Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Megan Leavey (dir by Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


One of the best (and, in my opinion, overlooked) films of 2017 was Megan Leavey.

Based on a true story, Megan Leavey tells the true story of … well, Megan Leavey.  When the film starts, Megan (played, in one of the best performances of 2017, by Kate Mara) is living a somewhat directionless life in upstate New York.  Her parents are divorced and she’s closer to her father (Bradley Whitford) even though she has more contact (and shares a much more strained relationship) with her mother (Edie Falco).  Speaking as a child of divorce, the scenes of Megan trying to navigate the mine field between her parents rang painfully true at times. I spent the entire movie waiting for Megan and her parents to have some sort of big moment where, in typical artificial movie fashion, all conflicts would be solved and everything would suddenly be okay.  To the film’s credit, that moment never comes.

Instead, Megan enlists in the Marines.  She finds herself assigned as a Military Police K9 handler.  What that means is that Megan finds herself in Iraq, working with a dog named Rex.  Rex’s job is to sniff out explosives and other threats.  One wrong move by either Megan or Rex will result in not only their deaths but also the deaths of everyone around them.  Remember how tense some of the scenes in The Hurt Locker were?  Well, that’s nothing compared to the intensity of the bomb-sniffing scenes in Megan Leavey.  After all, in The Hurt Locker, we only had Jeremy Renner to worry about.  Megan Leavey, however, features a truly adorable dog.

When Megan returns home from serving two tours in Iraq, she struggles with PTSD and the adjustment to civilian life.  Rex is assigned to a different handler and continues his duties, leaving Megan without the one creature that she felt she could trust.  And again, Megan Leavey deserves a lot of credit for not offering up any easy or pat solutions for Megan’s difficulties to adjusting to life back in the States.  It’s too honest a film and has too much respect for it audience to cheapen its narrative with easy or manipulative sentiment.

When Rex develops facial paralysis, he is retired from active duty.  With the help of her U.S. Senator, Megan adopted Rex and gave him a home until he passed away in 2012.  That senator was Chuck Schumer and thankfully, Megan Leavey resisted the temptation to cast Chuck Schumer as himself.  Instead, when Megan approaches her Senator on the Capitol steps, the senator is played by a professional-looking character actor who looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Chuck Schumer.  By making this simple casting decision, the film keeps the focus off of the politicians and on Megan and Rex, where it belongs.

Did Megan Leavey make me cry?  You better believe it did.  However, it earned every one of these tears.  This is a wonderfully sweet and moving film, one that works largely because it refuses to overemphasize the sentimental aspects of the story.  Instead, Megan Leavey always remains rooted in reality.  It’s a gritty film about a dog and a soldier who survived being sent to one of the most dangerous places n the world.  It’s the story of how Rex saved Megan’s life and how Megan returned the favor by saving Rex’s.  It’s a sweet, straight forward story that can be appreciated even by people, like me, who prefer cats.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Alice Through The Looking Glass, Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Me Before You, Mother’s Day, Risen


Here are six mini-reviews of six films that I saw in 2016!

Alice Through The Looking Glass (dir by James Bobin)

In a word — BORING!

Personally, I’ve always thought that, as a work of literature, Through The Looking Glass is actually superior to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  That’s largely because Through The Looking Glass is a lot darker than Wonderland and the satire is a lot more fierce.  You wouldn’t know that from watching the latest film adaptation, though.  Alice Through The Looking Glass doesn’t really seem to care much about the source material.  Instead, it’s all about making money and if that means ignoring everything that made the story a classic and instead turning it into a rip-off of every other recent blockbuster, so be it.  At times, I wondered if I was watching a film based on Lewis Carroll or a film based on Suicide Squad.  Well, regardless, the whole enterprise is way too cynical to really enjoy.

(On the plus side, the CGI is fairly well-done.  If you listen, you’ll hear the voice of Alan Rickman.)

Gods of Egypt (dir by Alex Proyas)

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing the plot of Gods of Egypt.  This was one of the most confusing films that I’ve ever seen but then again, I’m also not exactly an expert when it comes to Egyptian mythology.  As far as I could tell, it was about Egyptian Gods fighting some sort of war with each other but I was never quite sure who was who or why they were fighting or anything else.  My ADHD went crazy while I was watching Gods of Egypt.  There were so much plot and so many superfluous distractions that I couldn’t really concentrate on what the Hell was actually going on.

But you know what?  With all that in mind, Gods of Egypt is still not as bad as you’ve heard.  It’s a big and ludicrous film but ultimately, it’s so big and so ludicrous that it becomes oddly charming.  Director Alex Proyas had a definite vision in mind when he made this film and that alone makes Gods of Egypt better than some of the other films that I’m reviewing in this post.

Is Gods of Egypt so bad that its good?  I wouldn’t necessarily say that.  Instead, I would say that it’s so ludicrous that it’s unexpectedly watchable.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (dir by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan)

Bleh.  Who cares?  I mean, I hate to put it like that but The Huntsman: Winter’s War felt pretty much like every other wannabe blockbuster that was released in April of last year.  Big battles, big cast, big visuals, big production but the movie itself was way too predictable to be interesting.

Did we really need a follow-up to Snow White and The Huntsman?  Judging by this film, we did not.

Me Before You (dir by Thea Sharrock)

Me Before You was assisted suicide propaganda, disguised as a Nicolas Sparks-style love story.  Emilia Clarke is hired to serve as a caregiver to a paralyzed and bitter former banker played by Sam Claflin.  At first they hate each other but then they love each other but it may be too late because Claflin is determined to end his life in Switzerland.  Trying to change his mind, Clarke tries to prove to him that it’s a big beautiful world out there.  Claflin appreciates the effort but it turns out that he really, really wants to die.  It helps, of course, that Switzerland is a really beautiful and romantic country.  I mean, if you’re going to end your life, Switzerland is the place to do it.  Take that, Sea of Trees.

Anyway, Me Before You makes its points with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledge-hammer that’s been borrowed from the Final Exit Network.  It doesn’t help that Clarke and Claflin have next to no chemistry.  Even without all the propaganda, Me Before You would have been forgettable.  The propaganda just pushes the movie over the line that separates mediocre from terrible.

Mother’s Day (dir by Garry Marshall)

Y’know, the only reason that I’ve put off writing about how much I hated this film is because Garry Marshall died shortly after it was released and I read so many tweets and interviews from people talking about what a nice and sincere guy he was that I actually started to feel guilty for hating his final movie.

But seriously, Mother’s Day was really bad.  This was the third of Marshall’s holiday films.  All three of them were ensemble pieces that ascribed a ludicrous amount of importance to one particular holiday.  None of them were any good, largely because they all felt like cynical cash-ins.  If you didn’t see Valentine’s Day, you hated love.  If you didn’t see New Year’s Eve, you didn’t care about the future of the world.  And if you didn’t see Mother’s Day … well, let’s just not go there, okay?

Mother’s Day takes place in Atlanta and it deals with a group of people who are all either mothers or dealing with a mother.  The ensemble is made up of familiar faces — Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, and others! — but nobody really seems to be making much of an effort to act.  Instead, they simple show up, recite a few lines in whatever their trademark style may be, and then cash their paycheck.  The whole thing feels so incredibly manipulative and shallow and fake that it leaves you wondering if maybe all future holidays should be canceled.

I know Garry Marshall was a great guy but seriously, Mother’s Day is just the worst.

(For a far better movie about Mother’s Day, check out the 2010 film starring Rebecca De Mornay.)

Risen (dir by Kevin Reynolds)

As far as recent Biblical films go, Risen is not that bad.  It takes place shortly after the Crucifixion and stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman centurion who is assigned to discover why the body of Jesus has disappeared from its tomb.  You can probably guess what happens next.  The film may be a little bit heavy-handed but the Roman Empire is convincingly recreated, Joseph Fiennes gives a pretty good performance, and Kevin Reynolds keeps the action moving quickly.  As a faith-based film that never becomes preachy, Risen is far superior to something like God’s Not Dead 2.

 

 

6 Other Films That I Saw in 2014: The Best Offer, Borgman, Illiterate, In Secret, Scorpion in Love, and Tercera Llamada


The Best Offer (dir by Guiseppe Tornatore)

Virgil (Geoffrey Rush, giving a very Geoffrey Rush type of performance) is the owner of a prestigious auction house.  He’s hired by the mysterious Claire (Sylvia Hoeks) to auction off all of her dead parent’s possessions.  Virgil finds himself growing obsessed with Claire and, with the help of his assistant Robert (Jim Sturgess), finally manages to strike up a tentative relationship with her.  However, it quickly turns out that there’s more to Claire and Robert than Virgil originally assumed.

The Best Offer is a disappointing film.  It’s not terrible but it moves far too slowly for its own good and most of the cast seems to be going through the motions.  The one exception is Donald Sutherland, who is a lot of fun as a sleazy con artist.  Sutherland managed to partially redeem Fierce People, another bad film that I recently reviewed, and he comes close to doing the same for The Best Offer.

Borgman (dir by Alex van Warmerdam)

Borgman is a disturbing and dark film from the Netherlands that was released over here in U.S. by Drafthouse Films.  This summer, Jeff and I saw it at our local Alamo Drafthouse with the usual group of self-styled cinema experts. Nobody quite knew what they were about to see and, after the film ended, an uneasy air descended over the theater as we all wondered what we had just watched.

Jan Bijvoet plays Camiel Borgman, a homeless man who is first seen living in the woods, hidden away in an underground cavern.  When he’s chased out of the woods by a priest and two men, Borgman eventually finds himself at the home of the arrogant and wealthy Richard (Jeroen Perceval).  Richard refuses Borgman’s request to enter the home for a bath and then physically attacks him.  When Borgman returns to the house the next day, Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), allows him to stay in the garage.  Though Borgman originally says he’s only going to stay a day, he is soon living in the garage.  Everyone — Marina, her children, and the nanny — is aware that Borgman is now a part of their household.  Everyone, except for Richard who remains blissfully unaware.  Soon, Marina is having violent nightmares while Borgman crouches over her and more and more of Borgman’s followers are showing up at the house…

Borgman is a horrific fable with a dark sense of humor.  (As frightening as Borgman is, it’s impossible not to be amused by just how clueless Richard turned out to be.)  In the best tradition of Michael Haneke, it all leads to an inevitable and unsettling conclusion.

Illiterate (dir by Moisés Sepúlveda)

Now this is a special film.

In this Chilean film, Ximena (Paulina Garcia) is an angry and sarcastic woman who is secretly ashamed to be illiterate.  When Jackeline (Valentina Muhr) volunteers to teach Ximena how to read, she has to deal with both Ximena’s stubborn nature and her own anger over the years that she’s lost, imprisoned by her inability to understand the written word.  And while this may sound like the basis of a typical Lifetime movie, the story takes on a special significance if you know something about the history of Chile and you understand that Ximena is a part of the generation that was previously held prisoner by a military dictatorship.  Ximena’s attempt to learn how to read mirror the attempt of a country to learn how to be free.

Garcia and Muhr both give excellent performances.  The film is a bit stagey but ultimately, it’s very touching.

In Secret (dir by Charlie Stratton)

How do you not enjoy a film like In Secret?  Taking place in 19th century Paris, In Secret tells the story of Therese (Elizabeth Olsen), who is forced by her haughty aunt (Jessica Lange) to marry her sickly cousin Camille (Tom Felton).  However, Therese does not love Camille and, bored with life in general, she ends up having an affair with Camille’s friend, the libertine Laurent (Oscar Isaac).  Soon, Camille has been murdered, Theresa and Laurent are married, and how can you not love all of this melodrama?

In Secret is over-the-top but enjoyable, like a Lifetime movie with explicit sex and costumes to die for.  It’s just a lot of fun.

Scorpion In Love (dir by Santiago Zannou)

In this Spanish film, Julian (Alex Gonzalez) is a young Neo Nazi who attempts to achieve redemption through boxing but who fears that his violent past will catch up with him.  It’s not, by any means, a bad film.  It’s just an extremely predictable one.  Javier Bardem shows up playing a Nazi leader and he’s just as dangerously charismatic as you might expect but, otherwise, the film doesn’t offer much insight into what exactly would lead someone like Julian to become a Nazi in the first place.

Tercera Llamada (dir by Francisco Franco Alba)

This comedy from Mexico tells the story of an attempt by a theater company to put on a production of Albert Camus’s Caligula.  The film is full of the usual types — the dedicated director, the craven producer, the innocent ingenue, and the difficult diva.  It’s predictable but likable.  If you’ve ever been involved in a community theater production that you just knew was going to probably be a disaster, you’ll find a lot to appreciate in Tercera Llamada.

Film Review: The Apparition (dir. by Todd Lincoln)


Since it opened last Friday, the new PG-13 horror film The Apparition hasn’t been getting much love from either critics or audiences.  When last I checked, the film had a 3% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes and it had gotten exactly one positive review.  However, if I’ve made one thing very clear in my reviews here on the Shattered Lens, it’s that I hate the bandwagon mentality that runs rampant throughout the online film community.  So, instead of immediately focusing on The Apparition’s (many) faults, I’m going to start this review by pointing out a few positive things about this film.

The Apparition is only 82 minutes long and is shorter than both Avatar and David Fincher’s rip-off of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Apparation is not in 3-D.

The Apparition is not a found footage film.  There’s no attempt made to try to insult your intelligence by convincing you that you’re watching something that actually happened 20 years ago.

Though an adorable (if intrusive) dog dies early on, no cats are harmed during the course of this movie.

The film’s final 10 minutes are actually rather effective and oddly disturbing.  Solely on the basis of the film’s final scenes, I would probably see the next movie that Todd Lincoln directs.

Finally, if you’re like me and you enjoy making out at the movies, The Apparition is the perfect film to see.  First off, it’s a horror movie and, even though nothing scary actually happens for the majority of the film, you can always fake being scared as an excuse to grab your man.  (And, as we all know, sometimes you just have to fake it…) Secondly, chances are that if you two do see The Apparition, you’ll pretty much have the entire theater to yourself.  Third, since nothing really happens for the most of the movie, you won’t have to worry about missing anything important while you two are having your fun.

As for the film itself, it tells a story that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Paranormal Activity or Insidious

Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan) are taking care of a house located in a nearly deserted subdivision.    We spend the first half of the movie getting to know Kelly and Ben.  We follow them as they debate what to have for lunch, as they shop at Costco, and as they play video games.  We quickly discover that, together, Kelly and Ben are perhaps the most boring couple ever.  Seriously, I have had nightmares about befriending a couple like Kelly and Ben and then having to attend a couples party at their house where all the other couples play Pictionary and want to tell you all the details about the last time they went snowboarding at Telluride.

Of course, a huge part of the problem with Ben and Kelly, as a couple, is that the actors playing them have next to no chemistry.  Watching Greene and Stan on-screen, you have a hard time believing that they’ve even known each other for five minutes, let alone that they’re enough in love that they would stay together even after it becomes apparent that there’s some sort of otherworldly demon chasing after Ben as the result of a séance that he attended 3 years ago.

One of the frustrating things about The Apparition is that, occasionally, you can see hints of the movie that it could have been if the script had been a little bit sharper and if the performances were a little less flat.  Visually, Lincoln does a good job of highlighting the isolation of the house and, even if he didn’t quite succeed, I can appreciate what he was attempting with the slow build up.  But this is one of those films where every effective moment is immediately answered by two moments that don’t work.  This is a film that’s smart enough to have Kelly demand to leave the haunted house, just to then reveal that leaving means camping out in a tent that’s been set up in the back yard.

(Even worse, the film later establishes that there’s actually a pretty nice motel within driving distance of the house.  You really do have to wonder why Kelly — who was so terrified that she literally ran out of the house in her underwear — would feel safer just because she’s now staying in a tent that’s about two feet away from the demon that’s trying to kill her.  Then again, I hate camping so maybe it’s something that I’m just not capable of understanding.)

Finally, if you’re like me and you’re still suffering withdrawal pains from the end of the Harry Potter films, you might want to see this film just for the chance to see Tom Fenton playing the role of Ben’s friend Patrick.  Unfortunately, Fenton’s only in about ten minutes of the film and Patrick, sad to say, is no Draco.

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. by Rupert Wyatt)


In 2001, Tim Burton released his highly-anticipated remake of the classic 1968 film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s sci-fi novel which would ultimately be called, Planet of the Apes. Fans of the series were excited to see what idiosyncrasies Burton would add to the series which had petered out decades before. What people were hoping for and what they ended up getting were polar opposites. The film in of itself wasn’t an awful film, but it wasn’t a good one and many saw it as average at best and bad at it’s worst. Any plans to sequelize this remake fell by the wayside. It took almost a decade until a decision was made to continue the series in a different direction.

British filmmaker and writer Rupert Wyatt would be given the task to rejuvenate for a second time the Planet of the Apes franchise. He would be working with a screenplay written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver which would take the 4th film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and rework it for a much more current setting. The film was to be called Rise of the Apes and would star James Franco, John Lithgow and Frieda Pinto. As time went by the film would be renamed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Despite having such an awkward sounding titles the film would end up to be one of the best films of the summer of 2011, if not one of the best of the year.

The film begins with a harrowing sequence in the jungles of Central Africa as poachers capture several chimpanzees to be sold as medical test subjects. Some of these chimps end up at a genetics research lab outside of San Francisco where one Will Rodman (James Franco) is working to find a cure to Alzheimer. He sees the encouraging result in one chimp he has named “Bright Eyes” (due to the side-effect to the test subject’s eyes taking on green flecks to their irises) and pushes for the next step and that’s human testing. The ensuing pitch to the company’s board of directors doesn’t go as planned as Bright Eyes goes on a violent rampage leading to her being put down and the project shelved. Her reaction they soon find out has less to do with the breakthrough treatment and more of a maternal instinct to protect her baby she secretly gave birth to. Will takes the baby chimp home in secret temporarily, but soon becomes attached to it as does his Alzheimer stricken father (John Lithgow) who names it Caesar.

The first third of the film sees Caesar showing an inherited hyper-intelligence from his genetically-treated mother. Caesar becomes an integral part of the Rodman household even to the point that Will has taught Caesar to call him father. It’s a family dynamic which would help mold Caesar into something more than just a wild animal. He begins to show signs of humanity which would become bedrock of his decision later in the film to turn become the revolutionary that the film has been leading up to the moment Caesar gets sent to a primate sanctuary after a violent encounter with a boorish neighbor to end the first reel of the film.

It’s during the second reel which sees Caesar realize that while he may as smart (maybe even smarter) than the humans he would never be a part of that world. In the sanctuary he learns that his very uniqueness has set him apart from the other primates. He sees the abuse inflicted on his fellow primates and longing to be back to his “home” with Will turns to a focus need to free himself and his people. He does this in the only fashion he knows would succeed. With the help from a couple canisters containing the aerosol-based treatment which increased his mother’s intelligence, Caesar frees everyone from the sanctuary and takes the fight to the humans as they make for the wilds of the Muir Redwood Forest north of San Francisco.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes might look to be an action-packed film from how the trailers and tv spots has been pushing the film, but it actually only has three major action sequences and they’re integral to each third of the film in helping advance the story. These were not action for the sake of having action on the screen. Writers Jaffa and Silver do a great job in figuring out that the real strength of the film would be Caesar’s journey from precocious ape child, rebellious teen and then his final unveiling as the leader of a people who have shaken off the shackles of medical research and their forced sacrifice for the greater good.

The film was never about the humans played by Franco, Pinto and Lithgow. It was always about Caesar and the film hinged on the audience believing Caesar as a character. In that regard, the work by WETA Digital should be commended as should Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. Serkis’ motion capture performance goes beyond just mimicking the movement of an ape. His own acting as Caesar comes through in even in the digital form of Caesar. In fact, the film never had a real ape used during filming. From Caesar right up to the scarred ape Koba every ape in the film was the work of WETA Digital’s furthering the motion capture work they had done in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and James Cameron’s Avatar. Never once during the two hour running time of the film did I ever not believe I was watching apes on the screen. Every emotion Caesar goes through during the film was able to show through facial expressions and body language.

It’s the strength of Serkis’ mo-cap work and the overall execution of Caesar’s character by WETA which also highlighted the one major weakness of the film through it’s underdeveloped human characters. Whether it was Franco’s benevolent Dr. Frankenstein-like Will Rodman right up to his greedy, amoral boss in the company (played by David Oyelowo), all the human’s in the film were very one-note and mostly served to propel Caesar’s story forward. At times, Franco actually seemed to be just as he was during his hosting gig during the Academy Awards earlier in the year. These were not bad performances by the actors involved. They were just there and part of it was due to how underwritten their characters were.

To help balance out this flaw in the film’s non-ape character would be the beautiful work by the film’s cinematographer in Andrew Lesnie. He has always been well-known for beautiful, majestic panoramic shot of the world as he had demonstrated in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. He does the same for this film as we see some beautiful shots of the Muir Redwood forest, of San Francisco’s skyline and in the climactic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco and it’s iconic red-hued bridge and the surrounding area has never been shot as gorgeous as Lesnie has done with his DP work on this film.

Even with some of the characters in the film being underwritten the film succeeds through Rupert Wyatt’s direction which keeps the film moving efficiently, but also bringing out the emotional content of the film’s script in an organic way. Film has always been about manipulating the audience’s  emotions. It’s when a director does so and make it seem normal is when such manipulation doesn’t come through for those watching to feel. Then add to this Serkis’ exceptional work as Caesar with some major digital artistry from the folks over at WETA Digital and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does rise above it’s B-movie foundation into something that should live beyond the summer and for years to come.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a great job and a long way towards wiping off the bad taste left behind by Tim Burton’s failed attempt to remake the franchise. We didn’t need something exotic and idiosyncratic to give the franchise a fresh breath of life. It seems all it needed was a very good story, some exceptional work from Andy Serkis and WETA Digital and a filmmaker knowing how to tell the story in a natural fashion and not fall into the temptation to go into shock and awe to tell it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film that could stand-alone, but it does something that many trying to create film franchises never seem to do right: it makes people want to see what happens next in the lives of Caesar and his apes.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Trailer


The franchise which seemed to have been left for dead by Tim Burton’s attempt to reboot it in 2001 looks to try and make another go at it again ten years later. Tim Burton will not be anywhere near this reboot and instead will be in the hands of British newcomer Rupert Wyatt.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (originally called Rise of the Apes which I actually prefer) looks to reboot the franchise by taking the origjnal Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ffrom 1972 and using that as the foundation for this reboot’s plot. It will star his Highness himself, James Franco, with Peter Jackson-regular Andy Serkis playing the role of ape leader, Caesar.

This film seems to have the full backing of Jackson’s WETA Digital to create all the apes in the film digitally. There won’t be any prosthetics and make-up work with this film unlike the previous ones. While some may think this is a bad idea I actually think WETA Digital’s work in creating total CG-characters in the past pretty much heads above other FX-shops (and I include Industrial Light & Magic). From the trailer the apes look quite realistic and even Caesar himself look very real.

Time and the film’s release will tell if this reboot will have a better reception than Tim Burton’s film. I, myself, am looking forward to it since of all the Apes film of the past it was always Conquest that remained my favorite of all of them.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set for an August 5, 2011 release.