglicized.

FAMILY VALUES:  The scene of the tsunami hitting the resort is extremely intense; there are also some graphic depictions of injuries incurred in the disaster. There are also several shots in which there is some nudity as people’s clothes were knocked literally off of their bodies in the deluge.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the extras were survivors of the actual tsunami.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews are strongly favorable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Krakatoa, East of Java

ASTRONOMY LOVERS: Young Thomas has an interest in the stars and there is an interlude where he and the Old Woman (Chaplin) discuss the death of stars while watching the night sky.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Woman