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3 stars

After getting through the hackneyed “man leaves wife and daughter to go to the sea” introduction, made more unpleasant by the spunky, Nickelodeonesque cutie pie daughter of oil rig safety engineer Mark Wahlberg and wife Kate Hudson, Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor, Patriot’s Day)  disaster flick settles down nicely.  The pace is taut, the action gripping, the explanation of foreign concepts effective, and the clash of personalities (true blue safety guys Wahlberg and Kurt Russell versus corporate, dollar-watching rig manager John Malkovich) not too heavy-handed.  A decent expenditure of time, but as my daughter remarked, probably better delivered as a documentary.

The movie hewed pretty close to the facts, but, incredibly, left one off that perhaps seemed to incredible to portray:  college kids were fishing under the rig when it blew up.

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With the weather becoming depressingly cold, on Friday night, my wife and I decided to stay in, order Chinese, and watch something mindless. We could not have asked for a better choice than this picture. The backstory takes about six minutes. We, the United States, bomb the wrong Middle Eastern family, who, for matters of what I presumed to be political correctness, are not radical jihadists, but rather, generic arms dealers who sow misery and discord wherever and whenever they can. Our chickens come home to roost several years later, when the family unleashes their long planned assault – a decapitation of world leadership at the state funeral for a British prime minister in London. Our own president (Aaron Eckhart) and his Secret Service superman (Gerard Butler) are trapped in the besieged capital, and it is up to Butler to extract the president in the face of what appears to be hundreds of bad guys.

Whatever concerns I had about excessive political correctness were quickly dashed by the character of Butler. In one instance, just before killing a bad guy, he screams at him “go back to Fuckheadistan.” In another instance, he tortures the brother of the primary bad guy, while the primary bad guy listens in via cell phone. After shoving his knife in the brother’s  stomach several times with a cruel twist, the president says to him “was that really necessary?” Butler responds “no.”

When Butler delivers the final coup, he prefaces it with a speech that is jingoistic, excessive, and hilariously satisfying.

“You know what you assholes don’t get? We’re not a fucking building! We’re not a fucking flag! We’re not just one man! Assholes like you have been trying to kill us for a long fucking time. But you know what? A thousand years from now, we’ll still fucking be here!”

Hoorah!!!

Yes, it is stupid, but it is also an exciting, well executed escape flick, with a lot of ingenious stunts, a cool re-creation of the destruction of London, and little attempt at what would otherwise be a cardboard and time-wasting story.

Full disclosure: I’m leery of space alien movies where the aliens are non-threatening, such as Contact or Close Encounters (when they are hostile, at least you know there will be action).  I don’t know anything about the aliens, the genre doesn’t lend itself to backstory, and I have tired of the persistent trope of the dewy-eyed scientist versus the steely militarist.   Add to that prejudice my own limitations of imagination and intelligence  – space-time continuum fare has the same effect on me as the math part of the SAT (“C, C, C, C, C, C . . . “) – and you have what you need before reading my take on Arrival.

It’s not bad.  Amy Adams is effective as the grief-stricken linguist brought in to communicate with aliens who hover above the earth, causing worldwide panic, and Jeremy Renner plays her colleague with some verve and the appropriate amount of dew in his eyes.  As the stern military liaison, Forest Whitaker surprises us all by under-acting, and the plot is, at times, engrossing.

It’s not all good either.  It is a dark, dreary film; it gives us the process of communication-through-translation without a shared form of discourse, which is both admirably ambitious and a little boring; and it can be lazy (there is an entirely underdeveloped subplot involving a treasonous act that comes completely out of nowhere; the idea that Sudan and Sierre-Leone have militaries capable of doing much to the aliens is hilarious; and the geopolitical moralizing – “can’t we all just get along?” – silly).

I sense, however that this is a smart film, and likely too smart for me.

No one does Americana better than Arkansan writer-director Jeff Nichols. Shotgun Stories and Mud are monuments to understatement and authenticity. He has a unique ability to convey the lazy currents rural life as well as its plain-spoken and direct dialogue. None of it comes off as a posture or a condescension.

These qualities are found in Midnight Special, a story of a boy kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon) away from the clutches of a religious compound in Texas. Soon, however, the federal government gets involved, and that’s where Nichols loses his way. The story morphs into the supernatural, the genesis of which is never fully explained, and the visual payoff – a world within our own that arises in Louisiana – is jarringly cheesy (I was reminded a little of The Abyss, James Cameron’s gripping underwater yarn, which was undone by the silliest representation of aliens you ever saw).

Still, I recommend the picture for the quiet moments and the care Nichols takes with both characters and milieu.

Kevin Reynolds was a big deal at exactly the same time Kevin Costner was a bankable lead, directing or helping Costner out in massive budget fare like Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood (they fell out over Waterworld, with Reynolds remarking that Costner “should only act in movies he directs. That way, he can work with his favorite actor and director”).   It’s been a decade since Reynolds last helmed a Hollywood feature, but with Risen, he manages several minor victories that amount to a pretty compelling religious/historical procedural.

Jesus is on the cross and Pontius Pilate’s right-hand tribune, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is dispatched to hurry the process and smooth out the disposal of the body. When that body disappears, due it seems to the drunken inattention of Clavius’ guards, the politics of the situation (a pressed Pilate, furious Pharisees) finds Clavius embarking on an investigation and a manhunt for the apostles. In an era when big budgets and sweep are expected in “mere” television (see Game of Thrones), Reynolds does a nice job of minimizing the scope of the film while projecting authenticity. Shot on location in Malta and Spain for $20 million, the picture looks right.

Reynolds also effectively communicates the religious message (the previews for Risen include numerous films that share a common Christian theme that God is here, with us, saving kids from illnesses, showing them heaven, etc.) Naturally, Clavius has his own religious conversion, but it is not a momentous, eyes-shimmering thing.  Fiennes is understated and quite moving as he grapples with what he cannot believe. While the end is anticlimactic (Jesus appears to his disciples and then he’s off), it had to be, unless we were going to follow those apostles to their eventual, gruesome ends (11 of the 12 died ugly; only John died of natural causes).

It’s not perfect.  The script is a little thin and the one battle scene between the Romans and the Zealots feels tiny, but all-in-all, this is a game effort.

Semi-compelling in its melding of the English countryside circa 1812 and brain-eating undead, this film has its moments.   In particular, Matthew Smith (an old Dr. Who) as Parson Collins and Lena Headey (Ceirse Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Lady Catherine de Bourgh get the joke, stealing every scene they are in with wink and nod mugging that acknowledges the levity of this venture. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast actually seems to be struggling with the delivery of Jane Austen in the middle of a zombie outbreak and choose to treat the latter as a catastrophe that demands some degree of solemnity. Worse, director Burr Steers finds it necessary to inject the tiresome physicality of a kung-fu movie, which is one ingredient too many for the stew. Still, this is pretty decent fun.

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In the vein of “awful people who became awful because they suffered childhood trauma” family drama movies, this one is not half bad. That’s mainly due to Adam Scott, who is one of the more versatile and under-appreciated actors working today.  Scott plays the damaged, stuck in the hometown older brother who picks up his younger brother and the brother’s girlfriend from college and proceeds to fall in love with the latter. Scott is a depressive, an alternately cruel and then apologetic anti-hero, who maligns the girlfriend as a whore who will hurt his naive little brother. The problem is that she succumbs to his damaged entreaties, thus partially cementing his earlier uncharitable appraisal.

There is the obligatory childhood trauma and the big reveal, and it could all be so pat, except for Scott’s ability to communicate real suffering and writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s insistence on taking these characters seriously instead of using them as charming archetypes to condescend to the audience. More to the credit, there is no wrap-up or deeper understanding. It starts messy and ends up hopeful but still messy, which is commendable.

There are problems.  The hometown is overpopulated by distinctive characters, the father (J.K. Simmons) is too seminal to be so underdeveloped and the hipster soundtrack is now so obligatory it borders on self-parody.  Still, a worthwhile watch on a rainy Saturday.  Thanks, Xmastime.