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I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Forgotten (2004)

Fair warning: This screed contains huge spoilers about the movie as I rip it apart. The press release for The Forgotten says, “What if you were told that every moment you experienced and every memory you held dear never happened?” And now, upon having seen The Forgotten, I say, “Oh, if only.”

Telly (Julianne Moore) is still grieving the loss of her nine-year-old son who died in a plane crash 14 months ago. She’s seeing a psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and slowly coming to terms with her loss. One day she discovers all remnants of her son missing. His clothes, baseball glove, even his appearance in pictures has vanished. She accuses her husband (Anthony Edwards) of stealing them, but then is shocked when her hubby and doc both tell her that Telly never had a son. She’s been delusional for years since a miscarriage and has created an imaginary son. Telly refuses to accept the possibility that she’s nuts, and finds initial resistance and then acceptance from another parent (Dominic West) who also remembers a daughter that died in the same plane crash. Together they set off to learn the truth, all the while being hunted down by the NSA for some mysterious reason.

The Forgotten shares a very dubious honor. Only twice in my life have I been strongly tempted to walk out on a movie, and that was while watching Lost in Space and The Thin Red Line. Six years later, The Forgotten became the third. It got so bad during the second half that I was fashioning my moveable armrest into a crude headboard for me to sleep upon. I was that bored. I can explain the reasons for my boredom very easily: terrible plot structure.

The Forgotten opens with Telly grieving over the loss of her son, and Moore is so good at grief that she can hook an audience as soon as her face crinkles into sadness. Around the 20-minute mark, Telly is told that she never had a son and has been delusional the whole time. Now, stop right there. That’s a great premise. If the makers of The Forgotten had stretched this part of the movie to about 90 minutes, put some thought and skill toward it, then we could have had something fascinating and heartfelt. Instead, you’re given the easily expected and the very boring.

At the 20-minute mark, Telly is told she has no child and she’s crazy. At around the 30-minute mark, none of this matters. The movie doesn’t even allow an opportunity for Telly to even doubt for a sheer second about her wild hunch that everyone in her life, including The New York Times, being apart of some global conspiracy to hide the fact she had a child. And of course, because she?s our heroine and this is Hollywood, her incredibly outlandish theories will be proven right. I understand that, but to reveal her theory’s accuracy only TEN MINUTES later is ridiculous. The Forgotten wastes no time proving Telly’s wild ranting as being correct. It’s as if The Forgotten feels that its audience is cultivated from the dumbest common denominator.

At the 40-minute mark the “A-word” is used, and before the 60-minutes mark, the audience knows everything. The last hour of the film is so obvious; no, it’s beyond obvious. It’s super obvious. It can’t even be obvious because The Forgotten has told you EVERYTHING. You’re not waiting around for predictability to play its way out, because you’ve been told everything. All that’s left is to sit and watch dull chase scenes (a book editor outrun NSA trained agents? Please).

There will be some heavy spoilers in my discussion of the film’s plot. I’m posting fair warning now, but doubt they’ll be too surprising given the ads on TV for The Forgotten (who else would you think was responsible?).

I have no idea what the makers of The Forgotten were thinking. They blow all their secrets in the first half and then mill around for another hour. It’d be like if The Sixth Sense revealed Haley Joel Osment sees ghosts and Bruce Willis is dead in the first hour, and then for another hour they sit uncomfortably and ask about the weather. Anyone think that movie would have worked the same? This is why I was so bored. I could have fallen asleep and accurately predicted everything that would happen in the second hour. There didn’t even need to be a second half to this film. It was all irritatingly explained to us in the first hour. Once the mystery’s gone, the only thing the audience has to keep its faltering attention are the questions of whether Telly can win back her son, and who will be vacuumed out of the universe next. That’s not much to justify another tension-free, revelation-free hour of awful movie.

The ending is also steeped in lunacy. So apparently all-powerful aliens love to play experiments on us and basically control our whole lives. Peachy. Telly is apart of an experiment, and the creepy, slim alien tells her that she’s the anomaly. All the other test subjects have forgotten, but not her, and the little green men want to know why. What’s even more peculiar is that this specimen of a supposedly advanced race is mad at Telly for gunking up the project, and he’s (its?) going to beat her until she forgets and the project is finished. But the alien just said she was the lone anomaly. By definition the project worked if everyone else succeeded. I’m no advanced race and I figured that out. Guess I’m smarter than the screenwriter of The Forgotten.

Once again, humans miraculously triumph over supposedly all-powerful alien species. I realize an audience wants to see our heroes succeed at the end and conquer evil, but is it even plausible when this evil can alter everyone’s existence at a moment’s notice? In the end, Telly gets her son back and her life is fulfilled. The makers of The Forgotten expect you to take this for a happy, victorious ending. Don’t. Sure, Telly has her kid back, but what’s to stop these all-powerful aliens from doing it again. For that matter, since she was the anomaly, wouldn’t they continue to perform experiments on her to see what makes her tick?

What makes The Forgotten even more irksome is that it’s a blatant rip-off of Alex Proyas’ visionary 1998 sci-fi noir, Dark City. The plot of Dark City is about all-powerful aliens that experiment with human beings. They plant different memories into their heads, allow their human test subjects to live multiple identities, to see what makes us work. A reluctant doctor helps the aliens but is really rooting for the one test subject that seems beyond their power. The aliens are baffled about this anomaly. This is practically the entire plot for The Forgotten; trade Shell Beach for Quest Air, lose all the style, thrills, imagination, and pacing of Dark City, and what you’re left with is The Forgotten.

It’s not enough that The Forgotten is possibly the most ineptly plotted movie ever, or that the trailer and commercials gave away too much (I knew the ending before stepping into the theater), the ails of The Forgotten are exacerbated by the fact that it’s a shallow, homely, incompetent rip-off of Dark City.

I do not fault Moore. She is one of the finest working actresses today and will elevate anything she is in to some degree. She’s stranded by the material. The only performance I even took any note of was the surprise appearance of Lee Tergesen. He’s shown equally impressive comedic chops (USA’s Weird Science) as dramatic chops (He was the closest thing to a hero on HBO’s Oz). It’s always fun to see personally beloved character actors, even if it is in an abomination like The Forgotten.

Director Joseph Ruben (Money Train, The Good Son) finds astonishing ways to make The Forgotten even worse. He overplays his hand early, like having many overhead shots cued with weird, aerial noises. There’s also an ominous and extremely mobile cloud formation that spells out the antagonists. The second half is filled with pointless chase scenes, and Ruben can’t manage to make any part of them exciting. He does have one interesting jump moment while Telly is riding in a car, but I already saw it this year in the superior Bourne Supremacy.

The Forgotten may end up being the worst film of 2004, and with a year dotted by the likes of Hellboy, Van Helsing, Catwoman, and National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers, that may be all I need to say. I suppose someone out there may find something redeemable about The Forgotten (if they haven’t already seen Dark City), but the film’s tepid pacing, mind-numbingly foolish plot structure, and mounting illogical doom the poor audience to two hours of head-smacking boredom. This is a first-class Hollywood train wreck. It doesn’t work as a drama about grief, it doesn’t work as a psychological thriller, and it really doesn’t work as a half-baked X-Files episode. The Forgotten is a really great title, because in a few weeks it’ll be exactly that.

Nate’s Grade: F

The Human Stain (2003)

Anthony Hopkins as a black man? Nicole Kidman as a white trash janitor? And the two are LOVERS? This is a movie that is sunk by some lamebrain casting decisions. It’s one of those art pieces that yearns to be something more but just gasps for air. Still, I suppose you get to see that one woman from The Real World London naked.

Nate’s Grade: C

Reindeer Games (2000)

John Frankenheimer comes off from the heels of the incredibly exciting ‘Ronin’ with one of the best car chases ever to direct a muddled holiday thriller that should’ve checked its release date sooner on the calendar. Affleck plays a car thief mistaken for his prison cell mate and hijacked to teach a band of greasy diner clowns the ins and outs or casino theivin’. The performances are all adequate, though Gary Sinise as the bad trucker seems a little too Deliverance to me at times. The movie permeates with the feeling all the way through that something interesting is building and will pay off, and then it just gives up and goes for a ridiculous and cheap twist ending. Ehren Kruger, the man who threw pot holes of twists in Arlington Road and less effectively in Scream 3, writes like someone finishing a deadline paper for a college class – less about characters and conflicts and more about topsy-turvy twists and double crossings. There are some brief encounters with suspense and excitement (and forgive me but the Santa imagery is kinda’ nifty) but Reindeer Games can never build toward whatever potential it flashed.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mission to Mars (2000)

Mission to Mars begins with a team of astronauts making the first manned mission to the red planet. Unfortunately things go… um, bad, and thus with no knowledge of any survivors and the six month time period it takes to travel to Mars, NASA sends out a rescue mission. More things go bad.

The setting is supposed to be 2020, but everything looks exactly like 1980. In the future there seems to be heavy reliance on product placement. From Dr. Pepper, to M&Ms, to having the damn Mars buggy plastered with Penzoil and Kawasaki. Are these astronauts Earth’s interstellar door-to-door salesmen? I was half expecting them to nix the American flag and firmly plant one for Nike. Maybe the future’s just this way because they drink from square beer.

Director Brian DePalma unleashes fantastic special effect after another, but they can only sugarcoat the bitter taste Mars resides in your mouth. Mission to Mars is tragically slow paced, full of interchangeable and indiscernible characters, and begging for some kind of insight. Don Cheadle and Gary Sinise prove that no matter how great an actor you are, when you’re given cheesy sci-fi dialogue, it’s still cheesy.

The fault lies with the more than three screenwriters and DePalma himself. Plain and simple, DePalma has lost his touch. His good days (The Untouchables) are clearly behind him on his new downward slide. Mars in any other director’s hands would no doubt be different — and that’s no bad thing. DePalma’s style of appropriations rips off the earlier, better, and more insightful 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Mars is surprisingly and sadly devoid of any tension or suspense. The suspense was likely killed in the efforts to portray an “accurate and realistic NASA manned planetary exploration.” Yet the scientific inaccuracies in this “accurate” portrayal are far too numerous to mention – let alone remember all of them. You cannot have tension during a problematic situation when the score is blaring church organs!

One can suspend belief and enjoy movies but Mars is a listless journey toward sentimental other-worldly beings that just want a hug. The friendly alien thing seems to have been driven dry by now. Can we have them destroying our cities again? Pretty please.

Nate’s Grade: C

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