Month: August 2018

The Lucky One (2012)

Hallmark movies are an insidious thing. I’ve seen and reviewed so many of them that films like The Lucky One now seem classy stuff. Let’s not kid ourselves though. Nicholas Sparks serves up nothing but treacle – but since this is Zac Efron treacle, I give myself permission to dive in. I’m not sure the hour and a half swim in sugary sludge is worth it, however. Still, anyone who dares take a dip should know what they’re getting into. All of Sparks’s novels and movies find inspiration from the same bingo card, and this one does its best to tick all the boxes.

Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine who’s recently returned from his third tour in Iraq. He’s suffering from PTSD and, worried that he might accidentally strangle his nephews and desperate to escape the suffocating normalcy of suburban Colorado, he decides to take a hike, a very long one. The guy walks across the country to Louisiana, maybe because he’s crazy but also because he wants to find a woman, “the lucky one.” It’s not what you think, unless you guessed that she was an anonymous face in a photo that Logan found during a firefight. He credits her picture with saving his life, and while he wrestles with survivor’s guilt, he figures he should at least say thank you and perhaps return the photo.

Logan clearly has stellar Googling skills because he manages to find Beth Green (Taylor Schilling) at her dog kennel somewhere out in the Louisiana woods. Before he can explain that he’s not a stalker, she assumes that he wants to apply for a job and just like that, he’s lost his courage to correct her. Folks, this is why we must watch movies; we need to hammer home the importance of communication. This initial misunderstanding is the basis for a lot of hurt later, pain that could have been avoided if Beth had been a little more patient and Logan had been a little more forthcoming. They would have clarified straightaway that the photo belonged to Beth’s deceased brother, killed in action alongside Logan’s friends.

This isn’t Logan’s only problem though. He has an uncomfortable meeting with Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), Beth’s boorish ex-husband and father of her son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). Keith is a toxic brew of wealth and male entitlement, a sheriff’s deputy and son of a local judge who thinks he can police the town and its women. Ben adores his father but has trouble living up to his macho expectations.

People like Keith exist. Look at Twitter, or the White House, so it’s important that we have characters like Logan, who will encourage Ben’s musical pursuits and stick around for some after-dinner chess. He even works overtime to help Beth’s grandma (Blythe Danner) with kennel repairs and ends every sentence with a “sir” or a “ma’am.” Did I mention he’s also played by Zac Efron? Yes, Troy Bolton grows up and bulks up. This is Efron’s first real adult role, and unfortunately it doesn’t call for much acting. We’re not counting his turn in 17 Again, in which he plays a man swapped into a teenage body. That part required some actual skills, but here, all he needs to do is be a generic love interest. He does a decent job of it, and shy, reserved Logan allows the imagination to fill in the rest.

My imagination isn’t so strong as to overcome the mismatch between Efron and Schilling though. Both have a world weariness about them, but hers is better suited to play Logan’s older sister rather than his lover. Beth’s feelings of loss run deep and because she knows how difficult it is to also support a returning vet, her vulnerability around him seems too easy and clean. Nevertheless, Schilling does her damnedest to turn up the heat, and I’m nominating two scenes for the incredibly-over-the-top-yet-incredibly-hot hall of fame. One involves your standard outdoor shower sex, and the second occurs when Beth is washing the dishes and spies a sweaty Logan from the window causing her to lose all her shit. Girl, same. This is why people watch these movies though, right, to feast on the latest up-and-coming star, be he Ryan Gosling or Liam Hemsworth or Scott Eastwood. I know objectification is not everyone’s thing. Well, sappy romances filled with stock characters aren’t my thing, but I do love how the lush southern scenery frames our couple. The backlighting is intense, and if I ever meet my own Logan Thibault, I better look as fresh and sun-kissed as Beth does in every damn frame.

Released: 2012
Prod: Denise Di Novi, Kevin McCormick
Dir: Scott Hicks
Writer: Will Fetters
Cast: Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Birthmarked (2018)

I can relate to the creative process behind Birthmarked since most of my ideas also work out fine in my head. It’s when I start realizing them that I run into problems, lots of them, and that’s what seems to have happened here. The film, directed by Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais from a script by Marc Tulin, takes on the nature vs. nurture debate and is about two scientist parents who engage in a highly unethical experiment with their own children as subjects. They hope to settle the question of whether a person is shaped primarily by biology or by environment, but really they also wouldn’t mind the prestige and bottomless funding.

The story, which begins in the late 1970s, is ripe with possibility. Ben Morin (Matthew Goode) and Catherine O’Neal (Toni Collette) both come from families of celebrated scientists, and when she becomes pregnant with their first child, they decide to embark on an experiment that will shape their lives for the next ten years or so. They hypothesize that a child can be brought up so as to overcome his or her background, which is why they end up adopting Maya (Megan O’Kelly), who descends from “a long line of dim-witted individuals,” and Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), whose family is prone to criminal violence. The couple set off to an isolated house in the woods, lab rat babies in tow, where they expect to raise Maya to be a genius, Maurice to be a pacifist, and their biological son, Luke (Jordan Poole), to be an artist.

You can guess that things don’t go according to plan and in fact progress terribly by decade’s end, even with the help of oddball Russian assistant and former Olympic sharpshooter, Samsonov (Andreas Apergis). Ben and Catherine find that they could be beaten to the punch by Portuguese scientists who are conducting a similar experiment. Their financial backer, a wealthy Terry Richardson-looking guy (Michael Smiley) whose thing is rebel science, threatens to make them repay the entire cost of the project if they don’t get the results they expected. Worst of all, after rounds of testing, their children appear to be nothing more than average, socially well-adjusted kids!

I suspect what is at the heart of the film is not a question of nature vs. nurture but one of parenting and the lengths that well-intentioned parents go to give them certain advantages in life. I doubt anyone would object raising children with a critical mind, an eye for the arts, and a streak of pacifism. But one of Ben and Catherine’s problems is that they are too focused on results and won’t, or don’t know how to, let their kids be kids. Maybe it’s okay to let them smack each other with a canoe paddle every now and again (so long as it’s on the bum and not malicious) or listen to Iron Maiden on blast or even perform a play inspired by stray issues of Penthouse. Actually, no, that is not okay.

So there is something worth exploring in Birthmarked; the narrative, however, comes out in chunks. Ben seems to be the steady hand, with Goode in a persistent state of bewilderedness, but Catherine is all over the place. She can’t sort out when she wants to play scientist, when she wants to play mom, and when she wants to be both. Even with Collette in the role, it’s hard to feel sympathy for her. The opening voiceover also suggests some unresolved issues between Ben and Catherine and their far more successful parents. I can’t help but think they’re acting on feelings of inadequacy and arrogance and that their own upbringings warped their perception of their children. (So nurture?) None of that gets a mention though. Perhaps if the same attention was paid to developing character as was given to crafting the Wes Anderson vibe, the film might have worked better. It’s also too bad that the children, who are the focus of all this labor, end up void of any personality and are left with only labels to identify themselves.

Released: 2018
Prod: Pierre Even
Dir: Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais
Writer: Marc Tulin
Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Andreas Apergis, Jordan Poole, Megan O’Kelly, Anton Gillis-Adelman, Michael Smiley, Suzanne Clément, Fionnula Flanagan
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

RED (2010)

RED is not typically what I watch with my take-out sushi, but…Helen Mirren. If I’d known she was in it and if I’d known it was an action comedy thriller, I would have watched it sooner, but better late than never. Based off a comic book series, the movie has fun with genre conventions and balances the right mix of punchy action and well timed humor with a very classy cast to boot. People who like shoot-em-ups and those who aren’t so keen can enjoy it, even if they don’t agree on the sushi.

Bruce Willis leads the ensemble as Frank Moses, a lonely pensioner whose one highlight in life is tearing up his retirement checks so that he can phone up the call center and chat with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). He’s not just a bored retiree, however, he’s a bored retiree who was engaged in black-ops for the CIA. This marks him out as a RED – retired, extremely dangerous, and it’s why his former agency has sent a whole football team of assassins to his home in the Cleveland suburbs in the middle of the night to take him out. It’s not immediately clear why he’s being targeted, but we know who is trying to kill him. Agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) is getting orders from his superior, Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon), who is getting orders from someone higher up, and all of it seems to point towards an arms dealer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a decades-old operation in Guatemala. As Frank flees from assassins, he crisscrosses the country picking up clues and some old colleagues.

The man keeps pretty good company. Sly Joe (Morgan Freeman) may be dying from liver cancer, but he’s living it up in a nursing home. Frank’s best friend, Marvin (John Malkovich), is more of a loose cannon and a real conspiracy theorist, but he’s also a damn good shot. The group even includes an old Russian associate, Ivan (Brian Cox), who knows how to infiltrate government buildings better than his American friends, of course. The grand dame of them all is Victoria (Dame Helen). She’s taken to baking and flower arranging in her second life but still does a contract killing or two on the side, you know, to stave off boredom.

The fun comes not from the team’s advanced age and rusty skillset but from their extreme competence. These guys are as sharp as ever, and even handsome, deadly Agent Cooper struggles to keep up. Willis, no stranger to the genre, leads with a steady hand, facilitating all the action you’d expect, but it’s the other actors who lean into their stereotypes and surprise with killer turns. It’s not unusual to see a paranoid Malkovich, for example, but his run-in with a Coldwell Banker agent leads to hilarious fireworks. The same is true for Mirren, who explains that she’s a killer with the same tone as a beloved grandmother reminding you to please get more rest. Queen also looks a beast clutching a machine gun while wearing a milk white evening gown.

If it all sounds a little sadistic, it’s not. The thrill for Frank’s hit team is doing something they are damn good at, and for Frank in particular, this latest improvised operation might be what he needs to get through an existential crisis. While his friends seems to be getting on with their lives, he’s struggling. Pairing him up with Sarah isn’t the best option though. Their relationship is a handy plot device, and the climax hinges on the girlfriend getting kidnapped, but you’d think the filmmakers, who have put a creative twist on every other aspect of the movie, would come up with something more interesting. Poker-faced Willis doesn’t have that much chemistry with Parker, and her character is mostly one note, a quirky singleton from Kansas City, Missouri who reads too many romance novels and longs for an adventure. As a quirky singleton from St. Louis, Missouri though, I think Sarah would be better off staying in state.

Released: 2010
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian
Dir: Robert Schwentke
Writer: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Helen Mirren, Rebecca Pidgeon, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss, Julian McMahon, Ernest Borgnine
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018