Submission


Stanley Tucci clearly has a position of power over Addison Timlin…or does he?

(2017) Drama (Great Point Media) Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Jessica Hecht, Ritchie Coster, Colby Minifie, Alison Bartlett, David Pittu, Henry Stram, Juan Castano, Matt Ballard, Ashley Trawinski, Stephanie Berry, Devin Norik, Kenneth De Abrew, S.J. Son, Nicole Orth-Palavicini, Malika Samuel, Deaven Brooks, Barbara Spiegel. Directed by Richard Levine

 

In an era which has seen the #MeToo movement grow into a national tidal wave of women standing up to name those who have raped, harassed or committed sexual misconduct against them, movies like this one stand out as a bit of a dinosaur.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) toils at a bucolic college campus in Vermont teaching creative writing courses which mainly consist of students reading their works aloud in class and the other students criticizing them, generally with banal cruelty. Ted is married to Sherrie (Sedgwick) who as a medical doctor is likely responsible for their beautiful split level home, although Ted had a bestselling novel years ago based on his own experiences growing up with a radical father who self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war.

The follow-up however has yet to surface and his agent (Gallagher) has more or less given up on him, so Ted lives in this kind of literary hell in which he listens to badly written purple prose week after week without any let-up. The, one of his students – Angela Argo (Timlin) who has been one of the most vocal and vicious critics – finally after some liberal ego massage gets Ted to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and he realizes at once he is looking at genuine talent.

Her novel is insightful and extremely erotic, a tale of a student who has become sexually obsessed with her teacher. Of course, Ted surmises that the teacher character is based on him and the student on her – Angela makes it perfectly clear that it is the case. However, Ted makes some ill-advised decisions after Angela continues to shamelessly manipulate him and puts everything at risk – his job, his reputation, and his family.

I guess in a way we can see this film as a way the patriarchy thinks about these sexual misconduct cases. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to Ted and yet he puts himself in a position where he can be seduced and doesn’t seem to realize that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Angela as a means of getting Ted to submit her novel to his agent. She seems sweet at first but sweet turns into demanding turns into seduction turns into accusatory. Angela is supposed to be the villain here but quite frankly, cases like this are far more rare than male authority figures using their power to manipulate vulnerable women into situations where they feel forced to have sexual relationships they don’t want.

The movie is based on a novel written back in 2000 by Francine Prose called The Blue Angel which in turn is loosely based on the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name which Angela is watching during the course of this film in a charming meta move. Movies of this sort are not uncommon – anyone remember the Demi Moore/Michael Douglas film Disclosure? – in which women are shown to have the upper hand in sexual politics although clearly that isn’t the case. It is the type of attitude that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to flourish.

While the subject is accidentally topical, the plot is predictable and cliché. The movie is saved by Tucci who gives his usual strong performance, although his voiceover narration particularly in the beginning of the film is particularly grating. The collegiate setting particularly in the beautiful countryside of New England is somehow comforting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s the college I’d want to have tenure at.

Watchable mainly because of the strong cast, Submission fails on a number of levels. From a political correctness standpoint, it comes off as somewhat of an anachronism in an age when we are beginning to stand up and take notice of the treatment that women have had to endure in relative silence for decades. Moreover, the way the story is told is rife with clichés and worse yet doesn’t particularly add anything to the narrative. I’m not against the idea of a story about an amoral seductress manipulating a naïve professional for her own ambition but this is the wrong time for that kind of story to be told. I’d much rather see movies that illustrate the reality of what women in the workplace have endured and continue to endure even today.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci is always a treat to watch. As it turns out the plot is very topical. The collegiate vistas are oddly comforting.
REASONS TO STAY: Viewers may get the sense that they’ve seen this all before. Cliches abound throughout the film. The narration is a bit grating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual content, nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angela watches the classic Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel which gave the source novel its title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elegy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Chasing Great

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Captain Phillips


Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

(2013) True Life Drama (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar, Angus MacInnes, Amr El-Bayoumi, Stacha Hicks, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Goodman. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Most of us at one time or another will face a situation that will put our resolve to the test. Who we are and where our moral compass points to are defined by those moments. Few of us however will face that moment in a life or death situation where not only our own lives hang in the balance but other lives as well.

Richard Phillips (Hanks) of Vermont is a ship captain, a man used to commanding a merchant vessel filled with cargo, transporting it from one spot in the world to another. He’s not overly fond of the run up the West African coast past Somalia, a trouble spot from which piracy has become a commonplace means of acquiring wealth but it’s a job and he approaches it as such. He literally kisses his wife (Keener) goodbye at the airport, grabs his lunchpail and hardhat and goes to work.

But whereas he adopts a very blue collar approach to his job, he is certainly a leader. He expects his men to do their jobs efficiently and well and tends to be a bit of a hard ass. His officers respect him and while there is some grumbling among the union rank and file, isn’t there always?

For Muse (Abdi), life is much less clear cut. He lives in an impoverished Somali fisherman off of coastal waters that have been overfished to the point that they are literally barren of life. A local warlord insists that Muse and other village men go out and hijack another ship, even though they had just successfully taken another ship the previous week. Muse knows that this cycle will continue and has his eyes on a big score, enough so he can take what proceeds he can and move his family somewhere safer.

For Muse and the three men in his command – young Bilal (Abdirahman), on his first mission; Elmi (Ali) the clever driver and mechanic, and Najee (Ahmed) who chews khef leaves nonstop, making him aggressive and angry which is never a good combination. They spot the Maersk Alabama making its way up the coast and recognize this as their golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Captain Phillips watches the skiff approach at speed and knows instinctively that these men aren’t there to fish. His pleas for assistance are at first met with skepticism but after he fends off one attack, the second leads to a confrontation that will eventually involve the U.S. Navy, a lifeboat and a hair-trigger situation that could lead to the deaths of not only the pirates but Captain Phillips himself.

Greengrass, who previously gave us a docudrama called United 93 which was one of the best (if not the best) movies on the events of 9-11 yet, is adept at taking a situation that was headline news, enough so that most of us know how it ends and nonetheless keeps us on the edge of our seats. Much of that falls to Hanks, one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Few actors are as likable as Hanks who is not so much the guy next door but the guy down the street who lets you borrow his riding lawnmower on a scorching Saturday afternoon in August. The man is able to project such decency that we are immediately drawn into concern for Phillips’ safety even despite the kind of New England frosty demeanor.

Most of us who are fairly aware of the world around us know pretty much what happened during the real events surrounding Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama in 2009 but most of us aren’t fully aware of the details. That allows us to be caught up in the tension and atmosphere and given the likability of Hanks we become fully invested in his fate.

Greengrass also makes the pirates somewhat victims of circumstance; you get the sense young Muse (who in reality was 18 years old when these events transpired) would have preferred a more honest day’s work. He has few options however and does what he must; the rail-thin Abdi gets some sympathy despite the brutality of some of his crew who are a hair’s breadth from losing it the longer things go.

It should be mentioned that the crew members of the Maersk Alabama have disagreed vociferously with the way events were portrayed in the film and have brought suit against the parent company and Phillips, claiming his recklessness brought them into waters he knew hijackings had taken place in, all to save money by shortening the trip.

That said, the movie works as entertainment and is certainly going to make a lot of best-of-the-year lists come December. Few heroes measure up to their own legend and I’m sure the real Captain Phillips probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Tom Hanks version. Regardless of how events actually played out, this was nevertheless an extraordinary event that will put your emotions through a wringer as depicted here and that can be an exhilarating thing.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Terrific performances by Hanks and Abdi as the adversaries.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much shaky-cam for my comfort.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of substance abuse, a good deal of violence as well as a couple of bloody images, and sustained tension throughout. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The shipboard filming was done aboard the Alexander Maersk, sister ship to the Maersk Alabama.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Argo

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Tomorrow, When the War Began

I Am Legend


I Am Legend

Will Smith is tired of taking career advice from zombies.

(2007) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Charlie Tahan, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Dash Mihok, Joanna Numata, Samuel Glen, James McCauley, Marin Ireland, Pedro Mojica, Caitlin McHugh. Directed by Francis Lawrence

 

How does the world end? With a mighty cataclysmic event, a catastrophe natural or man-made such as an asteroid, a nuclear holocaust? Or will it be with the sounds of illness, a disease that wipes us out and leaves the planet to reclaim its cities until every trace we ever existed is gone?

Robert Neville (Smith) lives in Manhattan. He’s a scientist – or was. You see, Manhattan isn’t exactly the center of the world anymore. It’s deserted, inhabited by beasts escaped from the Central Park Zoo, Neville and his German Shepherd Sam.

The population of the world has been wiped out. They were trying to cure cancer and instead unleashed a virus that turned most of the population into mindless, hairless albinos with fangs and an insatiable hunger for human flesh. His home is like a fortress with a portable generator, steel doors on the windows and bright lamps that keep the zombies away (like vampires, they are allergic to sunlight that burns them into ashes when exposed).

He also has a lab in his basement complete with captured zombies to experiment on, trying to create an anti-virus that might cure the virus that came from the cure to…oh it makes my head spin. However one wonders if he’s the last man on earth and he’s already immune what he needs a cure for.

Into his life comes Anna (Braga) and young Ethan (Tahan), two survivors drawn to him by his regular radio broadcasts. At first he is happy to see any human beings at all but soon his situation is complicated, particularly since he’s getting close to a cure – but so too are the zombies getting close to finding a way into his fortress.

This is based on the classic Richard Matheson novel of the same name which has also spawned two other movie versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in the 50s and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in the 70s. In both cases the plague victims turned into vampire-like creatures which is what the book had originally (in the book Neville armed himself with garlic cloves and Holy Water and did battle with crosses and stakes), but I think the fast-moving hairless zombies are a bit of an improvement.

Some critics have given the movie lumps for the zombies which are a mixture of CGI and make-up effects. In all honesty I have to disagree; the monsters are scary enough to give me the shudders even though I’ve seen the movie several times.

If you ever doubted that Will Smith is one of the most charismatic movie stars of our generation, look no further than here. Even in a dark, serious role he is still immensely likable and commands your attention. The flashback scenes with his wife (Richardson) and daughter (Willow Smith, his real life daughter) are extremely affecting. This is really his show; it’s just him and the dog for a large amount of the film and so a bankable star is absolutely crucial to making this movie work. That it does is all about The Fresh Prince.

It’s not just him of course; the special effects are pretty cool and the scenes in which Manhattan is evacuated is about as spectacular as it gets. Those scenes work so much better on the big theater screen but hopefully you can see it on something a bit larger than your iPhone.

There are some pretty serious lapses in logic here. For example, they clearly show the bridges and entrances to Manhattan being blown up but yet Anna and Ethan somehow make their way there. A single line of dialogue – “one of the tunnels was still open” could have resolved it, or “We found a boat that was still floating” but just having them appear is an insult to the intelligence of the audience.

I wasn’t overly fond of the ending which was somewhat more hopeful than the book was but making a great ending for a movie seems to be a lost art these days. Truly I dislike happy endings for their own sake; some movies really demand something bleaker and this one is one of those. On the extended cuts of the film, there is an alternate ending that is I think better than the one they used but it still could have used some work.

The movie is pretty solid and doesn’t really pull off the novel as well as it could have. Those who don’t find Will Smith their cup of tea should be advised that you are going to get an excess of him onscreen, although not in his wisecracking Fresh Prince persona which he’s used in a lot of movies over the years. For those who are his fans, this is a must-see. For those who like sci-fi spectaculars, this is also something that should be on your radar. For those who loved the Matheson book…well, it’s closer than the other two movies but still not nearly as effective. Everyone else, check it out if you think it might appeal to you but it’s probably not worth going out of your way to find.

WHY RENT THIS: Much more intense than the previous versions of the film. Stark and well-made, the sight of New York being reclaimed by nature is pretty sweet. Smith is as always an engaging hero.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is unsatisfying, there are some incredible gaps in logic and the first part of the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence and the action can be intense; the plague victims are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In various parts of the film, billboards and DVD packages for proposed Warner Brothers/DC Comics films can be seen, most of which never got made (at least to date).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD Special Edition includes an extended version of the film (along with the theatrical release version), four animated comics and DVD-ROM material including a 21-minute long featurette on real-life deadly diseases. There is a 3-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition which takes the DVD-ROM material and makes it accessible. There are also deleted scenes and an audio commentary available on the 3-Disc edition that isn’t on the 2-Disc version. For those who just want the original movie, you can probably find the single disc release out there dirt cheap.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.4M on a $150M production budget; this was a definite hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Flight

Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen