by Philip Price
There is something to be said for filmmakers who attempt to work outside the system, outside the realm of what is thought to be striving toward success in favor of what feels natural and organic and if anything is to be said for directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck's second narrative feature it is that it feels wholly instinctive, spontaneous and more uninhibited than anything you'll see put out by a studio this year. Beginning in the early morning of a day that seems like any other, the second of five children jumps alone on the family trampoline in nothing more than his underwear when he notices his mother’s car driving away. He chases after her for a moment before giving up, trusting that she'll be back eventually. The hook of Machoian and Ojeda-Beck's “God Bless the Child” though is that the audience doesn't. How could a mother abandon her five children? Ranging in ages from 13 to two with the oldest also being the only girl of the bunch, the weight of the responsibility is hung on Harper. Harper not only has dealt with being her mother’s guinea pig in how to raise her own children, but now Harper must take on the role her mother seems to have so easily walked away from. We don't know it at first, distracted by all of the comic relief and small moments that ring true via the adventures of young boys, but Harper is the silent hero of the piece. Harper is the one we come to appreciate and admire and who delivers an arc that slowly creeps up on the viewer allowing the power of the film to do the same. “God Bless the Child” is very much a film made by filmmakers who seem in tune with letting the images speak for themselves. Giving the audience a suggestion of where the gamut of emotions may run and letting them decide for themselves by documenting the core characters actions not with flashy camera work or distinct directorial flourishes, but rather in the way that they remain steady, trusting in their subjects and the untaught realism they bring to this slightly devastating reality.
What is most relevant thematically here is the major idea that children are abandoned all the time, forced to look out for themselves and build survival instincts that might serve them well in the future, but are harsh to face in the midst of the present. Whether it be for something along the lines of drugs or alcohol addiction, depression, more interest in their own personal lives than the well-being of their children or simply the need to escape the constant pressures and demands children bring there seems no excuse strong enough to validate the idea of leaving ones offspring to fend for themselves. Why bring them into the world if you're not going to help them adapt to it? It was your decisions and choices that brought them here thus it is your job to love and provide for them. No matter the frustration, they will always be the innocent party. As the film plays on and more layers of the family backstory are revealed it becomes more and more apparent why the mother might have seemingly run away. Times, no doubt, when she feels she was dealt the wrong hand or received the raw end of the deal. Still, I can only imagine she feels incredibly selfish and absurd for thinking in such a way. We all need a break, I get it and I'm not here to discuss parenting skills (as I hardly know much myself) or the motivations of a character that is both non-existent yet clearly present throughout the actions of the characters. There is certainly an idea, an intended theme of abandonment that runs through “God Bless the Child,” but there are also many actions that the children take that reflect the idea there has been guidance present in their lives. When they inherently sit down for breakfast at the table together or when the three older boys give the dogs a bath it is clear to see a parental influence in these actions. Otherwise, things would begin to fall apart and yet we rarely see a crack in the family foundation.
While these themes and ideas are certainly the more important issues the film looks to highlight and provide the talking points the directors no doubt intend for you to take away from the film what is more fascinating is the fact Machoian and Ojeda-Beck were able to capture the energy and essence of this natural family dynamic in a way that feels effortless, but almost certainly was not. Given that the children in the film are all Machoian's kids it is easy to understand they may have a short-hand with one another, but to be able to focus each of their energy down into the overall goal of the film while dealing with tiny logistical details as simple as having them not look directly into the camera must have felt insurmountable at times. With Harper at the helm, we also have Elias who is eleven, Arri who is seven, Ezra who is four and Jonah reaching into his terrible twos. Machoian and Ojeda-Beck are intent on bringing out the personalities in each and in doing so it is hard to imagine that much of the film was scripted beforehand. With Machoian and his wife, Rebecca, being credited as the screenwriters here it would seem that the director likely compiled a collection of moments from what are he and his wife's typical day to day activities where he sees his children becoming their own people. This is what stands out most about the character development even more than the cutesy angle of watching little boys do hilarious and sometimes inappropriate things-we are seeing how their personalities develop, the factors that will contribute in building a person that will one day, hopefully, be able to contribute to society. It is fascinating not only in that the children never feel like actors or that their chemistry is stilted on screen, but in the way the directors allow their camera to sit back and drink it all in. Taking necessary moments in with long, single takes while other times incorporating several cuts so as to keep up with the energy of the children.
Regardless of what Machoian and Ojeda-Beck's overall intentions with the film were, what they have come away with is a piece of time in these children's lives that they will be able to refer to for the rest of their lives and draw memories from, memories they may not even actually have, but will no doubt fill their subconscious with wonder and reassure them they had the most wonderful of childhoods. After all, once you get past the speculation over what the film is trying or not trying to say about the absence of adult supervision (there is nary an adult to be seen sans a quick confrontation between Elias and a local) and how the responsibilities of being a caregiver resort to the oldest sibling there are little more than observations to be made. I rather enjoyed the film, if not more for the fact I could largely relate to the dynamics between five children being the oldest of five myself more than to the general proposition that seems somewhat forced into the equation for the purpose of having an actual premise, but still-I found myself dumbfounded at times. Even if the quick inclusion of this exposition is little more than an excuse to give the children free reign over their time, it matters little, as what audiences will take away from the film largely won't deal with the aforementioned themes and ideas, but rather in the blissful, memory making chaos that ensues when a random summer day is afforded the opportunity to become that of a myth.
by Preston Tolliver
According to various reports, both wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan and international action star Salman Khan are rumored to be in the talks for appearances in the next installment of Sylvester Stallone's aging action star-packed ‘Expendables’ franchise.
According to reports, Hogan made comments during an interview earlier this week alluding to his possible role as the villain of “The Expendables 4.” Hogan and Stallone first worked together in 1982 in “Rocky III,” with the 5-foot-whatever (he was short, is what I'm saying) Balboa facing off in a charity match against the gargantuan Thunderlips, billed as "The Ultimate Male." Hogan looked like a giant compared to Stallone, and treated him as such in the ring — tossing him over the ropes and brawling inside the squared circle until the bell rang, concluding Hogan's short role in the film with the two hugging it out and posing for news photographers (OK, I won't lie — it might be my favorite ‘Rocky’ scene).
Hogan is the second celebrity in recent weeks to enter speculation for the film after Stallone and Khan exchanged compliments over one another's work over Twitter earlier this month. Not knowing much (or anything) about Khan's work, it's hard to predict what he could bring to the franchise — but considering he's earned Stallone's praise, it'll most likely involve guns, guts and glory.
‘The Expendables’ has become a franchise not unlike the ever-popular comic book movies, with fans of the series daydreaming of what characters come next, and who's going to play who. Fans take their favorite characters and actors they watched growing up and dream of ways those characters can be integrated into the current film — it's what makes such films so damn fun. Obviously, that's what's about to happen here.
9. Lucy Liu
Not only is she a good actor and could succeed Ronda Rousey as the second major female cast member of the franchise, but Lucy Liu is no stranger to action flicks, and her resume extends far enough back to register her has a classic action heroine.
8. Jackie Chan
Chan is no stranger to action movies — for years he's done his own crazy stunts, but has in recent years fallen into obscurity. He doesn't do a whole lot in this hemisphere (though he is rumored for another ‘Rush Hour’ sequel), and a brief stint in ‘The Expendables’ could be just enough to remind viewers he's still got it.
7. Liam Neeson
Honestly, I'm tired of rooting for Liam Neeson while he roundhouses and armbars his way out of ridiculous situations — and that's why I'd like to see him in a toned down, antagonist role. We've seen what Liam Neeson can do as the good guy — the jaded but kindhearted father/ex-husband/widower — but we haven't been able to root against him in a while. And he's shown that he has plenty of talent to be a badass on the screen — It's time to see him bring that power to the dark side (Yeah, that was a ‘Star Wars’ reference. Deal with it).
6. Danny Glover
I'm putting Glover on this list for the sole purpose that I'd love to see him play a character seeking revenge on Stallone for killing his former partner (who, would of course, have been Mel Gibson's Stonebanks in the last movie). Come on, this stuff writes itself.
5. Tony Jaa
Jet Li was fun to watch in the first ‘Expendables,’ because he brought something to the movie's numerous firefights that the other stars didn't — speed and lethality without having to turn to guns. He was quick and fun to watch as he bounced from panel to panel, but he fell off quick — his roles in the second and third films were virtually nil, leaving the franchise with a void that could only be filled by someone equally as quick. Jaa could be the slender piece to Stallone's puzzling movie series. Known most notably as Tien in the ‘Ong-bak’ trilogy and for his role in “The Protector,” Jaa does a lot of stunts that are entirely unnecessary — like running down a street and jumping through a loop of barbed wire — but he sure is fun as hell to watch.
4. Carl Weathers
It's been a while since Weathers starred in an action film, and if his “Arrested Development” stint is any indication, he's not the same brawny Carl Weathers of the Apollo Creed days. But his involvement would be a nice throwback to fans who have followed Stallone's career. Give him a cameo in a bar with Stallone and Dolph Lundgren, and baby, you've got a stew goin'.
3. Michelle Rodriguez
Let me start by saying that I'm the last guy you'll see me waiting in line to see a Michelle Rodriguez movie. She doesn't know it, but we've been feuding for years — and I don't even remember why at this point. But she's proven in the ‘Fast’ franchise and in “Resident Evil” that she can bring a certain toughness to the screen, and let's be honest, the ‘Expendables’ movies could use more than just one token female character.
2. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
If you're bringing in Hulk Hogan, why not go for broke and bring in The Rock, too? Sure, it could feel like ‘The Expendables’ was turning into Wrestlemania, but in the last few years, The Rock has become more than that smack-talking, Rock-bottoming, People's Elbowing champion of old. Now, he's Dwayne mother-effing Johnson, action star. He's stolen the spotlight in both the ‘Fast’ and ‘G.I. Joe’ franchises, and is poised to keep on dominating the big screen.
1. Kurt Russell
Was there some falling out between Stallone and Russell that I don't know about? Because this seemed like a no-brainer three films ago, let alone five years after the first film hit theaters. Russell was the perfect yang to Stallone's yin in “Tango and Cash.” Russell's Gabe Cash was always quick to bust Stallone's Ray Tango, a relationship that seems to have been reincarnated by Jason Statham's Lee Christmas. But, as much as I love all things Statham, he's no Russell (nor can Statham match the shear awesomeness that is Russell's marvelous mullet), and two ball-busters in Stallone's cockpit (phrasing, I know) are better than one.
A lot of people rag on Stallone for the ‘Expendables’ franchise. It's overdone, and many of the actors' gooses are essentially cooked. But just like the aging stars who we five years ago presumed were all but dead, it looks like the ‘Expendables’ movies will continue to live on a little longer — and with endless possibilities, at that.
by Philip Price
There was the suspicion going into the latest from director Brad Bird that “Tomorrowland” would harbor some core mystery that was too great or too big to be revealed in the marketing and that the secrets it held within its narrative structure would not only set it apart from the onslaught of grim, dystopian tales we've received over the last few years, but bring back the fascination of childhood that was present when we truly experienced something wonderful. After seeing the film, I'm not sure what they were talking about or even trying to hide. I guess I shouldn't necessarily be surprised given the sole screenwriting credit outside of Bird is given to Damon Lindelof of “Lost” fame who enjoys asking questions and letting the audience explore possible answers more than actually supplying solutions himself. That aside, “Tomorrowland” is not without spectacle and strong ideas. In fact, there is a lot to like about “Tomorrowland” as the first two-thirds of the film whizz by and build exposition and intrigue in interesting ways. Offering up an intertwining tale of two separated by time, but equally innovative minds the film is an attempt to discuss, while not necessarily plot out, why the world has become such a dark place. By preaching the message it does the film inherently makes any critic who discusses the negative aspects of it feel like a part of the problem it is attempting to address. Smart move by Lindelof, but that doesn't make me feel bad enough about myself to keep me from recognizing the shortcomings of the film’s third act. Unfortunately, I had somewhat high expectations going in given the minds behind the film were ones I admire and the opportunity to see Bird's fresh, retro-futuristic style in full-on live action was beyond enticing. With “Tomorrowland” though, Bird has crafted his first sub-par film, which is naturally disappointing, but more than that it clearly has so much ambition and so many possible roads to travel that it might have been truly something had the final product lived up to its vision rather than becoming part of the trend it's criticizing.
Beginning with something of an almost too-cutesy game of breaking the fourth wall we are immediately introduced to Frank Walker (George Clooney) who is telling us of all the bad things going on in the world (and get ready, kids, this isn't the first time you'll hear about it), but is prompted by Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) to be a little more hopeful in his recounting of the events that will make up the basis of the film. And so, he goes back to his childhood where it all began. Attending the 1964 World’s Fair a young Frank (Thomas Robinson) is anxious to show off his latest invention, a jet pack, and win a nice prize of $50. He is initially dismissed by Nix (Hugh Laurie) by virtue of the fact his jet back doesn't actually work, but catches the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who gives him a pin and invites him to the world of Tomorrowland. Fast-forward 50 years and we meet Casey, a high-schooler whose father (Tim McGraw) is an engineer with NASA and set to lose his job after the closing of a launch site in Cape Canaveral. After being arrested for trespassing on NASA property in an attempt to delay her father’s early retirement she is released on bail and finds a pin in her belongings similar to the one Athena gave Frank. Now bound by a shared destiny both Frank, who has become the older, more jaded Clooney, and Casey are forced to embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of this lost society that exists in a different dimension that foretells of a grim fate for our little planet. Before even stepping foot into philosophical qualms though, “Tomorrowland” is something of a mystery as the titular place itself looks more like the Capitol in “The Hunger Games” trilogy which is a let-down considering Bird's distinctive style and some odd casting choices in McGraw and Laurie don't sit well. Clooney is fine and I especially like how Robertson's Casey is pretty much game for whatever, but it is Cassidy who really steals the show and comes away as the MVP here. The film also looks fantastic sans a few cheaper looking effects during the climax, but the production design is nearly flawless. That aside, let's move on...
It's hard to have ideas, original ideas. I'll give Lindelof and Bird that much at the very least. The film echoes this sentiment by telling its young protagonist and its audience that to give up is to take the easy way out, but that the difficult path is worth the pay out in the end. It even seems to begin preaching the "everyone is special" notion which we should really stop relaying to children of the current culture, but resigns before going too far. Don't get me wrong, “Tomorrowland” is still very much one of those movies where we are witness to a "chosen one" figuring out their path, but it strays from hitting this aspect too much while making sure you know it's bucking trends in the form of protagonist/parent relationships and the inherent cynicism now present in our society. There is a nice little montage early on in the film in which Casey goes from class to class hearing the same lessons of how we are killing our planet to which she responds with the simple question of, "what can we do to fix it?" It's an inspiring question and it sets the mood for an interesting discussion because in many ways the film is more a lecture about how we, the audience, need to not only begin actively making changes in what we do to take care of our rock, but that it's almost more urgent we have ideas that spring from our emotions and imagination than anything necessarily factual or scientific. “Tomorrowland” is essentially the utopic result of something along the lines of what Ayn Rand was discussing in her novels that has been labeled as objectivism. The problem with this, whether you accept Rand's ideas or not, is that even the film itself fails to present “Tomorrowland” as little more than an idea. The reality of it never truly comes into being. Ideas are fine, imagination is great and these can exist separate from reality, but to integrate them means to take in a measure of understanding from both lines of thought-the logical and the fantastical. Tomorrowland, which exists in a state of libertarianism, was always destined to fall given there was no structure or system in place to support it which ultimately results in the antithesis of the ideas and hopes it was originally built on.
While I think the core idea of what Lindelof and Bird are trying to say is admirable it is their foundation that is not built on a solid rock that causes it to waver in the end. That we as a society like the idea of a bleak future because it requires the least from us today or that hope for the future is essential otherwise it will cease to exist are samples of little nuggets from the sermon that I wished the speaker would have explored further rather than allowing the final act to deteriorate into a standard battle of summer blockbuster obligation. Like I said in the opening paragraph, the first two-thirds of the film are rather thrilling and expertly paced as Lindelof's script works to display how what we collectively believe as a society is due to the perception we're constantly fed and the pessimistic information that is more than readily available while Bird works his magic in bringing momentum to such ponderings by crafting sequences of daring escapes from a booby-trapped house that come together in a cumulative effort that rewrites the history around the Eiffel Tower and launches an antique spaceship out of the Paris monument. That's the thing-there are ideas and imagination here, but because there is no structure to channel it and because there is no definitive epiphany or end game all the early efforts become deflated by a less than stellar conclusion and the sight of Tim McGraw in a moon suit. As I sat, watching the film unfold I was forced to ask myself how much I would have enjoyed this had I experienced it as a ten or eleven year-old. It was hard for me to come up with an answer. As the admittedly beautiful last shot graced the screen and then cut to black I wondered how the film had become so messy so quickly and why the simple idea of creating something purely for the sake of helping people and omitting anything to do with profits or politics wasn't better channeled into the thesis of a film so desperate to be innocent. Maybe it's because Lindelof ultimately knew the truth; that his fantasy land could never be a reality and thus jumbled any clarifying statements rather than accepting the hard truth that dreams are in fact always better.
by Philip Price
I went into “Mad Max: Fury Road” knowing little to nothing about director George Miller's franchise. I attempted to watch his original 1979 film a couple of weeks prior, but found myself bored and unable to pay attention and so as much as that statement might be read as sacrilege in the film community, I gave up and decided not to move on. This didn't lessen my excitement for Miller's latest installment as I'm a fan of both Tom Hardy and the incredible trailers that were crafted for the film. My only hope was that the final product lived up to what we caught glimpses of in the trailers. And so, while I have no real frame of reference (and I know I need to go back and at least watch ‘Road Warrior’ as I've read the words "action classic" tossed at it at least a dozen times over the past week) I went into ‘Fury Road’ with optimism and excitement, hoping that what was promised would be delivered and it was. The fact Miller, who is now 70, was even able to pull off half of the stuff we see on screen here is amazing, but that he is able to subtly sneak in a compelling story underneath the mayhem is all the more reason to be fascinated by the highly saturated images we watch frenetically move across the screen. The big screen. It almost goes without saying that the film is gorgeous and the action is superb, but as the opening moments play out it is clear one doesn't necessarily have to be familiar with the previous adventures of Max Rockatansky (Hardy). A brief overview by the titular character is given in the opening moments as he stands on the edge of a sand-drenched cliff, getting set for his "next adventure" as I'd like to see it. Into the frame creeps a two-headed lizard, quickly slithering its way closer to Max where he stomps on it with his boot heel and picks it up to gather protein. We know immediately this is not our world, not the one we know. We can see, even if we haven't before, that this is a land full of inhabitants who are full of desperation and that bubble of desperation is about to burst. For the full two-hour runtime of the film ‘Fury Road’ barely has time to slow down and catch its breath and even less does it rely on dialogue to move the story along. Miller firmly believes that actions speak louder than words and he puts that mantra on full display here as “Mad Max: Fury Road” is completely bonkers in every way; every good, entertaining way it can be.
In the beginning Max is captured by a group of War Boys or what are essentially warrior slaves to a behemoth called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original “Mad Max”). Joe has built an empire that he calls the Citadel where he controls the water and plant life in what is otherwise a barren desert (intended to be the wastelands of Australia, but shot mainly in the Namib Desert). Joe has set up a system where he breeds children and heirs with the most beautiful women in the colony, taking their breast milk afterwards as a kind of substitute for the limited water supply he perpetrates to his people. The one thing Joe and his empire are not short on is fuel and so they barter with it. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is leading a caravan to deliver a large order of oil to a local colony when she goes off course, attempting to flee with Joe's five wives (Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) that currently bear his children so that they may no longer be treated like things or pieces of property, but actual humans. On the other side of things, Max is still locked up in one of Joe's underground prisons serving as a blood bank for a sickly War Boy who calls himself Nux (Nicholas Hoult). It is when Joe's army receives word that Furiosa is deviating from the intended plan that Joe himself, along with several disfigured allies and his army of War Boys set out on a chase after his precious oil, but more importantly, his precious wives and the cargo they carry. As Nux can seemingly only sustain himself and his strength while receiving blood from Max, Max is dragged along on this adventure that goes from simply being an escape mission to a full-fledged revolution.
Pacing. An action movie such as this is all about the pacing and that is what keeps ‘Fury Road’ on track as much as any of the factors that make up the visuals or the story. The opening shot is one of the most brightly lit yet ominous shots I think I've ever seen and from that second on, when souped up vehicles of all makes and models come roaring into the frame to chase Max down and make him their prisoner, the film allows its pacing to make the story it's telling all the more compelling. Thus why we never question many of the outlying factors, the character designs that put clamps on nipples or a variety of Joe's kin that could be featured on any number of TLC shows. We catch a glimpse of these outliers and become more entrenched in the world Miller has written, but as it doesn't spend much time describing who these people are or why they have come to be the way they are we simply accept that this is a future we care little to be a part of. Our focus, and Miller's, is on pushing the main narrative forward so that we can reach the point where Max is able to team up with Furiosa and become the hero we expect him to be.
What is unique to ‘Fury Road’ is the development of this core relationship between Max and Furiosa. While I half-expected Max to escape the hold of his captor's rather easily and offer his services to Furiosa and her fleeing wives in exchange for safe passage out of the reach of Joe and his War Boys things don't happen so conveniently for our pair of heroes. Instead, the relationship between Max and Furiosa is a layered and achingly crafted one that begins with zero trust and slowly goes from there, only building a certain reliance on one another as the level of survival skills each carries become more apparent within the challenges this environment continues to present. Hardy, who is beyond charismatic even at his quietest, plays to his strengths here by letting his face (again covered by a mask for a large part of the film) do more of the talking than his voice. We come to see his character as a noble, but largely stoic hero while Theron's Furiosa actually feels more like the main character. Furiosa drives the story as well as the central vehicle that moves everything toward an inevitable destination. Theron is more than up to the task, embodying a woman not only confident in her physical abilities, but one with the courage necessary to take the stand that sets ‘Fury Road’ on its course.
Documented in a style that feels as if it's is bringing a unique vision to life, Miller's film sets itself apart from other action films not just for bringing a singular, saturated style to pulsating life but because of the seamless way in which these outlandish stunts are performed. While it is easy to say that special effects have become so good to the point we hardly notice a difference any longer it becomes more and more apparent throughout ‘Fury Road’ how wrong we've been for what is no doubt too long now. Miller and his team utilize practical stunt work and explosions to full effect as the choreography of the car chases and wrecks are so crazily complicated it's a wonder how they pulled them off much less captured them in the fashion they do through a camera lens. There is one scene in particular involving a massive sandstorm that obviously needed to utilize digital effects, but outside of this it is hard to pinpoint where any were used if at all. Beyond the basics of chases and crashes it is what Miller builds on top of these vehicular canvases that makes what we're seeing unfold all the more unbelievable. As if marching into war, Joe tricks out his cars with speakers, a drumline and a guitarist with a flame-throwing instrument who, with the help of composer Junkie XL, build a pounding symphony for each party to speed into battle. War Boys swing from poles attached to multiple vehicles armed with grenades and other explosive devices that put them ever closer to capturing Furiosa and her band of beautiful women. Maybe the best part of the whole experience is that Miller doesn't sacrifice anything for the sake of his action. The characters are all well-developed with even each of the wives developing attributes and arcs rather than simply serving as muted beauties. I realize how crazy all of this sounds and when you see a fair portion of it on screen one would be right to wonder what the hell they're watching, but it's never hard to follow and for me, it works excessively. The character embellishments, the straight-forward plot bolstered by the insane stunts all come together to make the story credible despite its ridiculous qualities.
by Philip Price
Back in October of 2012 I said that “Pitch Perfect” was pure formula if not damn entertaining formula and that formula worked to the tune of $115 million worldwide on a $17 million budget. This was not the real story though, what really catapulted “Pitch Perfect” into the realm of cultural phenomenon was that it had the lucky sense of good timing and strong marketing. Pushing out the DVD and Blu-Ray just two months after its theatrical release and right in time for the holidays “Pitch Perfect” officially became a "thing" by spinning its rendition of "Cups" into a legitimate radio hit and adding itself to every female tween, teen and shared dorm room collection that Christmas. It was the newest ole reliable, the one movie you could count on to play and make everyone happy. In capitalizing on this loyal following a sequel has of course been made and while I had doubts it could recapture the lightning in a bottle feel the first one possessed so effortlessly writer Kay Cannon and supporting player turned director Elizabeth Banks have been able to both hit the strongest beats of the first film in new ways with the sequel while at the same time creating something of a different structure so as this doesn't ever feel like a carbon copy of the original. There was certainly hesitation in embracing a sequel to something that had so quickly become beloved, but with Banks taking over there was also intrigue as to what she would do with the opportunity and where she would take the Barden Bellas in their next round. Interestingly enough, Banks and Cannon take that formula and work a little more loosely with it this time around again giving the Bellas an ultimate goal in redemption, but also largely deviating in structure through a mix of several subplots and character arcs that allows for this second film to be just as fun to watch as the original while not hitting all the same notes and let's be honest, that's all the goal really needed to be in the first place.
Moving forward in real time, all the new incoming Bellas of the first film are now seniors while Brittany Snow's Chloe has failed courses on purpose for three years so that she may remain a member of the a-cappella group that has, in the interim, won three back to back collegiate championships. Under the guidance of Chloe and Anna Kendrick's Beca the girls look to defend their title one last time, but things go off course when the opening number, a performance for the POTUS at Kennedy Center, ends in Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) exposing a little more of her body than her soul through her song. As punishment for bringing shame to the a-cappella community the Bellas are banned from competing at the collegiate level and forced to clear their name and redeem themselves as the premiere a-cappella group by going on to compete in an International competition no American team has ever won. This challenge pits them against reigning German champions Das Sound Machine led by the intimidating Flula Borg and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. While this is the overriding arc of the film this sequel doesn't waste time on conflicts between the now harmonious Beca and Jesse (Skylar Astin), but rather Beca's need to begin looking to the future with an internship at a recording studio with a well-known producer (Keegan-Michael Key) that takes her focus off of the Bellas. Kendrick is surprisingly playing something of a second string to Wilson here though whose love story with Bumper (Adam Devine) takes front and center as does the introduction of a freshman member, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who is a legacy due to her mother (Katey Sagal) being a legendary member of the group. Not only do the Bellas have to get out of the funk they've fallen into after the Kennedy Center debacle, but they have to face their inevitable futures of leaving the group behind as Emily integrates herself into the already set camaraderie and positioning herself as the lead for “Pitch Perfect 3.”
What makes both of the Pitch Perfect films so endlessly entertaining and endlessly re-watchable (at least the second film seems that way after its first impression) is the consistency with which it delivers its humor. While “Pitch Perfect 2” is no longer just about Beca and her journey to find a professional space in the music industry, that it is more about the Bellas as a whole allows their individual quirks to be highlighted at more of a rapid rate thus allowing small added value elements from the first film to really contribute. The sexually charged Stacie (Alexis Knapp), the minority in every way Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), the odd foreigner Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and the interchangeable Jessica (Kelley Jakle) and Ashley (Shelley Regner) along with new blood Flo (Chrissie Fit) who adds a bit of perspective to every situation given her ethnicity and the stereotypes that come along with it each have their moments to shine. In the first film each of these supporting players served as a send-up of different archetypes and they still do to a certain extent here, but are more fully-formed characters this time around given the crux of the film centers on the team coming together after being in the trenches for three years. Fat Amy is as explosive as ever with Banks throwing the camera to Rebel Wilson anytime she needs a punch line feels with it typically paying off in spades. What brings the familiarity of this sequel to a not so natural state is the films inability to really focus. This is both a plus and a hindrance as the flow of the film feels more freewheeling and loose which lends to less of a corporate, committee manufactured movie yet more than a few scenes could have been cut from the final film to make the film tighter. It's so hard to not enjoy the company of these characters and their ridiculous world though that most won't mind that the film stretches itself to nearly two hours when it is hard pressed to find any real justification outside of indulgence.
The biggest relief is that “Pitch Perfect 2” doesn't try to repeat what made the first film such a surprise success because if Cannon and Banks are anything with this film they are self-aware and go in knowing what they need to do to keep the fans of the original on board while moving things along to new territory so as to not disappoint. As an unabashed fan of the first film who saw it in its limited release before expanding wide in 2012 I found it to be an unrelentingly funny comedy that included popular music in a way that connected with a broad audience in a way few musicals or films actually intended for teens or youth typically do. There is a diverse cast of characters and personalities at play here and the film balances each of them well, taking the core group through the ups and downs of a band as if it were the subject of a Behind the Music episode (the sad part is, the core audience for this film won't likely understand that reference) so that we get to see these people in every light. “Pitch Perfect” and its sequel are the kind of films that folks outside of teenage girls hate to admit they have a good time watching, but like the music these films include “Pitch Perfect 2” makes it all feel cool. It all works because every single audience member knows the songs whether they want to or not. It also knows what genres and types of songs to give call backs to as the sequels version of the riff-off featuring a hilarious David Cross and members of the Green Bay Packers is a real highlight. The mash-up's are again professionally done with the selections made for the final competition being exceptionally matched and relentlessly entertaining. This is the case with the film as well. Like the original, “Pitch Perfect 2” has no right to be anything more than a standard teen comedy, but it has the charms and comedic chops that push it far past a typical teen flick and more into the realm of something that connects. I am a guy, in his 20's and I enjoy all kinds of movies. I love music and despite the fact I'm probably on the outer ring of the target audience I continue to have a great time any time my wife or I throw “Pitch Perfect” on. I expect that to continue with this new installment given how much I enjoyed it the first time around and honestly can't wait to watch it again.
by Philip Price
At first glance it would seem “Maggie” is an attempt to cash in on the zombie craze that has been spearheaded by the likes of serious-minded interpretations such as TV’s “The Walking Dead.” That a small, independent way of going about this story would be an interesting, more dramatic choice that would allow a sliver of the story “The Walking Dead” is telling might be something fascinating, compelling even. Now, I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of “The Walking Dead,” but I can see what attracts people to it. They can pick up on the large metaphors at play or simply delve into the action and brutality that is presented week after week. Either way, tough choices have to be made. Emotions overtake logic and the repercussions of ones inability to put a bullet in the head of a loved one even when they are at your throat trying to rip through it says something about our mentality, our humanity and ultimately about the love and connection we sometimes feel that outweighs our own existence. What is life worth if not filled with the people you love? It's a valid question, a depressing thought, but these are the kinds of notions and ideas that the characters in “Maggie” must take into serious consideration. All of that said, one might be wondering what someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing in a movie like this. A zombie apocalypse film, sure, but a somber, meditative zombie apocalypse film where the focus is not on surviving, but more on the relationship between the father and daughter? Strange, right? With the father facing the inevitability of losing his little girl and that little girl coming to terms with her own death, “Maggie” isn't necessarily what you expect and for those reasons, along with first-time feature director Henry Hobson having a clear vision of how to bring this story to life, “Maggie” is something of an effective take on a genre that I presumed was played out.
The film begins by dropping us into the middle of a disease-ravaged America. Fields of crops are on fire due to fear of the infection spreading and Wade (Schwarzenegger) has been searching for his titular daughter for two weeks. When he finally comes across her in a hospital he learns she has been bitten and that eventually she will make the turn into one of the cannibalistic zombies that have been seeping into society due to the aforementioned infection outbreak. Why Maggie (Abigail Breslin) was running isn't made clear, but we assume it's because she'd already taken the bite and fled to keep her family safe. The script adds more layers onto what could have possibly been the cause of her infection, but it doesn't dwell on this as the important part, the focus of first-time screenwriter John Scott 3's script is the fact that Maggie's father is going to remain by her side throughout her transformation. Wade brings his daughter back home to where his second wife, Caroline (Joely Richardson), and their two children are keeping on. Again, we don't know what happened to Maggie's mother, but we come to see what high regard her husband and daughter hold her in. Wade and Caroline ship off their two younger children to a relative’s house in order to keep Maggie close and monitor her behavior. It is within this process and the complications that arise to threaten inherently meaningful relationships that make “Maggie” an interesting and rather intense watch despite Hobson keeping the tone delicate and the music extremely restrained. Never does the film feel manipulative, but more it puts you in a position of questioning, making you, the viewer, consider the tough choices the characters have to make.
We know where this is going, we know where it needs to go if it wants to remain credible, but that it gets us rooting for the inevitable not to happen means it's doing something right. Maybe it's because I just recently became a father to a little girl that I can feel a kind of kinship to Schwarzenegger's character here that causes me to feel (make-up?) a deeper connection than someone else might. Whether some of this was in my head or not though, “Maggie” is able to connect on a level that is present for a fair amount of people who I suspect might pick this out as something interesting to view. What is most impressive about the film as far as performances are concerned is that it actually requires the bulky Austrian to act and not simply serve as a piece of equipment that strolls around punching things. Complimenting this genuine performance from Schwarzenegger is Breslin as his daughter. There is the expected talk of appreciating the moment, the time that Wade has with his daughter without thinking about the inevitable, but it is impossible not to consider given it could happen at any time. The film keeps reminding us that it takes six to eight weeks for the complete transformation to occur, but each case is different and as we progressively see changes not only in Maggie's appearance, but in her mannerisms and her ability to control her urges we see the toll it is taking on her father. There is an irritating element to the nature of the infection that makes the subjects feel at one point they should be appreciative for this opportunity that most who are bitten don't get (a doctor friend of the family helps Wade get Maggie out of the hospital and under his care for the remainder of her life) without ever seeming fair. Maggie is asked to be the strong one despite the fact she's physically deteriorating while her father, who we assume will hold strong, is being torn apart internally. These core performances convey the main ideas of the film beautifully which in turn make the movie all the more heartbreaking.
Complementing the tone and performances even further are the photography by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and the color palette that elicits the intended mood well. There is one specific shot later in the film of Breslin who, after having her first real lapse into what she will become, lays in a bathtub filled to the brim with water allowing the blood around her mouth to slowly wash away. It is the kind of shot that makes you sit up a little straighter and take notice of not just the story and the skill of pulling off the written word, but more the skill of executing images that really allow that written word to jump off the screen and make you feel the way those descriptions were intended to. The grays and light browns of the American Midwest are especially haunting. The way in which Hobson meditates on scenes of reflection between Wade and Maggie only to follow them up with a reminder of the progressing reality of the situation juxtaposes the emotions at play, making them as complicated for the audience as the characters experiencing them. All of this could very well be a terminal illness rather than the whole zombie thing, but somehow incorporating this genre element makes the film all the more fascinating and much less taboo than it would have been had Maggie been diagnosed with cancer. The disease, the outbreak – it's as frustrating as cancer in that it doesn't make sense and all feels pointless in the small moments where the we're forced to face that it kills without mercy, taking who it wants with no regard for age, race or gender. Despite its unrelenting somber tone and consistently bleak outlook coupled with the constantly mourning characters I found “Maggie” to be something of an insightful tale about the lengths we go to for the ones we love. The ethereal aspect of spirituality that Richardson's character brings to the proceedings give the film a slightly optimistic outlook while how deep the meaning of the relationship between Wade and Maggie runs is what holds the film steady. It’s an unexpected, but riveting film that does all it sets out to do and does it well.
by Philip Price
“The D Train” is an odd movie. It's an interesting one, don't get me wrong, but it's an odd one for sure. I'm a rather faithful comedy fan and have said many times on this site before that I carried a rather rabid affinity for the fan appointed "Frat Pack" that originally consisted of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen and Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Any time any of these guys decided to head up a film there was a desperate hope they would include a couple of the others in the proceedings. Soon, Judd Apatow and his gang emerged and the universe has been expanding ever since. In the wake of this merger it always felt like Black was somewhat left behind. This was obviously unfortunate given Black is one of those guys who can make you laugh with a simple facial expression, but his output has become increasingly stale since hitting a high mark in 2008 with “Tropic Thunder” and “Kung-Fu Panda.” Looking back through his filmography it is almost alarming how little he has done in the past few years with his last out and out feature being the horribly marketed and little-seen “The Big Year” in 2011. With “The D Train,” Black seems to be making something of a statement in that, at the very least, he'd like to see his career go in a more mature way, one that puts him in the position of actually investing in his characters and developing his skills rather than simply cashing the quick check and making the same faces. We've seen this before from the comic, especially in the underrated “Bernie,” but here it is more of a concentrated effort than the seemingly haphazard way in which Black picked projects prior.
In “The D Train Black” plays an average joe who gets caught up in a psychological game with the popular guy from his graduating class. He is a man not akin to taking risks or doing things differently and yet there is a need to win the approval of this guy he hasn't seen in twenty years who has seemingly done everything in his life Black's character would have been too afraid to risk. If Black is going out on a limb with this role he may very well have been doing so because he feels the same way about his career as his character does his high school reunion. From the outset, Black makes it clear that his Dan Landsman has never been the cool guy. Instead, he is the one who went to community college down the road from his high school, graduated and secured a job in the same small town while marrying a girl from his high school and settling down to have a couple of kids. On the other end of the spectrum is Oliver Lawless (James Marsden). Lawless was the epitome of the cool kid in high school. You know the whole schtick about the one all the other guys want to be and the one all the girls want to be with? That was him. Marsden plays this facade up perfectly. The conflict and mind games come into play when Dan, who is the head of his high school reunion committee, is determined to get Oliver, who's now the face of a national Banana Boat ad campaign, to show up at their class reunion so everyone else will. The lies, deceit and lengths Dan goes to in order to make this happen, to claim a kind of validation, go further than even he expects them to.
Through these motions the film intends to be a very dark comedy that really strives to understand its material. The issues the film runs into though are not in the vein of understanding or knowing what to do with its material and the twist that sets things in motion, but instead come from the conflict of tone that is created as a result of a single scene that in turn produces more confusion and more sadness for the main character than I think both the audience and writer/directors Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel expected. As you watch the film it is hard to not want to laugh as the contrived set-up serves a purely comical outcome, but given the twists along the way and the dark turns it takes as far as Black's character is concerned, the laughs are tougher to come by because Black and the film do a fine job of communication his emotional state and we legitimately feel bad for the guy. Granted, this film isn't about the twist or the how or why around it happening, but rather exploring what happens after. The repercussions Dan faces from digging himself into this hole for no other reason than to feel relevant while ultimately not considering what he would get out of this supposed relevancy are what is most interesting about the film. Surprisingly, they are handled well given the rather slapdash vibe the first act of the film gives off, but the tone takes such a major shift that the movie finds it difficult to ground its footing in how it wants to explore the interesting territory it knows it has available to explore. “The D Train” is a solid enough film, it's simply hard to understand why Paul and Mogel felt the need to cloak their film in comedy clothing rather than committing to the inherent drama of it all.
Despite these tonal issues the directors have in approaching their material they have a great number of advantages at their disposal that help them bring their vision to life in a way they can at least feel good about. Black really shows some range here especially as the film delves more into its complicated and interesting second act. Dan, who by all accounts is a rather stand-up guy, can't stop thinking about what he's done and how he's ultimately betrayed everything he stood for previously. Emphasizing the natural human ability to get caught up in all we don't have rather than celebrating what we do, Dan fails to open his eyes and see Marsden's Oliver for what he really is and instead ends up being overcome with the facade Oliver is keeping up; wanting to believe the guy he once looked up to actually is the guy he believes him to be. If there is no hope for a guy like Lawless, what chance does he have? Both Black and Marsden are willing to go to the darkly comic places the script asks of them and Marsden is willing and able to play up every aspect of his character that needs to be felt in order for the audience to understand and accept the situation. As first time directors, Paul and Mogel work well with their characters and I like that they give Chromeo some love on the soundtrack, but moving forward if they can strike a finer balance between tone and story they might really be on to something cool.
by Philip Price
You know those movies that are easily relegated to comfort food? You know, the ones where things that in the real world would be deathly serious (sometimes literally) and in a movie intended to be nothing more than fluff are dismissed without a second thought? I tend to like these movies more than I should. I enjoy them in a way that I get to turn a blind eye to the real issues of the world or even to thinking critically for a while, but when a movie that is made to make you feel this way can't help but make you constantly think about how awful it is it must be really bad. I mean, no one expects much nutrition from comfort food, but at least it goes down easy. There is neither anything fulfilling or fun about “Hot Pursuit,” a buddy/road trip comedy that was clearly created in the vein of “The Heat” from a few summers past by putting two female actors in the lead roles and hoping for the same results. While this was no doubt meant to be the watered down version with Reese Witherspoon playing up the naive, but dedicated cop routine that Sandy Bullock perfected while they flipped the script on the major comic relief of the piece by making her both a criminal rather than a veteran police officer as well as enlisting an actor known more for her looks than anything else. While Melissa McCarthy gets a fair amount of attention for her appearance Sofia Vergara gets that same attention for completely opposite reasons. With “Hot Pursuit,” Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, is looking to sneak into the summer movie season on the typically quiet second weekend and provide a bit of alternative programming for those not interested in super hero team-ups, but even those who aren't fans of super heroes or comic book movies in general would have more fun at ‘Avengers’ than they would at a screening of “Hot Pursuit.” I've never watched TV’s “Mike & Molly,” but I feel like that would be the more apt comparison to a McCarthy project as “Hot Pursuit” is more akin to watching a punishing half-hour comedic sitcom that has been stretched as far as it can possibly go without the laugh track instructing us on when things are "supposed" to be funny.
To the extent that even the opening credit sequence is a poorly executed idea in establishing character traits, “Hot Pursuit” sets out to make us believe that Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) essentially grew up in the back seat of her father’s cop car. It was here she learned all the police codes, jargon and moral codes from her upstanding father. All of this and somehow Cooper still ends up as little more than a glorified secretary in the evidence room of her department. This montage over the opening credits wouldn't even be as bad if it wasn't so amateurishly done. There is nothing about it that feels genuine or even natural and those qualms extend to the entire film as it is a comedy with forced laughs. There are easy targets that writers David Feeney and John Quaintance seem to have drawn up from every cliché and every obvious mark in the book. For instance, the first big laughs post opening credits are intended to be that of Witherspoon's Cooper rattling off nicknames of the Cartel leader that has been taken into custody. We've already seen this in the trailers and the fact that another character finds this funnier than we do makes this not only lazy writing, but insanely desperate. Desperate to the point we can feel it oozing off the screen. I have to believe that both Witherspoon and Vergara know they aren't coming up with anything groundbreaking here, but are instead in the opposite category of barely scraping by despite their clear efforts to try and make this work. The actual plot doesn't really matter as it's all a bunch of contrivances in order to get these two characters on the road together and once that happens it's simply poorly executed joke followed by poorly executed sight-gag with Vergara's accent thrown in for back-up and embellished if necessary. What little story there is revolves around Cooper's uptight and by-the-book cop trying to protect the widow (Vergara) of a drug boss as they make their way through Texas dealing with both crooked cops and lowly henchmen. Hold on to your butts, folks!
It's difficult for me to dislike a movie and I mean outright hate it, but there is really no excuse for what has been presented here. Director Anne Fletcher has made four feature films prior to this and I thoroughly enjoyed at least three of them. I might even like her debut were I to actually sit down and give it a shot, but “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal” and even “The Guilt Trip” are each quality productions that work within the realm of formulaic, predictable and wholly unoriginal PG-13 comedies. They work because they take what they have and execute it well. In fact, they are perfect examples of movie comfort food in that they present these pretty people with beautiful, picturesque lives that you envy while including just enough drama to give it a hook and resolve within the next hour and a half. With “Hot Pursuit” seeming like another opportunity for Fletcher to do what she does best with these formulaic, predictable and unoriginal comedic scripts, it is a real mystery how this one slipped through her tricks to show its true colors. “Hot Pursuit,” in every sense of its existence represents those three adjectives I've repeated twice now to their fullest meaning. Not only can these elements be seen glaring at you through the desperate attempts at humor, but the whole affair just looks cheap and feels slapped together to the point that if the people producing this mess think this little of their audience, it's time for both them and us to move on. Unfortunately, there will be those that find this funny or at the very least, passable. At the screening I attended there was one middle-aged woman in particular who laughed at every expected beat as if she were sent there by the studio to make the rest of the audience feel better about wasting $10 on a ticket. To be fair, there are a few chuckles to be had here and there, but for a movie depending on laughs to keep its momentum going “Hot Pursuit” runs out of steam early and never finds its groove. If anything, this is the film equivalent of the person who can't dance still trying to tear up the floor and failing miserably; making everyone look at them for all the wrong reasons.
If “Hot Pursuit” is notable for anything though it is the fact it is a film produced, directed and starring women. It is essentially a movie for women, made by women (sans the two male screenwriters, which makes no sense) and is something of a rarity that Witherspoon is clearly hoping to make more of a common event. Last year alone, Witherspoon's production company helped the likes of “Gone Girl” and “Wild” – two Oscar nominated films, one of which starred Witherspoon – get made. Those films, while naturally more high-brow, made real strides in displaying the progress of women having a hand in a system typically dominated by men. “Hot Pursuit” destroys any good will Witherspoon and her colleagues had built so far. What is almost worse, is that this is a major regression for Witherspoon on a personal level as well. “Hot Pursuit” is the type of film I would have expected from her in the wake of her breakout role in “Legally Blonde.” “Hot Pursuit” would have nestled in fine with those cash grabs that the success of ‘Blonde’ gave Witherspoon opportunity to take, but I'd imagined she'd changed her tune as of late. “Water for Elephants,” “Mud,” “Wild,” “The Good Lie” and even a bit part in “Inherent Vice” seemed to point Witherspoon in a new direction, but “Hot Pursuit” is a return to a lesser state and Witherspoon deserves better. That isn't to say she isn't trying as she turns up her southern accent to about eleven and really goes for it. She is nothing if not committed to her character and remains so throughout this mess, willing to do whatever it takes for the laugh, sacrificing her beautiful perception and generally selling the chemistry between her and Vergara that feels as manufactured as the script. To that tune, both actors are fine enough while Vergara's only stake in this is to see how much her star will translate from “Modern Family” to the big screen. If there is any justice in the world, this will make zero dollars and I will never have to think about it again, but I have a feeling there will be more people like the suspected studio rep in this world than I care to believe there are.
by Philip Price
The major reason many people are discussing “The Water Diviner” can be sourced back to one single reason – it serves as the directorial debut of one Russell Crowe. Would there be as much conversation around the film were it made by another first-time director? Would the film have even been made had Crowe not put his weight behind it and chose it as his debut project? Probably not and so we can at least thank him for deciding to do something suitable for his stage in life by bringing audiences an adult drama that major studios don’t tend to make much anymore. While this is by no means a substantial film it is more passable for its well-meaning story and, at the very least, to see where Crowe’s inclinations lead him as a director and what we can take away from this semi-experiment that might apply to better, more assured products under Crowe’s supervision in the future. That isn’t to say “The Water Diviner” is a bad film or one that is actively trying to be nothing more than adequate, it is just simply that: adequate on every level without coming close to exception in any case. Some parts are stronger than others, some acting is better given what characters are included in a given scene, some scenes are staged more effectively than others with more interesting shooting techniques while the pacing is about as good as one could expect given the film doesn’t know how to cut the unnecessary plot points that probably felt necessary in the script, but make the experience of actually watching the film drag on. There is no doubt that Crowe and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios intended for this to be something of a large, sweeping historical epic, but the scale of filmmaking is simply not here for that ambition to be met and the impact of the story is felt more through the acting of Crowe than any of his directorial choices that might have made this a more affecting and therefore more significant experience.
We are introduced to Australian farmer Connor (Russell Crowe) and his gift for divining water, but not before we are given a glimpse into the Battle of Gallipoli. Why this man and these events are connected is the string in which the film intends to follow and so, after the death of his wife (Jaqueline McKenzie), Connor sets out for Gallipoli himself in order to find his three missing sons. Upon arriving in Turkey, Connor faces more trials in getting to his destination than expected forcing him to take refuge at a hotel in Istanbul managed by the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her son, Orhan (Dylan Georgiades). Connor’s journey also happens to occur at the same time the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) are engaging in a mass burial detail in which all civilians are banned from journeying to Gallipoli. When Ayshe learns of Connor’s intent, she suggests a local fisherman she knows who might take him to where he yearns to go and we see sparks implied. When Connor finally does arrive he is confronted with only more resistance from ANZAC captain Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney). It is not until Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan), a Turkish officer assisting the ANZAC, persuades Hughes to prioritize helping Connor with his search that we begin to see both the protagonist and the overall narrative make some leeway.
This lacking of story as far as a driving force is concerned is what makes up for much of the film’s lackluster pacing. Sure, the journey of Connor is an inspired and valuable one, but there simply isn’t enough intrigue in the events it took for Connor to get from point A to point B to support a feature-length film. In seeming to know this, but pushing ahead anyway, both Crowe and his screenwriters resort to a barrage of flashbacks that are meant to give the film that aforementioned scope, but resonate little with the audience due to their large insignificance in connection with the main narrative dealing with Connor and his journey. Others who watch the film and come away with the idea that these flashbacks are necessary because they put us in the midst of the Battle of Gallipoli and in the midst of Connor’s sons whom he is searching for will surely feel confident in this connection as Crowe clearly did. This is not Connor’s sons story though – it is his and while one or two flashbacks to build the history he has with his children or to show why he might have such regret in sending them off to war would be warranted for character development, the amount of times and the length of time Crowe goes back to this well of a battlefield displays desperation more than anything.
There isn’t much more to be said for the film given it is a mostly straightforward tale of one father’s journey to gain atonement for the death of his wife in seeking the truth of what happened to his sons in the midst of World War I. It is a fine enough film, but I of course have to believe that isn’t what Crowe was going for. As a native Australian, Crowe not only has a likely affinity for these historical events, but would want to do them a grand justice by bringing one of their stories to the big screen. While “The Water Diviner” is solid entertainment it isn’t the type of film that will have you researching or continually thinking about the events it describes days later which I imagine is what any filmmaker would like their project to elicit. As the major problems with the film seem to be that of a weak script and the unsteady directorial hand of a first-timer, Crowe often resorts to a standard way of doing things so as to likely make sure he was covered once they arrived in the editing room. As for his performance, it is a much more confident piece of skill on display than his direction would suggest. His scenes with Erdoğan are one of the films few genuine highlights. Crowe has such a presence though, such a natural charisma to him that we’ve all seen countless times before by this point that it is impossible not to be somewhat taken in by his plight. With a lacking story though, we are never able to become fully invested. Kurylenko is fine enough as well, given she doesn’t have much to do beyond participate in the forced love story angle that is never really fleshed out. More attention is paid to the developing relationship between Connor and Orhan, but this archetype just proves tired and even a little irritating given the nature of the child.
Not to be restrained to a simple character study, or as a documenting of the personal journey of a defeated man, Crowe gives audiences what they seemingly want through intermittent action sequences, heart-wrenching war scenes between brothers, a promising love angle and some light comedy courtesy of the little kid helping the old curmudgeon open his eyes to a new world of possibilities. And while Crowe’s efforts as a director certainly need some focusing so as to create a film more able to fulfill its intentions, it is the script and the story that would benefit all the more from some focusing as there is certainly much here to mine for good material that instead ends up feeling stretched too thin because of all the bases it tries to cover.
by Philip Price
“Woman in Gold” is a perfectly fine film. It is as competent as it is generic. The issue with the film though is that it so clearly wants to be more than that. It has a sense of needing to feel important based on the origins of its story when, in reality, the fashion with which it’s told and the narrative structure it’s delivered through make it appeal as little more than light, afternoon fluff with only a slight edge in existing over something that is purely melodramatic. There is nothing wrong with being no more than an afternoon distraction or even a slight piece of information that serves to highlight little known aspects of major events we’ve heard about time and time again, but ”Woman in Gold,” while recognizing a number of themes dealing with mortality, isn’t the heavy handed drama it seems to want to be or thinks it is. And so, while director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”) and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell may or may not have been aiming for one thing by casting Helen Mirren in a role so perfect for Helen Mirren it’s almost cliché to have her actually play it and doing the opposite with Ryan Reynolds as he plays against type while dealing with a story that involves Nazi’s, it would of course seem one would have the perfect formula for a pre-packaged Oscar contender. What Curtis and Campbell have actually delivered though is ironically something largely opposite the heady and often too artsy for mainstream movie-goers the Academy does nominate in delivering a by-the-numbers account of a true story that both rouses the human spirit and will no doubt be appreciated by older audiences for its clean sense of class and respect for history. More times than not it is the straightforward, fluff-type films that serve ones interests better and for that, ”Woman in Gold” has nothing to be ashamed of simply because it doesn’t reach the heights it seemed manufactured to scale. I’m not necessarily saying this is a film worth seeking out, but it definitely isn’t a bad option if you’re looking for something to take your grandparents to this weekend.
From the opening scene in which we are introduced to the subject who would come to be known as the titular “Woman in Gold” there is discussion of the future. There is talk of what it means to become one with the time you live and having no choice but to come to terms with that. It’s not something we typically think of on a regular basis given most of us tend to believe the world revolves around us anyway, but through Adele’s (Antje Traue) eyes it is not so much about being immortal or living forever or even being unable to accept the time in which her life was given to her, but rather what she will be remembered for long after she’s gone, if at all? Adele, who married into a wealthy Jewish family located in Austria never had children of her own, but was lucky enough to live with her husband’s brother and his wife who had two girls. The youngest of which is Maria. Maria, while forming something of a connection with her Aunt Adele was never given enough time to really know her. Tragically, the woman so concerned with her legacy died young leaving her niece to come to know her through the artist Gustav Klimt’s painting of her. In the midst of World War II Hitler and his Nazi soldiers stole countless pieces of art along with their more devastating crimes forcing a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband Fritz (Max Irons) to flee to America. Flash forward to 1998 and the Austrian government finally beginning to make restitution for the crimes against those during Hitler’s reign and you have yourself a film. Maria (Mirren) now elderly and living in Los Angeles hires a friend of the family’s son, Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), who is a lawyer, to help her claim what is rightfully hers. Altmann seeks this restitution out not for the money (though it’s worth a pretty penny), but for justice to finally be served and, in many ways, for her to feel a final sense of acknowledgement and amendment from her country for what it did to her family and her faith.
The story is clearly captivating and there is no lack of trying by either the actors or the production team to make something to match that description in terms of its film representation. The co-leads in Mirren and Reynolds are both in this for the long haul. You can feel the two of them somewhat attempting to capture the odd couple relationship that made ”Philomena” such an under-the-radar, but undeniably great film a couple of years ago. This isn’t to say there isn’t any chemistry between the two as both are so inherently charming it would be impossible for there not to be. Because the film switches so often between the present story of Reynolds and Mirren’s characters attempting to gain the rights to the paintings and young Maria’s life in Austria and up through her escape to America we never become as invested in the more present tale despite it seemingly being the bigger focus for Curtis. The flashbacks, shot in a distinctly different color palette so as to let us know it’s the ‘40s, inadvertently become the more interesting parts of the film because they are inherently filled with more tension. Relying heavily on Maslany to carry the weight of the narrative in the flashbacks she embodies a young version of Mirren nicely and creates the connection between her extended family that is necessary for us to feel the importance and weight of what Mirren’s actions are based on. There is always the underlying question of how earnest Mirren’s Maria actually is given the worth of the paintings she is seeking (Ronald S. Lauder would eventually purchase it from Altmann for $135 million) which isn’t necessarily great for the mindset the movie hopes its audience takes as it consistently pushes the throughline that the point of Maria’s case is more for justice than anything else. For the most part, I bought into Maria’s claims, but again, this trust is mainly built on the sympathy the flashbacks are able to provide rather than anything outlined in the present storyline.
All of that said, the most interesting aspect of ”Woman in Gold” is that of the consistent references to mortality and what it means to live on if not in life, but through remembrance. It is a hard fact to accept that most of us will be forgotten eventually, but from the opening moments there is a nervousness within the film around time continuing to pass and our inherent inability as humans to keep up with it. This is felt most prominently by Adele in her short time on screen, but her sentiments clearly pass onto her niece as her sole objective in the film is not only rectify the wrong that was done to her by her home country, but to maintain a relationship she held dear that was lost too soon. It’s almost to say that because almost everything of her childhood was eradicated from history by the home she thought she could trust she sees it as a kind of rightful revenge to be given the chance to claim what is truly belongs to her family. She is most certainly in a position to feel that way, but more than this it comes to light that she is somewhat fooling herself into atonement for leaving her parents behind. Lines such as, “They can take my possessions, but not my pride!” are uttered and somewhat devalue the effective statements and actions made elsewhere. Overall there simply isn’t enough in the way of substance behind these philosophies of changing life experiences as time passes to give way to a fully substantial movie. For instance, there is intended to be a major emotional shift in Reynolds character a little under halfway through the film to serve as his motivation for continuing to chase the case of reclaiming Maria’s paintings, but like the film itself it’s never as profound as it should be. This isn’t any fault of Reynolds, but more of the script for not better clarifying where this change of heart really originates. Reynolds is actually much better here than he will get credit for as he is so clearly trying to construct a career renaissance (see ”Captive,” ”The Voices” and the upcoming ”Mississippi Grind” and ”Self/less”) that just isn’t taking off. Ultimately, ”Woman in Gold” is about how long one should press the past before letting it go in which the answer seems to be never. But like everything in this film the conclusion comes down on the side of acceptable rather than riveting.