Men, Women & Children

Year 3, Film #29 (Total #479)

THE PLOT: A group of high school teenagers and their parents attempt to navigate the many ways the Internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives. 

THE GOOD: There’s no easier way to sum up this film than by simply saying, this is a messed up film. Men, Women & Children is just all sorts of weird, awkward, and reality taken to extremes. The question to ask is: is this a good thing? For much of the film, I didn’t think so and I’ll get much deeper into why I thought so. But that being said, there’s something appealing about this film that hits you at a much broader level, abstracted in a way from what you see and only making an impact at the end after you see all the pieces fall into place. 

Jason Reitman (director of Up in the Air and Juno) is hardly the first to try and take a look at how the influx of technology (smartphones in particular) and social media has effected our lives, but his take in this film is definitely unique and all-encompassing. We’ve got kids, we’ve got parents, over-sharers, peer-pressure, sex, porn, online dating, privacy, invasion of privacy; pretty much any aspect of this topic you can think of, Men, Women & Children covers. And what this film does well is provide us with a sort of reference guide, a snapshot of what our society is like at this particular moment. While most films have acknowledged this change in some minor way (often a closeup of a cell phone when a text comes through) but none have ever made it the primary focus as this film does. 

That’s not to say it’s the only focus. While the technology-aspect may be a bit gimmicky at times, Reitman does a great job at trying to integrate it into a meaningful story and move away from the gimmick. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, it’s technology serving the greater purpose of the story and film; it just happens to be in your face every two seconds. And that is the best part about this film: seeing the effects these devices and social networks have on our everyday lives. No other film has come anywhere near as close as Men, Women & Children does to bringing you such an accurate portrayal of reality mixed with a fictional story. 

THE BAD: Now, where do I begin with my annoyances. All the positive things I said above really only come at the end of the film when you see how things end and you realize that it’s more about the social commentary and creating a snapshot of our society than it is about entertainment or telling a compelling story. 

This film is messed up and extreme (which I think was intentional) but it was also awkward and odd (which I think was unintentional). People may interpret this film differently and I’m not sure what Jason Retiman’s goals and intentions were in making this film, but from my point-of-view (and supported ever-so-slightly by murmurings from the audience during the screening), this film missed it’s mark completely. It feels like the entire film should bask in the glory of all the positive traits I mentioned above, but instead it’s shrouded in confusion, annoyance, and craziness. 

A big issue is that of extremism. Something this film does a lot of is portray a bunch of different characters in the absolute extreme form, the best example being Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner). If you want to get a good idea of her character, just watch the trailer and you’ll get the idea. She reads over every interaction, every scrap of information, that her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) has because she demands all of her passwords to her accounts, tracks her phone religiously, and controls who she talks with and what she does. While my gut reaction was that this is a gross exaggeration and an unfathomable extreme, it actually isn’t too hard to picture happening in real life. Now I don’t think the vast majority of parents are, or will become, like Patricia, but to depict her character like the paranoid control-freak isn’t too unbelievable. 

My issue lies with with how unrelatable her character is. She may be annoying and totally unlikable (and Jennifer Garner does a fantastic job at play her character) but that doesn’t mean she still can’t be relatable. A perfect example of this is Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. She is one of the most annoying characters ever to grace the silver screen and every time I see her I want to punch her in the face (another great job by Imelda Staunton). But at least I get where her character is coming from and why she’s doing what she’s doing (it’s just following orders from the Ministry). With Patricia though, you don’t get that understanding. It’s like she’s just being mean and controlling just for the fun of it, with no real reason behind it, and no character justification for “no real reason behind it” being an acceptable reason. 

Another annoying part about the film was the completely unnecessary voice over. While the voice they chose (Emma Thompson — she would make a very nice Siri or GLaDOS) was spot on for what a narration for this film should be like, the narration itself served little-to-no purpose. Narration is one of those things that can make or break a film and this is a case where it just compounds the list of other mistakes that occur in the film. The two main things the narration does is introduce the history of Voyager 1 and Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” (more on those in a bit), and tell us how prevalent technology has become in our society. 

To narrate the latter is pointless because that’s the whole beauty of Men, Women & Children; it shows us that in ways much better than words could ever describe. The former however can be put up to debate. When I first saw Voyager 1 floating through space in the beginning of the film, my hopes and expectations instantly shot up. I’ve professed my interest for space and astronomy many times here before. Then there was mention of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” which I’ve also mentioned from time to time. But very quickly I realized these points were going nowhere and served no purpose. In the case of “Pale Blue Dot”, it actually served as a big negative impact and is where I’ll now direct most of my disgust. 

The “Pale Blue Dot” for anyone who doesn’t know is a picture Voyager 1 took as it reached the edge of our solar system. Carl Sagan then remarked at how tiny Earth was and how it was no more than just a little blue speck in “a vast cosmic arena”. The film, Tim Mooney’s (Ansel Elgort) character in particular, uses this to argue that nothing matters (football, in the case of Tim’s character) and that life is pointless. 

My initial reaction was one of bewilderment because I thought it was the complete opposite meaning of what Carl Sagan had implied. By the end, after the narrator recited Sagan’s words, I came to see how my initial binary reaction of “this is totally wrong” might have been off a little. It’s true, the beginning parts of Sagan’s words implies that life is pointless because, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” But his real message comes at the end when he says, “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand… To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Earth is a miracle. That life exists, that we exist, on Earth and there is nowhere else we know of where that’s possible, is amazing. It means that we shouldn’t taken our lives for granted, that we should live them to the fullest and savor every moment. Our planet, our lives, may be infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of things, but that little speck is the most incredible thing we know to exist. It defies reason and logic that Earth, our home, is the only known place where life exists. 

THE TAKEAWAY: And it’s this idea that annoys me most about Men, Women & Children. Reitman does a really good job at realizing the importance of technology in our lives today and astutely brought that to the big screen. He also recognized the importance of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” could play in this film. But instead of bringing Sagan’s true message through to the film, Reitman misses the meaning entirely and the result is an empty, pointless film when it could have been a really poignant and sincere film. 

Men, Women & Children opens in limited release on October 1, an expanded release on October 10, and a wide release on October 17, 2014. 

THE RATING: 2 out of 5

The Equalizer

Year 3, Film #28 (Total #478)

THE PLOT: A man believes he has put his mysterious past behind him and has dedicated himself to beginning a new, quiet life. But when he meets a young girl under the control of ultra-violent Russian gangsters, he can’t stand idly by - he has to help her. 

THE GOOD: At the end of the film I had a thought that may seem kind of strange, but the more I think about it, it turns out to be quite apt. The Equalizer is like an adult version of Home Alone with violence, bigger stakes, and thought-provoking questions. In other words, remove most of the comedic parts, make Home Alone R-rated, and slap on some poetic musings, and you get The Equalizer.  

Set in Boston (woo! — there was a big audience reaction to the opening shot when you see the Boston skyline, as to be expected from a Boston audience), the film follows Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in his late-night escapades of justice. All you need to know is that McCall is a badass; we don’t really know how or why, just that he’s lived a life full of combat and violence. 

Much of the film is hidden in secrecy and an ominous foreboding of things to come. Until about twenty or thirty minutes (possibly even longer) into the film all we get is character development. It’s very slow moving as we begin to learn who McCall is. He’s very meticulous and methodical. He has a routine that he follows everyday including very carefully wrapping up a tea bag in a napkin and taking it to a favorite diner at 2:00 in the morning along with a book to read. 

One of the only other things we know about McCall is that he’s very friendly. He befriends Teri/Alaina (Chloë Grace Moretz) at the diner and a lovable guy named Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) at work — an off-brand Home Depot. But even in the beginning where things are very slow moving, I never felt bored. Despite the slowness you can tell it’s building up to something. There’s a reason the film spends so long introducing these characters and that is to plant the idea although there is going to be wall-to-wall action, explosions, and chases coming up, they’re all going to serve a purpose, and that purpose is justice. 

In essence, that’s what makes The Equalizer so special. On the outside, this may seem like your typical, run-of-the-mill action film with a big star, and that may be true in some respects. You have the Russian mafia angle (which was also seen in the recent Let’s Be Cops) and themes of money and corruption that are so popular and rote in modern Hollywood fare. There’s the idea of sticking up for the little guy and protecting those who need help. Most of all, the film’s main theme of justice and doing what’s right is an idea seen in so many other films. 

But The Equalizer stands above all that. It takes ideas that we’ve all seen before and makes them its own. It strings you along during the quieter moments, priming you for what’s to come, and when the big moments do come, you’re yanked forward in your seat with bated breath to see how it ends. And the final scene will bring forth all the excitement and wonderment you remember when Kevin laid his booby traps in Home Alone mixed with a sense of gore and discomfort of home appliances and power tools entering human flesh. It’s an interesting mix of entertainment sources that will leave you feeling like you just got off a roller coaster: heart pumping, hair blown back, and a smile plastered across your face due to the sheer thrills and suspense you just experienced. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Despite some familiarity and feeling like this is just another action film, The Equalizer defies all expectations and blows you away with it’s unique, and mysterious, take on the very popular, and often very unoriginal, action genre. You may be left with questions at the end, but the film paints a very clear picture, and one that’s a pleasure to watch. 

The Equalizer opens in theaters tomorrow, Friday, September 26, 2014. 

THE RATING: 5 out of 5

The Maze Runner


Year 3, Film #27 (Total #477)

THE PLOT: Thomas is deposited in a community of boys after his memory is erased, soon learning they’re all trapped in a maze that will require him to join forces with fellow “runners” for a shot at escape. 

THE GOOD: The current trend/popular thing in Hollywood right now, as you can probably tell, is the big YA-craze that’s been sweeping the nation. It start with The Hunger Games in 2012 (and sequels since then) and since then we’ve seen DivergentThe Giver, and now The Maze Runner all follow suit. While the argument can be made that the idea is getting dry and overdone, I’m still finding these films to be extremely fun to watch and so engaging that I’ve even started reading their book counterparts (gasp!). 

The Maze Runner goes a bit deeper though than The Hunger Games and Divergent do. I would consider this film more of a mystery/thriller than a YA (young adult for the uninitiated) film which is significant. The Hunger Games really set the standard for the current YA-film and it’s more than just having kids be the main characters. No, I consider a YA-film to fall into a specific mold where it’s more about getting some action/adventure in along with some kind of dystopian setting where the government is evil with a backstory of how the people lost their freedom and strive to get it back. 

While I could compare The Maze Runner to a much older classic, Lord of the Flies, and do so quite easily (bunch of stranded kids, group splits in two-factions one following an evil leader who is out for blood, small fat kid who everyone loves — aww, Piggy — and a race for survival among others) The Maze Runner also has its own merits. For one, it’s much more modern than Lord of the Flies is and with that comes more possibilities, the biggest of which being the maze. As you know, I enjoy films set in one location, but this film bends those parameters a bit. You could consider the maze as one location (the Glade inside the surrounding maze certainly is and where the majority of the film takes place), but having the puzzling maze lie just outside their home provides endless possibilities and a world of unknowns. 

But what’s so great about The Maze Runner is that it is its own thing; it doesn’t rely on preconceived notions. Think of it like The Maze Runner : The Hunger Games : : Guardians of the Galaxy : The Avengers. It’s somehow familiar, yet entirely new and different at the same time. Combine this with the fact that it doesn’t fit the recent YA-mold, and you have a wholly original experience. I was shocked, scared, nervous, exhilarated, and captivated throughout this movie and there was never a dull moment (besides the ending which I’ll get into in a moment). Comparably, I think this stacks up more with a film like David Fincher’s Panic Room than it does The Hunger Games because you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. The question that’s constantly running through your mind is, “Why are they here?” and it’s a question that the film keeps the answer to skillfully under wraps giving you only scraps of information, enough to satiate that gnawing sensation bit-by-bit. 

THE BAD: My only real complaint about this film deals exclusively with the ending. Up until a certain twist (one which you can probably guess, but alas I’ll remain quiet because here be spoilers), everything is copacetic. Then you start getting answers to all the questions you’ve been having throughout the film, like the nagging “Why are they here?” question, and things start falling apart. Not plot holes or anything like that, but that dichotomy of saying, “Alright, the mystery is over now, here’s an explanation for everything that just happened.” I’m not saying leaving us with no answers would have been the right move, but to end the film with a much different setting and feeling than the rest of the film makes it feel out of place. 

And then you have the fact that The Maze Runner won’t hold as a standalone film because the setup for the impending sequel is ingrained in the ending. You expect sequels to big films nowadays, but it’s one thing to leave the audience with some burning questions that warrant a new film and another thing entirely to end the film just short of a “To Be Continued” title. It’s not that they insinuated that another film would follow, in fact quite the opposite. It was them explicitly saying, “Just wait to come back in another year to see how this story continues,” that bothers me, and it bothers me because that means The Maze Runner doesn’t have a firm ending. Leave as much open to the imagination as you want at the end of the film (like Inception — people still argue over that ending today), just don’t make it a requirement that we come back to see how it ends.  

THE TAKEAWAY: The Maze Runner is another entry into the YA-dystopian genre but brings with it some originality, energy, and a mystery element that’s lacking in the rest of the category. There’s never a dull moment and you’ll be at the edge of your seat for most of the film wanting to know why these kids are placed in a maze. At the end, a lot of mysteries are solve and questions answered (I argue too many), but many more arise as they set up the upcoming sequel, The Scorch Trials. While a bit presumptuous of them and taking away the appeal of a standalone movie, this film was so good there’s no way I couldn’t see the sequel, and you’ll probably feel the same way after watching this film. 

The Maze Runner opens in theaters tomorrow, Friday, September 19, 2014. 

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

All Is Lost

Year 3, Film #26 (Total #476)

THE PLOT: After a collision with a shipping container at sea, a resourceful sailor finds himself, despite all efforts to the contrary, staring his mortality in the face.

THE GOOD: One man, his boat, the open ocean. Disaster strikes. Multiple times. This, in essence, is All Is Lost.

This film has to be the epitome of a simplistic, or what I call restrictive, film. Films like Life of Pi (obvious similarities), Panic Room, and 12 Angry Men are all restrictive in terms of locations, people, and props. An easy way to think of it is the hypothetical problem you’re always asked as kids — if you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you bring with you? I find these types of films to be some of the most entertaining because most often, you truly don’t know what’s going to happen next.

All Is Lost, by its very nature, has to be creative. There’s only so many things that Our Man (Robert Redford) has to work with to repair his sinking boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. Not only that, but he has time restrictions, food restrictions, and energy restrictions as well. It’s an underdog story right from the get-go and throughout the whole film you are rooting for Our Man to persevere and get rescued and each time he’s confronted with another storm or some turn of bad luck, all you can think to yourself is, “Not again. Come on, give this guy a break!”

What makes this film so extraordinary and unlike some of the other “restrictive” films I mentioned is that it does with even less. All the films I mentioned above have more than one cast member (Robert Redford is the only person in this film; I don’t think there’s even pictures of other people) and some amount of dialogue (there’s a few spoken lines in All Is Lost but no conversations, just cries for help). Despite all these limitations, the film still keeps things interesting and constantly moving forward. There are no lulls or areas where you can drift off (pardon the pun) and not pay attention. Even moments where Our Man is hoisting a sail, pumping water out of the boat, or mixing some form of glue demand your full attention because each moment is a life or death situation for this guy. He flirts with death constantly whether it’s being flung off the boat during a storm hanging on for dear life by a rope or hitting his head against a pole and losing consciousness during a crucial time.

That a film like Life of Pi was able to be so entertaining with just a young boy and a lion stranded on a life boat or 12 Angry Men never missed a beat even though it’s just twelve jurors talking over a case is amazing. But in both of those cases you can see human relationships form and change. For Pi, he has the lion to keep him company and keep him active. For Juror #8, he has eleven other people he has to convince to rethink their position. In All Is Lost, there’s just Our Man. All we get are visuals and sounds of water, nature, and the occasional grunt or “Help!”. And the fact that the film is able to carry on like any other film without all the benefits is phenomenal.

THE BAD: My only complains about this film have to do with the boating aspects. I’ve never been on a sailboat before so I don’t have the first clue about how to operate one. I’ve also never been on the open ocean alone and had to worry about things like navigation or survival. So maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge in this area, or maybe the issues I have are actual problems.

The biggest thing for me isn’t that the film seems unrealistic — on the contrary, the film appears to have gone to great lengths to make it look as realistic as possible — but that the events that occur seem unlikely. How many times has a shipping container been dropped in the ocean, not retrieved, and while floating, rams into a passing boat causing it to fill with water? Why during a storm would you not only keep sails up, but put additional ones up too? (This one was answered in the plot summary on Wikipedia. Apparently there’s a thing called a storm jib so you can still maneuver the boat). What are the odds of not only seeing two shipping barges, but then being passed by them — literally feet away — without being noticed, even with flares?

Again, some of these might have easy answers (like the storm jib one) or turn out to be quite frequent occurrences on the open ocean. For having no knowledge though (and perhaps be given false assumptions by a film like Life of Pi where he was able to survive for over 100 days in a much smaller vessel), All Is Lost raises some questions to the accuracy of the events depicted. Not so much or so frequent as to disrupt the enjoyment of the film, but scattered enough to keep a feeling of doubt in the back of your mind.

THE TAKEAWAY: All Is Lost has all the drama, suspense, thrills, and emotions that you might expect in any other great film, but it does it all with only one character, one location, and no dialogue. To deliver the same level of excitement while using almost nothing, is absolutely astonishing and will blow you out of the water.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5

Ender’s Game

Year 3, Film #25 (Total #475)

THE PLOT: Young Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, a genocidal alien race which nearly annihilated the human race in a previous invasion.

THE GOOD: By far, the thing that surprised me the most about Ender’s Game was the film’s ability to show the strategy and thinking that goes through Ender Wiggin’s (Asa Butterfield) mind. The book (which I’ve actually read, surprise!) goes to great lengths to describe the setup of the Battle Room — a zero-gravity arena where trainees play war-games — among other places and the thought processes that go on in Wiggin’s mind. We not only get to see what’s happening, but why it’s happening as well, and the film does a tremendous job at portraying that.

Ender’s Game is a film that is all about strategy and thinking like the enemy. The film even opens with a quote from Wiggin saying, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” While there are plenty of areas that the film fails to address adequately, getting the most important one correct goes a long way. Getting a sense of the strategy and the thinking that goes on fills in some of those gaps and brings us to a deeper level that the rest of the film forgoes.

Much of the film seems to want to highlight their visual effects and CGI work, which while impressive, goes a bit over-the-top more than once. A lot of it is superficial and makes it seem like it wants to achieve what it means to be a “Transformers-blockbuster”. We get those big action scenes and large explosions, however, Ender’s Game has a deeper level to it. It has elements of ethical dilemmas, the difference between right and wrong, when that distinction is blurred, how far are people willing to go? These are all crucial in the book and are present in the film too, but obstructed by all the eye-candy. Seeing the strategy and the thinking of Ender is not only beneficial by itself, but it’s also in these moments that we get a glimpse of greatness that the film otherwise masks.

THE BAD: Any fans of the book will notice many differences with the film, the biggest of which being the elimination of Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine Wiggin’s (Abigail Breslin) entire subplot about a growing political movement back on Earth that causes an uprising against the current government. While these absences are noticeable, my complaints about the film adaptation aren’t about differences from the novel. In fact, I expected and assumed they would drop the Peter/Valentine story from the film since it seems so out of place even in the book.

My biggest complaint about the film is about the lack of background the film provides, or rather, an assumed level of knowledge that’s never explained. Ender’s Game does cover much of the background that’s provided in the novel — an alien race called the Formics (aka Buggers — I have no explanation for why the film doesn’t even mention this nickname) invades Earth and is almost successful in wiping out humankind before a lone pilot, Mazer Rackham, singlehandedly destroys the enemy fleet. Both the book and film pick up after that in a time where children are trained to be the next commanders in preparation for a preemptive attack.

This is all explained (in sometimes excruciating exposition) but you’re still left with a sense that something is missing. For example, when Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) are discussing Ender’s progress through Battle School, every time it seems like they know something we don’t. Some piece of context that would help ground the film or some piece of knowledge that answers a question that we don’t really ask, but is still in the back of our minds anyway. Small things like what exactly are these teams in Battle School, what’s the point of their simulations, how does the zero-gravity arena work?

Part of this may be just lack of time. The film seems to blow through each location (Earth, Battle School, Commander School) without stopping to rest in one for any extended period of time. We are rushed through them in the same way in the book, but at least there we get the benefit of reading a couple paragraphs of description to give us an idea of where we are and what we’re doing. The film takes these minor details (team colors, hierarchy of command, early hatred towards Ender) and shoves them in a corner. As someone who has read the book, this tidbits reminded me of the descriptions and explanations given in the book and allowed me to better understand what was going on. For people who haven’t, I can easily imagine getting lost in the specifics of this world and just paying attention to the visual effects because that’s all you can fully understand.

THE TAKEAWAY: For fans of the novel, Ender’s Game is a reimagining of the story you know and love. It has it’s differences and omissions, but the crux of the story is all there and Ender Wiggin, along with his brilliant mind and cunning strategies, are represented in a way that truly brings the book to life. However, other elements of the film are lacking this high level of detail and attention and can leave you scratching your head, wondering if you missed some crucial piece of information and the characters are all in on something you don’t know. The visual effects, while amazing eye-candy and fun to watch, can be a bit overdone at times and can provide another distraction to the viewer instead of clarifying what’s going on. It’s sort of a tossup between some parts that were perfectly adapted, and others that weren’t.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

20 Feet from Stardom

Year 3, Film #24 (Total #474)

THE PLOT: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

THE GOOD: The whole purpose of 20 Feet from Stardom is to try and give us a look into what it’s like to live the life of a backup singer. While I found many faults with this documentary, if you evaluate it on that purpose, you’ll find much that surprises you.

The biggest surprise for me came with a look into the recording of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, probably one of the most famous songs discussed in this film. Part of this recording was backup-vocalist Merry Clayton who sings a very emotional part towards the end, saying “Rape. Murder. It’s just a shot away,” repeatedly. Clayton gets so passionate while singing that her voice cracks a few times and makes that one of the most memorable parts of the song.

It’s moments and insights like this that make 20 Feet from Stardom sing (pardon the pun). The whole beauty about this film is seeing just how important these singers are. The whole point is that it’s showing some of the biggest moments in music history have been made possible due to these people we know almost nothing about. Backup singers have helped make some big stars famous with their voices and they get little to no credit in return. 20 Feet from Stardom is their chance to tell the world who they are and we get a fascinating, and extremely detailed look (there’s a lot of information covered here) into their lives.

THE BAD: Unfortunately, the entire documentary seems like one big oxymoron. Giving these singers the spotlight and showing their accomplishments seems to be saying, “It’s a shame they can’t be big stars.” They have the talent to succeed but instead they constantly take the back seat. As we find out though, many of these singers either don’t want to take on the big role of a lead singer, or if they do, they lack the ego, arrogance, and wherewithal to succeed in doing it. The film shows both sides of this coin but then pretend like the other side doesn’t exist.

Another oxymoronic thing the film does is talk about how important it was to have young singers because the youth really shone through in the voice and is what made the backup vocals so powerful and, in a way, overwhelming of the leads. But, pretty much the only people that are interviewed are older people who were singers in the 1950s-1970s. They do feature a new, young singer, Judith Hill, who was to sing with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour before he passed away, but that’s pretty much it. A possible reason for this, as the film mentions, is that backup singers are becoming more rare in the modern day as recording studios are just using on artist to record the multiple harmonies in separate takes instead of having a group of singers sing it in one take.

THE TAKEAWAY: 20 Feet from Stardom is like a look back at the glory days and reminiscing on what it would have been like if these backup singers took the lead role. Part of this is interesting and surprising seeing just how vital a role some of these people played in some of the biggest recordings of all time. The other part is left hanging though waiting for answers or something to tie everything together. Because as things stand, it’s conflicting messages and at times, making us wonder why we’re watching this.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5


Year 3, Film #23 (Total #473)

THE PLOT: A documentary on peer-to-peer bullying in schools across America.

THE GOOD: Nothing can top the first six minutes of Bully. In the first six minutes we hear the story of Tyler Long, a seventeen year-old boy who was once energetic and happy, got quiet and sad after being bullied in school. Eventually the bullying got so bad that Tyler took his own life.

This story is emblematic of what the rest of the film is like. We follow several children, families, and even one school district across the United States and hear their stories. And all of these stories are horrifying to hear and sometimes tragic. These people we follow in Bully have all been deeply affected by bullying in schools and their emotion and passion on the subject comes through in a way that the only way you can react is in shock and disgust that things like this actually happen.

And that’s one of the strongest things about this film. Not necessarily that it raises awareness about this issue, but that it makes us realize how big of a problem it actually is. It’s undeniable that bullying occurs across the country, most likely on a daily basis. Most cases are probably unknown to anyone besides the kids themselves. But you get a few cases, like the ones we see in this documentary, where the proper authorities are notified about what’s going on and they don’t do anything about it because, at least most of the time, they say that “nothing can be done about it,” and pretend like it doesn’t occur.

One of the biggest revelations for me in the film is actually quite a minor one in the scheme of things, but it stood out for me. When Alex Libby’s parents go into school to talk with the principal, the mother reflects on how this behavior would not have been tolerated when she was in school. Her son was being physically abused (stabbed with pencils, punched) on the bus and all the other kids were standing up, running around, and generally causing mayhem with the bus driver focused only on the road in front of her. In the mother’s day, if one of the kids stood up, the bus driver would pull over and wouldn’t move again until everyone was seated. This is how it was like in my school district. Teasing, name-calling, and things of the sort existed, but never would you see the kind of abuse, physical and mental, the kids in this film were put through.

And that’s the thing with Bully. It’s not just about the stories, we see up close and personal what these kids are doing. What the filmmakers accomplished must have been no easy feat and they deserve many commendations for that. That the kids actually beat kids up and tease them the way they do, while horrible, isn’t too farfetched. That they would still do it while being filmed is what is extraordinary. Bully is able to capture bullying in such a way that you can’t do anything but want to speak up in outrage and do something about it. No one, after seeing this film, could possibly condone or in any way excuse the bullying that takes place everyday.

THE BAD: The sad part is that despite being outraged, many people probably won’t stand up and just watch things like this take place. And the worst part about this documentary is that it doesn’t really say how you should make a difference. There is a call-to-action at the end that encourages you to take a stand but it fails to demonstrate how to do so. Bully does a great job at making you sympathize with the kids and families you see, but other than leaving the film sad and upset yourself, we’re not really any close to solving the problem.

There are some half-baked solutions the film throws out like stand up for yourself (or someone else) and tell somebody about what’s going on. But that’s just as helpful as telling the bullied child to just get over it and suck it up. Chances are the reason kids don’t tell adults about what’s going on is because they don’t have enough courage and just simply telling them you should speak up won’t really give them that ability. There’s also several instances where the parents complain to the school administration that they should be doing their jobs of keeping the kids safe. The administrations always respond that there’s nothing to be done (which has to be false in most cases) but the parents don’t really counter with anything besides complaining some more. I understand that there’s probably no easy solution to this problem, but there has to be more to say about a solution than just “give it the ol’ college try.”

THE TAKEAWAY: Bully is an extremely powerful and eye-opening film that documents, both with stories and with actual footage, the bullying that occurs in schools today and the damage that comes from it. While the film could have done a better job with the solution part of the film and how we can combat this issue, the things we see in these 90 minutes can be enough to convince some people that enough is enough and something has to be done.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5


Year 3, Film #22 (Total #472)

THE PLOT: A documentary following the controversial captivity of killer whales, and its dangers for both humans and whales.

THE GOOD: Documentaries can be very tricky. On the one hand, they need to entertain the audience, like all films need to do. But documentaries also have the added job of educating the audience as well. It’s important to note that there can be several different ways to educate an audience. It can be very one-sided, personalized, and with a clear agenda in mind (like all of Michael Moore’s documentaries). Or it can be much more observational and hands-on like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me.

Blackfish has the entertainment part covered fairly well. The pace is kept up and we never linger on one place too long before seeing new people or some new angle. While the main focus is on SeaWorld, there’s a lot of time spent in other places like Sealand of the Pacific in Canada and Loro Parque in Spain. In addition to a variety of settings and interview subjects, there’s also the inherent entertainment-factor of seeing the Orca whales and other animals swim around and interact with the humans. There is a negative spin put on those moments as one of the messages is how these animals are harmed, but nevertheless, the images you see can be breathtaking at times and definitely keep you attentive.

While I’ll get into some negative aspects about the education element of Blackfish, the simple fact is that no matter the validity of the statements and how much the story might have been twisted to fit a narrative, this film raised (and is still raising) awareness for the mistreatment of whales and other sea creatures that are kept in captivity. There is a problem of misinformation (again, which I’ll get into) and in that case, widespread awareness may not be the best thing since that means millions of people are learning the wrong thing. Now I won’t get into right and wrong here since I’m sure the truth is quite complicated, but with Blackfish, even though there might be a hidden agenda the filmmakers were aiming for that distorted some people remarks, in this case awareness is paramount. The crux of the film seems to be based in truth and raising awareness about that has the possibility to lead to change.

THE BAD: My main issue with Blackfish is about the misinformation and distortion of the facts that seem to take place. Unlike a Michael Moore documentary where I go in expecting to be told facts from only one perspective, Blackfish seems like it will be a fairly equal and un-biased film based in facts (albeit with a clear intention for a certain message). While I couldn’t really place why I felt like the film was misrepresenting people during my viewing, I knew the first thing I would do after it finished was to look up how people reacted to it.

Obviously SeaWorld claimed the film was inaccurate, but what really got me going was to see the several of the trainers (including ones interviewed for the film) spoke up to say they felt their quotes were not necessarily taken out of context, but certainly used in a way they weren’t expecting. Here are two articles where Bridgette Pirtle and Mark Simmons (both former trainers who were interviewed in the film) reacted to the final piece.

Now these articles too should be taken with a grain of salt, especially Mark’s which has the feeling of jealousy written all over it because he had, “spent 3 hours of time on film being interviewed [the director] Gabriela, talking about his many years with Tilikum and at SeaWorld in general, had every reason to believe that he would be used as the main authority in this film,” and turned out to have very little screen time.

But the important thing to realize here is that no matter how you look at it, parts of the story seem to be either missing completely, or misrepresented.  It never feels like you’re being deliberately lied to but there is a lack of trust. Instead of focusing on the animals (the orca whales in particular), the harm inflicted upon them, the dangers of captivity, and what could be done to fix it, Blackfish feels more like a personal vendetta against SeaWorld. SeaWorld might be the biggest part of the problem and should take responsibility for any harm to animals or dangerous situations they put their trainers in, but the filmmakers should also take responsibility for making a film that feels trustworthy instead of one that’s like a creepy guy driving by in a van asking kids if they want some candy.

THE TAKEAWAY: When it comes down to it, Blackfish accomplishes its goal of raising awareness for the mistreatment of orca whales and other marine animals and does so in a way that can entertain and keep you attentive. It may try to sensationalize things and twist certain facts to fulfill the filmmaker’s message rather than telling a story that fits the facts, but that can be something to figure out later and do your own personal research on. Blackfish starts the conversation, you can help finish it.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

The Fisher King

Year 3, Film #21 (Total #471)

THE PLOT: A former radio DJ, suicidally despondent because of a terrible mistake he made, finds redemption in helping a deranged homeless man who was an unwitting victim of that mistake.

THE GOOD: Acting. All-around the acting was phenomenal and easily the best part about The Fisher King. Without the acting in this movie, the weirdness that is a Terry Gilliam film would be just too much and overwhelm you. The actors however are able to ground this film in some semblance of a reality and make it more palatable for you, dear viewer.

Both Robin Williams (who played Parry, a deranged homeless man) and Mercedes Ruehl (who played Anne, the girlfriend of Jack Lucas) were nominated for Academy Awards in the supporting category with Ruehl winning hers. The reason these performances are so notable is they go with the flow. Williams is probably the best at it given his famous affinity for improv and his manic energy to carry him from bit to bit, but the others including Anne, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), and even Lydia (Amanda Plummer) in the few scenes she appeared.

I’ll be getting into the weirdness-aspect of the film in the negative portion and how it hurt the film’s point, but the important thing is that this acting served as an antidote to it. Most of the time when you mention how relatable a performance is or how well you can connect with the characters, it’s a good indicator of being drawn into the film; getting deeper into things and move invested in what’s happening. In The Fisher King, these performances which can be described the exact same way, have a different outcome. Instead of bringing us deeper into the film, it allows us to make sense of what we’re seeing.

While I’m making it sound like the bizarreness makes The Fisher King beyond comprehensible, the reality is less hyperbolic. The movie is somewhat straightforward, but without this remarkable acting to help guide us through it, I would have lost interest within the first fifteen minutes and not cared about what happened next. Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia were all so compelling though that I wanted to keep watching despite the reservations I had.

THE BAD: Speaking of reservations, let’s dig into this “weirdness”. I’ve seen two other Terry Gilliam films — 12 Monkeys and The Brothers Grimm — and from what I’ve heard and seen about his others, he has a very distinct style, and that style is best described as weird. Weird can be good (as I found in 12 Monkeys) and it’s important to note there can be several different kinds of “weird”.

Where the disconnect is in The Fisher King is the supernatural elements. Parry is convinced he’s on a mission from God to retrieve the Holy Grail and can talk with little, flying men and see hallucinations of some giant Red Knight, devil-reincarnate chasing him around. By the end, the idea crossed my mind that it could be a metaphor for his fear or arrested development after a life-changing incident that occurred earlier in his life. This theory was then strengthened once these “episodes”, for lack of a better word, begin to have flashbacks of the actual event thrown in.

Whether it is some metaphor or not doesn’t change the fact that, as was the case in The Brothers Grimm, “The tone… seemed a bit confused in a sense.” Is the film supposed to be a drama about Jack’s guilt for his radio show and how he tries to channel that to help Parry and others? Is it some supernatural quest as we look for the Holy Grail (maybe the Grail is also another metaphor)? Or is it a comedy as we see Parry break into musical numbers accompanied by fellow homeless from time to time or walking around New York City in tattered knight’s clothing? There are bits of each in the film but where Gilliam’s style proves problematic here is that it feels like the film is constantly changing it’s mind. It would be one thing if some ratio or division of the film’s efforts were established early on, that way we would know to expect a little of drama, supernatural, and comedy. But as the film is, that division is constantly changing which causes it to feel “weird” and lead to some confusion along the way.

THE TAKEAWAY: A film that’s filled with superb acting that helps you ground yourself in a story that’s constantly changing tone. Terry Gilliam has his name written all over this film and if your a fan, you’ll probably enjoy The Fisher King too. But while I very much enjoyed his style in 12 Monkeys, here it just seems too distracting and out of place.

THE RATING: 3 out of 5

The Italian Job (2003)

Year 3, Film #20 (Total #470)

THE PLOT: After being betrayed and left for dead in Italy, Charlie Croker and his team plan an elaborate gold heist against their former ally.

THE GOOD: After a certain point in this movie, all I could think about was The Italian Job (2003) is like a toned-down version of Ocean’s Eleven (that’s a good thing, by the way). For starters, both are remakes of older films (the original Ocean’s 11 was in 1960 and The Italian Job in 1969) which I have not seen. But they’re also similar in a more important way: they both have a certain energy and camaraderie to them that make them fun to watch. Most often in describing a film and why it’s so appealing, I use words like exhilarating, intriguing, engaging, or more often the generic “entertaining”. While The Italian Job could certainly be classified as all of those, “fun” is somehow more apt.

You’ve got the core gang, led by Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), supported by Handsome Rob (Jason Statham), Lyle (Seth Green), Left Ear (Mos Def), with Stella (Charlize Theron) and Wrench (Franky G) joining later. Their job: steal a ton (literally) of gold from ex-member Steve (Edward Norton) who betrayed the team and stole all the gold from them in Italy. Also thrown in for good measure, there’s an added vengeance motive for Stella after Steve killed her father (Donald Sutherland).

Not too complicated and also quite innovative. It’s not going to win any big creativity awards — there’s only so much variation you can do on a heist film — but The Italian Job keeps it fairly fresh. The outcome is somewhat predictable, but the road to get there has its twists and turns and keeps things interesting along the way. You’re never bored or feel like nothing is going on; there’s always something to pique your attention. That’s thanks in part to the constant slew of new plans and schemes that the gang goes through as they iterate and prepare for each step, from infiltrating the cable company, to setting explosives, to getting souped-up Mini Coopers.

But where the fun is really derived from is the gang. Not really the individual characters, although they each have their role to play, but it’s the group as a whole that brings the energy. While it’s about half the size as the crew in Ocean’s Eleven, they still get that same basic, we’re-going-to-rob-shit-and-it’s-going-to-be-badass vibe. It’s absolutely absurd, the events that take place in the film (there’s no way you can set explosives that precisely underneath a main road, have cars drive down stairs and through subway tunnels at high velocities, and many other crazy occurrences), but these people make it look like it’s everyday life. And that, above all, is what makes this film so great. It makes it feel like a game you and a group of neighborhood friends would play on a nice day, but increases the stakes and scope of it to be this massive, outrageous heist.

THE BAD: The only downside is that the film is missing a bit of humor. It may not be fair to compare The Italian Job to Ocean’s Eleven in this way, but put the two side-by-side, one has you laughing once every couple scenes, if not every scene, and the other only has a few scattered throughout. This isn’t to say The Italian Job didn’t compensate for this lack of humor in other ways. The action, the camaraderie, setting up the heist; it kept it all light and entertaining. But the reason I’m going to dock some points for The Italian Job here is because there were little breadcrumbs of what I was looking/hoping to see, but no bakery supplying it (I have no idea if that analogy makes sense, but I’m going to roll with it).

Lyle, aka Napster, is obviously the comedic relief. Right from the beginning you can tell he’s the goofy guy with the big tech background, sort of like Livingston Dell in Ocean’s Eleven, but much funnier. However, he only has a handful of moments where they let his opportunities for humor shine instead of allowing the laughs to flow more freely. I think my two funniest moments dealt with Lyle controlling the traffic and both received laughs loud enough that I’m sure passersby on the street were probably wondering what was going on. 

THE TAKEAWAY: The Italian Job (2003) is a very fun, very Ocean’s Eleven-esque film that follows a tight-knit gang on a heist to steal back their gold. It may not be full of laughs, but this film will entertain you in many other ways. Well worth a watch if you’re looking for a way to spend two hours this weekend.

THE RATING: 4 out of 5