I’ve written a few thoughts about my current #1 film for 2013 that can be read here.
Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Richard Curtis. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, and Lydia Wilson.
I’m probably as far removed from the target audience for this film as possible, but considering that I did not hate it, I expect that people who enjoy romantic comedies (which I generally don’t unless they’re pre-1960 or written by Woody Allen) will like this quite a bit.
The premise has a twist that makes the concept of the film much more interesting than a standard romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it fails to do anything profound or fascinating with that twist. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) as well as all the men in his family can travel through time. They can only travel to events in their own lives, but doing so enables them to relive and fix any events that did not play out as they had hoped. Tim decides that the best use of this power is to win the heart of the perfect girl, whoever she is.
All the actors are fairly likeable and give decent performances, but too many of the characters are completely unbelievable. I found it very hard to believe that Mary (Rachel McAdams) would be perfectly willing to sleep with the rather creepy guy she just met an hour ago at her friend’s party. And that brings me to my biggest problem with the film. Tim was so manipulative that I found to be a perfect example of the German noun Backpfeifengesicht (face badly in need of a fist). His actions only come across as alienating and irritating. Way too many of his attempts at “fixing” relationships were downright creepy and unethical.
To be fair, the film touches on the dangerous consequences of Tim’s time travel, but the solution that prevents him from irrevocably altering his life is way too easily attainable. And after he breaks a rule of time travel and drastically alters his life, he is able to undo it by time traveling through the same now altered reality, and the original reality somehow restores itself. Although the film tacks on some voiceovers about the importance of living in the present and appreciating each moment, there is nothing depicted in the film that suggests Tim actually learned that, other than he saying he did. Finally, the penultimate scene, which was intended as a sweet nostalgic tissue moment, fails completely, because according the previously established rules, it would mean that Tim is endangering his entire family for one fleeting thrill of happiness.
The other major problem was that there is no real sense of conflict or empathy for Tim. Any cringe inducing socially awkward scenario that he gets himself into, can instantly be undone by traveling back in time. Even disastrous consequences of overused time travel are fixed by re-time traveling. As a result, it becomes very hard to have any concern for him.
I am aware that I’m over-thinking and over-analyzing this film, and maybe that’s my problem. I don’t want to be too harsh on a film that intends to be a sweet romance about appreciating the present moment. But despite the likeable cast, I could not get past the glaring holes in the premise or the inherently unethical behavior of Tim that goes on far too long without any consequences.
I did very much enjoy seeing Richard Griffiths again in his brief cameo, as well as some of the cute romantic scenes between McAdams and Gleeson.
Content Advisory: Several sexual encounters with partial nudity, some sexual references, occasional vulgar language, and a serious accident. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Overall Recommendation: C-
Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Chad Hartigan. Starring Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan, and Robert Longstreet.
This is Martin Bonner is a delightful film, the kind which one wishes to see more of, but all too rarely does. It is a quiet unassuming film that takes a simple story and through that story manages to portray some of the most poignant human emotions and experiences along with some of the most heartfelt realistic characters that have graced the silver screen in 2013.
Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) has recently relocated from Maryland to Arizona. After being unemployed for two years and filing for bankruptcy, he is finally starting a new job with a clean slate as a coordinator for an organization that helps released prisoners reenter society and find work.
Travis Holloway (Richmond Arquette) has served twelve years in the Arizona state penitentiary for manslaughter and is now looking to rebuild his life, especially his relationship with his young adult daughter. Upon being released, he meets Martin and is assigned Steve Helms (Robert Longstreet) for a caseworker.
Both Martin and Travis are suffering disillusionment. Martin lost his job as a church coordinator after his wife divorced him and has been plagued by doubts and a crisis of faith ever since. Travis feels like an outcast among the well adjusted Steve and his wife, whom he describes as “very Christian,” because they seem only to talk about their faith and how Jesus has made everything work out for them. In one scene, they discuss how they found Jesus at the “late” age of sixteen; Travis cannot relate, and this discussion makes him feel hopelessly lost.
This is Martin Bonner is not interested in caricaturizing Christians with obnoxious believers and sympathetic agnostics. Steve and his wife make a very sympathetic couple. They obviously mean well, but their life has gone so smoothly that they do not realize that descriptions of their Christian bliss are alienating and discouraging to someone who has lived twelve years in prison without any significant relationships.
Martin, on the other hand, visits with Travis and speaks to him as a friend. Since they both are suffering broken individuals isolated from their families, they form a natural friendship. However, it is not their brokenness which forms the crux of their friendship. Rather their friendship is built upon ability of Martin to see Travis as a person first and foremost, before he offers to help him. Travis in turn recognizes Martin as an individual and reaches out to him in his loneliness.
The last three popes have spoken of a need for a new evangelization, and in his recent interview with American Magazine Pope Francis specifically said that the utmost consideration in interacting with any sinner, which we all are, is always to consider the person first. One of the easiest traps to fall into is placing any important truth above embracing others with mercy and love. This is Martin Bonner portrays the beauty and success of two characters who naturally interact with compassion, unaware of the good that they accomplish for each other.
Director and writer Chad Hartigan’s empathetic and vulnerable characters are the strongest asset of the film. From Martin to Travis to his daughter to Steve and his wife, all of the characters are completely believable showcasing genuine emotions. Those characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented cast as well as Hartigan’s straightforward, realistic dialogue. That dialogue is further strengthened by Hartigan’s simple yet elegant camerawork. One emotionally intense scene in a restaurant is first shot through reflections in a mirror, but as the intensity increases the camera shifts to focus directly on the faces of the actors.
Before I watched This is Martin Bonner, I was a little nervous that it would not live up to the high praise that my favorite critics were lavishing upon it, and I would be disappointed. Those fears were completely unfounded; this film is every bit as good as I had heard, and it even exceeded my very high expectations. The film only runs eighty minutes, but in those eighty minutes it depicts one of the strongest stories about faith and above all, love.
This review was supposed to be short, but even at this length, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of all the riches this film has to offer.
Content Advisory: Fleeting depiction of non-graphic sexual activity with partial nudity, and some rough language. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A
Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo.
Prisoners is shaping up to be the 2013 entry in the category of “films which everyone else really admires but Evan passionately dislikes.” At least I do not dislike it nearly as much as I dislike last two years’ entries in that category. And I promise to try not to be too snarky, but I cannot make any guarantees when I dislike a film this much.
In the movie’s defense, there are two strong points: there is a late third act plot twist that is kept hidden pretty well, and it does cast a new light on proceedings, even if it also creates other problems. And the best thing about the movie is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, lots of long still takes, which would have worked well with the material to create a tense atmosphere if anything else had worked.
Very early in Prisoners, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating local child molesters, and he stops by a local Catholic church to question the priest. Loki finds the priest passed out with several empty liquor bottles. He begins investigating and finds a secret basement door. Inside the basement, he finds a man who was beaten to death after being tied to a chair with his mouth duct taped. The priest (an elderly man who walks very slowly and could never have overpowered a younger man) says the dead man came to him in confession and told him that he (the dead man) was at a war with God, and to make people lose their faith, he had kidnapped, molested, and murdered sixteen children, and boasted that he was going to continue doing so. Therefore, the priest decided the only thing he could do without breaking the seal of Confession was to kill the man. Believe it or not, the priest is telling the truth, and the movie ultimately vindicates his actions.
EDIT: After some discussion with friends, I will admit that “vindicates” is too strong a word. “Excuses” or “turns a blind eye to” is a better way to express my opinion of the film’s conclusion.
The priest’s actions are
vindicated excused by Keller, played by Hugh Jackman in a performance so over the top that it reminded me of John Goodman’s “You’re entering a world of pain” tirades from The Big Lebowski. While absurdly over the top performances often work well in comedies, Prisoners is about as far removed from a comedy as possible.
Keller becomes obsessed with Alex (Paul Dano), believing against all odds that Alex kidnapped and is holding his daughter and her friend captive. To extract information Keller sinks to dehumanizing levels of torture that made most of the audience gasp and cringe in shock. I found his tactics so repulsive and alienating that I was hoping he never found his daughter. She didn’t deserve a father as brutal and unethical as that. Even the sadistic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was more humane than Jackson’s character.
The third act twist (half of which I predicted within 20 minutes of the opening) makes it quite clear that Keller’s actions were no different than the kidnapper/molester/murderer’s. The villain kidnapped and tortured two six year olds, and Keller kidnapped and came within inches of killing a man with the mentality of an eight year old. However, Keller had good intentions while the villain did not, so as Keller’s wife tells Loki, Keller is a good man who did what he needed to do for his family. As Loki silently nods, it makes logical sense that the murdering vigilante priest is also good man for doing what he needed to do to protect innocent children and atone for his past crimes.
There is one scene when Keller begins the Lord’s Prayer. When he gets to the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” he stops. It is a nice sentiment, but it is too little too late, and the rationalization which follows undermines the effect that the scene could have had.
Towards the end of the film, Loki thinks he has solved the mystery. But director Dennis Villeneuve still wishes to make the audience squirm. Therefore, Loki- a skilled cop – inadvertently releases a bunch of poisonous snakes that one of the suspects kept only for a ludicrous plot point. That was the point when I officially gave up on the film.
There is an obligatory scene when Loki thinks he has failed, shoves everything off his desk, and then repeatedly smashes his keyboard. At that point, I started laughing. Even though an innocent man has been tortured within inches of death, a man has committed suicide, two girls have been presumably drugged, raped, and murdered, that scene was so extreme I lost it. Then Loki notices a clue in a crime scene photo he had missed; IT IS THE CLUE HE NEEDS. I half expected him to jump up and dance around while the “Hallelujah Chorus” played; it would not have been out of place.
I can imagine why Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard would agree to do this. The premise had potential, and the movie has a veneer of being a serious thriller. I cannot imagine what possessed Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo to be a part of this absurdly over the top, bloodlust mess.
There are a few critics who have observed that Prisoners screams: “Nominate me for an Oscar!” If the academy actually goes for this (and I hope they don’t), hopefully Deakins will be recognized. His work is the only thing in the movie that warrants mention.
Content Advisory: Many intense graphic depictions of torture, themes of child abduction and abuse, disturbing images, drug use, and some harsh language. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: D
Year of Release: 1986 Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, and Johnny Depp.
If you are a fan of this movie, I suggest taking your blood pressure medication before reading this review. For I come to bury Platoon, not to praise it. The flaws of this film substantially outweigh the tiny amount of good that it debatably accomplishes, good which can be found in other vastly superior Vietnam War films.
Vastly superior Vietnam War films would most notably include Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s flawed but compelling and thought provoking Full Metal Jacket. Both of those films tell intriguing stories that challenge the viewer and make him consider and think about what he has seen. Platoon, on the other hand, relies on cheap emotional manipulation and shock tactics to hammer its point home: war is EVIL, and it makes soldiers do EVIL things. Apparently, Oliver Stone believes we need two hours of lousy, predictable, manipulative storytelling to tell us that war is evil.
Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a wealthy white collar American student who drops out of college and enlists to fight in Vietnam as a way of proving that he can accomplish something on his own and also as a means of rebelling against his parents. Since he is a new recruit, none of the other soldiers respect him, and they spend much of their time belittling him and giving him humiliating tasks like cleaning the outhouse.
Fortunately for Taylor, one of his superiors, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) takes a liking to him and defends him against some of the rougher soldiers. Elias welcomes Taylor and they bond over a shared joint of marijuana when some of the nicer privates invite Taylor to their late night recreational drug party.
Unfortunately for Taylor, the moral and conscientious Elias is locked in a power struggle with the sadistic and power hungry Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who tries to make life miserable for Elias and his privates. We know Elias is the good guy, because he criticizes the war and calls it pointless, whereas Barnes loves the war as a way to brutalize both the Vietnamese and American soldiers who question his ruthless tactics. Barnes has a badly scarred face, while Elias is good looking. Barnes lies to his superiors, but Elias’ reports contain the truth. Barnes rapes women and shoots children for fun, and encourages his soldiers to do likewise. Elias beats up Barnes when he catches him murdering civilians, which causes a fight to break out between the privates who support Barnes and those who support Elias.
As an extension of the conflict between Barnes and Elias, Barnes’ privates make life difficult for Elias’ privates, because they are the villains and that is what they are supposed to do. In case you were wondering, it was Elias’ privates who invited Taylor to the marijuana party. Barnes and his privates do not miss an opportunity to bully, humiliate, and outright torture any soldier they do not like. Soldiers they dislike include nearly all of the African American soldiers, because the bad guys apparently have to be racist as well.
Every character and situation is an extreme caricature. There is no nuance or subtlety; no complex human beings who struggle with temptations to do evil, sometimes overcoming them, sometimes not. Instead the brutality becomes increasingly absurd and dehumanizing without any balancing counterpart. Since there is no sympathetic character to ground the viewer in the story, the brutally graphic violence becomes boring and desensitizing. It does not come across as horrific, because every situation is so extreme that there is no way for horror to upset the normal order of operations. If Stone had gone the slightest bit more extreme, Platoon would have been a comedy along the lines of Monty Python’s gory “Salad Days” or dark “Killer Joke.”
After two hours of watching the most contrived scenarios imaginable as soldiers debase themselves and sink to greater moral evils than the Vietnamese that they are fighting, Oliver Stone still fears that the audience is stupid and may have missed the blatant moral message that he has been bludgeoning into the viewer since the first scene. To explain the moral message that war is bad, Stone employs gratuitous voiceovers from Sheen as Taylor explains that war is horrible because it makes men no different than the enemy that they are fighting.
I beg to differ; in Platoon, the Vietnamese are honorable, family loving, and only depicted as fighting in self defense. Barnes and his privates are so repulsive, considering the absence of any moral order, the conclusion in which Taylor descends to Barnes’ level is natural and easy to predict well over an hour before it occurs. Barnes’ actions which drive Taylor over the edge are also obvious long before they happen.
In the film’s defense, I will admit that there were some scenes with very strong camera work that created the claustrophobic sense of oppression from the Vietnam jungle as well as the sense of hopelessness from the seemingly lost cause of the Vietnam War. However, that hardly saves the film.
Challenging, profound, harrowing, and masterpiece are all words that I have heard used to refer to Platoon. The words that come to my mind are: emotionally manipulative, predictable, in-your-face preachy, and desensitizing due to absurdity. I found this film so frustrating that it is one of the rare times that I truly cannot understand what anyone sees in it. Just because a film is about a tragic subject or contains shocking violence does not make it good. The way that a film presents its subject (important or not) is the determining factor for its artistic merit. Even as someone who mostly agrees with Stone’s points concerning the great evils that war can tempt men to commit, his irritating, manipulative, and extreme presentation obliterates any worthwhile message that Platoon might have had.
Content Advisory: Many gruesome and graphic depictions of wartime atrocities, much profane and obscene language, recreational drug use, and fleeting rear nudity. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment
Overall Recommendation: D+