‘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 * * * *

 

‘Cars 2’ Outpaces its Predecessor

Cars 2 movie poster

I’m a little befuddled at the critical notices being hurled at “Cars 2.” It’s the first Pixar movie to ever get a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes. Granted, neither this sequel nor its predecessor represent Pixar at its best or most adventurous, but even the least of their movies are infinitely better than most of what Hollywood puts out. “Cars” was essentially an animated “Doc Hollywood,” but as predictable as the story was, it was still wonderfully entertaining and had many memorable characters. Its being made was also worth it just to hear my niece say “ka-chow!” on a regular basis.

But “Cars 2” is easily more fun because the story is not as formulaic as its predecessor’s, and it takes the characters in a refreshingly different direction. This one has Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) going with his best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) to the World Grand Prix to race against the arrogant Italian Formula One car named Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). During this time, Mater is suspected of being a spy by British Intelligence officers Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), the latter whom he takes a strong liking to. What starts off as another racing movie turns into an espionage adventure which circles the globe in an amazingly animated style.

Make no secret, “Cars 2” truly belongs to Mater more than anyone else. I’ve never been a huge fan of Larry The Cable Guy or his kind of humor, but he’s great fun here. Mater is not the brightest car in the world, but his heart shines through everything he does even as it continually gets the best of him. Most of the movie’s funniest scenes come from him dealing with customs unlike those in his home country, and his mistaking wasabi for ice cream is funnier than anything I saw in “Bad Teacher.”

Pixar continues to outdo itself in the field of animation, and the visuals they come up with are brilliant. I’ll go even further and say there were times I stared at the screen and wondered if certain things being shown were actually real instead of animated. Seriously, the resemblance between what’s real and what’s not disappeared for me at certain points,

Directing “Cars 2” is John Lassiter, and this marks the first full length Pixar film he’s directed since the original. His love of all things cars is as evident here as it was in the first film, and he also has race car drivers and announcers like Jeff Gordon, Lewis Hamilton, Darrell Waltrip, Brent Musburger, and David Hobbs voicing characters. You don’t even have to look at, or listen, hard to discover which characters they are voicing as character names are not particularly subtle. For example, we have Jeff Gorvette, Darrell Cartrip, Brent Mustangburger, David Hobbscap, and the subtlest of all, Lewis Hamilton.

I loved the addition of Michael Caine to this sequel as he makes Finn McMissile a cross between James Bond and the character he played in “Get Carter.” Years after playing Jack Carter in the 1971 classic, Caine remains as cool as ever, and not just because his car has an endless number of gadgets Bond could only wishes he had in the real world. His cockney accent is welcome in any movie he does, and this is certainly the case here.

Other additions in this automotive universe include Emily Mortimer who makes Holley Shiftwell tough and sensitive in believable fashion. Mortimer is such a sweet presence in movies like this and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and I always look forward to seeing and hearing her in any movie she does. It’s also great to have Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, Tony Shalhoub, Joe Mantegna, and Bruce Campbell among others on board, and listening to them made me believe they had a blast working on “Cars 2.”

If I had any issues with “Cars 2,” it’s in regards to the character of Fillmore. This really has to do with the fact George Carlin voiced him in the original, and he has since passed on, and that Fillmore has little to do other than to say, “Wow man!” Out of respect for the late Carlin, who I still miss, I wished they had retired the character. This is nothing against Lloyd Sherr who has the unenviable task of replacing one of the great comedians ever as Fillmore, but this is one Pixar character which should have been put to rest. They retired Paul Newman’s character of Doc Hudson as he has also passed into the great beyond, and no one could have replaced him. I mean, I can understand why Pixar kept Slinky Dog on board for “Toy Story 3” even though Jim Varney died long before filming started, but Slinky had more to do in that sequel than Fillmore does here.

“Cars 2” does not equal Pixar’s artistic highs of “Up,” “Ratatouille,” or “Wall-E,” but so what? All that matters is it’s fun, and it easily outdoes the original. While its messages like the importance of being true to yourself may seem cheesy from a distance, they are handled here with a lot of heart and genuine emotion. Whatever you thought of the first one, you have to admit that you cared about the characters, and you will care for them even more in this sequel.

You can waste your money on “Green Lantern,” or you can take the family out to this one. The kids will be restless and noisy whether we like it or not, but I’m used to that by now. I saw “Cars” at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, and parents were incapable of shutting their children up there. That I did not make the same mistake with this sequel is largely why it’s getting a particularly high rating.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Tim Smit on His Directorial Debut, ‘Kill Switch’

Tim Smit photo

Acclaimed writer, director and visual effects artist Tim Smit makes his feature film directorial debut with “Kill Switch.” Based on his short film “What’s in The Box?” which gathered a large audience on YouTube, it stars Dan Stevens as physicist and NASA pilot Will Porter who is recruited by Alterplex, a power company which has built an enormous tower designed to harness unlimited quantum energy. The company’s vice-president, Abby (Bérénice Marlohe), informs Will a mirror universe has been created solely to drain energy from, and he is sent into it with a device called a “Redivider” which will balance the power between the two universes. But as you can imagine, nothing goes quite as planned as the mirror universe proves to more than anyone thought it could be as Will finds himself on the run from drones, soldiers, and people he is no longer sure he can trust.

“Kill Switch” takes place in a future version of our world, and it is largely a POV movie as we see much of the action from Will’s eyes as he struggles to say alive in an especially hostile universe. I talked with Smit about the movie’s origins, how the story evolved from a short into a feature film, and of how he was able to create a visual effects heavy movie in just 18 days and on a small budget.

Kill Switch poster

Ben Kenber: I really like the way this movie is set up because you are thrown into this story to where you cannot help but be gripped by everything going on. You’re not sure what is happening and, like Dan Steven’s character, you are desperate to find out. When conceiving “Kill Switch,” did you know how the story was going to end, or did you just start off with the idea and went from there?

Tim Smit: We knew that, when I did the short a couple of years ago, the box was going to be used as sort of a kill switch for destroying a parallel universe meant for energy harvesting. But we never really knew the full arc of the story before we hired the writers to get involved, so it took a while to get to the point we ended up with. It was interesting and a very steep learning curve for me to work on this as a conceptual arc as a writer and also as a director, and of course the visual effects too. It wasn’t fairly clear, but we got there as we developed the kill switch idea.

BK: The screenwriters you hired for this project, Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin, what would you say they brought to this story which wasn’t in your short film?

TS: What they did is they fleshed out the characters much more than we already had in the original short. But they also wrote the dialogue and they did the screenwriting of the story. It was a difficult movie to write because of the whole POV aspect. It’s difficult to tell a story through POV. Also, we did have, for that reason, to introduce the whole flashback storyline to help us with that, and to help provide a rest for the audience so that they do not get POV tired. So, they focused on that the feeding of information so the audience knew enough to keep going with the movie, and they were more associated with that than the base idea.

BK: I did watch the short “What’s in The Box?” which led to the “Kill Switch” feature film, and the whole idea of the parallel universe is something which has been explored in science fiction constantly such as the “Dark Mirror” episode of the original “Star Trek” series. What inspirations did you draw from when putting together the short and the feature film?

TS: So, the main inspiration behind it was a couple of things actually. Visually it was inspired by a couple of video games because this was always meant to be sort of an homage to video gaming, and we used various inspirations like “Half-Life,” “Halo” and games like that. From a physics standpoint, the idea for the parallel world came from the concept of Schrödinger’s cat, a thought concept where you got a box and in it is a cat with a poison. If you keep the box closed, you don’t know if the cat survived because the poison still has a chance to kill the cat. You only know the cat is dead when you open the box. So, this is kind of like the idea for the initial mystery where you’ve got this black box and you don’t know yet what it is and you don’t know what it does, but it triggers you to go along and see what it ends up doing. So, the whole idea of Schrödinger’s cat was the main inspiration behind the short and the box as a MacGuffin.

Kill Switch POV still

BK: The POV shots reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” which also had them. When you put those shots together, did you have a set of rules you wanted your collaborators to follow during shooting?

TS: Yeah, we did a couple of things, some of them worked better than others, which we wanted to explore. One of them was, most of the time, we wanted to see the other actors. As a rule of thumb, we wanted Will Porter to be running behind the other characters so you can actually see what’s happening. So that was something we took into consideration while we filmed this because you are kind of used to the main character taking the lead, but in this case, he’s following them because otherwise it would be difficult to see them. It’s a very simple thing you have to keep in mind, and that was one of the rules we followed.

Kill Switch Dan Stevens

BK: Did Dan Stevens have to do any camerawork himself for the POV scenes?

TS: No. Obviously I would’ve loved to have used him, but we just didn’t have the budget for him for all the days. So, we just hired him on some of the days where he would be the voice, and of course on the days where we would shoot conventional scenes. Our DOP was basically the character, and then Dan came in later and did the ADR for the character.

BK: The special effects are actually pretty good for a low-budget movie like this. We see objects like train cars falling out of the sky. Did you set any rules for yourself as to what kind of objects and vehicles could fall into the echo universe?

TS: So, we focused initially on metallic objects just because that made it easier to create for us. The idea was that this parallel world is being arched for energy, but somehow the original world is fighting back as the universe is trying to balance itself out, and it does so by pulling over objects from the original universe into this echo universe. The rule of thumb was the first thing to be pulled over was small metal objects for various reasons, but you can figure out in physics that there are only four main forces, and one of them is electromagnetic. It is not inconceivable that something like metal will react first or that something else will react to metal first. It made easier for us to make these objects fall down. It’s harder to do entire buildings or something like water. It was a compromise, but I felt it worked from the basic physics ideas as well. We see this boat falling from the sky, it’s not metaphorical.

BK: The whole idea of an echo universe is interesting because the characters say there is not supposed to be any organic life in it, but we can see from the start there is.

TS: Yes, that’s what I like about the movie as well. It’s not as fleshed out as it should be, but the idea is that this company didn’t care. They were just interested in creating this echo universe, and they are telling us that it’ll be fine and there will be no organic life, but they don’t care. They just care about the energy, and of course they didn’t expect it to be that intense or of the rebellion that arrives. But I kind of like that idea of what are your priorities as a company. These huge oil companies are pretty much going across the line, and that’s what drew me to this story as well. That was something I could really personalize.

Kill Switch Berenice

BK: Dan Stevens has a very challenging role because he wasn’t on set too much, but he still had to get to the emotion of what is characters going through. Also, Bérénice Marlohe has a wonderfully intimate presence throughout the film. How did you come to cast both these actors?

TS: It was amazing to work with these two. The great thing about Bérénice and Dan is that they are both so interested in science fiction, and they are both really interested in broadening their own horizons and trying to do something new. It’s an experiment, this film. Let’s be honest, you don’t see a POV movie every day. It’s an attempt to do something new especially with a director that’s also doing all of the effects. It was an experiment on multiple levels, and they were committed and went for it, and that’s what I really appreciated about them. It was a very difficult movie especially for Bérénice because she was acting against I camera where there is no reaction, and most of the enemies are CG. It was very demanding for her to do, but she gave it her best and gave it everything she had. We had 18 days to do everything.

BK: 18 days? That’s very impressive especially for a science fiction movie.

TS: It was something I underestimated when I started working on this. I was experienced as a visual effects artist, but I wasn’t experienced as a character director. You would think shooting this movie, even though it was 18 days, would’ve given you a whole set of problems and obstacles to get over, which we had. But even after it was all done, that’s when the real challenge started. You would think that after having a number of years of the effects experience that it would be easier, but it was actually the other way around. It was very difficult for me to combine the directorial duties and the effects duties at one point. You can get so involved in the technical part that you get sort of a tunnel vision and you still have to be the director. There is the reason why the director is separate from the visual effects department because that makes the movie better.

Kill Switch vessel

BK: “Kill Switch” takes place in a future which seems not too distant from our own. We never get an exact date of the time the movie takes place in. Was that intentional on your part?

TS: Yeah, actually it was, but sometimes in the movie you do see the date on the newscasts, but it was never deliberately mentioned. I felt, in my mind, the movie was in the near future, but the concepts we are introducing we do not have access to in the near future. The problem with going further into the future is your design and your world view changes, and the budget doesn’t allow that. If you really want to know which year it was, it was actually 2043. So, it was further into the future, but not that far. It was a budget reason.

BK: You studied natural sciences as a student. Did those studies inform the science of this movie?

TS: Yeah, the studies did help. A lot of people wonder why I studied natural sciences if you wanted to be a filmmaker, but the way you were trained as a scientist really does help in making movies. There’s a certain amount of problem solving that you are used to which is really helpful as a director, and the visual effects that I did, they tend to be of a physical origin. With physics, you are trying to explain or describe the real world. With visual effects, you are kind of doing the opposite. You are using formulas to create a fake or, at least, a realistic looking fake world. To me, that is really fascinating and the physics background helped in doing that.

I want to thank Tim Smit for taking the time to talk with me. “Kill Switch” is now playing nationwide at the following theaters:

Laemmle Monica Film Center, Los Angeles

Cinema Village, New York

AMC Rio, Washington, D.C.

AMC Methuen, Boston

AMC Southfield, Detroit

AMC Arizona Center, Phoenix

AMC West Oaks, Orlando

AMC Ritz Center, Philadelphia

AMC Woodridge, Chicago

AMC Town Center, Kansas City

Poster, stills and trailer courtesy of Saban Films.

Click here to visit the movie’s website.

’47 Meters Down’ Thrills You Just When You Thought it was Safe to Go Back into the Water

47 Meters Down movie poster

From its poster, “47 Meters Down” looks like one of those Syfy flicks like “Sharknado” or “Lavalantula” which are enjoyable for being infinitely silly and having pathetic CGI effects. Or perhaps it would be like one of those knockoff movies from The Asylum, a production company shameless in capitalizing on blockbuster films by using titles and screenplays similar to them (“Snakes on a Train” or “Transmorphers” anyone?). Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make something similar to the 2016 sleeper hit “The Shallows” which stared Blake Lively as a surfer who has to use her wits in order to keep from being eaten by a great white shark. Either way, I came into this movie figuring it would be one you should not take the least bit seriously and enjoy for all the wrong reasons.

But to my surprise, “47 Meters Down” is a very effective thriller which is lean in its execution, and its main intent is to take you on a pulse pounding ride. In many ways, it is like Renny Harlin’s “Deep Blue Sea” which, while by no means an artistic triumph, played around with the clichés we remember most from shark movies like “Jaws,” and it employs them to where we think we know what to expect, but our expectations are thrown for a loop. What results is a motion picture which knows exactly what it needs to do and how to do it.

Mandy Moore and Clair Holt star as Lisa and Kate, sisters who, as the movie starts, are on vacation in Mexico. One night they run into some local guys who invite them to go cage diving for sharks. Just like Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws,” these two women will be lowered into the ocean in a cage where they will get to see those sharp-toothed creatures up close without being eaten. But of course, we all know things will not go as planned as our two leads and the characters around them make one stupid mistake after another. Then again, if they didn’t make those mistakes, there would be no movie.

The clichés abound in “47 Meters Down” as the boat the ladies will be traveling on looks far too rusty to sail anywhere safely. You have Matthew Modine on board as the captain of the ship, Taylor, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Quint from “Jaws.” There’s also the fact that these ladies have never scuba-dived before, and you know this is just asking to invite disaster. We have the air gauges which act as the plot’s ticking time bomb as the ladies threaten to run out of air sooner than they think, they cut themselves to where blood flows from their bodies, thus inviting any shark in the vicinity to drop by and feast on human flesh, and there’s always the one guy who is there to save everybody’s ass, but we all know how long he will last (or do we?).

Lisa also exhibits tremendous anxiety about doing this even as Kate assures her this will be the best time the two of them have ever had (it won’t). Hearing this conversation between them immediately reminded me of a number of “Star Wars” characters saying this infamous line from one movie to the next: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Another unforgettable piece of dialogue which crossed my mind was Jon Voight’s line from “Deliverance” when he said to Burt Reynolds, “Let’s go back to town and play golf.” This was good advice which was left unheeded, and it makes perfect sense how Lisa’s common sense could be overturned by Kate’s need for adventure.

As you can imagine, everything goes terribly wrong as the boat winch breaks, and the women plummet down 47 meters to the seafloor. Director Johannes Roberts wisely keeps the majority of the action underwater as Lisa and Kate struggle to stay calm and not use up their dwindling supply of air. He puts us right in their shoes as, like them, we are left to wonder what the crew members in the boat are doing to bring them back to the surface or if they are doing anything at all. Roberts is also aided strongly by a pulse-pounding film score from Tomandandy whose work on “Killing Zoe” and “The Hills Have Eyes” remake rank among my favorites. Their music heightens an already intense motion picture to something which will fry your nerves and leave you on the edge of your seat even as we are forced to endure some unintentionally hilarious moments.

Granted, you can’t always expect David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin to be underwater with you when words fail you. When Moore cries out about how the shark almost got me, the audience I was with couldn’t help but laugh as it seems like such a silly thing to say. But then again, what would really say if we were stuck in the same predicament? I doubt we would be uttering a monologue out of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Of course, it always helps to have John Milius around when you need him.

Moore and Holt do strong work in creating a bond between and work hard to create characters who, while not having too much in the way of depth, quickly realize they need one another to survive this ordeal. Seeing one of them take off their mask and remove their oxygen tank just to get through the bars of the cage is enough to make one shiver, and this is accomplished without the use of special effects. The actresses are also aided by actor Matthew Modine who plays the Captain of the boat, Taylor. For the most part, we hear his voice more than we see him, but he gives strong support as he encourages his guests, people he never should have put in any danger, a reason to stay calm. In addition, he also reminds the ladies and the audience that the bends is not just the title of a Radiohead album.

Roberts previously directed “The Other Side of the Door,” a supernatural horror thriller which started off well, but later got bogged down in clichés it would have been smarter to avoid. “47 Meters Down,” however, is all about clichés, and just as Harlin did with “Deep Blue Sea,” he manages to manipulate those clichés to where we think we know what to expect, and then we are totally caught off guard. Just watch the scene where the actresses are playing around with an underwater camera, and you will understand what I mean.

Yes, the sharks are CGI, but they are still frightening antagonists in this movie. After a while, the terror comes from a combination of what we think is going on above the water as well as what we cannot see. The water is made to look especially murky to where we can’t see much of what is in front of us, and this leads to an especially scary moment when a character swims out to a certain point, and then suddenly can’t remember the direction in which she came.

Look, “47 Meters Down” is not Oscar material, but it never pretends to be either. While it may not reach the heights of “Jaws” or the unbearable intensity of “Open Water,” it is a taut thriller which will allow the audience a nice diversion for a couple of hours. Roberts and his cast understand exactly what this movie aims to be, and they deliver in a way which will get your adrenaline pumping. You can laugh all you want at the foolishness of the characters, but in this instance their foolishness is necessary for this movie to work at all.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is an Infinitely Worthy Sequel

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes movie poster

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds? Our souls? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages, put its own kind in cages.”

-Augustus Hill

“Oz”

This quote from one of my favorite, and most unsettling, television shows of the 1990’s kept reverberating through my mind as I watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the sequel to the surprisingly well-received “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Animals do operate by their own set of rules and are not governed by the same ones we follow on a regular basis. But what if animals evolved to where they could cage us? Would they really be any different from us? Every creature on this planet yearns for independence from others, but what cost are we all willing to pay for it? This is one of the many questions this movie asks its viewers, and it’s particularly noteworthy to see in a summer movie with a very large budget.

“Dawn” takes place ten years after the events of “Rise,” and the world has changed in a highly dramatic fashion. Much of human civilization has been wiped out by the ALZ-113 virus which Gen-Sys created in the hopes of curing Alzheimer’s disease, and the apes are now the dominant species on Earth. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still the leader of the apes, and we see them in their natural habitat working to survive in a hostile world and educating their young. It’s been a very long time since any of them have seen a human, but this changes when they run into Carver (Kirk Acevedo), an ape hating human who makes the mistake of shooting one of them.

From there, we come to see there are still many human beings who have not succumbed to the virus, and among them is Malcolm (Jason Clarke) who is determined to reach out to the apes in a peaceful manner. The humans are running low on power and need to gain access to a hydroelectric dam which is in the apes’ territory. Of course, this requires a lot of trust between the different species for this to happen, and neither one is prepared to make it easy for the other.

With Serkis returning as Caesar, all eyes are on him as he was brilliant in “Rise,” and he knocks it out of the park once again in “Dawn.” Time has hardened Caesar and his trust in humans has almost completely disappeared, and his days are spent protecting his fellow apes and keeping them in line. Yes, all the apes you see here are CGI-created, but the great thing about actors like Serkis is, after a while, they make you forget about how you’re looking at a visual effect. Serkis invests Caesar with such a raw emotional power to where you can’t help but feel for him when things go horribly wrong. Even when Caesar speaks, and it was a shock to hear him say “no” in the previous film, Serkis makes the character’s struggles all the more palpable to where you root for him to ease the divisions between humans and apes.

But what makes “Dawn” especially effective is, like the best science fiction stories, it reflects the struggles of the world today. The conflicts between the humans and apes could easily be compared to those between Israel and Palestine, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor and perhaps even between Star Wars and Star Trek fans (let’s not leave anyone out here). Director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” and “Let Me In”) mines this material for all the emotional depth it has, and none of the characters, human or otherwise, can be boiled down to a one-dimensional cliché. If they can just get past their perceived differences, the world can become a peaceful place for them to live in.

Also, “Dawn” gets at the unavoidable truth of how the greatest threat to a group doesn’t come from its enemy, but instead from within. Caesar’s second in command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), can’t get himself to make peace with all the cruel animal testing he was forced to endure before the virus laid waste to the planet. And on the human side, you have Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the remaining human survivors who is determined to protect them no matter what. There will always be change and there will always be resistance to change, and Koba and Dreyfus represent the greatest threat to any change which can occur. If they could see that their differences are only skin deep, then maybe there would be a chance but, as Peter Gabriel said, fear is the mother of violence.

Now a lot of people have said the human element in “Dawn” is lacking, but I’m not sure about that. Granted, the CGI creation of the apes is amazing to look at and the actors who inhabit them deserve more recognition than they will probably get when awards season comes around, but “Dawn” has a good human cast as well. Jason Clarke, so good in “Zero Dark Thirty,” proves to be a human worth rooting for as Malcolm, a man who has shared about the same number of loses as Caesar has. Keri Russell, who is currently kicking ass on “The Americans,” reminds us of how lovely she can be playing such a tough woman devoted to her loves in her life as well as in science and facts. Oldman, who can be prone to overacting in movies like this, is fun to watch here as he gives us a character who is not quite a bad guy but not necessarily a good one either. It’s also great to see Kirk Acevedo, so great as Alvarez on the HBO series “Oz,” here as Carver, a former water worker who has trouble getting past his fear and misunderstanding of apes.

The rebooting of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was not exactly met with open arms, and this was especially the case after we witnessed Tim Burton’s incredibly disappointing remake. But ever since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” this franchise has proven to be one to look forward to. Our expectations for it remain in check, and things get even better this time around with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Even if this movie ends on a note of despair over what could have been, there is still an inkling of hope as we look into Caesar’s eyes. For once, we get the feeling all of humanity might actually learn from its mistake, and maybe the apes can too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Wonder Woman’ is the Comic Book/Superhero Movie We Need and Deserve

Wonder Woman movie poster

Wonder Woman” is not just the comic-book/superhero movie we needed, it’s the one we deserve. Audiences have been long overdue for a female-led superhero movie, and this one proves to be well worth the wait. Director Patty Jenkins has taken this famous DC Comics character and given her the cinematic treatment she richly deserves, and it’s a relief she has gotten it considering the failure of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” (the theatrical version anyway) and “Suicide Squad.” For once, the DC Comics Extended Universe has a win, and “Wonder Woman” proves to be the best of its kind since Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, and that’s saying a lot.

One the main reasons “Wonder Woman” is such a success comes down to the actress playing the title role, Gal Gadot. Many scoffed at her casting as they saw Gadot as nothing more than a Miss Universe contestant who was cast for her looks over everything else. Those same people did not take into account how Gadot served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years as a combat instructor, or that she studied law for a time. All this experience made her the perfect choice to portray Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Daughter of Hippolyta, who would became better known by her civilian identity of Diana Prince.

Seriously, Gadot shows so much range here as she takes Diana from being an Amazonian princess infinitely eager to become a warrior like her Aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), to becoming a total fish out of water when she leaves the island of Themyscira and ventures into World War I-era London. She embodies this immortal Amazonian princess with vigor, strength, intelligence and a lot of heart, and it’s not just her beauty which kept my eyes glued to the screen whenever she graced it.

Also matching Gadot scene for scene is Chris Pine who plays United States Army Air Service Captain Steve Trevor. Pine has long since proven himself a terrific actor thanks to making the role of Captain Kirk his own in the past three “Star Trek” movies, but he really knocks it out of the park here as a man who discovers the meaning of true heroism thanks to both duty and love. Steve could have been portrayed as an overly cheeky character who easily stumbles over his unmistakable attraction for Diana, but Pine gives the character a lot of heart as well as a strong arc as Steve comes to discover he is not so different from the enemy he is pursuing.

In fact, this is what I love about “Wonder Woman;” it explores the dynamics of an immortal princess and the all too mortal human beings she encounters in her journeys. This could have been a simple good girl and guys versus bad guys adventure, but Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg have more on their minds than giving us the usual summer blockbuster. A good deal of thought went into this one, and while the best visual effects available were put to astonishing use, it is the story and characters which keep us riveted more than anything else. While stories of heroes trying to do good in the world have us scoffing at them with cynicism to where it feels like we cannot take them seriously, “Wonder Woman,” and the “Captain America” movies which proved to be better than we expected them to be, show how virtue can be such an immeasurable strength when portrayed in the right way.

Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to Oscar-winning glory in “Monster,” turns what could have been a cheesy spectacle into a thrilling motion picture from start to finish. Memories of the “Wonder Woman” TV show still echo in my brain to this day, and its theme song is one of my all-time favorites. As much as I would have loved to have heard that theme song in this iteration, it’s just as well it wasn’t included as this is a Wonder Woman for a new generation of fans as well as those from the past. There is no invisible jet on display here, nor are there any scenes of Diana Prince turning around in circles and bursting into a flash of light while changing into her Wonder Woman attire. But while Jenkins studiously works to avoid any cheese in her cinematic interpretation, she does not treat the material ever so seriously as she allows for a good sense of fun and spirit which makes this motion picture all the more entertaining. The hero at this movie’s center is not just a powerful one, but a sincere one as well, and this makes it all the more thrilling to sit through to where seeing it once is not enough.

In a summer season which has so far proven to be as underwhelming as it has promised to be, “Wonder Woman” is a much-needed breath of fresh air as superhero/comic book movies have threatened to become stale. But with this thrilling motion picture and “Logan,” we have been given a strong reason to rejoice as filmmakers are intent on providing us with something enthralling to witness.

I do, however, have to say that while not having the invisible jet in this movie was a smart move, having the lasso of truth was. Lord knows we could use this same lasso in today’s frightening world of politics as those in power show no hesitation in lying about what they know. At least with the lasso, we could get to the truth about all the issues which permeate our cynical yet concerned minds today.

Also, I love how Wonder Woman is not the kind of heroic character who shows any hesitation about being “the one.” Too many movies in recent years have featured people who spend the majority of their time complaining about how they are not sure they are “the one.” Princess Diana, however, doesn’t show any hesitation in going up against any nemesis who threatens to lay the world she lives in to waste. Perhaps this should serve as infinite proof of how women are not the weaker sex and never have been.

* * * * out of * * * *

Warren Beatty Searches for the Truth in ‘The Parallax View’

The Parallax View movie poster

par·al·lax

–noun

  1. The apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
  2. Astronomy. The apparent angular displacement of a celestial body due to its being observed from the surface instead of from the center of the earth (diurnal parallax or geocentric parallax) or due to its being observed from the earth instead of from the sun (annual parallax or heliocentric parallax). Compare parallactic ellipse.
  3. The difference between the view of an object as seen through the picture-taking lens of a camera and the view as seen through a separate viewfinder.
  4. An apparent change in the position of cross hairs as viewed through a telescope, when the focusing is imperfect.

American Psychological Association (APA):

parallax. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved March 04, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/parallax

I always wondered what the word parallax meant, let alone in relation to this movie. This would have come in handy during those damn SAT’s I took so many years ago. It would have brought my scores up a bit. As for what my scores were…Well, you can just figure it out on your own.

The Parallax View” is a thriller from 1974 directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beatty. I saw it as a double feature with another Pakula thriller, “Klute.” I even remember my mom asking me to record this particular movie on the family VCR back in the 1980’s. I did succeed in getting the whole movie on tape as opposed to all those car races my dad and my brother asked me to record for them from time to time. Anyway, it’s a good thing I didn’t see this movie right away when I recorded it for my mom. They probably edited it down and cut all the good parts out.

The movie starts with an assassination of an assassination of a U.S. Senator on the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. The movie then jumps ahead three years later to see the far-reaching circumstances this assassination has on those closely involved in it. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a reporter eager to get at the truth surrounding the assassination, and to find out why so many who were in the vicinity of the assassination have been dying. Many have been reported as dying from an embolism of some kind, but there are too many coincidences between all those dead which makes it impossible to believe they simply just died. Beatty’s character may not be able to prove it, but they were murdered. But by whom?

The movie opens with Frady getting a visit from a female friend who is convinced she will be murdered. She comes up with newspaper clippings of others present at the senator’s murder and how they died. But Frady dismisses her concerns as mere superstition, and that she cannot possibly be in danger. A couple of minutes later, we see her in the morgue, dead from an apparent overdose. This gets Frady up and running to finding out the truth as to why these people are being killed off. This drives his boss Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) to a lot of anxiety and irritation as he cannot get himself to believe all that is going on. Meanwhile, Frady risks life and limb literally to discover the truth behind everything. But like everything else, the truth will have a big cost.

Turns out all roads lead to The Parallax Corporation, a business which hires highly anti-social people and trains them to be assassins, and their targets usually tend to be politicians and government figures that stand in the way of making policy or a good profit. The movie escalates the tension to a high level as Beatty’s character puts himself in the most dangerous of positions. One of the most tension filled scenes comes when he realizes one of the Parallax assassins has put a bomb on board a plane with yet another politician, and Beatty boards the plane in an effort to find a way to get everyone off the plane before it detonates.

What I have come to discover about the late Alan J. Pakula is how he brought a lot of intelligence and reality to the movies he made, and there was never anything overly exaggerated in his direction. This seemed to ground the majority of his films in a world so real to where they come across as highly subversive. There is no hyper kinetic editing here, nor is there an overpowering score or adrenaline inducing sound effects. There is only the state of the world and of what’s really happening around us instead of what we are led to believe.

This movie is now over thirty years old, and yet its themes are not out of place in today’s society. The scenario of one man against the system, or of a person getting to the truth regardless of the consequences has been done over and over again. We have had “Michael Clayton” which starred George Clooney as a fixer at a law firm who suddenly develops a crisis of conscience that forces him to go against all the corruption which has engulfed the later part of his life. It’s thrillers like “The Parallax View” which gave movies like “Michael Clayton” a reason for being.

Beatty is perfectly cast here as this downtrodden reporter who is eager to not be as selfish as he has been for most of his life. The movie does not ride on his good looks to sell itself, but on the intelligence of Beatty’s performance as well of those around him. If you can’t believe Beatty in this role, then the movie is not going to work. I’m not sure of how many people today can recognize what a great actor Beatty can be if you give him the right material.

These days, we know that our government and the corporations are up to something which goes completely against what we were originally taught to believe in. What’s scary is when “The Parallax View” was first released, nothing much was different. It just keeps going on and on, and it’s almost like we are in denial about it. The question is, can we get at the truth of the matter and prove it to everyone who bothers to listen? Furthermore, can we do it in a way which doesn’t suck us into a trap that makes us look like a bad person to the rest of the world? This movie seems to say this is not really possible, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and we can’t simply give up.

“The Parallax View” is an excellent thriller which is definitely worth a watch. Coming out of one of the truly golden ages of cinema, the 1970’s, it is an underrated work which didn’t get the same-sized audience of Pakula’s other movies like “All the President’s Men.” If you like his work as a director, you should check this out.

Just remember, the truth is out there…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *