Movie Review: “Fate of the Furious”? To be in a film series that never improves and never ends

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Eight films into the “Fast and Furious” franchise, this much is clear. These movies, especially the latest, “The Fate of the Furious,” are not to every taste.

For all the action beats, the over-the-top digitally-augmented car chases, the trash-talk one-liners and the warm fuzzies over “You never turn your back on family,” they’re stupid. The new one? Colossally stupid.

But if you’re in the mood for a cartoon car thriller that defies the laws of logic, smart dialogue, honest plotting and physics, well friend, have we got the movie for you.

“Fate” adds Oscar winners to the cast, Havana and Siberia (OK, Iceland) to the locations and nothing at all to the formula of cars, capers, supervillains, one-liners and “hug it out” “family” conflict.

Still, give director F. Gary Gray credit. He edits Vin Diesel into a passable performance, knows how to film a fight and “fix” a car chase in a computer — or knows how to hire people who do — and tipped the makeup crew so that everybody, from Charlize Theron and Dwayne Johnson to Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell and a certain regal cameo has never looked prettier.

Dom Toretto (Diesel) is on his Havana honeymoon, racing for vintage Cuban pink slips when the cyber-crook known as Cipher (Theron) whispers menacing nothings in his ear. Next thing you know, he’s “gone rogue,” and his old team, led by Detective Hobbs (Johnson) and augmented by an ex-con they thought they’d put away (Jason Statham) are commissioned by Mr. Nobody (Russell) to bring him in.

A weapon’s been stolen which could lead to an “instant stone age,” in terms of digital civilization. The surveillance hack called “God’s Eye” tracks everyone and everything who might try to get that Electro-Magnetic Pulse generator back. And Dom is on the clock, stealing stuff that the whispering, leggy villainess Cipher needs to complete her dastardly plan.

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The plot takes us into prison, where Hobbs and the Brit brawler Deckard (Statham) swap tasty trash talk in adjacent glass-walled cells. Hobbs, in his prison-orange jumpsuit, doesn’t agree that this is “a good color on you.”

“It’ll look better with your BLOOD on it!”

Later, it’s “That tight t-shirt is cutting off blood to your brain.”

The script panders to the lead characters shamelessly, giving fans big Diesel and Rodriguez smiles, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris barbed banter filled with disrespect and Johnson a hilarious bit where he’s taught his daughter’s soccer team a pre-game Maori war chant.

But most of the action is this or that character knuckling a gear-shifter and grimacing “I GOT this,” dialogue filled with “That’s not GOOD” and “Guys, we’ve got snow mobiles on our right!” The plot ranges from wildly implausible to simply not possible.

But there is one alarming sequence that gives a new twist to “product placement.” Self-driveable cars are hack/hijacked for a heist that you’d figure car companies would PAY to be left out of. Not Jeep, Fiat, VW, Toyota or Dodge, though.

There are disposable characters, and not just the villain’s minions. But one of the dumber elements of these movies is how so few of the actual leads, friend or foe, from previous pictures seem to stay dead. Only Paul Walker has truly exited the franchise. Maybe Djimon Hounsou doesn’t need the money to make a soap opera return.

That also happens in cartoons. In this Charger, Challenger, Bentley, Lamborghini, Corvette and Mercedes world, it’s not just the coyote who comes back to life after a beat down. The Road Runner gets its time in the body shop, too.

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MPAA Rating:PG-13 for prolonged sequences of violence and destruction, suggestive content, and language

Cast: Vin Diesel, Charlize Theron, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Kurt Russell
Credits: Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Ch.  A Universal release.
Running time: 2:12

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Movie Review: Man hunts down myth in “The Lost City of Z”

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Major Percy Fawcett was a peripheral figure among that last gasp of stiff-upper-lip British explorers, a tragic figure who set out to find something exciting in one of the last great blank spots on the map — Amazonia.

He disappeared making one last trek into the jungle to find proof of a forgotten civilization in a place the old men of the Royal Geographic Society had permanently labeled “a green desert.”

But one of the truths to emerge from “The Lost City of Z,” David Grann’s book about Fawcett’s search, is that this hunt wasn’t about discovery as much as it was about proving one’s self worth. A throwback figure like Fawcett was a Victorian in an Edwardian age, a man with a stain on his family’s honor who sought, by a years-long pursuit involving bravery, suffering and audacity, to reclaim for his descendants their place in Britain’s rigid hierarchy.

Charlie Hunnam (“Crimson Peak,” “Pacific Rim”) is Fawcett, an Army officer we meet on a stag hunt in 1903. His competitiveness gains notice among all the right people.

But “He’s been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” one of the most withering self-admissions ever to come out of the “Downton Abbey” generation.

Fawcett is keenly aware of this fact himself, even if he isn’t as touchy about his sissy first name. He’d like his regal wife (Sienna Miller) and their growing brood of children to grow up without that cloud (his father’s ill-repute) hanging over them. And when the Army drops a dangerous job on his lap, the Royal Geographical Society swells aren’t shy about dangling “save your family name” in front of him.

He is to map the rubber-plantation destined border between Bolivia and Brazil as an objective third party, saving South America from another brushfire war between neighbors.

Joining him is a dissolute aide de camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They inelegantly meet, which infuriates Fawcett, who has staked his “reputation as a man” on this quest.

But once in the jungle, the two come to rely on one another as they pass each square of the Jungle Movie Jeopardy board game. Treacherous rubber barons, a mission that the government has second thoughts about, suspicious natives, “primitive” tribal ambushes, an unyielding river and unrelenting rain play into it all.

It is while dodging snakes, starvation and jaguars that Fawcett sees signs of pottery that suggest to him “cities,” walls of skulls and carvings that might be hallucinations, or might be proof of what he comes to call “The Lost City of Zed.” He is English, after all.

His quest to find that city consumes decades, traveling back and forth to Britain just long enough to re-impregnate his wife, raise interest in return trips and fight in the Great War.

Director James Gray (“The Immigrant,” “Two Lovers”) stripped away the archaeology of the book and zeroes in on class and the romance of this quest for name-defining fame, which consumed Fawcett and drew in his eldest son, and upon the mystery, for which Gray presents something of a solution.

The script highlights the usual proto-environmentalist/socially ahead of his time touches to Fawcett, who contends with vestiges of slavery, British racism about “primitives” on another “Dark Continent,” cultural and rain forest destruction and a class war that he is hellbent on winning.

Angus Macfadyen is the face of this last fight, and makes a properly game amateur explorer whose name and money give him access to exploits his constitution is ill-suited for.

The direction is confident and thoughtful, but not brisk. There’s little epic about the look of this “Fitzcarraldo” for our times, either. A more immersive, rainy picture was called for, and a little of the archaeology (a civilization made of wood will leave little behind) would have helped.

Brad Pitt eyed this project when the book came out, and he has a producer credit on a picture the accomplished, sturdy but somewhat less charismatic Hunnam must hold together. It’s easy to see why Pitt wanted to do it, and why he passed on it.

Miller has done her best work over the past five years, and she gives more to the plucky, stuck-at-home wife, than the role gives back.

The real revelation here is Pattinson, donning a bushy beard to play a crusty second banana, at long last liberated from the demands of a “Twilight” matinee idol. He growls and swallows his lines, wears loyalty in his eyes (Costin follows Fawcett into WWI) and gets across military competence in way you’d never have guessed when his face was covered in vampire glitter.

Tom Holland, the new Spider-Man, is a bit young to play Fawcett’s oldest son, Jack, as an adult who insists on getting to know his dad by sharing his quest for exploration vindication and family fame.

 

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“Lost City” aims for a sort of new-fashioned old-fashioned approach to this subject, and that unfortunately makes it more Earthbound than soaring, more pedestrian than epic.

But Hunnam, Miller and Pattinson and the estates of Ireland and jungles of Colombia make fine impressions in a story that is less about making history and more about passing a horrific test you give yourself in order to prove you’re better than “they” will ever give you credit for.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson

Credits: Written and directed by James Gray, based on the David Grann book. A Bleecker St./Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 2:21

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Gaga “Star is Born,” a first peek

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A truly novel way to remake “A Star is Born” would be to flip genders in the casting, pair up an alcoholic/addict fading lady star with a hot new male talent who must deal with fame and falling in love with the one person who can help his career, a famous, abusive drunk.

Why am I seeing J. Lo in that part? Too on the nose? Not that’s she’s abusing. Abusive, maybe. Harry Styles or some such as the rising star. Better yet, cast it younger, all the way round. ADELE as the burnout, Styles as a more calculating sleep-your-way-to-stardom toy boy.

But can any version work in our cynical “good-for-the-brand dating” age? Can “A Star is Born” and Coachella and the Kardashians and Orlando Bloom exist in the same epoch?

Whatever. “Star” is a remake without guilt. Whatever status the previous versions enjoy, the passage of time renders them moot, and fading memories (even of the Judy Garland/James Mason version from ’54) make this fair game. Old fashioned, with a lot of past-expiration-date gender role issues to work out, clunky, a “story” that has always depended on killer performances –and since Garland, singing performances — to get by, expectations can be happily lowered for anything great coming out of pairing Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga for this new version.

This first image, from Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta’s Instagram account, resonates with the 1976 Streisand/Kristofferson rendition of the oft-told tale. Yeah, the big-voiced, attention-sucking shock value seeking Gaga looks winsome and eager enough. Cooper? A taller Scott Stapp, as more than one wag has noted.

Cooper gets to direct, for his trouble. Sam Elliott is in it. And the movie is coming out on the cusp of awards season — Sept. 2018. For what that’s worth.

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Netflix explains its Adam Sandler fixation

sandlerThe moronic comedies of Adam Sandler have long been a cultural punch line. The ridicule has been steady and merciless, with only the odd Sandler hangers-on (“The Dan Patrick Show”) refusing to acknowledge the obvious.

The guy is comically/dramatically as limited as any “star” the movies have created.  He jokingly calls himself a moron, which doesn’t defuse the obvious — that his movies are moronic, funny only to the chemically altered or challenged.

Critics pound him like a nail stuck in concrete — repeatedly, with growing frustration.

But one of the little mercies of recent years has been that his audience of the undiscriminating has aged out of the movie-going habit. That’s consigned them, and now him, to Netflix, where his dreadful half-an-idea comic concoctions directed by and packed with cronies (Spade, Quinn, Nick Swardson, Rob Schneider for a while, Dan Patrick, et al) might have a more natural home. His fans aren’t going out any more.

Netflix has now explained their desire to keep his career going past the point where Hollywood saw no need. They’ve streamed or rented 500 million showings of his movies since 2015, they said in a release which The Verge sees as a sign of the apocalypse, or at least evidence of Sandler’s enduring, appalling appeal.

They’re not all watching “Spanglish” or “Funny People” or “Punch Drunk Love,” I’ll wager. Nope. “Little Nicky” and “Grown-Ups” and “Blended” and “Jack and Ill” (his worst ever), “Happy Gilmore” and “Billy Madison” and “The Waterboy” probably dominate that data.

Anyway, after “Ridiculous Six” I found the need to watch Sandler’s ongoing slack of effort (ahem) pointless. The roundly, soundly pounded faux Tarantino “Western” (actually, more on the money than QT cultists would like to believe) was it for me. It’s not like reviews have ever kept anybody away from Sandler & Co., anyway. “Sandy Wexler” is his latest. No doubt the mouth-breathers have tracked it down and streamed it to death.

But this data from Netflix does give one pause.  People are staying home, watching the Sandman, refusing to outgrow him the way his characters refuse to grow up. He should run for office.

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Movie Review: Netflix patrols an overfamiliar Iraq War road in “Sand Castle”

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At this point in time, if your film is going to take us into combat in the Iraq War and Occupation, you’d better find something fresh to say on the subject.

It takes nothing away from the men and women who served there to declare that, “House to house search? Seen it.”, “IED attack? Seen it.” or “Shootout with snipers? Seen it.”

So Netflix’s decision to re-hire one of their “Narcos” directors, Fernando Coimbra, can be regarded as an indulgence, a chance for a Brazilian filmmaker to make “my Iraq War movie,” nothing more. The fact that he cast a Brit in the lead, with an even more famous Brit as the lead’s commanding officer doesn’t help matters. What’s novel to them is old hat to American film viewers.

Nicholas Hoult (“Warm Bodies,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) is Matt Ocre, a young reservist who joined up “for the college money.” He needed it. But when he’s shipped overseas, Ocre is rattled by the environment, intimidated by the gung ho, “Proud and READY” GIs he’s assigned to. That’s why he busts his own hand in a Humvee door. He’s afraid.

That’s kind of novel, at least in the movies.

“Sand Castle” follows Ocre through his deployment, out of the relative safety of Camp Nowhere, his base, into hostile territory. Because broken hands heel, and his commanding officers (Tommy Flanagan, Henry Cavill) are going to see to it that he does his job and gets over the fear that everybody in his unit seems to see, but not discuss.

Screenwriter Chris Roessner tries his darnedest to avoid the tropes, the careless mistake in a deadly situation, a patrol ambushed, the close-comrade’s wounding/death. But rare is the moment that doesn’t feel cribbed from every Middle East combat picture since “Blackhawk Down.”

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Competent in combat always looks good on film, and Flanagan (a Scottish star of “Sons of Anarchy”) does a good job of suggesting a man at ease with leadership in the field. Hoult isn’t bad at dragging us along on this inevitable, predictable story arc, truth be told.

But whatever he picked up on “Narcos,” Coimbra gets lost, as do we, in a sea of dust, sand, camouflage and combat. It’s a colorless picture where characters, even Hoult in the firefight scenes, are indistinguishable from each other.

Like the Army itself, they are but generic cogs in a vast machine, only they’re cogs in a combat movie that’s as generic as they come.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with combat violence, profanity
Cast:  Nicholas Hoult, Henry Cavill, Tommy Flanagan
Credits: Directed by Fernando Coimbra, written by Chris Roessner. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52

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Movie Review: “The Promise” is unkept

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Period piece romances set against the turmoil of war. They all start out as “Doctor Zhivago,” they all end up as “The English Patient” — or worse.

“The Promise” is a World War I love triangle tale set during Turkey’s Armenian Genocide. It has entirely too much going for it to dismiss it outright, like say “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” a Turkish-backed triangle whose bigger aim was to take the heat off the Turks for committing modern history’s first ethnic holocaust.

Oscar nominee Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) is the star, playing Mikael, a young rural Armenian who sets out for Constantinople just before World War I. He will study medicine, “do us proud,” his family declares. He is engaged to a woman (Angela Sarafyan) he will “grow to love.” He is to live with the family of a rich uncle in the city. They have an Armenian nanny raised in France. And since Ana played by French gamine-of-the-moment Charlotte Le Bon (“The Hundred Foot Journey”), we know where this is headed.

I mean, aside from the fate that awaits Armenians when Turkey is drawn into World War I. And aside from the fact that Ana is deeply involved with the hard-drinking, outspoken American reporter (Christian Bale) who is in the right place at the right time to be a witness to, and for, history.

When the war broke out, scholarship shows that the Ottoman Empire’s somewhat tolerated (but politically isolated) Armenian Christian minority had high hopes that their Russian cousins (who invaded, and were turned back) or British Empire would improve their lot. The Turks took out their rage on Armenians with riots and massacres and forced death marches. They called it a civil war, and in the movie, Turkish officials don’t even admit that to reporter Chris Myers. But it was a genocide, an attempt to exterminate an entire race.

And as Myers is drinking and traveling and witnessing all this and trying not to be executed by Turkish troops, Mikael is stealing his girl. Except he can’t, because, you know, back home, he made “The Promise.” His mother (the formidable Shohreh Agdashloo) won’t let him forget it.

Numan Acar is the rich, entitled Turk whom Mikael tries to help through medical school. But Mustafa’s imperious father, Faruk Pasha, is of the “Armenians are a tumor in our midst” persuasion. Mikael has to learn, as Myers drunkenly tells him, that he’s the “resident infidel — the first to go when the war breaks out.”

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Director and co-writer (with Robin “Memoirs of a Geisha” Swicord) Terry George, of “Hotel Rwanda” fame, tries to get it all in — the death marches, massacres, forced labor camps.

Tom Hollander has a showy cameo as a concentration camp circus clown. “I used to make the children laugh.”  That’s a reference to the way Jerry Lewis trivialized the Holocaust in “The Day the Clown Cried.” Jean Reno has a cameo as a French Navy captain.  Veteran character actor Rade Serbedzija plays an Armenian elder who organizes resistance to the Turks as he leads his people to safety.

The best you can say about the whole agglomeration is that it’s an over-reach. The love stories get short shrift when they try to cram all that history in. And the history gets short shrift whenever we turn back to the love story, with its tortured loyalties, tests of friendship and unemotional “promise.”

Bale, who starred in “The Flowers of War,” as an American caught up in the Japanese “Rape of Nanking,” brings fair value and high-mindedness to a cliche character, and Isaac gamely gives Mikael a go.

You can see why lots of good people got involved. Ben Kingsley and Josh Hartnett lent their star power to “The Ottoman Lieutenant” for similar reasons, no doubt. It’s a big story, a not-quite-forgotten piece of history. It needs illumination.

But “The Promise,” despite its battles, its vivid recreation of the last days of Constantinople (renamed Istanbul), its historical sweep,despite a very good cast, never feels “epic” and rarely do its romantically drawn characters draw us into their romance and their tragedy.

It all combines to make us a promise it never keeps.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and for some sexuality
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlotte LeBon, Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, James Cromwell, Jean Reno
Credits: Directed by Terry George, written by Terry George and Robin Swicord. An Open Road release.
Running time: 2:12

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Easter Box Office: Will we ever get past “Furious”?

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Another opening weekend, another epic turnout for another “Fast and the Furious” film.

Jeebus, what’s it going to take for “you people” to get over this damned franchise? Eight films, a new villain (and an Oscar winner,this time) and you show up, expecting things to be different? $100 million Easter weekend for “The Fate of the Furious.”

I had a modest interest in a couple of these, always liked Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker, Statham and The Rock. Vin Diesel? Luckiest man in show business. He won’t stop making these until they pry the steering wheel from his cold, dead hands.

Year-long hype, a load of box office draws in the supporting cast (Dwayne Johnson, “here for the paycheck,” Jason Statham,  and for the old folks, Kurt Russell. Luke Evans? Nothing better to do?) and a lot of car stunts that involve a lot of digital assistance in defying the laws of physics. Same old, same. Old.

These movies are like four-corner check boxes of movie marketing. “Hispanic actors? (biggest share of the audience) Check. Ex-rappers and falling stock African American actors? Check. Another generation of hot new ‘starlets’ to stand next to the cars? Check. Asian actors? Well, not this time. But again. And soon. Can Donnie Yen drive?”

I come for the cars, the vintage ones are my favorites. But once they took Rodriguez out of that Jensen Interceptor, that was enough for me. Even though there’s are an Aston, Bentley, Rolls and Lada and Lambo in this one. An old Chevy or three (’60s Corvette), that tasty ’70 or so Dodge Charger. But Car Porn. Just say no, people.

Anyway, $100 million (US) is a 50% drop off from the last Paul Walker “Fast,” so there’s hope. The franchise is so top heavy at this point that any plummet in the take the second weekend means the “next” one could be in jeopardy. All those actors, all those locations and all those effects cost money, international take be damned.

Meanwhile, not to get all high road on Universal, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” remake is closing in on $500 million, “Boss Baby” is well over $100 million in the US.

“Smurfs” officially bombed, in the US. “Get Out” looks as if its final take will be in the $175 million range, which is outstanding.

“Power Rangers” won’t reach $100, “Gifted” opened wider and still only hit the $3 million mark, “Going in Style” didn’t tear the AARP set away from Fox News, “Case for Christ” is slow to fall off, but one week past Easter, it will lose screens and fade. It should clear $10, but no more than $14.

 

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Movie Review: “The Case for Christ” gets tossed out of court

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Dry, unemotional and — considering the subject matter — uninspiring, Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” is a faith-based drama about one atheist’s research-driven conversion to Christianity.

It’s got a great hook. An accomplished, skeptical journalist investigates the “case” for Jesus dying on the cross, and rising from the dead, as a means of turning his just-found-Jesus wife away from religion.

But the film, based on Strobel’s book, is so emotionally flat and slow that it forces you to pick up on its ridiculous circular logic and pick apart the half-hearted “reporting” and questioning its hero undertakes. The “case” he makes is seriously unconvincing.

In the film, Strobel (Mike Vogel of “The Help” and TV’s “Under the Dome”) is a rising star at the 1980s Chicago Tribune, top dog on the paper’s reporting on Ford’s exploding gas-tank econo-box, the Pinto. He even got a book out of it.

At a celebratory dinner, his daughter (Haley Rosenwasser) almost chokes to death. A nurse, dining at the restaurant, intervenes. 

But don’t credit Nurse Alfie Davis (L. Scott Caldwell). “Jesus” did it, she insists. And Mrs. Strobel (one-and-only “Swimfan” Erika Christiansen) believes her. She doesn’t believe in coincidences, or in the odds that a crowded restaurant in big city would have one person who knows the Heimlich maneuver.

Lee cannot accept her rejection of their shared atheism. And taking guidance from a fellow skeptic on the newspaper staff (Brett Rice) and an editor/believer (Mike Pniewski), decides to follow the edict taped to the newsroom wall.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

And then he makes his first misstep. He lets the believer on staff define the parameters of the story. Debunk the Resurrection, “and the whole thing falls like a house of cards,” he is told. So that’s where he hunts.

“Experts” throw figures like “there were 500 different witnesses” to the dead Jesus returning to life, according to “ancient texts.” Unlike Homer’s “The Iliad,” (a spurious comparison), there are thousands of those texts, all hearsay dating from some time after the events described. And while the movie has Strobel blurt out “Just because I write something and bury it in dirt doesn’t make it true,” and pays lip service to whether they’re “reliable” eyewitness accounts (all women) or not, that’s a weaselly way of avoiding the real questions.

The movie Strobel explores assorted skeptic hypotheses, the favorite ones cited by Christian apologists. The “Swoon Theory” (Jesus wasn’t dead, he fainted and woke up) takes a whipping, courtesy of a doctor/scientist (Tom Nowicki of “The Blind Side”). “Mass psychosis” among these witnesses is dismissed by a famous psychologist (Oscar winner Faye Dunaway).

And Dr. Waters doesn’t leave it there (or explain, for instance, the “mass psychosis” of thousands who testify that they’ve been abducted and probed by aliens, for example). Do you have Daddy issues, she wants to know? Because all the great skeptics (as defined by the movie’s Christian apologists) did! Attack the fellow asking the hard questions, why don’t you?

Well, sure, Strobel says. He’s semi-estranged from his dad (Robert Forster). And the “arrogant” reporter, given to drinking and flying off the handle about sharing his wife with Jesus, is about to wreck his marriage over this as well. That’s another trope of such films, the “angry” committed atheist.

But what’s any of that got to do with rounding up the provable and separating it from the un-provable or provably false?

A parallel story follows Strobel’s blundering into a crime story where he reached his conclusion before thoroughly finishing the reporting. That’s one of the ways he convinces himself that he’s been looking at this Christianity thing all wrong, that “mind already made up” thing.

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But that’s not logical. Reporters make mistakes, but botching that story doesn’t “prove” the false conclusion of another. And “The Case for Christ” is riddled with such fallacious reasoning.  The mini-debates here sound like versions of the climate change “debate,” where one side is operating with facts and the other is forever barking, “case CLOSED,” based on this or that not-quite-germane theory or assertion or gut feeling.

“Case” is a movie built on straw men. That’s a classic propaganda/PR trick where you win an argument by defining the other point of view according to your own prejudices. Goebbels, O’Reilly and Limbaugh are famous for this.  False equivalencies and phony syllogisms abound.

The film makes astute, unimpeachable observations about people who find Jesus in times of crisis — a tragedy or near tragedy or a big mistake (See Colson, Chuck).

But Strobel’s book and the movie based on it limit the parameters of the debate in an effort to fix the outcome of that debate. Strobel’s pre-Internet hunt for experts is circumscribed. He maintains that as a reporter they were telling him what he didn’t want to hear. Balderdash. These are cherry-picked authorities. The man made a fortune and built a family business out of this “Case,” but pointing that out isn’t fair, is it? See how that works?

There are plenty of modern scientist debunkers, but the best his fellow skeptic/editor/mentor can toss out is Bertrand Russell? I was shocked the movie waited almost two hours before trotting out that favorite Christian apologist of them all, C.S. Lewis, an academic who knew a good fairytale when he read one, or published one.

Vogel’s performance lacks spark, or much of anything beyond a lovely 1980 vintage mane of hair. Christiansen seems a little lost, searching for the pathos of this woman. She manages scenes calling for a scolding tone, but nothing with any heart built into it pays off. The Jon Gunn (“Like Dandelion Dust”) direction is perfunctory, by-the-numbers and slack.

The historical Jesus is fascinating to many, and each reference and tidbit discovered about his real life by legitimate, credentialed researchers adds to the picture that a book pieced together from oral histories, written and re-written and edited by committee hundreds of years after his death falls short of delivering.

Let’s leave The Council of Nicea out of this, shall we? No sense muddying the waters. Strobel was a reporter, used to dealing with editors and seeing texts altered by committee, compromised, changed to fit expediencies of what is known or what will get you sued. He never made the leap to “They were this political group compiling this book hundreds of years after the events depicted in it, based on oral traditions altered and finagled to fit dogma?”

 

The mists of time conceal much, which benefits every religion (save Scientology and Mormonism). Faith is meant to fill in the blanks that hard, factual truths leave can’t reveal. Biblical literalists trip over this time and again. Why waste energy and credibility trying to “prove” that which cannot be proven and has never been duplicated in recent (more documentable) history? The Shroud of Turin? Seriously? If your faith is strong, why try to twist “facts” to make these homilies, life lessons and sermons more than they provably are?

The tropes it trots out, the arguments it repeats, the circular logic that it relies on, make the movie feel like one we’ve already seen. “The Case for Christ” won’t convert any critical thinker, but more disappointingly, it fails as faith-based entertainment. It’s a house of cards built to defend a house of cards, with meek-inheriting the Earth acting in the bargain.

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MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including medical descriptions of crucifixion, and incidental smoking

Cast: Erika Christiansen, Robert Forster, Faye Dunaway, Rus Blackwell, Tom Nowicki

Credits: Directed by Jon Gunn, script by Brian Bird, based on the Lee Strobel book. A Pure Flix release.

Running time: 1:52

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Movie Review: “Gifted” leans heavily on cute charm

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The formula for movies about “special” kids is given a clever flip on its head with “Gifted,” a cuter-than-cute comedy about a very smart child and the people wrestling over control of her future.

Usually, the parent figure is over-matched, somebody who needs to be convinced their child is brilliant. See “Little Man Tate.” Catch the upcoming “The Book of Henry.”

And Frank (Chris Evans), the marine mechanic/father-figure to young Mary (the precocious Mckenna Grace) absolutely, positively REFUSES to let educators use the “G” word about his young ward.

But it’s not because he’s not smart enough to know “gifted” when he sees it. It turns out, he’s a well-educated deep thinker who home-schooled her until he saw the need for her to socialize, “try being a kid,” grow up to “have compassion for others.” It turns out, she’s the child of a math prodigy, grandchild of other top flight academics.

Frank’s fight for Mary, and with her teacher (Jenny Slate), her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) and the courts, is over Mary’s one shot at having a balanced “normal” life. His mother knows “the price you pay for greatness.” Frank isn’t willing to make Mary pay it.

Evans has such a light charm about him that it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t found more for him to do outside of thrillers and tights-wearing comic book pictures. As “the quiet, damaged hot guy” in this Florida coastal town (that looks like Georgia, because it is), Evans’ Frank rarely loses his cool, never hits a laugh line too hard.

Mary’s fretting over being sentenced to regular elementary school, but Frank has a winning argument. “You’re gonna meet kids today you can borrow money from for the rest of your live.”

Director Marc Webb of “(500) Days of Summer” gives Slate an earthy warmth through her young teacher wardrobe and some incredibly revealing close-ups. Bonnie, the teacher, is put-off by the rude kid who is disrupting her class, and plainly rattled when she challenges Mary with math problems the seven-year-old can do in her head.

With one look, Slate gets across Bonnie’s memory of her higher calling. She will find extra work for Mary. She will pay a little extra attention to her. She will bond with the brilliant, mouthy brat. And  she will talk to “Dad” (actually uncle) and try to convince him of what she sees as the right way forward.

Mckenna is capably adorable as something of an impertinent caricature of a gifted child, and she’s not alone in the “caricature as cast member” in “Gifted.” Mary’s profanity and wise-beyond-her-years impatience and compassion are meant to buttress the film’s most troubling thesis — the “nature over nurture” thing. Mary’s mal-adjustments aren’t limited to rudeness. She’s not above defending the bullied and praising classmates whose work she recognizes as superior. Yes, she “learned” that. Somehow.

Duncan’s British-born Eastern elite grandmother is so broadly drawn as to be laughably arch. Why not give her a mustache to twirl?

Conversely, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer‘s Earth Mama neighbor, teaching the little girl to sing along with the greats of Soul music, is entirely too on the nose. Love Octavia, but this role gives her nothing but likability and a paycheck.

Evans is convincingly rugged, convincingly smart and convincingly wearied from the weight of deciding this child’s future. But Webb seriously lets him down in the “boat mechanic” scene. Watch Evans vigorously work a screwdriver on a power boat, keeping his hands, the product placement outboard motor (It can’t actually be BROKEN, can it? That would entail taking off the engine cover.) and Mckenna in the frame of the shot.

He’s screw-drivering empty air. There’s nothing on a boat to screw, hammer or wrench within his reach.

But Evans is so lovable you understand why a child would climb him like a jungle gym. He has an ease about him that almost makes you forgive the movie’s first HUGE misstep. Yeah, it involves his child’s teacher and sex. Like so much else about “Gifted,” that’s pre-ordained and easily guessed.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material
Cast: Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Lindsay Duncan
Credits: Directed by Marc Webb, written by Tom Flynn. A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:41

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Movie Review: Anime tells a moving, thrilling story in “Your Name.”

your-name-2

An interesting thought experiment I apply to every animated film I see is “Did they NEED to animate this story to tell it?” What justifies telling the story this way?

The vast majority of animated movies pass that test. But the anime marvel “Your Name.” gives that premise a severe workout. For much of its length, Makoto Shinkai’s movie, based on his novel, is a quirky Japanese body-switch comedy.

Mitsuha (voiced by Mone Kamisharaishi) is a small town girl who wakes up in the body of a Tokyo boy, Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki). And the script has these naive, pimply teens reacting in ways we’ve seen in such “classics” as “Switch.”

The virginal Taki cannot believe he has “boobies,” and in Mitsuha’s body, Mitsuha’s sister is constantly interrupting “him” having his first grope.

Mitsuha is similarly shocked at what’s below her waistline. “I have to PEE” has never seemed, um, sadder.

But Shinkai’s tale takes on layers of meaning and explanation, and a modern means of communication. There’s magic in “twilight time,” by Japanese tradition. A comet is making a close pass by Earth.

And as these confused kids keep waking up, one day in their own skin, the next day in somebody else’s, they’re not just alarming their peers and parent figures. They’re determined to find answers.

A “Memento” touch. They magic marker their real name onto the hand of whoever’s body they’re in. An iPhone era twist. They can check phone logs, and one of them keeps a cloud diary on his phone. The mystery starts to unravel.

But Shinkai never spoon-feeds us the details, never over-explains what’s happening. You pick it up by paying attention, just like the protagonists.

“We’re switching places in our dreams!”

Maybe.

The plot twists into something more pulse-pounding as each figures out that they’re not just connected by body, disconnected by distance. There’s a time element, a ticking clock. That comet is a threat.

The body-switching gives Taki a “feminine side” that appeals to a sexy older employee at the restaurant where he works. Mitsuha, a mousy, put-upon mayor’s daughter, finds the masculine bravado to take baby steps, and assertive steps, when that comet threat is revealed.

And every morning’s forgetting means that there’s less and less of a chance that each will actually find the other.

Anime has a distinct, stereotypical look — wide-eyed urchins, bright, detailed water-colored imagery, slightly jerky movement and legions of Japanese school girls in their short-skirted uniforms.

“Your name.” stands out for its marvelously sketched-in views of modern Japanese life, of the city mouse/country mouse mores and traditional gender roles (donning the makeup of the Noh theater for dance enactments in a village festival).

Shinkai did not need to animate this. The big special effects are perfectly manageable in any Hollywood thriller.

But the shimmering, layered water (glistening splashes of added-light in the foreground of the scenes), the uncluttered city and idealized countryside of most anime depictions of Japan serve the film well.

There’s never been much more than a fringe audience for anime in the U.S., which suggests that Hollywood might not be long in taking a live-action shot at this story. But whatever the budget, whoever the stars, they’ll have to go some ways to top the magic managed by artists and their brushes spelling out “Your name.”

3half-star

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, suggestive content, brief language, and smoking
Cast: Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryûnosuke Kamiki
Credits: Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, English script by Clark Cheng. A FUNanimation release.
Running time: 1:46

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