Friday, October 24, 2014

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


Everyone in the family seems to breeze through life except for Alexander (Ed Oxenbould). According to the third of four Cooper children, every day is a bad day. Whether it’s waking up with gum in his hair or accidentally setting a girl’s lab book on fire, there’s always something that goes wrong for him. It all seems even more unfair because his parents and siblings, armed with positive attitudes, can’t relate in ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.

To make matters worse, it appears that fate is getting a head start on ruining Alexander’s twelfth birthday. The day before his party he learns that his modest celebration will be competing with a more popular boy’s blowout even though his classmate’s actual birthday isn’t for another week. Alexander’s big day also falls on an eventful one for the rest of his family. It’s opening night for his older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey), who’s starring in the school’s production of PETER PAN. Older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) has prom and his driver’s test. His dad Ben (Steve Carell) is interviewing with a video game firm, and his mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is overseeing a book launch that could lead to a big promotion. Baby brother Trevor (Elise Vargas) doesn’t have anything on the calendar to steal Alexander’s thunder, but he does co-opt more of their parents’ attention.

For his birthday Alexander wishes that his family could understand what kind of days he has. The wish isn’t intended to wreck an important day for everyone else, but when his teflon family experiences a series of comedic disasters, Alexander believes he’s somehow responsible.

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY serves as Disney’s nicer alternative to the crass DIARY OF A WIMPY KID films. Everyone tends to be pretty pleasant in his immediate circle, and the indignities that exasperate Alexander are mostly small in nature. The film, adapted from Judith Viorst’s children’s book, stresses that Alexander’s problem stems from his perspective rather than being burdened like a pre-teenage Job. While being surrounded by abundant optimism can be wearisome when going through a rough time, Alexander overlooks the stresses the rest of the family is under but pushes through. Making the best of days or situations is a worthy lesson to convey to kids--or adults, for that matter.

Director Miguel Arteta puts the Coopers through the paces of broad family comedy with routine payoffs. At best the labored scenarios are lightly amusing, with Carell and Garner giving enthusiastic performances to compensate for the run-of-the-mill material. At worst the recurring gags fall flat because of how obvious they are from their set-ups. For all of the effort invested in physical comedy, a running joke about a typo discovered at the last minute stands out as the best ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY has to offer.

The film as a whole seems like it posts low stakes and needs to maintain the status quo. Bravo to the Coopers for keeping cool heads under mildly trying times, but such rationality under pressure does not create an optimal environment for humor.

Grade: C

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Best of Me

THE BEST OF ME (Michael Hoffman, 2014)

Former high school sweethearts Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) and Dawson (James Marsden) did not end on good terms when they last saw each other 21 years ago in THE BEST OF ME. (Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey play their younger selves.) A reunion occurs when their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney) dies, thus beckoning them back to their Louisiana hometown to spread his ashes and take care of his estate.

Their relationship always seemed like an unlikely coupling. The gregarious Amanda comes from a wealthy family. The socially awkward Dawson was raised among a band of lowlifes who look like they might be at home in Jim Rose’s Circus. Amanda is not much interested in renewing ties with Dawson but respects Tuck’s wishes even if being around her onetime boyfriend reopens old emotional wounds. She’s the mother of two children and has been married for eighteen years while Dawson is on his own working on an oil rig. Amanda and Dawson get on friendlier terms as they remember the good times but are cautious about becoming too comfortable together again.

THE BEST OF ME is shot like a prescription drug television advertisement, so ask your doctor if this Nicholas Sparks adaptation is right for you. Side effects include overdosing on the novelist’s brand of cynical sentimentality that posits the best way to love someone is for the other party to be dead, which is not limited to romantic love. For all of their earnestness, films based on Sparks’ books are often brazen in how they provide characters with satisfaction of the heart through punishment.

Monaghan and Marsden play their roles with admirable restraint. When director Michael Hoffman keeps things loose and lets Amanda and Dawson hang out as their younger and older selves, he works toward building a seriously minded, albeit tepid, romance about reacquainting with a long-lost love. Still, THE BEST OF ME lacks a spark because it hides the major event in Amanda and Dawson’s past that explains what went wrong between them. Obviously the characters are privy to this information, but other than surprising the audience, there’s nothing to be gained in the narrative by withholding it until a third act revelation. Burying the key obstacle between Amanda and Dawson renders their situation less poignant for most of the film for the sake of dropping an emotional bombshell.

In the final act the gears of Sparks’ plotting also undo THE BEST OF ME. After leisurely shifting between their new love affair in 1992 and meeting again in the present day, the story piles up complications at a breakneck pace. The soapier developments are, the more laughable it all becomes.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


OCULUS (Mike Flanagan, 2013)

Eleven years after tragedy struck the Russell family in OCULUS, siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reunite to obtain proof that a supernatural force upended their lives. 21-year-old Tim is newly discharged from the psychiatric facility where he’s been since the fateful night in 2002 when he killed their father (Rory Cochrane) in self-defense. He grudgingly indulges his older sister’s notion that a four-centuries-old mirror known as the Lasser Glass was responsible for their mom (Katee Sackhoff) having a psychological breakdown and their dad killing her.

Kaylie has tracked down the mirror and brings it to the old family home with the intention of killing it. She has arranged a dual camera recording set-up and seemingly fail-safe schedule to ensure tapes never run out, she and Time are nourished and hydrated, and someone on the outside checks regularly on her welfare. Kaylie’s even rigged an anchor to a timer and killswitch that will smash the glass if they are incapacitated.

Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan prizes sustaining a disturbing mood and succeeds for the most part. Small in scale, OCULUS can feel like a short film idea stretched beyond its limits, and in fact this story first took shape as a 32-minute short before being expanded by more than an hour for this incarnation. Overall, though, Flanagan builds the atmosphere through suggestion and pays off the tension releases frequently enough so that the film doesn’t drag too much.

OCULUS isn’t all about tone, though. Although the gross-out moments are few, they are memorable. Among the delightfully cringe-worthy part are using a staple remove to pry off a bandage while digging into a finger at the nail and taking a bite out of a light bulb as if it were an apple.

Freely switching between the past and the present, OCULUS tries to approximate a post-traumatic stress experience in which a high amount of uncertainty in memories exists. Toying with whether what we see is real or fantasy could get old quickly, but in this instance Flanagan disorients the viewer without feeling like he’s cheating for cheap scares.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Fort Bliss

FORT BLISS (Claudia Myers, 2014)

Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) enjoys and excels at her job as an Army medic. On the last day of a 15-month deployment in her second tour of Afghanistan she saves a fellow soldier, an action for which she earns a Bronze Star Medal. Coming home to Texas in FORT BLISS should be a happy occasion, but it merely introduces a different set of problems for her to confront. Her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston) arrives late to welcome her home and doesn’t bring their son Paul (Oakes Fegley). Not only does the five-year-old boy not want to come and see her, but he also treats Richard’s fiancée Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui) as his mother.

Although Paul continues to reject Maggie, she insists that he will be living with her now that she’s back. After a day of getting nowhere with the sullen child, Maggie tells him they’ll start over as if they have never met. Gradually Paul warms up to her, but she still deals with sleepless nights and a struggle to readjust to life outside of war zone.

FORT BLISS enriches its portrait of a servicewoman by packing in a lot of tangible details regarding the military way of life. Writer-director Claudia Myers shows how the personal and professional coexist, like the early morning drop-off spot for kids while their parents work on the base, and how the job is something never entirely left behind. Those who serve are hailed for their selflessness, but the noble commitment can often come at the price of family stability and little sympathy for attending to it. Facing a tough decision between work and family, Staff Sergeant Swann tells her commanding officer, “I love my son and I love my country, and I don’t think I should have to choose between them.” With often heartbreaking examples the pushing and pulling between these priorities is captured repeatedly.

Both men and women feel the tension between loyalty to career and obligation to those at home, but FORT BLISS identifies how the choices aren’t really the same. Society expects Maggie to sacrifice personal ambition and satisfaction for the sake of raising her son more than her male colleagues, yet she justifies her reenlistment as a means of providing for him. At a minimum it’s more acceptable for men to demonstrate their support through their jobs. Myers explores the double standard not in an accusatory manner but rather to highlight where equivalency does not exist even though it may be thought to be present.

Monaghan is terrific at playing someone who finds toughness easier to project, in part because it can mean the difference between life and death in her work. Although Maggie displays few maternal instincts, especially in the poignant moments when Paul rebuffs her, she’s not incapable of expressing them but simply in need of the kind of training that she’s devoted herself to in the army. Monaghan reveals Maggie’s inner conflict as she attempts to reconcile her experiences on the warfront that have become second nature and the domestic life that is now something of a culture shock. She attracts empathy because of how much she proves she’s trying to make the best of formidable issues she’s not entirely equipped to handle.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Love is Strange

LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs, 2014)

After being together for thirty-nine years the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) is the happiest moment of their lives, but the big day also leads to the hardship that follows in LOVE IS STRANGE. Ben teaches music at a Catholic school. While his relationship with George has not been a secret, news and photos of their marriage catch the attention of the archdiocese. George is considered to be in violation of the Christian witness statement he signed as terms of employment, so just like that he’s terminated from his job.

George intends to teach private lessons and look for other work, but for now his income and Ben’s pension are not sufficient to afford their Manhattan apartment. They must sell their place and find family and friends who will take them in during the transition. Ben’s niece Mindy (Christina Kirk) has ample space for them in Poughkeepsie, but their lives are oriented around New York City. Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) agrees to house his uncle Ben, although the 71-year-old painter must share a bunk bed with his great-nephew Joey (Charlie Tahan). George ends up staying on a couch with their police officer friends Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson).

Naturally, the arrangements are less than ideal. Ben often interrupts Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) while she tries to work from home. Joey acts as if having Ben around so much is cramping his style. George is staying with a couple whose frequent entertaining and socializing are at odds with his more introverted personality.

The set-up for LOVE IS STRANGE makes it sound as though it will be a message movie about the lack of legal protections for gay men and women in the workplace. Instead the instigating event points toward a study of the challenges in living with those you love, especially when being an outsider in a household also makes things difficult for the hosts. Ben and George try not to be nuisances, nor do they complain about the concessions they’re making, yet they can’t help but notice that they don’t fit in the places they’ve been forced into. They shoulder the burden as best they can and try to see each other when too few opportunities allow.

Frustration touches everyone in LOVE IS STRANGE, but this gentle film resists large emotional outbursts. The blame for tension in these homes points both ways, and director and co-writer Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias spot the humor in the little things people do to annoy one another. Sachs watches how routine things in one place can set off those unaccustomed to them in their domain. What’s normal and implicitly accepted in one living space can drive others crazy, particularly within a family striving to be polite under the circumstances. As George tells a piano student imposing her ideas on a Chopin piece, you can’t make your own rhythm. Everybody is trying to keep in time in LOVE IS STRANGE, but inevitably not all can maintain a beat that isn’t familiar.

Restraint marks the performances in this close-knit circle of family and friends. Molina and Lithgow do tender work as longtime companions so at ease in their home together and so ill-fitting in their replacement environments. They display dignity in a situation that takes swipes at it. When Ben and George get a night on the town, it’s as though the film relaxes with them. They’re free to be themselves without disrupting their hosts. The love they’ve shared for almost four decades has faced interference while they try to be polite guests, but this beautiful scene allows them to express the relief of fully being who they are together. 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 describes love as patient and kind, among other qualities. Strange isn’t one of those listed characteristics, yet seeing the others demonstrated in this film reveals that something oddly wonderful exists when people try to rise up to such an example.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Equalizer

THE EQUALIZER (Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) leads what looks to be a simple, quiet life in THE EQUALIZER, but the ordinary appearance of the man known as Bob to co-workers and acquaintances hides the truth of a past he’s trying to leave behind. As far as anyone can tell, Bob is a retiree who picked up a job at a home improvement warehouse to stay busy. He enjoys the work and finds purpose in mentoring Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a young colleague who wants to become a security guard. Late at night, when he can’t sleep, he takes a classic novel and a tea bag to a nearby diner to pass the darkest hours.

Teenage prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz) is also a regular at the eatery in the middle of the night. She and Bob are on friendly terms, perhaps because he displays concern for her well-being while withholding judgment and comments about the occupation she’s been forced into. When Alina isn’t sitting at the counter one evening Bob learns she is in the hospital’s intensive care unit after getting beat up. He pays a visit to her pimp Slavi (David Meunier) and offers $9800 to buy her freedom. When Bob’s money is rejected, he slaughters the roomful of Russians and leaves no trace of his involvement. Clearly there’s a dangerous skill set hidden in the mild-mannered guy who cuts lumber and reads the literary canon. Rather than putting an end to the situation, though, Bob’s actions summon Teddy (Marton Csokas), a Russian secret policeman turned criminal enforcer who aims to get revenge on those responsible for killing the East Coast hub of the Russian mob.

THE EQUALIZER provides Washington with the opportunity to follow Liam Neeson’s success in aging tough guy roles. This potential franchise character could be a superhero suited for the graying population. Opening with a Mark Twain quotation--“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why”--confirms THE EQUALIZER as an origin story. His brute strength and ingenuity in hand-to-hand combat seem to have no equal. Director Antoine Fuqua borrows visual techniques from the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock Holmes episodes to depict McCall’s virtually superhuman split-second calculations in key situations.

McCall’s appeal comes from Washington’s charisma as a modern knight clad in impeccable dress shirts in place of armor. Washington wears his movie star cool instead of deriving authority and adoration from a costume, gadgets, and special powers. Without seeming arrogant or threatening he commands respect and an innate understanding that McCall is always the smartest and baddest guy in the room. For as violent as THE EQUALIZER is, Washington’s smooth performance makes him seem most volatile when facing down the villains in conversation.

THE EQUALIZER plays like an expanded version of a CBS procedural, and sure enough, it originated as a television series on the Tiffany Network in the mid-to-late 1980s. The story is both padded out and condensed. Seemingly insignificant subplots bear fruit in the end, but often if feels as though a season’s plotline has been jammed into a film exceeding two hours. The climactic showdown delivers gory satisfaction but lacks the tension that should have been accumulating and releasing for a scene of its magnitude. Washington’s untouchable bearing compensates for such shortcomings, making certain that the THE EQUALIZER finishes with a positive balance.

Grade: B-