Nothing makes me sit up and pay attention the way I do when a film critic I admire and respect publishes a review in stark disagreement with my own feelings about a particular film. A couple of weeks ago, I posted my admiration for The Lives of Others.
This week, J. Robert Parks really, really disagrees. And it’s the kind of review that stirs things up. It’s the kind of review that makes me want to go back, see it again, and wonder if I was completely duped. (Of course, I’m even more arrested by the review because Parks is a friend of mine, and how I wish we could go out for a pint to discuss this matter….)
Most of the hubbub over Mike Binder’s new film Reign Over Me concerns Adam Sandler’s surprising dramatic role. But Sandler’s turn is really no surprise to those of us who saw and love Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-drunk Love, in which Sandler showed remarkable range and subtlety. The guy has a very specific personality, and most of his comedies only pay attention to his clowning. Stronger, more discerning directors have caught his capacity to communicate loneliness, sadness, insecurity, explosive rage, and sensitivity.
Frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more hubbub about this film over another issue entirely … its rather startling similarity to Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King.
I fully expected to find Richard LaGravenese’s name in the credits. LaGravenese wrote The Fisher King, and Reign Over Me, which was written by Binder himself, seems to have been modeled after that fantastic, madcap masterpiece.
Let’s think this through:
Man who seems to have it all, and who has women throwing themselves at him, is played by distinguished actor. (Check. Only this time it’s Don Cheadle playing a well-to-do dentist — Alan Johnson — instead of Jeff Bridges as a famous DJ.)
That man is deeply, truly loved by a good woman… but he fails to appreciate it. (Jada Pinkett Smith this time, instead of Mercedes Ruehl.)
The unappreciative dope stumbles into the life of an endearingly deranged man whose perceptions of reality have been thrown out of whack by a serious trauma. (Check. This time, the trauma is 9/11, not murder by shotgun. And this time, the man — Charlie Fineman — falls into a state of nostalgia and childish irresponsibility, caught in a case of arrested development, whereas The Fisher King‘s Perry became convinced he was an Arthurian knight.)
That man is played by a talented comedian who is showing some powerful capacity for emotional, dramatic scenes. (Check. Only this time it’s Adam Sandler getting teary-eyed and pulling off the big emotional scenes, not Robin Williams.)
This damaged character runs about New York, generally discomforting, annoying, and surprising people with impetuous outbursts and childlike questions. (Check. Only this time he’s on a scooter.)
To give us a clear metaphor of his psychological struggle, the character faces off with an imagined monster. (Check. This time, the character regularly takes on a monster called “the Collossus” in a video game, rather than “The Red Knight” in his imagination.)
The damaged character lives in a messy apartment representative of his mental state. (Check.)
And the two men learn a great deal about each other, especially in a picturesque Chinese restaurant. (Check.)
The tramatized, lonely man takes a liking to a similarly damaged female lunatic. (Check. Saffron Burrows this time, not Amanda Plummer.)
Smitten, he hides and peers at her from around corners while she walks. (Check.)
And the film moves toward the possibility of a romance between them. (Check, although in The Fisher King it was a thrilling romance, whereas here it is cause for alarm.)
I could go on and on, but that really wouldn’t be fair to Reign Over Me. Whether Binder’s deliberately paying tribute to Gilliam’s film or not, he means well, and the result is a thoughtful, awkward, ultimately unsatisfying film.
The film’s chief virtues are its lead actors: Adam Sandler creates a gives a surprisingly three-dimepowerful dramatic performance, and Don Cheadle in a dignifed turn (even if his character does make a lot of implausible and even outrageous decisions along the way.)
As Alan and Charlie get to know each other, they have some amusing conversations, but nothing has the energy or zip that made Gilliam’s film such a hoot and a holler. When Charlie finally finds the courage to acknowledge what has happened to him, Sandler gives the scene unexpected power… and he does this by showing admirable restraint. I had tears in my eyes.
But too many confounding turns and changes in tone keep us off balance, so that it fails to cohere gracefully into a meaningful whole. A courtroom scene near the end is awkward and even ridiculous, and the romance budding near the conclusion shows very poor judgment on the part of the therapist played by Liv Tyler (who is, as usual, charming).
The movie’s a mess, but not a mess without merit. It’s worth seeing for Sandler, and for the moments when the characters come to life with heart, detail, and emotion. Further, it’s surprisingly unsentimental in exploring the ravaged emotional territory of a trauma victim.
“Reign Over Me hits on poignant, profound themes that make you think,” says Todd Hertz (CT Movies). This movie will lead to great discussions. Christians will see several ideas and thoughts reflected from the Bible. And Charlie’s attitudes, emotional traps and side effects of grief may remind any audience of hurting loved ones — or themselves. After the film, you may think of hurting friends you need to call. I did. You may feel the need to talk to your spouse about what you want for them if you pass on first. I did. There are just so many provocative truths.”
And he goes on to point out many of them.
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) testifies, “[Y]ou could hear a pin drop in the standing-room-only downtown Seattle theater. Mike Binder … held the audience completely captive with both an astounding story and outstanding performances on all counts.”
She continues, “While there have been several films in recent years with either major plots or subplots based on the 9/11 tragedies, Binder opts for a more subtle yet more deeply moving approach, using the attacks a
a way to explore how people grieve, how they handle tragedy, and how they try to help each other when nothing can take away the pain.”
“The suddenness and scope of Charlie’s loss give Reign Over Me its deep sense of sorrow,” says Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk), “but the family and professional struggles of the film’s other protagonist, Alan, tap into a larger sense of human disconnectedness. … The characters in Reign Over Me do not look heavenward for help, but the movie’s joy is in its story of old friends reunited – in what that friendship means for one man’s ability to face reality, and for the other’s realization of the blessings he’s already been given.”
Bob Hoose of Focus on the Family says, “[T]he film talks of the rewards of committed friendship and the precious value of family and marriage. It’s a good message. But it’s sandblasted by a different sort of grit altogether that does nothing to clean, preserve, expose character or even provoke thought: totally unnecessary foul language and crude sexual innuendo.”
But Harry Forbes at the Catholic News Service calls it “a singularly offbeat, albeit poignantly etched, buddy film…. [Binder] orchestrates too languid a pace, and the result is not as persuasive, despite obvious good intentions. But Sandler pulls off a difficult part with distinction, Cheadle is likable and the above-average supporting cast … are all good in their brief roles.”
Anthony Lane (New Yorker) sums up the film’s observation like this: “Without the will to remember, the movie suggests, there can be no will to live.”
J.R. Jones (Chicago Reader) says, “Binder … is unusually skilled at modulating between the comic and the tragic, and though the pain of this 9/11 story doesn’t pierce as deeply as it should, the laughs are consistently humane. … The story begins to creak badly in the last act, but both Cheadle and Sandler are funny and poignant throughout.”
He adds, “That is an unusually gloomy proposition not just for a studio movie but for a society that, despite the acts and sites of official commemoration, must find good cause to forge ahead from catastrophe. Reign Over Me closes with, at best, a cautious hope, leaving us more anxious than when we went in, and throughout the film there is a stunned and bewildered air hanging over the city, like a heavy smog.”
But Stephanie Zacharek (Salon) doesn’t give the film that much credit. “In Reign Over Me, 9/11 victimhood is for everyone: You can feel the exhilaration of recovery without going to the trouble of suffering the pain that necessitates it in the first place. … [It's] a very gentle picture, intended to soothe us, not to jolt or shock us. But it’s so gentle that it lacks any discernible energy”
The Rotten Tomatoes rating is hovering at about 65% positive.
Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac star in Pride, this week’s inspirational sports movie. Howard plays Jim Ellis, who… well, almost any review you look up will give you the basics, along with an assessment as to whether this film rises above its formulaic structure, flounders, or drowns within it.
“Pride is a silk ascot wrapped around an ear of corn,” says Matt Zoller Seitz (New York Times). “Stock elements include a saintly, tough-love coach; an outwardly cynical lieutenant … who is a closet idealist; and a naysayer … who is converted by the hero’s sexy decency. … The movie serves up the expected ratio of setbacks to triumphs and closes with video footage of the real Jim Ellis. But when sinewy young idealists glide through water to the tune of ‘I’ll Take You There,’ the heart still leaps.”
“Pride has its heart in the right place,” says Peter T. Chattaway (CT Movies), “but it is so eager to conform to the demands of its genre that it misses the opportunity to explore the more unique aspects of swimming, and to follow the metaphorical potential of swimming wherever it might have led.”
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) writes, “Pride fails miserably in both direction and plot, which is rather unfortunate considering that the real-life story behind it is probably at least somewhat interesting (a trait the movie fails to express).”
Bob Hoose (Plugged In) says, “Sure, it’s formulaic to a fault, with a coach who faces impossible odds, falls on his kisser in embarrassment, then somehow raises a phoenix from the ashes and tries to win the big one. But this story also has something we haven’t seen a lot of lately — adults who want to hold young people accountable and teach them of respect and hard work.”
But he adds, “That’s not to say Pride doesn’t also flail around in the deep end of the pool.”
Frank Lovece (CNS) says, “Once you get past the generic title, Pride proves an engagingly inspirational, true-life tale…. The emotion-tugging efficiency applied by Zimbabwe-born director Sunu Gonera, a veteran of Coca-Cola and Nike commercials, serves this period piece well.”
Probably the most interesting piece I’ve read on Shooter, the new action-thriller from Antoine Fuqua, comes from Peter Chattaway at his blog, where he finds Mark Wahlberg pondering what he would do if he found himself in the same situation as the movie’s main character. Do Wahlberg’s Catholicism and the character’s vengeful, violent ethics align?
Lisa Rice at Crosswalk says, “Fuqua does a masterful job of making audiences feel that uncomfortable combination of jittery, anxious, exhausted, and angry – while simultaneously making us care deeply for a young patriot. … The theme of the movie is conspiracy, and though the protagonist is clearly patriotic, the unnerving message is that it’s all a grand conspiracy, and no one in high places is to be trusted.”
“… Fuqua takes things to extremes,” reports Focus on the Family’s Bob Smithouser. “That includes violence, language … and an extreme need for audiences to suspend disbelief. Indeed, Shooter is one of the most testosterous movies of the year so far.”
Testosterous? Smithouser explains that it’s his word for “action flicks that are both preposterous and teeming with testosterone.”
ludes, “[I]t’s hard to say which felt more unsettling upon reflection, that violence or the movie’s validation of vengeance, wholesale disrespect for government and endorsement of vigilante justice.”
Frank Lovece at CNS says, “Fuqua … keeps the grimly photographed action brisk, and the plot twists mostly convincing. If you think about it too hard, the core conspiracy doesn’t make much sense and so it’s to the filmmaker’s credit that one is focused on the political intrigue and ‘MacGyver’-like improvisations on the way to the big blowout.”
Do you still care about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Did you ever?
YES!! said moviegoers this week, making TMNT the new box office champion.
But that doesn’t mean the film is a good one… even by Ninja Turtle standards… according to film critics who sat through it.
The one and only Josh Hurst (CT Movies) says, “… [N]ot many viewers are likely to care; the uninitiated will be bored because, frankly, it’s not that great of a story, while long-time TMNT fans will quickly become distracted by the fact that the movie makes minimal effort to recapture the tone and humor of the series.”
Lindy Keffer at Focus on the Family’s Plugged In says she’s impressed by the new-fangled animation. “Not much else has changed, though. Not the spiritual undertones. And especially not the omnipresent martial-arts violence that can—and often does—lead to imitation by young human ninja wannabes. The turtles say, ‘I hate it when brothers fight … Unless it’s together!’ Parents are liable to respond, ‘Does together make it better?’”
But John P. McCarthy (CNS) seems excited about it: “With exciting computer-generated animation, the terrapin crime-fighters’ fourth movie successfully balances action and humor while enforcing positive values. … Lessons concerning teamwork and appreciating an individual’s strengths and weaknesses are conveyed in a relatively substantive manner. There’s also a message about the importance of forgiveness and atoning for one’s past behavior.”
Producer Robert Shaye has returned to the director’s chair for the family-fare fantasy film The Last Mimzy. And the chair doesn’t fit him, according to critics.
“If The Last Mimzy proves nothing else, it is that Robert Shaye should stick to his day job,” says Peter T. Chattaway (CT Movies). … [J]ust because Shaye has the power of life and death over films made by other people, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he would be a good filmmaker himself. …. [This film is] an exceedingly loopy children’s sci-fi story that evokes memories of E.T., 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but is probably closer in spirit to the half-baked techno-mysticism of What the Bleep Do We Know?.”
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) writes that the film is “set up, explained, and evangelized through a prism of Tibetan spirituality. … I’m not overemphasizing this aspect of the film, by the way. No, Shaye manages to do that well enough on his own, making Mimzy as much an evangelistic exercise as, say, Facing the Giants. Fair warning. And the film is so strident in its spiritual fervor, advocating a single-minded obedience to one’s dreams, that it almost frightened me.”
Christa Banister at Crosswalk says, “While a movie with a stuffed bunny as a central character may seem innocuous enough, the masterminds behind The Last Mimzy showcase a Hollywood brand of spirituality that’s not particularly subtle as everything from Buddhism to astrology to new age philosophies get major screen time. … Of course, none of these beliefs are embraced exclusively, as they’re all woven throughout the course of the film. But they’re all presented in a matter meant to be enticing to children, whether they’re talking about magical crystals, palm reading, levitation or the universe speaking to you.”
Lindy Keffer (Plugged In) considers the different fantasy elements that might become dangerous if children take them too seriously. “Both Eastern mysticism … and atheistic naturalism … are dangerous philosophies. They’re both concepts too big for most children to fully grasp, but ones that permeate our pluralistic society. So the challenge is to find age-appropriate ways to instill truth and weed out error. … Does The Last Mimzy do that? No. Certainly not by itself.”
In spite of these responses, The Catholic News Service applauds the movie. Harry Forbes (CNS) says “Shaye … proves a capable director. The children, especially Wryn, are adorable. Though the narrative is an odd blend of New Age mysticism and Eastern mumbo jumbo — albeit with an admirable pro-environment message — The Last Mimzy should hold the interest of most kids and even their parents.”
So… that’s the response from religious-press film critis. But some mainstream critics are finding themselves pleased, even enthusiastic about Mimzy.
Ed Gonzalez (Slant) raves, “… [A]s the film builds to its nail-biting conclusion, the children will have connected with the War on Terror and foreign philosophical belief systems in the interest of mankind’s salvation. In the process, messages both big and small are pushed (about familial love and keeping hope alive in times of crisis), none more heartening than its belief that children are more than our futures, there are keys to it.”
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, “We concluded our review of The Hills Have Eyes with, ‘The film’s tagline is ‘The lucky ones died first.’ It would better read, ‘The smart ones never bought tickets.” Since the tagline for The Hills Have Eyes II only changed slightly to ‘The lucky ones died fast,’ I’ll only slightly change our conclusion for this sloppy, futile exercise in gruesome butchery: ‘The smart ones learned their lesson the first time.’”
The USCCB calls it “an equally repellant sequel. … Director Martin Weisz does a decent job of incorporating the landscape into the bloody game of survival, but it’s impossible to make the gratuitous gore palatable and audience members can shut their eyes or wave a white flag of surrender at the projectionist.”
or the Time of the Return
Make Way for Tomorrow
For adventurous cinephiles, Doug Cummings has a DVD recommendation.
Over at FilmJourney, where Cummings supplies notes from his far-reaching explorations of world cinema, he meditates on Alain Resnais’ Muriel, or the Time of the Return, I (1963): “Resnais’ third feature, widely considered to be one of his best films (perhaps even his masterpiece) … has finally been released on DVD, and its colorful, character-based immediacy might surprise those only familiar with his ethereal, black-and-white tone poems. … Although it can take several viewings to grasp the details of the narrative (it took me three), the film’s staccato, elliptical construction ultimately seems completely natural and deeply compelling.”
He concludes, “It’s a beautiful construction, as contemporary and incisive in its gaze as Resnais’ previous features were memorializing and poetic.”
Cummings also praises Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow: “Hollywood melodramas do not often compare to timeless masterpieces of world cinema, but Make Way for Tomorrow does, largely through McCarey’s sophisticated blend of tragic pathos, psychological insight, and rich, knowing humor. … [This] is an uncommonly wise and deeply felt film, where each and every scene seems perfectly, exactly rendered by a filmmaker with something to say.” But since the film isn’t out on DVD, he refers to it as “the next holy grail” for moviegoers in search of greatness.
Love Me Tonight
In a Relevant feature called “Underdog Classics,” Ben Parman reviews two films he considers “yet-to-be-crowned classics.”
Of Hopscotch, he says: “There’s a class of films that construct impossibly clever situations featuring impossibly clever people, and—because an impossibly talented group of artists execute it so well—we’re weightless with a kind of reverent joy. It’s the soul of filmmaking. Hopscotch does this.”
Of Love Me Tonight, he says: “This parade of visual firsts is what’s initially impressive, but technical wizardry does not a musical make (a principle Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wrestled with). At best, it’s the ribcage around the heart. In Love Me Tonight’s case, the heart’s even bigger than the ribcage.”
The Wind that Shakes the Barley:
Geoff Pevere of The Toronto Star considers The Wind that Shakes the Barley and compares it to The Searchers, Unforgiven, Munich, and A History of Violence. He concludes, “Because they compel us to consider violence as something that stains us and because they remind us that a simple act can have profound consequences, they fly in the face of those who would market aggression as a solution. By this I mean the philosophy, currently ubiquitous, that violence is a reasonable means to a justified end – especially if it pre-empts or avenges other forms of violence. What films like Ken Loach’s do is suggest something altogether different: when it comes to deciding to kill, there is no end.”