Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

In Time


In Time

The future is a hell of a party.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde, Nick Lashaway, Collins Pennie, Rachel Roberts, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Andrew Niccol

Time is money they say and in some ways it’s literally true. When we are employed, we are not only being paid for our skills but for our time. A good percentage of us receive our wages paid by the hour and our work lives are measured in how many hours we work so when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, the money you pay for it is symbolic of the time you worked. That gallon of milk represents twenty minutes of work you put in to make the money you paid for it.

In the future, there is no pretense about it anymore. Cash is a thing of the past and the only thing that matters is time. An hourly wage is literally that. We’ve been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25; after that, we’re given a year of additional life and in order to extend it beyond our 26th birthday we need to work to add hours and days to our lifespan. We can even see how much time we have left by a digital countdown clock in neon green that is imprinted on our forearms. When it reaches zero, our time on this earth is done.

Like most people in the ghetto that is called Dayton (not Ohio – it looks a lot like Los Angeles), Will Salas (Timberlake) lives day to day, waking up each morning with less than 24 hours to live. He lives with his mother (Wilde) who’s in the same boat but for whatever reason she seems unable to hold onto time – time management is a necessity in this future. She is working a double shift and won’t be back for more than a day; Will goes out to a bar with his best friend and drinking buddy Borel (Galecki) and encounters Henry Hamilton, a millionaire with more than a century on his arm who seems out to kill himself.

It turns out he’s lived more than a century and has become disillusioned and bored; he wants to die. He has attracted the unfortunate attention of Fortis (Pettyfer), a gangster who leads a gang called the Minutemen who essentially rob people of their time. Fortis wants Hamilton’s but Will intervenes and hides Hamilton in a warehouse. Hamilton tells Will that there is plenty of time for everyone, but the rich are hoarding it so that they can live forever. The two men wax philosophic before falling asleep.

When Will wakes up, Hamilton is gone and Will has more than a century on his arm. He looks out the window to see Hamilton sitting on the edge of a bridge. Will tries to run out and save him but Hamilton’s clock zeroes out and he falls to his death. Security cameras catch Will on the scene and the police force, known as the Timekeepers, are alerted. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) is assigned the case and the general perception is that Will stole Hamilton’s time and murdered him.

In the meantime, Will’s mom is getting ready to return home on the bus only to find out that they raised the fare and she doesn’t have enough to return home. She has about an hour left of life to her and a two hour walk so she runs. She tries to get people to help her, give her an extra 15 minutes of life (people are able to transfer time from one another by holding their wrists together) but nobody will help. Will, realizing that she’s not on the bus, takes off at a dead run; she sees him as her time is counting down and they run towards each other but it’s all for naught; she dies in his arms.

Determined to face down the injustice that is ruling the lives of the poor, the now-wealthy Will travels to the wealthy part of town (this costs quite a bit of money to cross from one “time zone” to another) which is called New Greenwich. This is where the wealthy live in spectacular luxury. There are also casinos where you can literally bet your life. Will plays poker with one of the richest men on Earth, Philippe Weis (Kartheiser) and wins a millennium. This catches the eye of Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Seyfried) who invites Will to a party that evening.

At the party, Raymond catches up with Will and arrests him, taking all but 24 hours from his wrist. However, Will escapes by using Sylvia as a hostage. He manages to make it back into Dayton where he and Sylvia are both robbed of most of their time by Fortis; it would have been all but the Minutemen are scared off by the approaching Timekeepers. Will and Sylvia escape into the anonymity of the slums.

There Will demands a thousand year ransom from Philippe for the return of his daughter. However, Philippe refuses to pay it. Sylvia, incensed, tells Will where to find lots of time. They begin robbing banks, where people can get loans of time. The two take the time but distribute it to the poor. They go on a crime spree which threatens the balance of things; the rich retaliate by raising prices exorbitantly. Will’s Robin Hood crusade looks to be derailed but there might be one way yet to thwart the rich.

That this is an allegory of modern economics seems to be a slam dunk; substitute “dollars” for “time” and you have what is essentially a commentary on the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There really isn’t anything subtle here although I wonder if there is a connection between the Minutemen – taking from the poor, and the Tea Party who have been accused of doing the same thing. There is a bit of a Revolutionary War theme going here don’t you think?

Timberlake has shown a good deal of potential in going from boy band idol to serious actor. He gets one step closer with this role. It is mainly upon him to carry the movie and he proves to have strong shoulders .Will has got essentially a good heart that he keeps hidden because he’s smart enough to know that it can get you killed in an environment such as this one. Timberlake plays him very minimally, allowing audiences to read between the lines of his performance. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but for my money this is his best performance to date. He’s not quite ready for the kind of stardom of, say, a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon but he’s getting there.

Seyfried spends the film in a Louise Brooks-like wig that contributes to the overall retro look of the film. In a sense it makes her timeless. Seyfried has at times been impressive in her short career but I would have liked to see a little more fire from her here; something tells me that she was directed to be more subtle with her emotions.

Speaking of the look of the film, it’s an odd mix between high tech (the arm digital display) and retro (the vehicles are mostly chassis from the 60s and 70s souped up a little). Although the movie is set in the near future, there are characters in it who are a century old. One wonders if there was some reverse genetic engineering done for people who were alive when the breakthrough was made. Certainly the wealthy would have been the ones to receive such treatment.

There are some good action sequences here and a nice car chase, but this is more a movie about ideas than action. As such, it isn’t going to get a lot of love from the fanboys who like their sci-fi with phasers set to kill. I get the sense that the design of the future world wasn’t terribly well thought out and budget limitations probably kept them from making the world look too futuristic but this is a well written movie that makes it’s point rather firmly. I suspect Herman Cain might not like this movie much which might be all the reason you need to go and see it.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise with lots of modern day allegories about class distinctions. Timberlake’s best performance to date.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks imagination when designing the future.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some sexuality (with a little bit of partial nudity thrown in for good measure) and a teensy bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake’s mother in the film, she’s actually younger than he is in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the chase scenes are going to look a lot better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Dinner for Schmucks