by Philip Price
I'm always hesitant to walk into a film that is willing to unabashedly push an obvious message on its viewers; one that is clearly being used to promote a specific or biased opinion, basically propaganda, and unfortunately that has been the case with many "Christian-themed" films over the past few years. Message movies are a difficult thing to pull off in the first place because they can indeed seem so obvious or come off as overly-hokey or sentimental that, when all rolled into one, are the kinds of movies you typically find on something like the Hallmark Channel. When it comes to faith-based films specifically I have a tendency to shy away from them because I've always been of the mind that each person is entitled to believe what they want to believe and though I certainly support learning as much about religious culture and the numerous incarnations of faith that cover our world it has to be of that person’s own accord, they have to want it otherwise forcing someone into a situation further than an introduction will always make a future decision to believe, get baptized, pray, put trust in a higher power, etc. to be nothing if not insincere. That probably seems a little harsh, but faith is such a personal thing that I have to believe someone has to come to really believe in a God on their own and not be coaxed into it by others. This isn't an essay about religion and faith though, but a review of the latest in a string of faith-based films that have opened in the early months of 2014 to strong reception from an audience that has not necessarily ignored, but never as outright addressed as they have been lately. It is hard to consider myself part of a group because I like to stay open to different ideas and different interpretations from all points of view, but I do believe in God (even if that belief sways toward more metaphorical than literal interpretations when it comes to the Bible and could apply to the concept of heaven as well) and though I enjoy a good religious debate and interesting conversation about the reaches of space, other life and how it correlates to the existence of a God or creationism vs. evolution, I've still been rooting for a film that comes to the forefront of these faith-based pieces of entertainment and doesn't try to push an agenda on an audience, but simply tell them a story from the point of view of honest believers and I think “Heaven is for Real” is the closest thing we're likely get.
Based on the 2010 New York Times best-seller, “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent documents the report of a near-death experience by Burpo's then-four-year-old son, Colton. The book tells of how Colton began saying he had visited heaven and re-counting things of which he could have no previous knowledge including the fact he had a sister who died in his mother’s womb and where his mother and father were at and what they were doing during his surgery. I have not read Burpo's book and so I had no vibe or idea of where the point of view was coming from or more importantly, the circumstances of the situation. It is easy to conjure up an idea with such a definitive title, yet “Heaven is for Real” is at least intent on exploring its options and coming at the idea of a boys seemingly outlandish claims to create the real reactions that this boy and his family would receive from those close to them and the detractors of their stories. Where most of these faith-based films seem to be relegated to micro-budgets and inexperienced actors you apparently get a little more when your source material has sold millions of copies. Our inside into the story, into the small town feel and to the Burpo family is their patriarch Todd as played by Greg Kinnear. His wife is not merely an archetype either, but a strong driving presence in this man’s everyday life and that is no doubt made evident by the tremendous talent and credibility that Kelly Reilly brings to the role. As we meet the Burpos and their two children, Colton (Connor Corum) and Cassie (Lane Styles), we get to know the average Midwest lifestyle they lead and the same struggles they share with everyone. Todd is a preacher, a volunteer fireman and wrestling coach while Kelly stays home with the kids and helps her husband run his church. They are spiritual yet they are clearly not bible thumpers who believe they are holier than thou and who expect everyone in their company to be as well, but they are real human beings with struggles, questions and faith-testing experiences that both give way to the events the reason for the book and film exist as well as more questions and concerns not necessarily about whether there is life after death, but what the significance of needing something to believe in really means.
While I was surprised that a film such as this, one with a very specific audience and a very strategic release date, had been able to garner such a talented cast it also spoke well for the film that director Randall Wallace had signed on as he'd most recently made the inspirational and better than expected “Secretariat” (his other directing credits include “We Were Soldiers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask”). I assumed I knew what I was getting myself into with this one, but with the credentials stcking up I was given hope I might be pleasantly surprised. Let's just be honest up front though and say that “Heaven is for Real” is not a great film, it isn't particularly moving and for all its softly mixed music, nicely framed shots of rich farmland and well-intentioned performances there is no real drive to the narrative, nothing that escalates the level of impact of what is being claimed to a level where we truly feel moved. Yes, Kinnear is solid as Burpo and his arc is obviously going to be the most interesting here as he deals with the obvious stigmas that will be slapped on him while struggling with whether or not what he preaches to his congregation every Sunday is something he can actually buy into when his son presents him with a reality where those stories from his good book seem to have some basis of fact. It is an interesting dilemma and the film does right not to preach to its audience about how God’s love is real and to not accept it means to turn your back or whatever type of moral code they might have found necessary to get across or implement from Todd's struggles, but instead of drawing any lines and putting themselves in a defining stance on any hot button issues the film simply offers the gospel of love and if anything it should be admired for daring to say, you know what? I know you may think my story is a crock of bull and I may not agree with what you think is acceptable, but there is no reason to waste time arguing about it, but rather just allowing the always complex emotion of love to be seen and spread in its simplest form. No, I don't necessarily think the film was anything special or that it transcended the lines between faith-based films and popular culture, but it stayed true to its values while allowing an overall message that is hard to argue with sum up the themes and conflicts the story was dealing with. It isn't exceptional, but it has real purpose and while I may not admire it from an artistic standpoint I can certainly appreciate it for why it exists. That and I'm always pleased to see Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale in a film with juicy supporting roles.
The reason it exists is sure to be another reason for those who will be the main detractors of the film to point out why this is even bigger propaganda than any of the other religious films this year. This is a movie based off a book that came from a family struggling with medical bills and the mouth of a preacher’s son that could easily have been influenced or simply made up a version of his dreams that clearly went to what surrounded his life. It is easy to paint a target on these peoples backs and though I don't know where their hearts or their minds fall I'd like to assume that the main message of the film (and what I take is also the books) mirrors that of the philosophy of the people behind this and that they simply wanted to send a nice little message around what could possibly be an amazing little experience. We don't know what comes after death, no one knows for sure and that is what makes the ongoing conversation of faith and God and those who choose not to believe all the more interesting. Not all Christians hate those who don't think the same as they do and not all atheists are snobby intellectuals who think themselves superior, but for some reason it still seems impossible for people who lead similar lifestyles in terms of what is important to them in this life and what brings our existence fulfillment to get along and simply accept one another for what they are without a level of animosity involved. It is childish on all accounts and whether you believe in the Christian God, Buddha, a host of Gods or nothing at all the film before us simply wants to ask the age old question of why can't we all just get along? There are millions upon billions of intelligent, sarcastic, thought provoking answers that could be fired back at that question, but when it comes down to it, I mean really people, what is the point? I don't mean to do what I'm happy this movie didn't do to me and that is preach a point of view and shove it down my throat, but I truly admire the film, no matter how hokey some of the scenes with Colton and his experiences in heaven are, for not necessarily taking a stand or trying to push an agenda, but simply reassuring those willing to sit and watch that if you need to believe in the existence of a higher power to feel comforted so be it and if not, well that's fine too. Whether heaven is actually for real will always be up for debate, but the film that takes this title likes to believe we all have a form of heaven we can experience in this life and it paints a picture a fair amount of people in this world can relate to. More power to it, less hate for it and no judgment from it.
by Philip Price
Since first catching a glimpse of the trailers for “Draft Day” a few months back I pretty much dismissed it as the least in a line of attempts by Kevin Costner this year to prove he still had the ability to anchor a film. While he's made a notable contribution in what many would agree were the best moments in last summer’s “Man of Steel” he has since not been able to really anchor a box office success where he was closer to the forefront of the action and the marketing. It is unlikely we will see another incarnation of Chris Pine's “Jack Ryan” where Costner served as a strong crutch and “Three Days to Kill” was more or less Costner trying to prove he could be Liam Neeson if people wanted him to be and while that flick likely turned a better profit than it will ever receive credit for (and has still yet to open overseas) audiences still seemed to be on shaky ground as to whether Costner is still that "face on the poster" kind of star that could usher a film into general audience favor and while the outcome of the “Draft Day” box office run will likely be mediocre at best it is at least reassuring to know that this is the better of Costner's two leading roles this year and that there is some real investment here not only because it serves to function as one big commercial for the NFL but because there is genuine drama to be had in the dynamics of a team’s general manager and every other point of contact that is to be made throughout the course of what is no doubt the busiest day of these guys year. As its title would suggest, “Draft Day” takes place over the course of 24 hours and in that seemingly short time span writers Rajiv Joseph (a short list of TV credits) and Scott Rothman (no previous writing credits at all) are able to evoke a multitude of storylines and layers within those stories to give us a game of politics with a backdrop most of the movie-going public is at least vaguely familiar with. It mostly goes without saying I didn't expect much from “Draft Day,” but as the film nicely paces itself and builds up to its final scene I became increasingly intrigued in the outcome of these characters lives and couldn't help but to wonder how Costner's Sonny Weaver Jr. might find a way to please everyone and despite the fact the bow is tied a little too neatly in the end I would be lying if I said Sonny and his movie didn't satisfy me and instead actually exceeded any expectations I might have held for it.
We meet Sonny the morning of the draft, his backstory being quietly filled in by ESPN's constant panel of analysts who tell us Sonny's father passed away just the week before and who was a more favored Cleveland Browns legend than his son who came to town to manage the team and fired his own father who'd long been the head coach. We don't immediately understand why Sonny chose the course he did, but what we do learn immediately is that Sonny has engaged in a not-so-public relationship with Ali (Jennifer Garner) who manages the budget for the Browns and a football loyalist her entire life. We are hit early with the news the two are expecting a child despite the fact Costner is 17 years Garner's senior and old enough to be a grandpa himself (and the reason we find it awkwardly hilarious when Costner delivers this news to his own mother played by Ellen Burstyn who will be 82 this year), but this is the least of Sonny's concerns (I know how bad that sounds, but so does he) as he is dealing with the owner of the team, Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), breathing down his neck to make something happen this year and threatening to fire him if he doesn't. With that in mind Sonny is intrigued when the GM of the Seattle Seahawks gives him a call and offers up a trade that would give the Browns the first pick of the draft and the shot at a hot new quarterback from Wisconsin, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), that everyone is in a tizzy about. The problem being, the Browns don't really need a new quarterback as their current QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling) has been training like crazy in the off-season and is in the best shape of his life. The new Browns head coach (Denis Leary) wants a running back and has his eyes set on Ray Jennings (Arian Foster) who is Cleveland royalty after his father Earl (Terry Crews) became a star player for the team. Above all of this though, Sonny has his eyes set on a defensive player with real character, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), who he could take no problem in the first round with his number seven pick, but wouldn't be the kind of choice that would stand out or that Coach Penn feels he could build a team behind. Strapped with all of this on top of the fact his mother and ex-wife are keen on spreading his late father’s ashes on this day of football primetime Sonny is forced to juggle it all and come out on top while making it look easy.
Like I said before, I expected a sports movie in line with something akin to “The Blind Side” rather than that of “Moneyball,” but what we received, while as nicely polished as can be and with the full backing of the NFL so as to guarantee no harsh words were spoken of their process or politics, what we end up with here is a kind of inside look at the booming corporation and massive machine that the NFL truly is. It is a business that isn't looked at as this kind of money-hungry conglomerate of sports, merchandising and manufactured community but instead as a pastime for us regular folks to crowd around, to share a common bond and to get all wound up about in order to give us a bigger purpose, a bigger sense of connection. That is all well and good, but in getting this peek behind the curtain I can only imagine it is eye-opening for those who simply looked at football as a form of escapism. All of this aside, director Ivan Reitman, who hasn't had the best run as a filmmaker as of late, shows he is in at least fine enough form here to dive into the strategy of the different needs for different teams and how this plays into every deal that is made and how these people who are hired to put together a team whose one goal is to win end up being these master strategists in maneuvering around the obstacles that other teams lay in front of them as much off the field as on in hopes of preventing them from obtaining the right parts to make their engine run as smoothly as possible. Reitman and his screenwriters are sure to put an emphasis on the fact character is just as big a factor in choosing a player as their talent and this indeed comes down to being the deciding factor in what Sonny decides though it doesn't make a clear distinction on whether Sonny was simply going with his gut because he had solid enough reason to do so or if he was simply looking too hard for a reason and settled for what he could justify his decision with because his gut was simply too strong to ignore. This and the fact the film tries way too hard to push the personal side of Sonny's life on the audience make the more interesting, more dynamite conversations about trading, about what will be best for the future of the team and about putting together his own team to suffer. The film feels brisk and it never gave me reason to feel bored or that it was lacking, but the burden of his father’s death was enough to place on Sonny's head and there was no reason to place Garner's Ali as a love interest, much less the future mother of his child. If they'd simply played up a fun, trusting working relationship between the two I would have taken it with much more joy and even credibility instead of a forced romantic angle.
What really elevates this material from being pure melodrama disguised as gritty drama with the manliest sport in the world as its cloak is the caliber of cast Reitman has attracted. Costner plays Sonny as a man, who in the beginning, isn't even sure himself of what he really wants. He thinks he knows and he keeps his values and instinct close at hand, but at the same time seems to be waiting to see if what he's truly looking for hasn't shown up yet and that he is almost hoping to be surprised by what might come forward throughout the course of this crucial day. It is in the last 20 or so minutes that Costner turns up his typically reserved demeanor into something of an electric charm, a swagger even that is contagious, and delivers one of those moments that doesn't exactly hit the level of brilliance the trade scene in “Moneyball” does, but comes close enough to warrant “Draft Day” a winner. The rest of this cast is literally just sprinkled with wonderful character actors and is a joy to behold as not only does Garner continue to do nice supporting work as she did in “Dallas Buyers Club” last fall, but she's taking these roles who could essentially be played by anyone and is giving them a distinct flair of a strong independent woman in a world predominantly run by men. It would have been even better did the writers not feel the need to shoehorn in that love story, but it's there and because of it we get Sonny and the rest of his "war room" buddies constantly harassing Ali for direction on where to go and what to do which only makes us feel sorry for her having to deal with these pestering, needy men all day. Where the likes of Patrick St. Esprit, Chi McBride, David Ramsey, Wade Williams, Wallace Langham, Brad William Henke and even Sam Elliot show up in these cameo roles it is the more present supporting cast of players, especially Boseman and Welling, who bring the reality of what these players are truly dealing with on this single day to the immediate light of the audience. Welling has little to work with, but in his key scene we see the desperation and need of a man worth investing a second shot in and Boseman, who is quickly becoming one of the most respectable African-American actors working today, continues to show his exceptional skill even in these smaller roles. He makes his presence known and carves out a fully realized character in less than a handful of scenes leaving us rooting for him in a way the script needs us to do but that would have easily been absent in the hands of a lesser actor. “Draft Day” may not be an excellent film or even a great sports movie, but it's very good and at the very least, an extremely entertaining one.
by Philip Price
The typical appeal of a Johnny Depp film is to see what strange, odd or just downright weird concoction of a character the actor has come up with next, but with “Transcendence” the appeal for me has always been to see what Depp does when asked to play a regular guy. He's done it before, this is nothing new, but he doesn't do it often and the fact his role (in a physical sense anyway) seemed limited to a short amount of the overall running time. Depp is still within his wheelhouse in terms of the type of person he enjoys playing even if the exterior is much more tame than the route he'd typically take, his role as Dr. Will Caster still sees him as a man of extreme intelligence and someone not looking to necessarily change the world as he likes to remind people, but instead always be discovering it, attempting to figure it all out. Despite this positioning Depp as the seemingly obvious star of the film, this is a movie that really belongs to Rebecca Hall. Depp is an influential presence and his character dictates the events in which “Transcendence” documents and even more he creates many of the questions the film intends to pose to the audience, but in terms of taking this as a piece of entertainment and in evaluating the performances of the actors involved this is Hall's film and it is her emotional investment in the plot of the film that makes this as compelling as it can be. The issue here though is that there isn't a clear line of thought in terms of emotional connection to the audience despite one of the major themes of the film being whether or not technology can develop feelings, affection, fear, etc. or if the thought of artificial intelligence will remain only that: a database of intelligence and nothing more, nothing trying to imitate the inherent nature of primitive life. Though this is somewhat ironic it is hard to fault the film for trying, for so deeply wanting to be something more, something thought-provoking. That is what I found to appreciate in “Transcendence” in that this wasn't simply a film that ordered itself into a certain set of rules or restrictions, but instead a piece of fiction that wanted to both discuss interesting ideas while at the same time providing an entertaining thriller/action film. This coming from Christopher Nolan's long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister I expected nothing less than that kind of melding of fantastical, large scope ideas and the architectures that match those in cinema, but while Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen have many interesting things to discuss here it seems they still need to practice funneling those ideas into a single coherent work.
We meet Dr. Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Hall) as they look to find funding for a few more years from their investors by putting on display the work they've been doing and discussing the next steps they intend to take with the technology they are developing. Their colleagues include Max Waters (the always prestigious Paul Bettany) and Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman throwing out his casual academic charisma), but it is when Will takes the stage and begins going on about the possibility of building a single computer with knowledge greater than every single individual on earth combined a few select members of the audience begin to ask questions. "You're talking about a God," one of them queries to which Dr. Caster replies, "has man not always tried to create its own Gods?" I sat up in more attention at this statement as it is an immediately intriguing concept. Are we not just evolving in the way we look and have adapted to the land, but the way in which we think, create our mythology, our comfort, our own reason or justifications for things we cannot explain? We would have to be, right? It makes you curious, but it takes someone with the intelligence of Caster to test these curiosities and see if turning them into a reality is possible and further, if it is possible, are they for the betterment of mankind or only a stepping stone in creating another corruptible power figure. There is a group that doesn't intend to let Dr. Caster test these possibilities though and have labeled themselves as Revolutionary Independence From Technology or R.I.F.T. and feature players like Bree (Kate Mara), Joel (Cory Hardrict) and James (Lukas Haas) and it is when one of these anti-technology extremists aims a bullet at Dr. Caster in an attempt to stagnate the good doctors ideas and progress that they inadvertently give rise to him becoming a part of his own experiments with what he has labeled as transcendence. This idea of uploading Dr. Caster's brain into this super-computer is essentially creating a program out of his consciousness, but is this done in the name of desperation or innovation? That is the question Evelyn and Max become split on and where this leads is honestly kind of unexpected and it never becomes obvious along the way as to what conclusion the film is trying to draw, but unfortunately it never finds a momentum to grab the audience that takes us along on this journey with a high level of intrigue.
There are many problems with “Transcendence” as a film, but these mainly have to deal with the cohesion of the story and the ideas by first time screenwriter Paglen as well as the editing that seems to have no idea whatsoever about how to form suspense out of the content they were given. In both cases it boils down to the core issue in that the film wants to explore so many ideas and so many different philosophies that it doesn't know where or how to link these multiple thoughts together ultimately creating a mixed bag of empty- feeling ideas that are only skimmed over because they neither have the time to delve deep enough into a certain one or can't fit them together in a fashion where it both makes sense and provides an emotional payoff for the audience. This is usually an issue that comes up when in the early stages of writing and one is working out the flow of the narrative and the emotional anchor of what the story is ultimately trying to say, but it seems to have surpassed each incarnation of the script and somehow landed in the editing bay where David Rosenbloom (who is a seasoned pro and has this type of film down pat) seems to have little to work with in terms of building a complete picture that nevermind the fact it wants to make us think about things, but is hard pressed to even keep us amused giving way to the glaring truth about “Transcendence” in that it's a rather boring affair. It had me in the opening moments and I was ready to nestle down and become a part of this world, have a debate with those on screen in how they might be wrong or how I could see being an advocate for their work. I wanted more than anything to invest in this world where one could discuss for hours how if we don't put emotion into technology would technology then cease to inherit the emotion we for some reason want it to adopt? What about the fine line between intelligence and emotion? All these cautionary tales of pushing technology to the next logical step have always served as just that, but “Transcendence” wants to be more, it isn't a tale of man vs. machine, but a story of power vs. humanity that deals with the unforeseen consequences of our hopes and dreams, about re-generation, evolution and moreover the difference between what you can and what you should do. This is a vital aspect of the dilemma the characters in “Transcendence” come up against and yet for all these ideas and ambitions the film carries on its shoulders it ends up lacking the one thing its antagonist will never be able to artificially create, a soul.
Sometimes even critical issues such as these at the heart of a films story can be overcome if the performances given elicit that necessary spirit the narrative fails to create, but even here much of the well-seasoned cast is given little to do in terms of characterization because they simply exist to relay the plot points to the audience and make philosophical statements that relay the intended themes leaving little room for them to become actual individuals. As I said in the beginning this is really Hall's film and she is a fine actress that is more than capable of carrying a picture like this on her shoulders as she's demonstrated in “The Town,” “Iron Man 3” or even “Everything Must Go” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” All Hall is required to do though is weep over Will's death and then play the disillusioned widow who will do and risk anything to have her husband back even if it is nothing more than an illusion of what he once was. That sounds meatier than it turns out be as much of what Hall does is walk through hallways and look on in amazement as Will's AI grows more and more powerful, more and more like a God. As for Depp this isn't so much a performance as it is a test in how much he can do with his voice. He is asked to sound like a typical, middle-aged man from the East coast yet his timbre and choice of inflection is clearly calculated in a way that foreshadows his intensity once he becomes this all-consuming machine. What is really disappointing though is the rest of the cast who simply stand around and do almost nothing. Bettany, for all his talent and diverse ability is given less to develop here than he had in either Legionor Priest as at least in those he had some type of over the top need for vengeance or vindication, but here he is our source into the story and yet we never feel like we come to know him. We understand he is the one scientist who is unafraid to display his hesitance in creating a sentient with a full range of intelligence and emotion, but that is only because Kate Mara tells us so. Mara, Cillian Murphy, Clifton Collins Jr. and Freeman all look equally bored and what is most unfortunate about all of this is that Pfister likely won't be returning to the director’s chair anytime soon. Like Andrew Stanton who went big and then went home after his first live-action feature bombed Pfister shot for the moon with “Transcendence,” but at least the guy had the balls to set his sights that high and do something most don't even care to attempt in the current state of cinema. “Transcendence” isn't nearly as bad as you've likely heard and it has some visual moments that are truly striking; regrettably, those small highlights won't matter much given this isn't anywhere near the first impression everyone was hoping for from Pfister.
by Philip Price
The word oculus is defined as a round or eyelike opening or design, of which in the case of this new horror film is in reference to a mirror that acts as a curse to all those who own it. This is essentially “The Amityville Horror” or any number of possession tales where an object elicits evil qualities over those in its presence and makes them do horrible things. The fact that the object this scary movie decided to revolve around was a mirror, a simple household amenity where the most frightening thing that comes along with it is typically the superstition that if you break it you get seven years of bad luck, but hey, people are hard pressed for original ideas these days and so it’s hard to knock anyone for at least trying. This seems especially true when it comes to the horror genre as by this point in time we've pretty much seen every trick in the book played out time and time again. “Oculus” isn't necessarily about the specifics of the story it's telling nor is it even about the scares as I wouldn't say I found myself frightened at all throughout the entire film, but instead writer/director Mike Flanagan, along with co-writer Jeff Howard, have placed the emphasis on how the story is told and playing with the conventions of structure and pre-determined expectation to give the audience a strange disconnection to the material that allows us to continually be interested in what is happening, while never really knowing what to expect or what to brace ourselves for. While there was positive buzz around the film and despite the fact I'd heard little about it in regards to promotional campaigns the tone the posters displayed was one of pure mystery, pure creepiness. If there is one word to sum up “Oculus” it is indeed creepy. It never reaches the heights of being flat-out scary and it is far too precise to be chopped together for a few jump scares and little more substance than that, but while “Oculus” may not prove to be a great horror film it lends itself well to demonstrating what can be done with a pure genre film when even the slightest of envelopes is pushed. For that, Flanagan may not be showered with praise, but in the eyes of this movie fan and someone increasingly hard to please when it comes to this specific genre I found “Oculus” superbly intriguing and well-executed in a manner that allowed me to forgive its lack of real scares and not take for granted the genuine chills it delivered in its final moments.
Beginning in 2002 we meet the Russell family as they move into their new, very expensive-looking house and are introduced to a mother, Marie (Katie Sackhoff) and father Alan (Rory Cochrane), as well as their two young children, Kaylie and Tim (played in this time period by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan). Alan is an emerging software developer with his own business while Marie is seemingly adjusting to the new life of a stay at home mom who will more than have her hands full with two pre-teens with more than enough energy. After a conversation clearly making reference to the fact Alan may decorate his office in any way he'd like, but that he would attempt to stick with the more classic look Marie was going for in the rest of the house. Thus, we have the introduction of the extravagant and slightly grotesque mirror that Alan has chosen to hang in his office and which inadvertently begins to control him in a way his family doesn't suspect turning him into a man they don't even know. We don't know the details of what happened or what the background of this seemingly harmless decorative piece is, but as the film jumps back and forth between 2002 and the present day where we meet an engaged Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who is working at an upscale auction firm that is run by her fiance's family who able to acquire the same mirror that changed the fate of her family just as Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is being released from a mental institution. Not knowing the events that led to the seemingly two happy children we see in the flashback to the presently jaded, scarred and vengeful adults one or both have become. Kaylie talks of keeping a promise while Tim can only hope to stay far enough away from everything connected to the events that led to him being placed in the hospital. As fate would have it though, and thus the point of concocting a movie around this premise, both Kaylie and Tim end up back in the house where everything that was evil about the mirror came to fruition and where they hope to put an end to it once and for all. You can likely guess the details, motivations, reasoning even behind the story that comes to unfold in “Oculus,” but what makes it a better than average horror flick is the way in which Flanagan constructs his well-worn narrative.
To discuss why “Oculus” is indeed so engaging and a satisfying slow burn of a flick that pulls you in and phases you into the moment when you realize you're truly invested in what is going on with these characters without even realizing it while at the same time defending why I wasn't exactly as impressed with the overall impression the film left me with is to discuss the detractors that plague the interesting narrative tweaks and filmmaking techniques. First and foremost is the acting of Gillan who, despite her involvement in the popular British series and the fact she won a role in the next major Marvel Cinematic Universe, doesn't come off as all that credible or interesting in a role fleshed out with possibilities in the dialogue alone. The first time we meet Gillan's Kaylie she is walking through the doors of her work and her ponytail bobs back and forth until it is in full swing to the point of distraction. The tracking shot stays on the back of her head until she reaches her co-worker, assumed boss and who eventually turns out to be the aforementioned fiancé, Michael Dumont (James Lafferty), as they watch the infamous "Lasser Glass" be auctioned off to the highest bidder (which is in perfect condition despite its age and a small hairline fracture in the bottom right-hand corner). This overly-stylized shot is no fault of Gillan's and I would be ignorant to hold a grudge against her for this small choice that didn't even lie with her in the first place, but what it did was irk me that someone, somewhere within the production was trying a little bit too hard and it didn't help that the remainder of the film every time I saw Kaylie I couldn't buy into, that didn't seem to match the toughness nor the determination that neither Gillan's small frame or attitude could convincingly pull off. The ponytail bobs more throughout the film and Gillan's overall character look here is not flattering, but as we get to know her and her backstory better it is somewhat of a miracle she has come to function as normally as she has and has seemingly done so by keeping one, end-game objective squarely in her sights that will come to be completed once Tim has been released and is able to accompany her as he is the only one who truly remembers what happened in that house, with that mirror. Thwaites is fine, bringing nothing exceptional to the role, but at least embodying a tortured soul who has convinced himself nothing super-natural took place within a mirror, something that sounds so silly it makes the actual execution of this story all the more impressive.
So, we take out the somewhat awkward and amateur feeling performance of Gillan and cut the running time by the 15 or 20 minutes that really start to show that this feature has been expanded from an earlier short film by Flanagan and you really do have one of the more interesting horror flicks of the past few years. This is true though not because it is actually all that scary or all that cringe-inducing in terms of gore, but because of the psychology of the situation and how it makes you think about the circumstances these characters are placed within and forced to go through. Flanagan, who not only wrote and directed the film, also edited the project and in the editing he finds his real footing (as most filmmakers would attest to the fact the final film is truly made in the editing bay) by fusing the past and present stories of our sibling pair into one cohesive story. This isn't about how the past affects or influences the future, but more how the past is still driving the future and the points of this brother and sisters lives. Flanagan keeps the story confined to his principle characters, never bringing in the obligatory third party to explain the history of the core mystery or any of that nonsense, but instead the audience comes to feel as if they are in solitary confinement with Kaylie and Tim, neither of whom we can trust as both of their sanity could be checked and debated as to whether they were completely healthy or not. This ominous tone and ability to never confirm nor deny whether what we're seeing is real, an imaginary state or an alternate reality conjured up by the mirror is a mind game “Oculus” likes to play and what makes this film all the more engaging. Ultimately though, we realize there is one true reality the characters will have to face and when, once again, the circumstances the "Lasser Glass" has thrust upon them come to light we are left with an unnerving sense of what we are to perceive as truth and hallucination, putting us within the same mindset of Tim and Kaylie and allowing the movie to completely sell us on the idea that it doesn't matter that something as silly as a mirror is thought to be evil, but the fact of what it can perpetuate is an idea of the unimaginable, of something you can no longer go on living with and that whether you are committing a crime in one reality or becoming a hero in the other, the tough decisions have to be made and you have to become a hero in one and a murderer in the other. It is, in all reality, a heartbreaking situation that can be seen in a demented light, but more honestly in the earnestness of the intention and that such seemingly obvious evil and sickness was done with the intention of doing good is more terrifying than anything that simply makes you jump.
by Philip Price
First and foremost, I really wanted to love “Sabotage.” Like, I was totally up for it and was ready to have just a ridiculous amount of mind-numbing fun and by all accounts audiences had every right to expect the same things. Thinking about it in the light that director David Ayer was coming off one of his better written films with easily his best directing job to date and stacked with a cast as lumbering and raucous as that of Arnie's ‘Expendables’ cohorts with names just slightly less major, but even more credible to the point where I really thought this had the shot to turn out to be something quietly major, a slight cultural mainstay that would fester on the minds of cinephiles over the years and become regarded as a well-loved box office flop that found its following long after it left the theaters. There were glimmers of hope on the horizon when the first action-packed trailer premiered and was followed by several others complete with red-band access as well. There is an interesting film somewhere in here and as I look through my notes I jotted down while watching the film, I keep coming across pieces where I remember wanting so much for this to become that something better, that kind of retrospective Arnold Schwarzenegger film that did as much to entertain us in the moment as it also gave us a look at how a man in his late 60s finds himself slipping in terms of esteem and credibility while having to come to terms with his physical limitations. In a sense, I wanted a large metaphorical action drama that mirrored the life of our star, but instead, “Sabotage” is as well thought out as the plan at the heart of the plot. It feels quickly shot, rushed through editing with a soundtrack that couldn't sound more generic and a group of supporting actors that almost make this feel like someone’s first student film. It is hard to take a film seriously when it tries so hard to be exactly that, but by the time the smoke from the opening sequence has dispersed and we begin to get to know the characters involved and are forced to listen to their incessant cussing to the point it actually begins to insult their own intelligence and we no longer buy that these people could do these jobs effectively, the curtain has been pulled back and we realize what we're actually in for is a mess of a flick in perfectly positioned B-movie clothing.
That first scene, that introductory action sequence is what gives us that slight hope for the film though. While it is still as sloppily shot as the rest of the action scenes in the film, there is a gusto to it that cannot be found later on and an energy that runs wild through the members of John "Breacher" Wharton's (Schwarzenegger) team. They are comfortable with one another to the point (and much further past, I must say) that they can assign blame on who farted and then hurl insults at that person to the point a typical person might want to off themselves, but it is clear this is all just a part of hyping themselves up, of pushing their adrenaline to the highest possible level so that when they burst through the gates of a mansion filled with what are no doubt members of a Mexican cartel they have no fear in their eyes. As an innocent bystander we take the code of honor these guys carry with them as a given so when they reach the room where the large pile of money is hidden and they begin to place stacks of bills into plastic baggies and file them under a toilet down into the sewer we question what is actually going on here. This brings us to the point of what can be said in well-regards to the film in that it doesn't allow itself to simply be about the one big bad that got away in Breacher's past that has come back to haunt him nor does it give us the simple straightforward mission of the team coming together to overtake an escaped druglord, but instead the film makes it all about the central members of our undercover operations squad. While this idea for the narrative still doesn't become apparent until about half an hour or so in the bad news is also that there is never any real chemistry between the team that allows us to buy into the camaraderie they are trying to have us buy. The most interesting aspect of the film is that of Schwarzenegger's character, but the emotional weight that Breacher is supposed to be carrying never becomes apparent because it is simply too much for the actor to handle. In one scene he is wrought with sadness and defeat while the next he walks out carrying a gun and smoking a cigar like nothing ever happened and that he doesn't carry a burden. He essentially thinks he can get away with what he's best known for in the majority of his scenes while bringing in what acting chops he can muster for those that demand it while the overall effect of the performance is incoherent and only lends to the messy feeling of the final product.
It makes one wonder if the actual plot the film puts into motion and allows to play out is never convincing simply because it is bad writing (the guy who "wrote" “A Good Day to Die Hard” penned this, need I say more?) or if it's because Schwarzenegger is never as convincing as he needs to be to pull it off. The film tries to make you second guess what you already know multiple times and at certain points you want to let it have you, but we all realize who the old pro is in the room and if you still see that as a spoiler forty-five minutes into the film (and that's being kind) then I'm sorry, but it's just not. This all of course paired with the fact the execution of the film feels lazy makes it hard to come up with many excuses as to why some people might enjoy this. This is especially true with the dialogue and character development. This ridiculous group of muscled-up, tattooed bad boys (and one girl) are blurring the lines between who they are supposed to be pretending to be and who they truly are. We have Sam Worthington (oh, how his once rising star has fallen) as James "Monster" Murray, Joe Manganiello (doing nothing but picking up a quick buck between “True Blood” and “Magic Mike XXL” it seems) as Joe "Grinder" Phillips (and yes, they all have names like this), Josh Holloway (somebody fire this guy’s agent; “Paranoia,” “Battle of the Year” and now this?) as Eddie "Neck" Jordan, Terrence Howard (I really have nothing to say, Howard takes so many roles I don't think the guy even reads the scripts) as Julius "Sugar" Edmonds and Mireille Enos of “World War Z” and “The Killing” who is the only person in the entire cast who gives a well-rounded, nuanced performance. As Lizzy, Enos straddles the line between being the law and breaking it more than any of her co-workers and in her development from undercover hooker to a substance abusing, strung-out good for nothing she makes us feel whether or not everything these people go through in their line of work and all the lives they take are really worth it or if trying to defend life is just as much killing yourself when you have to bear the troubles that come with that responsibility. “Sabotage” would have been better off to purely focus on Lizzy, but instead she too is placed among these brutes where character development is defined as each of them constantly trying to out-curse and out-do one another to prove just how outlandish and care-free they can be with any aspect of their lives.
The film would have had even better chances of being interesting and complex if it instead were about the relationship between the different government agencies. There is a moment where detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams doing one of the worst Southern accents ever) and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau) go to the DEA to ask for assistance in solving the case of why Breacher's team is being taken out one by one and the tension in that scene alone with the implied overtones the audience comes away with are greater and more gripping than anything else in the other one hundred minutes the film has to offer. There are nicely sprinkled bits by character actors throughout including Gary Grubbs who is literally only in this thing for a matter of minutes and whose character you'd think would amount to more later on, but never does. Max Martini and Kevin Vance play fellow team members to Schwarzenegger's rag tag crew, but I'm sure by their lack of star power you can guess how long each of them stick around for. While I am still trying to get over the disappointment I have with Sabotage I can't help but wonder why Ayer would waste his time on something so run of the mill? Maybe it was the casting, as that is surely what pulled me into being interested as I expected nothing less than typical from its narrative, but to at least have a good time with the film as I did “Escape Plan” and “The Last Stand” last year, but “Sabotage” is a drag and even as, late in the game, things begin to actually develop and some emotional resonance comes into play the film devolves once again into what it knows best: pointless and incoherent gun fights. Ayer is clearly a meticulous storyteller as his script's for “Training Day” and “Dark Blue” gave way to even more interesting films and while “End of Watch” saw his directorial hand moving in the right direction after the fine, but rather plain sophomore effort that was “Street Kings” it was clear from the beginning with “Harsh Times” that the guy had a knack for telling gritty, cop stories. I don't know if it is the fact this was a quick little side project that was thrown in between “End of Watch” and his much anticipated “Fury” this fall, but the director has no presence here as even the highlighted action scenes don't elicit the art of what these people do for a living, but more or less look and sound like nothing more than a mess of bullets. We sympathize with Arnie (because this feels like the final nail in his action star coffin) and his plight, but the way his story has been told here just isn't entertaining or at all well executed enough to care.
by Philip Price
The looming question after “The Avengers” was always going to be if movies only featuring one of the team members would suffice after this all-star team-up and while I enjoy ”Iron Man 3” more and more with each viewing and appreciate it for what it did for the character I have to say the opposite of ‘The Dark World.’ The ‘Thor’ sequel sacrificed going through with the clear demise of a character for the sake of fan affection and in no real way contributes to the larger arc of the story Marvel seems to be telling within its criss-crossed cinematic universe. I may come to regret that sentence when either “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron” takes some big notes from the introduction of the Aether that drives the plot in ‘The Dark World,’ but for now it seems that the introduction of this new energy source could have served as a small subplot in the film rather than being the main reason for conflict while also providing Malekith's sole reason for existing in the film. With ‘The Winter Soldier’ though, Marvel had its back to the wall in being forced to push the narrative forward as Captain America operates within the world most of our heroes also reside and more than that is affiliated with the organization that brought the super group together thus meaning if this sequel turned out to be a place holder then there was going to be a new wave of doubt in Marvel Studios and its master plan that would feel more off the cuff than meticulously planned. Lucky for audiences, ‘Winter Soldier’ is both a solid film on its own terms and a solid entry in the Marvel canon that not only moves the story forward and reveals new, unexpected developments but also sets-up an interesting dynamic for how things will unfold in the upcoming films. Within all of these films the struggle is to make a sufficient stand-alone piece that works with what it is trying to accomplish on its own and without simply leaning on the fact there is another, inevitable chapter coming. As much as these Marvel films have become big, expensive episodes in an ever-evolving cinematic version of a television series, if they were going to survive as singular pieces of entertainment they were going to need to have a strong sense of individuality and ‘The Winter Soldier,’ for the first time since The First Avenger, has that singular style and tone that separates it from its cohorts while understanding the necessities of contributing to things bigger than itself.
The other main concern with shaping entire films around these, what came to be regarded as, more second tier super heroes was if they were in fact even interesting enough on their own to support a feature. The argument could easily be made now for Tony Stark/Iron Man especially with Downey in the lead role and Thor was such an outlandish and original beast for the already established universe that good or bad it was at least going to be interesting, but the question mark of this inquiry always seemed to land squarely on the helmet of Captain America. For all his bravery, honesty and pure earnestness he was also the most boring because of these characteristics and so it was with a lush supporting cast and that specific tone taken from the era in which it was set that The First Avenger succeeded not only in introducing us to the leader of the Avengers, but in making his story interesting as well. While many of the supporting cast from the first film have either passed on or are too old to be involved in the action that is going on here directors Anthony and Joe Russo have surrounded Cap with new allies, new enemies and a host of credible actors in these roles to make the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. feel all the more interesting than its weekly sitcom might imply it truly is. We are immediately introduced to Sam Wilson (a charming Anthony Mackie) as Cap laps him in a morning run and while not initially being recruited as a companion or "The Falcon" Wilson has a strong enough rapport with the star-spangled hero that it leaves a lasting impression important for later crisis. Scarlett Johansson returns as Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow as the Captain's primary sidekick this go-around introducing him to the ways in which S.H.I.E.L.D. works as well as consistently trying to set him up on dates that never seem to pan out (a cute neighbor/secret agent in Emily VanCamp shows signs of sparks, but little real development as of now) while Widow and Cap share their own amount of sexual tension that just feels out of place and slightly forced. Sam Jackson is also a stronger presence here than in any of the other films given the level of S.H.I.E.L.D. involvement and even has his own intense and nicely stylized action sequence that introduces us to the titular villain. As Fury, Jackson can seem as pompous as he seems to be in real life, but luckily it fits the character and before it reaches a breaking point of not being able to stand Fury any longer there are a few redeeming moments that can only mean good things for his future involvement in this universe.
What is almost more interesting than that of Cap's allies though are the villains at play here. Not to spoil anything, but if you ever thought Robert Redford would join a film that has been compared to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970's and not somehow be involved in a conspiracy theory that involves commentary on the state of surveillance and the ability to invade individuals private lives through the ever-advancing technology we use in our day to day lives, then you had to be crazy or misinformed. The casting of Redford is a nice wink and nod to the audience that will understand it as well as being an introduction to the actor for younger generations who will hopefully be intrigued by Redford's smooth yet nasty turn as Alexander Pierce that cause them to seek out his career-defining work. Further is the subtle yet clear statement that is the casting of Frank Grillo who leads a S.H.I.E.L.D. strike force who backs up Cap and Black Widow in the opening action sequence that (side note) plays out the execution of the action with the utmost importance and as a result displays the full effectiveness of our heroes abilities, while also giving a very important character name to Grillo (an already underrated character actor) that allows his fate to signal that of the more meticulous planning mentioned above rather than feeling as if the screenwriters are just spinning their wheels. Lastly, we have our titular antagonist, that of Sebastian Stan's return as the Winter Soldier. I was hoping the promotional campaign for the film wouldn't give away the identity of our main villain, but there was chatter about Bucky Barnes fate as far back as before The First Avenger debuted so if there was even a remote amount of interest in these Marvel films you likely already knew who he was. While the character doesn't play as dominant a role in the plot of the film or its action as the headlining title would suggest it certainly gives more depth to the action scenes that sometimes struggle to find more justification than the pure fact they NEED to be included because this is a super hero flick. One thing “The Avengers” failed to do that ‘The Dark World’ actually accomplished quite nicely was bringing a unique aspect to the obligatory "final battle" and with every outright action scene in ‘The Winter Soldier’ the Russo brothers prove their need for real substance in their battles, they know how to pick and choose them and when they include ‘Winter Soldier’ they give the tone and the meaning of the interaction between Steve Rogers and the brainwashed Bucky a pungent taste of devastation.
As the film develops into the thick of its plot though I turned to my friend sitting next to me who knows more about the comic book storylines than I do and asked if this was getting a little too farfetched. His answer was no, that he was still good, but wasn't sure how far they would take it. I wasn't sure how far they would take it either and in taking into account all that had already occurred with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the development of its own TV show I had to wonder if what unfolds was just a little too much of a stretch. In the end I'm hoping enough of my unanswered questions had been addressed to the point that even though I've given up on the NBC show I will at least be able to buy into the developments that happen in ‘The Winter Soldier’ so that we have an interesting jumping of point next May when ‘Age of Ultron’ opens. Again, this is what makes this in particular entry in the universe so interesting and strong in that it contains within its narrative a major development, a story all its own that the Captain is integral in unraveling and bringing to the attention of the right people to where he can follow through on the things he has always been labeled with standing for. It could very well be a stand-alone feature that simply makes larger implications that might make it even more awe-inspiring and interesting did we not already have the assurance there will not only be an ‘Avengers’ sequel but a third ‘Captain America’ feature as well.
That is what I, personally, am looking for every time I go into one of these Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Don't get me wrong, I love the allure and the mythology that surround them and that they have come be such a part of our culture that so many of them are being made (for better or worse it is nice to see interesting filmmakers and actors take on material once thought only for children and nerds), but as the universe has grown an evident detractor has been that some of the individual films suffer a lack of suspense because audiences are already aware of what's coming next and who may or may not be able to die. ‘The Winter Soldier,’ while (Spoiler!) still not able to keep any of its suspected dead actually dead, at least knows how to expertly craft a thrilling action film that just so happens to feature a Marvel super hero, and a hero, that thanks not only to that luscious supporting cast but the up-front honest and intelligently humble performance of Chris Evans has a slight advantage over those not operating directly with the organization that brought this band of heroes together. Evans, with his strong jaw and compelling nature breathes a tangible life into the clean-cut boy scout and portrays a man who we are able to believe is willing to sacrifice himself for his best friend even after being betrayed and who can also just sit back and listen to some Marvin Gaye; such an accomplishment deserves some credit and ‘The Winter Soldier’ will no doubt receive that as it will likely go down as one of the better films to come out of this cinematic universe.
by Philip Price
Sometimes, knowing someone and their aptitude for integrating themselves (no matter with good or bad results, as both can be equally entertaining) into society and the world around them is an exhilarating and interesting enough reason to hang out with them, to spend time with them. Despite the fact these tendencies may or may not become annoying or too much to look past when actually having to deal with the repercussions these actions provide they almost always give way to a few good stories to tell your actual set of friends when you sit down to share a drink and a meal with them where that time spent together is about the conversation and not about the presumed antics you'll encounter because of the domineering traits that make each encounter an adventure with the friend of another set. Some will classify this as simply being two different kinds of people: the thinkers and the doers. The thinkers sitting around watching, speculating while the actions of the doers provide content for those conversations. Much of watching film and critiquing or dissecting it makes the world feel like it squarely fits into these categories, but there are no absolutes and every person, no matter their domineering traits or tendencies will always have experiences in both of these types of situations and yet with “Dom Hemingway” we get as close as we probably ever will to both processing the antics of our titular character as we take them in while also feeling a part of the excursion because of how much was clearly put into the development of Hemingway, not only in the script and the way he was written, but of course and likely more critically in the way he was brought to life by Jude Law. Law, as the boozed out, drug-addled Englishman has seemingly subdued his classic good looks in every possible way to bring as much grit and grime to the presence of Hemingway to the point we don't doubt the man has dirt under his nails that's been there the entire time he kept his mouth shut in prison. It is a shame the actual film can't keep up with the character, because the energy that flows through Law's blood-shot eyes and out of his saliva-slinging mouth is pure electric.
We begin, as is only fitting, with our introduction to Mr. Hemingway in is as strong a statement that can be made about what the character stands for. Not only are we referring to the monologue that he spouts out in the opening scene, but more towards the sole object he is describing and with such eloquence that were you to have to guess at the subject you probably wouldn't guess it at all. That coupled with how director Richard Shepard's camera slowly pans out to reveal the more justified reason for the building tension in Law's voice all combines to paint an immediate picture of the man who we will be getting to know over the next, brisk hour and a half. Shepard, who has had some critical success in this kind of genre before with 2005's “The Matador” (which had some similar attempts at dark humor as well as some of the same problems with pacing it seems, but it has been too long since I've seen the film for me to really make an accurate comparison) is clearly in control of his character and knows who this guy is as he is the sole screenwriter, but he never comes up with as sturdy or compelling a drama to place behind this bullheaded, inappropriate brute who dominates wherever he goes and whoever he comes in contact with. Dom is given a friend, a sidekick in Dickie (Richard E. Grant) as well as an estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), and a prickly foe in the form of Demian Bichir whose wife, Paolina (Madalina Diana Ghenea), may be even dirtier than he. There are these elements of a story that we see come to light, but are so easily brushed over or whisked off into the next adventure Dom embarks on that we never feel any real presence from a supporting structure that guides this narrative to a point that we feel it resonates with us or was trying to say anything at all. And maybe it wasn't, maybe there is no grander point to Dom Hemingway, but instead Shepard simply wanted to deliver a pure character study and to do that would have been fine but you still need an engaging story that happened in your characters life to peel back the layers that make this character interesting enough to study. Instead of giving us this moment in time, this picture in the week of the life of Dom Hemingway we instead are delivered a scattershot story that matches the way in which Dom leads his life, but leaves the audience yearning for more information, more insight on each little encounter he has with the several different events that come up and are blown past in the film.
I wouldn't like Dom Hemingway, the man, if I were to actually meet him and have to be around him I imagine, but watching his foolish and outrageous behavior from a distance endears him to the audience and due to no lack of charm from Law we stick with the film because we do actually come to love the character and are interested in where he ends up. The set-up is that Dom went to jail and has been there for twelve years. As he is released we even get the on-screen text telling us, "Twelve Years is a Long Time". Indeed it is and it is evident that this time that has passed since he last stepped out into the real world has caused him not only to miss certain things, like his daughter growing up, but to miss the way in which culture has transformed and left him in the dust. He is a man out of time that no doubt wants the early-90's of his prime to stick around forever, but when he learns he can't even smoke in a pub anymore we are treated to what makes Dom and Law's performance as Dom more specifically, all the more special. This is a guy who gave up a shorter jail sentence so that when he finally was set free would be paid off with interest and a cherry on top by the man he was working for. The money, the materialistic paper that will seemingly grant all of our dreams was his main goal in life and when he reaches that and squanders it due to his inability to control himself he is forced to face a life that would have happened whether he had the money or not because it is the same life his attitude would have always determined he receive. Law makes us believe this luck by always playing Hemingway as him truly thinking he is doing the right thing, but continually getting shit on. With the window of his life being so small in which we are allowed to get to know him we wonder about everything that has informed it to this point and to his credit Shepard, as I said earlier, gives Dom all the necessary aspects to make up this broken man we see in front of us, but it is that lacking insight into these factors that never makes the movie feel as full and as complete as the character. The one aspect that breathes the most life into Dom's current circumstances is his estranged relationship with his daughter, but even with someone like Clarke taking the role (looking especially like Helena Bonham Carter here as well) she is hardly given any room to develop and become little more than an archetype of a resentful daughter who is having a hard time giving her biological father a second chance, and rightly so. There are hints of an interesting relationship between them and through to Evelyn's new family, but the movie spends too much time dipping its toes in extraneous activity to let the focus land here.
Beyond these missteps we come to understand the themes the film is trying to tackle within its main character; the foremost being that he is ultimately trying to make up for too much lost time. Whether it is through the weekend in the country that he spends amongst thieves, taking up a former rival on a good opportunity or even relishing in the train of thought that a man with no options suddenly has all the options in the world; he is trying to live up every scenario to its fullest and more times than not they end up being these small moments, these small wins that he gets a kick out of while his overall existence still reeks of idiocy and bad decisions. This idea of trying to make up for lost time then of course feeds into the many layers there are of regret and the title wave of reality that comes crashing down on Dom that force him to put a perspective on things that before were blinded by those tiny wins. With the passage of time and the understanding he is getting older and that his time will indeed eventually run out he sees why being who he thought he was all those years is certainly regrettable. There is an intensely touching scene late in the film where he is speaking with a character we've heard much about, but never met and where he has a single line stating all he feels he has left of the relationship they once had with one another. It is a simple line, but it brings those realizations Dom is making to not only his, but our reality with him. It hits you hard and makes you appreciate the character transformation not for what could have easily been hokey, but as purely genuine because with the very next scene we understand that the film doesn't feel the need to resolve everything. You probably think from everything I've said about the film that I didn't much like it, but that wouldn't really be accurate as I actually had a pretty fun time with it, I just had hopes it would be better as a complete work. It takes some skill to build a tense moment that strictly has to due with whether a penis gets cut off or not and Shepard's script and direction as well as Law's marvelous performance make this and many more crude and vulgar moments work though and to its credit, even with its slight redemption, Dom's life may end up being nothing more than a nasty cycle, we don't really know, but we can at least trust that it will be eventful.
by Philip Price
I'm not sure what to make of “Enemy.” It is unclear what exactly I'm meant to take away from the picture, but what is clear to me is that I can't stop going over certain scenes and trying to put together the significance of the actions of the characters, of the shot choices, the color palette, the deeply intentional mood and score and why it builds at certain points and simply sits and broods at others. I want to understand it completely, but I don't and I know even if I offered up a theory of what I thought the final scene means it would likely be completely different from the person who was sitting next to me in the same theater. It is a film and a story meant to elicit conversation, meant to stir up academic-like discussion and it is clear from the opening moments we are in for something extremely meditative that while equally as stark and emotionally haunting (if not more so) than director Denis Villeneuve's previous effort, “Prisoners,” is much more in tune with its scale and its compact story. Where “Prisoners” was a sweeping epic of large themes “Enemy” plays its hand close to the chest and is all the more intriguing for it. As each new scene plays out I couldn't help but to wonder what each little thing meant, what I was intended to take away and if it would result in some revelation I'd already imagined in my mind or if it might come completely out of left field and take me with real surprise. The film opens with a quote simply stating that "chaos is order yet to be deciphered" and as we watch the strange story unravel I couldn't help but to keep repeating this little phrase in my mind and wonder in what sense it was meant to apply to our main characters. The same could be said about any number of things that different people will pick out to latch onto, what is the deeper psychological meaning of the constant references to hands? I'm not sure still, but one thing that remains clear is that I found the film to be completely fascinating and I can't wait to watch it again, to dissect it further and to see just how many different conversations I can have about it.
If you are immediately intrigued by just how transfixed I seem to be with the film and you go to see the film on this recommendation alone you will sit down and be introduced to a film that seems more along the lines of “Only God Forgives” than that of Villeneuve's previous film where the twist and turns were aplenty, but as you settle into it and agree with the pacing you will soon grow to understand not only why you're unable to take your eyes off the screen, but also why they will be searching every inch of it for some kind of clue as to what might actually be going on. We first meet Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a professor of history, who seems less than enthusiastic about his college classes and the constant repetition of the same lessons in different classes day in and day out. He seems to be stuck in a routine with his job, the grading of papers and the seemingly emotionless sex that takes place with girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent). He is bored with life, but one night on the recommendation of a colleague Adam rents a movie and catches a glimpse of an actor in a small supporting role that seems to share an incredible likeness with himself. Adam begins to do some research and finds out the actor’s name, David Saint Claire, among other things to the point he takes a piece of mail that has been sent to the talent agency that represents David. He finds out his real name is Anthony and finds his phone number and goes so far as to call it where Anthony's pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), answers the phone and mistakes Adam for her husband as even their voices sound identical. Adam becomes slightly obsessed, but soon retracts his enthusiasm as things begin to take stranger and stranger turns to the point his personal life and everything about his once open and barren world seem to be getting smaller. It is an odd sense that is heightened by the consistent feeling of dread that lingers ever more present as the film progresses. It is hard to place a finger on the exact methods that Villeneuve employs to convey what he needs to make the audience feel a specific way, but he is a master of suspense in such a way that Hitchcock would be proud and likely even jealous of such an expertly crafted psychological thriller.
When it comes to films such as “Enemy,” where it seems the verdict on whether the film is ultimately satisfying or not is based on whether the big, final reveal is worthy of all that proceeded it it seems I always have trouble determining whether those means actually justify the end. This is especially true when I am completely taken with the closing sequences and give the rest of the movie a slight pass because the conclusion elevated it so. The majority of the time though, conventional Hollywood films are exactly that and are unable to offer anything truly enlightening or mind-blowing and so we have been conditioned not to expect too much at all and at the very least something we've likely seen before that may happen to have a slight twist on it. The worst is when the "twist ending" makes little sense in regards to the events that have built up to it and only exists so it might be given the title that comes with a twist in it. Still, throughout “Enemy” I never felt like I was being cheated or that anything was purposefully being hidden from us, but instead that we are given as much as the film can offer and that in large is due to the skillful writing from a screenplay by Javier Gullón that is adapted from the novel, "The Double" by José Saramago. Things are so tightly structured and so perfectly build one scene after another that we feel privy to consistent new information that moves the plot along while still keeping us in the dark on many of the details as to what is actually occurring. The other reason the film, or more precisely the story, plays out with more of a naturalistic feel than it would in the hands of a lesser actor is due to the performances of Gyllenhaal. There could be an entire college paper written on the duality of the two completely different characters he portrays here, but in a nutshell Gyllenhaal is able to take the disheveled Adam and the more put-together, more presentable Anthony and give them these distinctive attitudes where one is more apprehensive, the other more direct and confident while still echoing the body language, the specific inflections that give hint to showing that while the obvious personas are drastically different, the way in which they might be brought to being by either person are eerily similar.
All of that said, the real question is does the payoff justify the extremely engaging journey it takes to get there? Either that or does the fact you find yourself so wrapped up in trying to figure out the truth of the matter that you are actually unable to enjoy the film for what it is? Both questions came to mind as the credits began to roll and I sat there, in the theater watching as the names of all those who worked on the film popped up on the screen just hoping for a little more, something extra that may either confirm or deny one of the multiple theories already floating around in my head. The simple answer for both of these would be yes. I was able to enjoy it and I know that because I wanted to watch it again as soon as those final credits flickered to nothing but black and I know the end did in fact justify the means because it is hours later after watching the film and I still can't help but think back and want to have as many conversations with as many other people that have seen it as I can; I want to tell people, force them even, to go see it just so we can talk about it and if I love one thing about film more than anything else it is those that give way to great, stimulating conversation and “Enemy” has accomplished this with thoughts and ideas to spare. There is something almost disorienting about the film because at first glance it almost seems to simple, that the events in which it is chronicling and the way those events shape the attitudes of the characters make it feel so familiar that when the weird twists and turns we expect are not in any way perceptible we are thrown off and are not sure where to plant our feet; in what world are we? In what genre are we playing with? What rules apply or don't? There are as many questions as there are possible answers when it comes to “Enemy.” More than this too, the film is gorgeous as shot by Nicolas Bolduc and features such a keen, graceful eye from Villeneuve that even if we weren't entranced by the story and plot we'd be swept up in the visual style and the resonance of what these images may fully represent. All of these elements combine to create a complete product that will always be subjective, even to yourself, because none of us exist as one single thing all of the time.
by Philip Price
There was a time between the break of the new millennium and about three years in where it seemed as if Halle Berry would be an unstoppable force, destined for greatness as she became an X-Men (or woman), took the role of a Bond girl and mixed her big budget affairs in with smaller films that grabbed her Oscar nominations and the eventual first best actress trophy for an African-American woman. Things seemed to be going better than perfect and audiences were willing to forgive interesting misfires like “Swordfish” and “Gothika” (at least she was trying to be versatile, right?) but then she made “Catwoman” and it seems ever since the actress has been trying to regain that credibility she possessed for only a brief amount of time. She has never seemed to simply accept her fate as Cuba Gooding Jr. so clearly has, but instead, continues to make films she seems to hope will make her that award winning actress again, serious dramas with heavy subject matter, but the problem has always been that these choices are obvious and not organic. They are pure bait it seems, even as a part of the bigger than her “Cloud Atlas” it sometimes seemed she was only present because she thought it might have a shot at garnering awards attention while the production at hand here, which has somehow managed to be delayed for four years, makes it clear the place Berry was in not too long ago and now. Maybe though, now, with another shot at the Storm role lined up this summer and a box office hit last year with “The Call,” she will try to find a middle ground that doesn't see her putting on an acting workshop to try and earn the praise of her peers, but simply allows the movies she finds herself in to take form around what she feels is suitable for the role and if Oscar comes a knocking, more power to her. Of course, I could be completely off and this fluctuation in her popularity, credibility and profitability could simply be based on her tendency of which scripts to choose, but if “Frankie & Alice” proves anything it is at least that Berry is ambitious and willing to keep on truckin' even when the tide is against her.
In “Frankie & Alice,” Berry portrays a real-life woman who suffered from what, on the surface, seems to be an extreme case of multiple personalities but is diagnosed as dissociative identity disorder (DID). Now, I went into the film not really knowing what this was about or where it would be going and so as we meet Berry's Frankie as she struts her stuff as a go-go dancer in the early ‘70s I assumed, given the title, it would be about a pair of girlfriends who team-up to somehow do away with the scum of the world they encounter nightly at this strip club so when Frankie ends up going home with the DJ from the same club she works at and in the middle of the heat of passion begins to hear a baby cry and splits into a manic fit of rage where she threatens the guy who thought he was going to get lucky, smacks him over the head and then runs into the streets it was obvious there was going to be more to this than I imagined. Lucky for Frankie she is treated by Dr. Oz (Stellan Skarsgård) upon initial inspection who, though busy, seems to have an immediate interest in the psychology of what might be happening in Frankie's mind and what might be causing these what at first appear to be lapses in memory. Things don't begin to really take form though until Frankie is prompted by her spiteful sister Maxine (Chandra Wilson) to go to the wedding of a childhood friend where clearly some issues lie. Their mother Edna (Phylicia Rashad) is quick to silence her younger daughter and even quicker to brush any mention or notice of the past under the rug. I was intrigued, I was taken by this mystery and even more engaged by how we were going to seemingly piece together the events of Frankie's past giving us both answers on why these personalities exist, but also why they feel the need to compete with one another.
In this regard, the film is nothing less than a fine example of how a basic human story can be brought to the screen and how it allows the simplicities of the details to become the hooks of why an audience finds themselves pulled into the situation. This is a very human story, but it deals in topics that can be seen as taboo when not presented correctly as well and that is where the picture runs into some issues both in general quality of the final product and in terms of performance. Director Geoffrey Sax doesn't seem one to flaunt what he has on his hands as the enlisting of Skarsgård gives the film a more accurate tone of what he was likely going for and the restrained camera work and more straightforward style keep the emphasis not on how the story is told, but what story it is telling. It is a film to be re-visited, for sure, as it will likely have more and more impact as you go back and see more of the details that both foreshadow and highlight how Frankie dealt (or did not) with the stress of having multiple people operating within the same brain.
The relationship that forms between Oz and Frankie is one of inherent chemistry, where we learn just enough about the good doctor beforehand that we understand an interesting case that is cause for real investment is just what he needs in that moment and Frankie needs someone she can trust, something far too scarce in her life where everyone seems either to use her or shelter her from the truth of what she really is. Skarsgård brings the necessary weight to the film and his role that allow this to feel of a more substantial place in our order of priority than it would had Berry been paired with an unknown or less credible actor. Skarsgård operates as a man recently divorced, in a routine of sorts that never amounts to anything more than more thinking and much of the time with nothing to focus that brain activity on other than jazz. Frankie gives him this opportunity to focus, in essence to move on and while this bond is made explicitly cheesy to a point there is pressure to bring something special into each of their lives every time they meet, but instead allow their situations to compliment one another to the point they feel a warmth long absent from each of their lives.
Let's be honest though, we can well assume that since this was a passion project of Berry's that she saw it as prime opportunity to show she still had what it was that made her worthy of that Oscar and to be honest, I'm not arguing with her. She puts forth a presence and complexity that is needed to portray both a strong African-American woman in the 1970's while also eliciting the necessary sting to portray a white supremacist from Texas that never feels as hokey as one might imagine given that preface before seeing the film. These performances keep the story afloat though for as deep and integral as the events of Frankie's past are and how they inform her current state of being they never seem as vital or as highly-regarded in terms of the film itself. The acting is in the forefront while the specifics of the drama fall by the wayside in the perspective of how the film made me feel after it concluded the first time. Like I said earlier, though I didn't find this groundbreaking or even necessarily great it is a solid picture that I would like to watch again at some point because I feel the points of the plot may better be realized once the audience already knows the full details of the story and what is actually going on with Frankie. It is hard to describe why “Frankie & Alice” seems little more than acceptable when it clearly has the ambition and power behind it to be more than the Lifetime movie some may peg it as, but while the presence of Berry and Skarsgård alone give it that heightened sense of importance and pedigree the film feels adequate for the story it took on without rising to match what some might consider an exceptional if not showy performance from Berry.
by Philip Price
If there is one thing I've always admired and enjoyed about director Darren Aranofsky's films it is the ambition with which he constructs them and the innovation with which he operates within these worlds he builds. With “Noah,” the much talked about adaptation of the Bible story, Aranofsky has crafted what is essentially a mythological epic where our familiarity with the story and characters only serve as the intrigue to why we might be interested in what more is going on in this version. There has been much discussion over the content and the liberties Aronofsky has taken with the story from the book of Genesis, but if anything has been added or changed it seems to only serve the purpose of filling in the gaps of the story that the Bible didn't find necessary to go into detail about. To say that Aranofsky and his frequent collaborator Ari Handel have come up with some interesting theories and ideas within their script is a bit of an understatement. The bad news concerning this is that these sparks of creativity, where the story is allowed to diverge from the beaten path, begin to wear thin after the first hour or so. That isn't to say that the final hour and 20 minutes or so is any less interesting or drags as much of the inherent drama from within the family unit comes into play in these later stages, but it is the aura of those early scenes that stay with you as you leave the theater and the inherent attitudes of the characters that draw us in and make us question their sanity as much as we do our own faith, for better or worse. “Noah” is one of those films where I expected to walk in feeling one way and walk out with a new perspective on the difference between literal interpretation and what more accurately seem to be these metaphorical stories with implied lessons that influence over 70 percent of the world’s population. My world wasn't changed, my eyes weren't necessarily opened to a new way of thinking as I exited the screening, but what I did have was a sense of that still fresh ambition within Aronofsky. It is clear from the opening moments of the film that the director is still very much in tune with who he is and what kinds of films he wants to make and with as divisive a subject matter as this it is nothing short of rewarding to see that singular voice still come through.
In the Bible God tells Noah he is going to put an end to all people because the earth is filled with violence and it is because of them that it is. These bare bones facts remain the same here as we meet Russell Crowe's Noah first as a young boy being taught the selfless ways of his people by his father who is struck down in front of him by the humans that savage the land in the wake of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Specifically, we speak of the descendant of Cain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and his conviction that God or "the creator" as he is consistently referred to here made man in his own image so that they would dominate the earth. As Noah grew up, married and had three young sons he distanced himself further and further from civilization and waits as if it's destiny for God to speak to him and tell him what he must do next to live a life looked kindly upon by his creator. When he receives this message in the form of a dream he is sure of its meaning, but unsure of what he needs to do with it. He takes his family, wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) to visit his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) so that they may decipher the dream in a way that will give forth a realization. Along the way, they encounter torched and ravaged villages where, amongst the dead, they find a wounded young girl by the name of Ila (who grows up to be Emma Watson) whom Noah and Naameh adopt as their own. Along the way, Noah and his family are surrounded and held captive by "The Watchers" or fallen angels that were banished to earth after failing to keep Adam and Eve in line and have now been turned into monstrous, rock-like creatures that no longer share a compassion for man. It is when Noah and his family finally reach Methuselah and the true intention of the creator is revealed to our titular hero that the watchers decide to give man, or at least Noah, another shot and aid him in his task of building a vessel that will protect he and his family when God deems it time to wash clean the world of all the evil man has brought to it. More difficult than not pissing-off half of the worlds Christian population with his interpretation, the most challenging aspect of creating a film from the great flood story was always going to be making it a story worth telling on this scale and this building of worlds and leading up to the beats we are all familiar with certainly prove ripe ground for Aranofsky to explore both his visual style and his philosophical meanderings that no doubt inspired him to take on the content in the first place.
The opening moments where Noah sifts through the dirt with Shem and Ham as the sky behind them shows a cloudless horizon not as developed as our current state as you are able to see stars and planets shining brightly against the blue palette give the film a certain but very specific tone; one that implies its fantasy/science fiction elements and the type of approach Aranofsky was taking along with several other early factors that serve to either make a point of how outlandish the stories of the old testament actually are and how disconnected they've become from our reality or either to really immerse ourselves in this world and the unwavering commitment of our characters and how their way of life wasn't necessarily out of the normal even if it may seem a bit much by today’s standards. By the fact he was willing to take on the widely accepted story of how man came to remain on this earth, much less to drive home a film that delivers this interesting view on religion and faith and the documents that inspire such loyal followings, but that of how our lives, our individual beings, may not be as precious or delicate to this all-knowing entity that defines how we live those lives is interesting and he is sure to make the proceedings of this nearly two and a half hour conversation just as involving as you'd like it to be. Those who are fans of Aranofsky go to his films expecting a challenge and so even when he has entered the ring of big budget spectacles you automatically look for what you need to be questioning, where you need to be looking deeper. Aranofsky wants you to keep asking questions, he wants the audience to put themselves in Noah's position, asking whether you would have the strength to follow an unseen guiding light asking you to save yourself from an inevitable mass murder while alienating your children at the same time and he does this by calling into question what real lessons or values can be learned from such events or if it can teach anything other than to be loyal to something too many people use to ease their minds as for what to expect after this life than anything else. I'm not pretending to know where Aronofsky stands in terms of beliefs and whether or not this was simply a big farce to him that he turned into a fantasy genre film or if he truly believes that there is a higher power. What I do like to believe is that he falls somewhere in the middle in knowing that he will never know everything and that the mystery and intrigue surrounding the Bible stories, God, Jesus and faith is all too much to ignore and thus must be expelled from the imagination in some way so that even if we don't get it right, we feel we are trying to make better sense of it all.
For me, the preceding paragraph is what Darren Aronofsky taking on “Noah” represents and lucky for audiences, the outcome is nothing if not epic and entertaining. Beyond these underlying themes and implications of stylistic choices there is much more to be feasted on as well and what stood out first and foremost to me was the soundtrack. Clint Mansell has collaborated with Aronofsky several times before (most notably on “Requiem for a Dream”) and here he strays from the loud, Hans Zimmer-inspired tinges the trailer indicated, but instead goes with a much more naturalistic sounding score that hearkens back to the epics of yesteryear while keeping the strange, alien like feeling of the sci-fi genre incorporated in the sounds. It is chilling, to say the least, and every time the definitive strings would strike there familiar note it was a moment of heightened importance for me, not strictly because of what was happening on screen, but because my ears recognized the cue and would send signals of awe through my being. What elevates these sounds in many a scene are the fact Aronofsky and his crew shot on location for much of the film rather than using green screen to re-create the biblical setting. The vastness of the open fields Noah and his family travel across early in the film to the greenery that surrounds them as they build the ark is nothing less than stunning and though there are a few shoddy moments as far as CGI is concerned, for the most part, the animals and the montages are beyond exceptional. There is one moment in particular where Noah shares a story with his family about the creation of the universe and all of the life within it and while there are no principal actors or anything involved in the sequence it jumps from shot to shot so fast, evolving as it does from the deepest reaches of space to the first animal coming out of the ocean and onto land. It is a breathtaking sequence that goes on longer than expected, but doesn't overstay its welcome, just continues to impress with its beauty and the fact it is able to sustain itself for the length that it does while never becoming dull. It was one of those moments where I knew as I was watching it that it was something truly enlightening. While the startling music pairs fantastically with the luscious visuals and interesting editorial choices that make the film stand out from your standard blockbuster it almost seems like a letdown to see regular human beings operating within this other-worldly atmosphere.
As Noah, Crowe does what he does best and that is being a serious thespian who knows how to dig into the soul of every character he takes on. Noah is no different and he has a lot of internal struggle going on. The film doesn't shy away from the fact that what "the creator" is doing is wiping out millions of lives, some much more innocent than others, some of them children and the burden that this places on Noah while the pressure that it puts on him from his family once things become more and more real would seem unbearable for any normal person and the best thing Crowe does here is allow that wear to show through in every ounce of his performance. He goes from being a devout, honest man to that of someone we feel we don't know, who is so tired by the work he's put in to follow his God's requests that he is nothing more than a shell of what he used to be, barely holding up. Connelly, Booth and Hopkins all serve their respective roles well enough while Winstone hams it up more than anything and brings nothing new to the tyrannical villain archetype. Where the interesting roles really lie are in that of Watson and Lerman who both are required to give shades of the outcast, but must play nice in the group settings so as not to disturb the peace. Lerman is especially engaging as the rebel with a cause who hardly has a line of dialogue yet whose plight hits us the hardest and is almost our surrogate into the family and puts us at odds with a man we've grown up admiring and thinking of as the savior of us all. It is a peculiar spot to be in and when we are finally brought to the breaking point it is good to see a film simply acknowledge that some things will never become unbroken and that we have to accept things for what they are. Most will be able to accept Aronofsky's “Noah” for what it is, a vivid interpretation or musing of the impact and lessons the stories of the most popular book in the world teach us, while others will no doubt cry blasphemy or genius! In the end, as a film, “Noah” is an epic that deserves to be seen on the big screen and a movie I will watch multiple times down the road and gain something different from every time. It is the singular experience where I was thrilled the film didn't stick exactly to the source material, but had its own identity to the point we will be able to pull something new and interesting from something old and tired.