REVIEW: The Book of Henry

19 06 2017

Let’s be clear: Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” is a strange, overstuffed movie. Its roughly 100 minute runtime manages to pack in as many traumatizing dramatic plot points as a season of network TV. I can imagine the pitch for Gregg Hurwitz’s script going something like a Stefon sketch. “This movie has everything: quirky families, a precocious prodigy, child abuse, brain tumors, premature death, a love story and a murder plot!”

Just one of its outlandish plot points would be enough to sustain a film of its length. Instead, we get one about every 15 minutes, leaving us no time to recover before the next one happens. “The Book of Henry” thus becomes unnecessarily strung out, which is a real shame as Hurwitz and Trevorrow do manage to capture some candor and earnestness with the story. Their good intentions get clouded out by how busy the film is, however.

In particular, a good portion of the film resonates when Jaden Lieberher’s titular character struggles with being helpless to enable action against injustice. “The Book of Henry” grasps the frustrating limitations of being a child, no matter how smart and well-adjusted you are. (Henry, by the way, is what I imagine the E-Trade baby would look like once he graduated from the crib.) Yet even this gets undermined when the term “child” gets trotted out as a form of dismissal in the climax. This is the film’s confusion in microcosm: a concerted effort to understand a complex problem sabotaged by the need for sensationalism. B-

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REVIEW: Remember

2 04 2016

Remember“As I speak to you now, the icy water of the ponds and ruins fill the hallows of the mass graves, a frigid and muddy water, as murky as our memory.” These words come from the powerful closing monologue of Alain Resnais’ seminal 1955 documentary short “Night and Fog,” one of cinema’s first attempts to grapple with the Holocaust. It may seem hard to believe from our 21st century vantage point, but there was a time when our culture seemed in danger of turning its back on the horrors of the Nazi’s brutality and ultimately forgetting the sights of the concentration camps altogether.

In the past two decades, films as varied as “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “Son of Saul” all made cases for how culture and film can help us understand these events by reliving them. Spielberg, especially, pleads for collective remembrance, even going so far as to bleed the fictional representation into a then-present day verité scene.

Atom Egoyan’s “Remember,” as the title implies, is a film about memory. Specifically, it follows Christopher Plummer’s dementia-riddled Auschwitz survivor Zev Guttman as he embarks upon a quest to identify Nazis who assumed the identities of exterminated Jews to sneak into America. The film’s tension comes just as much from the lapses in Zev’s memory as it does from each stop on his cross-country journey to visit the many men assuming the alias Rudy Kurlander.

But in the world created by screenwriter Benjamin August, the act of remembrance is not a central thematic concern. It is the pretext for a revenge thriller. He misses an opportunity to use fading memory as more than a plot device. Remembering what happened in the Holocaust is perhaps more important than ever in a time where a new generation will never personally encounter survivors and a leading presidential candidate wavers on disavowing an unrepentant racist who wants to rehabilitate the image of Adolf Hitler. Many blame genocides in Syria and Darfur on our cultural amnesia. Might it strike again, if we are not vigilant?

August and Egoyan are free to make whatever movie they want. But why bother dredging up such loaded historical material only to produce a standard-issue genre flick? Art can be equal to the challenges of our times. We should not let those works content to stay disengaged off the hook so easily. C+2stars





REVIEW: Secret in Their Eyes

21 11 2015

Remaking a movie from another language requires more than just translating the dialogue. When done right, a complex series of subtle changes must take place to transplant the story across cultures.

Secret in Their Eyes,” a remake of the 2009 Argentinian film of the same (sans definite article), moves an intriguing thriller from 1970s Buenos Aires to 2000s Los Angeles. Naturally, that country’s “Dirty War” of state terrorism, which provides the setting for the original film, must be changed as America has no such equivalent. The closest equivalent that writer/director Billy Ray finds? Post-9/11 terrorism.

Yawn.

Juan José Campanella’s film dealt with tragedies that his country was still reluctant to acknowledge. Billy Ray milks the nation’s public anguish of this millennia for lazy dramatic stakes. Drawing parallels between the two changes the very nature of the story from a politically-tinged thriller to something that amounts to little more than a feature-length episode of a serialized crime drama.

Not even the talented cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts can elevate the material back to the level of its Oscar-winning source. Ray’s script, which cuts between a murder in 2002 and its continuing aftermath in 2015, intertwines its threads to such clunky effect that “Secret in Their Eyes” never has a chance to gain any momentum. He favors big, explosive moments from his actors as opposed to giving them rich, internal characters to work with on the page.

We know from films like “12 Years a Slave” that Ejiofor is capable of communicating so much with just his eyes, yet his tortured protagonist Ray from “Secret in Their Eyes” never gets the chance to draw us into his pain. He’s a counterterrorism agent with a crush on one colleague, Nicole Kidman’s Claire, and a friendly working relationship with another, Julia Roberts’ Jess. When a routine check on a body turns out to be Jess’ daughter, the boundaries between protecting the country and pursuing justice get rather murky.

The occasional ethical question about the merits of retribution gets raised here and there, but it’s usually forgone for yet another opportunity to watch Roberts hysterically contort her face. C+2stars





REVIEW: The Counselor

25 10 2015

Ever wondered what it would look and sound like if Aaron Sorkin took a pass at adapting “No Country for Old Men?” It might resemble Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” a film taken from a script by great novelist Cormac McCarthy himself. For someone so sparse and minimalistic in prose, his first screenplay sure feels bombastic.

It’s hard to fathom that someone so widely lauded as one of the most significant writers of our time could turn in a work full of fortune-cookie dialogue and overwrought, self-serious drama. (Wait, maybe this was the blueprint for season 2 of “True Detective.”) At times, it even feels like McCarthy has to be pulling some kind of elaborate prank on his audience. How else could anyone possibly explain why “The Counselor” goes on a bizarre tangent to depict Cameron Diaz’s Malkina sexually pleasuring herself on the windshield of a Ferrari?

Or perhaps McCarthy needs a strong authorial buffer like the Coen Brothers to translate into the medium of cinema. (John Hillcoat really just didn’t cut it on “The Road.”) Ridley Scott assembled quite the cast to bring the writer’s vision to life, but none of these talented thespians can transcend the schlock of the script. It even renders Michael Fassbender almost ineffective, and that’s really saying something.

In somewhat of a change of pace, McCarthy goes heavy on conversation and light on characterization. His saga of greed, money and jealousy set along the U.S.-Mexico border plays as little more than a collection of connected events since the various personalities involved never get explored in much depth. There’s at once too much and not enough happening in “The Counselor.” Rather than trying to resolve these contradictions, I’d rather just forget that all involved even spent their time on this.  C2stars





REVIEW: Men, Women & Children

16 12 2014

In 2009, Jason Reitman added a potent subplot to his film “Up in the Air” that dealt with some of the alienation people feel in a depersonalized, technology-laden society.  Five years later, he arrives with “Men, Women & Children,” a dark and moody spiritual cousin to his masterpiece.  It goes beyond the obvious stating that people live text message to text message or email to email.  Underneath it all, they are clearly living orgasm to orgasm.

Reitman finds a new writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, to adapt Chad Kultgen’s novel, which is perhaps the only truly honest novel about the realities of living in a digitally mediated society.  The story follows a group of teenagers and their parents, each age group struggling with the temptations of carnality made available at their fingertips.  They all seek intimacy, a rarity in a sea of screen addicts, yet cannot seems to escape their enmeshed existence in the World Wide Web.

It seems as if Reitman, likely by commercial imperatives, had to pull some punches and soften the impact of his film.  How blistering can an excoriation of an Internet pornography obsessed society be if those toxic images are never shown?  How shameful can sexual deviance feel if the acts themselves are artfully avoided?  Reitman did not have to go full NC-17 to make an effective film on this topic, and “Men, Women & Children” suffers from his cautious moves.

Still, the message gets across pretty clearly, provided the audience can put down their iPhones for two hours to listen to it. For once, the youth are neither a fountain of hope nor a convenient object for blame; they are just exploring normal curiosities in the same way that their chief role models did.  In fact, the adults of “Men, Women & Children” are every bit as clueless and juvenile in cyberspace as their kids.  Society is all in this battle together, and no one is above it because it brings out the worst in everyone.

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