Milton’s Secret


The young and the old share a moment.

The young and the old share a moment.

(2015) Drama (Momentum) Michelle Rodriguez, Mia Kirshner, Donald Sutherland, William Anscough, David Sutcliffe, Ella Ballentine, Percy Hynes White, Stephen Huszar, Hays Wellford, Jessica Greco, Jaeden Noel, Auden Larratt, Milo Larratt, Nidal Kabboul. Directed by Barnet Bain

 

As adults, we spend too much time worrying. Worrying about what the future holds; the unknown terrifies us. That can lead us to dwelling in the past, when things were simpler, brighter, better. The sunlit, dappled memories of yesterday make an easier place to live than the harsh, dark and frightening future. So few of us live in the here and now.

At least that’s what Canadian/German life coach, philosopher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle opines. He’s written bestselling books like The Power of Now and A New Earth but has also gone after the hearts and minds of children with the illustrated kids book Milton’s Secret, adapted here into a movie by Bain.

Milton Adams (Anscough) is eleven with his 12th birthday looming and the poor guy is a bundle of nerves. The economic downturn has affected both his parents; his mom (Kirshner), a real estate agent, has trouble finding qualified buyers when she can find buyers at all while his dad (Sutcliffe), a stockbroker, tries to reassure her that things are going to be okay when the market continues to provide losses month after month.

On top of it all, he’s getting bullied by Carter (White), a neighbor who himself is being bullied by his dad (Huszar) a former football player who is taking out his own frustrations on his kid. Milton’s best friend Tim (Wellford) is too scared of Carter to do anything to help and sometimes it seems that only his teacher Ms. Ferguson (Rodriguez) has any inkling of helping, but even she is locked in to a Parent’s Night presentation when all the kids will be reading speeches based on a subject of their choosing and yeah, that’s got Milton stressed as well. Plus, you know, he’s named Milton.

Into the chaos comes Grandpa Howard (Sutherland), a combat veteran who has found a kind of Zen inner peace. He’s the prototypical wacky grandpa, drinking a seaweed herbal tea that tastes like “serenity,” working on restoring the garden the Adams family has neglected, and dating his Zoomba instructor for which his daughter chides him. Grandpa has ideas about living in the present, while Milton is resorting to alchemy to try and turn base materials into gold to relieve the financial pressure. Can Grandpa help Milton escape Planet Fear?

One gets the sense that Tolle lives in a bit of a bubble. How many kids of eleven have any kind of inkling about alchemy, not to mention who are attempting to practice it? Tolle, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t seem to have a sense that he hangs out with a lot of kids. Milton, Tim and Milton’s crush Anna (Ballentine) are far too precocious; we only get one scene in which Milton is playing videogames and none of the kids in the movie seem to be engaged in any sort of play. I agree that kids are far more aware of the environment around them than Hollywood (and consequently adults) gives them credit for, but kids are also all about impulse gratification. Milton is far too serious and far too un-self-centered to really be relatable as an 11-year-old circa 2016.

Sutherland is marvelous as always; he’s a welcome presence with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile that brightens up the screen, but he’s given ponderous platitudes to offer rather than genuine wisdom. I get that every movie has something it wants to get across and Tolle’s philosophy of putting oneself completely in the now is not a bad message to send, but it seems that we’re getting battered over the head with it somewhat. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

Still, I liked the movie overall. You get a sense of the realities of financial pressures and how they affect every member of the family; the tensions between Milton’s mom and dad are handled realistically with their attempts to mute their arguments failing while their precocious son tries to hear what his parents are fighting about. You also get that sense of small town life where there isn’t a whole lot to do, which is why kids (and their parents) seem to be glued to their smart phones.

There’s a whole lot of Donovan on the soundtrack and fans of the 60s folk-rocker will be appreciative of that. For my money, his music is used effectively without being too overwhelming. Some purists may grouse that there isn’t very much contemporary music on the soundtrack, but that’s a refreshing change as I see it – or hear it, in this instance.

Certainly the movie isn’t perfect but it’s solid. It is based on a children’s book, but I’m not sure that I would call this a children’s movie although there is that Afterschool Special feel of an issue being addressed and solutions found. In some ways, the movie is a little bit too pat in that department. People under financial strain aren’t going to be happy unless that financial strain is removed and I don’t care what kinds of self-help techniques are employed. Yet I found myself liking the movie despite the flaws or maybe because of some of them. Anscough at least knows how to look and act stressed out which adds to the authenticity of the film. Maybe some of the issues depicted here may be a little too close to home for those still feeling the pressure of trying to make ends meet in a world where that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. On the other hand, life is far too short to spend it worrying about what might happen.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of small town life. There are some lessons to be had here about living in the moment.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is infected with precocious child disease with a side order of sitcom problem solving syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief foul language and some thematic issues involving bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fonda was originally cast as Grandpa Howard but was replaced by Donald Sutherland.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Morgan

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Savages


 

Savages

Blake Lively is jealous that Salma Hayek gets a meal and she gets a salad.

(2012) Drama (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bechir, Amber Dixon, Joel David Moore, Diego Catano, Shea Whigham, Joaquin Cosio, Antonio Jaramillo. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

When pushed to the wall, we all do what we have to in order to survive. We may be the most peaceable souls normally but that all changes in certain situations. Sometimes, we must become savages in order to make it through.

Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson) have a business together. Their business happens to be growing marijuana. Ben is a botanist and a businessman from Berkeley. He has managed to breed the most amazing weed on the planet and has put together a network of distributors that keeps costs down and quality high.

Chon is the big stick in the equation. Ben’s business model doesn’t call for violence often but when it’s needed Chon supplies it. He’s a vet fresh off of tour in Afghanistan who has a cynical outlook on life. He’s the yin to Ben’s yang….er, or vice versa.

What they have in common is O. Which stands for orgasm. Which stands for Ophelia (Lively). She is Ben’s girlfriend. She’s also Chon’s girlfriend. Sometimes all at the same time. She has orgasms. Ben has orgasms. Chon has wargasms. It all works out nicely for everyone. Life is kind of a stoner paradise from their beach house in the OC.

Then it becomes clear that the Baja cartels want to invade. Alex (Bechir), a slimy lawyer, puts what sounds like a reasonable proposition out to Chon and Ben. Chon is suspicious and Ben is more interested in getting out of the business entirely. However when they turn down the offer, Elena (Hayek), the head of the cartel, sics her vicious enforcer Lado (del Toro) on the boys. He discovers their weakness is O (not orgasms, Ophelia who provides them – she likes to be called O because she hates her name by the way) and kidnaps their weakness.

At first Chon and particularly Ben are so concerned with O’s safety that they’ll do literally anything to ensure it. But as they get their composure back it becomes clear that once the cartel gets what they want (their superb weed and their business model) all three of them will be disposed of so it’s all-out war – reluctantly on Ben’s side. And in any war, there are casualties.

Say what you want about Oliver Stone’s politics, his point of view, the man can direct – JFK is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s just that sometimes he has a habit of inserting himself into a movie – the good ol’ “Look Ma I’m Directing” syndrome, or LMIDS.

Much of the problem is in the narration. Blake Lively is a fine actress but there is just far too much narration and what that is generally is the filmmaker inserting themselves into the story. Trust the story to tell itself – and trust the actors to convey what’s in their heads. If you have to narrate every scene, you’re selling your story and your cast short.

And part of the problem is also in the story itself. The main characters are a little narcissistic, a bit naive, and they do a lot of drugs. I mean Ben, O and Chon smoke a lot of their own product. That may make it seem like they’re just kids in paradise but in reality they’re criminals, selling illegal narcotics. They do some pretty bad things along the way which might be part of Stone’s message, but I’ve never been a fan of 70s movies that require you to root for the bad guy who’s less bad.

And there are some pretty impressive performances here, particularly from del Toro who’s as magnificent a villain as we’ve seen since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. He delights in inflicting pain and torment but he’s all business as well. He’s as frightening an enforcer as you’re ever likely to meet. Not that you meet a lot of enforcers.

For all intents and purposes this is a kind of Jules et Jim for stoners but done as a crime drama with a side of brutality. Does that really sound like an interesting film to you? Maybe it is and I’m just missing it but quite frankly I never connected to the movie and I usually do with Stone’s works. I haven’t even mentioned the ending which is really jump-the-shark bad. It’s definitely a LMIDS move that adds an additional unnecessary fifteen minutes onto the film and for no other reason than for the filmmakers to pull a fast one on their audience.

I’m not one for recommending this but this is the kind of movie that probably should best be experienced while bombed out of your gourd. It will help with the somewhat unlikely plot and the somewhat unlikable characters. But mostly, it will help with the directorial parlor tricks that serve to take you out of the film and remind you that this is an Oliver Stone Production. We only need the opening credits to remind us of that; anything else is just an overactive ego.

REASONS TO GO: Del Toro may well be the best screen baddie in the business at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly narrated and too many cutesie directorial moves. Very difficult to get invested in the main characters. The ending is really godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of drug use – and I mean a lot. If that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s also a lot of violence, a bit of torture, plenty of sex, some gruesome images, nudity and pretty much constant cursing. This is what they call a “Hard R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uma Thurman was cast to play Ophelia’s mother but her part was cut from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are fairly mixed, trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic

HACIENDA LOVERS: Elena lives in two homes; one in Mexico and one in California – both are hacienda-style villas that are excellent examples of the form of architecture so prevalent in the American Southwest and Mexico.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Father of Invention