ME BEFORE YOU; the title (unfortunately) says it all **1/2

A qualification before I get started here; I’m generally not a fan of “tear-jerkers,” which is the kind of film that this new movie from MGM and New Line Cinema is being touted as.  I saw The Notebook in the theater and haven’t seen a single Nicholas Sparks book-to-film ever since.  I saw Million Dollar Baby in the theater, was impressed enough to buy the DVD, but have never watched it.  I saw Moulin Rouge in the theater and sobbed openly in my car afterwards; it was 15 minutes before I could even drive home.  The joy that pervades that film is about the only thing that got me to watch that DVD.  Same with Titanic.  I’ve seen The Age of Adaline once, and won’t see it again.  I avoided The Fault in Our Stars altogether.  My heart’s a big one, but sensitive too, I’m afraid, and getting it ripped out at the end of a movie is not often my idea of “entertainment.”

Any tears that may have been jerked from me after this film, though, were quickly swallowed up by outrage as I later put together its thematic undertones, its provocative climax, and its title, which turns out to be a particularly insidious twist on a much more common–and heroic–bit of romantic phraseology, and discovered what the filmmakers here could actually be championing.

As with all love stories, this one starts with two people, and if you follow Hollywood’s traditional take, they’re about as mismatched as a Barry Manilow ballad would be in the soundtrack of a Mad Max movie.

One is Will, played by Sam Claflin (Finnick for you Hunger Games fans), a self-absorbed richy who’s led a spoon-fed life indulging his every pleasure until a tragic accident paralyzes him from the chest down and confines him to the family castle (literally).  There, he sits in his motorized wheelchair and self-piteously contemplates what he feels should have been while refusing to deal with what actually is.

The other is Louisa “Lou” Clark, played by Emilia Clarke (Danereyes Targaryan for you Game of Thrones fans), an effervescent bundle of joy and freakish fashion sense who seems to find the gold even in a family situation where she’s 26, still living at home, and has just lost her job, which largely helped support her mum and dad, a guy who hasn’t been able to find work in months.  In desperation, Lou takes a job advertised by Will’s parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance, another Game of Thrones alum) to be Will’s “companion,” and there you have it; the perfect couple–obviously (at least in Hollywood).

From here, and for about 95% of the rest of the film, we follow the typical beats of just about every movie romance; he finds her idiosyncrasies interesting, then charming; she finds his stand-offishness challenging, and of course, his looks adorable.  He endeavors to expand her horizons, she shows him that life can still be lived, in spite of his confinements.  She breaks up with her current, ridiculously clueless boyfriend (Matthew Lewis), and the two fall in love; a future of promise seems at hand.

This is all very well-done.  Claflin and Clarke have a marvelous chemistry.  It’s particularly fun to see Clarke, the fierce and indomitable Mother of Dragons, transform herself into the irresistibly bubbly Louisa, who’s also so short that she has to scootch herself forward in the seat just to get out of a taxi.  And her smile is an absolute scene-stealer.

But of course, lurking around throughout the plot are signs of dangerous waters ahead, and when the waves finally break, their monstrous implications unfortunately crush the story’s goodness like a tsunami, and the emptiness and anger remains even as the film’s epilogue tries to neatly sweep it all under the rug.

“You can’t approach that topic in a throwaway manner on film.” said Me Before You author and screenwriter JoJo Moyes in a recent interview.  She was actually talking about a traumatic scene from her book that never made it into the movie, but I wish she’d thought as carefully about the staggering implications of her story’s theme as played out in its ending and quantified in its title and, perhaps, reconsidered.

Let’s hope you got away with it, Ms. Moyes; that the mobs of Millennial women that are making your film an over-performing box office hit and given it an “A” CinemaScore (an 81% female audience on opening night, 72% under age 35) are doing so because they adore the actors and/or their performances or love Louisa’s goofy outfits or the romance of castles and star-gazing on the beaches of Mallorca while sitting in Sam Claflin’s lap, and not because of what you tried so hard to distract us all from there at the end; the apparent real meaning of that “interestingly” twisted title.  Because if that’s why these legions of young women are flocking to see this, the consequences could literally be lethal.

 

TWO EXPOSES’ DELVE INTO THE DARK SIDE OF AMERICAN POLITICS…with uneven results

Yes, it is fall, the season of more “mature” adult fare at the multiplex as studios begin to trod out their prestige “awards” films, and this year it is especially such.  Already we’ve had intriguing, well-executed broad-audience hits like The Martian, Bridge of Spies, Black Mass, and Siccario, and the critically-acclaimed but box-office bust Steve Jobs.  Now come two political dramas, both based on real events that took place in the early 2000’s.  While one is a dramedy whose tone shifts from silly to sober so often that critics (and apparently audiences as well, who have christened it with a dreaded C+ CinemaScore grade) can’t seem to wrap their heads around and the other a superbly made drama about the devastating facts behind one of the most scandalous episodes in modern broadcast journalism, they both could be worth a watch if you’re an adult who enjoys true-life American political drama.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS **1/2

A passion project of George Clooney, his producing partner Grant Heslov, and Sandra Bullock (part of the team that brought you last year’s Gravity) this film takes a serious, yet tongue-in-cheek look at American political influence abroad by fictionalizing an award-winning documentary of the same name that recounts how revered (and reviled) American political strategist James Carville was hired in 2002 to ensure the election of an unpopular former president of Bolivia to the presidency once again when it looked like a more Socialist-leaning candidate might win the election.  Apparently, Carville and his firm manufactured the idea that Bolivia was at a point of extreme crisis and needed the experienced leadership of his candidate over that of the less-experienced Socialist, and it was this strategy that got his candidate elected, against all odds.  Of course, there really was no such extreme crisis–it was all a matter of perception and manipulation.  Parallels have been drawn to how the Bush Administration in the US used a similar strategy to cajole Congress and the American people into approval of his pre-emptive Iraq War, which later proved to have been entirely unnecessary (for the reasons that Bush stipulated, at least) and became both a political, economic, and humanitarian nightmare that the US still hasn’t recovered from.

In the film’s case, Bullock actually plays the character based on Carville, “Calamity” Jane Bodine.  Here, she’s a washed up political genius brought back into service to find a way to get the lackluster Pedro Castillo elected President despite the fact that his poll numbers are in the single digits and he is reviled by most as an autocrat running against the man-of-the-people populist who is currently leading, thanks to Bodine’s nemesis, rival American political strategist Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton).  An altitude-sick, hung-over Jane suddenly comes to life when a protester smacks her candidate with an egg, and Castillo clocks the guy in the jaw in retaliation, creating the crisis theme that will eventually carry her candidate to victory, despite she and Candy’s often hilarious efforts to thwart each other.

While the movie is often uneven in its mix of comedic moments and biting political commentary, its point is still clear, and one that is worth noting in our own domestic political world.  Political candidates are handled by strategists who dictate their every sentence, and for whom no shenanigan is too low, too hurtful, or too dishonest as long as the candidate wins.  That’s what American-style democracy is all about, whether here in the US, or on the high-altitude steppes of some obscure place like Bolivia.

And yes, that is, in the end, very depressing…

 

TRUTH ****

Once again, the theme here is the ludicrous levels of dishonesty and obfuscation the vested interests of various political candidates will go to to ensure the election of their chosen candidate.  Here, Writer/Director James Vanderbilt adapts Pulitzer Prize-winning news producer Mary Mapes’ book Truth and Duty; the Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power about the infamous scandal that destroyed both hers and news anchoring legend Dan Rather’s careers in broadcast journalism.

The scene is the contentious 2004 US presidential election between controversial incumbent George W. Bush and Democratic rival Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.  As the actual election nears, attention turns to the military service records of each candidate, introduced by conservative Republican interests who refute Kerry’s Vietnam War record, which show him to be a hero, with their infamous “swift boat” attack ads that show so-called comrades of Kerry’s on one particular mission, for which Kerry was decorated as a hero, refuting the validity of those medals.  At the same time, Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is made aware of documents that indicate that President Bush, during the same period, was shunted away from service in Vietnam by a Texas millionaire who many wealthy “sons of Texas” paid to be given cushy homeland military service jobs in the National Guard.  Subsequently, he then had not even fulfilled his Guard obligations, but spent an entire year AWOL and another period going to an Ivy-League college, all without any sort of disciplinary action from the National Guard.  Though there are some minor concerns about the validity of a couple key documents because they are both copies and therefore can’t be authenticated accurately,  Mapes and legendary CBS newsman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) decide to run with the story anyway, since the documents, along with confirmation by several human sources, indicate that Kerry is not the only one with skeletons in his military service closet.  The findings are aired on CBS’s 60 Minutes II in September of 2004 and look to be a slam-dunk equalizer to the Republican “swift boat” attacks on John Kerry.

However, within days, Republican proxies seize on the document validity issue, and when the corporate higher-ups at CBS, fearing a ratings backlash, fail to support Mapes, Rather and their team, all hell breaks loose as experts parse about super-script “th”s and official military abbreviations, Mapes’ sources are badgered, bullied, and intimidated into retracting their statements, and everyone forgets the rest of the overwhelming evidence that confirms the truth of the report.  The sad results are the stuff of epic broadcast journalism infamy.

With a script whose pacing and style are as riveting as anything by Aaron Sorkin and an all-star cast that features Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Stacy Keach, Bruce Greenwood, and Elisabeth Moss as well as Blanchett and Redford, this is a superbly made drama that so graphically portrays how money, politics, and expedience destroy truth that I doubt that I’ll ever really believe anything that comes from the news media anymore, especially when it has to do with politics.  The “truth” has literally become whatever each particular side has decided it will be, or at least what those who fund them have decided it will be.  Meanwhile, the real truth gets so lost in the shuffle that it becomes unrecognizable.  Is it any wonder that polls these days show voter apathy and disgust for our political institutions at an all-time high?  And that, sadly, really is the truth.

 

 

BRIDGE OF SPIES ***1/2 – Spielberg and Hanks Slam Another Historical Home Run

It is no secret in Hollywood that both Actor Tom Hanks and Director Steven Spielberg are history nuts, and when the two collaborate on such efforts, the results can be stunning (who can forget Saving Private Ryan…).  The same happens again here as the actor, the director, and acclaimed writers Joel and Ethan Coen (more noted for their quirky dark stories like Fargo and No Country for Old Men) bring to life the early days of the Cold War in this riveting story.

Based on true events, Hanks stars as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, a mild-mannered family man who is asked by federal prosecutors to be the defense attorney for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  The position is, in the eyes of the feds, an essentially perfunctory one.  Abel has been caught red-handed passing government secrets to Soviet contacts.  He’s guilty as sin, and Donovan’s job is merely to play the caricature of “defense attorney” so that it will appear that Abel has a fair trial before he is convicted and fried in the electric chair.  But Donovan is a man of principle, and isn’t about to be just a place-holder.  He vigorously defends Abel, much to the chagrin of the Justice Department, and though Abel is indeed convicted of spying, Hanks is able to convince the judge in the case to sentence the spy (played with sobering complacence by Brit Mark Rylance) to merely life in prison rather than a swiftly executed death sentence.  How would Americans look to the world if they merely did as the Russians did–executing spies on the spot after extracting whatever intelligence they could from them–and what if, God forbid, some American was captured by the Soviets?  Abel could become an important “prisoner exchange” bargaining chip in the case of such an event.

As if he were a Biblical prophet, Donovan is proved right when, not long after, one of the US’s top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is taken prisoner.  The ensuing exchange negotiations, whom the State Department insists that Donovan conduct without the official sanction of the US government, become more tense and complicated when the Russians insist that they take place in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, with the Russians and East Germans having their own internal battles that Donovan must navigate, including the fate of an American student captured by the East Germans while trying to get his girlfriend back into West Germany through one of the Wall’s few remaining “holes.”  The tensions of the intrigue, along with heart-tugging scenes of the panic in Berlin as the Wall goes up and families struggle to get out of East Berlin while they still can, make for edge-of-your-seat entertainment that will stick with you after you leave the theater, particularly if you’re of a “certain age” and have personal recollection of the period.

Here is a fascinating historical drama that features one of the premiere actors of our time collaborating with one of its premiere film directors to make some seriously high-quality entertainment.  For adults yearning for something to see at the cinema besides popcorn action/adventures and shallow genre fare, this is a must-see movie that totally fits the bill.

THE MARTIAN – Matt Damon’s Neither Little or Green ***

What he is is the one left behind when a monstrous Martian windstorm threatens to topple a NASA expedition’s ride back to their orbiting base, and Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) aborts it.  Feisty Mark Watney (Damon) disagrees with the decision, dawdles while getting back to the escape rocket (called a MAV), and gets knocked out when a communications dish gets blown away and clonks him on the head.  Try as they might, Lewis and her crew, including Beth (Kate Mara) and Rick (Michael Pena), can’t find Watney in the blinding sand.  Lewis reluctantly calls everyone back in, and they ditch the base, dock with their orbiting mother ship, and head out on their 4-month journey back to Earth.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Watney wakes up later to find himself alone and abandoned.  He staggers back into the base compound, and, after handling the immediate problem of the metal rod stuck in his gut, sits down to contemplate his situation, recording everything on what we would probably call his personal video blog.  What follows is an account of Watney’s genius and resourcefulness as he finds ways to manufacture oxygen, grow his own food, rig the base’s battery-powered vehicle with solar panels to give it unlimited range, and even dig up the old NASA unmanned probe Pathfinder to rig up a way to potentially communicate with Mission Control back on Earth.

Meanwhile, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (a deadpan Jeff Daniels) has long since declared Watney dead and Lewis and her crew are over halfway home.  So it’s quite a shock when they hear transmissions coming from the long-defunct probe announcing that Watney is indeed not only alive, but also has made provision to survive all the way until the next NASA manned mission arrives three and a half years later at a site some 2000 miles from Watney’s base.

Things become more urgent, though, when Watney returns to his base, an airlock explosion nearly kills him, and destroys his food-growing system.  Now with only enough food to last roughly another year, Watney abandons his fractured base with what food and supplies he can hook up to his vehicle, and heads out in a doomed effort to make it to the site of NASA’S next landing, where another MAV stands, though there will be no mother ship out in orbit for it to dock with.

Back on Earth, Sanders nixes any attempt to mount a special rescue mission, but more humane (and ingenious) friends, both on the ground, in Watney’s crew, and even in China conspire behind Sander’s back to make such a mission happen, at their own peril.

As wonderfully cast, directed, and shot that this film is, there’s something a bit off about it for me, and I think it’s in the writing.  It’s a tough enough challenge to make a story which basically comes down to being Castaway in space (the Robert Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks) seem interesting despite things like the long passages of time involved and the fact that the main character is essentially able to talk only to himself.  But when you’re asked to make all this, plus everything else that happens in the film, look, feel, and sound like a real NASA mission, complete with its intentionally emotionless dialogue, much of what feeling that might be expressed between the characters is pretty much sucked out of the story.  And ironically, despite his impossible situation, things always seem to work out pretty much according to plan for Watney, and even his crew, and the folks on the ground.  Unlike another similar movie, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where every trial seems fraught with error, here, aside from a couple of notable glitches, things just kind of hum along for our heroes.   Only at one point after the initial tragedy did I ever feel like anyone was in any real, mortal danger.

So, while there’s a lot to like in this film and a lot done well by Director Ridley Scott and crew, in the end, the result is a film that perhaps should be a bit more riveting than it actually is, at least for me.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN – Family Films Lead the Way at your Local Metroplex

Happily, it’s actually the family films that are getting the biggest nods of approval from both critics and audiences this season, which can be truly frightful at this time of year (and that’s a good thing).  Here’s some short reviews of films you might want to consider taking the whole fam to see when you celebrate, as well as a sentence or two about a couple others of note that might be worthwhile for the olders of your brood.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 *** – This is the sequel to Adam Sandler’s pleasantly unexpected hit from two years ago about the benevolent Count Drac (Sandler) who has created a haven for misunderstood monsters in his haunted hotel, then things get a shake-up when a “slacker” hippie throwback Jonathan (Andy Samberg) happens by and is taken to by Drac’s daughter Mavis, who’s about to celebrate her 118th birthday.

This time around, Mavis (Selena Gomez) and Jonathan have enjoyed several years of wedded bliss at the hotel haunts (much to Jonathan’s parents chagrin) and Mavis is expecting their first child.  When the blessed event happens though, Grandpa Drac is a bit disturbed that, as little Dennis grows, he’s increasingly human-like and doesn’t seem to be developing vampire fangs like a “normal” vamp kid would.  At the same time, Mavis wonders if a motel full of monsters is the best place to raise her hybrid boy.  So, while she goes with Jonathan back to his surfer-dude stomping grounds in Santa Cruz, CA to check out life with humans, Drac and his monster buddies take little “Dennisovich” out on a hilarious crash course in monstering as they visit the places where good ole Gramps grew up.

As with the original, this animated film is filled to the brim with spooky-cutie monsters that little kids will adore and  spooky-goofy one-liners, site-gags, and even songs that will have the parents and older kids continually cracking up.  Whether you’ve seen it already or not, this would be a safe and fun way to celebrate the season either before, after, or instead of the traditional trick-or-treating, especially if your little monsters–er, kids–happen to be on the younger side.

 

GOOSEBUMPS *** – And just as entertaining for families whose little monsters aren’t so little anymore is this new film from Sony based on the wildly popular kids’ books by R.L. Stine that have been a staple of school and/or classroom library reading material since the early 90’s.  Designed to be a kiddie alternative to Stine’s more teen-orientated horror series Fear Street, the Goosebumps series went on to make Stine USA Today’s number one-selling author in the country for three straight years in the 90’s (even selling more books than fellow horror writer Stephen King, as the movie jokingly points out), and by 2008 had sold over 400 million copies.  Hollywood’s been trying to think of a way to make Stine’s myriad of Goosebumps books and spinoffs into a film for nearly the same duration, and finally has come up with a solution that works surprisingly well.

Jack Black is perfectly cast as Stine, an eccentric author who hides from the rest of the world and requires the same of his teenage daughter Hannah (the alluring Odeya Rush).  When reluctant “new kid” Zach Cooper (fresh-faced Dylan Minnet) shows up next door, his newly widowed mom having moved out of New York to help both her and Zach cope with their loss, Zach sees new hope in a budding friendship with Hannah.  That is, until Daddy Stine crushes it just as it gets going, chastising Hannah in frightening fashion for even considering it.

Fearing the worst, Zach and Champ, his impossibly nerdy–and only–friend from school (a hilarious Ryan Lee) creep into the Stine house to investigate, only to set into motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a torrent of monsters being unleashed on their little town when the locks on Stine’s original manuscripts are opened, spewing them forth.  The resulting mayhem and our heroes’ efforts to set things to right lie somewhere between Ghostbusters and a sequel to a Scooby-Doo movie in tone as the edgy, effects-driven horror is effectively blunted by both belly-laughing humor, sheer silliness, and a pleasantly surprising touch of sweetness.

It all makes for a very winning mix, one that is a fitting tribute to Stine and his work (he actually has a cameo in the show, as a school teacher with the ironic name of “Mr. Black”) and will serve up lively, spooky entertainment both for fans of the stories as well as newcomers like me (can you believe it–a teacher like me, never read a Goosebumps book???  For shame!!!).  While a bit intense possibly for the 8 and unders in your fam, this would make both frightful and fun fare for most any family’s Halloween festivities.

 

And for the adults and older teens who like a more serious “creeping out” as part of their Halloween, cinemas will also be featuring…

The Last Witch-Hunter – Vin Diesel heads an all-star cast (Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Rose Leslie, etc.) in a big-budget supernatural thriller that someone (probably mistakenly) thinks is going launch a new genre franchise ala Underworld or Blade.  It’s about an immortal ass-kicker of evil who, well, hunts witches.  It only managed #4 ($11 M) in its opening weekend.  Not a good sign.

Crimson Peak – A classic, gothic haunted house tale with a touch of class lent by its strong cast (Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tim “Loki” Hiddleston, etc.) and illustrious director (Guillermo “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro).  Some feel this is truly creepy, others that it’s also too predictable.  You can decide for yourself, as I’d probably just be hiding under the seat the whole time in something like this.

The Ghost Dimension – I believe this is supposed to be the last in the Paranormal Activity franchise that made a household name out of Jason Blum, Hollywood’s king of “low-budget horror.”  Here, the big secret of the whole series is supposed to be revealed, but in its opening weekend, it could only manage 6th at the box office with an underwhelming $8.2 M.  Sounds like this is pretty much a meh for most movie-goers, and, more alarmingly for Blum, even for fans of the once-venerable franchise.

EVEREST – Superb Portrayal of a Tragedy of Errors ***

Everest is the latest film to feature the world’s most prodigious mountain and mankind’s continuing efforts to conquer it.  Based on the true accounts of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and writings and interviews of other participants, this Everest film centers itself on the 1996 climbing season of the mountain (a narrow window of a few weeks in May when weather on the mountain is traditionally the least inclement), one in which a “perfect storm” of human arrogance, error, and nature’s unexpected fury came together with epic results.

The film begins with a brief synopsis of the history of men on the mountain, noting that it was first conquered by Englishman Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tensing Norgay back in 1954, and in the subsequent 40 years before this story begins, had only been assaulted by a few thousand professional climbers, 25% of whom had died in the attempt.  But in 1991, a company called Adventure Consultants, headed by climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) of New Zealand, had devised a way to “safely” guide amateur climbers up the mighty slopes–for a price, of course–and since then numerous other companies led by other professional climbers and been formed.

Consequently, the story really kicks into gear with an ironic scene that Hillary and Norgay would have found laughably insane had they been around to see it–over a dozen professional mountaineers, each leading groups of essentially tourist climbers (one including an IMAX film crew, another a noted outdoor journalist), discussing the ominous (or perhaps ludicrous?) possibility of a traffic jam of people developing as the various groups attempt their final ascents of the mountain.  Compromises are eventually worked out, with two of the largest groups, Hall’s Adventure Consultants and daredevil climber Scott Fisher’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Mountain Madness, agreeing to work together and pool their resources.

Meanwhile, journalist Krakauer (Michael Kelly) sits amongst the “climbers” trying to get a feel for just why each one would literally risk their lives on what is, essentially, a very self-absorbed adventure.  After all, no one’s making them do it, and, as Hall had ominously warned, “human life was not meant to survive at the cruising altitude of a 747 airliner” while describing the mountain’s infamous Death Zone (the last 2000 feet of the climb).  A Japanese woman (Naoko Mori) wants to be the oldest woman to climb the highest peaks on every continent (“the Seven”).  Doug (John Hawkes), who’s failed on two other attempts, wants to show schoolchildren back home that “if an ordinary guy like me can reach the top of the world, they should be able to accomplish anything if they work hard and don’t quit.”  And veteran climber Buck (Josh Brolin) just wants to “feel alive” again compared to how he feels in his normal life back home, where his wife has threatened to divorce him if he climbs another mountain.  It’s evident that none of these folks, despite their brave words and noble (or not so noble) intentions, really has any idea what they’re getting themselves into.

But onward they go, through “practice runs” that take them up to various camps and back to the over-populated base camp, ending in the final assault which will go all the way to the 29,002 ft. summit.  It’s on that ascent that things for Hall’s and Fisher’s parties begin to go awry.  Like rusty joints beginning to give way on an old bridge, one error leads to another slip-up and to another mistake, amateur climbers begin to whither as they face perils that even professionals struggle to conquer, guides who want desperately for their clients to reach their dreams must make life-and-death decisions, and then Mother Nature throws in a curve ball that sends the whole, delicately-balanced structure crumbling to ruins, with predictable results.  The action is tense, the drama even more so, and all is brilliantly filmed with a jaw-dropping reality that should be remembered in Oscar’s more technical awards categories.  Performances by the all-star ensemble cast are uniformly brilliant, with special kudos to Clarke (Terminator Genysis), who’s portrayal of Hall is simply gut-wrenching.

While some might call Everest one of those “triumph of the human spirit” films that such stories usually are lumped into, I would call it, perhaps, a step beyond that, a sort of post-human triumph film; one in which the human spirit arrogantly drives a person just a few steps too far, its myth of invincibility clouds the person’s reason, and all too suddenly, reality sets in, and like Icarus with his wax wings, the person realizes what he or she really is; frail, faulted, hopelessly in over their head, and ultimately clinging to whatever might be of comfort as they drift into oblivion.  And of course that kind of film has its own moniker–the “disaster film.”

You can make your own judgement about Everest when you see it.

 

Maze Runner: THE SCORCH TRIALS

This is the second in Fox’s adaptation of the dystopian YA book series by best-selling author James Dashner that began with The Maze Runner last year about this time.  Though I was not a big fan of the first film, this one broke with sequel tradition and was, for me at least, a lot more enjoyable film than the first, a pleasant surprise.

The story picks up right where last year’s film left off, with Thomas (Dylan O’Bryan) and his motley crew of escapees from The Maze spirited away to safety by the mysterious Janson, played deliciously by Aiden Gillen, a duplicitous savior nearly as slippery as Gillen’s more recognizable character, the conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  Thomas and friends are brought into one of those “too good to be true” compounds where all is happiness and light–except that their female companion Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) is separated from them and no one will tell Thomas where she is.  And a smallish gutter-snipe (literally) named Aris (Jacob Lofland) pops up into Thomas’s room one night and takes him to Janson’s secret lab where Thomas discovers what’s really up in this “perfect” little world (note; always beware of perfect little worlds in dystopian YA fiction).

So the crew is on the run again, this time out into the Scorch, mankind’s name for what’s left of the Earth, and a very apropos name it is.  Their aim is to meet up with a group of rebels in the far-off mountains whose goal is to take down the Maze-based establishment run by the snow-white clad leader Ava (Patricia Clarkson–note; beware of snow-white clad leaders of the establishment in dystopian YA fiction), which they do after many trials (thus the name…) and tribulations, only to find they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, who leads Ava straight to them that results in a battle royale that sets up things nicely for the last film of this trilogy.  I think it was the sense of movement and the strong performances of both O’Bryan and his entire crew of cohorts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores) along with newcomer Rosa Salazar as Brenda, one of the mountain clan, and Giancarlo Esposito as her father (a role nearly as slippery as his more recognizable character; snake-like Major Tom Neville in NBC’s sadly canceled sic-fi series Revolution) that made this so much more fun for me than the first film.  Nice to be out in the wide open spaces, and have action that involves more than just running around endless walls of hedges.

With the final film in this series slated to come out in 2017, and the final episodes of The Hunger Games and The Divergent Trilogy to come out by then or before, we’ll finally ring up the end to Hollywood’s waning love affair with YA dystopian novels, a teen trend that has long since stopped “trending.”  While the gross box office for each series is already in the billions for Lionsgate/Summit, who produced both Hunger Games and Divergent and might just make it to a billion for Fox, and launched the adult careers of several bona fide stars who could well dominate the Hollywood A-list for decades (O’Bryan, Jennifer Lawrence, Shalene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Josh Hutchinson, Jai Courtney, Ansel Elgort, and others…), hundreds of millions more were lost and many more fine young actors relegated to the back burners as each of the various studios ran through YA book series after book series describing every grim dystopia imaginable in desperate pursuit of “the next Hunger Games” only to find the target audience as fickle as teens and young adults always are.  The Hollywood gods should have known better.

Perhaps a lesson has been learned–that searching for the next NEW thing (which is how The Hunger Games was found) would be far more profitable than searching for the next imitation of what is already an old thing.  And if that’s the case, then maybe, just maybe, all the carnage of the YA dystopian book series adaptation era will have been worth it.

We can always hope so, anyway…

WAR ROOM; Powerful Preaching–to the Choir *** (less if not a “believer”)

Here’s another well-written and excellently produced faith-based film from the Kendrick Brothers production company (Fireproof, Courageous, et al) that’s made by evangelical Christians specifically for the evangelical Christian audience.  But, as with other genre films like R-rated horror or hard sic-fi, those who aren’t fans will probably find little to like here, and perhaps even something offensive.

And most people in the faith-based audience; evangelical church-goers who avoid mainstream movies because of their overt amorality, violence, and depictions of social issues that are largely offensive to them, are just fine with that.  So is Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose Affirm Films finances projects for the Kendricks, and usually makes a tidy sum because the Kendricks’ Faithstep Films only needs a couple million to produce their movies ($3 M in this case), which then return eye-popping profits as millions of the evangelical faithful flock to multiplexes to see one of “their” films (War Room took in $64 M at the box office for a staggering 2133% return on investment–a $150 M Marvel superhero film would have to gross over $3.2 BILLION at the box office to equal such a profit margin).  And so everybody’s happy–at least if you’re an evangelical Christian, an evangelical Christian filmmaker, or an exec at Sony.

If there is a problem here, it’s that “evangelical” Christians, by definition, are supposed to be out in the world bringing the unchurched to salvation, yet “their” movies would be as incomprehensible and blah-seise to “non-Christians” as a lecture on quantum physics would be to a crowd at a Comic-con.  War Room is no exception, with all its lead and supporting characters being evangelical Christians who, for the most part, at least attempt to walk the walk, and definitely talk the talk, which unfortunately is a lingo that leaves most “unchurched” scratching their heads.  Though well-written and wonderfully acted by an entirely no-name cast, the story is all about believers and their struggles to live out those beliefs, which will thrill the evangelicals, but largely confuse those that they’re supposedly evangelizing.

And, to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.  There are genre movies and “cult” films for just about every stripe of movie-goer, and why shouldn’t evangelical Christians have theirs, too?

But at times I do wonder why these people, who profess to have a mission to “evangelize” a world they see as lost and in desperate need of their Savior, are so comfortable spending–and making–millions producing movies that not only are solely for their own enjoyment, but largely turn away the very people they profess they want to reach, in the one venue where their message could reach literally millions–if anyone besides evangelical Christians could actually figure out what’s going on.  Is it possible that one day, faith-based, “evangelical” filmmakers might make movies that would actually “evangelize?”

Recent Deals – Status Updates

SLAYER – The Chosen (based on Chosen, Book 1 of The Amish Bloodsuckers Trilogy by Author Barbara Ellen Brink)

– Optioned to ARS Film Productions/Reemvision Entertainment (Producer Ricci Moore and Director Kevin Reem)

– Signed Multi-Project Joint Venture agreement with Ricci Moore and Kevin Reem that states that funds are currently being raised, and once they are, outlines next steps, including formation of an LLC to actually produce the film that we’ll be  partners in, and compensations that will be put into the film’s budget.

STATUS

– The Producer is packaging the project, including detailed budget and preliminary casting, for presentation to a fund-finder (9/2015)

 

ACCIDENTALLY IN LOVE (based on the stage play The Confirmed Bachelor, by Ricci Moore)

– Signed a 50/50 partnership agreement with Ricci Moore to rewrite his script to a point where it’s suitable for marketing, etc.

STATUS

– Working on as I have time for it (9/2015)

MINIONS; a modern-day, animated “Three Stooges” ***

Illumination Studios, the animation wizards who created the “Despicable Me” franchise for Universal, has opted this year for a spinoff of the films that star the zany little yellow sycophants of criminal mastermind Gru, his “minions.”  Here, we delve into the origin of the Minions, and discover how they eventually became connected to Gru, their not-so-evil master of the previous two films.

Minions, it turns out, are actually creatures from prehistoric times that seem to have everlasting lives, and whose purpose is to find the baddest guy/girl/creature in the world at the time and mindlessly serve him/her/it.  But as time has passed, the Minions have run out of T-rexes and cave men and other notorious types and are now stuck in Antarctica on the verge of complete hopelessness.  And so three brave Minions (or maybe just stupid ones?) set forth into the now-modern world to find the most evil person for their compatriots to serve, and thus save their race from extinction-by-boredom.

What follows is a trip to Orlando’s Villain-Con and a meeting with its worst-of-the-worst, Scarlett Overkill (voiced rather blandly by Sandra Bullock).  The three brave Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob, see her as their salvation, and she sees them as the perfect thieves to snatch the Crown Jewels from a young Queen Elizabeth (it’s the 60’s after all).  The ensuing journey to London to carry out the heist is filled with enough slapstick and sight gags to fill two or three Marx Brothers movies and a whole week of Three Stooges episodes.  And the poking fun at British-isms is never-ending, and often hilarious.

What’s missing, though, is any semblance of the heart-felt stories of the first two films.  Rather than giving us a diabolical doer of evil who discovers, through his encounters with three mischievous orphan girls, that he’s not so “bad” after all, the filmmakers here dish out a “plot” filled with little more than endless goofiness, and, just like those Marx Brothers and Three Stooges shows’ schtick wears pretty thin after a while, so it does here as well.  Not much heart-tugging in a silly adventure to save a race of yellow puff-balls from dying of boredom in Antarctica.

So, while you’ll be chuckling nonstop through this and once in a while even getting a good belly-laugh, you won’t get the peaceful satisfaction of enjoying a well-told story with theme and heart along with it.  Like newly hatched chicks, Minions are cute, yellow, and funny, but sorely lacking in meat.  Most of the film’s target audience, though (families, particularly those with very young children) probably won’t care about that too much.  Thus the 3 stars rather than 2 and a half, and here’s to theaters-full of giggling 7 and 8 year-olds and their mildly entertained parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or big brothers and sisters.