Sunday, July 27, 2014

Catching Up: "Heaven is for Real"

 1.5 / 5 

It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Think about a movie like The Exorcist, which despite all the pea soup and rotating heads, was a movie about how a priest who was losing his faith and a woman who never had any discovered they both were right.

There's a movie like the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, in which a man watched his life fall apart and wondered why he was so faithful to a God who treated him so badly.

Look at Field of Dreams, a movie about one man's faith in an unseeable, unknowable spirit, and the way his family supported his convictions, no matter what.

Movies like The Passion of the Christ or The Last Temptation of Christ were not simply about religion but about the way their directors thought so carefully and so long about matters of faith.

More recently, Noah was nine types of whacko, but it was rarely boring and no matter what you thought of the rock creatures trudging around helping Noah build his ark, it was clear that Darren Aronofsky felt passionately about the story he was telling.

In the 1950s, movies about religion and the Bible were mainstream, blockbuster smashes.  Ben-Hur, The Robe and The Ten Commandments were big-screen epics that weren't simply "faith-based," they were full-on Biblical movies.

I say all this just to reassure myself that it is, indeed, not only possible to make a good film about religious faith, but to prove that it has been done, over and over.  It is entirely possible to make a good film about religious faith.

Heaven is for Real isn't one of them.

This is a goody-two-shoes, ultra-wholesome slice of the Heartland that takes an interesting concept and polishes it to such a bright, shining luster that everything that could be potentially interesting gets rubbed away, too.

Heaven is for Real takes an eternity to get to its main story, which is a sure sign it doesn't really have a story.  It's about this really great guy (Greg Kinnear) who lives in a big house in rural Nebraska with his sweet-but-sexy wife and his two adorable moppets.  Times have been tough, but he's the kind of guy who's not going to bow to the pressure of something like Obama's Economy; he repairs garage doors and takes items for trade instead of accepting cash payments, because, gosh, things are rough all over.  He's also the high-school wrestling coach.  He's also the town's preacher.

I don't know when he has time for everything else, because he's always being asked by people to do all sorts of favors like fixing garage doors in exchange for carpet remnants and visiting dying people to give them non-denominational last rites.

He is on the softball team, too, of course, and one day he breaks his leg.  Later, when his leg is healing, he gets kidney stones, and his friend the town banker thinks the kidney stones are really funny, and his sweet-but-sexy wife takes their little boy on an outing when Dad is passing his stones, while the soundtrack plays the kind of jaunty, happy music that usually accompanies a caper than ends with someone getting pushed in a lake and emerging with a happy smile.

What does any of this have to do with finding out whether Heaven is for real?

Nothing.  Not a thing.  It doesn't have to do with anything at all except to say this guy is Just Like You, if you are white, lower-middle-class, more or less unemployed, and go to church at least once a week.  In other words, this movie panders to the only audience it knows it's going to get.

There are a couple of black people, and I spotted two guys in the church congregation who might have been "those kind."  I don't know.  They weren't interesting, though.  No one in this movie is interesting.  They are the kind of people that used to populate Disney movies like Charley and the Angel and The $1,000,000 Duck, but at least those people said things like, "Gol-dang-it," which we all know was a G-rated way of saying a bad curse word.  The people in Heaven is for Real have never thought about cursing.  They wouldn't dare.  It might offend someone.

Anyway, finally for no reason other than the movie has to have something happen, Dad's little boy starts throwing up.  It turns out he has a ruptured appendix.  They race him to the hospital and the little boy loses his grip on his Spider-Man™ action figure -- in slow motion so we know this is a really serious moment (and also so we'll know this film is from Sony, producers of the Spider-Man™franchise and also the happy providers of the VAIO computers used in this production).

Then Something Really Big Happens and the little boy goes to Heaven.

He only reveals his journey after he's fully recovered.  For the remaining hour or six of the film, Dad looks perplexed and shocked and tries to find answers.

At one point, he goes to see a Liberal Psychologist, who just says that maybe there are other explanations for why the little boy said the entrance to Heaven was through the doors of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church, and that the first person he saw in Heaven was Jesus, who was fair-skinned and blue-eyed and wearing pressed white robes and sandals exactly like the ones Sunday school teachers tell 5-year-olds that Jesus wears.

There are angels who look pretty much exactly like angels look in all the children's books, and the angels giggle when the little boy says they should sing "We Will Rock You," which is a little family joke.  A very little one.

Anyway, no one can believe that the little boy went to Heaven, except everyone believes it and eventually he writes a best-selling book and everyone lives Happily Ever After.

You don't see Heaven is for Real because you wonder if Heaven is for real.  And, I guess, if you like your religion to be very safe and wholesome and American, this might be sort of a nice (if meandering) story.

It's just a really bad movie.

If you haven't seen it, you can just take that on faith.

Viewed July 25, 2014


Sunday, July 20, 2014


 5 / 5 

Is that all there is?
Peggy Lee (1969)

Nearly three hours long, Richard Linklater's Boyhood left me wondering the same question Peggy Lee sang, but for a different reason: I wanted more.

It couldn't end this way, without real resolution, in the middle of the life of Mason Evans Jr., the boy we have watched grow from 6 to 18.  Boyhood is a long movie, but it proves Roger Ebert's famous axiom that no bad movie is too short and no good movie is too long.  Boyhood may be lengthy, but it feels like it's just getting started.

Linklater also directed the Before series of films (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight), which explore many similar themes, though from the standpoint of a single relationship.  Boyhood goes ones step further, beginning with a 6-year-old boy, the remarkably compelling Ellan Coltrane, following him through his first day of college at age 18.

Cinematically, it's not like anything that's ever been done before.  Of course, we've seen child stars grow up and grow old in front of our eyes in long-running TV series, but Boyhood is different, it condenses the boy's experience into a single feature film, surrounding him with characters who grow with him.  The primary concern may be stated right there in the title, but Boyhood is about more than one boy -- it's about the growth, maturity and struggles of everyone around him.

While other filmmakers concern themselves with visual effects and technological developments in an effort to present audiences with something unique, what Linklater has done with Boyhood is a singular achievement that thrills in ways those movies can only dream of doing.

Boyhood captivates us by combining simple, anecdotal moments with a full-bodied story that makes us lean forward in our seats and feel tension, worry, genuine joy and moments of surprised pain because after a while we realize it could truly be heading in any direction.

Loosely, the story is that Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's own daughter) live with their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette).  Their father (Ethan Hawke) abandoned them and moved to Alaska, but he's back in Texas and wants to be part of their lives.  Mason Sr. isn't exactly the picture of appropriate parenting, but the kids love him.

Mason adores his mother, too, and she is the best parent she can be, though her choices in men may be less assured.  For a while, it seems they might find stability, but it is always a chimera.  Mason learns how to tolerate the uncertainty much better than his mother ever does.  He sees her trying, and it instills in him the same strong desire to move forward, even when life pushes him back.

Boyhood makes this small domestic drama feel wonderfully large and meaningful, and entirely relatable.  Linklater and his cast draw the outlines of Mason's life in necessarily broad yet effectively specific strokes, so that its struggles and its successes seem to mirror every life.  Not much works out exactly the way Mason, or especially his mother, expects it will, because it so rarely does for anyone.  There are old grudges, constant temptations, bad decisions, perpetual injustices, and more than a few solid disappointments.  Eventually even the worst scars heal and fade, the best moments rise to the surface as the stuff of which we are made.

Throughout, there is beauty and even real meaning.  Boyhood finds its beauty in simple places: a crystal-clear lake, a flat Texas road, the backyard.  From its wide-eyed view of childhood to its Texas setting, there are some similarities here to the difficult, languorous Terence Malick film Tree of Life, but Linklater isn't attempting to be a visual poet, nor is he trying to be a faux documentarian.  He's trying to find honesty and truth, and he succeeds.

It would have been easy to turn Mason into a troubled teen, to make his story into some sort of cautionary tale about the perils of broken marriages or the way modern media make kids grow up too fast.  Boyhood doesn't go for easy plot machinations.

Along the way there are surprises, to be sure, and not all happy ones, a familiar situation to most of us -- jobs that don't work out, relationships that begin promisingly but end in acrimony, friendships aborted, rooms that need to be painted before moving too soon.  There's a deeply touching moment toward the end of the film in which Olivia echoes some of the same sentiment of that Peggy Lee song, but through it all is a warm and satisfying optimism, a solid belief that tackling life's challenges is worth the effort.

Boyhood is as close to a perfect film as you are likely to find.   Its final scene is an altogether appropriate one, and I appreciated it but also didn't want Boyhood to fade out; I could have spent another 16 years with Mason, and perhaps in 2030, Linklater will bring us the next installment of this life.  Boyhood may have begun as an experiment, but it has ended as the most satisfying three hours I've spent at the movies in a long, long time.

Viewed July 19, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, July 18, 2014

Favorite Films: "Joe Versus the Volcano"

There are some films, just like people, that find ways into your heart and stubbornly insist on lodging themselves there despite all reason.  Some may insist on telling you that your heart is wrong, but it is they, of course, who are mistaken.  It may well be true that this odd thing you like is generally not considered likable, that you adore something not generally considered adorable.  So be it.

Such is the way for me and Joe Versus the Volcano, a movie I've heard people call loud, obvious, crass, facile, silly and too clever for its own good.  I've heard it described as grim and depressed.

I also know people who are called those things, and some of them are truly fine, wonderful people once you see past the surface.  I am proud to know them, even if others are not, and when I hear criticisms of them, I feel most sorry for the people passing judgment.  Their view of the world is limited, informed not by their hearts but by their heads.

Joe Versus the Volcano, to be fair, is puerile.  It is silly.  It is often loud, sometimes crass and frequently too clever for its own good.  There is fairly little doubt in my mind that it is obvious, too, but only in the ways that fairy tales and fables are obvious.  It is neither grim and is the opposite of depressed, though it starts out that way.

It begins with a man who is sad.  He faces the anxieties of modern life, problems like a soul-sucking job (he works at "the home of the rectal probe," which seems like a satirical extreme except that rectal probes exist, which means someone actually does make them), a hateful boss, and co-workers who look like zombies.  But how do you show problems like these in ways that really get to the heart of what people feel when they have dead-end lives?  It's a problem for many films, which try to portray life in ways that are at least marginally realistic.

Director/screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar for the lyrical magic in his Moonstruck, knows the problem with realism is that it's never at all realistic.  So, from start to finish, Joe Versus the Volcano frames its story as a modern-day fable.  It even begins with the words, "Once upon a time ..."

That should be a clue that Joe Versus the Volcano is going to be anything but realistic, but perhaps because it's not an animated musical, most people seem not to take it that way.  When Meg Ryan shows up as three different characters, each with ridiculously abstracted personalities, people seem incapable of grasping that this is not realism but fantasy.  They have a hard time with a doctor explaining that Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is going to die of a "brain cloud."  They want to know what a "brain cloud" is and why they've never heard of it.  They've never heard of it because a "brain cloud" is a disease that exists in the kind of world where chocolate manufacturers wear purple velvet coats, where slippers are made of glass, where puppets turn into boys and houses fly to Oz in tornadoes.

By the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released in 1990, things like that didn't happen in the movies anymore.  That's a shame.

In Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe is directed -- for reasons far too elaborate to explain here -- to fling himself into a volcano on a remote South Pacific island where the natives include Abe Vigoda and love to drink orange soda.

He tries to get to the island on a boat whose crew is led by one of Meg Ryan's three characters, Patricia, a wounded woman who has what I consider one of the all-time great screen monologues in which she explains that the pain in her soul is something Joe is going to see.

Joe and Patricia survive a shipwreck, incongruously dance to classic rock-and-roll while floating on top of expensive luggage, and almost die.

Joe's near-death scene is a visually magnificent one, and a beautifully honest one in the ways of honesty in fables: As he watches the moon rise over the South Pacific, he is humbled in the presence of the universe, and utters a short prayer to "God, whose name I do not know."  He understands that his life is more than he ever imagined it to be, and in that moment he isn't just talking about the grand adventure he has come to experience, but even that awful life under fluorescent lights at the rectal-probe place.

Eventually, Joe and Patricia stand atop the volcano and face their moment of truth.  Again using the tools of fable-telling with brilliant precision, Shanley creates a moment of rare insight as Patricia explains the options to a still-scared Joe.  "Nobody knows anything, Joe," she says.  "We'll take this leap and we'll see.  We'll jump, and we'll see.  That's life, right?"

Yes, that's life.  And if those words were the only ones anyone ever remembered from the impressive career of John Patrick Shanley, they would be enough.  They are simple, straightforward, even mildly lyrical.  They are the reason Joe Versus the Volcano exists -- to hearten those who have been disheartened, to embolden those who have become timid.

It is the best reason a film can be made: To impart a particular vision of the world that might help make the lives of others a little bit better.  They are words I come back to over and over in my own life.

Perhaps they are spoken by an unlikeable character in a film that is loud, brash and unsophisticated.  I don't care.  They are honest words in a movie overflowing with sincere, sympathetic observations about the plight of people who think they have to stay stuck in their jobs, that their lives have become small, that they must have a "brain cloud" that will get them in the end one day.

We all feel like that from time to time.  Seek out this odd, beautiful, imperfectly perfect little film sometime, ideally on a cold and rainy day when you can't imagine the sun returning.  If you give it just half a chance, Joe Versus the Volcano will make you feel better about life.  No matter who you are, Joe Versus the Volcano believes in you.

The same can't be said for many films.  Joe Versus the Volcano is an adorably optimistic, admittedly uneven piece of work -- and it's that unevenness that makes it so rare.  It is not the best film ever made, it is just one of the most loving, kind and secretly sweet films ever made.  Its failures are evident, but its successes outshine them.

It's the movie I return to time and time again when I need to be reminded of my own capacity for strength, daring, risk-taking and adventure, whether big or small.  It's the movie that helps me feel better about myself.  I hope someday, when you're on your own homemade raft looking for any sign of life on an endless sea of your own making, it will do the same for you.

Other people may tell you it's not worth watching, that it's a big epic mess of a movie.  Don't listen to those people.  They have brain clouds.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

 2.5 / 5 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the movie 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have been but thankfully wasn't.

Rise of Planet of the Apes avoided all the cliches of the awful 2001 Planet of the Apes remake by focusing not on the apes themselves but on the humans who, it turned out, caused their own planet to be taken over by intelligent simians.

It was all an accident, Rise posited -- one driven by greed and arrogance, fueled by the need for technological innovation at all costs.  Rise began hundreds of years before the story we all know took place, and suggested that the apes would evolve and grow into the culture and civilization that wayward astronauts would discover years hence.

Rise was sensationally imaginative, aware and intensely respectful of its source material, but so unexpected and engaging because it didn't center its story on a war between apes and man, on a battle for the planet that (we all know) they will conquer in the end.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes centers it story on a war between apes and man and on a battle for the planet that (we all know) they will conquer in the end.

It replaces the sly ingenuity of the first film with exactly the sort of CG-created spectacle of thousands of apes facing off against thousands of men that the first film so assiduously avoided.  While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a wondrous feat of digital filmmaking -- the first 20 minutes or so are basically an animated film based on some fantastic motion-capture performances -- there's precious little emotional pull to the story.

The whole thing gets going with a pulse-quickening introduction that continues a terrific moment from the end credits of the first film: From a single point of contact, a "simian flu" spreads around the world.  Within months, millions of people are wiped out, and it isn't long before fewer than 1 in 500 humans remain.

A bunch of them are holed up in San Francisco, just across the bay (via the Golden Gate Bridge, the favorite destruction toy of CGI artists) from an ape stronghold in Marin County -- in the Muir Woods, to be precise, where apes have built up their own rudimentary commune that isn't too different than the kind of place pot-smoking hippies might have built in Marin County in the 1960s.  They live in harmony, and for 10 years, not a single ape has crossed the bridge into San Francisco, and not a single human has crossed the bridge into Marin.  It's been a wonderfully peaceful time, apparently.

Down in San Francisco, things have turned remarkably wild, given that thousands of people are still living there.  As their base of operations, they've chosen not to use the old City Hall (which still stands in remarkably clean condition, we come to find out), but an old mall that is tattered and torn.

When the movie starts, some of the humans have finally ventured north, and naturally they run smack into the apes, and within minutes the peace is shattered.  The apes don't trust the humans.  The humans don't trust the apes.  Except for some of the more enlightened among each species, including Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee from the first film.  He's the leader of the apes.  The leader of the humans is a loose cannon named Dreyfus, who we know is a loose cannon because he's played by Gary Oldman, who is rarely cast in a film for his sensibility and sanity.

But some of the humans want to broker a peaceable deal with the apes.  The chief pacifist humans Malcolm and Ellie, who are played by actors who are very attractive (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) and are entirely, blandly forgettable.  Not a single one of the humans in this Planet of the Apes movie matches the interest of James Franco and John Lithgow in the first movie.  The main reason they want to come to terms with the apes is that there is a hydroelectric dam that in the last decade no one has ever started up, and even though it's clogged with 10 years' worth of tree roots and has all sorts of burned out electrical parts that used to take a large staff to maintain, the pacifists can fix it.  In a few days.  And restore power to all of San Francisco.

As someone who has tried my hand, unsuccessfully, at both screenplays and novels, I'm the last person who should be calling out lazy storytelling.  It isn't easy to tell such a big story convincingly and with the kind of energy that propelled the first, and the concept of a handful of poorly equipped humans fixing a hydro-electric dam in a matter of days might not be lazy, but it's at least lollygagging.

While Caesar makes tentative friends with these humans, another ape named Koba is less trusting of the humans, and leads an expedition to the city only to discover -- shocking! -- humans still like guns, and they have enough to quash any takeover attempt.  But, naturally, the apes (though they've never seen a stockpile of ammunition in their lives) develop a plan to seize control, and it's not long before Gary Oldman is standing on the balcony of the old shopping mall shouting, "There!  On California Street!  Here they come!"  And the apes are on the attack.

Who's going to win?  Will Koba's uprising threaten Caesar and his colony of apes?  These are the questions the film uses to propel its third act, but I was more intrigued by other questions, namely: Why do the apes have a sudden desire to speak English when sign language has done so well for them for a decade?  And how difficult was it for them to learn how to correctly conjugate and decline verbs with such flair?  For apes who haven't heard a word of English in the past decade, they are awfully good at speaking -- and, in a few shots, writing.  What made them choose English, by the way?  Why not create their own ape language?

These are the kinds of questions it seems to me that Rise of the Planet of the Apes might have been interested in answering.  It was a big-budget movie, to be sure, but it seemed to have less interest in pleasing its audience than pleasing its filmmakers -- which is, generally, a fantastic way to ensure a pleased audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which ends with the kind of all-CG ape-on-ape action sequence with which it began, doesn't feel as eager to keep on the track its predecessor set, but more like it was trying to please a lot of studio executives eager to reboot a franchise.

By the final shot, the movie fails to determine its conclusion.  The bad guys have tried to take down a building, but somehow it didn't work so it's better just to ignore them anymore.  The good guys are somewhere, but they've served their purpose so other than giving each other a satisfied hug, they have no role to play.  Only the apes have a real need to move forward; they have won a  victory at the end of the movie, but just what that victory is or why it matters -- that's something the filmmakers don't bother to tell is.  Instead, we get a shot of CG apes looking up at their CG leader, in his eyes humanity (or ape-anity?) gleams in the future.  He is ready to lead them.  They roar their approval.  The movie holds on his eyes and ...

Where?  When?  Why?  What is happening next?  Where did this story just take us?  Impossible to know for sure, based on the evidence that's at hand.  But the lights are coming up in the theater, the credits are rolling, so that must have been a great movie!  That last shot must mean something important!

I imagine a lot of people will leave the movie feeling that way, feeling that the swelling crescendo of Michael Giacchino's score and the stolid, heavy-breathing looks of Andy Serkis are enough to propel us into the next Planet of the Apes movie. I'm just not sure exactly where they will go with it.   I cared a lot, after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to find out what came next.  Now that I know, I'm not sure I have much interest in going any further.  They started with a concept that left all of humanity at imminent risk; they ended with a scene that implies, "Hey, let's built ourselves a city in San Francisco."

Based on the evidence here, the Apes movies are getting smaller and less interesting.  I remain mildly interested to see where they will take it, though, mostly because it seems to have so little place to go -- except, of course, east to New York.  That could be interesting, I suppose.

Viewed July 13, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Life Itself"

 3.5 / 5 

When I was about five years old, my parents took me to the movies for the first time, and for the next decade or so, my father made sure we saw a movie every week.  He introduced me to movies like The Seven Samurai, Casablanca and Citizen Kane.

In college, when I thought (as do most boys who grew up in Southern California, I suppose) I wanted to be a filmmaker, and took a class in film theory taught by a French professor named Alain something-or-another, who made us watch a single scene from Jules et Jim over and over and over until it lost every meaning except the purely compositional, which I imagine was the point.  That separated the dreamers from the doers with enormous speed.

I remember the influence those two men, my father and that French professor, had on my understanding of film, but if I'm honest no one was more influential for me than Roger Ebert.  It was my father, no surprise, who first got me watching Sneak Previews when it was still on public television.  More years passed before I realized that "the fat one" actually wrote, too, and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his words, the things Roger Ebert said on TV drove me to realize that there is no shame in simply enjoying the movies.

Everyone, including Gene Siskel, knew Roger Ebert was the one most people listened to, because it was impossible not to pay attention to him.  Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert and his passion (not just for movies, but for the title subject, too), is well aware of this, and spends a great deal of time elaborating on Ebert's gift with the English language.  It turns out I wasn't the only one who couldn't stop listening to the guy, because he cared so much about being heard.

That isn't a disparagement -- from his wife to his colleagues, from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to the nurses who took care of Ebert after he fell ill with cancer that disfigured his face but not his mind, everyone in Life Itself acknowledges that Ebert was a forceful, sometimes irritating, personality.

Life Itself is an appreciation of Ebert and the profound public and personal impact he had on both the film industry and on those who knew him.  It's a beautiful movie, framed by the last days of his life, when he lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak, but not the ability to communicate or inspire people.  It seems fitting that despite the scowl he inevitably wore on TV and in photos, the extreme measures taken to save his life left him looking as if he was perpetually smiling.

The joy Ebert took in his life and his work pervade the movie -- but in amounts that are equal to his honesty about alcoholism and the fear of loneliness that dissipated only when he met his wife, Chaz, a strong and vibrant woman whose ability to love a man who was painfully aware of his weight, his drinking, and his overpowering nature.

The most entertaining parts of Life Itself are the discussions of his rivalry with Siskel (who died in 1999) and their complex relationship.  Perhaps because it has been made by a filmmaker whose admiration of Ebert is well-known -- Siskel and Ebert's intense admiration for James's 1994 film Hoop Dreams helped propel that movie's success -- it lacks a bit of perspective.  If you walked into this film with no idea of who Ebert was or why he mattered, you might learn a little bit, but not too much; it's a movie made for people who loved Roger Ebert and his talents, and want to pay respect to them.

I'm one of those people, and Life Itself both amused and affected me, but I came away wishing I had learned a little more about how Ebert developed his views and his uncanny ability not just to like movies as varied as Cries and Whispers and Benji the Hunted, but to persuade other people to like them, too.

There might be a deeper exploration of Ebert's work and his impact waiting to be made, but not quite yet: His death still feels fresh to those who admired him so much, his loud, midwestern voice still thunders in our head, and we still wonder what he would think of the movie we just saw.  Ebert's contributions deserve greater study, but later -- for now, Life Itself lets us remember and appreciate him, which seems exactly the right thing to do.

I'm forever indebted to my father for instilling a deep love of movies in me, and to Alain-what's-his-face for showing me that they're made in a language I never came to know.  But only Roger Ebert reminded me, over and over again -- and still does -- of the simple truth that movies are meant to be enjoyed.  You like what you like, and you shouldn't be embarrassed to defend your truth with intelligence and humor.  Kind of like Life Itself.

Viewed July 6, 2014 -- Laemmle North Hollywood 7