Film Review: The Butterfly Effect (dir by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber)


How many different ways can Ashton Kutcher fuck up time and space?

That’s the question asked in the gloriously silly The Butterfly Effect, a film that was a minor hit back in 2004.  Ashton plays Evan Treborn, a disheveled college student who is studying how memory works.  All through his life, Evan has suffered from seizures that are triggered by stress.  Evan has a lot of stress because apparently, there’s not a single bad thing that didn’t happen to him when he was a child.

Crazy father who tried to strangle Evan before being gunned down in front of his son’s terrified eyes?  Yep.

Sexual molestation at the hands of a suburban drunk?  Yep.

A best friend who blew up not only a mailbox but also a mother and a baby?  Yep.

A dog that was set on fire by a neighborhood bully?  Yep.

Another friend who was driven into a catatonic state by all the madness around him?  Yep.

A girlfriend who, due to family tragedy, had to move away?  Yep.

However, things seem to be getting better for Evan.  Now, he’s a psychology major with a bright future.  His professors love him.  He’s even got a roommate named Thumper (played, somewhat inevitably, by Ethan Suplee).   And, as he’s soon to discover, he possesses a special power.  All he has to do is read his old journals and, for a limited time, he can go into the past and change his history.

Of course, it turns out that changing history is a lot more complicated than it looks.  Evan goes back into the past and confronts the pervy suburban drunk.  He then goes back to the present and discovers that he’s now a shallow frat boy who is hated by both his professors and Thumper!  Even worse, he eventually ends up in prison for killing a man.  Going back into the past and saving his dog leads to his friend Lenny (Elden Hansen) spending the rest of his life imprisoned.  Another trip to the past results in Evan waking up as a double amputee.  Depending on what Evan does, his friend Kayleigh (Amy Smart) either becomes a shallow sorority princess or a drug-addicted prostitute.  Meanwhile, Kayleigh’s brother (William Lee Scott) goes from being a psychotic murderer to a clean-cut religious guy.

Thumper never changers, though.  Thumper endures.

This, of course, is a lot of pressure to put on any character played by Ashton Kutcher and soon, Evan is having nosebleeds and migraines.  Every time he changes the past, his brain is flooded with 20 years worth of new memories.  His brain might explode before he can fix all the damage that he’s done….

Watching The Butterfly Effect is an odd experience because, on the one hand, the premise is genuinely intriguing but, on the other hand, the film stars the reliably goofy Ashton Kutcher.  Ashton grows a beard and doesn’t wash his hair for the first half of the movie, which is the film’s way of letting us know that we’re meant to take him seriously but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s still Ashton Kutcher.  Even when playing the most dramatic of scenes, Ashton tends to deliver every line as if it’s the set up for a punch line.  It’s not surprising that the best part of The Butterfly Effect is when Ashton wakes up and discovers that he’s now a frat boy.  Those scenes are intentionally funny and they take advantage of what Ashton Kutcher is actually good at.

At the same time, it’s hard not to get into The Butterfly Effect.  It’s a mess but it’s a likable mess and it’s undeniably enjoyable to see how everyone’s life changes as a result of Ashton’s constant meddling.  (William Lee Scott especially has fun, switching between being full-blown psycho and full-blown religious.)  The Butterfly Effect may be dumb but it’s fun.  It’s a film that’s best watched with your snarkiest friends.

Film Review: Devil’s Knot (dir by Atom Egoyan)


After having spent close to a year hearing only negative things about it, I finally watched Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot last night.  On the basis of what a lot of critics had said about the film, I have to admit that I was mostly watching it to see if I needed to include it on my upcoming list of the 16 worst films of 2014.

But you know what?

Devil’s Knot really isn’t a bad film.  It’s just an extremely unnecessary one.

Devil’s Knot opens with a title card that reads, “Based on a true story.”  Honestly, the title card could have just as easily read, “Based on a true story and if you doubt it, there’s four other movies you can watch.”  The trial, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment of the West Memphis Three is perhaps the most famous miscarriage of justice in recent history precisely because so many documentaries have been made about it.  Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost Part Three are two of the most disturbing true crime documentaries ever made.

(As for Paradise Last Part Two, it displays a stunning lack of self-awareness as it attempts to prove the guilt of John Mark Byers by using many of the same techniques that were used to convict the West Memphis Three.  The less said about it, the better.)

The story is so well-known that I almost feel like retelling it would be like taking the time to inform you that George Washington was our first president.  But here goes — in 1993, 3 eight year-old boys were murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  Three teenagers were arrested for the crime and, on the flimsiest of evidence, were convicted.  As is seen in the documentaries, their conviction had more to do with community hysteria and paranoia than anything else.  The supposed leader of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, was accused of being a Satanist.  Why?  Mostly because he wore black clothing.

Eventually — and largely as a result of the documentaries made about the case — the West Memphis Three would be freed from prison.  (However, their convictions would still legally stand, meaning that their exoneration would be limited to the court of public opinion.)  Devil’s Knot, however, doesn’t deal with any of that, beyond a lengthy scroll of “this is what happened after the movie” information that rolls up the screen after the final scene.  Instead, Devil’s Knot deals with the first trial of the West Memphis Three and the small town atmosphere of fear and hysteria that led to them being convicted in the first place.

And — though the film is surprisingly conventional when you consider the reputation of director Atom Egoyan — it’s all fairly well-done.  As a former resident of and frequent visitor to Arkansas, I was happy to see that Egoyan didn’t indulge in as many stereotypes as I feared he would.  (One need only watch the self-important Northern activists in Paradise Lost Two to see the attitude that I feared Egoyan would bring to the project.)  Reese Witherspoon is perfectly cast as the mother of one of the murdered boys.  Kevin Durand is properly intimidating at John Mark Byers.  Even Colin Firth manages to make for a convincing Arkansan.

But, ultimately, Devil’s Knot just feels so unnecessary.  It doesn’t bring anything new to the story and there’s ultimately nothing here that you couldn’t have learned from the original Paradise Lost.

Probably the best thing that I can say about Devil’s Knot is that it’s better than Paradise Lost Part Two.

So, was Noah good or not?


Poster-Noah-Aronofsky

Was Noah a good movie or not?

That’s a question that was first asked way back in March.  At the time, the answer depended on who you asked.  For instance, Noah is one of Arleigh’s favorite films of the year.  My reaction, however, was far more mixed.  Noah was one of those movies that I thought I would review as soon as I watched it but that proved to be a lot more difficult than I expected.  As I found myself wondering what I should say in my review, it became very apparent to me that I wasn’t sure whether I liked the film or not.

By the time that I finally decided that I was, overall, disappointed by Darren Aronofsky’s controversial and spiritual-but-not-quite-biblical version of the Deluge, over a month had passed and we had all moved on to different movies.

And so that review remained unwritten.  And, at first, I thought it wouldn’t matter.  As much as I try to review every single movie that I see, I know that the world is not going to end if I miss a film or two.  After all, I’ve never specifically written down just how much I hated the latest Transformers movie and the world has yet to plunge into the sun…

And yet, for all of its flaws and the fact that it left me feeling underwhelmed, Noah has stuck in my mind in a way that many of the films that I saw this year have not.  It would be a struggle for me to remember much of anything about Dracula Untold but Noah Noah has stayed with me.

Thinking back, it’s easy for me to say what did not work about Noah.

As opposed to Aronofsky’s best films (Requiem for A Dream, The Wrestler, and my beloved Black Swan), Noah felt oddly paced with certain scenes ending too quickly while other scenes seemed to drag on forever.

The film’s environmental message was delivered with such a heavy hand that it ultimately did not make much of a difference whether you agreed or not.  For a film that went out of its way to establish itself as not being a traditional biblical film, Noah was certainly preachy.

While the film deserves credit for not flinching in its portrait of a surly and self-righteous Noah, it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie was essentially 138 minutes spent with a very unlikable character.

Anthony Hopkins gave perhaps the worst performance of his career as Methuselah.  In the role of Tubal-Cain, Ray Winstone was such a one-dimensional villain that I half expected him to invent trains just so he could tie Emma Watson to the tracks.

And, of course, there were the Watchers — fallen angels who had been turned into sentient piles of stone by a vengeful God.  I know that some people loved the Watchers but to me, they looked ludicrous…

NoahWatchers

And yet, that’s the reason why we love Darren Aronofsky, isn’t it?

Obviously, it was a risk to portray the fallen angels as being a bunch of talking rocks.  It was also a risk to take a character who is mentioned only once in the book of Genesis — in this case, Tubal-Cain — and then use that character as a representation of everything that’s wrong with the human race.  It was a risk to make a “biblical” film that openly questioned both the existence and wisdom of God.  We expect and demand that directors take risks but, at the same time, we also want to ridicule and judge when those risks don’t work out.  That’s the issue that we, as film lovers, often face.  Do we celebrate and perhaps excuse a director for his intentions or do we solely judge him based on the results?

And the thing with Noah is that, as much as the movie did not work for me, it also did work for me.  For all of those flaws that I listed above, Noah is full of images that are so beautiful and so memorable that I can still visualize them as if I saw them yesterday:

Noah and his sons walk across a gray and blasted landscape, stopping just long enough to stare at a foreboding city in the distance.

Noah walks through a decadent settlement and briefly, this somber film is so full of bright colors and flamboyant characters that the viewer is almost as overwhelmed as Noah.

That Ark, looking small and isolated, floating across an endless blue ocean.

And finally, Noah talking about the horrors of humanity and briefly, we see that the shadows that he’s visualizing are dressed in modern clothing.

For all of my issues with Noah, it’s such a visually impressive film and takes so many risks that I can’t help but respect it.  I don’t consider it to be a great film but, after all this time, I can say that it’s a film that only a true artist could make.

And, considering the current state of American film, that’s one of the best compliments that one can give.

noah-banner222

Super Bowl Trailer: Noah


5204

Noah is Darren Aronofsky’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed film Black Swan (which was reviewed by Lisa Marie Bowman herself) and he looks to tell the tale of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis.

When news first came out that Aronofsky would follow-up Black Swan with a biblical epic that retold the Flood and Noah’s role in saving those not corrupted according to Heaven was a sort of headscratcher. The teasers and trailers that has come out about the film hasn’t really fired up the masses. Some think it as another sword-and-sandals epic that’s late to that particular subgenre’s resurgence. Some think too much fantasy elements has been added.

One thing I’m sure of is that Aronofsky will not make an uninteresting film.

Noah is set for a March 28, 2014 release date.

44 Days of Paranoia #35: A Dark Truth (dir by Damian Lee)


For the latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at one of the more obscure films of 2013.  A Dark Truth was briefly released last January and it didn’t get much attention.  Having recently watched the film, I can understand why.

A Dark Truth (subtle name, no?) opens with a lengthy and disturbing scene of men, women, and children being chased through the jungle by machine gun-wielding soldiers.  As we eventually learn, the people fleeing are the citizens of a village in Ecuador and the soldiers are there on a mission to kill every single one of them.  It’s such a disturbing and well-shot sequence that I watched it with a sinking feeling because I knew that there was no way the rest of the film would be able to live up to it.

And it turns out I was right.  Director Damian Lee seemed to realize this as well because he revisits the footage every time his film starts to drag.  Unfortunately, the more we see these violent images, the less powerful they become.  By the end of the film, that whole opening sequence has lost whatever power it had simply because we’ve seen it one too many times.

It turns out that the soldiers were working for a — wait for it! — Big Evil Corporation.  It seems that this Canadian water purification company accidentally poisoned the village’s water and this led to several villagers getting sick.  An executive, who is so villainous that he’s played by Kim Coates, ordered that all the villagers be executed.  Among the few that escaped was a veteran political activist (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Eva Longoria).

Meanwhile, in Canada, corporate executive Deborah Kara Unger finds out what the company did in Ecuador.  Wracked with guilt, she hires former CIA Agent-turned-talk radio host Andy Garcia to go down to Ecuador and rescue Whitaker.

A Dark Truth, which obviously aspires to be something more than just a conventional action thriller, is a film that starts with an exciting bang but then ends with a whimper that, even if you have managed to stay awake while watching it, you’ll barely hear.  This is one of the slowest films ever made (it certainly feels longer than 105 minutes) and the excessively stylized direction can’t make up for the fact that the film’s plot and dialogue are both painfully predictable.  About the only thing that The Dark Truth has going for it is that, while Longoria is painfully miscast, the film does feature good performances from Garcia, Whitaker, and Coates.  Best of all is Kevin Durand, who plays a hired assassin here.  Durand doesn’t get to say much  but he’s such an intimidating physical presence that he doesn’t need to say much.

Seriously, somebody needs to give Kevin Durand his own action franchise.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur

Film Review: Fruitvale Station (dir by Ryan Coogler)


On January 1st, 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant was executed in Oakland, California.  Grant was returning home from celebrating the New Year’s in San Francisco when he and several other young black man were pulled off a train by the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police.  According to the police, Grant had been involved in a fight on the train.  In a moment that was recorded by several cell phones (and later broadcast across the world), Grant was shot in the back by a BART policeman.  According to the police, Grant had been resisting arrest and his executioner had meant to use his taser but had grabbed his gun by mistake.

The death of Oscar Grant made the news even down here in Texas and I can still remember discussing it with my friends.  As a bunch of good, white liberals (and yes, believe it or not, I was once a little bit liberal, though even back then I was, at heart, more of a civil libertarian than anything else), we were all properly outraged by what happened.  At one point, I declared that this proved that police hide behind the power of their tasers.  We all agreed that it was a terrible thing that had happened and that the cop involved needed to be held responsible.

Only recently did I realize that, even as fashionably outraged as me and my friend were and even though we did feel that this was a classic case of police overreactions, we also automatically assumed that the cop was telling the truth when he said that he meant to grab for his taser.  For all of our righteous indignation, we — as a bunch of white people who had spent most of our time living in white neighborhoods and white towns — still had a hard time accepting the idea that a white police officer had intentionally executed a black man.  As outraged as we were, we were assumed that we were angry about an aberration.  As such, we assumed that the shooter would be held responsible and we went on with our comfortably sheltered lives.  Needless to say, we were incredibly naive.  While the death of Oscar Grant made national news, it made far less news when the man who shot him was eventually sentenced to only two years in prison.  (He was paroled after 8 months.)

I’ve been thinking about Oscar Grant (and the way that my friends and I initially reacted to the news reports of his death) ever since I saw Fruitvale Station, a devastating independent film that also marks the directorial debut of Ryan Coogler.

Starting in the early morning hours and ending in the first hours of 2009, Fruitvale Station follows Oscar Grant (played, in an award-worthy performance by Michael B. Jordan) as he lives the final day of his life.  In between doing such every day things as buying a birthday card for his mother (played, in a luminous performance, by the great Octavia Spencer) and picking up his daughter from daycare, Oscar worries about how he’s going to pay his rent and struggles against the temptation to return to his former life of dealing drugs.

While we watch the film knowing what Oscar doesn’t — that this is the last day of his life — the film itself manages to be a lot more than just a recreation of a tragic event.  There’s a vibrancy and sense of hope to the scenes where Oscar drives through Oakland or hangs out with his family.  That vibrancy makes the film’s inevitable conclusion all the more powerful and devastating.

As for the actual shooting, Fruitvale Station leaves it to the audience to decide whether Oscar was intentionally executed or if he was shot by a cop who thought he was holding a taser.  As the cop who shot Oscar, Chad Michael Murray is only on-screen for a split second.  As the other cop on the scene, Kevin Durand (who played Martin Keamy on Lost) shouts and bullies as only Kevin Durand can do.  If the film leaves it ambiguous about whether or not Oscar was intentionally shot, it’s not ambiguous about the fact that Oscar was killed because, as a black man, he was automatically viewed as being a potential threat by the white police officers.  Whether the intention was to tase him or to shoot him, the ultimate goal was to reassert the authority of the police.

As Fruitvale Station makes clear, the shooting was both an individual tragedy and a piece of the larger tragedy that’s still being played out across this country.   The film’s triumph is that it makes Oscar Grant into both a compelling individual and a powerful symbol of the struggle that many Americans face as they try to survive under a system that’s been designed to keep them down.

So, have you seen Fruitvale Station?  If you haven’t, you need to.  It’s one of the best films of 2013.

Trailer: Resident Evil: Retribution


The Resident Evil film franchise seems to be the franchise that just keeps on going and going. Like the undead which forms the bulk of the danger to the characters in the film, this film series just won’t die. It’s success has both confounded critics and audiences alike. It’s turned Milla Jovovich into an action star whether we like it or not. It’s also a series that despite some major flaws continues because it makes it’s studios money.

We now have the first teaser trailer for the 5th film in the series, Resident Evil: Retribution, and just like the 4th film in the series it will be in 3D. It will also have several characters from past films who we saw die make appearances in the film. Whether they come back as themselves in the film’s present storyline or in flashbacks has yet to be determined. The trailer itself looks like a major advert for Sony smartphones, PS Vita and tablet products. In fact, I’d say that almost 40% of this teaser is all about pushing Sony products.

If that’s the case then this trailer does teach me one thing: Sony products will lead to a global zombie apocalypse. I think this event would never happen if people bought iPhones and iPads.

Resident Evil: Retribution is set for a September 14, 2012 release date.