Category Archives: 2010 Movies

Minus One (2010)

As I’ve been looking into more Ohio independent films to highlight and review, I had several in local filmmaking circles recommend me the 2010 drama Minus One (currently available on Amazon Prime). It’s a war drama filmed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. It’s an example of what can be done when indie filmmaking accentuates the most important parts of storytelling, ones that do not require Hollywood budgets. It’s a heartfelt drama and one that is easy to plug right into.

A trio of National Reserve soldiers have been given the call that they are to report for duty. In three days, they will be transported overseas and onto a base in Iraq. David (Jon Osbeck) is a career veteran and in charge of rounding up the other guys in town. James (Roger Bailey) is a 30-something veteran still trying to build a family. Robert (Remy Brommer) is a young student whose days were about playing video games with his pals and sneaking time in with his girlfriend. The three men try and put their lives in order before they leave and face the possibility of not returning.

Minus One is the kind of meaty drama that can be done on a shoestring budget, which makes it a smart play for indie filmmakers because the drama and characters are what sustain it. There’s something immediate and engaging about a group of men spending their last few days before shipping out. It’s a situation that feels like grieving, the uncertainty and anxiety hanging on everyone’s faces. Will this person ever return home to me? Will things ever be the same? It’s a premise that forces confrontations and that naturally leads to drama and catharsis. The trio of characters all have personal relationships that will need to be touched upon before their departures, although James really gets the short end dramatically. He’s scared about going back for another tour but his wife is supportive and loving and they’ll see it through. James seems to serve more as a contrasting data point in between the character chart, the middle ground between the novice (Robert) and the strong-but-silent veteran (David). The situation demands introspection, reflection, and the conflict of action versus inaction. Will you make amends while able? Will you continue to drift away from those who were at one time so crucial? Will you take ownership over your own faults and the pain you may have caused others? By starting at this point, each scene becomes a learning opportunity for the viewer, trying to deduce connections between established characters and new supporting faces, as well as getting a fuller sense of their daily lives through habits and breaks from routine. Not every scene does this, and there are some scenes that just restate the same learned info, but as a whole Minus One is a well-constructed drama that puts the emphasis on character and conflict and patience. It takes its time to fill in the blanks.

Each character is taking stock of their life and what this moment means, but they’re also taking stock of how it affects the people around them in their lives. Robert being called into service effectively ends his relationship with his girlfriend, and the both of them know it during a party. His mind is preoccupied and she gets up to leave, remarking she has an exam in the morning. You can tell Robert is a little hurt by this reality, wanting to soak up the time they have remaining before he’s gone, and then accepts that reality, that he’s already gone. She says goodbye, hugs him, and they hold onto one another, and what’s unsaid seems to be understood by both parties. This is more than a nightly goodbye. They both know it’s the end and must move on. David is also trying to make right with his ex-wife and little daughter, trying to fix one small thing, one achievable act of kindness, one point that can be fondly remembered, by fixing the broken front porch swing. As his ex-wife relays, David has been a family man in name more than deed, failing to fulfill promises and being present for his loved ones. The duties of the job took their toll. This is a small town and losing three of its own to the war effort will have repercussions. Especially during trying times, it’s clear that our lives and actions can extend far beyond us.

Osbeck (Dark Waters, The Public) has the most challenging role given that he is the most hardened to the call of duty. He delivers a finely textured and weathered performance with enough glints to hint at reserved pools of emotion, from regret with his ex-wife and a lingering ember of hope, to resigned acceptance and gratitude to the many familiar faces in town. Watch the guy talk to his daughter and try not to get a sense of how good Osbeck is at bringing this character to life. His isn’t a showy performance and often underplays the scenes, which feels more appropriate for the role. Bailey and Brommer (Speak) do fine jobs especially when they’re pitted against each other. Both men are fearful but dealing with it in different manners, which puts them at odds. Robert is ignoring the certainty and changes, trying to parrot the Army’s slogans and racist terminology for the enemy overseas as a means of covering up for his gnawing fear. He’s gung-ho for war, and this greatly irritates James, who knows better than to blithely celebrate war as if it was glamorous. I wish their blowup could have gone on longer and cracked both characters open even further.

Other acting standouts include Jennifer Schaaf (Heather’s Painting) as David’s ex-wife who is trying to navigate her complicated feelings of sympathy and personal boundaries, Jane Mowder (The Street Where We Live) as Robert’s mom, especially during the scene where she has to process the news her son is shipping out, Misti Patrella (Classholes) as the grieving widow who has turned to the bottle and has a shared history with David, and the irreplaceable Ralph Scott (Bong of the Living Dead) as the small-town police chief who provides a much-needed wry sense of levity. He has such a natural way of inhabiting a character. Scott is so prevalent in Ohio-produced indie filmmaking that I assume if he’s not in the film he must have been holding the camera somewhere.

There is one significant misstep for the movie and it literally comes in the closing minute. I’ll dance around spoilers to keep things kosher. The film ends as you would expect with our trio being driven out of town and heading to the airport for their international travel (this should not be a spoiler). We’re then treated to post-script text informing us what happened to the three soldiers once they reached Iraq. Firstly, it’s not necessary to give resolution when so much of the story exists in the uncertainty of what will happen next. It feels like ending 12 Angry Men with a post-script that said, “Oh, the kid was really guilty the whole time.” It goes against the thematic emphasis of the preceding story. We don’t need a resolution because these men are representative of the United States soldier as a whole, so it’s better left open-ended. The other drawback is that this post-script covers some pretty major dramatic changes, and to do so in a handful of words in the close is inherently anticlimactic and unsatisfying and a bit clunky. If this was going to be the conclusion to certain characters, then learning about it this manner was not the right choice.  Better to have kept things ambiguous and open-ended than serve up developments this way.

This impulse also surfaces during one of the movie’s most dramatic points, a nearly six-minute monologue by David about his time overseas and a checkpoint that went badly. We begin the moment on Osbeck’s face recounting the painful memory, and then the movie haphazardly cuts back into flashback of the event as narrated. This decision seems like a reasonable one, visualizing the traumatic experience, but it takes away from the moment. It interrupts the focus on Osbeck’s performance where the viewer is studying him for the slightest changes. It’s a strong monologue and the emphasis should be on Osbeck’s face alone. Another reason why this choice doesn’t work is the reality of doubling the Middle East in Columbus, Ohio. This requires a stylistic choice that amounts to “ghost trails” in editing software (think “drunk vision”). It’s being used to signify the past but it’s also being used to cover up the environmental differences. Even with this effect, the forest of the checkpoint still stands out as incongruous. I do think a flashback could have strengthened this moment but it needed to be very judicious. The point of the monologue isn’t how he and his friend got into trouble, it’s about his friend’s sacrifice he blames himself over, which means the emphasis needs to be on his friend. David describes seeing his expression in that final moment, an understanding of his inevitable demise, and that is exactly what should have been the flashback focus. All you needed was a closeup of the man’s face, fixed, emoting every damn thing he can before a flash wipes away the memory. That way the emphasis is on the performance and gets rid of production replication shortfalls.

Minus One is a fairly simple story told in a straight-forward manner. The emphasis is on the relatable characters, the simmering conflicts and the personal revelations of each coming to terms with how their lives will be changing, and the uncertainty that they must come to terms with. This is a story that has been told before, both in film and simply a lived experience of millions, and it will continue to be told afterwards because, at its core, it’s a universal story. It’s saying goodbye to a loved one and coming to terms with responsibility and sacrifice. Yet, Osbeck, serving as writer and co-director with Marc Wiskemann (Holding Patterns), doesn’t rest on making these men symbols (admittedly some of the three have more depth than others). It does no disservice to say Minus One feels like a competent made-for-TV movie; from a technical standpoint, the visual compositions and shots are very standard, placing the focus on the actors and giving them space, and material, to deliver, and they generally do. It’s a small movie about big things and I enjoyed the little touches that better rounded out the world, like David revealing, with a delightful smirk, the secret to how he always gets the daily trivia question correct at his local coffee shop. It’s those small touches that give Minus One a personality. I disagree with the very ending and how it impacts the overall resonance of the movie but it doesn’t sabotage the whole experience. Minus One is a somber, reflective, and touching little homespun drama with plenty of sincerity and heart to spare.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Tourist (2010)

It seems to have all the right elements aligned: two mega-watt stars, a gorgeous location, and an Oscar-winning director whose last film, 2006’s The Lives of Others, was a tense, meaty, humane drama. Add a mistaken identity plot and The Tourist should feel like a light-hearted romp. The truth is that the final product is resoundingly dim and dull is deeply disappointing. All that Hollywood glamour and this is the best they could come up with? The movie is too mechanical, joyless, without much in the way of pacing or a pulse, and the direction feels like a languid tourist trip itself, placidly soaking up the scenery and waiting for a plot to shamble into frame. The action sequences are bereft of tension. Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp have too few scenes together, too mild a sexual tension, and sleepwalk through their performances. Depp could easily have been replaced by any actor. You’ll see the twists telegraphed a mile away, but by that time your eyes will have already glazed over thanks to the dead weight of a script credited to THREE Oscar-winning screenwriters. With this much talent behind and in front of the camera, I expected a lot more than a sluggish, bland, hermetic thriller that would more like to get lost in scenery than quicken a pulse. The Tourist feels like it needs a map just to know what it’s doing, and the finished product deserves a one-way ticket to the bargain bin.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Skyline (2010)

skylineThis movie is out-of-this-world terrible. Who wouldn’t want to spend an alien invasion stuck in some L.A. condo with a load of insufferable Los Angelinos? From a storytelling standpoint, watching characters I don’t care about talk about amazing and horrible things happening off camera is not the best use of anyone’s time. Skyline is a movie that keeps surprising you with the depths of its stupidity; just when you think it couldn’t plumb any deeper, the aliens have invaded to eat our brains. Yes, they’re after our brains. So that explains why gigantic monsters will claw away at a building, scrounging for the tiniest morsel of human (that still doesn’t explain it, really). That does not explain why they targeted L.A. if they’re after brains. The special effects are notable for a $10 million dollar movie, but due to the budget restraints, that’s probably why most of this alien invasion is spent indoors and behind trusty sets of Venetian blinds. The pacing is as shoddy as the character work. I kept waiting for these nitwits to step into the light and be vacuumed up into the alien mothership. The end almost looks like it might redeem part of this monstrosity, with our survivors accepting a doomed fate together. But then… I can’t even put into words how shocking, dreadful, and groan-inducing the true ending is for this junk. Suffice to say, it ends with zero resolution, a jagged plot left turn, and setup for a sequel that I’m absolutely positive not one person will be demanding.

Nate’s Grade: D

Megamind (2010)

You’ve seen this movie before, and pretty recently too given in the influx of superhero tales in the last decade. Megamind recycles heavily from numerous other super forbears, and yet this animated tale about a tired hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) and his inept nemesis (Will Ferrell). While it’s never as funny as its premise and cast should make it, the movie does pack a lot of fun and even a little bit of heart. The action sequences are inventive enough and the movie has a tone that drifts from sincere to self-conscious satire, while never settling down but doing enough right not to inflame your sense of irritation. The concepts of identity, good and evil, the duality of man, striking a life for your own… they’re all here. It’s a sloppy message that feels copied out of a plot playbook. Ferrell is funny but a bit more restrained than I like him. I think he works best when he cranks up his absurdist tendencies with a jolt of enthusiasm. Megamind doesn’t come close to approaching the magic, thrills, and emotions of How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s still many ways better than stuff like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale. It’s overly familiar story given a super spit shine.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dinner with Schmucks (2010)

Oh man was this thing just painfully unfunny on all levels. It’s an American remake of a fairly funny French film and it stars Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd, two actors that have to work really hard not to be funny. Well they found a way. Talk about a bunch of schmucks. Every single character is a world-class idiot that behaves in a manner that 1) isn’t remotely relatable and 2) isn’t funny. It’s all yelling and raised eyebrows and exclamation points in place of setups and payoffs. Even worse, it tries to force a horrendously false saccharine feel-good message, a comedic “believe in yourself” sort of moralizing that says, “They aren’t the freaks, we are.” No, you all are freaks. The film confuses situations that are weird, uncomfortable, and just plain unlikely with comedy, which doesn’t work without some careful context and setup. Watching this nonstop leaden buffoonery makes you hang your head and sigh. This makes Three’s Company look like enlightened comedy. The movie also features Jeff Dunham doing his wacky puppets. This cinematic stick in the eye comes across as an obnoxiously unyielding comedy that doesn’t know when to stop, how to start, or what to do in between.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Tillman Story (2010)

Perhaps better than any movie I’ve ever seen, the searing documentary The Tillman Story explores the nature of shared grief and whether a family is even entitled to privacy when the world feels like it has a shared pain in their loss. This documentary focuses on former NFL star Pat Tillman who enlisted in the Army Rangers in 2002 and was killed in 2004 in the mountains of Afghanistan. He was hailed as a hero of battle, saving his men from enemy ambush, but the truth was really far less sensational but just as damaging. Tillman was killed by friendly fire, a fact the Army admitted only with their backs against the wall. Tillman was their most famous soldier and became a recruiting poster for the post-9/11 armed forces. The doc recounts Tillman’s family struggling to get a straight answer from Army officials and government goons who felt the truth could not compare to a good story. While recreating the events that lead to Tillman’s death in a mostly commanding manner, the doc’s real draw is exploring the idea of a family who has had their private mourning torn away, who are trotted around the nation to events memorializing their son, turning him into whatever symbol best serves personal agendas (conservative pundits are seen in stubborn disbelief when it comes to processing the news that Tillman read Noam Chomsky, thought the Iraq War was illegal, and was going to vote for John Kerry in 2004). What gets lost in all that patriotic maneuvering is a complicated man who didn’t want to become a myth.

Nate’s Grade: B

Piranha 3D (2010)

Truly missing out on seeing Piranha (as its home release now calls it) in 3-D will be one of my life’s greatest disappointments. This boobs-and-blood-soaked ode to 80s exploitation horror has its tongue firmly clenched in cheek. This is a gleeful gorefest that plays many of its absurd elements for laughs while squeezing in gratuitous nudity at every turn. There’s an underwater lesbian synchronized swimming sequence that I’m utterly certain would have been the greatest thing to witness in the third dimension. Regardless, this Jaws rip-off (Richard Dreyfuss even shows up in the opening dressed identically to his character and named “Matt”!) plays like an ironic parody of the genre while still satiating its red meat-hungry target audience of teenage boys. To this point, it succeeds admirably. It is crass beyond belief and delivers exactly what it promises. Watching actors like Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Christopher Lloyd, and Jerry O’Connell ham it up alongside some fairly cheesy special effects critters, you never feel the waft of desperation. The movie ends too abruptly for my tastes, leaving too much open and unresolved for presumable sequels. As my friend Eric Muller said: “We watched a 3D movie in 2D that was really 1D.” While the movie is entirely one-dimensional in scope, that lone dimension is a blast. I know where I’m going to be when the rumored Piranha sequel is released. And this time, I’m seeing the campy carnage in 3D.

Nate’s Grade: B

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

I won’t pretend these movies are anywhere close to good, but each one has provided some mild, mindless thrills. However, the fourth film in a franchise going nowhere is the first of the series that just says, “To hell with trying to be even remotely real.” This is a living video game, especially the opening sequence where it’s a nonstop barrage of self-conscious visual tricks, hails of bullets, gore, and a general kick in the balls to the laws of physics. I’m not asking for much, but I’d like my mindless violence to be of a quality where it doesn’t feel 100 percent gratuitous and, frankly, boring. If every single scene involves someone doing something fantastic, over-the-top, and absurd, then where can my interest go but down? Director Paul W.S. Anderson returns to the series he begat in 2002. Get ready for more zombies, more weird mutant creatures that will act however they damn well feel like, and more Milla Jovovich confusing toughness with cold stares. The action is ripped purely from a video game with no regards for geography, setup, tension, development, or anything that would matter. It’s just all flashes of violence one after the other. It’s a mostly depressing enterprise. But where do they go from here? The second movie was subtitled “Apocalypse” (little too hasty there), the third “Extinction,” and now this one is subtitled, “Afterlife.” Is the next one going to be, “Reincarnation”? And the certainty of a fifth movie only adds to my depression level.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Spy Next Door (2010)

I have seen hundreds of movies go bad. I’ve seen plenty try and cram a ham-fisted saccharine, entirely phony message about family values or whatever hackneyed lesson needs to be delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Rarely have I seen a movie that tries to cram in EVERY banal family message possible into one exasperated running time. There was one point where I counted three clichéd platitudes in a row. Rarely have I seen a movie fail at comedy so badly, even the generous definition of comedy in family films, a subgenre that haunts all those who crossover into it. Rarely have I seen one single family film try to do so much and succeed so breathtakingly little. The Spy Next Door is that movie. Jackie Chan stars as a retired Chinese super spy who the American government wants to keep contracting. He’s also dating his neighbor (Amber Valetta) who has three rambunctious kids that fall into easy slots (surly teenager smarting from parent’s divorce, dweeby tech kid trying to learn to stand up to bullies, precocious little tyke who makes a mess). Chan agrees to watch over them for a weekend to convince those kids they should give him a shot, or else it’s splitsville between he and the mom. It’s the Vin Diesel Pacifier movie but done with even less finesse, if possible. The comedy is nonexistent, which is saying something for being as broad as it is, the physical action shows how badly Chan is aging, and the plot is painfully predictable. This is just a sad, uncomfortable viewing experience; it reeks of desperation and despondency. No one looks to be enjoying themselves for a single second. That’s probably because The Spy Next Door is a vacuum of fun; it’s lazy, incompetent, but worst of all, devoid of any effort to be something other than a mind-numbing, head-scratching waste of 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: D-

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

This lushly animated tale about good owls, and bad owls, but mostly owls feels indebted to Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIHM. There’s a legendary story about the guardians who would save the… remaining owls? The plot doesn’t ever really leap beyond the basic fantasy concepts of good and evil, heroic and manipulative. It’s hard for the tale’s drama to reach grandiose heights because, well, it’s owls. Not anthropomorphic owls, pretty much plain old owls. Some characters were just hard to distinguish between. I can firmly say that some things work better on page than screen, and descriptions of grand owl societies and owl-on-owl combat are definitely items that, when fully realized in such a literal fashion, just come across as goofy. Being directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), the movie looks gorgeously rendered but fails to leave any emotional mark for anybody who has ever seen a scrappy band of misfits topple the mean bad guys. The action follows the Snyder fast-slow-fast visual motif, which allows the audience opportunities to drink in the visual effects work. The mostly Australian vocal cast, plus Helen Mirren, provides some levels of amusement, but it’s the story that ultimately disappoints. Legends of the Guardians looks fantastic, but it’s story is far from legendary. And they needed to have a pop song by Owl City because the man has “owl” in his name, apparently.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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