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

Mascots (2016)

It may be premature to say that the time for the mockumentary has passed, but it does seem that the genre is crowded with mediocre efforts (Popstar, anyone?). While the last two decades have given us some memorable films and television shows, elevating comedians like Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen to international fame, or infamy, the format has lost some relevance in a world ruled by reality TV and, literally, by reality TV stars. What’s the appeal of a mockumentary, particularly one that pokes fun at its sad sack subjects, when you can see the surreal play out on 24 hour news channels?

This is the world in which Mascots, the latest film from Christopher Guest, godfather of the genre, enters. Besides one sharp scene that dances around political correctness, the Netflix movie tumbles towards its finish like a pointless exercise. It has all the trademarks of a Guest film – kooky characters committed to their craft, small-time personalities with an inflated sense of importance, a best in show finale – but little of the biting humor and almost no sense of purpose. The movie is funny because the basic conceit, an amateur mascots competition, is funny, but it doesn’t try hard to push the humor beyond the goofy costumes.

This parade of Guestian oddballs takes the art of mascotry Very Seriously. They comprise the twenty finalists from around the world, but mostly from the Midwest, who are competing for the World Mascot Association’s top prize, the gold Fluffy Award. Their acts are diverse even if the personalities are not. There’s the standard minor league baseball turtle and octopus duo by husband and wife Mike and Mindy Murray (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker). Meanwhile, Tommy Zucarello (Chris O’Dowd), an Irish transplant in Manitoba, prefers to work alone. Known as “the Fist” because costume is a giant fist, this “bad boy of sports mascotry” could use some time in the federal penalty box for sexual assault. In London, Owen Golly, Jr. (Tom Bennett), pronounced “Jolly”, has reluctantly taken up the role of Sid the Hedgehog from his father (Jim Piddock) who took over for his father. I’m guessing it’s a heritage thing.

The cast are skilled actors and comedians who know how to bring out their characters’ eccentricities, and they are not unfunny. Parker Posey, a Guest regular, gives desperate, uncomfortable life to dancer Cindi Babineaux, who has one last shot at winning a Fluffy with her post-modern Alvin Armadillo act. Christopher Moynihan plays a more optimistic Phil Mayhew, a real estate appraiser whose real calling is to perform as Jack the Plumber for his local college football team. His act, which included a number with a dancing poop, gave me the giggles because I’m a mature woman. One of the more understated and therefore funniest performances doesn’t belong to any mascot or judge or even trainer but to Michael Hitchcock, who plays the dry, matter-of-fact president of the WMA. He hopes the success of this year’s competition will land his organization a broadcasting deal with the Gluten Free Network.

He has more confidence in his performers than I do though. By the time the mascots pack it in, I wonder if the whole thing is just a minor showcase of quirk. What many Guest fans love about his films, especially Waiting for Guffman, is that they are more than the sum of their weirdos. Sure, we are laughing at the zaniness of the amateur performers in Guffman, but it’s hard to leave the film without admiring their commitment to the theater and their town. That sympathy extends to underappreciated community actors everywhere. I’m not sure you get that feeling with Mascots. Except for a few families, like the Gollys and Babineaux sisters, most of the characters don’t even make much of an impression onscreen let alone off.

Released: 2016
Prod: Karen Murphy
Dir: Christopher Guest
Writer: Christopher Guest, Jim Piddock
Cast: Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Bennett, Maria Blasucci, Jennifer Coolidge, Kerry Godliman, Christopher Guest, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Jane Lynch, Christopher Moynihan, Chris O’Dowd, Jim Piddock, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Brad Williams, Zach Woods, Susan Yeagley
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Skeptics live among us, including in my own home. My mother’s response to my recommending her this movie was a curt, “Dragons aren’t furry; they have scales.” Fine, Mom, fine. But not this one, and for Pete’s sake, use your imagination. Those who do will find a film filled with wonder, tenderness, and a breathtaking stillness. These might not be qualities of our time, but that’s probably why this movie is so stirring.

Though it borrows elements from the 1977 “live-action/animated musical fantasy comedy” film, this reimagining is a new story about an orphaned boy and his magical dragon. After Pete’s (Oakes Fegley) parents die in an accident on their way to a family camping trip, he finds safety and companionship with a furry, sometimes invisible green dragon that he names Elliot. For several years, they live unnoticed in the forest until a logger’s daughter (Oona Laurence) spots Pete and gives chase. He is briefly put under the care of Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a ranger whose father (Robert Redford) enchants the town’s children with tales of his own dragon sighting years ago. She is skeptical of his claims as well as those of Pete, who insists on returning to the forest to find Elliot since he might be in danger from the encroaching loggers.

The film is punctuated with moments of sheer adventure. At the story’s climax, Elliot, tranquilized and chained to the back of a flatbed, makes a wild escape. The whole cast joins in the chase, either conspiring to set him free or desperate to recapture him. Even ol’ Mr. Meacham contributes to the effort and plows a truck straight through a barn wall, doors be damned. You don’t need to watch the movie in 3D to appreciate the thrill of Elliot in flight. It’s a rollercoaster ride whether he’s dodging his would-be captors or soaring above the forest with little Pete in tow.

What I love best about the film is its gentleness. For a movie about a dragon, this one is remarkably quiet. It’s a rare quality in family films; writers and directors fight to keep our attention with plenty of visual and aural noise. I sometimes think going to the movies is like watching and hearing the percussion section fall over one another during the big finale. But Pete’s Dragon shows confident filmmaking, a willingness to embrace stillness in a world both onscreen and in life that never seems to stop moving. There are long stretches where ostensibly nothing happens. No one speaks. No one moves to forward the plot. Grace just walks through the forest, and we observe all that she does – the sunlight cutting through branches, the crunching of leaves and twigs underfoot, a symphony of birds and crickets.

The movie of course is no substitute for actual nature and doesn’t try to be. It does want us to appreciate our environment a little more, but it’s not out to condemn loggers either. Logging is not the problem here; unethical logging is. The closest we get to an antagonist is Gavin (Karl Urban), the crew foreman, and he doesn’t come close to villainy. He’s selfish and greedy and could use some help balancing immediate goals with longer term ones, but that’s why he has a perceptive brother to guide him through.

Gavin’s conflict feeds into the larger story about family and friendship. Jack (Wes Bentley, looking very much the lumberjack) also works on his brother’s crew and tries to mediate between the company’s interests and those of Grace, his girlfriend. He’s frustrated but not hopeless, and there’s a sense in this film that these folks are often misguided more than they are outright bad. What matters is a connection with family, community, dragons, anything that takes one beyond him or herself. Pete and Elliot share that with one another and in turn help Grace and Jack to deepen their bonds with each other and with their families.

It’s an experience to watch this film and then to step back into the present. The movie is made to be of a different place and time. Its 1970s setting, the stretches of forest, Robert Redford’s soothing voiceover – all lend a distance to the story that only gives more room for the imagination. I rather wanted to stay in this world a while longer. Certainly I wanted to meet Elliot. And for a small time at least, Pete’s Dragon allows kids and adults alike to let go and to be won over furry green dragons. Yes, Mom, they do exist.

A highlight from the soundtrack – “Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon:

Released: 2016
Prod: James Whitaker
Dir: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford, Isiah Whitlock
Time: 102 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018