The Ottoman Lieutenant


If wishes were horses

(2016) Historical Romance (Paladin) Michiel Huisman, Hera Hilmar, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Haluk Bilginer, Affif Ben Badra, Paul Barrett, Jessica Turner, Peter Hosking, Selʕuk Yöntem, Eliska Slansky, Hasan Say, Deniz Kilic Flak, Aysen Sümercan, Murat Seven, Bree Welch, Brian Caspe, Joe Weintraub, Ephraim Goldin, Tzvi Shmilovich, Frederick Preston, Begum Burian. Directed by Joseph Ruben

 

One of the oldest cinematic tropes in Hollywood history is the star-crossed lovers in wartime. Of course, that was a literary trope far earlier than that but still, two people separated by war but connected by passion – what could get the heart beating faster than that?

Lillie Rowe (Hilmar) is a feisty, high-spirited nurse in Philadelphia somewhere around 1915. She is horrified when a brutally injured man is denied treatment at the hospital in which she works simply due to the color of his skin. Being the child of wealthy but devout Philadelphians, her evening entertainment consists of listening to the noble Dr. Jude Gresham (Hartnett) at a missionary hospital in Eastern Anatolia plea for funds in an isolated mountainous region that is the only medical facility for hundreds of miles. He is proud that nobody is turned away from their doors when they require medical attention; be they Turks, in whose Ottoman Empire the hospital resides, or Armenian in whose ancient land the hospital is.

Lillie is inspired and offers her late brother’s truck to the hospital in lieu of cash but when the doctor ruefully asks how could the truck be delivered to the hospital when there are no roads in the vicinity, Lillie impulsively volunteers to deliver it herself. Of course, her parents are aghast but Lillie – remember she is high-spirited – is determined to see this through. The Ottoman government, not wanting to antagonize the United States government by having one of its daughters murdered by Armenian brigands on their watch, assigns Lt. Ismail Veli (Huisman) to escort Lillie to the hospital’s doorstep. The Ottoman Lieutenant (yes, isn’t that clever?) is not enthusiastic about the assignment since he feels he has more to offer his country in a very crucial period in their history than playing nursemaid to a spoiled American heiress but being a good soldier accepts the mission with some grace. He even plays tour guide with the girl, taking her to one of Constantinople’s most beautiful mosques and showing her some beautifully desolate landscapes.

There she also meets the hospital’s founder, Dr. Woodruff (Kingsley) who is all about not taking sides in the coming conflict but his own Dr. Gresham is secretly supplying arms to the Armenians who turn out to be quite adept at using them. When civil war finally does break out however, the hospital is going to be caught literally in the middle of the crossfire.

I actually looked forward to seeing this movie initially; that area of the world scarcely gets much notice from Hollywood and that particularly turbulent time seemed like the perfect setting for a movie but unfortunately what we got was a painfully poorly written hodgepodge of clichés and tropes that essentially take all the inertia from the film and turn it into something that even the Lifetime cable channel might have thought twice about airing.

Armenians have been justifiably outraged that the film ignores the Armenian genocide which was going on at the time and makes it look as if the Armenians were the aggressors and worse yet that they deserved what they had coming. The Turks have denied that the genocide ever took place and the movie does have some financing from Turkish sources so that has to be taken with a grain of salt; I don’t know that this whitewashes history so much as chooses to ignore it.

And maybe if there was a really great story here that particular sin could have been, if not forgiven, at least rendered less egregious but there simply isn’t. The plot is predictable and contrived and even though Huisman does his best as the dashing title character, at the end of the day Ismail has about as much depth as the cover of the average romance novel. Had they gotten Fabio to play the role they wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Huisman is a fine actor who deserves much better than this.

Hilmar is curiously lifeless here. Her voice is nearly flat and toneless and the camera captures little sparkle in her character. With the wide-brimmed hat she wears she looks a lot like a dime store hipster affecting a free spirited look but with nothing that would really inspire any sort of passion in anyone. Two men fall in love with Lillie and I’m hard-pressed to tell you why.

However, the movie isn’t without its charms. The score by Geoff Zanelli is epic and recalls some of the best work of John Barry. The cinematography by Daniel Aranyó is stirring, with the beautiful mosque interiors and the dramatic sweep of the Anatolian plains. The movie is gorgeous visually and audibly.

Unfortunately even though the actors try their best they simply can’t overcome the stilted dialogue and the hoary plot points. This turns out not to be the kind of indie film that gives credibility to a filmography but rather smacks of being a paycheck and little more. That’s doubly disappointing considering if they’d been able to come up with a script that had a little bit more meat on its bones this could have been absolutely enchanting instead of being what it is: ho-hum.

REASONS TO GO: The score is haunting and beautiful. Some of the cinematography is lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is poorly written. Hilmar lacks the presence to pull off the kind of character that was needed to make this work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence as well as war sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingsley and Hartnett both appeared together in Lucky Number Slevin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Water Diviner
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: El Amparo

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High Strung


Girl just wanna have fun.

Girl just wanna have fun.

(2016) Urban Musical (Paladin) Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Jane Seymour, Sonoya Mizuno, Richard Southgate, Paul Freeman, Maia Morgenstern, Ian Eastwood, Anabel Kutay, Marcus Emanuel Mitchell, Comfort Fedoke, Simon A. Mendoza, Miranda Wilson, Dave Scott, Andrew Pleavin, Tomi May, David Lipper, Nigel Barber, Giulia Nahmany. Directed by Michael Damian

 

One is a fresh-faced wanna-be ballerina from the Midwest who is in danger of losing her scholarship to a prestigious arts academy in Manhattan. The other is a brooding, angry subway busker whose violin playing shows tons of ability and tons of passion but little restraint; he’s about to be deported. Is this a match made in heaven or the odd couple?

This is the latest entry into a genre that really began in 1980 with Fame but has really picked up steam in the last decade with the Step Up movie franchise, the Glee TV series and Pitch Perfect, to name a few, plus other assorted one-offs. Star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, one into classical performance art, the other an innovator, face enormous challenges, enter a dance competition usually revolving around hip-hop, then after a temporary setback nearly tears them apart, reunites in the last frame to grab the gold, the glory and the fluttering hearts of tweens everywhere. Roll credits.

It’s not a bad formula per se, but this is the type of movie that has not been among my favorite genres and this one is a fairly weak representative of it. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the plot preposterous. The saving grace for the couple – ballet dancer Ruby (Kampa) and hip-hop violinist Johnny (Galitzine) – is (get this) a string and dance competition with a $25,000 grand prize. Have you heard of a string and dance competition, much less one that is giving away that much cash? I didn’t think so.

There are also hard hats who break out into a dance-off on a subway platform and a (fictional) conservatory that seems to only employ Russians, including a feisty and nearly unrecognizable Jane Seymour as the headmistress, and Paul Freeman as a dancer whose hips were shattered by the Nazis who has become a pre-eminent ballet teacher. Ironic, since Freeman played a Nazi ally in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The dance sequences are energetic, spirited and actually a lot of fun to watch. That figures, since Dave Scott, one of the best hip hop choreographers in the business, is involved as a producer (although he is not listed as a choreographer here). They’re most certainly the best aspects of the film and make it marginally watchable. The cast is fresh-faced and at least good watching; Kampa has a kind of ingénue appeal, while Galitzine has cheekbones that can cut glass and a brooding pout sure to set tween girls to sighing in their Corn Flakes for months after seeing this.

But too much of this movie is simply “been there, done that” and the most amazing dance sequences in the world can’t save a movie that borrows so heavily from other movies, many of which are frankly not that good. I will give it props for having a gee-whiz can-do vibe and a certain innocent sweetness to it, but there isn’t enough here to hold the interest of any but the most non-discerning for the entire hour and a half run time.

REASONS TO GO: High energy. Winsome leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Cliches abound. Adds nothing to the genre. Stretches credulity. Predictable throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: A little foul language and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Bucharest, standing in for Manhattan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Up
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: To Keep the Light

The Fault in Our Stars


In order to make an omelet...

In order to make an omelet…

(2014) Drama (20th Century Fox/Fox 2000) Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Emily Peachey, Lotte Verbeek, Ana Dela Cruz, Randy Kovitz, Toni Saladna, David Whalen, Milica Govich, Allegra Carpenter, Emily Bach, Tim Hartman, Bethany Leo, Alexis Hodges, Jean Bressard, Carly Otte, Elyse Alberts. Directed by Josh Boone

Life in general is rarely fair, but for teenagers who must deal with a deadly disease it is particularly unfair. Watching their lives ebb away, knowing that in the end their stay in this life will end prematurely, they try to find some meaning in their brief lives. It is hard to find much drama in the ins and outs of teen angst when you know your death is just around the corner.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She is unable to breathe without the aid of an oxygen tank. At age 13, she very nearly died, her tearful mother (Dern) whispering that it is okay to let go but that’s not in Hazel’s DNA. She’s a fighter and she survives, managing to stabilize her deteriorating situation by undergoing an experimental treatment that she refers to as her miracle.

She is withdrawn and reads the same book incessantly – An Imperial Affliction by Peter van Houten, a reclusive American author who has exiled himself to Amsterdam. The book intrigues her because she can relate to the cancer-stricken heroine but also because it ends mid-sentence, indicating that the heroine has died. She wants to know what happens to the supporting characters after the lead character has expired but van Houten has consistently refused to answer questions of that nature despite many entreaties by fans of the book to do so.

She reluctantly attends a support group that meets at a local church with a well-meaning youth pastor (Hartman) who rolls out a giant rug with a portrait of Jesus and abjures his group of cancer-stricken kids that they are literally meeting “in the heart of Jesus.” Hazel isn’t really looking to reach out and make friends – what’s the point – but she attracts the attention of Augustus Waters (Elgort), a free-spirited survivor who was there to support his friend Isaac (Wolff) who is soon to have surgery that will render him permanently blind. Isaac at least has the comfort of a girlfriend (Peachey) who asserts that she’ll love him “always” but is eventually freaked out by the reality of his situation and dumps him.

Augustus had bone cancer which eventually cost him the use of one leg. Before the amputation, he had been a star basketball player in basketball-mad Indiana. An unlit cigarette dangles rakishly from his lips to symbolize that he is embracing his cancer but not giving it power over him. Not the most realistic of symbols, but he’s a teenager and entitled to do things that in the long run don’t accomplish the desired effect.

She attempts to keep the irrepressible Augustus at arm’s length but we all know (including Hazel Grace herself) that eventually he will win her over. Her mom and dad (Trammell) are both overjoyed that Hazel has connected to someone else. The two grow closer but the real kicker comes when Augustus uses his wish with a Make-a-Wish type group to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet van Houten (Dafoe). Hazel would have used hers but at 13 she had used it instead to go to Disney World. Priorities, after all.

While the meeting with van Houten doesn’t go exactly as planned, it still ends up being a memorable trip although it concludes with devastating news – Augustus’ cancer, which had been in remission, has reappeared and it has spread everywhere. They both know that Augustus has been given a death sentence but they are determined that now that they are comfortable with being in love with each other that they will make the most of the time they both have left.

This is a movie that I am conflicted about in many ways. As most of you know, the movie is based on the bestselling novel by John Green that in turn was based on his experiences working with support groups of the sort Hazel made fun of early on in the film (and Hazel herself is based on a real person, Esther Earl, who died of thyroid cancer at the age of 16. Green, who was very involved in the production of the movie, pulled no punches in the book although for time constraints some of the suffering  at the hands of the disease that the protagonists had to deal with had to be left out – but then again, the movie isn’t about their suffering per se.

Shailene Woodley is one of the best young actresses working today and already has an Oscar nomination under her belt. She may well get another one here although Academy voters are not known for remembering good work from summer films. She captures the many dimensions of Hazel and keeps her real. A role like this could easily lose its humanity with actors trying to play her too heroically or not heroic enough. Hazel is an ordinary hero, a young girl living with lungs that don’t work properly and the prospects of a short life. She does tend to push people away but as it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her heart in the least.

Elgort is a handsome guy with an engaging grin, but the part is rife with cliches – the free-spirited dying kid who is full of life. Not that there aren’t kids like that running around, but there are a disproportionate number of them in Hollywood. Hazel narrates that she’d like to say that Augustus kept his sense of humor (after the cancer returned) but that wouldn’t be true, but then the writers go ahead and make it true. Don’t say that a character changes without having them change. It’s dishonest. None of that is Elgort’s fault by the way – and I don’t doubt he has a fine career ahead of him.

You need to keep a couple of things in mind when seeing this movie. First of all, it’s manipulative. Holy Christ is it manipulative! How could it not be, considering the subject matter? Brave kids facing a painful death? And yes, you will be anywhere from misty-eyed to outright sobbing when the end credits roll. Expect it and deal with it.

Secondly, this is a movie aimed very squarely at young teen and pre-teen girls. Augustus fits into the young female fantasy of a sensitive, caring boy who happens to be breathtakingly hot and free-spirited, willing to accept the love of his life as she is and wait for her when she’s not certain. He’s loyal, loving, affectionate, funny…if he pulled out a guitar and played a love song he wrote for every girl in the audience he couldn’t have been more perfect. And of course Hazel herself is brave, beautiful, and of course in mortal jeopardy but never backs down for a moment, fighting for her life with dignity and grace.

There are those who sniff that this movie isn’t about cancer, but that’s disingenuous. No, the movie isn’t about cancer – you’re not going to learn the ins and outs of the disease from watching this film – but cancer informs this movie. There’s no movie (or book) without it. This movie isn’t about cancer in the same way The Godfather isn’t about the Mafia.

There are some beautiful truths here to be had here but you have to plough through some fairly predictable elements to get to them. I would have liked to see the characters be less perfect and more human. I would have loved to see Augustus scream at the faulty stars at the raw deal he’s getting. I would have liked to see Hazel lash out more than she does. I would have liked to see the movie pander less to the target audience and respect them more. However, that doesn’t mean this movie won’t satisfy their needs and strike a powerful chord in their hearts, and who am I to dismiss a movie that can accomplish that as well as this one does?

REASONS TO GO: Woodley shows off her Oscar-nominated form. Not a typical teen romance.

REASONS TO STAY: Manipulative and maudlin and unnecessarily so.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, occasionally salty language and mature thematic content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title is a reference to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; “The fault dear Brutus lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 50/50

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Miss Bala

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard