Film Review: A Dog’s Way Home (dir by Charles Martin Smith)


I’ll admit it right now.  I’ve never really been a dog person.

That’s the way it’s been my entire life.  According to my sisters, I was bitten by a dog when I was two years old.  Needless to say, I don’t remember that happening but that still might explain why, when I was growing up, I was scared to death of dogs.  Seriously, if I was outside and I heard a dog barking or if I saw a dog running around loose (or even on a leash), I would immediately start shaking.  It didn’t help that, for some reason, I always seemed to run into the big dogs that wanted to jump and slobber all over me.  (“Don’t be scared,” one dog owner shouted at 10 year-old me, “that’ll just make him more wild,” as if it was somehow my responsibility to keep his dog under control.)

As I grew up, I become less scared of dogs but they still definitely make me nervous.  I still cringe when listening to the barking and I still reflexively step back whenever I see a big dog anywhere near me.  Now that I know more about dogs, I have to admit that I feel a little bit guilty about not liking them more.  Knowing that dogs actually blame themselves for me not liking them is kind of heart-breaking and I have been making more of an effort to be, if nothing else, at least polite to the canines who lives in the neighborhood.  That said, I’m a cat person and I’ll always be cat person.  Cats don’t care if you like them or not nor do they blame themselves if you’re in a bad mood, which is lot less of an emotional responsibility to deal with.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I still enjoyed A Dog’s Way Home.  It’s a family film that was released last January, dealing with an adorable dog named Bella.  Bella (whose thoughts are heard courtesy of a Bryce Dallas Howard voice-over) is raised underneath an abandoned building by a cat.  (“Mother cat!” Bella shouts as the audiences goes, “Awwwwwww!”)  When the building is demolished by an unscrupulous businessman, Bella is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King).  Lucas works at the VA and Bella is soon a hit with everyone from the patients to Lucas’s mom (Ashley Judd).  In fact, the only people who don’t love Bella are the corrupt animal control people.  They not only declare Bella to be a pit bull but they also say that it’s illegal for her to live in Denver.

In order to keep the city of Denver from putting Bella down, Lucas and his mom make plans to move to a suburb.  However, until they can move, they arrange for Bella to stay at friend’s house, 400 miles away.  Bella doesn’t understand what’s happening.  She just wants to get back home to Lucas.  And, when she hears someone utter the words “go home,” this leads to Bella attempting to do just that.  Escaping from her temporary home, Bella spends the next two years making her way to her real home.

Along the way, of course, Bella has adventures.  For instance, she discovers that humans really suck sometimes.  When a cougar is killed by hunters, Bella adopts and raises the cougar’s child.  (Bella calls her “Little Kitten” and then, after a few months pass, “Big Kitten.”)  She also discovers that sometimes, humans can be okay, like when she’s temporarily adopted by a couple who love her but who just aren’t Lucas.  And, when she’s temporarily the property of a homeless man, Bella learns about the comfort that a pet can bring to someone in need….

There’s nothing surprising about the film but it’s well-done and, like Bella itself, blessed with a genuinely sweet nature.  (I started crying about five minutes into the film and I teared up several times afterwards.)  Though the corrupt animal control officers seem like they stepped out of a bad Disney film from the 60s, the rest of the cast does a pretty good job of bringing some needed sincerity to even the most sentimental of scenes and it’s impossible not to be touched by Bella’s determination to return to Lucas.  It’s a sweet movie, one that can be enjoyed even by someone who isn’t much of a dog person.

The SAG Nominations are here and … Hello there, Captain Fantastic!


captain-fantasticEarlier the year, I choose not to see Captain Fantastic.  Every bit of advertising that I saw for it led me to believe that Captain Fantastic was basically just Wes Anderson-lite and, as we all know, only Wes Anderson can successfully duplicate Wes Anderson.

Well, I think I may have made a mistake because Viggo Mortensen is definitely in the hunt for best actor.  Though most of the precursor awards (so far) have gone to Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea, Mortensen still seems like a likely nominee.

Just consider this: he got a SAG nomination!  And so did Captain Fantastic, itself!  It was nominated for best ensemble, which is the SAG equivalent of best picture…

Actually, maybe you shouldn’t spend too much time fixating on that.  People like me always talk about how the SAG awards are an obvious precursor for the Oscars.  Our logic is that the Actor’s Branch is the largest voting bloc in the Academy and the members of the Actor’s Branch are among those who also vote for the SAG awards.

Of course, we always forget that the majority of SAG members are themselves not a part of the Academy.  So, while enough members of SAG may have liked Captain Fantastic for it to get an unexpected ensemble nomination, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those voters are also members of the Academy.

I mean, let’s consider what happened last year.  Beasts of No Nation picked up an ensemble nomination.   So did Straight Outta Compton.  So did Trumbo.  None of those films proved to be an Oscar powerhouse.  In fact, Beasts of No Nation received a grand total of zero Oscar nominations.

So, let’s put it like this — it’s a good sign for a film or a performer to get a SAG nomination.  But there’s still no guarantee that it will translate into Oscar recognition. Captain Fantastic may have been nominated and La La Land was snubbed (for ensemble).  But I imagine that the reverse will happen when the Oscar noms are announced in January.

With all that in mind, here are the SAG nominations!

FILM

Best Film Ensemble
“Captain Fantastic”
“Fences”
“Hidden Figures”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Moonlight”

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”
Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”
Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Best Actress
Amy Adams, “Arrival”
Emily Blunt, “The Girl on the Train”
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
Emma Stone, “La La Land”
Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”
Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
Dev Patel, “Lion”

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, “Fences”
Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”
Nicole Kidman, “Lion”
Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”

Best Stunt Ensemble
“Captain America: Civil War”
“Doctor Strange”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Jason Bourne”
“Nocturnal Animals”

TV

Best Comedy Ensemble
“The Big Bang Theory”
“Black-ish”
“Modern Family”
“Orange is the New Black”
“Veep”

Best Comedy Actor
Anthony Anderson, “Black-ish”
Titus Burgess, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Ty Burrell, “Modern Family”
William H. Macy, “Shameless”
Jeffrey Tambor, “Transparent”

Best Comedy Actress
Uzo Aduba, “Orange is the New Black”
Jane Fonda, “Grace & Frankie”
Ellie Kemper, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Lily Tomlin, “Grace & Frankie”

Best Drama Ensemble
“The Crown”
“Downton Abbey”
“Game of Thrones”
“Stranger Things”
“Westworld”

Best Drama Actor
Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”
John Lithgow, “The Crown”
Rami Malek, “Mr. Robot”
Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

Best Drama Actress
Millie Bobby Brown, “Stranger Things”
Claire Foy, “The Crown”
Thandie Newton, “Westworld”
Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”
Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

Best Movie/Miniseries Actor
Riz Ahmed, “The Night Of”
Sterling K. Brown, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”
Bryan Cranston, “All The Way”
John Turturro, “The Night Of”
Courtney B Vance, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”

Best Movie/Miniseries Actress
Bryce Dallas Howard, “Black Mirror”
Felicity Huffman, “American Crime”
Audra McDonald, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill”
Sarah Paulson, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”
Kerry Washington, “Confirmation”

Best Stunt Ensemble
“Game of Thrones”
“Daredevil”
“Luke Cage”
“The Walking Dead”
“Westworld”

Mad Max: Fury Road dominates the 21st Annual Critics Choice Nominations!


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It’s been a busy few days as far as the Oscar precursors are concerned.  Let’s see how quickly I can get us caught up.  First off, the 21st Annual Critics Choice nominations were announced yesterday and Mad Max: Fury Road totally dominated them!

And you know what that means — its time to say that the Critics Choice nominations are …. MAD ABOUT MAX!

Anyway, here are the nominations!

BEST PICTURE
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn

Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Sicario
Spotlight

BEST ACTOR
Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Matt Damon – The Martian
Johnny Depp – Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
Tom Hardy – The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight

Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
Helen Mirren – Trumbo
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS
Abraham Attah – Beasts of No Nation
RJ Cyler – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Shameik Moore – Dope
Milo Parker – Mr. Holmes
Jacob Tremblay – Room

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
The Big Short
The Hateful Eight
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton
Trumbo

BEST DIRECTOR
Todd Haynes – Carol
Alejandro González Iñárritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott – The Martian
Steven Spielberg – Bridge of Spies

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen – Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland – Ex Machina
Quentin Tarantino – The Hateful Eight
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley – Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay – The Big Short
Nick Hornby – Brooklyn
Drew Goddard – The Martian
Emma Donoghue – Room
Aaron Sorkin – Steve Jobs

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Carol – Ed Lachman
The Hateful Eight – Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
The Martian – Dariusz Wolski
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Sicario – Roger Deakins

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Bridge of Spies – Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo
Brooklyn – François Séguin, Jennifer Oman and Louise Tremblay
Carol – Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler
The Danish Girl – Eve Stewart, Michael Standish
Mad Max: Fury Road – Colin Gibson
The Martian – Arthur Max, Celia Bobak

BEST EDITING
The Big Short – Hank Corwin
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
The Martian – Pietro Scalia
The Revenant – Stephen Mirrione
Spotlight – Tom McArdle

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Brooklyn – Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Carol – Sandy Powell
Cinderella – Sandy Powell
The Danish Girl – Paco Delgado
Mad Max: Fury Road – Jenny Beavan

BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
Black Mass
Carol
The Danish Girl
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Ex Machina
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
The Walk

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

BEST ACTION MOVIE
Furious 7
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Sicario

BEST ACTOR IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Daniel Craig – Spectre
Tom Cruise – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Tom Hardy – Mad Max: Fury Road
Chris Pratt – Jurassic World
Paul Rudd – Ant-Man

BEST ACTRESS IN AN ACTION MOVIE
Emily Blunt – Sicario
Rebecca Ferguson – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Bryce Dallas Howard – Jurassic World
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST COMEDY
The Big Short
Inside Out
Joy
Sisters
Spy
Trainwreck

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
Christian Bale – The Big Short
Steve Carell – The Big Short
Robert De Niro – The Intern
Bill Hader – Trainwreck
Jason Statham – Spy

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
Tina Fey – Sisters
Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Melissa McCarthy – Spy
Amy Schumer – Trainwreck
Lily Tomlin – Grandma

BEST SCI-FI/HORROR MOVIE
Ex Machina
It Follows
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Assassin
Goodnight Mommy
Mustang
The Second Mother
Son of Saul

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Amy
Cartel Land
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
He Named Me Malala
The Look of Silence
Where to Invade Next

BEST SONG
Fifty Shades of Grey – Love Me Like You Do
Furious 7 – See You Again
The Hunting Ground – Til It Happens To You
Love & Mercy – One Kind of Love
Spectre – Writing’s on the Wall
Youth – Simple Song #3

BEST SCORE
Carol – Carter Burwell
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
The Revenant – Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto
Sicario – Johann Johannsson
Spotlight – Howard Shore

6 Reviews To Help Lisa Get Caught Up: Ant-Man, Cinderella, Jurassic World, Magic Mike XXL, The Man From UNCLE, Terminator: Genisys


So, it’s that time of year!  2015 is nearly over and soon, it will be time for me to make out my best-of and worst-of lists.  That means that now is the time that I look over all the films that I have watched up to this point, I realize how many of those films I have yet to review ,and I think, “Oh my God, how did I get this far behind?”

So, here are 6 capsule reviews, designed to help me get caught up!

Marvel's Ant-Man

Ant-Man (dir by Peyton Reed)

Ant-Man has already been reviewed twice on this site, once by Leonard Wilson and once by Ryan The Trashfilm Guru.  Leonard liked it.  Ryan did not.  As for me, my reaction was somewhere in between.  I enjoyed Ant-Man, though not as much as I’ve enjoyed some of the previous Marvel films.  Ant-Man was better than the second Thor film but nowhere close to being as good as Captain America: Winter Soldier.

What I did like about Ant-Man were the performances of Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Pena.  I even enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance, which is saying something when you consider the fact that, as of late, Michael Douglas has really been making my skin crawl.  I also thought that the film did a good job creating Ant-Man’s microscopic world, even if I’m still not totally sold on the character as a dynamic hero.  I do wish that the film had a stronger villain.  Corey Stoll is such a good actor and capable of doing so much and it was hard not to regret that he was stuck playing such a generic bad guy.

Cinderella (dir by Kenneth Branagh)

Oh, how I loved Cinderella!  The film, a live-action retelling of the Cinderella story, was a gorgeous fairy tale and a wonderful reminder that a film doesn’t have to be dark and depressing to be good.  (In many ways, Cinderella serves as an antidote to not only Into The Woodsbut countless Tim Burton films as well.)  Lily James is beautiful in the title role, Richard Madden is wonderfully charming as the prince, and Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly cast as the stepmother and the fairy godmother.

Jurassic World (dir by Colin Trevorrow)

Jurassic World was previously reviewed by Ryan the Trashfilm Guru.  I hate to admit it but I was, initially, one of those people who watched Jurassic World and got annoyed because the film was predictable and the script was a bit clunky.  Traditionally (and, if you doubt me, just read my review of Avatar), it bothers me when a film devotes so much time special effects that it can’t seem to be bothered with character development and clever dialogue.

But then I thought about it somewhat and I thought to myself, you know what?  This movie had Chris Pratt and it had some very convincing dinosaurs!  And, especially when it comes to a summer blockbuster, that is sometimes all you need.

(Why I enjoyed Jurassic World while disliking Avatar largely comes down to the difference between Chris Pratt and Sam Worthington.)

Magic Mike XXL (dir by Gregory Jacobs)

Oddly enough, I had the roughly the same reaction to Magic Mike XXL that I had to Jurassic World.  Yes, there are certain things — mostly concerning the film’s script — about which I could nitpick but what’s truly important is that Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, and most of the original cast of Magic Mike is back and they’re stripping again.  Magic Mike XXL is a huge (heh heh) crowd pleaser, a film that delivers exactly what it promises.

Though Steven Soderbergh served as cinematographer for Magic Mike XXL, he did not return to serve as director and perhaps that’s why Magic Mike XXL feels like a far less pretentious film than the first Magic Mike.  Out of the original cast, both Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer both declined to appear in the sequel.  McConaughey is missed, Pettyfer less so.

The Man From UNCLE (dir by Guy Ritchie)

The Man From Uncle is one of the many stylish spy films to be released this year.  Henry Cavill is an American spy, Armie Hammer is a Russian spy, and Hugh Grant is the Englishman who tells them both what to do.  The Man From Uncle was entertaining.  It took place in the 60s, so there was a lot of wonderful retro fashion and the whole movie moved at a nice, breezy pace.  Ultimately — and I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly fair — The Man From UNCLE suffered because it was released in the same year as Kingsman and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  Man From UNCLE was entertaining but rather generic.  At no point did it reach the lunatic high of Kingsman’s Free Bird sequence.

Terminator: Genisys (dir by Alan Taylor)

You can read Ryan’s review of Terminator: Genisys here.  I have to admit that Terminator: Genisys confused the Hell out of me.  Not being a huge fan of the entire Terminator franchise (though, yes, I do know what Skynet is and I have seen the first two films), I do have to admit that I sometimes felt lost while watching Genisys.

But you know what?  If you just sit back and relax and try not to think about the film too much — if you just accept it as an action film and watch for the stunts and the explosions — Terminator: Genisys is not the disaster that many critics made it out to be.  I mean, let’s just be honest here.  Most critics would die before they gave a good review to any film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (Just check out all the negativity that greeted the brilliant zombie film, Maggie.)  After all, Schwarzenegger is an outspoken, confident, cheerfully arrogant Republican and most film critics can only relate to the arrogant part.  (And even then, they don’t ever seem to be very cheerful about it…)  Terminator: Genisys is a well-made and perfectly adequate action film, one that works as long as you don’t spend too much time dwelling on it.  It’s cinematic junk food and there’s nothing wrong with that.

terminator-genisys-super-bowl-ad-debuts

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Jurassic World”


jurassic-world-own-raptors-poster

“Everything old is new again.”

How many times have you heard that one? Well, in the case of the just-released (and record-setting in terms of its worldwide box office take) Jurassic World, it turns out that tired old adage is actually quite true, since director Colin Trevorrow has chosen to hew pretty closely to Steven Spielberg’s original model for this fourth installment in the previously-presumed- moribund franchise extrapolated from the works of Michael Crichton. There’s certainly nothing happening here that one could call overtly “new,” per se, but gosh — it’s been so long since Jurassic Park III  that it all just sorta feels new, ya know?

DLC00020-720x405

CGI technology has come a long way since the original Jurassic Park  made its debut in 1993, as well, and that’s a big factor — maybe even the biggest factor — in this new flick’s by-popcorn-movie-standards “success,” but don’t think that means I’m damning Jurassic World with faint praise. Truth be told, we just got back from seeing it in Imax 3-D and it’s got pretty much everything you’d ever want in a brainless summer thrill ride : superb effects, likable leads, drama, suspense, tension-cutting humor, nicely despicable (sorry, does that even make sense?) villains, and mile-a-minute thrills. My wife and I both left the theater smiling and I ain’t ashamed to admit it.

My only real gripe is one that I knew I’d have going in — Jurassic World continues the morally-questionable trend established at the series’ outset of using kids placed in danger (in this case brothers Zach and Gray, played by Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins, respectively) as its primary focus/narrative crutch, with benevolent adults coming in to save the day (here represented by Chris Pratt’s  “dinosaur wrangler” character Owen, and Bryce Dallas Howard — who, goddamit, Hollywood is bound and determined to make a star out of yet! — as their hitherto- inattentive aunt Claire, who’s one of the park’s big-wigs), and I’m sorry, but if you don’t know why that scenario is inherently creepy to some of us, then you haven’t been paying much attention to the some of the uglier and more salacious rumors about Spielberg’s personal life that have been swirling around for decades now. And that I won’t repeat here. So let’s just move on, shall we?

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In any case, that solitary-but-predictable qualm aside, the fact of the matter is that Jurassic World is expertly-crafted throwaway fun. Not every movie needs to re-invent the wheel to stand out, and Trevorrow wisely has that figured from the outset here. All we want from his big-budget extravaganza is pretty much the same sort of story that had us jumping in our seats all those years ago, and to feel the same sort of “rush of excitement” that we did back then and which the two previous installments in the series just weren’t able to capture. It’s a dinosaur movie, for Christ’s sake, so just give us a shit-load of dinos on the loose and we’re gonna be happy! How hard is that to figure out?

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About the only  wrinkles to the formula here are the introduction of the new genetically-engineered “super-dinosaur” Indominus Rex, and the hare-brained scheme laid out by the villainous Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) to train Velociraptors to be — uhhmmm — super-soldiers for the US army. But rich people with more money than sense employing unscrupulous lackeys and amoral scientists have been a Jurassic staple, in one form or another, from jump, and one might even argue that really smart people doing really dumb things has always been at the heart of these flicks. That’s okay with me if the end result is admittedly disposable fare done with this much gusto, flair, and panache. There are a million and one reasons to write off Jurassic World as derivative, senseless garbage,  sure — but when you’ve got five or six bloodthirsty dinosaurs battling it out for supremacy at the end, I don’t care about any of those intellectual (or, as is more often the case, pseudo-intellectual) arguments. I’m just having a damn good time.

Jurassic World Adds To The Summer Action


JurassicWorld

Was there ever a need for a fourth film in the Jurassic Park franchise? For years many have tried to answer that and projects to get it up and running stalled for need of a director willing to sign on to a franchise that has been passed up by the superhero action tsunami that has hit pop culture.

It is now 2015 and we’re just months away from finally seeing the fruits of over a decade’s worth of labor to bring a fourth Jurassic Park film to the big screen. While it may still have Steven Spielberg attached as executive producer there’s no Joe Johnston anywhere near this fourth film. We have Carl Trevorrow taking the director’s chair with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard taking on the lead roles.

Jurassic World is set to open it’s doors to the world on June 12, 2015 (took them long enough).

What Lisa Marie Watched Last Night: The Help (dir. by Tate Taylor)


I actually watched several things last night, including the season premieres of The Bachelor and Intervention.  However, neither one of those is an Oscar contender.  The Help is, so I decided I better take the time to watch the film via OnDemand.

Why Was I Watching It?

I wasn’t planning on seeing this movie when it first originally opened in theaters because, just based on the trailer, it looked like it would be your typical, terribly self-congratulatory mainstream films.  I’ve seen far too many films that promote the same old stereotypes in the name of progress and tolerance, as if good intentions can make up for bad filmmaking.  But, so many of my girlfriends came to me raving about how much they loved this film and then my Aunt Kate just about disinherited me when I told her I hadn’t seen the movie (or read the book that it’s based on) and eventually I realized that I had to see the film.  Add to that, chances are that this film is going to be an Oscar contender.

What Was It About

In segregated Mississippi, aspiring writer Skeeter (Emma Stone) decides to write book about the life of the African-American maids and nannies who work for her best friends.  After some initial difficulty, she wins the trust of two maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spenser) and gets down to exposing the truth.

What Worked

First off, The Help is a perfect example of a well-made, entertaining mainstream film.  I laughed at the funny parts, I cried at the sad parts, and I thoroughly enjoyed the film, even though it kinda fell apart during the 2nd hour.  There’s a lot of very legitimate issues that you can raise about how the film portrays life in the segregated South but the film itself is entertaining and well-made.

It’s also one the best acted films of 2011 with Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser, and Emma Stone all giving great performances.  Jessica Chastain is funny playing a clueless newlywed and Bryce Dallas Howard does a typically good job playing the type of bitchy Queen Bee that we’ve all know and  have all secretly hoped would end up fat and divorced.  I also thought Allison Janney, who plays Stone’s mother, gave an excellent and underrated performance.

This film was directed with a perfect eye for the details needed to make even the most minor of characters memorable.  If nothing else, I enjoyed watching it just to see what everyone would be wearing from scene to scene.

The film’s first hour is probably as perfectly paced and tonally balanced as any film I’ve seen.  However, things fall apart during the second hour (more on that below).  Luckily, the film’s ending is powerful and partially redeems the film’s uneven tone.

What Didn’t Work

The film is moves along pretty well until the 2nd hour, at which point it smashed into a wall created by the inability of mainstream film to truly honestly deal with racism.  At the start of the second hour, civil rights leader Medgar Evers is assassinated by a member of the Ku Klux Klan and I found myself waiting for some sort of expression of anger (or really, any emotion other than stoic suffering) on the part of “the help.”  Instead, we get a scene where both Viola Davis and Emma Stone are watching Evers’s funeral together and both are impressed to see John F. Kennedy show up.  In the next scene, Davis has put a picture of President Kennedy up on her wall next to a picture of Jesus.  So, in other words, this film reacts to the murder of a black man but deifying a white man.  After showing us a clue of violent reality, it’s as if the film can’t figure out how to balance out the ugly realities of racism with the film’s need to appeal to the widest possible audience.  As a result, the next hour of the film feels rather disjointed and uneven.  Even though the film partially redeems itself with one of the best endings of the year, it’s still hard not to feel as if we’re watching a feel good film about something nobody should feel all that good about.

Like a lot of mainstream films about racism, a good deal of this film centers on the friendship between blacks and a few white people who, magically, don’t appear to have a shred of prejudice within them despite the fact that they were raised in the same racist culture as every other white person in the film.  As a result, the racism seen in the film doesn’t really seem like it’s an ingranied part of culture as much as it just seems like the result of a couple of bullies acting like jerks.  As a result, despite its very good intentions, a film like The Help will often unintentionally minimize just what a struggle the fight for civil rights was and is. 

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

Needless to say, I totally related to Emma Stone’s character in this film. 

Lessons Learned

It’s difficult to make a feel-good movie about racism.

Quick Review: 50/50 (dir. by Johnathan Levine)


This is the worst review I’ll ever write. I’ll admit to that up front. This is a highly biased review.

I recently underwent a colonoscopy for what doctors refer to as “excessive bleeding”, which your body isn’t really supposed to do. Part of this also involves a biopsy of tissue to determine if it’s cancerous. I’m still due to find out what was found (because I’ve been dancing around going back as much as I have writing this review), but there’s a sense of dread in knowing that your life can change with just a few sentences from a doctor.  That, coupled with the knowledge that my mom underwent chemo for Lung Cancer and a friend who’s also living with it made 50/50 a hard film to sit through at some points.

I saw the movie on Friday Night, and literally spent the entire weekend with my laptop on my lap with Scrivener open, trying to get this written. The only reason it’s happening now is because I started admitting why I didn’t and wrote a paragraph. If I stop now, this is going to be another Sucker Punch, a film I was going to review when it came out, but refrained from doing so because it hit a little too close to home.

I walked into 50/50 expecting a heavy handed story along the lines of either the last half of Beaches or My Life with Michael Keaton. After all, the story deals with Cancer, which we all know is very serious. I actually left the film glancing at the movie schedule, looking to find out how soon the next showing was. It was a little later than I hoped, so I headed home. If it were any earlier, I would have gone right back. I laughed so much that I might have scared a few of the people sitting in the back of the theatre, and was thankful for the extra tissues I took with me when I cried.

Based on a true story of the film’s writer, Will Reiser, 50/50 is the story of  Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who goes through life making all the right choices. He eats right, jogs regularly and crosses when the walk sign is clear. He loves his girlfriend (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), and his best friend Kyle (played by Seth Rogen) helps him laugh through it all. After experiencing some pain in his back, he heads to the doctor, only to discover that he has developed a rare form of Cancer. The actual moment of awareness when he’s told is done so well that I had to bite my lip. Once you know the truth of things, you can’t return to a state where you “don’t” know, and I’ll admit that shook me.

The greatest part I loved about 50/50 was that it was more a story about the Support Groups that keep us afloat than it was about the problem of the illness itself. There are just some things in the world that you shouldn’t go through alone. Each person in Adam’s circle had a different reaction to what was occurring, but Seth Rogen’s character was by far the best, choosing to not allow Adam to wallow too much in what was happening to him.

Adam is assigned a therapist in the form of Kate McKay (Anna Kendrick), who tries to get him to relax and explain how he’s feeling, to which in most cases, he’d say “I’m fine.” It’s amazing how quickly and easily we can say that phrase to deflect every other emotion we may be feeling, and the writing in this film was good enough to play on that angle as well. His mother (Angelica Houston) wants to help her son a little too much, but Mothers can be that way, I suppose.

Just because this happens to be a story about illness doesn’t mean that it has to be non stop gloom and doom. There were a number of scenes that were laugh out loud funny, particularly those with Rogen. It’s Gordon-Levitt, however, who really carries the film. He does a great job here, and it’s a shame with the weekend over that it seems the film won’t overshadow either The Lion King or A Dolphin’s Tale. It would be interesting if the film has enough legs to last over the next few weeks. It definitely deserves a viewing.

Film Review: Hereafter (dir. by Clint Eastwood)


Hereafter is a very serious film about a very serious topic, death.  Following three separate but ultimately connected stories, the film attempts to explore death and the question of what happens after death from three different angles — intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.   I really wanted Hereafter to be a great film.  So did the film’s makers, which is precisely why Hereafter fails.

The intellectual consideration of death is represented by the character of Marie (Cecile De France), a French journalist who, at the start of the film, drowns in a tsunami and is, for a few minutes, clinically dead.  Before she is eventually revived, she has a classic near-death experience: the bright light, the people waiting to greet her, the whole deal.  After this experience, Marie is compelled to investigate whether or not there truly is such a thing as an afterlife.  As she does so, Marie finds herself shunned by her resolutely secular friends and grows increasingly distant from her skeptical (and rather condescending) boyfriend.

The emotional response to death is represented in the story of twin brothers, Marcus and Jason (played by Frankie and George McLaren).  The two boys live in London with their drug-addicted mother and share a strong (and, to be honest, kinda creepy) bond.  Jason, while simply trying to return home with some drugs for his detoxing mother, is roughed up by some bullies and ends up running out into the middle of the street.  Naturally, since this is a movie, Jason is hit by a truck as soon as he steps off the curb.  Jason is killed and Marcus is taken away by social services and put into a foster home.  Marcus continues to carry Jason’s cap with him and soon starts tracking down local English psychics in an attempt to talk to his brother again.

Finally, the spiritual aspect is detailed in the film’s most interesting story.  This story features Matt Damon as George Lonegan, a psychic who can speak with the dead.  After years of being a minor celebrity, George burned out and went into a self-imposed exile.  He now works at a factory while his brother (Jay Mohr, who looks incredibly puffy in this movie) keeps trying to find ways to convince George to get back into the business of talking to dead for fun and profit.  After George reluctantly gives a reading to Richard Kind, he finds himself being dragged back into his old life.

 A lot of viewers and critics have compared Hereafter to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 masterpiece, Babel.  Both films follow three separate but connecting stories and both films are concerned with the theme of death and how it connects us all.  As well, Babel featured Brad Pitt in a serious role and Hereafter features Matt Damon.  The main difference, however, is that Babel was a great film but Hereafter is basically an uneven mess.

Whereas Babel featured three strong stories, Hereafter features 1 compelling story (that would be Damon’s) which is compelling solely because Matt Damon is a talented enough actor that he can apparently perform miracles.  He’s probably about as likable as he’s ever been in the role of George but he also wisely plays the role as being just a little bit off.  Even though the film makes the mistake of never really going into the details of just what exactly caused George to give up being a psychic, Damon is so good in the role that you’re willing to take him at his word that he had a good reason.  Probably the highlight of the film (and one of the few sections to really inspire any sort of real emotional response) is an extended sequence where Damon befriends and the manages to alienate an insecure, single woman played by Bryce Dallas Howard.  Damon and Howard have a scene that involves eating while blind-folded that manages to be both powerfully erotic and wonderfully romantic at the same time.  If the entire film had been about them, Hereafter would have been a much better movie.

Unfortunately, we’ve got to slog through two other stories. 

Cecile La France gives an excellent performance as Marie and the opening tsunami scene is truly terrifying.  For someone like me, who cannot swim and risks having a panic attack if she even stands near the deep end of a swimming pool, the tsunami scene was almost impossible to watch.  I had to put my hands in front of my eyes and watch the scene through my fingers.  However, once she drowns, Marie sees a vision of the afterlife that — as a harbinger of things to come — is rather dull.  I mean, with everything that can supposedly be done in movies today, the best that Hereafter can give us is a bland white light.  Once Marie returns to Paris and starts her investigation, La France remains a sympathetic presence and the film actually does a pretty good job of showing just how condescending most supposedly “liberal” men are whenever a woman starts to stray from the established orthodoxy.  But, unfortunately, her story is just never that interesting.  Marie decides to write a book about the afterlife.  As a writer myself, I have to say that there is nothing more boring than watching someone else write.

As for Marcus, I was shocked just how little I cared about him or his attempts to contact his brother.  I come from a very close family and I have a very strong bond with all three of my sisters and, among them, I am notorious for crying at any movie that deals with that sort of sibling bonding.  Yet I sat through the saga of Marcus and Jason without shedding a tear and I felt terrible about it.  I really wanted to cry.  I really wanted to have some sort of emotional response to the story but I just never believed it.  I hate to say this but honestly, a lot of this was due to the fact that the McLaren twins are such bad actors.  Director Clint Eastwood has said that he specifically cast them because they weren’t professional actors and therefore, they wouldn’t introduce any false “sentimentality” into the mix.  But dammit, it was a sentimental story.  Sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing and just because something is sentimental, that doesn’t make it false.

So, what exactly went wrong with Hereafter?  The film opens strongly with a terrifying tsunami and the final 30 minutes are also undeniably touching (if also a bit contrived).  It’s everything that happens in between those two points that ruins Hereafter.  Director Eastwood, obviously looking to avoid that dreaded curse of being sentimental, keeps the whole film very low-key and realistic.  Other than the opening tsunami, there are no big wow moments but to be honest, isn’t that what movies are for?  If you’re going to make a movie that specifically shuns the wow moment, you better have something compelling (a perfect script or an entire cast giving a compelling performance as opposed to just a handful of them) to take its place.  Hereafter doesn’t and, as a result, the movie drags.  This, honestly, has got to be one of the slowest, most boring movies I’ve ever seen.  If director Eastwood’s westerns and actions films can all be seen as homages to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, I think Hereafter must be an homage to some of Andy Warhol’s intentionally dull films.  Whereas Warhol, at the very least, gave us Joe Dallesandro to look at, Eastwood gives us Jay Mohr.  It’s not a fair trade.

I don’t know how much of Hereafter should be blamed on Eastwood and how much should be blamed on the script written by Peter Morgan.  Here’s a quote from Morgan that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter:

“It’s quite spiritual material, and quite romantic, too. It’s the sort of piece that’s not easy to describe and in the hands of different filmmakers could end up as wildly different films. Quite unlike some of my other material, which I think there were only certain ways that you could shoot it. It’s really not just another boring Hollywood movie with the same old boring Hollywood actors, although I see the point that the public and sick of paying $10.00 to see a movie with same old faces and the same gramma of story telling.”

And to that, all I can say is “Shut up, Peter Morgan!”

This is not spiritual material as much as it’s just a bunch of vaguely New Age platitudes being delivered by a mainstream screenwriter who apparently doesn’t have the guts to come down either firmly for or against an afterlife.  This is the type of feel-good BS that leads to thousands of people every year giving up their life savings to some fraud who claims he can deliver messages from beyond.  Morgan’s script goes out of its way not to actually define the afterlife.  Is it heaven or is it Hell?  Is there a God?  Do the worthy go to Heaven?  Are souls saved?  Or are they just ghosts who are waiting for us to be willing to let them go?  These are all questions that would have been considered by a good film but Hereafter doesn’t consider them.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  It pretends to bring them up but only so the movie can shrug and go, “I guess nobody knows.”  And to that I say, either take a position or don’t expect everyone else to pay money just to listen to you duck the question because you’re too scared of alienating mainstream critics or audiences.

(Myself, I do believe that those who love us are always with us in some way even if I don’t believe in a literal afterlife.  And while I know that answer might seem vague, you should also consider that I’m not the one spending millions of dollars to make a movie celebrating that vagueness.)

Morgan’s script also make its a point to incorporate real-life events into his contrived narrative.  As a result, the London Subway bombings and the Thailand Tsunami are both used as convenient plot points in much the same way that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button used Hurricane Katrina.  I felt it was ghoulish when Button did it and, the more I think about it, it’s equally ghoulish in Hereafter.  It’s hard not to feel that the film’s saying, “Too bad all those real people died but what’s important is how these events impacted the lives of a bunch of fictional characters.”

Hereafter’s main problem is that it simply tries too hard to be great.  You get the feeling that every scene and line has been calculated to make you go, “Wow, what genius!”  As a result, even the scenes that work still somehow feel very dishonest.  The end result is a very insincere film about some very sincere concerns.