REVIEW: Soul Surfer

30 04 2017

I’ll go ahead and warn you that a good portion of this review won’t be dealing with the movie “Soul Surfer” at all. This inspirational sports movie about Bethany Hamilton, the 13-year-old who lost her arm to a shark while surfing, is so clichéd and by the book that it really isn’t worth discussing in depth. In short, it’s instantly forgettable because you’ve already seen it. You know what’s going to happen, so much so that I don’t even need to scream spoiler: she’s going to get back on the board, and she’s going to succeed.

At this point, you either know that you are going to be moved by this storyline or you aren’t.  Maybe there’s the exception for the sport that’s closest to your heart, but from “The Blind Side” to “Secretariat” to “Soul Surfer,” it’s all the same buttons being pushed. (Although now thanks to “The Blind Side,” these movies can delve into Christianity and religion without being thrown in the “Christian art” ghetto.) I’ve come to resist this maudlin and melodramatic sentimentalism because it’s just plain lazy filmmaking.

But in one of the final editions of Sports Illustrated in 2012, Brian Koppelman (writer/director of the decidedly forgettable “Solitary Man” – but also the showrunner of “Billions”) penned a passionate plea for Hollywood to keep churning out these color-by-numbers underdog stories. He talks about how sports movies “have a purity and truth that all too often professional and college sports no longer do” and that he’s “rooting for Hollywood to find a way to do the right thing and give us a few more of the transcendent film moments that only a sports movie can bring.”

Well, Mr. Koppelman, allow me to retort. (NOTE: I wrote this in 2013 and left it unpublished for four years. Retorting made more sense then.) I understand what good sports movies are supposed to do, and believe me, I’ve been moved by plenty of them from “Remember the Titans” to “Miracle.” But by now, the underdog champions have been crowned on screen for just about every sport.  Now, with “Soul Surfer,” we even have surfing.

The inspirational sports movie has run out of steam, and the formula has been hackneyed into a shell of its former self. When the western and the musical told all the stories people could stand, they slipped quietly into obscurity. I think it may be time for the sports movie to do the same, particularly those of the inspirational brand.

Now, a sort of revisionist strand of sports films have taken center stage. “The Fighter” is more about family than boxing, just as “Moneyball” is more about creative thinking than baseball. They have succeeded with audiences and critics because they use the familiar warmth of competitive athletics to bring about an entirely different sentiment.

So, Mr. Koppelman, there will always be the sports movie “classics” of the past for you to enjoy. With something for just about everyone now, the underdog story may have exhausted itself – but that’s only a natural progression. Whether it was the audiences or the industry that gave up on sports movies around the time of release of the generic “Soul Surfer,” I don’t particularly care. I just hope that we have all moved on to bigger and better things because the sports movie as it stands today is weighing us down in unnecessary banality.  B- / 2stars


16 11 2015

TruthHere’s something that generally serves as harbinger for an undeveloped movie: if a movie has to say its title multiple times to continually telegraph its themes. Bonus points if said theme is also the film’s title.

Truth” is obsessed with, well, the truth and asking questions as it pertains to journalistic inquiry. James Vanderbilt’s film follows a “60 Minutes” squad led by Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes as they dig deeper into then-President George W. Bush’s dubious military record. Their investigation appears to uncover preferential treatment that kept him out of Vietnam.

However, that finding comes under intense scrutiny after a document’s authenticity cannot be proven. The fallout ultimately claims the position of longtime CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather, played unconvincingly by the great Robert Redford. Needless to say, this is pretty much a nightmare for the newsroom, yet somehow writer/director Vanderbilt tries to spin some shades of gray from it.

The argument, so it seems, is that Bush somehow deserved to be caught and that Mapes had every right to question him without airtight facts. I can only assume he wagers that the world would be better had Bush not been re-elected, journalistic ethics be damned. He has an “All the President’s Men”-level faith in the power of reporters to bring down a president with none of the respect for the rigorous procedures that allow them to speak truth to power.

What could have been a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the interpretation of information to suit the narrative in one’s head – essentially just tries to turn Mapes into some kind of martyr. Blanchett does her best to sell this angle, mixing and matching elements from her performances in “Blue Jasmine” and “Notes on a Scandal” to make it work. But even she cannot transcend the victimization complex that plagues her character on the page, so the net result of “Truth” ends up being negative for the fourth estate. B-2stars

REVIEW: At Any Price

26 08 2013

If a movie makes you feel anger, it has to be effective on some level.  The ability to generate some kind of feeling in the viewer means the movie is communicating something right.

In the case of “At Any Price,” it’s easy to get angry because Ramin Bahrani’s script, co-written with Hallie Newton, is a well-plotted story that takes a look at flawed people on their worst behavior.  Though the film takes place in the American heartland, far away from the excesses of Wall Street, thematic similarities to films like “Margin Call” and “Arbitrage” make for a shocking testament to how just how pervasive a strain of reckless greed is running through our country.

Dennis Quaid’s Dean Ripple may deal with seeds rather than financial derivatives, but the ethical dilemmas he’s faced with at the farm differ remarkably little from the ones that must be dealt with at the stock market.  Dean can cheat and get ahead of his competitors, who seem to be beating him at every turn, or play an honest game for better or for worse.  He ultimately drags his son Henry into his moral mire, though not without plenty of Midwestern soap opera-style family conflict.

Bahrani’s allegory is quite clever, but it’s a bit overloaded and overwrought.  It never ceases to amaze me how subtlety always seems in such scant quantities in film, and Bahrani’s heavy-handed direction manages to essentially cancel out the nuances of the script.  “At Any Price” did manage to make me feel emotionally empty as justice remains miscarried, but at what cost?  For Bahrani, that pit in my stomach came at the expense of the story’s quiet power.  B-2stars

REVIEW: Footloose

5 03 2012

I’m no better or no worse for having seen the 2011 remake of “Footloose.”  I really can’t insult it too much; Craig Brewer’s movie is extremely corny to the point where it almost invites self-mockery.  It’s the kind of movie tailor-made to people who don’t want their movies to be sophisticated and crave dialogue that just ridiculously follows a stupid cinematic template.  To compare it to the last movie I reviewed, “A Separation,” does neither justice as this movie relishes being something very far removed from reality.

And indeed, if you can just fade into a world where dancing, not drinking, is the societal evil, then “Footloose” may be just the movie for you.  There are plenty of decently choreographed sequences that catch the eye, but they feel a little out of place without the framework of a Broadway musical.  It wants to be a musical movie without fitting into the musical genre, a hybrid that didn’t really work when Tim Burton tried it in 2007 with “Sweeney Todd” and doesn’t fare any better here.

If you can’t remove the critic in you to watch a movie, then “Footloose” probably just isn’t a movie you should spend your time watching.  Kenny Womald, the newcomer cast as leading man Ren, will undoubtedly irk you.  While it’s admirable that they didn’t just cast a Zac Efron-type for looks, casting an unknown carries risks, and the movie becomes a 101 course on why you shouldn’t cast one in a big role.  He has what Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em would call an annoying “pretty boy swag,” meaning that he struts his body and hair around as a replacement for really acting.

Julianne Hough sure can sing, but I’ll need a few more movies before I can buy her as an actress.  She gets the prickliness of her loose character Ariel right on, but I got the feeling she should have been a little more sympathetic than Hough made her come across.  Leave the emo teenage angst to Kristen Stewart, please.  Miles Teller as Ren’s boon companion Willard is the closest thing “Footloose” has to a scene-stealer, yet knowing that this was his follow-up to the superlative “Rabbit Hole” just made me sad inside.  And Dennis Quaid, once again, puzzles me with his undeniably eclectic role choice as the fire-and-brimstone Reverend Shaw.

I haven’t seen the original with Kevin Bacon, but I feel like I can say “don’t fix something that isn’t broken” to Brewer’s remake just as easily as I can to any other half-baked and uninspired Hollywood retooling.  New faces on an old story … sigh.  It’s ok, many greater directors have tried and failed just like you, Brewer.  Not everyone can be Martin Scorsese; there have to be some directors who can make him look like a saint in comparison.  

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 1, 2010)

1 01 2010

The first “F.I.L.M.” of the new decade is Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven,” a well-crafted examination of 1950s outlooks on sexuality and race.  The movie draws a great deal of strength from two fine-tuned performances by Julianne Moore, recognized by the Academy Awards as one of 2002’s finest, and Dennis Quaid, criminally ignored.  But in my mind, the movie’s real strength is Haynes’ original screenplay, which makes melodrama bearable.

Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, who leads a seemingly perfect li(f)e.  She has a husband moving up in the corporate world, two beautiful children, an exquisite home, and a high standing in the social sphere of Hartford, Connecticut.  Yet this charmed existence is about to come crumbling down at an unprecedented rate.  She discovers her husband (Quaid) engaging in acts that, if discovered by the judgmental town, would be social suicide.  In order to vent some of her stress, Cathy often strikes up conversations with her African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).  But once again, the town looks upon any sort of kind interaction between the two races as shameful.  As disdain mounts against her, Cathy must decide what she values most: social approval or the satisfaction of following her heart.

Moore is a staggering force as she tries to maintain a facade of proper decorum while her life falls apart.  She plays the sweet, submissive wife with such grace that the contrast is incredibly stark when she loses control of her emotions.  However, this is no surprise from an actress who consistently delivers hard-hitting performances.  The real revelation is Dennis Quaid.  I have never particularly thought him a strong actor, but he shows more raw emotion here than all his other movies combined.  The friction of his desires is played with a gripping intensity that grabs your attention.  “Far From Heaven” is quite melancholy, but Moore, Quaid, and Haynes pull it off with such finesse that it is hard to feel depressed after they release you from their rapturous hold.

(Sorry about the trailer, but it’s the only one on YouTube! The music you are supposed to hear is Elmer Bernstein’s mesmerizing score, which earned him an Oscar nomination.)

What To Look Forward to in … September 2009

17 08 2009

I guess this sort of serves as a “fall movie preview.” With this, I want to present what I’m looking forward to in September, what other might be looking forward to, and hopefully introduce you to some movies that you might not have heard of yet.

September 4

The movie that I’m most excited for opening this week is “Extract,” the latest comedy from Mike Judge, creator of “Office Space” and TV’s “King of the Hill.”  The movie stars Jason Bateman, who has been in nearly every comedy and yet I still have not tired of him, as the owner of an extract factory who is a bit down on his luck.  Also featuring a great supporting cast which includes J.K. Simmons (“Spider-Man,” “Juno”), Mila Kunis (TV’s “That ’70s Show”), Kristen Wiig (“SNL”), and Ben Affleck, the movie looks to be truly hilarious entertainment.

Other releases this week include “All About Steve,” a comedy with Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”), and “Gamer,” a non-stop action film with Gerard Butler (“The Ugly Truth”).

September 9 & 11

Opening on 9/9/09, “9” uses a clever marketing ploy to hopefully drive audiences its way.  But I’m not sold.  The ever creepy and quirky Tim Burton is behind it, and I have never really been into his type of movies.  The story revolves around nine CGI animated rag dolls living in a post-apocalyptic world.  Maybe this will be some sort of a breakout hit, but until I hear buzz from friends or other bloggers I trust, I’m not throwing my money at it.

“9” is the big attraction of the week.  Also opening is Tyler Perry’s latest movie “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” starring Taraji P. Henson of “Benjamin Button” fame, the thriller “Whiteout” starring the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale, and the horror flick “Sorority Row.”

September 18

There are several movies to get excited about that open this weekend.  First and foremost is “The Informant,” starring Matt Damon.  It takes your usual FBI rat story and flips it on its head, turning it into a comedy.  I have always thought Damon has a great knack for subtle comedy, perfectly illustrated in the “Ocean’s” movies.  The director is Steven Soderbergh, Oscar winner for “Traffic,” but has also helmed “Erin Brockovich” and all three “Ocean’s” films.  And the good news is that this is only Matt Damon’s first role of the year with Oscar potential (see the December preview later).

Also opening is “Jennifer’s Body,” which is the first film written by Diablo Cody since winning the Oscar for “Juno.”  It stars Hollywood’s beauty queen Megan Fox as a vampire who eats guys at her high school.  Her presence alone will drive every young guy in America to this movie.  It also features Amanda Seyfried, one of the bright spots in the otherwise disastrous film adaptation of “Mamma Mia!”  I love the quick-witted humor of “Juno,” and although this doesn’t appear to offer similar antics, curiosity (and Megan Fox) will probably get me.

In limited release, “Bright Star” opens, a movie consider by many to be a major Oscar player.  It isn’t the kind of movie that excites me just from watching the trailer, but the buzz surrounding it coming out of the Cannes Film Festival can’t be discarded.  The movie follows the life of the poet John Keats in the early 1800s.  It is directed by Jane Campion, writer/director of “The Piano,” and features a cast of nearly no recognizable names.  I feel obliged to tell you about it because many are sure that you will be hearing about it during awards season and also because so many people love movies set in the beautiful English country with tons of beautiful costumes and people.

Also opening is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” an animated adaptation of one of my favorite books growing up. Unfortunately, their idea of adapting it is taking the basic premise of food raining from the sky and destroying the rest of the original story. Maybe I will check it out for old time’s sake, but I’m not expecting anything special. The week also puts forth a romantic drama “Love Happens” starring Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight”) and Jennifer Aniston. And technically, the writer/director of “Babel,” Guillermo Ariaga, releases his latest movie, “The Burning Plain,” to theaters this weekend, but you can watch it on demand starting August 21 if you are that curious.

September 25

Being a musical theater junkie, I feel that it is my duty to push “Fame.”  The movie is a musical that follows a group of talented artists throughout their four years in high school in New York.  At a time in their lives where they don’t know if they have what it takes it to make it big, all the emotions appear to run high.  The movie features no stars. so hopefully this will launch some very promising careers.

For action fans, Bruce Willis is at it again in a high concept sci-fi called “Surrogates,” in which everyone in the world controls a robotic version of themselves from home called a surrogate. Willis plays a detective who investigates the possibility of the surrogates killing the user who operates it.  For sci-fi fans, a screamfest called “Pandorum” with Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster (“3:10 To Yuma”) looks to deliver.  For all those craving a raunchy comedy, a little studio will try to pack you into “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell,” adapted from the tales of drinking and its consequences in the book of the same name.  In limited release, those who like the costumes of “Bright Star” get “Coco Before Chanel,” the story of the legendary fashion designer.  (NOTE: “The Invention of Lying” was pushed back to October 2.)

So, readers, what is your most anticipated in September?  Anything I left off?  Take the poll and let me know.

Until the next reel,

REVIEW: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

13 08 2009

I will admit that I deliberately postponed this review a few days.  After writing “Mindless Moviegoing” in which I claim that there is hope for teens to look beyond the blockbuster, I would have felt like a hypocrite if the first movie I reviewed had been one.  That being said, I took my little brother to see “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” the morning after I finished the column.  He was begging, and so I just bit the bullet and took him.  Weary after the last disaster based on a Hasbro toy line, I decided I would judge the movie on two grounds: if it had some sort of understandable plot and if there was more to the movie than just explosions and fighting.  Did it pass?  Yes, but barely.  The movie isn’t highly ambitious, but it does attempt to provide a decent story and give its characters some depth (although it might help if the cast wasn’t all models to play this depth).  It provides bearable escapist entertainment, and it scores with the demographic that it targets because my brother now claims this to be his second-favorite movie ever (at least his favorite is “The Dark Knight”).

The movie revolves around a set of four warheads containing nanomites, a new technology with the strength to destroy cities.  They are developed by James McCullen, who sells them to NATO but intends to recapture them for his own use to achieve world domination.  He creates a team of warriors called Cobras that are fearless in the face of danger and virtually invincible.  Fighting these villains is G.I. Joe, an special forces unit comprised of elite soldiers from dozens of countries.  Duke (Channing Tatum, “Step Up”) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans, “Scary Movie”) are the U.S. soldiers assigned to protect the warheads and, as good soldiers do, refuse to release command until their mission has been completed.  They train and ultimately become a part of G.I. Joe as they attempt to stop the dastardly McCullen from destroying the world.

The acting is sub-par, which can be expected when the cast is comprised mainly of ex-models like Channing Tatum and the gorgeous Sienna Miller.  The comedian of the bunch, Marlon Wayans, doesn’t really provide any laughs.  Instead, the movie lets some corny lines and ridiculous acting take care of that.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt strangely follows up the amazing “(500) Days of Summer” with this.  Although I don’t fault him for maybe wanting to take a trip out of indie world, this seems like a curious movie to choose.  He has a kind of boy-next-door feel, and I didn’t really dig this villainous role for him.  However, I am thrilled that he wants to expand his repertoire.  What really boggles me is how Dennis Quaid chooses movies like this when he could be in any movie he wants.

My main comparison to “G.I. Joe” was the latest “Transformers,” and this is light years better.  It is much easier to digest and entertaining.  The movie makes a fair attempt to bring up some serious themes, such as emotion vs. logic, facing fear, and having a conscience about killing.  However, they are undeveloped and ultimately miss the mark.  If you are looking for escapist and mindless entertainment, this a decent choice.  It provides some cool, fast-paced action that will be fun for kids or the kid in you.  C+ / 2stars