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An Innocent Man (1989)

This post is part of Movie Rob’s Genre Grandeur challenge. Jay Cluitt of the LAMB and Life vs. Film stepped in to choose the genre: Prison Films. You can read this post over at Rob’s Genre Grandeur page as well as all the other reviews by blog film critics on prison films. At any rate, here’s what I thought of An Innocent Man with Tom Selleck.

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This film stands as my favorite prison film because of the directing, acting, and story. I’ll start out with the director: Peter Yates was a renowned director long before this film. He had directed throughout the 60’s and 70’s and is probably most known in that time for his film The Deep written by Peter Benchley (Jaws). He made action movies that pulled no punches. I think he was perfect to tell this story, it’s action from credits to credits. More than that though, it gives an innocent man a challenge: How to survive time in jail.

There is some amazing acting in this film. Tom Selleck is incredible as the “oaf” happy-go-lucky man who’s simply in love and happy at his job. What better guy to pin a murder on right? Selleck transforms his almost buffoon-like happy character in a victim and then a fighter. The viewer easily lives vicariously through that character. They should have a ride at an amusement park themed after the plot. It is indeed a roller coaster but one I very much enjoyed riding.

I just want to emphasize Selleck is no bit actor in this, as some may expect him to be. He takes this role and makes it his own. The viewer is meant to be right there in prison with him planning, scheming to get out, and prove his innocence. There is one other actor I cannot leave out of my review: F. Murray Abraham. He is one of the most underrated actors of our time. I loved him in Amadeus and every time I see he’s in a film I try to see it. He has done much to demonstrate power in acting. He plays Virgil, the mentor figure of Selleck’s character. My favorite quote from him is: “Someone messes with me in here, it’s their life.”

To summarize the film: you get a vignette of a few years in prison. Danny Scalise is a happy-go-lucky married blue collar guy who gets framed for a drug job and a murder he didn’t do. We the audience see that clearly. A couple of crooked cops make a terrible mistake picking him as the fall guy and as he is arrested for the crime and is doing time, Scalise becomes much more jaded about the system and begins to exact a process of revenge. The cops end up regretting framing this “innocent man.” Mostly this is not because of who he was going into jail but after what his time there has made him.

FINAL THOUGHTS
This is not a masterpiece of the 1980’s but it sends a powerful message and stands as my favorite prison movie. While in prison, the main character must stand for himself even when it means killing. It is kill or be killed there. Because I think most people who watch movies wonder what they would do in prison to survive. You work with what you have in prison, that’s the message here. To keep your dignity you may have to do barbaric things. Those who don’t may be killed or raed within an inch of their lives, repeatedly, daily. To avoid getting attacked would you attach first? I think Selleck’s “everyman” personality and image fits perfectly in this role. Finally, it wraps just like an 1980’s movie, what’s wrong with happy endings?

5/5

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Real Steel (2011)

Here is a truly fun film for kids and adults with the urge to have their own downtown underground fighting robot.

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Last night my wife and I sneaked out leaving the brother to babysit and saw Real Steel is about robot boxing. Yep, it’s that simple and that great! I have to say, I wasn’t too excited to see it. The idea of robots punching each other for 2 hours didn’t really pique my interest. But I am happy to recommend it now as a fun family film, with some fight scenes, that has all the charm of the Karate Kid and cgi as good as Transformers.

It was directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the MuseumBig Fat Liar …) and stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, and newcomer Kevin Durand. Jackman plays Charlie, an ex prize fighter who now slums as a robot coach (of sorts). Jackman discovers he has a son, Max, and try as he might to do otherwise, he is destined to partner up with his 13 year old son throughout the movie. Charlie and Max try their hand at robot management and coaching but it has mixed results. It isn’t until they have a few shared experiences that they acquire a new, plain, yet mysterious powerful robots. What that power is remains to unfold. Together they discover the worth of teamwork and the analog body in sync with the digital robot technology. I won’t give away anymore about the plot but know that it’s quite a fun ride.

Evangeline Lilly plays Bailey, Jackman’s ex. She is the calming force in his life even now that they are not together. They share a little romance that sizzles off the screen. Max is just happy-go-lucky. He ends up getting a dad and a prize fighting robot in the deal. There is not a while lot of real life character development but for what this movie is, an action movie, that isn’t required. Atom is the robot. You end up feeling like he is an actual person. He is the classic underdog fighter with no chance and a small physique. The twist is that he is not a human, like Rocky from the 70’s, but rather a steel fighting machine. He never says to his corner man to “cut me” but several comparisons are obvious, as well as to the Karate Kid.

All in all, this movie isn’t very real amid the steel. That being said, you will cheer when the good robots win fights. It is just the right time for this sort of movie to be made. Technology makes these things seem like real chunks of 1,000 pound metal to watch, enjoy, and give a high five to. While weak on the storyline and character development, this is the ideal underdog movie for the kids of today. And for those of us in our slightly older years, we should suspend disbelief so this movie can please us as well.

3/5

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‘Wildlike’ – A Sleepy Hiking Film of Surprising Suspense

The indie film Wildlike is a hidden gem from 2015 that was recently added to Netflix. The director, Frank Hall Green, uses the Alaskan wilderness as backdrop for a suspenseful story. Starring in Wildlike are Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) and Ella Purnell (Maleficent) who make this film a unique diamond in the rough.

img_9922-208x300-7281408Ella Purnell stars as Mackenzie, a 14 year old girl who’s been abandoned by her drug addicted mother. While in the care of her uncle, she is sexually abused, and flees to a nearby Alaskan hiking trail. That’s where she crosses path with Bruce Greenwood’s character, Rene.

Bruce Greenwood is the most recognizable star in the movie and he does a magnificent job trying to understand and help the troubled teen. He’s been in films as big as Star Trek and thankfully for us fans he accepted this role even though it was an independent film. The friendship between Mackenzie and Rene is fascinating and appears it could save her. Watching it develop is one of the best parts of the film though so I won’t describe it more than that.

Mackenzie is an interesting and powerful character as well. Not many of us know what it would be like as a 14 year old girl who was sexually molested. Some will say she should have told the police but others could argue the police might greenwoodbar640-300x192-1-7787215believe the aggressor, making a return to him inevitable. Ella Purnell dons the signature troubled-teen mascara that we see gradually reduced through the film as she begins to trust Rene. She shows us the fear involved for victims. She is a survivor and sticks close to him. Rene has profound reasons for being on the trail as well. The trail could be a metaphor that we all have our own pain to walk off. Both actors do a great job in their hiking dialog.

The suspense starts in the form of a bear on the trail and then culminates with the abusive uncle stalking Mackenzie. When Rene and the uncle finally meet, some may hope the uncle gets beaten to a pulp. They don’t show that. Instead, as with other themes in the movie, they infer it and the viewer is left to decide for her/himself.

wildlike_still-300x169-1-7650980This film has done quite well for its first time director, Frank Hall Green. It has been invited to over 75 film festivals and has won 16 Best Film awards. It’s nice to see such an understated film that allows the viewer to come to her/his own conclusions has done so well. It’s also understated and tasteful in the way that ordinarily graphic scenes like the sexual abuse is not shown but rather inferred. This is a stylistic choice of Green. By way of trivia, the IMDB page for the movie states that Frank Hall Green hiked in the exact park where the wilderness scenes were filmed and the path in the film was based on paths he and his family hiked.
I found this film a pleasant surprise. I expected a sleepy hiking film and instead got amazing outdoor cinematography with a suspenseful/thriller. I love movies that juxtapose a good story with stellar visuals. I’m reminded of Fargo as an example. Frank Hall Green is already at work on other projects but I hope a lot of people get a chance to enjoy Wildlike.

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The Beaver

Article first published as The Beaver on Blogcritics.
The Beaver is directed by Jodie Foster who is well known as an actor and now fairly well-known as a director for Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays. This is her most gritty production to date, taking on the issue of mental illness. Jodie Foster also plays an important role in the movie, that of Meredith Black, the main character’s wife. The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as the protagonist Walter Black. There are also key roles played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek’s “Chekov”) as Porter Black, the main character’s son and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone and the upcoming Hunger Games) as Norah, the friend of Porter Black. Seldom does a movie bring such an important yet taboo subject into the light with such clarity. Mental illness now has an illustration to show us our humanity and better understand the mentally ill people around us.

This is a story of a family man and executive well into his 50’s who appears to be depressed. In reaction to his depression, he buys a crate of alcohol seemingly to drink himself into oblivion. In the parking lot dumpster, he notices a haggard old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver. He is drawn to its charm and takes it home with him. Through much of the movie he communicates only through the puppet and puts his wife and those around them through a frustrating series of challenges. The executive tells his wife he’s been back to the psychiatrist and the use of a beaver hand puppet is a form of therapy. When the “therapy” seems unending, there begins the movie’s conflict. Walter is sick, and his wife knows it. Unfortunately, his sickness is generating great ideas at work that earn him a spot on the Today Show with Lauer, among another places. Mentally ill people often make creative contributions to our world, that’s what this movie appears to be telling us.

There is a father/son dynamic going on here as well. Walter and his son Porter are at odds. Walter has been guilty of the same thing most middle aged executives are: being absent in the home. Porter accepts payment to write people’s essays in High School and has a very dysfunctional crush on Norah that winds both of them up in jail for the night for vandalism. One can’t help but wonder if Walter’s condition contributed to his son’s issues. There is a climax and a slowing and at the end a horrific self mutilation leaves Walter “better.”

I really like this movie because it shows that mental illness is not just an embarrassment we should hide in our family trees. I am deeply interested in people which is probably why I like movies so much. The extent to which they portray the human condition is usually the extent to which I like them. If you know someone who has a mental illness or if you yourself struggle with on, this movie is a must see. This is not Braveheart and it’s not Nell. Instead, it is something in the middle and it addresses mental illness quite accurately, in my opinion.  Only through understanding the unknown can we embrace it and make peace with it in our world, Mental illness is largely an unknown in our society. It is good to see Mel Gibson stepping away from the action hero role to shine light on something many families and individuals deal with.

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Where the Wild Things Are

This post I wrote was published first at Blogcritics.

I waited months in anticipation of this movie based on my favorite childhood book, Where the Wild Things Are. My parents used to read it to me at bedtime and I recall such vivid images of Max’s bedroom, the far-off land of the wild things, and those creatures with their yellowy eyes. It was oddly scary and comforting at the same time to hear that story each night. That’s probably why I was curious to see what director Spike Jonze would do with the big screen adaptation. Unfortunately, this movie had few positives for me.

It’s the kind of movie I wait and wait for and then wind up feeling empty once it’s over. I will concede that my opinion is not the norm. I read five reviews on Blogcritics alone before I decided I must be from another planet. I felt this movie was like cheap merchandise with nothing to back it up.

The movie begins with a sort of “grunge” look to it. The beginning scene is very short and the title of the movie sort of “freeze frames” in sloppy strokes reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon. That was cool but after that we get a contrived character of 9 or 10 years of age. He is stricken with fury at his mother, his sister, and those around him in those scenes. My wife and I have a debate going over whether he shows evidence of mental illness. Make no mistake … this is decidedly not the “Max” of the original book.

The Max in the book is a garrulous young boy of about six years old. He is sent to his room without his supper. The Max of the movie is deeply disturbed and much older and he ends up running away from home. There is serious convolution of character and plot here.

When the “movie Max,” played by child actor Max Records, gets to the island on his boat, the book’s magic is lost. The movie has already cashed in on the book’s familiar appeal.

I should say here that this movie is decidedly not for kids. My 2- and 4-year-old girls were on the verge of tears a couple times. A friend of mine has a daughter who cried uncontrollably through the opening snow tunnel scene. Well, maybe that was an over-reaction, it’s not terrible I suppose. More than that, it is a bait and switch from the book we all read growing up.

One particularly scary aspect of the movie is the character Judith, played by Catherine O’Hara. She is not a playful character and seems to show direct and unbridled hate toward Max in a few scenes. I have a feeling the movie wants to be a statement about refusing to grow up. This is the opposite of the book’s message, which brings acceptance of growth and maturity upon Max’s return. I could accept the Judith scenes if he grew somehow. Instead, he just seems to eventually run away again.

If you want to watch disturbing images in and out of realistic fiction, this movie will appeal to you. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate disturbing images when they make a point. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed the 1970’s Pink Floyd movie The Wall. It made excellent points through disturbing images. The difference from WTWTA is that The Wall didn’t claim to be a big screen adaptation of a beloved children’s book.

If I had to pick one positive aspect of this film I’d say it’s the Jim Henson muppet wild things. They look awesome. If that alone is worth your trip to a movie, I won’t steer you away. However, if you want a warmhearted adaptation of a children’s book, pass on this one.

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Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This movie opinion piece is based on my article first published as Voyage of the Dawn Treader Actors Grown into Their Skin on Blogcritics.

Much can be said in praise of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Among those praises is the acting. We saw most of these characters in the prior Narnia films, but never so grown up in their acting skills. In a way I think the franchise would have been better with all of them at this age (2010). I don’t know if the messages of Narnia can be properly played by kids who haven’t lived much. Maybe I have to go back and see the old one again? Whatever I may find in reviewing prior films, the actors in Voyage of the Dawn Treader are grown up to perfectly play the kids of Narnia.

The director Michael Apted is one to be respected. His back catalog includes Nell with Jodie Foster, a Bond film The World is Not Enough, and a slough of other films through the years that most any fan of film culture has heard of. All his efforts come together and make this movie appear a professional, emotive film for our times. It is regal, like the impression you get looking at a fine chandeliers.

There are three screenplay authors: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Michael Petroni. The first two worked together on the previous Narnia films while Petroni was brought in just for this one. This may be what adds a new dimension to this film for me. Of course, with three writers adapting a novel to a screenplay, it’s impossible for a humble viewer to say who brought what.

Stellar acting is delivered by the once small Lucy Pevensie, Georgie Henley. I can’t say enough good things about her. She is growing into an accomplished actress and yet she maintains an unassuming air rarely seen in big time actors. There is a scene before she goes into Narnia when she is in her school uniform talking with her siblings and I could tell by her experiences voice and movement that she had grown into a more soulful, mature actor.

Another actor grown into his own skin is Skandar Keynes, Edmund Pevensie. His interactions with the white witch in this film are much more believable than the ones previously. This is crucial to the impact of this film in as much as “dealings with the devil” are important to all the works of C.S. Lewis.

Ben Barnes, who plays Caspian, also plays a very maturely acted role and adds a lot to the film. When I look at photos of him off camera I am struck by how much older and mature he looks in the movie than how he appears in real life. I think all the characters really grew up to act in this film and it provides a positive impact.

Last but not least, Will Poulter plays Eustace Clarence Scrubb. This character by far gives the film more depth than previous Narnia ones. While we may not find him a loveable figure, we see ourselves in Eustace. Whoever has been self conscious or fearful can find relatable material in his character. He does an excellent job conveying an “unlikeable” character to the audience. The payoff? In the end we learn it’s ok to be imperfect. Aren’t we all? Furthermore, the imperfect can inherit the promised land.

It is clear to me the Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be remembered more than the prior ones in this franchise. This is due in large part to the actors having grown into their own skin and their craft.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife – The poor woman!

My wife suggested we see The Time Traveler’s Wife last night and so we had a late date night. The movie was slow at first but once it got going, I found it to be touching and human. It brought up a lot of things to talk about on the ride home. The Time Traveler’s Wife (TTTW) is a romantic drama starring Eric Bana as the Time Traveler, Henry DeTamble, and Rachel McAdams as his wife, Clare Abshire. It was directed by Robert Schwentke. He has directed a proud set of films the most famous of them being “Flight Plan” with Jodie Foster. There are other cast actors of note you can find at The Time Traveler’s Wife IMDB page. Minor spoilers ahead.

Now for my DVD review: Henry “travels.” His wife might as well have a bumper sticker that says “travel happens.” They don’t have any idea why he does or when it will happen. This makes for a lot of stress in both their lives as they try and have a normal marriage and baby while he is “beaming up” all the time to certain locations.

One place he travels repeatedly is the meadow where he first met his eventual wife Claire. She was a 9 year old wandering off in search of imaginary friends. He knows what to tell her so she isn’t afraid because he is with her in the future. Theirs is a rocky relationship with some seductive kissing but far more moments of distrust, acute fear, and resentment. At one point he says to her, “You made a choice.” to which she replies indignantly, “I NEVER had a choice.” In a way I think that’s true because when someone comes from the future claiming to know all your desires, and you’re 9, it’s probably quite hard to resist that fantasy. In this case, the fantasy was all too real.

You see all the token time travel issues come up here. There is talk of how you cannot change certain things. There is foreshadowing of his death before it happens. There are some interesting twists that can only be possible when you have a time travel theme. The basic crux of the movie is Claire’s growth. She herself “travels” mentally from a 9 year old girl in love with a man who visits her in the meadow to a 30-something woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown married to a “spontaneous” time traveler. There are times he is in the room one minute and then there is nothing but his clothes collapsed on his shoes. Imagine going through a marriage that way?

Her undying love for him is what’s worth watching. Bana is a little bland in my opinion. I think just about anyone could play his role. Rachel McAdams, on the other hand, is perfectly suited for the role. As I watched I was impressed by the emotion she could summon in many of the scenes. I have a feeling when you see her cry, those are HER tears. I wouldn’t say her performance is Oscar worthy but it comes close, darn close. Part of the problem might be the writing. While much of it was poetic, there was a lot of the same stuff between man and woman we’ve seen again and again. Like I said though, once the uneventful beginning is through, the middle to end is a wonderful, sometimes difficult, always romantic human love story.

I haven’t fought back a tear since “Meet Joe Black” played in the theater. This one had that effect on me. I’d say this movie is mostly for married people in their late 20’s and up. Some of this stuff I have lived through and the time travel aspect really allows the movie to delve into relationships and love and purpose in life. I’d give it 8/10. Have you seen it? Care to comment on any of these topics I’ve mentioned? Please do comment below.