88 Minutes


Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

Al Pacino looks thrilled to be in this movie.

(2007) Thriller (TriStar) Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brennerman, William Forsythe, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, Neal McDonough, Leah Cairns, Stephen Moyer, Christopher Redman, Brendan Fletcher, Kristina Copeland, Tammy Hui, Vicky Huang, Victoria Tennant, Michal Yannai, Paul Campbell, Kaj-Erik Eriksen, Heather Dawn. Directed by Jon Avnet

Young Jamie Cates (Hui) witnesses the brutal murder of her twin sister (Huang). Although it was dark, Cates identifies former Eagle Scout Jon Forster (McDonough) as the culprit. Although there is little physical evidence tying him to the crime, the testimony of noted forensic psychologist Jack Gramm (Pacino) is enough to convince the jury to convict Forster of the heinous crime and sentence him to death.

Flash forward nine years. It is the eve of Forster’s execution and Gramm has been out partying with his students, afterwards waking up with a stranger (Cairns). He is stunned to learn that overnight, one of his students (Copeland) has been murdered in exactly the same way as Joanie Cates. The FBI, with acerbic agent Parks (Forsythe) and U.S. Attorney Guber (Redman) want to have a word with Gramm at his high-tech consulting office in downtown Seattle. At first he thinks that they want to pick his brain about the crime, but it seems they have a different agenda. Gramm stalks out of the office, leaving his long-suffering assistant Shelly (Brennerman) holding the bag.

Afterwards, Gramm begins to get disturbing phone calls; the first informing him he only had 88 minutes to live. In the meantime, the callers, voice heavily disguised, counts down the time left in a series of frequent phone calls. While this happens, another one of Gramm’s students, Lauren (Sobieski) is attacked, his car is blown up and a mysterious assailant in black leathers and a motorcycle helmet is shooting at him. Plucky teaching assistant Kim (Witt) thinks her volatile ex-husband LaForge (Moyer) may have something to do with it – he served time in Walla Walla with Forster – but Jack is convinced it’s an inside job. With time ticking down, suspects a-plenty and Jack himself under suspicion for the murder of his student, he’ll need all his skills to figure out who’s behind this and save his own life, as well as the lives of those around him.

Pacino is one of the best actors of his generation, but he has little to do here but scowl. He is clearly the centerpiece of the film, but at times it feels like he’s just giving a by-the-numbers performance, literally phoning it in (his character spends a whole lot of time on his cell phone). Pacino’s character is supposed to be a womanizer, but I get the feeling that while Gramm surrounds himself with beautiful women, the casting of Witt, Sobieski, Brennerman, Unger, Cairns and Copeland was done more for their looks rather than whether or not they were right for the part. Even so, in a role that’s not his best Pacino is still always watchable. Sobieski, in particular, is cruelly wasted; she’s one of my favorite actresses but she is clearly uncomfortable with certain aspects of her character, which is poorly developed. In fact the motivation for her actions doesn’t make sense with other aspects of her character. Not to give anything away, but it makes the whole crux of the movie a bit laughable.

Who did Pacino’s hair? He looks like an extra from a Lita Ford video. Yes, I get it; womanizer, vain, rich – but a man of those qualities would probably pick a more contemporary hairstyle for himself. The writing is really lazy, relying on cliché over character development and exploring no new ground whatsoever.

While I like the concept a lot, the filmmakers don’t really make use of it effectively. There are a ton of lapses in logic, coincidences that stretch credulity, plot points that lead nowhere, characters that don’t need to be here, characters that act wildly out of character without explanation…need I go on?

This is one I can’t honestly recommend. It started with a poorly written script and that seems to have defeated a pretty talented cast and crew. Avnet as a director has done much better work than this, including Up Close and Personal and The War. I usually am forgiving of movies that push the envelope of believability – after all, it’s only a movie – but this takes it a little bit too far. All I ask is that a movie remains true to its own internal logic, and this one simply doesn’t. Pacino fans may want to check it out, but there really isn’t any other reason to go see it as a rental or even as a free download.

WHY RENT THIS: Pacino, even in the worst movies, is worth checking out. Interesting concept. Gorgeous women.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Lapses in logic. Extraneous characters and plot points.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some brief nudity, a whole lot of bad language and a surfeit of implied and actual mayhem.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: From the time that Gramm is informed that he has 88 minutes to live, the movie runs in real time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Avnet and his directing style.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick of Time

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

So I Married an Axe Murderer


Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

Scotland has a love-hate relationship with Mike Myers.

(1993) Comedy (TriStar) Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia, Amanda Plummer, Alan Arkin, Brenda Fricker, Matt Doherty, Charles Grodin, Phil Hartman, Debi Mazar, Steven Wright, Patrick Bristow, Cintra Wilson, Luenell Campbell, Michael Richards, Michael G. Hagerty, Jessie Nelson, Bob Sarlatte, Ken Grantham, Greg Germann, Holly Lewis. Directed by Thomas Schlamme

Do we really know the person we’re closest to? After all, it’s very easy to create a facade of normalcy. We can say anything about ourselves and the person who loves us will believe us. After all, why should we lie?

Charlie McKenzie (Myers) is a San Francisco hipster who writes beat-like poetry by night and…well, we’re not quite sure what he does by day. He has been through one abortive relationship after another, each one ending with the terminally paranoid and commitment-phobic Charlie finding a reason to end things. His friend Tony Giardino (LaPaglia) urges him to loosen up but Charlie isn’t inclined to.

That is, until he meets Harriet (Travis) in a butcher shop and it’s chemistry at first sight. Things are going really well as they get to know each other and Charlie thinks at long last this might be the one. Even her little sister Rose (Plummer) is nice.

Then, Charlie is reading one of his mother’s (Fricker) Weekly World News papers (her sole source of news and information) and happens upon an article about Mrs. X, a woman whose three husbands have all disappeared under mysterious circumstances – as has she. The more Charlie reads, the more he realizes that the facts about Mrs. X happen to match up with those Harriet has let slip.

Suddenly Charlie is certain that Harriet is Mrs. X and ends things with her, not wanting to end up as the fourth husband – and victim. Tony is just as certain that his friend is a wacko who is inventing yet another excuse to avoid committing to another person, albeit the most bizarre excuse yet. Then when someone confesses to being Mrs. X in Texas (all our X’s are in Texas), Charlie realizes what a fool he’s been and at the anniversary party of his mother and father (Myers again) he proposes. Nothing but smooth sailing ahead, right?

This was Myers’ first film after the lucrative Wayne’s World established him as a movie star and it was a critical and commercial flop at the time. Over the years the opinion about this gem have been revised and now it has a bit of a cult following and I for one couldn’t be happier about it.

While Charlie is pretty damn quirky, this is Myers’ most “normal” role to date and quite frankly I wish he’d do more of them. He is really likable as Charlie and has a terrific chemistry for Travis who is one of the more underrated actresses of the last 20 years, although she’s getting a regular paycheck these days on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing. Myers also does his Scottish eccentric role to perfection as Charlie’s dad. “Heed.. Newspaper. Now!” he bellows at his other son, the poor set-upon Doherty, lobbing bon mots at the oversized noggin of his son.

There are plenty of cameos ranging from Arkin as Tony’s way-too-sensitive captain and the late great Phil Hartman as a creepy park ranger at Alcatraz to Steven Wright as a laconic pilot and Charles Grodin as an uncooperative driver whose car is commandeered. The city of San Francisco is shown off as effectively as it has been in any recent movie – watch this one and you might just want to move there.

This is as charming a movie as Myers has done. He’d go on from here to the Austin Powers franchise and the Love Guru misstep but one look at this will convince you that even with the success he’s had he could have gone much farther if he’d continued on the road of movies like this. Sadly, the box office underperformance convinced him otherwise although Austin Powers fan might be happy enough that it did. This is one of those underappreciated comic gems of the 90s that may well have fallen below your radar; it’s well worth a look if you haven’t seen it (and it has a fabulous soundtrack to boot).

WHY RENT THIS: One of Myers’ best. Underrated. Terrifically quirky and cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit dated and relies too much on shtick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some bad language, a bit of nudity, some sexual situations and what they called “mock terror.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Poet’s Corner Hotel scenes were filmed at the Dunsmuir estate which is actually in the Oakland hills east of San Francisco, not North of the city as depicted in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.6M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Haunted Honeymoon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Good Ol’ Freda

Elysium


Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

(2013) Science Fiction (TriStar) Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Valentino Giron, Yolanda Abbud L, Carly Pope, Michael Shanks, Ona Grauer, Christina Cox. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

When the world becomes too overpopulated and too polluted to live comfortably, where are the super-rich going to go? Why, to outer space of course.

In 2154, the same year Avatar is set in – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the Earth has become one gigantic favela – a kind of super-barrio that has appeared in Brazil and are ultra-violent. The wealthy, whose corporate interests have destroyed the Earth and enslaved the population, have fled to Elysium, an idyllic space station which looks a whole lot like Boca Raton except for the humidity. There the rich live in peace, quiet and plenty living indefinite lifespans due to an automated medical bay that cures pretty much anything short of death.

Of course, no such machines exist on Earth for the general population who overcrowd hospitals using 20th century technology for the most part. This is the world that Max (Damon) lives in. An orphan who became a legendary car thief and was imprisoned for it, he’s trying to scrape together a life on the straight and narrow building robotic police officers. Somewhat ironically, one of the robotic cops ends up breaking his arm when he gets lippy during a routine bus stop hassle. However, the silver lining here is that the nurse who cares for him is Frey (Braga), a childhood friend and fellow orphan who Max is sweet on. Frey is reluctant to get involved with an ex-con though, especially since her own daughter (Tremblay) is in the end stages of leukemia.

However, Max gets accidentally irradiated in an industrial accident caused by an uncaring and sloppy corporate bureaucrat. He has five days to live before the radiation kills him. His only chance at survival is to get to Elysium. His only chance to get to Elysium is through Spider (Moura), which Max’s good friend Julio (Luna) warns him against but nevertheless supports him for. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium but first he must do a job for Spider; to download the codes and passwords from a citizen of Elysium so that Spider’s shuttles can successfully get through the formidable defenses of the station without getting blasted into atoms. Max chooses Carlyle (Fichtner), the uncaring and callous owner of the robotics factory.

Unknown to either Spider or Max is that Carlyle is conspiring with Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup from the satellite’s somewhat milquetoast president (Tahir). Carlyle has created a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems and effectively give control of the entire satellite to Delacourt. When Max gets that information from Carlyle, he immediately becomes the most dangerous human on Earth. Delacourt sends her brutish operative Krueger (Copley) and his thugs to collect Max and download that data. Krueger doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get that information and Max doesn’t care what he has to do to get cured. The results of their struggle will shape the future of two worlds.

Blomkamp is best known for directing District 9, the surprise South African hit that was nominated for four Oscars. He showed a real flair there for fusing social commentary with an all-out action movie. He also showed a unique visual sense that is also very much in evidence here – this is one of the most stunning movie this summer visually in a summer full of great visuals.

There are a lot of modern parallels here from the Occupy Wall Street class war scenario to Obamacare. Clearly Blomkamp has some liberal sympathies; I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t compared this movie as a thinly veiled love song to Obamacare which it isn’t – it’s far more liberal than that. If anything, the filmmaker seems to be advocating a single payer system in which health care is free for all.

Matt Damon is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors both from a box office standpoint (a recent study revealed that his films make more money per every dollar he is paid than any other major Hollywood star) but also from a quality standpoint. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Matt Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, the everyman who triumphs over adversities large and small. Here even though his character has an overly-developed sense of self-preservation (so much so at times that he is willing to throw friends and loved ones under the bus for his own gain) he’s still so thoroughly likable that you end up rooting for him anyway. I doubt if any other star in Hollywood could get away with a role like this.

Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico so there is a healthy dose of Mexican talent in the film, including Diego Luna who is growing into as compelling an actor as there is in Hollywood. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, is lustrous and shows why many consider her one of the most promising actresses in the world. Copley is a bit over-the-top as Krueger, more brutish than anything. He would have been more compelling a villain had his character been fleshed out a little (no pun intended – for those who have seen the movie already you’ll know what I mean). Foster, an Oscar-winning actress and one of the finest performers of her generation, throws us an oddly lackluster performance which gives me the sense that she really didn’t understand or care about her character at all. It makes me wonder if her experience on this film may have led her to announce (in a roundabout way) her retirement from acting. If so, I hope that she reconsiders; I’d hate this movie to be her acting swan song.

I like that the movie gives us something to think about, although conservatives may find the film to be unpalatable to their viewpoints. Some of the film is a bit wild in terms of the potshots it takes, sacrificing believable story to make its political points. Liberals may be more forgiving of its sins in this area however.

In a fairly tepid and disappointing summer blockbuster season, this is one of the brighter lights. While the box office to date leads me to believe that it will have to rely on overseas revenue to make back its production costs, this is still a compelling movie that you might want to see on a big screen for some of the awesome visuals (a shuttle crash on Elysium is simply amazing). Hey, in the heat of August an air-conditioned multiplex might be just the thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful science fiction. Nice performances by Damon, Braga and Luna. Sweet special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems scattershot at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlyle’s shuttle bears the Bugatti Automotive logo.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100; more positive reviews than negative but not by much.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zardoz

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Red State