Reel Opinions


Friday, October 31, 2008

Changeling

Ever since her nine-year-old son Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) disappeared, single mother Christine (Angelina Jolie) has not been certain of a lot of things. But there is one thing she is certain of when police Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) informs her they have found her son five months after he disappeared, and presents him to her at the train station in front of an anxious media and photographers. The child he shows her is not her son. Jones is adamant, however, and insists that Christine is simply under stress and not thinking clearly. With time, she will come to accept this child as Walter. Christine poses with the child for the cameras and brings him home, but there is something wrong. This, she is certain.

Clint Eastwood's Changeling is based on a true story that occurred in 1928. It's one I have not heard of before seeing this movie, but one that completely engaged and engulfed me for almost its entire running time. At the time, the L.A.P.D. was under intense scrutiny. There were wide spread reports and rumors of corruption, murder, and cover ups to hide their illegal actions. It doesn't take us or Christine long to realize that the police were never serious in finding Walter, and merely treated it as a publicity stunt to improve their image to the media. They find a lost child abandoned by a drifter that resembles the description of Walter in Illinois, and consider the case closed. The signs signaling something is not right are immediate to Christine. The child the police have given her is three inches shorter than her son was the last time she measured him. Also, she undresses him for his nightly bath, and discovers the child has been circumcised. She gets the opinions of her son's former teacher and dentist, who both confirm her belief that the child she has is not Walter. When she presents this evidence to the police, the Captain accuses her of twisting the facts, and presents some official people of his own to counter her case, including a doctor who tries to convince Christine with scientific "evidence" that the trauma the child experienced during his time away caused his spine to shrink, thus explaining why this boy is shorter. He throws "facts" and "proof" to the world that Christine is an unfit mother who did not want her son back in the first place.

Manipulation plays a big part in Changeling. Emotions are manipulated, as are facts and evidence that challenges the police's statement that the child returned to Christine is her son. The main person Christine has in her corner is Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local pastor who is more than familiar with the shady dealings going on in the police department and has a weekly radio show where he brings them to light. He convinces Christine to keep on fighting this, and fight she does. She takes her story to the media, trying to convince more people that the police only want this to go away so they can be seen as heroes, even though they did not do their job. They go to such extremes to make this go away that Christine finds herself locked away in a mental hospital under the orders of the Captain. She finds several other women there who have also been sent into captivity after experiencing the cruelty of the L.A.P.D., and trying to fight back. Even there, she finds manipulation. The doctor who examines her there twists her words around, almost convincing Christine herself that she is crazy. He does, however, offer her a chance for freedom. Sign a form that states she lied about the boy not being her son, and he will consider her "cured", and she be able to leave.

If it sounds like I'm revealing too much about the movie, I'm glad to say I am not. This is a complex and rewarding story, and Eastwood, along with screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5), makes good use of the film's nearly two and a half hour running time to tell it. After a somewhat slow opening 10 or 15 minutes, the story picks up and never lets go. I was captivated as the story built, and was so interested in where it was going to go next, I was almost afraid to walk out of the theater for a quick refill on my soda, fear that I would miss some important detail. This is the rare emotional movie where we not only feel emotion for the main character, we feel many of the same ones that she is experiencing. I found myself angry, terrified, and hopeful right along with Christine. Some critics have accused the movie of being too overloaded with plot and lacking a clear focus, but I did not find this to be an issue. The plight of Christine's search for the truth is always kept in the center, and a subplot concerning what seems at first to be an unrelated investigation is completely captivating. The movie juggles both of these plots effortlessly until they come together to a complete whole. This is a rewarding story that is fleshed out, and allows us to be drawn in slowly but surely.

Complementing the engaging tale is a fine cast, especially Jolie, who approaches Christine as a simple woman who is forced to rely on strength she probably didn't know she had. She does not dramatize the character, or make her seem larger than life. This is important in a movie where she is surrounded by people who emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically try to manipulate her into believing something she knows in her heart is not true. Another performance that should be pointed out is Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, the man at the center of the film's main investigation subplot. His character is odd, with various physical and verbal ticks and quirks that could have easily gone into the realm of self-parody in lesser hands, but here comes across as dangerous and terrifying in its simplicity. All of the performances aim for realism here, and achieve it. The movie wisely never plays up the melodrama too much, and the music score (also by Eastwood) is quiet and understated, allowing the emotion of the scene and the characters to speak for themselves.

Changeling is a movie that works on so many levels, it's hard to pick exactly one area that it does best. The production and art design recreates its era perfectly, and puts us directly into its setting without sparing any details. There are also a lot of great moments in this movie. Some of my favorite scenes involve Christine's meetings with her doctor at the mental hospital, which play out as a fascinating psychological war of words, with Christine trying to choose her words carefully, and the doctor still finding ways to twist them around and make her doubt herself. None of the scenes seem rushed, nor do any characters seem underdeveloped or unnecessary. Eastwood crafts the story in a realistic way, and then allows that story to play out. We feel like we're getting the full story here. It's been stated that the movie is pretty accurate to the actual events, and it's obvious with the way the movie lets everything flow naturally.

Over the years, Eastwood has proven himself to be a master filmmaker, and I think this is one of his finer recent efforts. The movie is more terrifying than the recent Saw V could ever hope to be, more emotional than just about any drama I can think of this year, and just an all around great movie. I see a lot of films obviously, and a lot of them start to fade from my mind hours after viewing them. Changeling stuck with me, and this in itself is an accomplishment. The fact that it succeeds at almost everything it tries is an even greater one.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

I almost feel like a cynic writing this review. High School Musical 3: Senior Year is so gosh-darn perky, energetic, and eager to please that it almost prevents anyone from applying logical thought to it. Of course, you're not supposed to. The movie is relentlessly cheerful and sunny, unapologetically cornball, and takes place in a fantasy high school world where everyone has perfect bodies and hair, and scholarships to expensive and prestigious colleges like Juilliard are handed out like pieces of candy. The movie sure is pleasant and doesn't really do anything to offend, but at nearly two hours, it starts to get to be a bit much.

Allow me to explain my thoughts during the course of this film. The movie opens at a basketball game between the Wildcats (our heroes), and a nameless rival team who are obviously evil because they like to push the good team around right there on the court. (Those fiends...) The Wildcats are behind on the scoreboard, and there's only 16 minutes left in the game. Star player Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) starts to lead his fellow players in a rousing pop song about how they have to work together, and that this is their last chance to make their mark on the basketball court, since they graduate in a few months. The cheerleaders join in the song, the audience seems to be clapping along, hell even the team mascot seems to join in. The only ones in the game not singing is the other team, because they are evil, and hail from some dark high school where singing your feelings is forbidden by punishment of having your toe nails ripped out by rabid dogs. At least that's the conclusion I reached as to why they weren't singing...

Corny as it all was, I had to admit, the energy in this sequence was through the roof. Series director and head choreographer Kenny Ortega (who was the choreographer on 1987's Dirty Dancing) knows how to work his audience, and makes the opening number into quite a showstopper in its own way. I was admiring Zac Efron, who I first noticed in last year's musical film of Hairspray, since I had never seen the previous two High School Musical films that had aired on the Disney Channel. He had a good voice, had a lot of energy, and seemed to have a lot of screen presence. Then, his girlfriend, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) stands up in the stands to sing and cheer her boyfriend on, saying that she believes in him. My heart sunk a little when I realized Gabriella was going to be the female lead. She's attractive and all, but Hudgens is so blandly sweet from the word go, and her singing voice sometimes resembles that of a teenage Smurf. Because of the rousing song, and the heroic team's ability to believe in themselves while singing, they pull off a victory over their rivals and win the championship. All is right with the world.

Or, is it? We quickly learn that Gabriella has been accepted to Stanford University, which is over 1,000 miles away from where Troy's going to be. Bummer. As for Troy, he's torn as to whether he wants to pursue basketball (which is what his dad wants) or musical theater. Double bummer. In a subplot, the entire drama club is going to be writing and putting on their own Spring Musical about their thoughts and fears of life beyond high school. The spoiled diva rich girl, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), is scheming behind the scenes to try to get the final production number with Troy, and start herself on a career path to being famous, which she sings about in an energetic and surprisingly satirical number called "I Want It All". As for poor Gabriella, she's been granted the opportunity to start Stanford early, which means she won't be there for the big musical, the prom, or to graduate. These are the kind of problems you want to have when you're in high school. Don't worry, though. It all works out thanks to Troy's magical truck that, even though it looks like the kind of thing Redd Foxx used to drive on Sanford and Son, can travel over a thousand miles in less than two days to pick up Gabriella at Stanford, and get her back in time for the final production number, so that no-good scheming Sharpay doesn't get to go on in her place. Sorry if I spoiled it for anyone, and you thought the movie was going to end with Troy and Gabriella dead in a ditch.

The High School Musical films have been a phenomenon with teens and "tweens", and it's easy to see why in this movie. It's bright and cheerful to a ridiculous degree, it's loaded top to bottom with an attractive young cast to make the girls swoon, and the songs are so perky and deceptively catchy that they drill themselves into your brain to the point that you'll require surgery in order to remove them. It's the energy that sells it. The energy of the cast, the choreography, the musical numbers, and the fact that the movie never once slows down long enough for us to complain how ridiculous it all is, even though it's constantly in the back of our minds. The talented young cast are more than capable to meet whatever the movie throws at it when it comes to singing and dancing. I may have been turned off by Gabriella, due to the fact she pretty much does nothing but smile and look dreamily into Troy's eyes (even when she's singing), but the rest of the cast each get their moment to shine in either a musical number or a dance sequence.

If High School Musical 3 had maybe been an hour long TV special or something, I'd probably label it as being cute but ultimately silly. Unfortunately, this is a feature length film. A feature length film that runs for nearly two hours. The movie's total lack of substance starts to show through by about the one hour mark, and it didn't take long until the whole thing was getting to be a bit too much. At least the previous entries were made for TV, so there were commercial breaks that brought you back to reality. Here, you're being bombarded by nonstop happiness and sunshine for two hours straight. I understand that the movie is supposed to be mindless fluff for the young audience, and I'm obviously not the audience it's looking for. Even so, this movie wore me out. Any parent taken to this movie by their kid would be wise to plan strategic bathroom or drink/popcorn refill breaks, or risk losing their sanity to the full-frontal assault of Weapons of Mass Perkiness.

I'm not recommending High School Musical 3, but I probably would if I was the right age and mind set that the movie is targeting. It's at least made with some degree of skill, which makes it watchable to those who don't have posters of the cast on their wall. The Disney company plans to continue the series with a new cast for the next film, which supposedly will be going back to television. I can't imagine what kind of troubles the new cast will face. Maybe one of them will break a nail right before their big song. I won't know, because I most likely won't be watching. Regardless, I wish them the best of luck, and hope their years of high school are as gosh-darn incredibly wonderful as Troy and Gabriella's were.

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Religulous

In Religulous, stand up comic and TV host Bill Maher goes around the world, asking people of different faith a very powerful question. - "Why"? Why do they believe in what they do? Why do they cling to stories about magical gardens and talking snakes, which Maher personally sees as fairy tales, but the Christian faithful view as scripture? If God does talk to people, why doesn't He just go and make a public appearance, instead of using one person to spread His message? It's a powerful question that's sure to divide any audience who watches it. And although Maher doesn't probe deep enough during most of this documentary, the results are still highly entertaining and often hilariously funny.

The title itself (a combination of the words "religion" and "ridiculous") pretty much explains Maher's personal view on the topic. He was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and was raised as a Catholic until he was 13. His family stopped going to church, and when Maher asks his mom why, she thinks it had something to do with the church's view on birth control. These days, Maher feels that religion is a dangerous thing. In an impassioned monologue that closes the film, he thinks that if Armageddon does come, it won't be because of a Second Coming, but because of religious Fundamentalists who won't do anything to try to stop the end of the world. He doesn't see how people can believe in the stories in religion if there is no documented or physical proof that cannot be challenged with another way of thinking. His targets in the film cover a wide range of religious views, although Christianity gets the most screen time. He also questions Judaism, Mormons, Scientology, and even a bizarre little religion that seems to be built around finding faith through smoking pot just to name a few. With a running time of only about 100 minutes, Maher obviously can't hit them all, and leaves out some religions. He has to save something for the sequel, you know.

During the course of Religulous, Maher travels the world, visiting holy places in Rome and Egypt. He also visits some smaller places, such as when he visits a tiny makeshift chapel for truck drivers which is located inside a truck trailer early on. He then interviews both important people (a U.S. Senator who is very devout in his faith), and even some not-so important people (a guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park in Orlando, Florida), and questions them in their faith. He asks a lot of good questions. How could a guy survive for three days in the belly of a whale (or big fish), as the story of Jonah wants us to believe? If God's going to come down and destroy the Devil, what's He waiting for? The answers he gets have obviously been edited to either fit Maher's views, or to entertain the audience. Director Larry Charles (Borat) edits and splices the interviews with funny archival film clips, or witty subtitles that either question what the interviewee is saying while Maher listens patiently, or points out the inconsistencies in what the person is saying to him.

To me, Maher isn't really seeking answers to the questions he's asking, but simply wants to spark discussion and thought with his audience. The way he constantly interrupts and says sarcastic little zingers to the people he's supposed to be interviewing pretty much shows that these people could say anything to him, and he wouldn't believe them unless they somehow were able to call God down to talk to him. Half the time, I expected his subjects to get a lot angrier with him than they appear, but only once in the film does a person walk out on him. (He is thrown out of a couple places, though, before he can get too far in his interview.) A lot of the comments he makes are actually funny. When some Mormons tell him that they believe Missouri will be the location of Paradise, Maher quips that he hopes it's Branson. When someone tries to tell him that people are not born gay, Maher questions that notion by using Little Richard as evidence for his personal view. There are some people Maher talks to that actually share a lot of his own questions, such as a Roman Catholic priest who dismisses a lot of their personal teachings, such as the existence of Hell and the Devil himself. Here, Maher has very little to say, and mainly just lets the person talk.

One of the more fascinating interviews to me is when Maher talks to a man who actually believes that he is the Second Coming, and is actually Jesus resurrected. He is Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, and he has 100,000 followers. He explains how the holy bloodline of Jesus went from the Holy Land to France to Spain to Puerto Rico. Maher lets the guy know that while it's convenient he has Jesus in his name, his last name hints that he could also be the resurrection of Carmen Miranda. To say that this movie is preaching to its own choir would be an understatement. It's an entirely one-sided film, yes, and I would have liked some more deeper and probing interviewing on Maher's part. But, I cannot deny that I was engaged and very entertained throughout the film. Some of the people he's found in this movie are astonishing, such as a guy who has invented things to sidestep bans on Sabbath activity. His take on the telephone has to be seen to be believed.

Will Religulous offend you? The answer lies with you. Maher comes across as a guy who just doesn't understand why people cling to these beliefs, and he just wants to know what makes them do so. Why do they believe what they believe? Why does one guy he talk to laugh down the notion of the existence of Santa Claus, but thinks someone talking to a burning bush is plausible? The movie merely skims the surface of its own questions, and that's expected. The main question to me is was I entertained, and did it spark a lot of thought within me. It did, so I recommending it. You can probably tell by reading this review whether you will enjoy this movie, or find it completely offensive. I leave you to make up your own mind.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saw V

"You won't believe how it ends" - The poster tagline for Saw V.

There's something to be said for truth in advertising, but in this case, I don't think the filmmakers should be advertising the film's ending. Yes, it sets up great expectations, and yes, I did not believe how the movie ended. Unfortunately, it was probably not for reasons the filmmakers intended. Saw V has an insignificant little nothing of an ending, one that doesn't really wrap things up, but rather seems like director David Hackl either ran out of film, or just didn't have a lot of respect for his audience. It's one of those endings where the credits feel like a slap in the face, because you're still waiting for the shock and the surprise.

The Saw franchise began back in 2004 quite humbly. It was a low budget but well done thriller about a demented man who called himself Jigsaw kidnapping people who did not appreciate their lives or what they had, and then forcing them to endure deadly games and puzzles where they would have to face their own problems or sins in order to survive. Jigsaw turned out to be a terminally ill man named John Kramer (Tobin Bell), who was disgusted by how people ignore or waste the gifts they are given or receive in life, and wanted people to open their eyes in his own twisted way. It was an intriguing idea, and the first few sequels successfully built upon that idea. 2006's Saw III wrapped up the story quite well, and saw Jigsaw's reign of terror come to an end. However, Lionsgate studio wasn't about to let their most successful franchise just end there. They decided to continue the story with Saw IV last year, and it had all the markings of a desperate attempt to milk more money out of something that was past its prime.

The money-grubbing nature of the recent films continues with Saw V, a trite and substandard thriller that never manages to thrill or even come close to scaring its audience. The movie is actually surprisingly timid. It doesn't even seem to try to raise the tension of the audience. The devious and fiendish traps that the series is known for take a back seat this time around to a dull story involving a police detective named Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) carrying on the work of Jigsaw. We see in flashbacks how he came to be associated with Kramer, and how he worked behind the scenes in the earlier films. To the public, Jigsaw is dead and Hoffman is being rewarded as a hero. But there's one survivor he didn't count on, one who wonders how Mark was able to escape the final standoff almost completely unharmed. Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) survived the trap that was supposed to end his life, and begins digging into Mark's past. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, five total strangers who have all abused the power and privileges that they enjoy are the latest people who have to endure a series of Jigsaw's latest morality-based death traps.

So, the deadly games and hard-R violence that have long driven the franchise have been pushed aside in a forgettable subplot that the movie seems to throw in simply because the other films had them. As if that weren't enough, the traps seem to be somewhat toned down and not quite as inspired in their wickedness as past entries. So, what does that leave fans and gorehounds looking for their fix? Not much, I'm afraid, other than a story about Agent Strahm digging for clues, and Detective Hoffman trying to stay one step ahead. The movie never gives us reason enough to care about either one of them, nor does it know how to make the story interesting in the slightest. We actually seem to watch them do the same things over and over. Strahm keeps on going through files and looking at photos, which cue flashbacks (sometimes flashbacks that have flashbacks within them), and Hoffman keeps on looking dark and sinister, and not really doing much of anything else. Everything's so tepid and uninspired here, you wonder how the filmmakers can get away with calling it a thriller when nothing thrilling actually happens.

If the audience has a hard time staying awake or interested, at least they're in good company here. The actors sleepwalk through their roles, and not a single performance registers or grabs our attention. They mainly stand around reciting dull dialogue in dimly lit or dank rooms. This is a terrible movie to look at, where absolutely nothing catches the eyes, and scenes have such little lighting, you'd almost think the filmmakers didn't want us to see what was going on. Maybe after five movies, the series is just losing its edge, and it seems everyone knows it. Saw V doesn't try to do anything new, doesn't want to explore any new ideas, and simply regurgitates the same images and ideas over and over to the point of self parody. The creepy little puppet who represents Jigsaw to his victims and the public doesn't even resonate anymore. We're so used to it, we just stare at it and don't feel anything. We're immune, and the new Jigsaw just isn't enough to generate any excitement.

So, where does that leave Saw V in the end? This is one of those movies that didn't need to be made, and fades away from your mind like vapor almost the second you walk out of the cinema. Whatever inspiration these movies once held has long fled, and it is now merely a soulless cash cow for the studio to squeeze every Halloween. Saw VI is already planned for next year, and there's even a reality TV show where the winner gets a role in that movie. So, whoever wins gets a part in a movie that exists simply to carry on something that should have ended three years ago. Can that really be considered a prize?

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Pride and Glory

When you know you're walking into a movie that's been sitting on the studio shelf for two years, like a dirty secret the studio owners have been keeping to themselves, and when you know that the film has been shuffled through various release dates over the year or so, the best you can probably hope for is that the movie in question is watchable. Pride and Glory is indeed very watchable, and actually has some good performances going for it. With a cast including Edward Norton, Colin Farrell and Noah Emmerich, that much is a given. It's almost a shame that the script itself is so workmanlike. You keep on waiting for the movie to break free from the restraints of its well worn cliches, and it never does.

Pride and Glory is a movie about family, brotherhood, crooked cops, loyalty, and all the expected material that comes with the genre. There's the good cop, Ray (Edward Norton), and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), who is the bad cop. And no, I'm not spoiling anything. The film and even its ad campaign makes this abundantly clear, so it's not a who done it. Noah Emmerich plays Ray's brother, Francis, the one caught in the middle and questioning his own loyalties. To top it all off, their dad is a retired police chief played by Jon Voight, who only wants to see the family situation caused peacefully and swept under the rug, though that's obviously not an option. Just by hearing those character descriptions, you can probably plan the course of the plot out in your mind before you see the film, and you wouldn't be too far off. The movie adds to the drama, by exploring the family situations of each individual brother. Ray's brother, for example, has a wife who is dying of Cancer (Jennifer Ehle), and he is conflicted by being a decent man around his wife and trying to help her survive, and the dirty dealings he knows is going on in his own family and in his own police department.

The plot kicks off when Ray is convinced by his father to get back into crime investigating when four cops are killed in a shootout with some drug dealers. Something happened in Ray's past, and he's been working in Missing Persons before his father convinces him to get involved, since the men killed were connected to his brother. Ray begins to search for information, and eventually starts to realize that there's a lot of corruption underneath within the force. We learn early on that Jimmy and some members of his squad have been taking money from drug dealers to kill rival drug dealers. Jimmy sees it as part of the job, since he's only getting rid of lowlifes, but when Ray starts snooping around and information about his operation starts to leak out, it threatens to tear the closely knit family bonds apart. Everyone takes different sides, loyalties are called into question, and the movie settles into a comfortable rut that so many just like it have used before.

That's not to say there isn't anything to recommend in Pride and Glory. As mentioned, the performances are pretty much first rate, and almost make us forget that the movie is offering us nothing new. Norton and Farrell bring a lot of intensity to their respective characters, and Jon Voight (an actor who has been cashing one too many easy paychecks these days) gives one of his better performances as the father dealing both with what is happening with his family and with his alcoholism. Part of the reason I wanted the movie to throw off the shackles of its conventions is because these are good characters, and I liked what I saw of them outside of the formula. The movie's brief views into their family life are powerful on their own, but not nearly enough is done with them. We never truly get the reaction of Jimmy's wife to what he's been doing, and the subplot concerning Francis' dying wife comes across as a tease, since it's introduced and then never resolved. It's almost as if director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor (2004's Miracle) had a good idea, but never went all the way through with it.

Despite all this, Pride and Glory manages not to make too many wrong moves and mainly keeps the melodrama in check...Until the final moments, that is. And what a couple of final moments they are. The movie keeps on building and building until we throw our hands up in defeat, and just wait for the credits to come. You can almost picture the writers sitting at their word processor, desperately looking for a way to end all of this the right way. If this is the best they could do, they should have kept on looking. It takes the easy way out with outbursts of violence, contrived conveniences of the script, and a general feel of ham-fisted drama. The actors do what they can with the material they're given, but it doesn't make it feel like any less of a cop out. Here is a movie that should have ended with quiet reflection and maybe some honesty, and instead it gives us an overblown and overstuffed ending that explodes right there on the screen and never quite recovers.

Pride and Glory is nowhere near as good as it should have been, but it's not a complete lost cause. All it needed was a better ending, and some more attention paid to its intriguing subplots that are left hanging and underdeveloped. You almost wish you could be in the room when the script was being written, and convince them to go just a little bit further, veer off the expected path just a little bit more. The movie did not deserve to be hidden away from the public for so long, but it probably could have stood another rewrite or two before it went before the cameras.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Fireproof

In Fireproof, a control freak firefighter named Caleb (played by former 80s teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron) learns how to love and respect his wife more, thanks to something called The Love Dare. It's a 40-day experiment his father gives him that's supposed to test the bonds and limits of his love to his long-suffering wife, Catherine (Erin Bethea). Along the way, he also learns to accept God and Jesus into his life, which is expected since this movie was released independently by a production company with ties to a church. There's one thing Caleb does not receive during the film which he seriously needs, however - Some basic anger management training.

To say that Caleb is a hothead would be an understatement. Whenever something upsets him in this movie, he grabs a baseball bat, and starts smashing any inanimate object that may be close by. His wife has been nagging him about not supporting her enough? Caleb steps outside, and kicks the stuffing out of his garbage can before he puts it out to the curb. His computer tries to tempt him with a pop up ad for a porn site? Out comes the baseball bat, and he smashes the heck out of the evil thing before he gives in to the temptation of internet porn. Watching that scene, I had to ask myself wouldn't a pop-up blocker been just as effective? Yes, it's true, our hero does indeed find the Lord and become a born-again Christian, and he also finds a second chance with his wife. Now all he needs to find is a bit of common sense, and maybe I'd start to believe this guy was someone I could root for.

I have no problem with the film's message of faith and love. My problem lies with the way filmmaking duo Alex and Stephen Kendrick approach the material with such a heavy hand that it makes many of the film's serious moments unintentionally laughable. Whenever Caleb turns to his father, dad takes him out to a wooden cross that just happens to be standing in the middle of a field, and give him (and us, the audience) a sermon about God's high standards, and how we don't match up to them. The scene comes across as being about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the privates, and seems to stop the entire movie so the screenplay can preach to us for about five minutes. This is a movie that routinely stops itself. Whether its to watch a montage of firefighters training while a Christian rock song plays on the soundtrack (though what firefighters going through basic training has to do with a song about loving God, I have no idea), or to have Caleb be preached at by his father or the wise black guy at his fire station, the movie slows to a crawl whenever it tries to deliver its message, and never quite finds a way to insert it into the film in a natural way.

So, just what is the problem for Caleb and Catherine? They don't communicate anymore. He comes home tired from work, asks if she picked up any food at the grocery store, she says he could have done it during his day off, and he explodes at her. Like I said, some anger management would do wonders for this boy. He doesn't listen to her anymore, doesn't help out around the house, and spends most of his days looking at porn sites and dreaming about buying a boat. She's had enough, and is seriously contemplating having an affair with the sleazy doctor at the hospital she works at who keeps on hitting on her. That's when Caleb's dad steps in, and tells his son to try the Love Dare, which is a handwritten book that lists 40 challenges that he must meet each day in order to save his relationship and discover Christ. He also seeks guidance from his best friend at work, and I couldn't help but think he's lucky to have this friend, as everyone else who works at Caleb's fire station are morons who are mainly used in the screenplay for comic relief. His friend uses a lot of ways to talk about relationships and how important they are to keep, even resorting to visual aids by gluing some salt and pepper shakers together.

Caleb tries the different challenges in his book, but at first his wife ignores them, since she thinks he's just making a desperate attempt to get more out of their impending divorce by "proving" he's not that bad of a guy. The thing is, if it weren't for the fact that Caleb saves lives for a living, I'd have a hard time believing he was a decent guy too. He's verbally abusive, violent, sexist (he doesn't seem to respect any women, not even his mother, whom he routinely screams at whenever she tries to offer help), and routinely flies off the edge. He apologizes to his mom eventually, but none of the rest of his behavior is ever brought into question. We're supposed to cheer for him because he figures out how important Catherine is, and because he accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Yet, the movie seems to have no problem with the scene where he finds out about his wife's possible affair with the doctor, and he busts into the guy's office, threatening to beat the life out of him. (Oddly enough, the two never talk about Catherine's feelings for the doctor, not even after Caleb finds a hidden note she received from him.) For all of Caleb's progress, I still found him to be a jerk when the movie was over, so what's the point?

Aside from this fact, Fireproof is amateurishly made, which I guess is not a surprise given its limited budget. Still, that's no excuse for the all-around performances of the cast, which veer from being mediocre to below local community theater level. The performances and the emotions are frequently as ham-fisted as the screenplay, which is quite an accomplishment. If the movie wants us to take a second look at our faith and our relationships, they should have tried for a more natural and even-handed tone than the one that's been applied here.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

The first thing we learn about 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is that she accidentally shot and killed her mother when she was four. This is the main memory she has of her mother, and her frequently drunk and abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany) wants to keep it that way. He tells her that her mother left them both, and was only home the day she died to gather some things she forgot. Lily is a thoughtful and intelligent child, however, and wants to believe her mom loved her. Her only friend seems to be her black caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who is excited about the cultural changes going on in the world. The year is 1964, and Civil Rights are on everyone's mind. When Rosaleen is beaten by a white man after she insults him, Lily decides she's had enough, helps Rosaleen escape from the hospital, and decides to hit the road for a better life.

This is the set up for The Secret Life of Bees, a sweet and sentimental story that gets a lot of milage from a talented cast and a screenplay by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) that does not dumb down its racially-charged subject matter. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, but manages to stand well enough on its own thanks to a powerful and nuanced performance by young Fanning. Her Lily is someone we immediately sympathize with, and more than that, she's a realistic child. She's obviously had a hard life, but doesn't let it show. She runs away early on mainly out of fear for the safety of Rosaleen, as she's afraid the man she insulted will come back and kill her. While wondering where they could possibly stay, a jar of honey catches her eye which depicts the image of a black Virgin Mary. Lily learns from a local grocer the address of the woman who produces the honey, and it turns out to be the home of the three Boatright sisters - August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys). And yes, before you ask, when she hears their names, Rosaleen does wonder out loud to herself where "September" and "October" are. The three sisters welcome the two into their home, and Lily begins a journey of personal discovery where she learns more about her mother than she ever imagined.

Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. If it had been more manipulative, or tried harder to tug on the heartstrings, we'd have a made-for-TV Lifetime movie up there on the big screen. Fortunately, The Secret Life of Bees keeps its heart in check, while at the same time exploring the darker and scarier aspects of its setting. Although equal rights seems to be on the mind of everyone, there are many closed-minded individuals in the towns that Lily encounters along the way. These are not cartoonish racist caricatures, but rather realistic portrayals of the thinking at the time. What impressed me the most about the film is the relationship that Lily develops with the Boatright sisters. Although Lily remains the central focal point, everyone is fleshed out to a certain degree so that it never seems like anyone is being pushed into the background. We also get the sense that the lessons she learns are not just from those she lives with, but by everything around her. It shapes her from a girl who accepts her own unhappiness as being inevitable, into someone who has the strength to try for something better in her own life.

Most of all, the movie works in a sentimental way. It knows what buttons to push, doesn't push too hard, and creates characters we not only like but are interesting to begin with. I particularly liked August, who shows a lot of wisdom, without coming across as a "mystic" or someone who speaks like her dialogue was written on a fortune cookie. May, an extremely sentimental young woman who has been traumatized since the death of her twin sister and is prone to fits of crying, is simple minded but caring. British actress Sophie Okonedo finds the right tone for the character, so she never comes across as an unintentional parody. And recording artist Alicia Keys, as the independent-minded June, brings a certain strength and honesty to her character. Of the cast, only Jennifer Hudson disappoints, as she seems to disappear from the story for long periods of time, and never truly gets to live up to her promise in the film's early scenes.

And then there is Dakota Fanning, who has always been a wonderful child actress, and this movie marks a coming of age point for her. Should her career continue into her adult years (and hopefully it will), this will probably be seen as a turning point in her career. She's absolutely wonderful here, and more than capable of carrying almost the entire movie on her own. Her Lily is a surprisingly complex character for a 14-year-old, and the way Fanning tackles each side of her character and makes her into a real person. She shows more screen presence and talent than most starts twice her age in other movies, and I can only hope that this performance will be recognized come award time.

The Secret Life of Bees should please the legions of readers who fell in love with the original novel, and most of all, will most likely please any regular filmgoer who finds themselves watching it. The movie is sweet and laid back on the surface, but has enough going on under the surface to grab onto so that it's not just enjoyable fluff. It even works as an occasional tear-jerker, as I found my heart aching for the characters at certain times. This is a movie that aims for the right emotions, and earns them. Trust me when I say it's not as easy as it seems.

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Max Payne

I can almost picture director John Moore (2006's remake of The Omen) grinning ear-to-ear as the MPAA handed back his Max Payne with a teen-friendly PG-13. Here is a movie that contains multiple shootings, more deaths than most R-rated slashers hold, and frequent instances of drug use, both by the villains and by the hero during the film's climax. And yet, because the "f-bomb" is only dropped once in the dialogue and what little nudity there is in the movie has been carefully edited, Hollywood has deemed this movie okay for teens to see. Good to know someone out there is looking out for our kids.

Max Payne is based on a series of video games. I have not played any of them, and the movie doesn't really spark any desire to. However, I do know that the games were intended for mature audiences. Despite the rating, so is the movie. The title character is an angry police detective played by Mark Wahlberg. Yes, his character is really named Max Payne. With a name like that, of course he's going to be a grizzled and angry cop. That, or a professional wrestler. In a year where we already saw Wahlberg slip up with The Happening, I don't think a video game movie was the wisest of choices to act as a follow up. Back to the plot: Max is a dark and brooding figure who now works at the cold case films department. He hasn't been the same ever since he came home from work one day, saw some men had broken into his house, and found his wife and baby murdered. To show his grief, he dresses almost entirely in leather, and sulks around the dark streets of New York (actually Toronto, standing in for New York), where it is constantly raining, snowing, or overcast. It's as if the weather somehow shares his pain.

Max is searching for the slime who was behind the murder of his family, and almost everything leads to a dead end. That's when his former partner Alex (Donal Logue) notices a tattoo that was on the arm of Max's wife in a crime scene photo that seems to be connected to other recent victims, who have the same tattoo as her. Before he can figure out the connection, he's murdered in Max's apartment, making Max the prime suspect. As if that wasn't enough, a girl who visited his apartment the night before named Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) turns up dismembered in an alley nearby. Natasha's sister, a gun-toting femme fatale named Mona Sax (a miscast Mila Kunis), initially thinks Max is her killer, but he soon convinces her that Natasha's murderer also killed his wife, and they're looking for the same man. So now Max has company as he sulks around the city, looking tortured. Oh, and there are supposedly demons flying about the city, snatching up paranoid junkies and drug addicts. Or maybe not...

You see, part of the film's plot has to do with a drug that supposedly gives whoever takes it enhanced abilities. Unfortunately, it also causes the user to hallucinate that demons from hell are after them. The hallucinations seem to have been written into the script so that the movie could at least claim to have some interesting visuals, since the dialogue and plotting are third rate. They look impressive, and certainly do provide some striking and interesting images. Unfortunately, they're just computer generated effects, and have very little to do with anything going on in the movie itself. The first time I saw the creatures, I was intrigued. The second time, a little less so. By the time they made their final appearance, I had long realized they were just there for show, and was tired of them. When it's not fooling us with intriguing supernatural undertones that don't go anywhere, the movie is a tepid crime noir drama that's just too generic to inspire any sort of response. We've seen it before, we've seen it done better, and we'll most likely see it again when the sequel comes around. (Sit through the end credits for a final scene afterward that hints at a franchise.) The characters race from Point A to B through a convoluted plot we care little about, never really saying anything of interest or showing any real personality.

The actors at least seem to be making the best of a bad situation, even if they often look like they wish they were somewhere else. Mark Wahlberg growls his way through every line of dialogue, and looks pissed off when he's killing hundreds of faceless gunmen, so I guess he gets the job done in the lead. As the female lead, Mila Kunis doesn't look comfortable at all as her character, and it just makes you want to re-watch her likable and funny performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where she seemed a whole lot happier. The rest of the cast includes such actors as Beau Bridges (as a close friend of Max), Chris O'Donnell (who shows up as a nervous guy who might know more about the murder of Max's wife than he lets on), and even rapper-turned actor Ludacris turns up as a cop investigating Max's connection to all these bodies that seem to follow wherever he goes. Like Wahlberg, they get the job done, but don't exactly seem very interested in the story they're trying to tell. Probably because the story gives them so little to do, they'd be better off staying in bed.

Max Payne is surprisingly leisurely in its pacing until the climax, which plays like a massive shootout crossed with an explosion at the special effects factory. And I haven't even gotten to the part where the hero decides to use the deadly hallucinating drug in order to give him strength to kill all the bad guys. Yes, that's right, the hero only wins in this movie because he takes the drug the bad guys have been pushing to junkies on the street. Talk about your mixed signals. I'd ask the filmmakers what they were thinking when they threw that in the script, but something tells me thinking was the last thing on anyone's mind when it came to this movie's script.

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