The 15:17 to Paris


Anthony Sadler muses aboard the 15:17 to Paris.

(2018) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, P.J. Byrne, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Robert Praigo, Tony Hale, Lillian Solange, Ray Corasani, Irene White, Mark Moogalian, Steve Coulter, Seth Meriwether, Heidi Sulzman. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

True heroism is a pretty rare thing. You never know where it might occur; in a school, or a nightclub – or on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

But on a hot August day in 2015, the latter is precisely where it occurred. When a terrorist pulled out an automatic rifle and threatened to massacre the travelers aboard the high-speed rail. Director Clint Eastwood, one of the best in Hollywood history, is tackling the events of that day and the three Americans who were involved – boyhood friends from Sacramento, two of whom were in the military. You would think that this would be in Eastwood’s wheelhouse but strangely this is one of his most disappointing movies in decades.

There are a lot of reasons that this movie doesn’t work as well as it might but the biggest is the script of Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by the three Americans involved. She chooses an odd narrative structure, starting with the beginning of the attack on the train but then going into a series of flashbacks into their boyhood and development into the young men they would become. It makes a bit of a mess of the story and there is a lot of necessary business – too much time sightseeing – that slows down a film that at just over 90 minutes should be zipping by.

Another part of the problem is Eastwood’s decision to cast the heroes as themselves. These young men have a lot of skills but acting is not among them. I’m not blaming them – you get the distinct feeling that these men are experiencing far more nerves in front of the camera than they did facing an armed terrorist – but I don’t think they should have been put into the position that they were. The child actors who play them as youths may be even worse.

The actual terrorist attack is done extremely well and is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there and by the time you do you may have been checking your watch. Now, there are some conservatives who will think that I don’t like the movie because the heroes are Christians who are into guns and the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I appreciate that they are a different brand of hero than we normally get on the silver screen and yes, they are normal Americans – that’s what makes their heroism more exemplary, even though they do have military training. The reason I don’t like the movie is because most of the time it’s boring and that has nothing to do with my political views but on my cinematic experience. The fact that mass audiences haven’t embraced the film is a testament to that.

REASONS TO GO: The story is truly inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and there are too many flashbacks – this might have worked better as a documentary rather than as a narrative feature.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some bloody images, sexually suggestive material and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to tackle the terrorist was actually a Frenchman but he turned down the Legion of Honor and asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from extremists.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Trouble is My Business

Advertisements

Bad Moms


Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

(2016) Comedy (STX) Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, David Walton, Clark Duke, Jay Hernandez, Wendell Pierce, Leah McKendrick, Megan Ferguson, Lyle Brocato, Wanda Sykes, Cade Cooksey, J.J. Watt, Ann Mahoney, Samantha Beaulieu, Kelly Lind. Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

 

Motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days. The expectations that are put on the shoulders of moms are simply unrealistic. Not only do they have to keep their kids days filled with various activities, they have to balance a career, the needs of their husband, working out, bake sales and PTA meetings with the needs of their parents and siblings as well. Something has got to give in these cases and it’s usually the women trying to be all things to all people.

Amy Mitchell (Kunis) has about reached her breaking point. First of all, she’s caught her husband Mike (Walton) having an online affair. Her marriage has essentially been an empty shell for years so he doesn’t complain too much when she kicks his ass out. Now, however, she has to go the single mom route which is no easy task for a woman who is perpetually late to everything.

Her daughter Jane (Laurence) is stressing herself out trying to make the soccer team which looks good on the transcripts when applying to the Ivy League schools Jane so desperately wants to attend. The Queen Bee of the PTA and poster child for perfect moms, Gwendolyn (Applegate) gives her askance looks, directing passive aggressive taunts her way. And she can’t get any respect at work.

So Amy has a meltdown. Right in the middle of a PTA meeting, no less. After receiving an extensive list of things not to bring to the upcoming bake sale, Amy just loses it. She is done trying to be a good mom. It’s time to be a bad mom for once. She goes to a bar and is surprised to find a couple of her fellow moms there; single mom Carla (Hahn) who seems to be potentially coming on to anything male, and breathless put-upon Kiki (Bell) who is sweet but overwhelmed with a husband who treats her like a house cleaner. The three ladies bond and begin a campaign of their own.

At first it’s all fun and games; Amy goes out and begins to have a life again. She forces her kids to make their own breakfasts and do their own homework rather than doing it for them. She goes to movies and to brunches with her friends. She starts to see a hunky widower (Hernandez) that all the women in school are lusting after. She quits her job and it isn’t long before her boss (Duke) is begging her to come back.

But Gwendolyn and her Gwendo-lettes (Smith, Mumolo) take this as an affront, a challenge to Gwendolyn’s authority and absolute rule of the PTA. Gwendolyn begins to attack and she targets Amy’s daughter, who is high strung enough as it is. Mama bears don’t take kindly to having their cubs threatened and Amy decides to take on Gwendolyn where it would hurt the most; she runs against her for the PTA presidency.

This is a raunchy comedy from the folks that brought us The Hangover and its sequels. And yes, in some ways it’s a distaff version of that series but rather than male bonding which has been done to death and even female bonding, which has also had its share of movies made about it, this one is about the expectations piled onto the modern mom and there is certainly room for a movie on that subject. I do think we pile unreasonable demands on mothers these days and while this film focuses on upper middle class helicopter moms, similar demands are made on women from less comfortable economic strata.

For this movie to work, it needs to have some chemistry between the leads and to be honest, it isn’t quite as consistent as I would have liked. Hahn is a force of nature and absolutely dominates the movie; Kunis is an excellent actress but in a lot of ways she’s overwhelmed by Hahn’s personality. Bell is almost under the radar, her character too mousy and too innocuous to really make much of an impression.

At times the movie doesn’t really seem to address real life. For example, most of the moms that are in the film are stay at home moms and that just doesn’t jive with current stats; most moms are also in the workforce. It’s freakin’ expensive to raise a family and most families can’t do that on a single salary unless that salary is six figures or more. The helicopter mom phenomenon isn’t one solely limited to the upper classes.

By the same token, I don’t think it’s of particular shock value that women can be just as dirty in their behavior as men. Women, after all, do like and crave sex as well as men. Why this should be a shocking fact in 2016 is beyond me. There are those complaining that the movie doesn’t have to be raunchy, that woman can be funny without it. This is quite true but the same goes for men as well and serves to indicate that there is a double standard on both sides of the gender equation. Men and woman can both be raunchy or not; it makes no difference what the gender is. What matters is if you find the movie funny, or not. In my case, I found it funny enough to recommend as one of the better comedies this summer which frankly isn’t saying much, but hopefully this will also spawn a franchise. Lord knows that the ladies deserve one.

REASONS TO GO: The film addresses some real issues.  It’s really funny in a lot of different ways.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t as revolutionary as the filmmakers think it is. In some ways, it’s not very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of profanity and sexuality, some full frontal nudity, as well as drug and alcohol content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The closing credits feature the main actresses having conversations about motherhood with their real life moms. All of those actresses are moms themselves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Suicide Squad

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Where the Wild Things Are


Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

(Warner Brothers) Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini (voice), Catherine O’Hara (voice), Forrest Whitaker (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Chris Cooper (voice), Mark Ruffalo, Paul Dano (voice), Pepita Emmerichs. Directed by Spike Jonze

In all of us there is a wild side. It is the side that defies authority, the part of us that breaks the rules and the part of us that acts out when we don’t get what we want. It is the part in us that is closest to the child in us, so it is no surprise that children are more cognizant of their wild thing than we are.

Max (Records) is a young boy being raised by a single mother (Keener) who is too busy working to have the time for him he would like her to have. He doesn’t have many friends, and his sister (Emmerichs) is older, moving into teenager things and having even less time than his mom does.

He has a vivid imagination, turning a snowdrift into an igloo and old toilet paper dispensers into fantastic skyscrapers. However, he has had difficulty adjusting to a life without his dad and when his mom starts dating a new boyfriend (Ruffalo) he has a nuclear meltdown and runs away.

He finds a small boat and navigates it out to see. After a day and a night he arrives at a strange island with a rocky shoreline as dusk is falling. He is attracted by flickering torches and is startled to discover a group of strange, shaggy creatures, one of whom is in the process of destroying their huts. His name is Carol (Gandolfini) and he is distraught because one of their number has left the family. Max reveals himself and Carol takes to him immediately as a kindred spirit.

Not all the others are so welcoming. Judith (O’Hara) is described as a bit of a downer, and that’s accurate enough – she is suspicious of Max and wants to eat him. However, when Max reveals himself to be a king in his own country, the others (even Judith) relents and accept Max as their new king, the Wild Things being without a king at the time. Max declares a wild rumpus and the commotion attracts the attention of KW (Ambrose) who also instantly takes a liking to Max. Max, for his part, has found the family he’s always wanted.

That family also includes Ira (Whitaker), a gentle giant who is in love with Judith and is also nearly as fond of making holes in things; Douglas (Cooper), Carol’s best friend and right hand, Alexander (Dano) who is consistently ignored by the others and the Bull, who mostly communicates in grunts. Max decides to have them build a fort where only the things they want to have happen occur. He gets the idea when Carol shows him his secret spot on the island where he has built a model city out of twigs, complete with canals and figures of his family members.

At first building the fort gives them purpose but as time goes on Max begins to realize that being King of the Wild Things isn’t as easy as it first appeared and that his more aggressive nature was causing some of his new family pain.

There is no doubt that Spike Jonze has an incredible imagination, and he may well have been the perfect choice to bring the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak to life. Visually, this is very imaginative, unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. The faces of the Wild Things are amazing, CGI representations of the actors who are voicing them given a Wild Thing treatment. These CGI faces are then digitally inserted onto actors wearing oversized costumes, creating a natural movement that no computer could have replicated.

Records is a pretty decent actor as children go in a part that is not a typical kids part. For one thing, Max doesn’t have all the answers – in fact, he has far more questions than answers. He isn’t smarter than the grown-ups around him and he doesn’t save the day. Basically, he’s an unruly boy with emotional issues.

Therein lies my problem with the movie. Max is never accountable for his actions; when he bites his mother, she screams at him that he’s out of control and he screams back that it isn’t his fault. Well, whose fault is it then?

More egregiously, the movie diverges from the book on some key points. Now, while I’m usually fine about movies being different from the books they’re based on, one of the key elements of Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is that it all takes place inside Max’s room, literally inside his head. Here, the Wild Thing Island is literally an island that Max travels to.

The ending of the movie isn’t terribly realistic either. When Max arrives home after (presumably) running away for several days, his mother greets him with dinner and chocolate cake for desert. I don’t know about your mom but mine would have hugged me and then killed me had I run away like that.

This is such a visually arresting movie that it’s worth seeing just on that basis. There are some terrific performances, particularly from Gandolfini who captures the blustery Carol’s mood swings and inner pain. I do have a problem with the movie’s message, which seems to be that it is okay to give in to the Wild Thing inside and there will be no consequences, no repercussions. Lots of kids will be seeing this and get the message that acting out is ok, whether that’s the message the filmmakers (and Sendak) wanted to send or not.

We all have wild things inside of us. It is a part of us, as is the part that is responsible and caring for each other. The Wild Things tend to be the side of us that is selfish and undisciplined, necessary for our creative sides to come out but at the end of the day, merely a component of our psyches. Sendak always meant the Wild Things of his book to be elements of Max’ personality, and they are here as well; the important thing is that the Wild Things are not the Only Things. As for the movie, it’s flawed but I applaud the effort, the imagination and the visual sense. It’s certainly worth your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Jonze amazing visual sense makes this a treat for the imagination. It is, after all, the filmed version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie veers away from the book in some significant ways. Max is so troubled that at times it’s hard to watch him act out. There are almost no lessons in accountability and the ending is far more of a fantasy than the rest of the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of language and violence, as well as some kid-in-jeopardy scenes but all in all suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original songs in the movie were written and performed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who was dating Jonze at the time of the production. They’ve since broken up.

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen on the big screen, no question.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins!