John G. Avildsen’s ‘The Karate Kid’ is Still the Infinite Crowd Pleaser

The Karate Kid 1984 poster

I wanted to write about “The Karate Kid” because it’s one of those movies which stays with me to where I know every piece of dialogue in it. I got to see it at the long-gone Melody Theater back in Thousand Oaks where I saw many classic 1980’s movies. I still vividly remember seeing it with my older brother and mom, and it was one of the few movies she would ever take us to see in a theater back then.

It has now been more than 30 years since the original it came out, so I guess it’s safe to say you all know the story by now. Ralph Macchio plays Daniel LaRusso, a high school teenager who moves with his mom from New Jersey to California. Having moved a lot as a kid, I can appreciate his frustration at having to adapt to new surroundings which are not prepared to welcome you with open arms. He runs afoul of a tough gang known as the Cobra Kais, and they are led by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). When he sees Daniel flirting with his girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue), Johnny lays down the law and kicks Daniel’s ass without any pity.

“The Karate Kid” had a strong impact on me. I got picked on a bit when I was a kid, and seeing him get messed around with filled me with a sadness and anger in how unfairly people get treated. You want to see him get his revenge against these guys even though it will likely bring the same vicious reaction from the Cobra Kai. When you see him get beat up again, I remember how angrier and angrier I got. But that’s when this movie gave us one of its best moments as Mr. Miyagi came to the rescue and kicked ass. Seeing Miyagi coming from behind in the shadows got my heart and excitement up, and it was a pleasure to see him give those bullies the beating they deserved.

Mr. Miyagi is one of the best characters to come out of the 1980’s, and he remains one of my favorites from that decade. He is basically an Okinawan Yoda, and he is brought to life by the late Pat Morita in a performance I was so hoping would snag him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he was nominated for. Although this character became a cliché for many other movies, the guy who does a low profile and lonely job but who is actually a war hero with the greatest of skills and training, Morita is brilliant in how he shows the seriousness of Miyagi as well as his joyous and humorous side as well. I did not realize Morita was a stand-up comedian before he did this movie. Then again, he was on “Happy Days” for a while.

After all these years, “The Karate Kid” still proves to be one of the few movies which really shows us the truth about karate. Karate is a spiritual thing more than anything else, and it was not about being trained to attack the way John Kreese (Martin Kove) taught others to do. It was about defense more than anything else. Moreover, it was about making yourself a better person on the inside as opposed to just the outside. I have heard from my closest friends about how studying karate helped raise their self-esteem to where they felt better about themselves. I even studied karate for a bit to experience it for myself, and it’s something I hope to continue in the near future.

The friendship between Daniel and Miyagi is one of the best I have ever seen portrayed onscreen. You are pretty much in Daniel’s shoes as he tries to figure out what the heck is going on when Miyagi has him washing his cars, painting his fence, sanding his floor and painting his house instead of teaching him karate. This leads to one of my favorite moments where Daniel realizes Miyagi has trained him in karate without him even knowing it. All these chores give him reflexes which have become ingrained in his consciousness to where they are practically automatic, and it is then that he realizes he has long since learned how to defend himself.

As Daniel LaRusso, Macchio gave us his quintessential performance from the 80’s. In the first two “Karate Kid” movies, he found a balance between being obnoxious and sincere, and he makes LaRusso a likable guy to where his transformation into a true karate student feels real and authentic.

Shue was so beautiful in this movie, and I liked how she embodied her character to where she practically spits at the clichés of the typical spoiled rich girl we have seen in far too many movies. Shue and Macchio might seem like a highly unlikely couple, but these two convince you they could be together. I always hated how Shue’s character got dumped in “The Karate Kid Part II.” I never really bought how that all came about, and I thought it was really shitty to not include her in the sequel. Shue was a wonderful and vivacious presence here, and she went on to give an unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Morita’s career went downhill after appearing in “The Karate Kid.” Seeing him doing local car center commercials was frustrating, but what he does here with Miyagi is amazing. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes the character to where you never really see him acting, and that’s great film acting.

John G. Avildsen, best known for directing “Rocky,” helmed this movie with the same level of confidence as he did with the one he won a Best Director Oscar for, and he gives us a rousingly good time at the movies in the process. Since he has two great actors in the lead roles, he doesn’t waste time trying to manipulate our emotions because he makes everything in “The Karate Kid” feel very real. You’re not just watching this movie, you’re experiencing it along with the characters.

I also want to mention Kove’s performance as John Kreese as he proves to be the real villain of “The Karate Kid.” He trains his students viciously as if they are in a constant state of military basic training you would rather see end sooner than later. Kreese has programmed these kids to hurt and inflict punishment, any they look up to him for all the wrong reasons. But towards the end, they come to see Kreese is not all he is cracked up to be. There’s a great moment where he looks at Zabka as he is taking a break in the climatic fight with Daniel LaRusso and tells him to “sweep the leg.” Zabka’s character of Johnny Lawrence looks at Kreese like he is out of his mind, and it adds another to where it keeps the characters from becoming a pair of one-dimensional jerks we have seen too often.

“The Karate Kid” is a well written movie directed to near perfection and acted with supreme skill. After all these years, I never get sick of watching it, and I don’t think I ever will.

* * * * out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is One of the Best Horror Movies Ever Made

The Thing movie poster

Many of you probably know the story behind John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It came out in the summer of 1982, two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s “E.T,” and while the alien from Spielberg’s movie was warm and cuddly, the one in Carpenter’s was cold, ugly, and utterly vicious. As a result, “The Thing” was quickly derided by both critics and fans alike, and no one hid their disgust towards Carpenter for what they saw as pornography of violence. In all fairness, however, the movie was released at the wrong time of the year. To release it during what Carpenter called the “summer of love” opposite not just “E.T.,” but also “Star Trek II” and “Tron” was a big mistake on the part of Universal Pictures, and they would have had more luck had they released it in the winter of 1982.

Years later, “The Thing,” like many of Carpenter’s movies, found the audience it deserved through home video and digital media. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but it is now considered, and rightly so, one of the best horror and sci-fi movies ever made, and it is easily the best horror remake in a sea of horrendously crappy ones. It certainly plays better today than it did when first released, and it is still utterly terrifying 35 years after its release.Unlike the original Howard Hawks version of “The Thing,” Carpenter’s movie hews much closer to the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. The movie takes place at an American scientific research outpost in Antarctica, perhaps the coldest place on Earth. We are introduced to a bunch of men who are studying the surrounding area, and they look bored and listless as they pass the days smoking, drinking scotch, watching “Let’s Make a Deal” reruns, and playing ping pong. One day, they are met by a wolf being shot at by a Norwegian for no discernable reason. This later leads to events which make them realize they have encountered an alien of unknown origin unearthed from the ice after thousands and thousands of years. It then proceeds to imitate every creature it comes into contact with, and it is revealed any of them could be the thing. They have to destroy the thing before it reaches civilization because, once it does, it would mean the end of the world.

The premise of “The Thing” is genius because it allows for an unending escalation of tension and suspense throughout. Like the characters, you have no idea who to trust. The paranoia which closes in on the characters puts them in an airtight cage, and this cage gets smaller and smaller as it heads to its infinitely bleak climax. There are no women to be found which eliminates any sexual tension and could have added an unnecessary element to the movie. Many say this makes the movie sexist, but it is a ridiculous charge.

“The Thing” was released when the whole world started to become aware of the AIDS virus. The idea of any virus infecting us completely and rearranging our body to the point may have seemed unreal to us back in 1982. But today, it is a reality more horrifying than ever, and it presents itself with no cure. This makes “The Thing” even scarier to take in when watching it now. The scene where Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) observes a computer image of the virus infecting a human host is one of the movie’s scariest moments, and it feels like an all too real a possibility today. The only thing truly dated about the scene is the computer graphics look like they are from some old Atari game, but it doesn’t change anything.

This movie also marks one of several collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who started working together on the TV movie “Elvis.” After all these years, Russell can still make you believe he is a regular guy like the rest of us, and his role as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady is one of his best. You never get the feeling Russell is acting here. Instead, he inhabits the character he plays, and you follow him every step of the way without any doubt of who the hero really is.

Carpenter cast “The Thing” perfectly with actors like Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and David Clennon. But one of the best performances comes from Brimley as Dr. Blair. In the past, we have seen him in countless oatmeal commercials and in roles as the grandfather we wished we had in our lives. But his role in “The Thing” offered him an opportunity to go completely against type. Brimley goes from curious to utterly horrified by what this unknown creature can do, and he ends up wreaking havoc in a way you would never ever see in an oatmeal.

Another great actor in this movie is Keith David who plays Childs. David has a don’t mess with me intensity, and he matches Russell’s intensity every step of the way. The tension between them is as frightening as is waiting for the thing to make its next horrifically gory entrance.

But let’s talk about who the real star of “The Thing” really is, and that is Rob Bottin who designed the movie’s horrifically brilliant special effects and makeup designs. Long before the advance of computer technology, Bottin had to make all these designs from scratch, and what he came up with is now considered a benchmark in his field. The thing mimics everything it touches, and this must have been a huge inspiration for him as it allowed his imagination to run amuck with infinite possibilities. You never know what’s coming next, and this makes “The Thing” even scarier.

Some have called this movie a “geek show” made only with the intention of grossing people out. Granted, a good case could be made for that, but “The Thing” explores a theme that is commonplace in many of Carpenter’s movies; the struggle to maintain one’s individuality. Of never letting go of who you are because it allows you to survive in a world which keeps finding new ways of robbing your individuality at any given opportunity. The threat of this loss is very real, and the characters have the unfortunate disadvantage of being stuck in one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth.

I also imagine a big complaint people have about “The Thing” is we never learn about the alien or where it came from. Basically, we know it’s from outer space which imitates whatever it comes in contact with, and it clearly deals with the cold better than any of us do. Here’s the thing, do we really need to know everything about this creature? Maybe not knowing is more terrifying than knowing. It leaves a lot of things to the viewer’s imagination which I love because it leaves so many possibilities open for how this horrific situation is going to play out.

“The Thing” truly is Carpenter’s masterpiece as it shows him to be a true master of horror and suspense. He endlessly generates unbearable tension throughout, and just when you think the movie has peaked, you realize it has not. Carpenter’s goal here is not just to make us jump out of our seats, but to make us feel the terrifying isolation and complete lack of trust these characters are forced to endure.

Carpenter has said “The Thing” was the first in his apocalypse trilogy (the other two were “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), and it does have an unrelentingly bleak tone which made it seem completely out of place back in 1982. As time goes on though, many of us keep thinking the world is coming to an end with more deadly diseases like the Ebola Virus among others, and the scenario this movie presents us feels all the more frightening and immediate as a result.

Some movies are robbed of their greatness through the passage of time, and we watch them and wonder why we liked them in the first place. But “The Thing” is an exception as the passage of time has made it all the more effective. You can’t help but think its story was ahead of its time, and it remains one of those movies I never ever tire of watching. It has more than earned its place on the list of my all-time favorite movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ Caps Off a Truly Great Trilogy

War for the Planet of the Apes poster

The summer 2017 movie season hasn’t necessarily been a bad one, but so far it has been overrun by franchise fatigue. Did we really need another “Transformers” sequel? Was the wait for the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” really worth it? Can’t Pixar do more than just give us another sequel to “Cars?” Some franchises have seriously overstayed their welcome to where it feels like we need to take a LONG break from sequels of any kind, except of course for the next ones coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But now we have “War for the Planet of the Apes,” the third in the rebooted “Apes” franchise which is not only the best one to date, but also one of the best movies of 2017. Unlike other sequels which essentially repeat the same story to nauseating effect, “War” is not out to give us a replica of everything which happened before. From the start, we see how far the apes have evolved, and we also see the humans going through a state of de-evolution as well. In this war, it won’t matter who wins because nothing will ever be the same for anybody.

Taking place two years after the events of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “War” finds the conflict between the apes and the humans getting bloodier and bloodier. Both sides have taken heavy casualties, and the humans have resorted to recruiting apes to betray their own in a desperate effort to gain the upper hand in an escalating conflict. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has now reached a mythic status on the planet as a strong leader, and he now speaks as well as any human. When the movie starts, he has just survived another battle which leaves many dead in its wake, but instead of killing the remaining human soldiers, he sends them back to their base with a message to their leader, leave us alone. At this point, Caesar merely wants to protect his fellow apes and everything which is rightfully theirs.

But after being reunited with his loving family, Caesar suffers an unimaginable tragedy perpetrated by a military unit led by the ruthless Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), and he heads out on a mission of revenge which, to quote a Klingon proverb, will be best served cold. Joined by several of his closest friends which include the wise and benevolent Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar comes not just to understand the world around him, but also about himself and of how he may be the maker of his own fate.

Whereas “Rise” dealt with evolution and how humans may not be a superior race of beings, and “Dawn” observed how humans and apes can be their own worst enemies, “War” focuses on the themes of vengeance and hate and what they do to the soul. Caesar’s quest for revenge is completely understandable, but his friends worry about what his hate for the Colonel is doing to his inner self. Caesar finds his strength from within and is as wise as he is strong, but we can see his soul is being corrupted on this mission as he is determined to exterminate his enemy with extreme prejudice.

The cost of revenge is a common theme in many stories, but “War” treats it with a great deal of intelligence. Caesar is constantly haunted by visions of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose treacherous actions led Caesar to drop him to his death in “Dawn.” Maurice, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of these “Apes” movies, reminds Caesar of how Koba never got past his hate for humans to see the need for peace. But while Caesar convinces himself his motives are far purer than Koba’s, he comes to realize he is no different from Koba as his need to exact revenge takes precedence over everything else which holds great meaning in his life. The question is, can Caesar pull out of this moral nosedive before it’s late, or will he sink into an abyss of hatred which will rob him of all he stands for?

Not enough can be said about Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar, and his work should have netted him at least one Oscar by now. We have seen Caesar go from being a frightened young ape into a hardened warrior, and Serkis has made every emotional beat count for something deep and true. While the visual effects help to illustrate how he has paid a price for the war being fought, it is Serkis who gives these effects soul and meaning as he plumbs the depths of Caesar to give us a character who is wonderfully complex and haunted by past deeds which cannot be simply washed away.

Woody Harrelson once again reminds us how he can play just about any role given to him these days with his portrayal of Colonel McCullough. His performance draws a bit from Marlon Brando’s in “Apocalypse Now” as, like Colonel Kurtz, McCullough has become a rogue soldier as his need to wipe out the apes and save the humans comes from a place of pain and delusion instead of from a higher military authority. Part of me expected to McCullough to be the usual military antagonist movies of this kind typically employ, but Harrelson gives this character much more dimension than you might be anticipating, and he matches Serkis scene for scene as their characters come to discover how alike they really are.

In addition, Serkis and Harrelson get strong support from Karin Konoval who makes Maurice far wiser than CGI can ever convey, Steve Zahn whose character of “Bad Ape” is kind of the equivalent to “Harry Potter’s” Dobby, and Amiah Miller is a scene-stealer as the mute war orphan who comes to be known as Nova.

Matt Reeves, who directed “Dawn,” returns to helm “War” and tops what he gave us before. The third movie in a franchise usually falls back on a well-trod formula, but he instead advances the plight of the apes to another level which furthers their evolution, and of the humans’ furious attempts to eradicate them which reveals their failings and a tremendous lack of understanding about where we all came from. And while the visual effects are tremendous in how they make the apes look ever so real, they are not the point. Reeves’ focus is more on character and performance more than ever before, and it is those things which make “War” especially epic. A lot of summer blockbusters are geared towards wowing us with special effects to where the human element is lost, but Reeves and company have the special effects serving the movie and its characters in a wonderfully effective way. On top of all this, “War” is well-served by one of Michael Giacchino’s best film scores to date.

The “Apes” reboot trilogy now joins the company of great cinematic trilogies such as Episodes IV, V and VI of “Star Wars,” the Jason Bourne trilogy, and “The Lord of the Rings” among others. It’s so pleasing to see filmmakers give us the kind of summer blockbuster many don’t always expect to see, one filled with great performances and intelligence as well as characters who are very interesting and whom you want to root for. Many blockbusters are the equivalent of a fast food meal which you may have enjoyed eating but which does not leave much of an aftertaste, but this is epic filmmaking which you can’t help but be emotionally drawn into. In a summer movie season which has been lacking to say the least, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a real winner.

I also have to say “War” kept reminded of a Talking Heads song called “(Nothing But) Flowers.” As apes and humans traverse a landscape dominated by trees, rocks and lakes to where you can’t remember the last time you saw a building, the following lyric kept playing in my head:

“If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is Wonderfully Unnerving

The Beguiled 2017 poster

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a movie I would describe as being wonderfully unnerving. Coppola takes her precious time setting up the story to where, when the situation worsens, we are left wondering how the characters can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. In the process, as the situation everyone is involved becomes increasingly chaotic, I couldn’t help but laugh. In a drama, this can be bad as a serious story which becomes laughable means the filmmakers failed in some way, but the laughs here serve as a release because the intensity of the story reaches a fever pitch to where we are unsure of how else to react. Plus, these are the kind of laughs which stick in your throat, and this means you would not laugh at what is going on here were this any other situation.

The word beguiled means being captivated, charmed, delighted, enthralled or entranced, and we see all of this on display right from the start. The movie is based on the novel “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan which in turn was made into a movie in 1971 directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. But while Hollywood has been remake happy for far too long, we know Coppola is going to take this material and make it her own. Plus, unlike other remakes, this one does not serve as a setup for a franchise desperate to match Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

“The Beguiled” takes us back to the year 1864, three years into the Civil War, in Virginia. While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and takes him back to the boarding school she is staying at. It is a Southern girls’ boarding school which still has a few students hanging around even as many others have since gone back home, and they live a secluded lifestyle which keeps them from the front lines. Regardless, we can all hear the gunshots and explosions going off in the distance which remind us that while the danger might be far away, it could always spill over to their location at any given moment.

As John recuperates from his injuries, he gets to know the girls at the school much better. They include the headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the rather quiet Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the teasingly playful Alicia (Elle Fanning). Time goes on, and John begins to slowly insinuate himself into the girls’ lives as he senses their needs and desires, some of which have long since been repressed. Sexual tension is definitely in the air as the ladies look longingly at John, and Edwina in particular is looking for a way to escape the secluded existence she has been trapped in, but we can all sense from the start that things will not culminate in a satisfactory solution for anyone.

What is brilliant about Coppola’s direction is how she hints at the longings of each character just from a look in their eyes. Furthermore, she is not quick to pass judgment on any of the characters to where we are left to make up our own opinions about them and their actions. Of course, how we view them ends up saying more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. Whereas Siegel’s take on “The Beguiled” may have been quick to cast John McBurney as a villain, Coppola’s version leaves you to decide this for yourself as Farrell gives us a man who is thankful for the help he has received and also unable to keep his libido in check (that’s what I think anyway).

“The Beguiled” reunites Coppola with actresses she has worked with previously. Dunst starred in her films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” and Fanning co-starred in “Somewhere” when she was just 11 years old. Here, they both get to act against type in a way which makes us appreciate their talents in a way we should have already. Dunst, who has played extroverts in a beautifully gleeful way, gives us a repressed and longing performance as Edwina, and it makes us question whether the perspiration on her face is the result of humidity or her strong desires she can only hide for so long. As for Fanning, she gets to portray a young woman entering her sexually aware phase in life, and she clearly relishes in playing someone ever so eager to explore her sexuality with a man, any man.

Coppola also gets to work with Kidman who plays someone religiously stern, but even John can see the longing in heart for something different. Kidman has always been a brilliant actress, and she has not lost any of her power as this movie shows. In her scenes with Farrell, she exhibits a desire she never has to spell out for the audience, and the scene where they are face to face is a wonderfully tense scene as you wonder if they will or they won’t. And as the movie reaches its unnerving climax, it is a gas to see her the devilish look on her face as she calculates how to best deal with the school’s unwanted guest.

After all these years, Farrell remains an infinitely charismatic actor, and he seduces not just the ladies in the movie but the audience as well with what seems like relative ease. While the rest of us men struggle to attract the opposite sex, he succeeds in doing so in a way we can’t help but be infinitely resentful of. Farrell insinuates his character of John McBurney into a situation he thinks he can control, but this is a movie told from a female perspective, and it makes his predicament all the more entertaining as he attempts to gain a hold on a living situation which is far beyond his grasp.

Along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the fact she shot this on 35mm film, Coppola gives “The Beguiled” a smoky and beautiful look few other filmmakers could have pulled off. The ladies in their costumes look those women from Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to where the attention to detail meshes perfectly with a dreamlike quality. The soundtrack is mostly insects and birds making noises in the humid wilderness, but it is eventually punctuated by the subtle but powerful hum of the music by Phoenix which more than hints at the tension, sexual or otherwise, which is bubbling just below the surface.

There should be no doubt by now that Sofia Coppola is a born director, and I am not just saying this because her father gave us “The Godfather” trilogy (and yes, I like the third one). She has a signature style all her own, and she pays sharp attention to both the visuals and her cast with equal measure. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise she picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a summer which seems beleaguered by franchise fatigue, “The Beguiled” is a nice and unnerving surprise as the suspense builds to where characters, who at once seemed a peaceful bunch, seize on their animalistic nature for the sake of survival.

* * * * out of * * * *

NOTE: “The Beguiled” has been the subject of controversy recently as Coppola decided to exclude the character of Hallie, a black slave, who was featured in the 1971 movie. As a result, she has been accused of whitewashing the story and of downplaying the role slaves had in the Civil War. Coppola has explained she did not want to present slavery in a lighthearted way and was concerned she would not be able to give the subject the attention it deserved. This seems like a sane response as it shows her sensitivity to the issue of slavery, and it would be hard to see how she could balance that out with the story of the women in a successful way here. I don’t think she is whitewashing this story in the slightest. Besides, with all the unrest in the world of American politics right now, Coppola is the last person we should be accusing of whitewashing anything.

‘Somewhere’ Finds Another Movie Star Lost in Translation

Somewhere movie poster

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

-Robin Williams from “World’s Greatest Dad”

“Somewhere” opens with Stephen Dorff’s character of Johnny Marco driving his Ferrari around in circles in some far-off place. It goes on for a while to the point where some in the audience might say, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” However, the length of the scene defines the state Johnny’s life. He’s a movie star with adoring fans, and getting women to sleep with him is easy as cake. But aside from being a successful actor, he looks completely lost compared to everyone else around him. Johnny has no direction in life, and emotion looks like a luxury he can’t afford. Even those beautiful female twins pole dancing in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont can’t excite or arouse him, and they succeed in making him fall asleep more than anything else. We see him surrounded by so many people who profess to adore him, but all they do is make him feel more isolated from anyone and everybody.

But then one morning Johnny wakes up to find his 11-year old daughter Cleo signing the cast on his arm. From there, we see him come alive as he gets to spend time with the one person who loves him in a way no one else can. With his daughter, he gains some idea of adult responsibility, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants.

Now this may make “Somewhere” sound like a sitcom more than a movie as the story features a father getting closer to his daughter which changes his perspective and all, but it is anything but that. This is Sofia Coppola’s first movie since “Marie Antoinette,” and she makes this one anything but sentimental and manipulative. It’s more like she captures moments between Johnny and Cleo more than she films then, and it makes “Somewhere” feel all the more real.

Many have said “Somewhere” feels like a European film in how slowly it moves, and it is never in a rush to get to the next moment. This is correct, but I like the fact it takes its time. Today’s movies are always rushing from one moment to the next to where we never have enough time to digest everything we witnessed. That Sofia Coppola goes against this trend is very welcome, and it makes for a far more involving movie.

Seeing Cleo accompany her father to Italy for a movie premiere could have been clichéd and corny as hell, but seeing them together makes it feel intimate and far more original than any other filmmaker could have captured. Some will say this is autobiographical, but I believe Sofia when she says that it isn’t. Granted, she definitely has an insider’s view of show business being the daughter of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola, but this story feels removed from her own life. Her parents never divorced, and she appears to come from a very loving family. Cleo, on the other hand, is a child of divorce, and we know she will suffer more from it that her parents will.

As played by Elle Fanning, Cleo comes across as far more adult than her father and it’s a kick to see her prepare breakfast for him, showing she is easily more mature. She also makes what looks like a sumptuous Eggs Benedict, and anyone who knows me best is aware I order it whenever my parents are in town and take me out to breakfast. Of course, I’m on a diet now, but seeing her cook it so successfully makes me want to head out to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast all day.

Fanninf has been in the shadow of her older sister Dakota who has given strong performances in movies like Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” and “The Runaways.” I haven’t seen her in anything since “The Door in The Floor” where she acted opposite Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, but she really comes into her own here with this character who is ever so charming. You never catch her acting here. She just inhabits her character with what seems like relative ease, and watching her come to life as Cleo is a joy.

Dorff is an interesting choice to play Johnny Marco. Best known for his roles in “Backbeat,” “Blade,” and “Cecil B. Demented” among other movies, Dorff does seem to have the “bad boy” image, though not necessarily to Charlie Sheen’s level. In “Somewhere,” he manages to find the right balance between being a nice guy and a thoughtless prick to where we empathize with him more than decry his irresponsibly selfish ways. Like Fanning, Dorff becomes his character more than plays him, and he keeps him from becoming a caricature of a movie star. We find ourselves wanting him to do right by his daughter even if he doesn’t always do so.

The other big character in “Somewhere” is the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It has a lot of history involving movie and rock stars, many of whom have lived here for a time. John Belushi famously died of a drug overdose at the hotel, and his death still haunts all those who were the closest to him. The history of the Chateau Marmont hangs over Johnny Marco’s head as we can’t help but wonder if the hotel will suck him up whole.

Granted, this film does share similarities to Sofia’s “Lost in Translation” as it also involves a movie star who seems emotionally dried up and a young girl who is quickly maturing into a woman. But Bill Murray’s character looks lost because he is in a different country. Johnny Marco, however, looks lost in the country he was born in, so imagine how he feels when he travels overseas. His situation feels especially dire because there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore he can truly call home. Directors in general deal with similar themes throughout all their movies, and Sofia is no exception to that. At least with this one, she has a different way of exploring it than before.

If there is anything which bothered me about “Somewhere,” it’s the conclusion is a little too open-ended. I left the theater with questions over what happened from there, and while change is coming for the characters, it’s not entirely clear what direction that change is going to take. Then again, there’s a lot going on we don’t have all the details to. We never learn why Johnny split with Cleo’s mother, and we are only left with an idea of how it happened. Looking into Cleo’s eyes, she may have a better idea than anybody else of what went down.

Regardless, “Somewhere” is a well thought out film which shows Sofia Coppola to be an excellent director confident in her abilities behind the camera. Looking back, I think it will have more of an effect long after you’ve seen it as it’s not the kind of movie which leaves your consciousness all that quickly.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ Belongs in the Cinematic Abyss

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen poster

To a certain extent, I have been happy to defend Michael Bay on some of his movies. “The Rock” was a kick ass action flick, and it brought Nicholas Cage to a whole new level of stardom which he has since pissed away. When he gave us “Transformers” two years ago, it seemed really good when you compared it to his other movies. It seemed like he might turn out to be better than we typically give him credit for. Heck, Steven Spielberg worked with him on it for crying out loud!

But now comes the inevitable sequel entitled “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen,” which I thought could be the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise, but this not even close to being the case. If I didn’t have an intense hatred of Bay before, I sure as hell do now. I came out of this sequel cursing his name as if he had no reason to live. “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” may very well represent the biggest waste of money ever spent on any film I have seen since “Waterworld” or even “Norbit”. Yes, the movie has action all over the place and the effects are incredible and incredibly loud as you would expect them to be, but I came out of it wanting to spit at the screen. This is a movie with no heart or soul, and it renders all the hard work put into it as utterly meaningless. What a pathetic waste of celluloid this is! But what’s truly depressing is no matter how critically thrashed this movie gets, it will still make tons of money.

Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky in a performance which threatens to be as utterly annoying as Ralph Macchio’s in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Despite being a hero and helping the Autobots defeat the evil Decepticons in the first movie, he still acts like a pussy whipped bitch here. I don’t think LaBeouf is a bad actor, but he needs to stop playing characters like this lest people start thinking he’s playing himself. The first “Transformers” gave his career a huge leg up, but this god-awful sequel can take him down just the same.

Megan Fox also returns as Sam’s voraciously attractive girlfriend Mikaela Banes, and she makes her entrance by leaning over a motorcycle showing off one of her best “assets.” This will probably piss people off as Bay makes good sport of objectifying women throughout, and it wouldn’t be the first time either. Still, I would be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn’t say I enjoyed this visual even if it was from a faraway distance. Hey Fox, I know you want to be taken seriously as an actress and, believe it or not, I would like to see that happen for you. All the same, if there is a third “Transformers” movie, I strongly advise you NOT to do it. I honestly think you deserve better than this.

The plot of “Transformers: Revenge of The Fallen” is… well, it’s somewhere in there. It involves… uh, some shard from that cube lodged in Sam’s clothing which…umm…well, ends up filling his head with symbols that… Jesus this is hard to describe! It makes Sam write all these symbols that…that…I don’t know, lead him to this big fight in Egypt… Oh yeah, he meets up again with Optimus Prime from the first one… Bumblebee is back too, and he threatens to be even more of a pussy than Sam is, but he kicks ass… Then they end up in Egypt and fight alongside those military dudes from the previous film…you know, Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson? And then… uh, well… There’s a lot of action!

It’s clear from the start Bay is not concerned with developing a good story or giving us characters who are anything but shallow. It certainly would help to bring us into the action more on an emotional level. I have a pretty good idea what Bay is thinking: Fuck the critics! I make movies for the audience, not you snobs! But in the process of flipping the bird to film critics, he is also insulting the audience’s intelligence. And yes, this includes all those 12 and 13-year old’s who this movie was clearly made for. I can’t say I was a huge fan of the Transformers as a kid, but I bet the most die-hard fans will find much to hate about this horrid sequel, and the call for Bay’s blood will be as loud as the explosions are in this film.

All the hallmarks of a Bay movie can be found here; loud explosions every other millisecond, characters communicating by yelling at each other even when they are in earshot of each other, and inane dialogue which makes George Lucas’ sound like John Patrick Shanley’s. I’m sure there are many who will say this is a movie where you should “check your brain at the door,” but this sentiment only goes so far. There is a point where you take your audience for granted, and finding forgiveness for this transgression is a bitch. This isn’t the first time Bay has gone out of his way to intentionally piss off those critics who hate his films. “Bad Boys II,” another cinematic monstrosity, was Bay lighting a fire under the ass of many a film critic. But the maker of one god awful sequel has now succeeded in creating one which is far worse.

Bay flips the bird at us even more by introducing two Autobots which are nothing more than extremely offensive stereotypes of the blatantly racist kind. I’m talking about Mudflap and Skids, the Transformers’ answer to Jar Jar Binks. I figured by having an actor like Tyrese Gibson might balance out things here since he doesn’t descend into any stereotypical behavior, but this is a movie whose main audience will be kids for crying out loud! I usually think people look into the way certain people are portrayed in movies a little too much, but this time the criticism is more than justified as Mudflap and Skids are two infinitely misconceived characters.

Speaking of characters yelling at each other, this god forsaken sequel may very well contain the most yelling of multiple characters in any film. Do you have any idea of just how annoying it is when people TALK LIKE THIS AS IF YOU HAVE SOME HEARING DISABILITY AND THEY THINK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH YOUR HEARING AID EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T ACTUALLY HAVE ONE BUT THERE’S SO MUCH FIGHTING AND EXPLOSIONS GOING ON TO WHERE YOU DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO APOLOGIZE TO EACH OTHER BECAUSE YOU EITHER ARE RUNNING LIKE HELL FROM THOSE NASTY DECEPTICONS OR YOU HAVE TO FIGHT THEM ASSUMING YOU GOT ANY BALLS LIKE THE MILITARY DOES BUT HAVING ANY OLD GUN WON’T HELP BECAUSE YOU NEED THE EQUIVALENT OF A BAZOOKA?… I’m not sure I have seen another movie where I have been desperate to see so many tracheotomies performed in one sitting! It’s not enough to tell one person in this movie to shut the fuck up just once. You have to do it over and over, and they still will end up screaming their anxieties right out at you!

Not just that, but half the time I couldn’t even understand what the hell anyone was saying. Did Bay sneak crystal meth into everyone’s food? It’s bad enough he gave us a movie at two and a half hours long, but is this how he chooses to condense a lot of it? I wonder if Bay could actually explain to us what’s going on here. I bet the way he sees it, if he gave us all sorts of loud explosions and expensive special effects, then who are we to argue? You can get away with this in another movie, but not this one.

My reaction to this new “Transformers” movie reminds me of when I witnessed Roland Emmerich’s tragically horrific take on “Godzilla.” I went out of that movie feeling depressed and saying to myself if this is the way Hollywood is going to keep making movies, then I am not going to another one ever again. Over ten years later, it feels like we haven’t come any further. Does Bay really think this is something people will instantly embrace? In the end, it won’t really matter because “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is bound to make a ton of money no matter how bad it is.

It’s not worth it wasting any more time on this movie than I already have. Seriously, I was all but ready to spit on the ground of the theater I saw it at. If you didn’t hate Bay before this movie, you will now. As I exited the theater, I quietly said to myself, “Fuck Michael Bay! Fuck him royally! Burn in hell!”

In regards to the audience I saw it with, the best piece of praise I heard from anybody about the movie was, “It’s okay.” Talk about being generous! Right now, I am sick of movies being just okay. So far, there has only been one truly great live action movie out this summer, and that’s “Star Trek.” Coincidentally, two of the screenwriters on this massive train wreck, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also wrote the screenplay for that one. What the hell guys? Or maybe you’ll get off easy since Bay runs through your dialogue so fast to where we can’t possibly understand what anyone is saying. But don’t worry guys, Bay is taking all the heat on this one.

Michael Bay, you have just given us a great example of how NOT to make a summer blockbuster. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch “No Country for Old Men” just so I won’t forget what great filmmaking looks and feels like.

ZERO out of * * * *

*This review should suffice for the “Transformers” sequel of your choice.  

‘Get Him to The Greek’ Allows Us to Forget about Sarah Marshall

Get Him to the Greek movie poster

We have sequels and franchise reboots or remakes up the wazoo this summer, but it feels like it has been forever since we had a movie spin-off. I know there are tons of them on television these days, but TV spinoffs seem to be a necessity, especially with shows like “Law & Order” and “CSI.” We’re gonna have “Law & Order: Los Angeles” in the fall, proving the cancellation of the original “Law & Order” never ended anything. Personally, I’m waiting for “Law & Order: Barstow” and “CSI: Chico.” Now those would be the ones to really shake things up!

In fact, the last time we had a movie spin-off was “US Marshalls” which took Tommy Lee Jones’ character of Sam Gerard from “The Fugitive” and gave him his own movie. Looking back, it was more of a remake of “The Fugitive” than anything else.

Now we have “Get Him To The Greek” which takes Russell Brand’s character of spaced out rock star Aldous Snow from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and has him starring in his own movie movie. Give Hollywood some credit here for being a little more creative than usual. By making a movie based on a supporting character from another, they show an air of confidence they usually only pretend to have.

Whereas Aldous was drug free in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he is shown to haven fallen off the wagon big time in this one as we watch him suffering the after effects of a horrible song he wrote and recorded called “African Child.” The song was declared to be the worst song of the decade, and it places second to apartheid as the worst thing to happen to Africa. The love of his life, Jackie Q (Rose Byrne from “28 Weeks Later”), ends up leaving him along with their son Naples, and he proceeds to go on one drinking/drug binge after another as his life goes from worst to intolerable. Then he hits rock bottom, but this doesn’t stop his spiral any.

Several years later, a record company intern named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) brings up at a meeting how it is coming up on the 10 year anniversary of when Aldous performed a concert at the Greek Theater, one which resulted in one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After Aldous confirmed with Aaron’s boss, Sergio (Sean Combs), that he will do a new show to celebrate this occasion, Sergio sends him out to England to fetch Aldous and to make sure he makes it to the concert on time.

Judd Apatow is of course behind this one as a producer, and the setup reminded me a lot of his movie “Funny People.” Big fan meets his celebrity idol, discovers being where the celebrity is can be the loneliest place of all, and they somehow connect at the end in a way they never thought possible. But this one is just a flat out comedy and has none of the dramatic edge of “Funny People.” Its humor is vulgar and crude, but like all good Apatow productions, it also has a heart.

Like “Knocked Up,” “Get Him To The Greek” exists in the entertainment world. Hearing Aaron talk about how a new concert will spur large revenue for the record company, allowing them to re-release Snow’s back catalog in new remastered editions with bonus material struck a cord with me. I always fall for this stuff myself; remastered CD’s which make you actually feel like you’re in the room with the band as they jam together. I have been an addict of these remastered editions ever since I bought the one for Eric Clapton’s “Behind the Sun.”

This is not to mention all the cameos from artists like Pink and television personalities including Meredith Vieira from the “Today” show. You even have Mario Lopez and Kurt Loder poking fun at their public perception, something they probably would not have done ten years ago. “Get Him To The Greek” does not take place in some fairy tale world where everything ends up all nice and tidy. The laughs end up stinging much more here because they remind us of all those celebrity controversies the media thrusts at us every single day.

Russell Brand’s own drug addled past has been chronicled for some time now, so part of the fascination with watching him here is figuring out where he ends and Aldous Snow begins. Regardless of how out there he may seem in the media, there is something about his personality that makes us watch his every move. Not once does he do anything to hide his character’s hedonistic ways, and he scores one solid laugh after another. I’m not sure what to say about him as an actor because I haven’t really seen him in anything else, but watching him again as this character was indeed worthwhile.

Jonah Hill also was in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” as a waiter, but here he plays an entirely different character. From “Superbad” to “Funny People,” he’s been basically playing the same kind of role over and over again. Here, he plays his most grown up character to date. As Aaron Green, he also gets to lose his trademark hairdo which makes him look like Little Orphan Annie. Clearly, his high school days are behind him, and he has us laughing at the most insane and compromising positions his character keeps stumbling into. Hill even has a great “Pulp Fiction” kind of moment, but I leave it to you to discover it for yourself.

But while Brand stole every other scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he has this movie stolen from him by Sean Combs. That’s right, Puff Diddy is in this movie as record company executive Sergio Roma, and it allows him to parody his own image as a hip hop entrepreneur. What I loved about his performance is you never get the feeling he was trying to be funny. The more serious he gets, the more gut-bustlingly hilarious he becomes, and no one sells the term “mindfuck” the way he does here. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing for laughs instead of playing the scene, but Combs never falls victim to it here.

You also have some nice supporting performances from actors like Colm Meaney, the “Star Trek” journeyman actor who plays Aldous’ father Jonathan, and he makes this man anything but a father figure. Having used his drug addicted son for his own gain, it is very surprising these two actually bother to be in the same room together. Rose Byrne also has some great moments as the love of Aldous’ life, Jackie Q, and her own music is ridiculously controversial in its own terms.

“Get Him to The Greek” was written and directed by Nicholas Stoller who also helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller does good work here, but he does let the pace drag towards the end to where there are lulls where you are waiting for the next big explosion of laughter. All the same, comedy is hard work, so you have to give him credit for the loud laughs he does get out of us.

Is this as good as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”? Not quite. In fact, “MacGruber” was a funnier movie in retrospect, regardless of its audience not showing up when it was released. The plot itself is no different from a lot of road trip comedies, and you could compare this one a bit to John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when you think about it. Still, I had a lot of fun with it, and it is easily more fun than a “Geoffrey.” Trust me; just see the movie and then you will know what I am talking about. I’m sick of giving away the best parts of movies anyway.

* * * out of * * * *

‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Beginners’ is a Warm-Hearted Look at the Evolution of Relationships

Beginners movie poster

Mike Mills’ “Beginners” looked like the kind of movie I live to avoid. The son caring for his father who has a terminal disease, them making amends with each other before time runs out the relationship his son is currently involved in, etc. This has been the formula for an endless number of manipulative movies which bring out the cynical bastard in all of us. But there was something about this movie’s trailer that made it look like something more unique and heartfelt, and I’m not just talking about that Jack Russell terrier speaking in subtitles (thank god this is not another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel!).

Listening to Mike Mills’ interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross informed me that “Beginners” is largely autobiographical; although I’m sure the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The story centers on Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic artist with many failed relationships behind him. Upon the passing of his mother, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) announces to him that he’s gay, and soon discovers that he is suffering from terminal cancer. In the meantime, Oliver gets involved with the very free-spirited Anna (Melanie Laurent) and finds himself exhilarated by her, but frightened at the things that could easily tear their relationship apart.

“Beginners” is told in a non-linear format with the story jumping back and forth between Oliver’s time with his dad, and the time he spends with Anna. Many people find this filmmaking technique annoying and too artsy-fartsy, but it serves this movie well and was never jarring. It moves from one part of the story to another effortlessly, and Mills never condescends to his audience in filming this way. Besides, when it comes to memories like these, we don’t remember everything that happened in the order it took place.

I was actually surprised at how emotional “Beginners” was. From the trailer, it kind of looks like a light comedy bordering on becoming a dramedy. But there is a deep sadness at its core as the revelations brought about mean different things for each character. For Oliver, it makes him look back at the time he spent with mom and wonder if she was always the unhappy wife to his father. For Hal, it is a bittersweet journey embracing his true sexuality while wishing he had more time on earth to enjoy it.

The reasons for Hal coming out now never feel contrived when he explains it to his son. He makes it clear he always loved his wife even when they both knew he was homosexual. Plus, he wanted the married life and the things which came with it: the house, the family, everything he couldn’t have had if people knew he was gay. Christopher Plummer delivers this speech simply and in a matter of fact way, never having to act it out for the benefit of the audience.

There’s no doubt this is a very personal film for Mills who previously made a movie I still need to see, “Thumbsucker.” While the end credits indicate the places and characters used are fictitious and any similarity to those living or dead is coincidental, it doesn’t change the fact Mills went through the same thing with his own dad. This is what makes “Beginners” such a good movie; it comes from an honest place and not one of simple manipulation. Its themes of love are universal and profound as relationships of all kinds need constant work to keep them strong.

This is one of the best roles Ewan McGregor has had in some time. As Oliver, he inhabits the character with a knowingness of what life has put him through, and the things he wants scare him the most. His eyes speak of a strong sadness he has trouble reconciling within himself, and you want to see him be a happier person. McGregor becomes the character right in front of us and gives a perfectly unforced performance which reminds us he’s still a terrific actor.

I really enjoyed watching Melanie Laurent here as Oliver’s girlfriend, Anna, and this is the first movie I’ve seen her in since “Inglourious Basterds.” She portrays the kind of free spirit us guys would all love to fall in love with. The chemistry she shares with McGregor is very strong, and their interactions make for some of the film’s most gleeful moments. Her demeanor, though, hides a dark spot in her life which is hinted at but never fully explained.

As for Plummer, he is simply magnificent as Hal. Seeing him embrace his sexuality is great fun as he makes new discoveries about life and “house music” among other things. Plummer is also heartbreaking as we find him experiencing joy just as his life is on the verge of expiring. For the last decade or so, he has been playing detestable villains in movies, and it’s a favorite role of his. But seeing him portray Hal reminds us of what we already should know, he’s one of the best actors working today.

But to be honest, all these great actors get completely upstaged by Cosmo who plays the Jack Russell terrier Arthur. Whether he’s with Plummer or McGregor, he’s such an adorable presence and even his eyes seem to speak words no other dog can easily speak. This may be the best performance I’ve seen by a dog since Mike the dog tossed away his dog food in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” Watching him makes you want to rush out to the nearest pet store and get your own Jack Russell terrier. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Well, I’m better off with stuffed animals anyway.

“Beginners” shows us no matter how much experience we’ve had with relationships, we are always starting over again when it comes to a new one. It doesn’t matter what our age or sexual orientation is, relationships are an ongoing process we need to work at. We need to be open to risks and letting ourselves be vulnerable to the people we care the most about. And when all is said and done, we need to live through pain in order to experience pleasure.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Emerald Forest’ Makes the Term ‘Based on a True Story’ Mean Something

The Emerald Forest poster

The Emerald Forest” is kind of a spiritual sequel to “Deliverance” as both were directed by John Boorman. Each film deals with man’s tearing apart of nature for their own needs, and of how nature has its own set of rules which forces outsiders to survive by any means. They also take place in a wilderness where the rules of law and justice cease to exist as its inhabitants live defend what is theirs and are not exactly open to strangers. Also, they contain characters who have never been exposed to civilization as we know it. The subject of man versus nature makes for a fascinating subject, and it’s entertaining to see Boorman take it on again.

“The Emerald Forest” is “based on a true story” and was released back in 1985, back when that term actually meant something. Powers Boothe stars as Bill Markham, an engineer who has moved to Brazil with his family to complete the construction of a large hydro-electric dam. This of course necessitates large areas of the Amazon forest be cleared to make room for agriculture and living space. While on a picnic with his family, his son Tommy suddenly gets abducted by an indigenous Indian tribe. Bill ends up spending the next ten years looking for Tommy just as the dam he’s working on nears completion. He ends up finding Tommy alive, and Tommy has long since become fully integrated with the tribe known as the “Invisible People.” But will Tommy end up going home with his real dad, or will he stay with this tribe which he considers family?

I remember seeing commercials for this movie on television, and the fact it was “based on a true story” made it seem all the more frightening at the time. To be stolen from your family is a terrible fate and a horrible burden for any parent to endure, and it’s the last thing anyone should go through. The interesting aspect of “The Emerald Forest,” however, is how Tommy seems to enjoy being part of this tribe which has given his life a meaning it wouldn’t necessarily have in the real world. This makes the conflict between Bill and the tribe especially fascinating; he’s entitled to be angry at these people for kidnapping his son, but it’s not like his son has been treated badly by the tribe. Issues like this are usually black and white, but in this movie, they come to inhabit a morally gray area.

In the process of looking for his son, Bill comes across a rival tribe known as the “Fierce People” whose leader shows his admiration for the hunting skills he shows off with his machine gun, a weapon they are unfamiliar with. As a result, they give him a head start to run for his life before they hunt him down. He is fortunate enough to run into Tommy who has long since become a warrior like the Indian family which “adopted” him, and he takes his father to safety where the “Invisible People” can take care of his wounds.

The scenes showing the tribe and the rituals they perform are among the most fascinating scenes in “The Emerald Forest.” Boorman really makes us feel like we are observing something we would not be likely to see in person as we watch Tommy becoming a man. These are not just a bunch of actors trying to recreate what tribes of Indians did before and after white men stole their land, they look like the real deal. Plus, their description of Bill and those like him as “Termite People” as, like those pesky creatures, they destroy the land they come in contact with gets at the universal truth of life: Man’s attempt to create a new way of life ends up laying waste to our past.

Actually, the one actor who deserves the most credit here is the director’s son, Charley Boorman, who plays Tommy. Much of the movie’s success really hinged on his performance as a stranger to the world he has been abducted to. If you didn’t believe how sincere Tommy was to win the tribe’s respect, then “The Emerald Forest” would never have worked as a movie. But Charley is utterly believable and sucks you into his character’s reality without a second thought. It’s one of those performances where the actor becomes his character as opposed to just playing them.

Boothe was one of those actors who are impossible to cast as a wimp. I mean you could, but would you believe him in such a role? He’s always played tough guys who never go down without a fight, and here he plays a good guy who is no different. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have embodied Bill Markham better than him. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger could have, but casting either of them would make this become a completely different movie.

Boothe not only has to show the intense dedication this father has in finding his son, but he also has to believably portray a man who is more of a match with the wilderness elements than any other stranger to this environment. He succeeds on both fronts as the tribe accepts him despite their differences with one another, something which isn’t easy. The actor also has to convincingly portray a man who has to go against what he does for a living to protect his son and his way of living. Looking at this makes you realize just how underrated, or perhaps largely underappreciated, an actor Boothe was while he was alive.

Boorman, along with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, provides the viewer with beautiful scenery throughout. Much of it was filmed in Brazil, and we get to see sights which, all these years later, may not even exist anymore. Just as with “Deliverance,” Boorman wants to explore this part of life before it vanishes forever, and he was lucky to get any of it on film.

Like any movie “based on a true story,” much of “The Emerald Forest” has been fictionalized for dramatic considerations. This results in it having a shootout in which Boothe has to team up with the tribe which took his son so they can rescue their women who have been stolen into slavery. In some ways, it feels like a cop out for the movie to reach its conclusion, but it does have the added bonus of them dealing with another Indian tribe whose ignorance of guns has been exploited to their benefit. It seems to imply how any person who encounters the real world is more likely to corrupt themselves than advance their way of life. This ends up saving “The Emerald Forest” from turning into any other action movie.

John Boorman’s career as a director has taken him all over the critical map from classics like “Deliverance” and “Hope and Glory” to duds like “Zardoz” and “The Exorcist II: The Heretic.” “The Emerald Forest” stands in the middle of all his movies as it’s really good if not quite great. I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to see it even though it took me almost 30 years after its release to do so. It’s also nice to watch a movie “based on a true story” which actually feels like it is. These days, the term is meaningless as it has been used once too often, but back when this movie came out, it meant a lot.

* * * ½ out of * * * *