Monthly Archives: April 2014

My Movie Weekend: “Heaven is for Real,” “Transcendence,” “Dom Hemingway” and “Under the Skin.”

This weekend it was all about Saturday:

Greg Kinnear;Kelly Reilly

9:15am – At AMC Webster watching Heaven is for Real. I’m not a religious person, and so I often come to faith-based movies with a bias: If I feel like I’m being lectured to, I tend to tune out. (The same goes for non-faith-based movies, for that matter.) But Heaven is for Real, directed by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace from the non-fiction bestseller by Todd Burpo, wears its spirituality in a comfortable, un-self-conscious manner. Greg Kinnear plays Burpo, a Nebraska pastor who’s the proverbial pillar of the community and who leads the sermon every Sunday in a button-down shirt and khakis. Life is hard but not too hard, until his young son (Connor Corum) nearly dies from a ruptured appendix and has a near-death experience that shakes the entire town to its core.

Kinnear is terrific in showing us a complex test of Burpo’s faith – it’s not that he doesn’t believe his four-year-old saw Jesus, but more that he never thought of meeting Jesus as something that might actually happen. His sincere spirituality has never been pushed to think beyond the abstract, and the sudden demand for that reconciliation is almost more than he (or his unnerved neighbors) can bear. It’s a nuanced performance in a pragmatic, thoughtful film. Ruined a bit by a pat ending, but ain’t that just the way? Nobody, it seems, knows how to end a movie any more. – We walk down the hall to sit through Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, previously best known for his work as cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s films. Turns out, as a director Pfister makes a darn good cinematographer.

Transcendence is big-budget sci-fi hokum, with so-so special effects trying to dazzle us into thinking the Big Ideas being thrown around are bigger than they are. Johnny Depp is a metaphysicist who, in his last days of life, transfers his brainwaves into a massive computer to turbo-charge his and his girlfriend’s (Rebecca Hall) research into artificial intelligence. (That, and to save his life, of course.) Cut to a few years later, and the Depp-charged computer has essentially used the Internet to take over the world. Can the wee puny humans stop it before it goes all the way?

Movies like to paint A.I. with sinister shades – there’s just something about big scary computers that turns screenwriters into quasi-futurist doomsayers, as if the banalities of contemporary techno-life (say, our dwindling attention spans and our complete inability to remember phone numbers any more) aren’t terrifying enough. But the film’s biggest problem is Depp, who is no longer credible playing ordinary humans – casting him here is like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, in that we don’t fundamentally accept him in the role until his second-act transformation. I wondered after seeing the film if Transcendence wouldn’t have been much more enjoyable had Hall and Depp switched parts; she comes off as so warm and human, that watching her morph into a cybergod might have actually meant something.

dom hemingway (fox searchlight)

2:00pm – After Transcendence we leave behind the comfy chairs of Webster and drive into the city for a screening of Dom Hemingway at the Little. This was a film I would have seen last September, had a trip to the hospital not curtailed my annual trek to the Toronto Film Festival. I was looking forward to this film, as I like Jude Law and have waited patiently to see him grow out of his cartoonishly good looks and into the kind of roles that await leading men with some miles on them.

But after casting Law, the powers that be didn’t put much thought into giving him an actual movie in which to act. His Dom is an outsize thug, a boorish ex-con who explodes out of prison after 12 years eager to make up for lost time – beating up the guy who stole his now-departed wife, re-connecting with the crimelord (Damien Belchir) who owes him for not snitching while in prison, and most of all trying to bond with a daughter (Elimia Clarke) who quite sensibly wants nothing to do with him. These story snatches are told in a depressingly linear fashion, enough to make me wonder if someone hadn’t created the Hemingway character for a BBC series and then stitched those episodes together to make a feature film. The result is blunt and unrewarding, a weak exploration of a character who turns out to be pretty much the shallow, hedonistic cretin he appears to be from the outset. But at least director Richard Shepherd (whose The Matador did a much better job of piercing macho archetypes) gave Richard E. Grant some screen time as Dom’s buddy. Grant is an unsung hero of British cinema. He deserves a bigger career, and better films than Dom Hemingway.

under the skin

3:50pm – Still at the Little, now to watch Under the Skin, which has been picking up decent notices since debuting at the Venice Film Fest last summer. This is Jonathan Glazer’s third film, after the marvelous UK crime comedy Sexy Beast and the ambitious but confounding Birth, and I’m sorry to say it has more in common with the latter. (Come to think of it, I was probably hoping Dom Hemingway would be more like Sexy Beast too.)

If you ever saw Species, the ’90s soft-core sci-fi that had Natasha Henstridge take off her clothes a lot in the name of playing a sexy alien, you have most of this film’s plot. Fully an hour of this remarkably quiet film shows Scarlett Johansson, as an alien wearing a dead woman’s clothes, driving around Scotland trying to pick up men. She succeeds a lot, because she still looks like Scarlett Johansson, but her conquests are dull stuff: Over and over again, she brings guys back to a run-down flat where … something … happens to them. Then she gets back on the road. Lather, Seduce, Repeat. Yawn.

Glazer deserves credit for resisting the urge to capitalize too much on Johansson’s physical assets, and for resolutely showing rather than telling. He’s determined to let this little story go its own way, and not be obligated to reveal too much just for the sake of keeping the audience in the loop. But it’s ultimately too little story – there’s just not enough here to hold our attention. The third-act conversion that the unsexy beast seems to experience is thin paste to be expected to hold all the prior bricks together. Under the Skin feels like a short film wearing the padded flesh of a full-length feature. There’s not enough there there.

(IMAGES: Heaven is for Real courtesy of Tristar/Sony Pictures; Transcendence courtesy of Warner Bros./Alcon; Dom Hemingway courtesy of Fox Searchlight; Under the Skin courtesy of A24 Films.)

“Draft Day,” Reviewed: Fumble.

DRAFT DAYYou probably need to be a football fan to truly appreciate Draft Day (PG-13) – or at least, you need to have never seen Kevin Costner make a sports movie with Ron Shelton. Alone, ex-baseball player Shelton wrote or directed some of the more interesting athletics-themed movies of the last 30 years (including Blue Chips, White Men Can’t Jump and The Best of Times); and with Costner he made Tin Cup and Bull Durham, two classics that plumbed the immutable connections between the sporting life and life itself.

Seeing Costner in another sports movie – this time playing the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, in the 12 hours before the NFL’s annual player draft – made me yearn for another transformative experience in jock cinema. But alas, Ron Shelton is not here: Director Ivan Reitman, bless his heart, is no Shelton, and Draft Day is no masterpiece. Costner’s GM is at a career and personal crossroads, dealing with the death of his legendary coach dad, the newly announced pregnancy of his girlfriend and co-worker (Jennifer Garner), and being told how to do his job by the team’s owner and coach (Frank Langella, Denis Leary).

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman’s script is workmanlike in its efforts to explain what’s going on and why anyone should care – this is a movie about contract negotiations, after all, with no on-the-field action to provide a final-reel boost. Costner’s sleepy performance is unlikely to make non-fans appreciate the horse-trading intricacies as the clock ticks.

The film benefits from smart editing, and on-screen graphics and cutaways that resemble nothing so much as the hyper-produced TV sports coverage that distinguishes modern football telecasts. But for better or worse, that stylish storytelling adds to the sense of Draft Day being a congratulatory hug for the NFL, just for being there. Logos are everywhere, and there’s a sense of pageantry to the way teams’ cities are introduced that suggests this film, and not Noah, is the big religious release of the season. Ultimately, Reitman’s film might have benefited from a little less love of the game and a little more love of the characters, and the story they’re in.

(IMAGE: Kevin Costner in Draft Day. Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.)


“Oculus,” Reviewed: Dark Matters.


Everything old is new again in Oculus (R), a familiar story well told by director Mike Flanagan. A pair of early-20s siblings (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites), reunited after years apart, join forces to defeat whatever evil forces are present in the haunted antique mirror that destroyed their family a decade earlier. Much of the film takes place over the course of one night in their deserted family home, with narrative-twisting flashbacks helping to fill in the gaps of what happened with mom and dad (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane).

Callouts to earlier horror classics abound, from The Shining (possessed dad, terrorized kids) and The Blair Witch Project (over-narrated video recording of sheer terror) to even Jaws, with the grown children going after this mirror with the same enthusiastic preparation as Roy Scheider & Co. pursuing their great white shark. It’s fun to watch Gillan’s character function as a gung-ho ghostbuster – not least because we can easily predict that she’s in way over her head.

I wish Gillan and Thwaites were better actors; they often seem to be too obviously reading their lines. (As their younger selves, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are much more effective.) But mood and storytelling skill carry the day here: Flanagan’s expert handling of his tale – especially the cross-cutting between past and present storylines – makes for a smart, twisty and downright scary experience. It’s hard not to be absorbed by the twisted goings-on in that dark house, and by the implacable, unblinking eye of that ominous mirror taking everything in. The conclusion is easy to predict, but if they can make five movies (and counting) out of Paranormal Activity, a second Oculus will be child’s play – and not for the faint of heart.

(IMAGE: Karen Gillan in Oculus. Photo courtesy of Relativity Media.)

Why There Should Never Be A “Citizen Keanu.”

10152632_10152422870181756_1324806910_nEven knowing it was April Fools Day, NPR’s Facebook page still managed to throw me for a loop with the suggestion that Keanu Reeves would be headlining a remake of Citizen Kane. Granted, it was a nicely designed poster, and I give them an A for effort with that tagline about the radio. But still: No. Just no.

But then I threw it up on my own Facebook page (note that clever play on words there), and an old friend from high school asked me who I thought would make a good choice for a modern Charles Foster Kane. My first instinct was to defend the original and be a smart-aleck at the same time (“I think a young Orson Welles could do amazing things with the part, given a chance”), and my second…

Well, my second instinct is still to defend the original. It’s not that there aren’t some great actors working today, including some who would probably be great in a film like Kane. (OK: Liev Schreiber. Happy?) And I’m not one of those purists who think every remake is tantamount to clubbing a cinematic baby seal. Remakes can be thought-provoking. They can explore themes and narrative pathways that might have been unheard of when the original film was made. They can be a lot of fun.

But they can also be crass, shoddy affairs, lacking even a gram of the wit and creativity that inspired the source material. And even the best of them can’t help but crowd the first film, just a little bit: Doppelgangers occupying some of the same space, stealing just a little of the spotlight. They’re Hollywood’s version of recycling, and Citizen Kane doesn’t belong in anyone’s blue bin.

With all the technology-driven changes to the film industry in the last generation – tape players begetting DVDs, begetting Blu-Ray, begetting online streaming and on demand – it’s hard to deny that a layer of magic has been stripped away from the experience of simply watching a movie. In the face of this never-ending revolution, the least we can do is safeguard a few films that deserve a status of permanent exclusivity.

Citizen Kane should be inviolate, as should The Godfather, Casablanca, Annie Hall, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Graduate and Pulp Fiction, to name a few. These movies should inspire filmmakers, and generations of fans. They can even inspire knock-offs – but they’ve earned the right to be left alone.