Money Monster


Clooney busts a move.

Clooney busts a move.

(2016) Thriller (Tri-Star) George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr., Grant Rosenmeyer, Jim Warden, Joseph D. Reitman, Olivia Luccardi. Directed by Jodie Foster

The American Experience

There are a lot of ways to get a person under your thumb. Economically is usually the best method and involves the least bloodshed. However, it must be said that people can only be pushed so far before bloodshed becomes inevitable.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is a financial expert who has a popular financial advice program on a cable network. It is somewhat wild and crazy like Lee himself; Lee has a tendency, much to the exasperation of his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts), to go off the reservation. So when a flustered young delivery man, carrying a couple of packages wanders onto the set, Lee is sure it’s his crew playing a practical joke on him while Patty thinks that it’s one of Lee’s improvisations.

It’s neither. It’s Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a working class schmoe who was crazy enough to follow Lee’s investment advice – except that advice turned out to be tragically wrong. IBIS, the software company that Kyle invested in, had seen $800 million of its assets vanish overnight and its charismatic CEO Walt Camby (West) is nowhere to be seen. He was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s program but instead they were sending Diane Lester (Balfe), a publicity flack (whom Camby is  apparently sleeping with).

Kyle has loaded guns which he demonstrates by firing into the ceiling, getting everyone’s attention. He slaps on a bomb vest that he hid in one of the packages onto Lee and proceeds to demand to talk to the absent CEO. Patty manages to clear the studio, but it seems only a matter of time before Kyle loses complete control of the situation. What neither Patty nor Lee count on is that they too would be swept up in Kyle’s saga and want to find out the answers for their own peace of mind as well.

Given the somewhat negative view most people have regarding the shenanigans on Wall Street over the past few years, this movie plays into those feelings pretty much perfectly – almost to the point of cliché. The villain of this piece is too easily spotted and becomes almost laughable. We don’t get a real sense of depth to that person; it’s just greed, greed, greed and a sense that people deserve to get their life savings defrauded from them because they don’t have the kind of fortune that the villain has. It’s a bit of a cop-out in my opinion.

That said, this is the kind of movie that is going to give you a good idea of why people are angry at Wall Street. The Lee Gates character – who is clearly modeled on Jim Cramer and the show clearly Mad Money on steroids – is a bit buffoonish and certainly a paean to poor investment strategies which is something Cramer is sometimes accused of peddling in real life. Clooney gives the character a bit more depth than we might have otherwise. Would the film have worked better if Lee was the kind of insensitive douchebag that he appears to be at the beginning of the movie? I don’t think so, but at least one critic accused the filmmakers of “star saving” Clooney (i.e. making him appear nicer than he appears to be in order to maintain his likability) which is not something Clooney has indulged in over the years.

Roberts is seen far less frequently onscreen than I would like, but continues to be every inch the star she’s been for the past *mumble, mumble* years – has it really been that long? She has deepened into more of a solid actress over the past decade, not needing to rely quite as much on the wattage of her amazing smile and the glow of her incandescent personality that over the years has made her the ultimate girl next door. Here, she’s a working stiff trying to labor for the unappreciative and has been a little bit beaten down by her star’s lack of empathy. Still, she prides herself on her professionalism and when the rubber hits the road, responds with calm and decisive leadership. This is one of those roles that is slightly subversive without being obvious about it; perhaps Foster, certainly one of the strongest women in Hollywood, has something to do with it as well. To my mind, Patty is the real hero of this piece but not many will get that.

O’Connell is best known for his role in Unbroken but to my mind finally really shows what he’s capable of going back to small but memorable roles in films like Harry Brown. His performance as Kyle shows a man beaten down to the bone by a system that chews up and spits out people like Kyle. With nothing else to lose, he demands answers from those who aren’t willing to give them and this leads him to an act of desperation – and yes, stupidity – that becomes the crux of the film’s emotional center.

Foster has been the kind of director who makes magic even when the scripts she’s given to work with don’t necessarily have a lot of it in it. There’s a good deal that’s way too familiar here but Foster works with it well and gives us a credible film despite the predictability of the plot. There’s some sly satire here about America’s penchant for greed and making money without wanting to put in the work. It is counter to our Puritan heritage in which hard work is valued and indeed, rewarded. In this modern era, we seem to be more inclined to value cutting corners – and rewarding those who do inordinately. And maybe that’s at the center of why Main Street is so pissed off at Wall Street. Perhaps some of the captains of industry need to be reminded of those ethics that made this country great in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: Foster is a masterful director. Clooney and Roberts are always eye-catching. Dials in to the anger that a lot of people are feeling about Wall Street.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty cliché storyline. The villain of the piece is a little too obvious.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Short
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Conjuring 2

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When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan