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Peppermint (2018)

I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.

Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.

This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.

Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.

Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.

Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Miracles from Heaven (2016)

Miracles_from_Heaven_posterWhen it comes to Christian-aimed movies finding release in the mainstream multiplex, I’ll admit that my expectations are pitifully low, and sometimes even those are unmet. It’s not that I object to the message on spiritual grounds, though sometimes it can be objectionable in how it’s applied like with the hateful yet popular God’s Not Dead; my problem is that the message is the sole purpose of the movie, not the storytelling, and so everything seems to be slapdash and inconsequential. They’re not interested in telling good stories with Christian main characters; it’s about selling good Christian messages and the movies are simply a delivery system to reconfirm the faith or at times the special elevated stature (see: God’s Not Dead) of the ticket-buyers. Every now and then one of these movies seems to slip through the cracks, so to speak, and surprise me with a genuine story and a deeper exploration of its characters and their dilemmas. I was hoping that Miracles from Heaven could be something like 2014’s Heaven is For Real, a well-meaning and consciously inclusive movie. Miracles from Heaven was my own 105-minutes of hell as I endured the barest of attempt to service a feature-length story.

Based on a true story, Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) is a loving and doting mom who checks in on each of her three daughters (Abbie, Anna, Adelynn) during their nightly prayers. Her world is turned upside down when young Anna (the heavy-lidded Kylie Rogers) has intense stomach pains and intense vomiting. She can’t keep anything down for weeks and the doctors are unhelpful until she’s finally properly diagnosed. Anna has a twisted intestine, which makes her unable to digest food, and this illness has no cure and often dooms its afflicted cases to short lives. Christy and her husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) have their hopes pinned on getting admitted to Dr. Nurko’s (Eugenio Derbez) treatment, a specialist in Boston. Even after enrolling, the long weeks apart from family, and the mounting bills, leave little hope for Anna and the Beam family. It’s the perfect conditions for a miracle of some sort to take form, wouldn’t you say?

family-111115If you’re looking for a feel-good affirmation you might be barking up the wrong tree because Miracles from Heaven was, for me, an interminable experience of unyielding and tactless sadness pornography. Allow me to unpack my choice terminology. Any movie that features a young child stricken with a very deadly and incurable illness is going to fall upon the sadder side of human drama, but what sets this movie apart is that this emotional landing spot is the only territory it mines. Its scenes exist just to remind you how sad these characters are about their sad experiences with their sad daughter while she sadly suffers and will likely never sadly recover. The specialist in Boston only gets new patients when the old are cured or die, and they don’t get cured. I’m by no means saying that storytelling dealing with overpowering sadness is not worth exploring. I enjoy a sad movie as much as somebody who enjoys sad movies can because I want art to move me, to make me feel genuine emotions in response to the human condition. However, Miracles from Heaven failed to move me because every one of its scenes feels so carefully calculated to make its audience reach for tissues. Manipulation is also not an unforgivable sin when it comes to storytelling, but what makes this movie’s crime egregious is that it doesn’t provide any depth to justify those shed tears. You’re crying not because you feel for the characters of Anna, Christy, or the entire Beam brood, it’s because Christy is Suffering Mom dealing with Suffering Child. There is no characterization involved in this movie and instead it relies upon its simplistic setup to provide all the empathy. Why do they need to build characters when a few shots of a sick child or Garner with tears dribbling down her face will suffice? It’s lousy screenwriting and it honestly made me upset as scene after scene reconfirmed this emotional stupor.

Having some understanding that this movie wouldn’t exist if Anna didn’t miraculously heal by the end, we’re left with an enormous amount of time to fill. They don’t make miracles until the third act, folks, and this one is a tad peculiar but effective. The time between the diagnosis and the miracle would be a fine opportunity to flesh out the Beam family and learn more about them and how this illness is affecting each of them. The only thing we learn is that the oldest daughter misses her soccer tryouts. This is the only onscreen ramification of Anna’s constant medical attention affecting somebody. Everyone is suffering with dignity and poise, and even the oldest daughter isn’t that upset after the briefest of angry outbursts. These people are just not interesting screen characters. They are one hundred percent defined as Family to Sick Kid. That’s it. After forty minutes with this clan, I was overcome with a powerful malaise. I just wanted the movie to end and was mentally counting down this miracle, which always felt so infinitely far away in my theater chair. There’s no momentum in this movie. It’s about getting Anna to that specialist, then it’s about treating her, and then it’s about making her comfortable when she goes home, presumably to die. The movie lacks basic reflection and introspection, highlighted by a laugh-out-loud moment when a group of inhospitable church members ask Christy what kind of sin she, or even Anna herself, must have committed to bring upon this illness. I wanted to yell at the screen at this moment.

I genuinely felt sorry for Jennifer Garner in this movie; not her character but the actress herself. I’ve been a fan of Garner since her star-making turn in J.J. Abrams’ TV series Alias (those first two seasons are some of TV’s greatest). I enjoy her kicking bad guys in the face, I enjoy her making me feel a plethora of emotions, and I thought she could have reasonably been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for one very affecting glance she delivers with perfection in Juno. I am a J. Gar fan, but my God did I want to save her from this horrible movie and what it was forcing her to do. It felt like Garner was held hostage and crying out for sanctuary. I can practically count on one lone hand the number of scenes that did not involve Garner crying. Every scene calls for her to be at a constant state of weeping, from angry crying to confused crying and finally hopeful weeping. She has a few angry mother monologues putting skeptical doctors in their places, but this is a performance almost entirely predicated upon crying. The emotional stakes are kept as such a fever pitch for so long that Miracles from Heaven crosses over into unintentional parody, feeling like a melodramatic Christian telenovela. I was envisioning a team with cattle prods to constantly keep Garner in a state of distress.

rs_1024x565-151111100350-1024-jennifer-garner-miracles-from-heaven-movie-111115The rest of the actors barely register, and there are some good people here. What is Queen Latifah doing in this to play a Boston waitress who becomes an unofficial tour guide for Christy and Anna? She has maybe three scenes and all of them are introduced and handled so awkwardly that it feels like the movie declaring, “And now, Christy’s Special Black Friend.” Derbez (Instructions Not Included) looks like he was given the directing note of performing like a slightly less inebriated Patch Adams. There’s John Carrol Lynch (TV’s American Horror Story, Zodiac) as the kindly preacher, but his words of wisdom are often rote and lack great insight. That’s because none of these people feel like they’re characters. They’re all placeholders in service of waiting for the film’s miracle and thus its faith-affirming message to “hang in there, kitty.”

I fully accept that I’m not going to be the target audience for Miracles from Heaven, and that’s perfectly fine. Filmmakers are allowed to make stories targeted at a niche audience, though I would hope they would include enough satisfactory and developed elements for a film to transcend its niche. What bothers me is that Miracles from Heaven takes its audience for granted repeatedly. They don’t bother with characterization and the examination of insurmountable grief and parental terror because instead they’ll just boil everything to its core element of Grieving Parent cries over Sick Child. It’s the same scene, over and over, bludgeoning the audience with sadness and suffering until it taps out, cries mercy, and is overjoyed for the titular miracle to chase away this dirge. Miracles from Heaven feels more like an anecdote than a film. It’s stretched far too thin. It doesn’t respect its audience enough to even bother forming characters or present a story that explores the realities of an incurable illness and the stress this unleashes on all parties. Movies have provided great empathetic exercises where we watch human beings suffer and then triumph, moved by their plight and uplifted by their spirit, perseverance, or perhaps even the frail realatability they exhibit as they tackle their oppression. The Oscar-winning film Room is an excellent example of this and a movie I highly encourage all readers to seek out and give a chance, subject matter notwithstanding. Room is a movie that celebrates the human experience but acknowledges the pain of it too. Miracles from Heaven, in sharp contrast, is a movie that barely acknowledges the need for basic storytelling and is nothing more than insulting high-gloss sadness pornography. You deserve better, America, and so does Jennifer Garner.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Men, Women, and Children (2014)

MV5BMTAwMzc2OTgwOTZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg2ODA4NjIx._V1_SX640_SY720_Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.

The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. men-women-and-childrenThat core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.

It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.

I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion). thumbnail_19264-1

To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.

The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.

At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: C

Draft Day (2014)

draft-day-posterLet there be no question, while baseball may still cling to the title of “America’s sport,” the real king in the realm of sports is football. The NFL has grown by leaps and bounds and dominated American culture, to the point that the NFL Draft is an event that millions more watch than actual games in other sports. In some way the Draft is the most optimistic day in football, where every professional team thinks they’ve found the missing pieces to make that championship run, that their draft picks will all pan out. It’s a rare day where even the Cleveland Browns can be optimistic. There’s also been a shift with the fans. Decades ago, most people would fantasize about being an NFL head coach; nowadays, in the age of number-crunching and fantasy football, most people would prefer being an NFL general manager (GM), assembling their dream team. The landscape is ready for a film like Draft Day, but will the fans turn out for a fictional outing?

Sony Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) is the GM for the Cleveland Browns and he’s put the team’s future all on the line. He’s traded draft picks with the Seattle Seahawks, jumping from number seven to number one. Everyone assume that Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) is the consensus number one. Sonny has traded his team’s first round draft picks for the next three years in order to make this move. Now, with less than twelve hours remaining before the start of the NFL Draft, he has to make sure Bo Callahan is the kind of player he wants on his team. Highly regarded Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) has sparked doubt in Sonny. Despite what the experts think, is there something amiss with Bo? Sonny has no shortage of people with opinions on what he should do: the owner (Frank Langella) demands Bo so they can sell tickets, the coach (Denis Leary) wants a prized running back rather than having to struggle with a rookie QB, and Sonny’s coworker, Ali (Jennifer Garner), wants Sonny to come clean about their secret relationship and her impending pregnancy.

113623_galLess cerebral than Moneyball but still mightily entertaining, Draft Day is a pressure-packed crowd-pleaser skillfully made to deliver big payoffs, regardless of whether you watch football or not. Like the Oscar-nominated Moneyball, the focus is less on the game than the micromanaging of the game behind the scenes with the key personalities of an organization. The movie is knowledgeable, swift, and stuffed with characters that each have their own demands, always crashing into Sonny and pulling him in a new direction. It’s easy to see why this script was the number one screenplay on the Black List in 2013; it just moves, so effortlessly, cognizant of the ticking clock at every moment and the impending stakes for our hero. It’s a man with one mission: the future of the Browns, but with infinite ways to do it, each side pushing a favorable case for themselves. There are so many permutations to putting together a team, let alone having the number one pick. And if Sonny doesn’t make a splash, he knows he’ll be out of a job at the end of the season. It’s a position rife with conflict and dramatic payoffs. There’s the pressure of the fanbase, hungering for a winner to finally root for, the pressure of the owner, salivating over the ticket sales a splashy QB can provide, and there’s the pressure of Sonny’s own father, a man who recently passed that forces Sonny to reflect on what will be his own legacy with the Cleveland Browns. As a sports fan, it’s fascinating for me to listen to experts talk about the nuts and bolts of putting a team together. As a movie fan, it’s easy to get into the film with its underdog protagonist, a man trying to get out of a hole of his own doing, which means his moments of triumph are even more resonant.

The film smartly presents itself as a combination of an investigative mystery and a high-stakes con game. Sonny has the number one pick and yet his gut is telling him something is amiss with the surefire can’t miss quarterback prospect. With the Draft that very day, Sonny is under tremendous pressure to conduct a speedy background check into Bo Callahan. Each minute that passes the more significant it becomes to know who Bo is and follow the leads on questionable evidence; Sonny can’t assign the future of the franchise to a player that will leave it in ruins (or in the case of the Browns, more ruins). Sonny has mortgaged his team’s future and the pick better be worth it. The Freakonomics guys estimated that a bad franchise QB (think the Raiders with JaMarcus Russell in 2007) could set back a team on average five years. Likewise, the film balances this ongoing mystery with a con game. Every team is trying to fleece the gullible and needy, and Sonny fields offers for his top pick, some laughable and some tempting. Once the Draft kicks off, and Sonny steers his team in the direction he desires, that’s when the film gets even more exciting. We watch the man spin and deal and conspire, flexing muscle against other teams and regaining a position of strength. It’s tremendous fun for football fans and non-fans alike just to watch a professional in their element con his way to victory.

With as much conflict that comes naturally from the setup, I wish Draft Day didn’t feel so sitcom-y at times, shoehorning in trite additional conflicts and storylines. Let’s just assess the day for Sonny: he’s the GM with the number one pick, his future and the team’s future hangs in the balance, but his father also just died, his mother insists upon an ashes scattering burial that day, he has to perform a deep background check on his would-be franchise QB, he’s been harboring a secret relationship with an assistant who wants to go public, and he’s just been informed he’s going to be a father. That’s a lot of conflict for one man in a period of one day, and the confluence of all this drama in such a short window of time is far too unbelievable. You might wager that at the end of Draft Day Sonny puts a pistol in his mouth. The romance with Ali, and his impending fatherhood, never really works, serving up Sonny an opportunity to reflect and squeeze in some exposition, a life outside of football. The romance subplot feels tacked on and malnourished. Likewise, there are characters and moments that feel like they were slapped together as apart of some broad marketing package. Ali has a hapless intern who always comically happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, it’s supposed to be funny, but it just feels forced. There’s a scene where the Browns’ coach sets a draft analysis on fire, dropping it onto Sonny’s desk, only to have Ali douse it with a fire extinguisher. Football is a theatrical game to begin with, attracting colorful characters with oversized egos, but actions like this just feel strangely silly and false.

113630_galDirector Ivan Reitman hasn’t made many films since 2001’s underrated Evolution, and one of those was the horrendously unfunny, misogynistic My Super Ex-Girlfriend, so the prospect of “an Ivan Reitman film” doesn’t have the same draw as it once did. His touch with actors is still kicking. Costner (3 Days to Kill) is great in a role suited to his talents. Even with a thankless role, Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) can be a winning big screen presence. The film is packed with great actors filling out even the smallest of roles (hooray Sam Elliott, Chi McBride, Terry Crews, Timothy Simons, and Kevin Dunn). Boseman impressed me more with a handful of scenes here than in the entirety of 42 as Jackie Robinson. The best decision Reitman makes as a director is to present the movie as the breezy two hour-entertainment it is, keeping the pacing to the floor. However, Reitman gets drunk on his use of split-screens. It begins on an interesting note, with one side transitioning beyond the division of the split-screen. Then it happens again and again, sometimes repeatedly in one scene. It was a neat visual device that Reitman just can’t let go of, which might actually get some people queasy with the sliding scenes.

Time for a personal disclosure: as a diehard fan of the Ohio State Buckeyes and a relative fan of the ever-suffering Cleveland Browns, this movie was tailor-made for my own sports fandom. The people of Cleveland will especially enjoy this movie. During my preview screening, when the Seahawks brass asked, “Who would be that desperate?” and the scene cut to a skyline of Cleveland, my audience cheered. That’s us, they all agreed. The world of Draft Day also exists in a slightly parallel plane where the Dallas Cowboys have won “a lot” including recent championships. Enjoy that fiction, Dallas fans. In the original draft by writers by Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, Sonny was the GM of the Buffalo Bills, but cosmically it just feels correct that it’s the Browns, a team defined by its long history of letdowns, epic collapses, draft busts, and comical mismanagement. It’s eerie that the Browns themselves are faced with a similar situation for the 2014 Draft. Many pundits predict the Browns will select a new franchise QB with their number four pick, but are any of these young men up to snuff? Are there character concerns for Johnny Football? Should the Browns give their own promising quarterback another chance after a season-ending injury before starting over at the position? Eerie.

Draft Day isn’t exactly the football equivalent of Moneyball, but it’s close, though more mainstream in appeal and execution. As a football fan, I’ve been looking for an intelligent and analytical look behind the scenes of the most physical of American sports. In 1999, Oliver Stone came close with the noisy and expansive Any Given Sunday. With this movie, we have a mixture of genres (mystery, con, existential drama) that turn the sports movie into something greater. It’s fun, often humorous, breezy, charming, and agreeably entertaining even when it takes one too many forced detours amidst all the conflict. You don’t have to be a football fan to have a good time with Draft Day, though it helps. This movie very well may be the highpoint of the Cleveland Browns’ season this year.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

108745_galIt’s been a while since Hollywood really tackled the AIDS crisis and the prejudices associated with it. Thanks to better understanding and tolerance, and a rise in life-extending drug treatments, AIDS is rarely stigmatized today as it once was, as a death sentence, as a gay disease. It’s faded into the back of most people’s minds. It’s been twenty years since Philadelphia and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance. Has it been too long? The drama Dallas Buyers Club returns to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the ignorance of the age, illuminating a lesser known true story about one of the most unlikely activists to emerge.

In 1985, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider. He’s drinking, snorting cocaine, and sleeping with every woman he lays eyes on. Then one day he collapses and wakes up in the hospital. He’s told he has contracted HIV/AIDS and likely only has 30 days left to live. Ron is aghast, instantly defensive, declaring, “I ain’t no faggot.” Rather than wallow, he fights to live as long as he can, refusing to be part of a hospital drug treatment for AZT unless they can tell him, definitively, he’s getting the actual drug and not the placebo. Ron travels to Mexico and finds a sympathetic doctor with alternative treatments involving vitamins and other natural drugs, none of them illegal, just unapproved by the FDA. Ron returns to the States and runs into trouble trying to sell his wares to the afflicted gay community. Raylon (Jared Leto), a kindly transvestite suffering from AIDS, agrees to help Ron make inroads, for a percentage of the sales. Ron and his unlikely business partner skirt legal loopholes to sell “memberships” into the titular Dallas Buyers Club. With monthly dues, every member gets a dose of attentive medicine, and it’s having remarkable results.

106809_galThe bulk of the attention Dallas Buyers Club has received is from the transformative performances of its two lead male actors, and they are exceptional. McConaughey (Mud) begins as the sort of character we’ve seen before, the swaggering cowboy who’s a natural ladies’ man, but as his life quickly falls apart and his circle of friends turn on him in gay panic and ignorance, Ron is pushed to the brink. McConaughey’s weight loss, which garnered plenty of ink in tabloids last year, is startling and instantly echoes his character’s dire state. Likewise, when you see a late scene of Leto (Lord of War), his frame is so gaunt, so frail, and so evocative of the few remaining moments these men have left to them. It’s no stunt or gimmick because their performances, even without the weight loss, are enormously affecting and powerful. Both men project a blustery confidence they themselves occasionally buy into, but both men are, naturally, scared witless, fumbling, scrambling against the clock. McConaughey is the strong face, the wheeler-dealer who has to use his live-wire charm and bag of tricks to get the meds. As roadblock after roadblock is thrown his way, we readily watch the toll is takes on Ron, the heaviness of his burden that becomes more about people than money. Leto is the conscience of the film and as he shrinks away, you can’t help but feel the inescapable tragedy. Leto will break your heart. I fully expect both men not only to be nominated for Oscars but likely to be favorites to win.

Despite the strength of those two outstanding performances, the film itself doesn’t measure up in a disappointing number of ways. The script by Craig Borten and Melissa Walleck misses far too many opportunities to round out the characters and the central conflict. The second half of Dallas Buyers Club feels a tad rudderless, and this is mostly because of a general sense of sameness in Ron’s conflicts. He butts heads with the FDA, finds a loophole, keeps going. This pattern repeats but it never escalates until the very end. As a result, the film feels like it’s treading water when it shouldn’t be. The portrayal of the FDA and other antagonists is decidedly one-note, almost to a ghoulishly degree. The movie sets up the piñata of Big Business/Pharma to take easy whacks at a faceless, money-driven entity that put profits before human lives. I get it, but it’s too easy and a movie that gropes for emotional depth should not have to stoop to caricatures of bureaucratic evil. The truth of the matter is that there was plenty of legal intransigence and feet dragging when it came to the response to AIDS, and that’s why it feels almost callously wrong for Dallas Buyers Club to reduce this dramatic point in history, where 95% of people who contracted HIV/AIDS had a month left to live, to an us vs. them/slobs vs. snobs underdog tale. That reductive condensing is a disservice to the real people but also a greater dramatic story at heart here.

I’d also like to note that the characters themselves are lacking. They held my interest, certainly, but what can I say about them? What moments revealed nuance or progression? The character arcs are dramatic with a capital D: homophobic Texas good ole’ boy becomes unlikely AIDS activist and friend to gays. The parameters are clearly mapped out, the start and the finish, but what’s lacking is substantive growth that I can acknowledge onscreen. Beyond the ongoing presence of Raylon, the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence for me to move Ron from homophobe to activist. I think this is due to the script meeting the basic requirements of what it thinks are the big signposts along Ron’s personal journey. So we get a scenario such as Ron refusing to enter a gay bar, then cautiously entering, then feeling comfortable around gay people. I don’t need people to trip over soapboxes to blurt out their inner feelings, their changing perspectives, but there has to be more than what’s presented in the interest of time and narrative cohesion. Likewise, Raylon is portrayed as saintly, your prototypical movie gay man with flamboyance and attitude, and he is certainly charming, but much like the main character in 12 Years a Slave, Raylon is more tragic martyr than fully-realized character. His service to the script is to push Ron forward on his own humanizing arc, and I’ve already stated my problems with that. The remaining characters are underwritten, with the unfeeling Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) served up as a stooge. Except he’s trying to get a sample size to test a drug’s viability, the same process with all medicine. Yet because he’s looking at the big picture, and lacks bedside manner, he’s the enemy to harrumph. Jennifer Garner’s character is more an exposition spout than person.

109550_galWeirdly, the movie drifts into an extended subplot, almost a secondary antagonist after the FDA, against the preliminary AZT drug treatment. This was the first major drug produced to combat HIV/AIDS. It had major backing with huge pharmaceutical industries. Opposition to the conventional norm of the time (AZT is our only medical hope) provides a snug storyline to garner our rooting interest in Ron, but this fight seems too impersonal and one-sided. We’re given reams of stats on the effects of AZT on AIDS patients, presenting a picture that AZT breaks down the patient’s immune system. Dallas Buyer’s Club becomes a sermon against AZT. The movie doesn’t have to be apolitical but it needs to mask its sermonizing or at least be more passionate about its case. Then in the end credits we’re served a short post-script saying that a low-dose AZT, in combination with other drugs, saved millions of lives. After hearing two hours of how terrible and stupid AZT is for treatment, it’s a surprising endnote. Does that justify the doctors that the film so easily vilified?

Ultimately a good film worth watching, I can’t help but continue finding problems as I reflect upon my Dallas Buyers Club experience. If it wasn’t for the excellent acting onscreen, I would have noticed the flaws of Dallas Buyers Club even earlier, but strong acting has a way of being a soothing balm with the deficiencies in a film. The narrative, with easy one-note villains and a runaround of repetitive conflicts, needs more development to match the caliber of performances of McConaughey and Leto. Both men give it their all, breaking your heart in the process, and their performances are even more commendable and impressive when you realize that the film’s characterization is wanting. I feel like the complexity of this volatile time, and Ron Woodroof as a human being and unlikely activist, have been simplified into a rah-rah mass appeal underdog vehicle. I think this does a disservice to the characters and their personal drama, and I wish the filmmakers presented them better as well-rounded individuals rather than tools for the re-education of Ron Woodroof. There’s enough good here to balance out the could-have-been-better, chiefly the power of the central male performances. However, if you want a passionate account of early AIDS activism, I suggest checking out last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)

1823My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey had warned me about The Odd Life of Timothy Green and he quite eloquently voiced his dumbfounded musings, which I will try my best not to knowingly replicate though I’m sure there will be some carryover. But whatever he wrote could not prepare me for what I ultimately got with The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Ladies and gentlemen, I think this movie broke my brain.

Cindy and Jim Green (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) are having trouble conceiving a child. One night they write a list of their hopes for a future child, place them in a box, and bury this chest of hopes in their garden. The next day they are shocked to discover a child covered in dirt claiming to be their son, Timothy (CJ Adams). He is the physical manifestation of all those buried hopes and wishes with some leaves attached to his ankles. The Greens take their magical parenthood in stride, trying their best to impart wisdom to their new son. They teach the kid how to play soccer, stand up to bullies, and interact with other human beings. Timothy has a secret he can’t bring himself to tell his new mom and dad, but if you have a hard time figuring out what his leaves falling off means, then there’s nothing I can do for you.

I feel like I just watched a movie where every person on Earth is depicted as being insane. Not goofy, not eccentric, not a little funny, no, we’re talking get the butterfly nets and padded cells. I feel partially insane just having watched the film, obviously still suffering from a contact buzz of insanity. I accept suspension of disbelief and that fantasy-based family films are going to have a whimsical nature to them. We cannot apply every rule of reality and logic to them, and I accept this. But The Odd Life of Timothy Green seems to exist in a fractured, cracked version of our own world, where the most bizarre and fantastical elements are just given a halfhearted shoulder shrug. People react to otherworldly events as if they were doing laundry. Where’s the awe? Or, more so, where is the skepticism? Seriously, if anybody told you they grew a child from a garden, would you accept this notion at face value? Their great piece of proof is that the kid has leaves attached to his ankles. Don’t you think, I don’t know, the parents could have taped those on? Beyond one guy, no one investigates this strange botanical phenomenon or even has the slightest inclination to. Where’s the intellectual curiosity, people? It’s like everyone in town has a lobotomy. Is there not one person in this small town that will dare stand and say, “You know, I think I’m going to require more empirical evidence to buy the story that this kid was formerly plant food.” And then they ran that one man out of town on a rail and salted his land.

80170_galTimothy Green tries to gather a slew of messages and feel-good moments; it’s just that none of them feel coherent or truly earned. The parents don’t feel like responsible or even interesting adults. I understand we’re not going to dwell too much on the disappointments of a couple unsuccessful in conceiving a child (this is becoming an odd trend for Garner), but I expected more than one good cry and a bottle of wine. I want to empathize with these people but the movie makes it impossible time and again with their nonsensical behavior; it’s like they’re adults as envisioned by a child. On that note, I think the movie probably makes more sense from a fantasy point of view to flip the participants. It seems more likely that a child would try and grow new, ideal parents only to learn a lesson about the duds they’re stuck with. The Green family members all work one note, whether it’s the snide sister (Rosemarie DeWitt), the slaphappy grandpappy (M. Emmet Walsh), or the emotionally distant dad (David Morse), it’s all a tiny nub of characterization that gets whittled down to nothing. And then Timothy just seems to step into everyone’s lives and change them forever with little effort. He gets an older girl to fall in love with him, his father to stand up for himself and his family, and all the not nice people in town to be somewhat less not nice. He gets his mom to speak her mind to her bitchy boss (Dianne Wiest), which ends up getting her fired, so it’s a mixed message.

You want a prime example of this film’s collective shared insanity? Take this line from one of the board members from the town pencil factory: “If this boy can have leaves on his ankles, then we can make a pencil out of leaves.” What exactly does one have to do with the other, you may ask? I suppose it’s some claptrap about what is truly possible or whatever. My apologies to Ben Bailey for treading ground he has examined closely, but this cautionary line of dialogue glows with the intensity of 100 neon signs. It’s everything that is wrong and crazy about this movie, and the fact that it is spoken without a hint of irony or humor is all the more galling.

Here’s my problem with Timothy the life-changer: the kid is a dullard. He has no personality, he has no real insights or perceptions into life, he’s not funny, he’s not that interesting, and he eerily stays in the same modulated emotional presence. I found this kid far more unintentionally creepy than endearing. On paper, Timothy Green sounds like it should be a horror film and not the saccharine family slop that it is. Timothy just comes across like a rather bland kid with some weird tendencies, like his repeated inclination to soak up any sunny opportunity to photosynthesize (he gives Scott Stapp a run for his arms-wide-open pose throne). If a character is going to touch people’s lives and change their perspectives on life, then at least make that person fitting of praise. This kid just seems like a hazy mystic that’s playing it as he goes. Come to think of it, did anyone see him do anything superhuman? Cindy and Jim didn’t even find him in the garden, only inside their home covered in dirt. Who’s to say that young Timothy Green wasn’t a con artist this whole time?

80173_galThen, likely as a defensive means to soothe my ailing brain, I started coming up with my own version of where Timothy Green should have gone. The ability to write down a bunch of general attributes and then grow a child seems too good to pass up. I desire more of this unique child cultivation process. For instance, Cindy and Jim want their kid to rock out as a musician, but they simply write “rocks” on their slip of paper before burying it. How is the magical entity that raises mutant plant kids going to be able to understand what the family intends with this vague entry? What if Timothy Green was born with rocks in his head? I wanted the film to simply turn into a comical version of The Monkey’s Paw, where every new version of Timothy Green would go horribly wrong. The first was born and then immediately suffocated because Cindy and Jim forgot to write “working lungs.” Then there would be the Timothy born with a “hunger for life” and become a cannibalistic plant zombie. Or the Timothy born with “his mother’s heart” and then upon his birth Cindy’s heart would go missing. What I wanted was a macabre trial and error game where the would-be parents had to refine exactly what they were asking for with the nondescript magical being in charge of answering hopeful parents. I want The Odd Lives and Deaths of Timothy Green and I want Cindy and Jim to have to bury all the malfunctioning prototypes in the same garden. Then, when they do perfect their perfect kid, the police find a yard littered with the corpses of children and haul them away.

The movie is told through the framing device of the Greens telling their story to the adoption agency, and why this adoption agency continues to listen after, “We grew a boy in our yard,” is beyond my guess. In a film breaking every boundary of believability known to mankind, this aspect to me seems the most incredulous. This is an adoption agency with standards and rules to follow, and to think they would allow a couple to drone on and on about their magical child that grew from a garden and changed people’s lives, instead of calling security and having them escorted from the premises, followed home, and then have their home exhumed for human remains of this child, is beyond me. And then, spoiler alert, they get a kid in the end. What adoption agency could reasonably and responsibly allow these two people, with no physical shred of evidence about their magical child other than some leaves and testimonies, to care for another human being?

Allow me to also question the sincerity of these two damaged people especially concerning their desire for a child. It sure seems like Cindy and Jim are planning on using their present and/or future child as means of settling some longstanding scores between relatives. When it looks like Timothy is finally going to do well in soccer, that’s when they pounce, airing out their resentments. Cindy brattily unloads against her sister: “I’ve had to listen to your perfect kids, well look at my kid! That’s my kid!” And then Jim finally let’s his distant father have a piece of his mind: “I could have been a good player too, dad. I had skills. If only you would have been more supportive.” Am I supposed to find any of this funny, because it comes across as far more sad. I feel like the reason that Cindy and Jim want a child is to desperately prove to their family that they are superior parents. It feels like one very crazy way of proving a point and one where the child will suffer, especially if he or she cannot live to a degree of excellence to provide mom and dad filial ammunition. Another example: both Cindy and Jim are oddly very jealous over the relationship their pseudo son forms with the slightly older gal, Joni (Odeya Rush). They try and talk him out of spending time with her, arguing there are so many fish in the sea for him to pay attention to. Are you really laying the argument that a 10-year-old should be playing the field? It also seems weirdly petty and controlling for two supposed adults to be jealous that their son chooses to spend part of his waking hours with another human being. So, does that sound like a loving and healthy family?

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is certainly odd but probably not for the reasons that Disney or the filmmakers had in mind. It feels like it exists in an alternative universe where everyone lacks any common sense, curiosity, or relatable human emotions. Nobody acts like a recognizable human being in this film, not for a single second. These people are all zombies, cowed into the cult of Timothy, the magical and, ultimately, messianic figure. But allow me to declare the emperor has no clothes. This Timothy is not worthy of the adulation he receives. He walks around like an ecological Forrest Gump, spitting sappy platitudes and changing lives with the insipid nature of all these easy messages. I wish I could say there was one genuine moment in this movie, but I cannot. It takes a magical premise and suffocates it with unearned solemnity. Why can’t a movie about growing a kid in your garden try and be, you know, fun? Well, I suppose embarrassing music recitals and kids getting hit in the head could be mistaken for fun, but I prefer a well developed story, characters I care about, and a genuine sense of enchantment to go with the supernatural. If we can make a movie about a kid with leaves on his ankles, then we can turn any sort of half-formed maudlin pap into family entertainment. Kids deserve better than The Odd Life of Timothy Green, and, for the record, so do plants.

Nate’s Grade: D

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Imagine a world where people could only tell the truth. Sounds scarier than anything in horror movies today.

Mark (Gervais) is trying to romance Anna (Jennifer Garner) but even the waiter tells him she’s out of his league. She tells him upfront that she finds him unattractive and he will never have any hope of having sex with her. She’s more interested in Mark’s snide but handsome co-worker, Brad (Rob Lowe), who she feels is a better genetic match. Mark is about to be fired from his job, writing historical screenplays about the 13th century, and his secretary (Tina Fey) delights in telling him that she loathed every minute they spent together. This is a world without a filter. Until one day Mark goes to take out money from the bank, and something inside his brain switches. His balance is $300 but he asks for $800, and the bank teller apologizes for the computer error and gets Mark his full $800. He explains to his barfly friend Greg (Louis C.K.) that he said something that wasn’t. Nobody understands. “I’m a black Eskimo,” Mark says. Everybody takes him at his word. Mark is the only human on earth who has the ability to tell a lie, which he uses to his great advantage whether it be gambling, getting out of a traffic ticket, or unearthing a “lost” historical chapter about ninjas and aliens that makes for a stirring “non-fiction” film. Mark can’t even explain what he’s done, since the world lacks even a word for “lie.”

Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson concoct some interesting and inspired ideas of what a world bereft of lying would be like. Naturally, advertising would be completely different if people had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; imagine prescription drug ads that only said, “This is a placebo. Your penis won’t ever grow bigger.” The slogan for Coca-Cola is, “It’s very famous,” and the slogan featured for its rival, Pepsi, is, “When you can’t have Coke.” No one has any concept of fiction, of people pretending to play parts, so movies only consist of an older man sitting comfortably and reading a historical account with some minor dramatic inflection. Movies have become book reports. The sign in front of a retirement center says, “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People,” and a motel sign reads, “A Cheap Place to Have Intercourse with a Near Stranger.” However, I’m puzzled by how forcefully open every person is. Just because you can only speak the truth doesn’t mean you have to be talking constantly. I understand Gervais’ point about the need for lies to protect people’s feelings, but just because you think someone looks fat doesn’t mean you have to blurt it out. When Mark greets Anna at the door for their date she reveals, “You’re early. I was just masturbating.” It’s funny, sure, but did she feel compelled to link the two statements? It seems in this world, everyone is incapable of keeping their mouths shut.

The premise of the movie is terrific, and I’m honestly shocked no one has thought of it before. But the premise wears a little thin after the first 30 minutes of people speaking with no filter. You begin to expect outrageous comments that will be hurtful and blunt, and because you expect them it takes away the shock value and lessens the humor. But then The Invention of Lying takes a sharp right turn at about minute forty and becomes a radical and subversive and much funnier movie. Mark is comforting his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) who is afraid of leaving existence. She’s afraid of a cold nothingness. So Mark explains to her that there is an afterlife, a world beyond our own, where everybody gets to be around their loved ones in a mansion, and there’s no pain. She closes her eyes and dies in peace with this new knowledge. The doctors and nurses are amazed and beg to know more. Mark has created the idea of religion and God! He’s mobbed by people and camera crews demanding him to explain what he knows. Mark then works up the courage to establish a system of 10 rules to follow, which he tapes onto old pizza boxes. He then addresses his flock and has to explain the complicated minutia of religion, with hilarious questioning from the acolytes. Mark explains that there is a “man in the sky” who watches everything we do and is responsible for everything that happens. “Does that mean the Man in the Sky gave my sister cancer?” someone asks. Mark tries to explain the nature of a loving, all-powerful deity who willingly allows bad things to still happen. “Screw the Man in the Sky,” someone yells, “He’s going to kill us all. We need to fight back!” You try explaining the nature of the unknown to people.

It’s at this point that the movie transforms into a biting satire on belief and belief. I was cackling but I noticed that my theater seemed to get awfully quiet the longer the religious satire went on. I almost spat out my drink when I saw a spinning newspaper headline that said, “Man in the Sky Continues to Give Children AIDS.” It’s offensive but completely within the bounds of religious questioning. Gervais and Robinson aren’t ridiculing religious belief; in fact they seem to prove that it has a definite place of significance within society and can be beneficial psychologically. The satire isn’t savage and still manages to play with the amiable, fable-like nature of the story. Gervais isn’t laying out an argument that believing in an unforeseen deity is stupid. The movie isn’t condescending or hectoring, like Bill Maher’s anti-religion documentary Religulous, but it does take some slyly subversive swipes at the nature of faith and its reliance upon the unproven.

The Invention of Lying suffers from trying to be a romantic comedy. Too much of its conflict is spent on whether the chubby guy can get the pretty girl. The movie gets a tad sentimental for dealing in bitter-truths, and Gervais and Robinson steer the film to the ultimate romantic comedy setting: objecting at a wedding. I wouldn’t have minded the rom-com asides if they didn’t feel like they kept striking the same chord. Mark wants to be in a relationship with Anna. She points out that he’s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. He persists. She points out that he?s fat, has a snub nose, and not a good genetic match. This goes on and on until the inevitable break at the end. Mark, and especially Gervais, is an appealing guy, self-effacing and witty, even downright cute at turns, but when Anna keeps repeating the same looks-first mantra, it makes her seem increasingly shallow and him seem like a glutton for punishment. Garner is a fabulous comedic actress and packs a lot more emotion into her character than I would have expected given the conceit.

Ricky Gervais is catching fire as of late, and it seems that America is finally waking up to the charms and brilliance of this squat comedian. He created The Office, the standard for squirm-based comedy, and appeared in the underrated supernatural comedy Ghost Town last fall. Gervais shows the necessity of lies in our world, from sparing hurt feelings to making mass-market entertainment. The world needs dishonesty. When The Invention of Lying is on-target, it is a hilarious, almost brilliant, comedy, with its best gags saved for taking on “the Man in the Sky.” It’s too bad then that the entire movie doesn’t live up to these flashes of comedic brilliance. Still, the movie is sweet enough and ends on a satisfying level, even if The Invention of Lying begins as one movie and ends as another. Gervais is an appealing lead, though he doesn’t prove much in the way of a director, and he has some real dramatic acting chops too, nicely put to use during his mother’s deathbed scene. I hope more Americans wake up to this man’s charms. Gervais continues to show audiences the sharp wit that has made him one of the world’s foremost funnymen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

I maintain that no story has been redone, recycled, re-purposed, and parodied more so than Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ tale of redemption aided by supernatural ghosts and time travel has appeared in everything from Muppets to the Odd Couple. Statistically, the odds are good that right now as you read this very sentence television is airing some adaptation of this story right now. I suppose it was only a matter of time before Dickens got reduced to a romantic comedy setup. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a charmless and mostly empty movie that makes you pine for the comparative masterpiece of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey, playing himself for the thousandth time) is a hunky fashion photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and, boy, is he in-demand. Everyone wants his photo services and every woman wants to rip his clothes off. Connor is a notorious womanizer and he travels to the country to attend his younger brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) wedding. Connor is intent on dissuading his brother on the prospect of marriage, which Conner dubs archaic and he feels love is “comfort food for the uneducated and lonely.” It just so happens that Connor’s ex-girlfriend from way back, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), is the maid of honor at the wedding. She hasn’t seen her dubious ex for some time, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make his move. Jenny and Connor were childhood pals, but an early bout of heartbreak led Connor to become the disciple of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), a boozy playboy who taught the kid everything he knew about bedding the babes. During Connor’s stay, the ghost of Uncle Wayne informs him that three spirits will visit to showcase Connor’s checkered past, present, and dodgy future, Dicken’s-style.

The movie is wholly unbelievable even for a contrived romantic comedy. The central romance between Connor and Jenny rests on the silly notion that after ten years apart, a lifelong selfish jerk can sweep his former girlfriend off her feet during a single crazy weekend. Connor’s redemptive arc is lackluster at best, and the movie just mimes the steps it feels that it needs to take to turn its lead insensitive jerk character into a sensitive jerk character. It doesn’t work. I refuse to believe for one second that a pretty, smart, confidant doctor such as Jenny would allow herself to get so completely suckered in by Connor’s “Baby I’ve changed” speech. It’s insulting and degrading. The compressed timeline reflects poorly on Jenny’s decision-making. The expedited timeline makes every human action seem far-fetched. There’s a scene where Connor opens a champagne bottle in the kitchen. The cork flies out and knocks one of the legs loose on the multi-tiered wedding cake. The cake is about to slip over when Connor slides in to stabilize it. Instead of redistributing the weight via the available legs, he tries reaching for the out of reach champagne bottle with his foot (the size of the bottle and the cake leg are not even close). A more believable situation would involve Connor trying to reach the fallen cake leg, not a champagne bottle, but alas. To make this example even worse, the filmmakers set up the disaster of a fallen wedding cake and then amazingly fail to show the goods. We only see the smashed aftermath. This is a comedy fundamental: set-up food disaster, let audience witness ensuing food-related disaster.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past also doesn’t have one redeeming or marginally realistic female character. I would expect, given Garner’s star power and the natural importance of being the romantic lead, that Jenny would come across as a reasonable woman or someone worth fighting over. Sorry, Jenny is a powerfully underwritten character and Garner is left without much work other than serving as a reservoir of reaction shots. Seriously, that’s her main purpose in this movie; she is a cutaway image. Sandra (Lacey Chabert) is a shrieking high-maintenance shrew of a bride. The other female roles are largely one-note misogynistic fantasies (thanks male screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). The trio of bridesmaids is gossipy chatterboxes and eager to get laid. Connor’s introduction to his future mother-in-law (Anne Archer) involves him casually groping her breasts, much to her prosaic approval. Connor has an irresistible way with the ladies, which makes everything without a Y chromosome want to sleep with the man. A young famous pop singer watches Connor dump three women simultaneously on an Internet conference call, insult them, and then she still strips off her clothes to bed the cad. She even states, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” and continues along. I’m just as confused what power Connor holds over the fairer sex because to me he’s just a twit.

Here’s a telling example about how obvious this movie is written from an unenlightened male perspective: the central relationship dilemma is that Connor is afraid of cuddling. In the past, Jenny asked him to stay and cuddle but that was the breaking point, so he bolted. All of these women somehow manage to fall head over heels in love for a guy who willingly goes through women likes changes of underwear. It makes all the women comes across as emotionally needy, insecure, vapid bubbleheads who will sacrifice everything, including self-respect and dignity, to get a taste of McConaughey’s back sweat. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is not a flattering movie for either sex.

The tone of this movie never finds an authentic and satisfying balance. Being a half-hearted tale of redemption during the period of a weekend, the movie crams in plenty of gooey sentimental claptrap. You’ll listen to characters talk about the true meaning of friendship, tear up over family memories, and then someone will make an inappropriate sex joke. There is a high level of semi-racy sex jokes that populate the world, appearing at odd moments, destroying any assembling emotions. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past will pretend like it’s building to something that actually matters and then it will throw it all away for a cheap sex gag — har har. There’s a moment where Douglas is illustrating how much ire Connor has wrought with visual metaphors. It begins to rain and he says that the downpour is made up of all the tears shed from ex-girlfriends and flings. Then it starts raining ripped pieces of confetti, and this we are told is all the tissues used. And then comes all the used condoms, and we watch Connor try and take cover before the aerial assault of used (and presumably “filled”) contraceptives annihilates him. It’s kind of gross and tonally disjointed from the rest of the sappy, happy PG-13 storyline.

The movie is at its most amusing when it’s riffing on the expectations of following the Christmas Carol model. Connor is quite aware of the tried-and-true formula, so his comments along the way provide the movie’s only genuine laughs outside of Douglas. Really, Douglas’ character is the most entertaining character, and I kept wishing that the film would follow him even after death. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch the life of a ghost involved in a Christmas Carol scenario? I imagine it would be a bit like a play rehearsal. I would enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the scenario. I want to see ghostly foremen plot out unique scenarios for a list of real-life Scrooge cases, I want to see the ghost tryouts, I want to see the mechanics involved in the spiritual setup for this whole process. I enjoyed watching Uncle Wayne hit on his fellow spirits. But I suppose that approach would be too literary and break away from the cozy confines of the stillborn romantic comedy genre. And to prove that it is indeed a romantic comedy by the numbers, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past even includes the last minute dash to stop the romantic party from leaving via some method of transportation.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past manages to squander every opportunity it has to be a better movie. The central idea could have worked but the execution is exceedingly lazy, charmless, and degrading to women in particular. The comic scenarios miss out on better laughs, and some of the better laughs are obvious and just around the corner, but the film routinely falls back on being a sexual farce. The characters don’t feel remotely like people and Connor is a terrible lead character with unfunny dialogue that reduces women to disposable pleasures. His transformation is contrived even for a romantic comedy. I’m not saying a cad character could not make for an entertaining lead here. Clearly Douglas is the best character, and his sleazy 1970s swinging sexpot has a fun Bob Evans vibe. Every moment he’s onscreen the movie comes alive in a new way, and Douglas is an actor that knows how to make lecherous appealing and appalling at the same time, like what Michael Caine pulled off in Alfie. This movie pales in comparison. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been visited by the most important spirit of them all – the Spirit of Screenplay Rewrites.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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