Category Archives: 2013 Movies

Suddenly (2013)

154354-suddenly-0-230-0-341-cropI can genuinely say that director Uwe Boll pleasantly surprised me with the last film I watched that had his imprint, Attack on Wall Street. It almost worked. It felt like Boll had maybe gotten over the hump of mediocrity, and sub-sub-mediocrity, that has become synonymous with his career writing and directing movies. Then one day, Suddenly suddenly popped up on Netflix, available for consumption, and 90 very tepid minutes later, my renewed hopes for a turnaround had been dashed and trashed once more.

The President of the United States of America is stopping by the sleepy mountain town of Suddenly. The secret service is canvassing the neighborhood to secure locations. Officer Todd Shaw (Ray Liotta) is working off another bender and may just get suspended. Ellen (Erin Karpluk) and her teenage son Pidge (Cole Corker) are living up on the mountain with a great view of the town. Agents Baron (Dominic Purcell), Conklin (Michael Pare), and Wheeler (Tyron Leitso, though he’s referred to as “Agent Young” several times) come knocking on her door to inspect. Except they aren’t real secret service agents. They’re posing to coordinate an assassination on the president, a hit ordered by the “Committee” that they work for. The assassins in suits lock Ellen, her son, and her elderly father (Don MacKay) in the basement, and wait for the president to arrive. There’s just the problem of keeping their cover and making sure Todd doesn’t intervene. Oh, and the town has a shop that advertises “fetish” in its name. So there’s that.

y1PJvKnGiven the assassination premise, Suddenly is shocking in just how overwhelmingly boring it is. There’s a noticeable lack of urgency in just about every scene despite the stakes of men with guns threatening people’s lives. A solid majority of the movie is an almost comically low-key hostage situation where we watch Ellen’s family bumble around the basement as captives and try to outsmart the relatively dimwitted assassins. It’s nothing quite along the lines of, say, Home Alone, but it feels comically off in tone, aided by an inappropriate musical score. These people don’t ever feel scared or panicked, and their conversations show it. The stupid grandfather character in this feels like he was plucked from a different, more broadly comical movie. Oh look, he’s fussing about with things; oh look, now he’s going to tell one of his old stories. In the context of a hostage thriller, it doesn’t work. Grandpa half-heartedly relates a tale about being snowed in with grandma where, surprise, they got out (the man is standing there after all). “See, it all works out in the end,” he reasons with no convincing evidence. And then (spoilers) he dies in the most idiotic way possible. During a light scuffle, he gets shoved and falls over. “He has a heart condition,” Ellen screams, informing us for the first time of this malady. I’m thinking he’s faking, so as to strike when the attacker draws near. Nope, he just lies there and dies in the most pathetic way possible, as if the plot had just decided it didn’t need him after all. One of the armed men actually tries to revive him, how nice.

Suddenly literally takes its sweet time getting to that presidential moment, saving that for the last few minutes of the film. Almost all of Raul Inglis’ (The Killing Machine) screenplay revolves around one scenario: will the bad guys’ cover be blown as different people keep finding their way back to Ellen’s secluded home. Oh no, the deputy will spoil things! Oh wait, he’s easily fooled. Well thank goodness that problem was solved in a not interesting manner. This takes up an hour of the movie, and it’s rather repetitious without any escalation. The entire setup feels like a series of lame stalling techniques to save the good stuff for the very end, rather than dealing with reversals and rising action. Then there’s the nature of the ending, which is so abrupt and without a single trace of resolution. As soon as that shot’s fired, the film ends a minute later. We learn via the news that the gunman shot himself… in the chest? At a distance? None of this holds together and the ending does not justify the time it took, and wasted, to get to that point.

There is exactly one point where this movie flashes the kind of quality story it could have been and it happens 70 minutes into the picture. Baron miraculously deduces how Ellen’s husband was killed: friendly fire, and Todd was the culprit. It was naturally an accident, one that haunted Todd deeply, but he returned home and everyone started throwing around the word “hero.” So he kept the truth to himself. Now, right there is an interesting premise that could produce a flurry of intriguing and complicated drama. Todd would live his day feeling like a fraud but also not wanting to disappoint his loved ones, the people he cares about, and so hiding the truth could be a justifiable evil, or could it? This little reveal of character backstory is only intended to explain Todd’s penchant for drinking, and the movie just skirts along a few minutes later, already over this revelation. Suddenly should have dropped all of the cheesy and half-baked thriller aspects and gone in this other direction.

VRc1dr7The villains in this movie lack conviction and competency. First of all, they just leave Ellen and her son and father unattended in the basement rather than tying them up. Then there’s just their general unconvincing nature when speaking with locals. They pose as secret service agents but there are actual secret service agents still in their midst. These turncoats are plotting to murder the president because the “Committee” they work for has demanded such. This phantom “Committee” is only known through one agent, Baron, and each man is selected for duty. They have a cause, though none of them can articulate exactly what that would be. At one point Conklin insists not killing the hostages because it would be bad PR and dissuade the public to the merits of their unexplained cause. Are these guys thick enough to think that killing the United States president will win over the public, just as long as they have good reasons for killing the president? It seemed obvious that Baron was going to be the lone person of this “Committee,” and yet the film doesn’t even tie up this loose end. We never know whether Baron was making it all up or whether there is a clandestine organization that has its sights set on the president.

Boll’s diffident direction mirrors the lack of enthusiasm throughout the production. This just doesn’t come across as a story that separates itself from your bargain basement, straight-to-DVD action flick. In fact there isn’t any action in the movie short of a few tidy scenes. And as far as thrills and suspense, they’re undercut at just about every turn, thanks to the lack of urgency and the comical misuses of Ellen and her family. At no point will you be watching Suddenly and get the sensation that anybody really cared about making this movie as best it could be. Usually Boll’s movies feel pasted together and derivative of other, better movies and visual influences; this movie is too dull to even be derivative. The movie even has the temerity to reuse that trite cliché, having the villain remark, “Under other circumstances you and I could have been friends.” The dumb villains, the dumb characters, the lackluster pacing and suspense, the lack of resolution, it all contributes to making what is easily the most boring movie in Boll’s filmography.

Usually these kinds of thrillers are churned out into the straight-to-DVD market, a glut of recycled plots and tortured/reluctant action heroes. There’s a formula that works and there’s been a proven audience that enjoys something cheesy, thoughtless, and familiar. And that’s what puzzles me even more about Suddenly because every somnambulist second of the film leaves you with the stark impression that nobody cared. The tale of a hostage thriller mixed with a presidential assassination, with some war drama thrown in, could work as far as the genre goes. All you need is a solid premise and some gung-ho execution, which explains why we had two DieHard-in-a-White-House films last year. Suddenly is nothing special, which we all suspected from the particulars involved, but it’s not even worthwhile or workable genre pap, which is even more insulting. From the wacky grandfather to the idiot villains who blindly trust their leader to the abrupt ending, or how about the fact that a kid is named Pidge, this is just one bad movie.

Nate’s Grade: D

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Labor Day (2013)

labor-day-poster1Labor Day, based upon the novel by Joyce Maynard, is the kind of sappy material that you never would have expected director Jason Reitman to attach his name to. Reitman has been accumulating an enviable career of top-shelf dark comedies (Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air, Young Adult), yet his touch with characters and actors, as well as his delicacy with tone, reminded several of a young Billy Wilder. The stuff of Labor Day felt more like a Lifetime channel original movie. This is just one artistic miscalculation from the start and it doesn’t get better as it goes.

Back over Labor Day weekend in 1987, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is living with his grieving mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and performing many of the duties of a husband (don’t get gross). It’s been some time since Henry’s parents divorced but Adele has become a shell-shocked recluse who can barely talk or look others in the eye. While visiting a grocery store, Henry runs into a dangerous man named Frank (Josh Brolin). He’s bleeding from the abdomen and intimidates Adele to give him a ride. Frank is an escaped prisoner and he takes to hiding at Adele’s home. After the initial hostage period, Frank allows Henry and Adele to walk around freely, as long as they don’t tell anyone where he is. As the days pass, Frank helps out around the house, helps Adele get out of her funk, and becomes a surrogate father figure for Henry. The unconventional family must evade the police and skeptical townsfolk to make a run for it.

20131103-LYALL-slide-7RAH-articleLargeThe very premise and its tone are just not a good fit for Reitman. First off, the movie plays out far more like a hostage thriller than any sort of romance. If you were to look deep inside, the romance can be explained as one very emotionally needy woman and her child going through Stockholm syndrome. The entire movie takes place over the titular Labor Day holiday, which means that all these changing feelings have to morph over the time period of three days. I don’t know if I’d call that love, even in Movie Land. Hey, Frank didn’t kill everyone and he helps around the house, isn’t he great? These people should be far more afraid for far longer. It is almost comical how saintly Frank becomes and how many surrogate father activities he squeezes into the abbreviated window of time. He performs handyman jobs all around the house, teaches young Henry how to change a tire, tosses a baseball with the kid, teaches everyone the finer points on pie making, and other such helpful activities. I understand that these two lonely people finally see a replacement man; for Henry a father, for Adele a lover. Again, the three-day time window makes everything appear like the manifestation of Stockholm syndrome. How many of those abducted have uttered, “He’s not that bad. You just don’t know him like I do”? Frank’s back-story is tragic but he is a wanted felon and he has no problem threatening both of these people’s lives in the beginning. Yeah he doesn’t resort to violence or yell in their faces, but why would he against an adolescent boy and his easily cajoled mother? No matter how long Reitman spends showing us the softer side of Frank, especially while preparing delectable dishes of food, he’s no more developed than the common Misunderstood Bad Boy.

Then there are the dawdling coming-of-age moments clinging to young Henry, a boy growing up quickly in a tumultuous holiday weekend. It strikes me as tonally odd to already take a tricky balancing act with the film’s plot and then tossing on a coming-of-age addition. The story is told from Henry’s perspective, and that’s a major problem as well. He’s the least interesting person in this dramatic setup. Being confined to his viewpoint often keeps us distant from the deeper drama going on. I’d rather spend time with Adele and Frank bonding so that the romance can find some traction, but no. Al we hear are the thumps from the other side of the wall and the gentle whisperings between them in stolen glances. It’s a frustrating perspective because quite frankly nobody really cares about this kid’s sexual awakening and his daydreams about the cute girl’s bra. His dad (Clark Gregg) wants to talk to him about the birds and the bees. His mom talks about the same. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for the audience with both parents wanting to cover the sex talk. There’s a wanted man hiding in his home! Henry’s personal growing up drama has no equivalency to this. Of the three main characters, doesn’t Henry seem like the worst participant to tell the story? It doesn’t help that Tobey Maguire narrates as older Henry. Have we not learned from The Great Gatsby: Maguire’s voice does not suit narration.

It’s the film’s more tense moments where you get glimpses of the real movie here, the thriller that’s been gussied up and disguised as some strange romance. Whenever someone gets close to discovering what’s really going on in that house, the movie picks up and grabs your interest once more, albeit fleeting. The fear of getting caught is potent but it should have been more omnipresent. The film, through Henry’s perspective, is treated like this nostalgic chestnut of that one summer a convicted killer held us hostage. The police are canvassing for an escaped prisoner but the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be that alarmed, still going about their business bringing desserts and fresh produce to one another’s doorstep. Too much of the film implies the threat, like with a short glimpse of a police checkpoint, but places it on the back-burner so that the romance can take shape. Again, this is a byproduct of being stuck in Henry’s perspective whereas the kid might not have the best understanding of how serious everything is (he’s worried his mom will abandon him and run off with Frank). But in those brief moments of dread and tension, this is where Labor Day works, and Reitman does a great job of turning the screws and building that suspense. It makes you wish the whole thing were a thriller.

kate-winslet-in-labor-day-movie-6No one is going to question that Winslet (Divergent) and Brolin (Gangster Squad) are great actors, but boy do these characters underachieve. There is one very effective and moving monologue Winslet has about her pregnancy problems that have turned her away from the world, but it’s not enough. For much of the movie, she plays such an anxious and internalized character, so it’s hard to really follow her emotional development. That monologue does the most heavy lifting but it’s pretty wan before and after. Winslet is too good an actress to play essentially a catatonic woman that’s fairly mute. Brolin can play a soulful brute in his sleep. There’s so little to challenge him and so he seems on autopilot. It also hurts that both Frank and Adele have very limited conversations. It’s a romance told in gestures and handclasps (and the rhythmic thumping of walls at night). It’s not their fault that their characters are underwritten and unsatisfying. Griffith (Green Lantern) is a nice young actor but he too is forced to communicate much with little and comes up short. James Van Der Beek (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) is a local cop who appears for one scene, and afterwards you wish he would stick around longer. Look for Reitman good luck charm J.K. Simmons (Dark Skies) as a helpful neighbor.

Reitman is such a talented director that he can almost pull off sequences in Labor Day despite all of its inherent structural, tonal, and perspective flaws. From a technical standpoint, the movie is a gauzy, amber-accented tale with plenty of strong alluring visuals to set you at ease. There are these trembling moments where you almost see what attracted Reitman to the film, but the finished product is just a mushy misfire. It’s earnest without having earned our emotions, and the thriller elements and the romance elements are in constant conflict. We all remember our grandparents telling us that magical moment they knew they had met the one when he tied her up and held her hostage. Much of the drama that comes from the premise is handicapped from the mistake of having Henry as the chief storyteller and point of view. His limited involvement means we’re kept at the peripheral for too many important moments. I have no doubt Reitman will rebound and quickly (he’s already filming his next movie and has optioned a book for his next next movie). Get ready to have Labor Day play every subsequent Labor Day weekend on the Lifetime channel, its true home.

Nate’s Grade: C

Nebraska (2013)

nebraska_xlgNebraska is a slow burn, wryly-funny character study of understated proportions, highlighting Midwestern culture rarely given its big screen due. So, in essence, it’s an Alexander Payne movie.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man convinced he has won a million dollars and all he needs to do is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his loot. It’s one of those mass mailings really meant to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody will not be stopped, sneaking out to walk all the way to Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana. David (Will Forte) is in a rut himself. He’s recently been dumped, his job is going nowhere, and his father refuses to accept his million dollars isn’t real. There’s a question of how lucid Woody is, and so to placate his old man, David decides to drive his father to pick up his winnings, to humor him before his mind may be gone for good.

Nebraska film stillDespite the overtly sitcom machinations of the inciting incident, which even the characters dismiss, the film is really a drama about the relationship between a father and son and the culmination of our life choices. Woody and David are not close by any conventional means but over the course of their road trip, David begins to see his father in a different light; the old wounds are not forgotten, but David is learning about who his father is through others. He’s been so mad at his father for so long that it was the only identity he had for the man. Now in his deteriorating mental state and physical fragility, his father has a sense of vulnerability that brings about decidedly mixed emotions. In his fragile state, is he the same man or at least the same man David remembers? Then there are all the family revelations springing out from the situation. With a genuine millionaire in their midst, the family is coming out of the woodwork clamoring for their own pieces for all the unpaid assistance they’ve given Woody over the years. Initially, it makes Woody look like he’s been stuck trying to find his footing his whole life, as we learn about the lingering post-traumatic stress effects from his war service. Was he lazy, undiagnosed PTSD, or, as another character surmises, too ashamed to say no when others asked for help, and so he was taken advantage of in the guise of assistance from unscrupulous friends and family. The question remains who is Woody?

This is one of those observational slice-of-life films, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your threshold for the taciturn types. These are the strong silent types who keep most of their feelings to themselves. There’s a very funny sequence where Woody and his aged brothers have gathered around a TV, and to listen to the dry mostly car-related conversation bounce back and forth like a dead, floating wiffle ball, is a great comic moment but also a nice insight into an older generation and their communication. Given the perspective of the film, it’s hard to deduce whether the plainspoken people are being satirized or whether it’s a loving send-up of a specific culture. With Payne’s involvement, I lean more on the affectionate tweaking rather than a mean-spirited ridiculing of small town folk and their small town ways. There are funny situations, like David and Ross teaming up for some misplaced justice, and there are characters more broadly drawn for laughs, particularly Woody’s wife (June Squibb), but the overall interaction of the characters, their speaking vernacular, and how they viewed themselves, that is what made me laugh the most and appreciate the script. You feel like you’re dropping in on these people’s lives; every character feels like they could be a real person, not a stereotype. And boy does money really bring out the worst in people.

With Woody and his son visiting his old haunts, the movie inevitably becomes a reflection of a man taking stock of his life, regarding the choices he made and did not make. The pit stop in town opens up the character and David learns far more about his father, with old girlfriends, old business partners, and old rivals. What I appreciated further is that Nebraska doesn’t try and soften Woody; he’s not going to be some old curmudgeon who over the course of 90 minutes has his icy heart thaw and comes to realize the errors of his ways. Nope. Our views on the old man may soften when we get a fuller picture of who he is ad the life he’s lead, but the man himself is the same. He’s readily belittled, insulted, looked down upon, even by his own family members, especially his sassy wife. It’s easy for him to retreat into alcohol and wonder what if. As the family picture broadens and becomes more clear, the film approaches simply yet touching revelations about the family and the nature of legacy. There’s a father/son examination, but there’s also the discussion of what to do when your parents become too ill to take care of themselves. It’s not exactly The Savages, but there’s a circling sense of burdensome decision-making that provides an extra level of pathos to the sitcom setup. By the end, Nebraska squeezes out some earned sentiment without losing its edge or sense of identity. There’s a lot more going on then just some send-up of rubes.

20131110-DERN-slide-KFYJ-articleLargePeople have been raving about Dern (TV’s Big Love, Django Unchained) ever since the film’s Cannes premier, where the man earned top acting honors. The man deserves every positive words penned. He’s simply fantastic. The character vacillates between outward hostility, spacing out, and general Midwestern emotional reserve, and Dern is able to sell you on every emotional beat without breaking character. He’s unrepentant and demands to be taken for who he is, and his matter-of-fact bluntness has a certain charm to it, like when he admits to David that he never had any plans for kids. He just liked to “screw” and their mother was a Catholic (“You do the math”). I even appreciate that Woody would use the term “screw,” which seems more appropriate. As a two-man show, it’s a shame that Forte (TV’s 30 Rock, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t exhibit the dramatic chops to keep up with his onscreen pop. It’s nice to see him attempt something so different but his limitations are too evident; it’s just another gear that’s not present. At no point would I call Forte’s performance bad but he’s just unable to keep up. Squibb (About Schmidt, Meet Joe Black) is a hoot though the character seems to be permanently stuck in “wacky” mode. She’ll crack you up with her unrestrained commentary, but you may wonder if there’s any more to this character than saying outrageous, curt comments.

This was the last Best Picture nominee I’d failed to catch up with, and while it’s entertaining, funny, and unexpectedly touching thanks to terrific acting and a sharp script, but it also might be the weakest Alexander Payne film yet. This is the first film that the Oscar-winning director hasn’t written himself. Bob Nelson’s screenplay may never have even been glanced over by Payne had it not been for the state of its title (Payne’s films general take place in Omaha). It’s got Payne’s stamp, as would any film he directs, but it also feels like it’s missing something ephemeral, not to get too pretentious. This is a quality study of a cracked group of characters that, upon further review, aren’t as cracked as we may think. They’re just flawed people trying to get along as best they can. Even amidst the snide and antagonistic conversations, there’s gentleness here about the value of family that resonates above the din of the shouting. By film’s end, what started as a cockeyed sitcom transforms into a film that has more meaning and emotion, never betraying its guarded sense of self. When I say the weakest Payne film, this is not an insult but merely an observation. Even the weakest Alexander Payne film is going to be so much better than just about everything out there.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Great Beauty (2013)

large_70TGomRq1JQNWvnnq5DNfUkzyexIn the Eternal City, a.k.a. Rome, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) has served as its unofficial emcee for years. The literary magazine writer has been coasting for years, living off the prestige and fame from an international hit novel he wrote in his twenties. Now at the age of 65, Jep has come to the conclusion that his life has been lacking the beauty he has sought. All the parties, the late nights, and the fast living have caught up with him. Jep explores the city and its peculiar inhabitants to examine his own life.

It’s impossible to watch The Great Beauty without conjuring images of the great director Fellini. It certainly brings to mind a modern La Dolce Vita. There’s a heightened sense of reality mingling with the surreal, the lives of the rich socialites stepping into the reaches of irony-free satire. At a small party, one rich lady compliments the jazz playing, and another lady says, “The only jazz scene worth listening to today is Ethiopian jazz.” I burst out laughing harder than I have all year. These are people living privileged lives that have lost their tenuous grasp on reality, unaware that they have become caricatures. Their silly ennui has consumed their perspectives. Like Fellini, the movie explores a cloistered world of the Roman elite and their tragicomic absurdities with a touch of the surreal and meditative. I can’t so much pinpoint a clear plot or structure that guides the film, but there are numerous moments, images, scenes that standout in my memory. A private Botox party is played as a zany spiritual gathering where applicants take waiting numbers and a doctor whisper about the great journey they are on together, and then injects botulism into your face. Nuns are everywhere, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but the sight of nuns just randomly populating scenes lends to the surreal nature. Then there’s the 104-year-old nun positioned to be a saint. She looks like a mummy, prefers to sleep on a floor of cardboard, and her mind is still capable of great insight. The ancient nun manages to thematically sum up the film’s interests in beauty, culture, religion, remembrance, and death.

great-beauty-3The relaxed nature of the film and the abstract plot, with little sense of linear trajectory, will certainly test the patience of several moviegoers. At my theater, after twenty minutes several middle-aged couples walked out, muttering, “This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know what these people were expecting when they walked into a 140-minute Italian film, but there declaration is flat-out wrong. I mean, these people probably haven’t even seen InAPPropriate Comedy (cheap shot, achieved). The opening involves the death of a Japanese tourist, and then it switches over to a raucous rooftop party that rivals what we saw in last summer’s Great Gatsby. This is a slow movie but it is slow with purpose, if that makes sense. Jep’s life for so long has been about the party scene, the dulling of the senses, the rush of adrenaline and alcohol. After his sixty-fifth birthday, he’s decided he has no more time to chase after momentary thrills. The journey that follows is mostly a collection of anecdotes and ideas, but many of them have strong staying power. The most notable story is a budding romance he forms with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), a 40-year-old stripper with no illusions about who she is. Their relationship is sweet and it ends abruptly, far too soon than a viewer would wish. I know if Hollywood ever remade an English version of this film, they’d structure the whole movie around this relationship. I suppose another benefit of a free-floating, stream of consciousness style plot is that few storylines overstay their welcome.

Jep has come to a turning point, a stark realization that his life is empty. A nice reminder of this notion, as well as a haunting “what could have been” review, is when the husband to an old girlfriend seeks him out. She has recently died and inside her diary, she writes passionately about Jep from their romance way back when they were teenagers. She only has a passing remark for her husband of 30-some years, and it rips the poor man apart. She was always hung up on Jep, always thinking about what might have been, the path not taken, and this defined her intimately. For the first time since he was young, Jep is looking at the world with different eyes and a hunger that exceeds Earthly pleasures. His friends all suffer from the doubt that they’ve wasted their time, that they were never good enough, and they accept their defeat and leave Rome one by one. One man, so humbled, doesn’t even want to bring any furniture with him, so he leaves it all behind. The only thing he’s taking with him is the years of regret, apparently. There’s a nice moment when he’s reiterating the story of his first kiss to Ramona, which also involves this now deceased woman. He can’t remember what she said to draw him, and the look of disappointment at his failing memory, at being unable to relive a moment that meant so much to him so long ago, it crushes him. Who knows how long Jep had held onto that memory as a source of respite. Jep is examining his life’s disappointments and misanthropy but it may already be too late.

There are plenty of messages and points of contemplation throughout the film, but the major theme seems to be as simple as, “Stop and smell the roses,” And yet, that doesn’t make the film less engaging and responsive. Jep is asked why he never wrote another book after his great success. There look to be a number of reasons, but he confesses he was waiting to be inspired again by the titular Great Beauty. Naturally, by this point, we and Jep have come to realize that waiting for beauty is foolish when it is all around us at any moment (especially in Rome). Most of Jep’s adult life has been consumed with social frivolities and passing pleasures, but only now does he seem to stop and fully appreciate his surroundings and his company, naturally, when his friends are departing. It’s a universal theme and one that hasn’t gotten old and the film’s handling is anything but sop-headed sentimentalism. It even ties back to the opening, where the Japanese tourist keels over dead. The man is so busy trying to document his vacation rather than experience it, and in the end, it’s all for what?

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Like Jep, we too will fall in love with Rome as he strolls around it. Gloriously photographed, it’s a treat to experience the major works of art in Rome, so much so that it may stir your passions to see them in person. Even as the plot becomes lugubrious, you don’t mind because of how lovely Rome and its facilities look. Characters doing little and ruminating in Kansas may get boring, but characters doing little and ruminating in Rome, well at least that’s scenery worth watching.

I’ve read many differing interpretations of the film and its messages, the impact of different scenes and which hit hardest, and it reminds me what good art is meant to do; it’s meant to inspire us, entreat us, but also stir us to engage with it, and The Great Beauty does just that. It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere, and asks the audience to ponder as Jep does about regret, lost opportunities, and the contradictions of happiness. The surreal touches can provide plenty of laughs, but it’s the smaller appreciation of side characters, ideas, and the contrasts that provide more intellectual payoffs. The film is far more free-floating and meditative than American audiences are used to, but unlike, say the works of Terrence Malick, I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.  The Great Beauty is a beguiling movie that admittedly could have been chopped down from its 140-minute running time. If you’re a fan of Fellini, or art history, then this is a must-see. For others, I’d advise giving this a try, though don’t be surprised if it takes a while to grow on you with its ponderous nature.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Philomena (2013)

judi-dench-philomenaA more family-friendly alternative to the wrenching The Magdalene Sisters, the drama Philomena is ostensibly a good movie, but woe unto thee if you thought you were in store for a crackling comedy. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was forced to work in a Catholic workhouse in Ireland when she became pregnant as an unwed teenager. Her child was placed into adoption into America and now, 50 years later, she wants to find her long-lost son and learn about him and his life. Helping her in her quest is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, co-writer as well), a recently unemployed journalist. Their odd couple pairing should inspire comedic repartee, as so the ads would also have you believe. The film is funny, in spurts, but it’s much more effective as an illuminating drama on the abuses of the church-run workhouses that guilted poor girls into, sometimes lifelong, slave labor. At the thirty-minute mark, when Martin comes across a makeshift graveyard of dead teen mothers, who were forced to give birth on the workhouse premises as punishment for their sins, you can pretty much abandon any hope of a ribald road trip comedy. Once your expectations are realigned, you can enjoy the film for what is has to offer: an intriguing mystery, solid characterizations, a terrific Dench performance, and an ending that doesn’t pull punches. Be warned, you will walk away from this movie wanting to punch nuns in the face. Coogan’s role is one of anger and outrage, and there’s plenty to go around with church corruption, scandals, and cover-ups uncovered. But it’s Philomena herself who is the life lesson for us all; her church fails her but her forgiveness is the model we should all strive for. It’s a moving film with as much compassion as it has criticism. Just don’t watch it in the company of a nun.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Assault on Wall Street (2013)

101460_galWhen it comes to notorious German director Uwe Boll, many are still waiting for what could be the man’s first genuinely good movie. The man has been prolific over the past ten years but sure-fire candidates for First Good Film, like Max Schmeling or Attack on Darfur, inevitably have some tragic flaw or approach that places them back in mediocrity, the company of many of Boll’s other movies. After reviewing more Boll films than a human should be allowed to willingly, I feel like I’ve been beaten down enough that when I find something that genuinely works, be it an actor or a sequence or plot turn, that I should be just as vocal as with the contingent of failure. So allow me to refreshingly applaud Boll for Assault on Wall Street, on coming up with a topic and a story structure that… actually… works. It not just works, it succeeds, and if a more polished professional screenwriter got a hold of this, I think it could actually impress the masses. If it weren’t for the surprisingly effective war drama, Tunnel Rats, I’d say without a doubt that Assault on Wall Street is the best work of Boll’s much-maligned career. And yet… it has just enough minor faults that hold it back.

Jim (Dominic Purcell) is a regular guy working as an armored security transport. His wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk) suffers from a rare tumor that requires an expensive series of injections to keep it at bay. Their insurance company won’t pay, and so they have to rely on Jim’s savings. Except those are gone as well. Jeremy Stancroft (John Heard) has ordered all his brokers to dump toxic assets, eliminating most investor savings but profiting the shareholders. Jim and Rosie are broke. Vowing vengeance, especially after some drastic decision-making by Rosie, Jim sets off to make the high-priced traders and corporate raiders on Wall Street feel the pain of what they have wrought.

102358_galThe setup is concise and Boll does a nifty job of compounding Jim’s problems and showing how all the industries are interconnected to put the squeeze on. Because of unscrupulous health insurers, his wife’s medical treatment, deemed experimental, is quite expensive and they’ve reached a cap. With the brokers pushing their clients assets into junk stocks, at the behest of the betters and for commissions, Jim loses his entire financial cushion. He hires a lawyer (Eric Roberts) but has to pay $10,000 just to retain him to fight the $60,000 penalty his broker says is owed. He goes into debt and refinances his skyrocketing mortgage (variable rate) to pay for his wife’s treatments. His employer takes notice of his perilous situation and is uncomfortable with enlisting someone in deep financial woes with guarding money. He loses his job. The bank is poised to foreclose on the house. His wife won’t get her treatments to save her life. All of this leads to a drastic and completely understood decision of desperation and sacrifice. Admittedly, Boll does a compelling job of connecting all the dots, making each new pitfall a result of the previous, each compounding the misery of Jim. It takes a little long to go through all these points, and I think Boll could have trimmed it down so that a key event happens at the Act One break point, but I was flabbergasted that the man found a story structure that succeeds.

The second half of the film is Jim planning his vengeance, and after all of the callous movers and shakers have bled him dry, you’re onboard for some sort of righteous payback. Boll takes on Wall Street and the healthcare industry (double the populist outrage). Jim as a character could be made much more compelling, but he’s really serving as a symbol for how the forces are ganged up against the little guy, how the fix is in. When confronted, the big CEO of the brokerage firm barks that it’s always the same old story, that the titans of industry were all crooks and manipulated the system to their advantage, and he’s no different. In short, the little guy always loses.

What holds back Assault on Wall Street, beside the fact that the titular assault is reserved for the last fifteen minutes of the film, is its too slick ending and Boll’s obvious transparency when it comes to his political message. After Jim suffers loss after loss, he puts together a plan pretty quickly, utilizing that Army training we’ve heard about. It’s actually too easy with little complications that can’t be solved in a David Fincher-style montage of death. It’s a full 70 minutes before he takes out his first Wall Street fat cat, and that’s just way too much dawdling. And then from there the climax involves Jim just going on a rampage in an office building, shooting several faceless employees who could very well be innocent for all we know. I think Boll is satisfied with a guilt-by-association catch-all for Jim’s fury, but it would be more satisfying just from a payoff standpoint if we saw these people in villainous lights prior, kind of like what Saw 6 did with its insurance characters before turning the tables on them. The last thing we need in our populist screed is to worry that the wrong people were dispatched. And what kind of office building fails to evacuate after a confirmed shooter has attacked?

102366_galThis storyline could have also worked in a Falling Down turn, where a man consumed with evening the scales of a system broken loses his moral bearing and lumps all guilty parties together and condemns them all. Perhaps it was meant to examine the slippery slope of vigilante justice and how this too can decay one’s sense of self, sort of like what Jodie Foster went through in 2007’s The Brave One. However, I don’t think Boll was intending this direction because he’s not very subtle about anything in the movie. Oftentimes the characters just become mouthpieces for ideological talking points: “We’re busy busting some homeless guy when the real criminals are on Wall Street.” The bad guys actually say, with no hint of self-awareness, “We all took a loss. When I told my wife we couldn’t vacation in Barbados any longer…” It’s all just a little too on-the-nose to remind you of the overall intent rather than the story. Therefore, I think Boll is just going for a sense of (misplaced?) justice in the end, in a ludicrous plan that somehow invalidates witnesses, forensic evidence, and security footage to pin the blame on someone else. It’s too clever by half that it undercuts the final payoff. It gets even worse with the Batman-esque voice over to close out the film with a promise to all evildoers.

With such a tight focus on the plot, the acting is a marked step up from previous Boll outings. Purcell (TV’s Prison Break, Killer Elite) doesn’t exactly come across as a regular Joe but he has enough onscreen presence to pull off his character’s anguish as well as the requisite badass stuff. And apparently Boll has become fond of him because Purcell is scheduled to appear in future Boll films. Karpluk, a Canadian actress best known for the TV show Being Erica, has a natural grace to her, forgoing big moments to concentrate on the gnawing guilt and concern her character feels. While she’s a bit too willfully ignorant early on, Karpluk makes you care and provides whatever depth can be applied to Jim. I’m actually curious to see her comic skills since she has a face tailor-made for romantic comedies. Heard (Sharknado, Home Alone) doesn’t seem to embrace his duplicitous CEO role with enough gusto, appearing to be annoyed when he should be menacing. This is not the kind of movie to hold back.

There are plenty of other Boll Players, including Edward Furlong (3 appearances), Lochlyn Munro (2 appearances), Tyron Leitso (5 appearances, also stars in Being Erica), Michael Eklund (8 appearances), Natassia Malthe (4 appearances), and the stalwarts of Clint Howard (6 appearances) and Michael Pare (13 appearances). It’s been 13 years since Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) last appearance in a Boll film. Most of these are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, but then there’s Keith David (The Thing, Cloud Atlas) in a thankless role that didn’t need to exist. But hey, I’ll take Keith David in anything.

A welcome surprise, for the most part, Assault on Wall Street is a finely structured revenge tale with clear and precise plot points and a natural buildup. It’s Boll on a soapbox and the naked transparency of his ire and populist messages limits the effectiveness of his storytelling, but you might not mind, especially if you are a person who has slogged through far less competent Boll ventures. There is a marked improvement in just about every facet of filming. It genuinely works, that is, until the pacing becomes lopsided and the end just reverts to celebratory action mode. A more professional writer could take this film and whip it into a crowd-pleasing populist thriller. It’s got so much that works, and genuinely works well, that I feel like a buzzkill to keep harping on the elements that do not succeed. But if Boll wants to earn an undisputed victory, he’s got to earn it without lowered standards. Assault on Wall Street is so tantalizingly close to being Boll’s First Good Film but it doesn’t capitalize enough.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Paradise (2013)

105966_galYou’re courting irony when you name your movie Paradise, as well as pained movie critic puns, but I had faith that Diablo Cody, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time, would entertain, especially after her best screenplay yet, 2011’s Young Adult. The problem with Paradise is that it goes just about nowhere and it’s shockingly bland, a criticism I never thought I’d have for a Cody-penned work. The premise starts off strong, with Lamb (Julianne Hough) as a devout Christian living a sheltered existence until the day she becomes the sole survivor of a plane crash. Her body covered in burns, her faith shaken to its core, she embarks on journey to Las Vegas to sin it up big time. It’s snarky and satirical, and then she gets to Vegas, she meets some nice new pals (Russel Brand, Octavia Spencer), and they hang out and… that’s about it. The Lamb character is meant to be a naïve but ultimately nice person, but she’s portrayed as vaguely racist thanks to Cody’s simple skewering of fundamentalism. Where are the sharp characters and incisive wit of Cody’s past efforts? The comedy almost dissolves as it goes and you realize that intriguing premise is never going to be realized. And then the third act happens and it feels like the film just gives up, unearned sentimentality takes control, and the characters all find unsatisfying conclusions. The characters aren’t given enough material, often left adrift in a plot-free environment of self-discovery. A misguided scene where Lamb pours her heart out to a former prostitute could work as a summary of what tonally doesn’t work with this movie. There are some funny moments, even some affecting ones, but Paradise doesn’t feel like it has a sophisticated voice and clear direction. Coming from Cody, I wouldn’t have expected those two chief complaints.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-cbf4d050Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.

Nate’s Grade: B

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

105207_galSeemingly sure-fire Oscar bait, Saving Mr. Banks left enough Academy voters cold and it’s easy to see why. First off, the behind-the-scenes sparring to adapt Mary Poppins is the movie we want to see, watching crotchety author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) butt heads with head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The movie is at its best when these two share the screen, with Walt’s genial strong-arming finding little traction with Travers stern refusals (no Dick van Dyke, no animation, no mustaches). What I wasn’t expecting was a parallel storyline detailing Travers childhood in Australia dealing with an unstable home life thanks to a drunken father (Colin Farrell). It literally takes up half the movie, and while there are a few interesting juxtapositions, the screenplay just trades off scenes; one in 1961, then one in 1906, then back again, etc. The issue is that the flashbacks are never very revelatory and have no business dominating the running time. All of the information gleaned from these flashbacks could have been corralled into one late flashback, or even mentioned in a speech. Saving Mr. Banks gives you two movies running parallel, but most people will only be interested in the one. It’s a pleasant film, benefiting from strong performances by Thompson and Hanks (perfectly cast), but one can’t shake the feeling of Disney P.R. pervading the film’s retelling. It comes from the perspective that Disney is always right and that Travers was always wrong, having to work through her personal issues before relenting, even tearing up at the final product. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney and never allowed another of her Poppins books to be adapted into a film, though not for want of trying by the studios. It feels unfair to portray an author’s artistic integrity as an obstacle that needs to be defeated, but there it is, and Disney’s Mary Poppins, while beloved, resembles much of what Travers feared. Who defends the cranky authors of the world when they have a point? Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining film, charming and likeable, until you begin to look beyond the fairy dust and realize the revisionism before your eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Fateful Findings (2013)

fateful-findings-film-coverEver since the ascent of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room atop the dung heap mountain of midnight movie fare, the world has been avidly searching for the next so-bad-it’s-amazing film. There have been several contenders over the years, most of which were amusing, such as Troll 2 or the original Birdemic, but some of which made you consider the value of life itself, such as 2009’s After Last Season. Oh, that one still makes me wince. Don’t even see that one. But as a lifelong lover of all things cinematically terrible, thanks in part to growing up on a healthy appetite of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I am compelled to seek out the worst of the worst. The Room is one of my favorite movies of all time; my love for it knows no heavenly bounds. I have to sniff out anything that comes remotely close to replicating that wonderful experience.

Enter Las Vegas realtor and architect Neil Breen. According to a Deadline Hollywood report from October 2013, Breen wrote/directed/produced/starred/edited/and just about everything else a little bundle of love called Fateful Findings. He sent it out blindly to distributors looking for any takers. It just so happens one bit, and now Fateful Findings is gearing up for a nationwide release specifically targeted at the midnight movie crowd that made The Room the sizeable cultural hit it is. Like Wiseau’s accidental masterpiece of cinematic miscalculation, Breen’s film is awash with bizarre directing choices, curious line readings, painful acting, subplots that come and go as they please, a lack of resolution, characters that behave more like aliens than human beings, odd camera framing and compositions, and, naturally, an ending that must be seen to be believed. For fans of woefully bad cinema, there’s a lot to dig in and I’ve got my knife and fork. First, I want to describe four of my favorite things about Fateful Findings and Breen.

2013_FEST_FatefulFindings_440x3001) “It’s a magical day!”

The film opens with an eight-year-old boy and girl waking through the woods, coming across a magic mushroom (not that kind). The mushroom disappears, revealing a jewelry box, and inside is a black rock. “It must mean something,” young Dylan lets the audience know. Young Leah then says, twice, “It’s a magical day!” Oh, but if that wasn’t made abundantly clear, she also writes it in a notebook and shows it to the audience. But this opening scene isn’t done with its magic. We flash forward many years to an adult Dylan (Breen), who looks at least ten years older than the adult version of Leah (Jennifer Autry). Prepare for the sudden time jump shock. Anyway, Dylan and Leah never saw each other again after that magical summer that is… until she’s invited to a family barbeque. Why is this stranger, and her then fiancé, invited to a limited family engagement? Anyway, the way that these two people reconnect is that adult Leah bumps into adult Dylan and drops, what for it, the SAME notebook. It falls magically open to the SAME page, revealing the SAME message: “It’s a magical day!” Apparently she still carries that notebook around everywhere she goes and has never written in it since that fateful day. Who doesn’t bring a 30-year-old notebook with them to a barbeque?

2) “It was the Rolls Royce that hit ‘em. I saw it. I’m a witness.”

Also in the first ten minutes, we watch adult Dylan get creamed by a Rolls Royce. The speeded-up sequence itself is just hilarious to watch, especially since the car appears to be going rather slowly in the previous shot. Anyway, Dylan recovers in a hospital thanks to the black rock reviving him (make note when the EMTs arrive and their lagging sense of urgency). The collection of rubberneckers gathers at the accident scene, including one gentleman who, God bless him, foolishly attempts a British accent out of the blue, reciting the above line. I’m sure it would have been in question since the one car resting right next to the injured man is covered in his blood (how much did that cost to rent and splatter a car like that?). It’s at the hospital where Dylan unknowingly meets the adult Leah for the first time. She’s a doctor and pronounces Dylan “semi-comatose.” How is that a thing; can you be semi-pregnant? After his miraculous revival, Dylan leaves the hospital and re-enters his home, taking a shower. His wife, Emily (Klara Landrat, a former model), steps into the shower with him and happily embraces her man. Except beforehand we see a shot of his feet in the shower and blood is profusely streaming down his leg. Remember, all this is from a head wound, so how much does his head have to be bleeding to get down his leg? The shower is filled with blood, Dylan’s bandages are blotted red, and she steps inside. Gross. What kicks this entire sequence even higher in hilarity is that Dylan’s facial bandages actually cover his ENTIRE mouth and nose with no indentations for him to breathe out. When he detaches the oxygen mask, you’ll see there’s nowhere for him to actually breathe. Damn you, Obamacare!

neil_breen3) “No more books!”

Once home, we learn that Dylan has a Master’s degree in computer science but became a successful novelist, a fact he seems almost disdainful about. This dichotomy is illustrated by the fact that Dylan has four laptops out at all times, none of which are ever really turned on. Why four? Why not? He pounds away, literally, trying to complete his next book, but when his temper arises, he almost always takes it out on the poor laptops. This is a very abusive film when it comes to laptops. My favorite moment is when Dylan is holding a cup of coffee and it looks like he’s going to spill it on that laptop. It’s a ten-second sequence that leaves you on the edge of your seat, finally ending in an even greater comic punchline. At another point, Dylan throws two books into two laptops before holding back his incalculable rage onto a third laptop. The only way people communicate is by throwing things in this film. You could turn Dylan’s tortured mistreatment of laptops into a drinking game.

4) “I can’t believe you killed yourself. I cannot believe you killed yourself. I can’t help you out of this one.”

I won’t go into detail about the context of this quote, to spare some spoilers, but it illustrates the habit of actors repeating lines of dialogue ad nasuem. The dialogue itself is rather plain, so it’s weird that Breen and company feel the need to keep repeating themselves, as if we’re missing some deeper hidden meaning. We’re not.

Breen has described his film in interviews as a genre-bending psychological thriller, and while some of those elements may be present in the faintest, most diluted distillation, the man’s movie is really the long story of two marriages coming apart. Dylan’s marriage with Emily hits the skids when she gets addicted to his pain medication, but neither person seems to treat this as the serious development it is; what makes this worse is that Dylan enables her addiction. He keeps getting her the meds when he clearly no longer needs them. It seems once his childhood sweetheart re-enters his life, Dylan just forgets he has a wife. The other marriage consists of Dylan’s bickering neighbors, Amy (Victoria Valene) and Jim (David Silva), and they really have no impact on the greater plot whatsoever, and yet Breen’s film wastes so much time on their story. They’re unhappy. He wants sex. She doesn’t. Eventually in the heat of the moment Amy does something impulsive and very criminal, and the movie treats it like any nominal plot moment. A vital witness to this crime doesn’t bother speaking up until fifteen minutes later in the film, as if they just had some nagging chores to do before alerting others about a serious crime. Perhaps Jim and Amy are, in some twisted perspective, Breen’s idea of comic relief (Jim’s exaggerated “drunk” movement, throwing drinks on one another, etc.), but for a movie that is nonstop comic blunders, what difference does it make?

003And then there’s the supernatural story that permeates the edges of the film, popping in from time to time to remind you during the marital discord that, oh yeah, there’s a mysterious ghost or something or other. The supernatural stuff begins muddled and unexplained and never really clarifies. It’s thanks to the black rock, which Dylan refers to as a cube, that he’s able to survive being hit by the car. If that’s the case, then I don’t think I’d ever let that sucker out of my pocket. I’d glue it to my hand. Inexplicably, the rock also gives Dylan the ability to transport himself through walls, though he only does this once and never explains how he knew. The way we know something “magical” is happening is when a little puff of grey vapor appears onscreen. Is it a spirit, a malevolent force? Does it have anything to do with this stupid book that keeps haunting Dylan? I feel like Breen is patterning himself after the work of David Lynch, except that Lynch’s films, which can consist of weirdness for weird’s sake, have cohesion, a vision. Fateful Findings has the occasional supernatural entity, but it’s rarely examined, and then we’re off to the next subplot as if spinning a board game wheel. Then the supernatural angle, which is only barely toyed with, and with such peculiar indifference, is abandoned and the movie wholly chases after another storyline.

The movie’s final focus is on Dylan’s super secret hacking uncovering all sorts of vague secrets and corruption from governments and corporations (“As president of… The Bank…”). Throughout the film, Dylan keeps mentioning this but it never seems terribly significant, at least judging by the characters’ actions. It isn’t until the very end where Breen spends more than a passing interest in this subplot, because we have more important storylines to feature, like Ally (Danielle Andrade), his neighbor’s teen daughter, inexplicably trying to seduce him. It comes out of nowhere and is just as quickly pushed aside (I also wonder how old Ally is supposed to be). Allow me to thread an analytical narrative to make sense of these dispirit storylines. Assessing the film, it sure comes across like Breen’s attempt to bolster his sense of self. In every scenario, people treat him as a treasured human being, he’s at the center of a diabolical conspiracy, he’s gifted with magic powers that separate him from normal men, all women want to seduce him, and then in the end he’s the one who makes the world a better place by exposing corruption. It sounds like a hero complex to me. Even acts that deserve harsh scrutiny, like his enabling of his wife’s addiction or his blasé attitude about carrying on an affair, are ignored. In this universe, Dylan is always right, always desired, always respected, and always special.

fateful3The production has a hard time hiding its obvious shortcomings, sometimes hilariously so. It becomes clear very early that most of the film was likely shot in Breen’s home, which is fine except it also unsuccessfully doubles as other locations (the blinds are the big giveaway). The worst is the hospital room, which mostly consists of a bed and three oxygen canisters. What hospital room is going to have carpet? So much of the movie takes place in Dylan’s home office, with that plethora of laptops, that you’ll start to memorize the home layout. In the opening, with Dylan and Leah as kids, we’re shown modern-day vehicles and then flash forward at least 35 years. Could Breen not have shot the scene with some older vehicles? Then there are Dylan’s two therapist’s offices. The first one is the guy who keeps prescribing pain meds. Perhaps to communicate his overall incompetence as a doctor, Breen stages all of the therapy scenes in a conference room with both men sitting as far apart, at either end of the long conference table. What better way to foster patient intimacy? He also magically switches jackets in the middle of one session. The second therapist operates in what looks like a closet, and the only thing we see are two folding chairs. She may not really exist, or was in on the unexplained supernatural conspiracy, so perhaps the old lady therapist didn’t feel like putting that much effort into decoration.

The technical abilities of the Fateful Findings crew are, to be expected, less than stellar. The editing is another clumsy detraction, namely that Breen and his TWO other editors let their scenes meander several seconds longer than where they should have cut, giving the film a loping feeling. It’s like each person is counting mentally when to respond to the dialogue, and when one person finishes the film holds, counts as well, and then cuts. There are slow pans that add nothing to the film but space in between lines of dialogue. I don’t need rapid-fire cuts for what is essentially a domestic drama, but why the hesitant editing? Is it just a sneaky way of inflating the film’s running time? Even Breen’s staging of the camera can often be confounding. For whatever reason, the film often features camera shots of people’s feet or people very carefully cut off at the head, meaning their heads are not visible. It happens enough and for such nonessential scenes that I started to wonder if Breen found himself an Ed Wood-esque solution for not having his same actors for the scenes he needed them for. Beyond a Tarantino-size foot fetish, I don’t know why there are so many shots of feet. At least Breen is not as inept in his visual staging as the makers of After Last Season, a movie so bad it’s just bad beyond measure. Breen knows enough to adequately stage his scenes, which makes his choices all the more curious.

The acting is generally terrible across the board, occasionally breathtakingly bad. Let’s start with Breen himself, who is fairly listless and deadpan throughout. He raises his voice but rarely does he change how he’s responding. He’s aloof and strikingly self-serious at the same time. Breen’s command of his actors is limited to directing them to just ham it up. Most of the actors will exaggerate facial expressions and physical movements, providing more drama. Landrat is trapped by her storyline too early, and so she succumbs to the screaming wife with an Eastern European accent. Autry does no better, looking uncomfortable in every moment onscreen. The worst actor in the movie, easily, is Valene, who squawks in the same pained sing-songy manner with every line with nasally incredulity. The best performance in the film may belong to the mysterious old lady therapist who may not really exist. And yet, she’s the most grounded.

fatefulfindings3Making the film seem even more alien is Breen’s chaste sense of human sensuality. One of the adjectives on the poster describing the film is “passionate,” but you have to wonder if Breen was just too uncomfortable, or perhaps his female actresses were, to make the onscreen passion a bit more palpable. The very way people kiss in this movie is so chaste. They lean in, pecking each other slightly on the lips, as if one was kissing their grandmother goodbye rather than engaging in uncontrollable passions. They were doing hotter fake kissing in 1940s Hayes code era Hollywood (check out Hitchcock’s Notorious and tell me that Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman kiss still isn’t hot today). Breen’s passions are so modest and contained. Take for instance a scene of passion directly following a spat between Dylan and Emily, one where she threatens to leave him. Apparently that revved up their engines because they start tearing apart one another’s clothes and doing their chicken peck kissing. Breen, as is his usually fashion by this point, knocks over several laptops and throws papers into the air for what feels like a solid minute. Whenever disrobing one of the actresses, be it tearing of clothes or the more gentlemanly “unbuttoning” method, he always stops above his ladies bosoms, allowing a hint more cleavage but nothing beyond. It happens enough that it starts to become a noticeable artistic choice, as is his consistent framing of topless women sleeping face down on their beds. It gives just enough of a glimpse of partial nudity without revealing more (all four main actresses will go partially nude at some point in the film). This puzzled me because I was certain the only reason these actresses were selected is because they likely accepted a part where they would eventually display their physical assets. They’re not here because they can act, that’s for sure.

In fact, the only nudity in the entire movie belongs to Breen himself as he bares his behind while stumbling out of his carpeted hospital room. If you dare look closer, you’ll see the end of his gown catches the end of the hospital bed just so, allowing the flap to stretch and display Breen’s posterior. Either this was a one-time thing and Breen said, “why not?” or, and I think, given the nature of hero complex evidenced, this is more likely, that they kept shooting the scene until the flap caught and proudly displayed Breen’s rump. I suppose in the Garbage Bag Room (a reoccurring dream/nightmare in a space literally lined with garbage bags), there is a nude woman accompanying him, but she’s tastefully composed and likely a body double for Autry. For a man who looks visibly uncomfortable even kissing women, let alone disrobing them, it defies logic that Breen would acquiesce to his own nudity in his own film.

But the question that must be asked of all craptacular movies is whether it is the right kind of bad, the kind made with sincerity in equal measure with its incompetence. It’s one thing to make a bad movie and another to make it purposefully, chasing after the ever-hungry midnight movie crowd, looking to cash in with some canny filmmaking ineptitude (Birdemic 2, people). From everything I’ve gathered via Breen’s interviews, he’s legit. He even has previous movies to his name and I can only hope those will see a wider release. Breen’s film hits that so-bad-it’s-good sweet spot of derisive entertainment enjoyment. I was laughing just as many times as I was shaking my head. However, as a connoisseur of crap cinema, I must say that The Room maintains its throne. Breen’s film is a bit too lackadaisical in its nonsensical plotting and starts to feel redundant, and I’m not just talking about the oft-repeated dialogue. There is a finite level of bad to this film whereas The Room is a thousand brushstrokes of terrible. Breen’s film marvels but it may also test your patience at turns, unless you’ve been drinking heavily.

neil-breen-vegas-realtorFateful Findings is awash in terrible decision-making, to the world’s benefit. Breen and his team have put together a movie that is baffling, ridiculous, and greatly entertaining. From the dropped subplots, repeated laptop abuse, inauthentic human behavior, hazy plotting, laughable special effects, chaste human interaction, strange feet-heavy framing, and that ending, oh the ending is just comedy gold; there’s a little something here for every discerning ironic viewer of bad movies, though the film does lag and repeat its offenses enough that it feels stretched and redundant. I’d say, amongst the spectrum of recent bad midnight movie fare, it’s probably just below Birdemic. I don’t know what the repeat value will be for Breen’s film, or whether it will catch on with audiences like Wiseau’s unexpected success. I can’t even say whether I really want to watch it again, but I will, and with a gathering of friends, and likely with the added benefit of some adult beverages. If Fateful Findings is playing at a theater near you, by means see it and bring your pals along for the fateful experience. It will make you think. Mostly about laptops.

Nate’s Grade: F
Entertainment value: A-

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