Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain American Express Shield: Don't leave home without it!

Captain American Express Shield: Don’t leave home without it!

(2014) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Gregory St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp, Maximilliano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Bernard White, Callan Mulvey, Branka Katic. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

The buzz on the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been intense with fanboys eating their own livers in anticipation of its release. Well, now that it’s finally out, does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America a.k.a. Cap is still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century after having been frozen solid since the Second World War. He keeps a to-do list (which varies depending on which country you’re seeing the film in) that includes cultural touchstones, historic events that took place during his hibernation and things to try that just weren’t available back in 1944. He checks stuff off the list – in between missions for SHIELD to save the world or at least keep it safer.

While rescuing a ship hijacked by pirates Steve and his partner Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) a.k.a. The Black Widow discover some data being uploaded to a satellite array that is heavily encrypted. When he delivers it to Nick Fury (Jackson), the head of SHIELD, all Hades breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been infiltrated and Steve isn’t sure who to trust – Fury, who has lied to him constantly? The Black Widow whose past is shrouded in mystery? Alexander Pearce (Redford), the security council member whom Fury reports to? And what of the Winter Soldier, an equally mysterious assassin who seems to have all of Cap’s strength and agility?

I’m being deliberately vague on the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns that decorate this film, although to be honest if you really want to know more detail you can find it elsewhere on the Net. The movie has been described as a superhero movie with a secret identity as a ’70s Cold War espionage thriller. What that doesn’t tell you is that it takes the best elements from both genres and does them up perfectly.

The Russo brothers ratchet up the paranoia and suspense and keep it in the red zone throughout.  Astonishing action sequences are interspersed with expository sequences that will keep you guessing as to who can be trusted – and who can’t. Some of the turncoats in the film will shock longtime followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe although some will make sense upon reflection.

There are still plenty of fans who are uneasy with Evans as the iconic Captain, but he does his best work here, capturing Cap’s uneasiness with the grey areas that SHIELD is dwelling in and having a hard time reconciling his 1944 morality with the moral morass that is 2014. He’s got the build and the athleticism to pull off the fight sequences but he doesn’t pull off the charisma and leadership that I always imagined someone like Steve Rogers would possess. Then again, it’s doubtful that any actor could.

We get to see even more of Jackson as Fury and he shines as you would expect. Johansson also has an expanded role but we really don’t find out a ton about her character which is as you might expect; I get the sense that they are planning a Black Widow feature down the line and will probably explore the character in greater depth then.

Redford is magnificent as Pearce. We don’t get to see a lot of villain roles for Redford but he inhabits this one. Wisely, as most great movie villains do, he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a hero, saving the world from itself. If you remember his movie Sneakers think of the role as a cross between his role and the villain role played by Ben Kingsley.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Anthony Mackie. He plays Sam Wilson, a decorated paratrooper who is befriended by Rogers and becomes his ally known as the Falcon using a flying suit. His camaraderie with Evans is genuine and the two make a formidable onscreen team. Who knows, maybe a feature starring the Falcon is in the cards down the line.

The Russos chose to use practical effects whenever possible, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of CGI but when they do use it, it’s magnificent. The massive helicarriers look absolutely real as does the Triskelion building that serves as SHIELD’s Washington DC headquarters.

The question is usually with films like this do you need to be fans of the comic books in order to make sense of the goings on? The answer is no, although it would be extremely helpful if you’d seen the preceding Marvel movies, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Those who are completely unfamiliar with the comics and the previous movies and wish to view this as a stand alone movie, you should be good following most of the action although there will be references whizzing overhead that you just won’t get. Don’t fret; they aren’t there for you. Still, even if you aren’t a comic book geek or a superhero junkie, you’ll find plenty to like here. Definitely one of the best superhero movies ever – and likely to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action and suspense – the perfect blending of both. Keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during some of the expository sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action which means plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice narrating the Smithsonian exhibit for Captain America is Gary Sinese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Front Man

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

The Punk Singer


The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

(2013) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Tobi Vail, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Johanna Fateman, Corin Tucker, Tavi Gevinson, Jocelyn Samson, Lynn Breedlove, Kathryn Wilcox, Jennifer Baumgardner, Billy Karren, JD Samson, Leo Galland, Tamra Davis, Allison Wolfe, Jen Smith, Ann Powers. Directed by Sini Anderson

Feminism has deep roots going back to the women’s suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony and continuing through the 60s, the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which remains unpassed) and Gloria Steinem. There were many who thought the feminist movement to be dead. Don’t tell the Riot Grrrls that.

Riot Grrrls is a movement that sprung primarily out of punk music made primarily by women which addressed women’s issues and adopted an aggressive feminist stance. One of the major forces in that movement was the band Bikini Kill and their primary songwriter, singer and frontwoman Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill grew up in the Pacific Northwest but later relocated to Washington DC. They were often misunderstood by the general public and frankly misrepresented by the press as man-haters (which they clearly weren’t as the band’s guitarist, Billy Karren, is male). Hanna was also often described as the victim of rape by her father which she in the film addresses as completely untrue (rape and sexual abuse are frequent topics for Hanna in both Bikini Kill and her next band, Le Tigre).

As a stage performer, Hanna is energetic and passionate. She used her sexuality as a form of expression and her gamine good looks, which remind me of Zooey Deschanel, are arresting. One of her trademarks is to call women to the front by the stage and to ask men to stay in the back; this was a safety issue as at punk shows moshing could get violent and cause women to be injured and molested. Hanna wanted Bikini Kill shows to be safe places for women.

She is married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, which makes for an interesting couple. He comes from a band who has written lyrics about women that are less than complimentary but he comes off as a devoted husband and one who supports his wife and her viewpoint completely. They’ve been married seven years although they’ve been together for much longer than that which is unusually long for relationships among rock musicians.

Hanna stopped performing back in 2005 and for a long while many of those who knew her didn’t know why. She used this film which debuted at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which I personally think is the perfect place for a film like this) to announce that she had been diagnosed with late state Lyme’s Disease which prevented her from performing – she had told her bandmates in Le Tigre that she felt she had written everything she wanted to say which she in the film admits was untrue but that she felt safer in saying that than in admitting she no longer had control over her own body.

Cinematically, the movie doesn’t break any new ground as a documentary. Fans of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre will be happy to discover that there is plenty of archival footage of both bands – some of it never seen publically. There are a great many talking head interviews, mainly with women at Hanna’s request – she didn’t want the film to be “validated” by male experts which I can kind of understand, given her point of view.

Her performance with her new band The Julie Ruin (named for her solo album) at the Knitting Factory in New York City is captured at the end of the movie. It seems that Hanna is going to be back writing and maybe performing (although I can’t imagine she’ll be performing nearly as much) which to my mind is a welcome thing.

I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with Hanna shortly before she instituted a press blackout after continual misrepresentations in the mainstream press about her band and her philosophy. I was pretty much still finding my way politically so I’m afraid I probably came off as something of an oaf at the time, but I remember her passion, her humor and how articulately she expressed herself. One of the things I remember is asking why the Pacific Northwest seemed to be such a catalyst for social change as well as giving the world grunge. I don’t remember exactly what she replied but the thought clearly amused her. Obviously I was eager to see the film when I discovered it would be playing at the Enzian.

If I had the chance to interview her again, the one question I’d be interested in having her answer is whether the feminism she practices divides the sexes further and whether or not it would be healthier to encourage unity between the sexes. However, I must say that I came away from the film with three things. First, as a film it would have been better if it relied less on talking heads. Secondly, that feminism is far from dead and given the current war on women being practiced by the radical right, that it is needed much more now than ever. Thirdly, I came away respecting Ms. Hanna even more than I already did which was considerably. Even if you aren’t into punk or electroclash music (which my wife isn’t) you can still find a lot to appreciate in this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the language is rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign as well as by a benefit concert at the Knitting Factory headlined by Gordon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Days

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

Brake


Stephen Dorff is having a very bad day.

Stephen Dorff is having a very bad day.

(2012) Suspense (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh, Tom Berenger, JR Bourne, Kali Rocha, Bobby Tomberlin, King Orba, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Sammy Sheik (voice), Kent Shocknek, Jaylen Moore, Stephen J. Bridgewater, Matthew Pollino, Jason Raphael, Jamie Fishback, Michael Franklin, Marisol James. Directed by Gabe Torres

You just know that when you wake up and you have no idea where you are that you’re in for a crappy day. However, when you discover that you are held prisoner in a Plexiglas cube in the trunk of a car, it just might be something else entirely, as in. Worst. Day. Ever.

Jeremy Reins (Dorff) is having that kind of day. To make things even more ominous, there’s a digital clock that seems to be counting down to something. A voice on a radio accuses him of being a government agent, and a man named Henry (Bourne) is also on that same radio, telling Jeremy he’s in the very same predicament – except that he works for the State Department and they have his family hostage on top of it.

Why are his captors doing this? Because they want the location of something called Roulette, that’s why. As it turns out, that is the code name of the bunker where the President retreats to in time of national emergency. And as it also turns out, Jeremy is in fact a Government agent and one of a select few who knows where Roulette is. And as is turns out yet again, his captors are willing to do just about anything to get that information – be it to torture Jeremy with swarms of bees (which Jeremy is allergic to), to kill innocent people and even to kidnap Jeremy’s wife Molly (Leigh) while Jeremy listens in on the radio.

As he is driven around in the trunk of the car, he hears radio reports that Washington is in chaos as multiple targets are hit by terrorist bombs. Jeremy realizes that he is not in the hands of just any terrorist group; they are after the complete and utter destruction of our government and nothing less than a coup d’état will do.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks to this movie is that we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Fortunately, while the spin here is nothing remarkable, the people who are both in front of and behind the cameras are extremely competent at what they do. Torres, who to this point had mainly television credits on his resume, is adept at keeping the tension at high levels. The audience is literally squirming in their easy chairs, popcorn and soda forgotten as they grow mesmerized with the events unfolding.

Dorff is more often cast as the villain and those are roles he does very well but on this occasion he gets to not only be the leading man but he is literally the only face we see for about two thirds of the movie. It’s a rigorous, demanding task for the actor but one sometimes forgets that Dorff is really good at what he does. He is more than up to the challenge.

The ending unfortunately doesn’t live up to the rest of the film. There are a couple of twists – one you may or may not see coming, one you probably will. Also, there are only so many things you can do with a guy locked in the trunk of the car. We don’t see any other characters for the most part – for good reason as it turns out – and while I like the idea of feeling Jeremy’s isolation and helplessness, it can get frustrating for the audience in the latter stages of the film.

I actually found this to be a solid, entertaining thriller, one which I suspect was meant to go direct-to-video but was given an excuse-me theatrical release for reasons I can’t even fathom; it probably cost the distributor more to do that than just go right to the home video/VOD route. Still, don’t let that keep you from giving this one a shot. As thrillers go, it’s as good as most of the stuff that got full theatrical runs with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. This one deserved both.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly well done, with a good eye towards keeping the tension high. Dorff rarely gets to play a heroic character and does pretty well at it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Starts to feel stale towards the end and the ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of bad words (you’d swear too if you were locked in a trunk) and scenes of torture both mental and physical.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was primarily filmed in North Hollywood, subbing for Washington DC.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4,876 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Toy Story 2

Lee Daniels’ The Butler


Not everything in this film is Black and White - but a lot of it is.

Not everything in this film is Black and White – but a lot of it is.

(2013) Period Drama (Weinstein) Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey, Clarence Williams III, Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, Liev Schreiber, Nelsan Ellis, Alan Rickman, Jane Fonda, Joe Chrest, Elijah Kelly, Adriane Lenox. Directed by Lee Daniels

The Civil Rights era was a turbulent time for this country as we were forced to look at a very ugly side of ourselves. That ugliness played out on television screens across the country as deeply held beliefs – generations in the making – erupted to the surface.

Cecil Gains (Whitaker) grew up as a sharecropper’s son on a cotton farm in Georgia. When he was a young boy, he watched his father (Banner) murdered in front of his eyes by the overseer (Pettyfer) for objecting to the overseer raping his wife (Carey). Gains is taken in by the kindly mistress of the house (Redgrave) who teaches him how to be a house servant. With the specter of his father’s murder hanging over him, he decides to leave the employ and venture to Washington DC to find work as a domestic.

He is spotted at a Washington hotel by the Chief Engineer of the White House domestic staff and is given a job as a butler. This of course is a big deal for Cecil and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) who is a bit star-struck and assumes she’ll get a tour of his new place of employment. Cecil, however, is all about keeping his head down and serving those who sit in the Oval Office to the best of his ability. Along with fellow butlers James (Kravitz) and Carter (Gooding), he will serve seven Presidents over nearly 40 years, from Eisenhower (Williams) to Kennedy (Marsden) to LBJ (Schreiber) to Nixon (Cusack) to Reagan (Rickman) and Nancy Reagan (Fonda). He becomes a comforting presence, nearly invisible – the room feels empty when he’s in it.

At home, his wife is the President of his household and he rarely fades into the background there, raising his kids Louis (Oyelowo) and Charles (Kelly). Louis would go off to Fisk University in Tennessee despite his father’s vehement objections (he didn’t move his family away from the South just to see his son go right back into the lion’s den) and his mother’s desire to have him closer to home. There he becomes politicized and becomes a zealous member of the civil rights movement, enduring arrests and beatings. This becomes a wedge between him and Cecil, his father disapproving of his activities while for Louis’ part he is disdainful of his father’s profession, thinking him a subservient Uncle Tom to the white Master, a symbol for his people’s submission and oppression. Both men are wrong, but it will take a tragedy for them to even consider seeing the other’s point of view.

The movie is loosely (and I mean loosely) based on the life of Eugene Allen, who was an African-American butler in the White House from 1948-1996. While there were some similarities of events (for example, Nancy Reagan really did invite the real Eugene Allen to a State dinner but it was on the occasion of his retirement, not the cause of it as it is depicted here), there are a lot of liberties taken with his life story – for example, he had only one son, not two and that  son was not as involved in the Civil Rights movement as Charles is although to be fair, NOBODY was as involved in the movement as he was – Charles is depicted here as being a Freedom Rider, in the inner circle of Martin Luther King (and present at his assassination), a member of the Black Panther party and eventually an activist against Apartheid.

Daniels, who broke out a few years ago with Precious is one of a group of outstanding African-American directors who have begun to build some pretty impressive movies in the last few years. This is his most ambitious work and it has been rewarded with being a breakout hit,. I wouldn’t be surprised if this gets some award consideration, particularly for Winfrey who is absolutely outstanding here.

Yeah, there were times I realized I was watching OPRAH but that was mostly early on and as the movie continues, the audience becomes lost in her performance, watching her chain-smoke her way through the most growth of any character in the movie, showing some all-too-human frailties while maintaining her strength and dignity in the face of increasing loneliness, getting all dressed up and dancing alone to songs on TV variety shows while her husband works, another weekend night alone. It’s quite moving and indicative of how powerful an actress Winfrey is. Her talk show, television network and financial empire have kept her away from acting for the most part but had she continued after her stellar work in The Color Purple she might just have a couple of Oscars on her mantle by now.

While the actors playing the Presidents are eclectic choices for the roles, they at least do them capably and if they don’t necessarily capture the personality of the men they play, they at least capture the dignity and the strength of the office.

There is a bit of Forrest Gump here with Cecil and Louis being thrust into historical events – Cecil as an onlooker and Louis as a participant, further illustrating the gulf between the men. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and has a thankless role; Cecil’s whole existence revolves around him being invisible and it’s hard to make an invisible man interesting. In that sense, Winfrey and Oyelowo carry the movie. The latter turns in a performance that serves notice that he is a force to be reckoned with. I foresee some major roles coming his way.

If there’s a criticism I have for the movie, it’s that it can be overly melodramatic. While there are those who say it trivializes the civil rights movement as an essential side show to the American Presidency and to Cecil’s family drama, I think the scenes depicting the lunch counter sit-in in Nashville and its ensuing violence to the police turning fire hoses and dogs on the marchers from Selma are powerful and moving.

Personally, I wouldn’t have minded the script sticking closer to the real Eugene Allen’s life – it must have been fascinating. Perhaps someday there is a documentary to be made of it, although I suspect it never will be – the butlers would tend to see a more private side of the President than perhaps they might be willing to show to posterity. However, this is indeed a solid movie, generally well-acted if a bit maudlin in places but the power of the history behind the histrionics more than makes up for it.

REASONS TO GO: A visceral reminder of the hardships undergone by African-Americans and civil rights activists in particular. Amazing performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly melodramatic. Based on a real person but very loosely which the film should at least mention.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a goodly amount of violence and some images that are graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Laura Ziskin’s last film before passing away of breast cancer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mississippi Burning

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: True Legend