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The Gathering of the Juggalos
While it was refreshing to see a film produced by women and the focal point of the narrative the relationship of an aunt and her niece, "Family" failed to make a point about women or even portray the female characters with much dignity.
The focus of the action comes when the workaholic Kate Stone is asked by her brother to step in and care for her niece while the parents attend to a family emergency. This sets the stage for the potential bonding of Auntie Kate with little Maddie.
Unfortunately, the bonding took place in a haphazard and unbelievable way. The turning point was when Kate insisted on Maddie attending a school dance when she knew that child was terrified of the abuse she would receive on the dance floor. At that point in the film, the aunt-niece relationship was shattered beyond repair.
It seemed as though the female filmmakers were interested in formulating a social message about the harmful effects of "fat shaming."' Little Maddie was obese, as well as two of the co-workers of Kate. But the film never took a stand or offered any insights into the fat-shaming theme. It was especially troubling that Maddie was experiencing bullying from the students, yet the school authorities were not responding. Instead, Maddie gets suspended for fighting back!
The good potential for a genuine relationship between Auntie Kate and sweet little Maddie was missed. The grand finale in the "gathering of the juggalos" turned the film into a train wreck. What was the child doing cavorting with a group of knife-wielding weirdoes?
There may have been a breath or two of fresh air provided in the neighborly high jinks of Kate McKinnon's character or the and bravado of the character "Baby Joker." But, overall, "Family" never achieved a coherent comic style, and it completely failed in to deliver any social message other than to offer a sad portrait of family dysfunction in America.
What Lies Ahead (2019)
The film's title is about the backroads of America, but it is also about the backroads of the human mind. On the surface, "What Lies Ahead" is a road picture. But at its heart, it is a troubling depiction of bloodthirst and revenge.
The beginning of the film seems straightforward as a surgeon in New York named Kyle sends his fiancé Jessica to Georgia to help his sister Raven drive back to New York following the death of their mother. But instead of driving the freeways, Raven wants to take the backroads, and that is the first ominous moment of the trip. Raven is driving a sedan with the ironic personalized license plate of KITTEN.
When Jessica and Raven hit the road, the early experiences of Jessica's missing cell phone, driving off from a roadside stand without paying for burgers, and Raven's troubling attempt to convince a man in a bar that Jessica is attracted to him, set the stage for the major twist of the film: Raven has killed Kyle's sister after he dumped her. Raven blames Jessica for the break-up, and she now plans a diabolical vengeance scenario worthy of Medea.
The film is successful in developing the sinister elements of Raven, and it builds carefully to its climax. Unfortunately, it falls apart at the end with an unsatisfactory and highly unbelievable denouement.
The film developed the protagonist of Raven as a monster, but was unable to deliver on its promise with a vague and inconclusive ending. Were the filmmakers thinking that there would a sequel of the ongoing saga of the Kitten from Hell?
"Just Go Slow"
At a crucial moment in "After," Tessa Hardin makes a request of Hardin Scott: "Just go slow." But it turns out that the two characters do the exact opposite in their whirlwind and tumultuous relationship.
Based on the Anne Todd novel of the same name, which has been advertised as "1 billion reads," "After" is self-referential film to Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." The Austen novel is mentioned frequently and is the subject of a class assignment of Tessa and Hardin in a university English literature course.
Tessa and Hardin see themselves refracted through the lens of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice." But they never seem to grasp how Austen spent the entire novel in developing the courtship before Darcy and Elizabeth finally declare their love. By contrast, it is a veritable race to a full-blown, live-in relationship in "After" with Tessa instantly dumping her old beau Noah and moving in with Hardin. The Tessa-Hardin relationship is stormy, facilitated by the cruelty of their "friends." Instead of courting one another, the two characters are courting disaster.
A weakness of the film is that Tessa and Hardin were students who hardly ever seemed to study. In the bonus track of the DVD, there were several deleted scenes where the students are at least seen cracking a book. But in the final film cut, the characters seem to arrive in college fully prepared and having completed all of the readings for a liberal arts curriculum. Their declared majors may be Economics or English, but their true course of study "The Relatonship."
It is difficult to flesh out any themes from this film that primarily dramatizes the ebb-and-flow of the relationship of Tessa and Hardin. The couple seems to bond around a rough childhood in which Hardin had an absent father and Tessa was abandoned by hers. One of the most touching relationships was that of Tessa and her over-protective mother. So, the main takeaway of this film is something like "there's no place like home" and, above all, in matters of the heart, follow your own advice: "Just go slow!"
The Spy Who Duped Me
"Möbius" is an intricately plotted thriller that is a combination of a James Bond film and a John LeCarré spy saga. While the narrative takes place in the present, the film has the feeling of a Cold War saga.
The story is complicated by a large set of characters working in factions. But the focal point is the financial wizard named Alice Radmond, who has the skills for analyzing data that the various groups desire. Another challenging part of the film is that the characters are speaking in English, French, and Russian.
The pivotal point of the drama is when the Russian FSB agent Gregory Lyubov and Alice Radmond fall in love. That adds a new dynamic to the various forces competing for the information that Alice possesses. Both Russian and American intelligence agencies are working behind the scenes to control Alice. But the film slowly turns into a love story!
The acting was terrific with a wide assortment of sleazy characters to complement the two romantic leads The film moved from France to Russia to America to Belgium for a wide range of settings. As we follow the action, it becomes clear that Gregory and Alice may working at cross-purposes with one another. The main question becomes whether or not someone will be caught holding bag as "the spy who duped me."
La French (2014)
Le French Connection
In this gritty crime drama, the time is 1975, and the place is Marseilles, the epicenter of the drug trafficking business run by the notorious overlord Gaëtan 'Tany' Zampa. The film tells the story of the famous French Connection.
There was a conscious attempt on the part of the French filmmakers to pay homage to and even recreate the grainy style of the famous Gene Hackman film "The French Connection." The scenes shot in America especially recall the brilliant style of director William Friedkin.
Jean Dujardin plays the role of the French magistrate Pierre Michel. While he does not have the colorful character traits of Hackman's iconic Popeye Doyle, Dujardin creates a judge of stature and dignity, as well as humanity. Some of the most moving scenes in the film were those of Michel's association with a young drug addict and his touching relationship with his wife and daughters.
While the film lacks the fast-paced and suspenseful style of "The French Connection," the French version nonetheless conveys the struggle of bringing the members drug cartel to justice. The filmmakers were not entirely successful in bringing the humanity out of Zampa by portraying him as a caring family man.
The devastating effects of the widespread drug trafficking tended to get lost after the young addict Lilly dropped out of the film due to an alleged overdose. It was more likely that she was dispatched by the Zampa organization. Apart from Lilly, Michel, and Zampa, the cops and the thugs tended to blend together too much in this ambitious and sprawling crime exposé.
Massacre at St. Peter's Field
The Peterloo tragedy of the peaceful gathering outside Manchester in 1819 is worthy of a feature film treatment. Unfortunately, this Mike Leigh film relied far too heavily on speeches than fully developed roles. The characters were telling us of their dilemma rather than actually experiencing it.
The main structural problem of the film was that it was a series of speeches, as opposed to carefully developed dramatic action. Typically, a crowd would gather and the speakers would deliver the film's exposition about workers' rights and parliamentary representation for the people in northern England. On multiple occasions, the speaker would begin by stating, "Today, I will be brief....." prior to launching into another long speech.
The novels of Charles Dickens provided rich detail about characters exploited by the elitist system in nineteenth-century Great Britain. Consequently, his novels have lent themselves well to film adaptations. Similarly, Emile Zola's novel "Germinal" was made into a fine French film because it depicted in such depth the plight of coal miners in northern France.
But "Peterloo" never fully portrays the desperate lives of the characters. It is tragic and moving to see the boy who survived the battle of Waterloo in 1815 eventually become a victim, run through by a sword at St. Peter's field in 1819. But we do next experience enough about his and other lives of the good people at Manchester.
The film was built melodramatically decent workers and the villainous working class headed by a callous and effete Prince Regent unwilling to consider the voices of the people. Instead of managing the troops at Manchester, General Byng delegated it to his incompetent subordinate d'Estaing.
The most nuanced character was John Hunt, the civil libertarian orator who traveled from London to Manchester to deliver a speech that was interrupted and ended first by the yeomanry and with brutal finality by the redcoats of d'Estaing. Even Hunt came across as both arrogant and naive when he insisted that the demonstrators arrive unarmed, thus ensuring their massacre in St. Peter's Field.
A Crackling Good Story
This was a solid action and suspense film starring Adam 'Edge' Copeland as Lucas Nolan, a skilled federal interrogator and all-around dare-devil law enforcement officer.
The film weaves an intriguing story of a terrorist who has laid plans to cripple the city of Minneapolis without taking lives. Lucas interrogates the perp using his unique "memory house" to read the suspect's mind through tiny clues. As a "behavioral analyst," Lucas is tops, but his overly assertive tactics lead to him lose favor with his colleagues.
The major lapse in the film was the notion of taking the arrested terrorist around the city of Minneapolis in order to pry information out of him about the next attack. The perp, whose name is Vasti, enjoys himself as the ebb-and-flow of the action reveals his diabolical mind. This pattern stretched credibility.
One of the most interesting portions of the film was the background provided on the upbringing of both Lucas and Vasti. Those details will figure prominently in a plot twist at the end. There were also some sly moments of humor in the film, such as the critical moment when the computer expert is asked a question to prevent an explosion in the Federal Reserve Bank, and she replies, "I can't do anything! I'm on hold!"
The film was worth watching for the take-character character of Lucas and his apparent bonding with Vasti. There was good film footage of Minneapolis with a shot of the old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The pacing of the film was brisk and it was non-stop action along with an intriguing psychological drama.
The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
James Bond Spoof is a Lot of Fun
"The Spy Who Dumped Me" is a good take-off on the James Bond films with a pair of women becoming amateur spies. After Audrey Stockton is dumped by secret agent Drew Thayer, she and her friend Morgan Freeman link up with Sebastian Henshaw to form a spy team caught in the middle of competing intelligence networks. The goal is to fight the Russian enemy cartel named Highland and to get the lost computer drive in the right hands. The film never really makes clear what are the right hands. The focus on the antics of the old Cold War spy games.
The strength of the film was in the creative bits and the comic repartee, especially that of the two female leads, Audrey and Morgan. Perhaps the funniest shtick in the film was a moment when a trained assassin Nadejda is ordered to shoot "two dumb American women." But when the assassin pans around the landscape, there are no less than three pairs of dumb American tourists engaging in bad behavior in Europe.
On the downside, the big-scale action sequences were not a lively as the more intimate scenes relying on smaller bits of business and clever dialogue. It was surprising that the filmmakers spent $40 million on this project. A more modest film might have been a better one. As the adage goes for good writing: less is more.
A Violent Separation (2019)
Greek Tragedy Set in the American Heartland
The story is as old as Cain and Abel. One brother is kind and the other is a killer. As a family struggles to stay together, it is eventually torn asunder. There is a biblical quality to "A Violent Separation" that gives the film depth and unviersality in its emotional impact.
In the bonus track of the DVD of the film, the co-directors, the Goetz brothers, described their film as "ordinary people in extraordinary situations." They might have added that the extraordinary situations are of the characters' own doing. In ancient Greek tragedy, there is a fateful moment for the protagonist when is a choice made with unforeseen consequences. There is such a moment in "A Violent Separation" when the young police officer Norm chooses to participate with his wayward brother Ray in a "cover up" of a crime. It is that choice that leads both characters down the tragic path.
From the extras segment of the DVD, it was interesting to learn that a number of the cast members were from the UK. Their work accomplished on dialect was superb in the characters' speech patterns from rural Missouri. There was also fastidious attention to detail on the part of the Goetz brothers for their camera work, set-ups, and the overall film aesthetics. There was a striking beauty of the Missouri landscape juxtaposed with the tawdry situation of the two brothers as they became steeped in crime and in guilt.
The women's roles in the film were also fascinating in the contrasting pair of sisters (Abbey and Fran) set in relief with the two brothers (Ray and Norm). Other characters, including the taciturn grampa and the savvy sheriff were nuanced human portraits. All were drawn into the film's moral dilemma in which the crime must be solved in the same way that Sophocles crafted the tragic dilemma of Oedipus.
While the film was set in 1983 in the heartland of America, there was a timeless dimension to "A Violent Separation." When the sheriff describes his philosophy of solving the crime, the words that he uses are "man and time" that hold the keys to the truth. Those universal values help to invest the film with its powerful context of myth.
The Professor (2018)
Run For Your Life!
In the bonus track of the DVD of "The Professor," writer-director Wayne Roberts, the film's producers, and the cast members discussed their work on the picture, and it was clear that they had formed a strong ensemble. The film artists genuinely wanted to deliver on a heartfelt experience with a message about living life to the fullest. Unfortunately, the final product was closer to sentimental comedy than the existential drama they intended.
The opening scene of the film reveals that English professor Richard Brown has terminal cancer with less than a year to live. He then moves into action to transform his life and extract the most from the time he has left. In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau expressed Brown's goal when he wrote that "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
But in the film, the protagonist short-changed himself by resorting to shallow hedonistic experiences (sex, drugs, and booze) and calling out those whom he feels are hypocrites, including his spouse and the chancellor of his college.
The film was shot on a beautiful campus location, and the cinematography was dynamic with interesting set-ups and camera angles. Johnny Depp was compelling in the role of the professor, especially in the comic scenes. But the serious side of the film never truly kicked in because the filmmakers soft-pedaled the seriousness of the character's illness and never tackled the suffering of his final months.
There was a popular television show in the late 1960s called "Run For Your Life" that featured New York method actor Ben Gazarra as a terminally ill attorney, Paul Bryan, who takes the road to fully experience his life through adventure and human interaction. Both the television approach and the recent film "The Professor" never confronted the harsh realities of the main subject they wanted to tackle: death.
In the bonus track of the DVD, actor Danny Huston quoted from Dante's poem "The Divine Comedy" for essential reference points for the film. The poetic genius of Dante and his profound insights offer a genuine model of what "The Professor" was unable to accomplish.
The Public (2018)
Standoff at the Cincinnati Library
The time is the present. The place is Cincinnati. The city is in the middle of a frigid winter of record-setting low temperatures. A group of sixty homeless men are so desperate for shelter that they decide to hold a demonstration and stay overnight on the third floor of the downtown Cincinnati Public Library. This film is their story.
"The Public" had good intentions in depicting the realities of the homeless in America. Many of the men were recovering vets. Several were struggling with mental disease. Others were simply broke. An opioid victim was the son of the police detective in charge of ending the standoff in the library. The villain of the film is a mean-spirited and self-service district attorney running for mayor, who has no sympathy for the homeless.
As the film progressed, it struggled to make credible why there would be a police brigade preparing to rush the library and arrest the homeless men. The detective in charge of the operation (Alec Baldwin) was an especially unconvincing character because he was supposed to be a negotiator, but he did no bargaining with the men inside. A cliché newscaster intentionally distorts the situation for the public in order to raise her network's ratings.
The most moving part of the film was when the protagonist, an unassuming library supervisor, reads aloud to the news reporter a passage from John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," connecting the misery of the Great Depression of the 1930s to the homeless condition afflicting thousands in the twenty-first century.
It was said in the film that a library is "the last bastion of a true democracy." Those noble words are meaningful. But the film was unsuccessful in delivering a pragmatic message about how to effectively solve a social ill that is not being addressed in large American cities today.
Donovan Reid (2019)
Who Are You, Donovan Reid?
A boy who mysteriously disappears returns to his family after an absence of ten years. But the police suspect that he is an imposter. What is the true story of the missing kid? "Donovan Reid" was a modest film that developed good suspense in the drama of the identity of the title character.
A conflict ensues when the father believes that his son has returned, but the mother believes that he is not her son. A DNA test will determine the truth. But in the meantime, the film frequently flashes back to the period when the youngster had been kept in a virtual state of captivity by a strange woman. It was not even clear if he had received much in the way of an education.
While the father was sympathetic, as well as the neighbor Harbor, who had befriended the young Donovan, there was a sinister aura surrounding the other characters. The filmmakers were successful in allowing the audience to piece together the story right along with Donovan, who clearly suffered from amnesia.
At times, the dialogue was clunky and the casting choices raised questions in credibility. The father and Donovan seemed to be nearly the same age. Also, the police officer's aggressive tactics in interrogating Donovan seemed excessive. Still, this was a thoughtful though disturbing film that should generate lively discussion about the bizarre world of Donovan Reid.
The Best of Enemies (2019)
Ten Days That Changed a World
In the bonus track of the DVD of "The Best of Enemies," a theme that was mentioned was how "the message of love always wins." The strength of this moving drama from the Civil Rights movement fulfills that theme in its thoughtful human side of the struggle for school integration in Durham, North Carolina.
The time is 1971, and the film shockingly depicts the racial tension and the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the civic affairs of Durham. When a fire destroys the segregated black school, the community is challenged to integrate their school system. The film draws upon the true story of the convening of a "charrette," or community steering community to determine the outcome of school integration.
The focal point of the film is the relationship of the two leaders of the charrette, a black activist named Ann Atwater and the owner of a gas station and head of the local organization of the Klan, Claiborn Paul "C.P." Ellis. The improbable bonding of the two characters and the ebb and flow of their relationship of the heart of the drama. Bill Riddick is the facilitator of the charrette, who helps to bring together Atwater and Ellis in common cause. The bonus track of the DVD included extensive interviews of the real Ann Atwater and C.P Ellis, as well as facilitator Riddick.
The strength of the film was in the moving performances of Taraji P. Henson as Atwater and Sam Rockwell as Ellis. The filmmakers set up the drama effectively in the meetings of the city council and the ten-day deliberation of the members of the charrette. As was noted in the bonus track of the DVD, this is a little-known story of our history and deserves to be remembered. The film is successful in recreating this moving moment in history.
Daughter of the Wolf (2019)
The Leader of the Pack
In the extras segment of the DVD of "Daughter of the Wolf," the film artists described their film as an action picture cut in the mold of the Liam Neeson thrillers. There is no doubt that there were some talented film people collaborating on this film, especially in the areas of photography and stunt choreography.
Unfortunately, the screenplay limited character development to stereotypes, and the narrative was no more than a long slog across the mountain wilderness. Conflicts of man vs. man and man vs. nature involved fending off wolves and the evil machinations of a man named "Father," who has kidnapped the young son of the heroine Clair Hamilton.
The film opened with a close-up on the Hamilton custom saw mill, and the background of that enterprise figures prominently in the past. The disgruntled Father figure felt betrayed by Clair's father. Years have passed since the death of Clair's dad, but the Father is now taking his vengeance. He aspires to be the leader of the pack like one of the fearsome wolves depicted in the film.
Much of the characterization seemed wooden, the exposition clumsy, and some of the action scenes so far-fetched that the film lapsed into unintended comedy. Richard Dreyfuss's portrayal of the Father was so over-the-top and he was portrayed in such intense, constipated close-ups that his character was impossible to believe. Clair's survival from a spectacular, 300-foot fall from a ledge into an icy river was the most preposterous moment to try to swallow.
There was good potential for a rousing story of strife on the frontier as in the classic film Westerns. There was also the possibility of developing a "call of the wild" theme with the struggle for survival in the forest. But "Daughter of the Wolf" failed to offer any depth portrayals of those themes. This was a one-note kidnapping melodrama dressed up in the guise of a story by Jack London.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
The strength of "Law Abiding Citizen" is the great cinematography and the fine performances. The film is a thriller with the landscape of Philadelphia figuring prominently in the action. Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler are outstanding as the savvy city prosecutor, Nice Rice, and the mastermind of a set of killings, Clyde Shelton.
While the filmmakers were able to build good suspense in allowing the audience to slowly figure out how Clyde is engineering so many destructive acts from inside a prison, there were some flaws in the screenplay. Clyde was said to have a confederate, but that strand of the story was never resolved. Also, the ending did not seem in character for both Nick and Clyde. The screenwriter's imagination that was ingenious in the dastardly plots of Clyde failed him with the film's ending.
One of the best scenes in the film was the courtroom drama in which Clyde demonstrated to the judge the hypocrisy of the court system. His banter with the judge was spellbinding as he very nearly walked out of the courtroom a free man, then abruptly changed the dynamic to ensure that he would be sent to prison. There was also a certain irony in Gerard Butler's transformation from the apparently mild-mannered Clyde into a monster. It was clear that there were intended moments of dark comedy, especially in the prison scenes that could best be described as "gallows humor."
The film was made in 2009, prior to the enormous wave of film sequels and franchises. "Law Abiding Citizen" had the potential for at least one good sequel if the film had remained true to the moral ambiguity of the two lead characters. But the unfortunate ending that rendered complex characters driven by competing ethical motivations into a standard good-versus-evil world view ended all hopes for another episode of law and order in Philly.
Everybody Loves Katie!
The protagonist of the film is Katherine "Katie" Burke, a hotshot financial consultant with a mysterious past. The strength of "Abandon" is the rich detail in the characters and the carefully crafted screenplay. There was a fascinating variety of interesting roles drawn with care. This includes such secondary characters as Katie's best friend, Samantha "Bad Sam" Harper, who do not even figure prominently in the main narrative.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that nearly everyone loves Katie Burke! From her past, there is Embry Larkin, the charismatic performance artist whom Katie calls "an arrogant, preening bore," who had suddenly disappeared after his graduation. Then, there is the kind cop named Wade Handler, who simply cannot resist Katie after she tells him he has "kind eyes." There is the tag-along, tree-hugging environmentalist, Harrison "Harry" Hobart, who has been infatuated with Katie for years and finally girds himself to declaring his love. There is Bob Hanson, the employer and work supervisor from her first job with the distinguished financial firm of McKisson. Finally, there is Dr. Jack, the psychiatrist who can't keep his hands off Katie. The little librarian, "Mousie Julie," has the distinction of speaking the best line in the film: "Guys are drawn to her (Katie) like bugs to a bug lamp."
The film unfolds a suspenseful storyline around Queen Bee Katie Burke. The audience is kept guessing and the film pulls out all of the stops with a surprise ending. One of the most interesting details in the script was the background on Katie's relationship with her father.
The film was loosely adapted from the novel "Adam's Eyes" by Sean Desmond. The novel was primarily a ghost story set in a haunted dormitory of Harvard University. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, noted for the brilliant screenplay for the Academy-award-winning "Traffic," completely revised the novel into a much stronger thriller based the multi-dimensional protagonist played effectively by Katie Holmes. The work on editing and the camera angles added to the tension. Benjamin Bratt is also memorable as the sensitive, bookish cop.
The Wikipedia article on "Abandon" refers to the film as a "fiasco." Although it was not a box office hit in 2002, twenty years later, it is apparent that the film is superior to today's run-of-mill potboilers. This was a carefully crafted film with enough suspense to fill a pond in a nearby abandoned dormitory full of mystery and lead the audience into the darkest caverns of the human mind.
The Perception (2018)
Reality Is Not As It Seems!
The theme of "The Perception" derives from a William Blake quote from a series of prophecies entitled "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite."
As a mystery, the film has a complex structure with a novelist working on book modeled on his life story as the events are unfolding. The critical relationship is that of the husband (Richard) and his wife (Haley). The marriage has been rocky, but appears to be invigorated by a newfound trust between the couple.
Richard hatches a plan to "test" his wife, then backs out on the deal, offending Matt, who was to be paid to seduce Haley. One thing leads to another, and Matt is killed and buried in the couple's backyard.
But appearances can be deceiving! One of the most interesting characters is Richard's literary agent Nick, as played by Eric Roberts. The agent is approached by both the husband and the wife, who share details about their unstable relationship. A shortcoming of the film is that, apart from the kind agent, the other characters were uniformly unlikable, including the protagonist, the novelist Richard.
Still, the film is successful in getting the viewer to think about which scenes are real and which ones are the products of the novelist's imagination. There is a clever plot twist that makes the final minutes of "The Perception" a mind-turning experience.
Run the Race (2018)
Surprise Appearance by Tim Tebow!
"Run the Race" opens with a bang-bang football play as a high school RB dashing for a touchdown. At that point, we know that ol' Number 2, Zach Truett, will be the focus of the film, as he aspires to get out of the squalid conditions of small-town Bessemer and earn a football scholarship to the University of Florida.
But the film is much more than the trials and tribulations of Zach joining Gator Nation. The genuine focus of the film is the relationship of Zach with his younger brother Dave, who pull themselves up from their bootstraps out of a dysfunctional family.
Zach is the star halfback at Bessemer High, and Dave is the quarterback,. In the first half of the film, Zach incurs a torn ACL when he engages a rival athlete in a brawl at a picnic. Dave has a head injury that results in ongoing seizures. There was a flaw in the film that Dave's injury was never shown; it was only mentioned late in the film in expository dialogue.
There is a romantic subplot in the film that never really works. Zach strikes up a relationship with Ginger, a hospital intern. Ginger's parents are devoutly religious, and they subject Zach to the grand inquisition. As he is leaving the home, Ginger continues to grill Zach about his doubts, and she is offended, breaking off the relationship. This part of the film was not convincing because Zach was giving genuine answers to all of the family's invasive questions. The parents really liked Zach's honesty, but, for some reason, Ginger lacked their patience and seemed insistent that he become a true believer or she wouldn't have anything to with him.
The film was more successful with supporting roles such as the caring high school football/track coach; the estranged father of the boys who is the town drunkard; and the devoted godmother of the two boys named "Nanny." It appeared as though Zach and Dave fended for themselves on the poor side of town in substandard living conditions. The coffee pot was broken, and it was unclear if the two boys even slept in beds. Why did "Nanny" never appear with them in the home?
In this Christian-based film, there was the obligatory character of the local preacher. Thankfully, his sermons were brief and to the point. The game-changer was when he described for the small congregation "the moment" when the devotee learns of "the plan." Tim Tebow executive produced the film and makes a surprise return to Gatorland in the film's closing credits. One of the best parts of the film film was the attention paid to the sports action scenes, including wide-open play-calling on the gridiron and a breath-taking track sequence.
Case 39 (2009)
Hitchcock Would Be Proud
"Case 39" opens like a Lifetime Channel film with a story of Emily, a kind social worker performing an intervention on cruel parents and rescuing a sweet little child from their clutches. But at the midpoint of the film, there is a turn in the action that is the pivot that suddenly leads to the horror genre.
There are some genuinely chilling moments that aspire to the level of "The Exorcist." But, above all, it is the carefully crafted techniques from the Alfred Hitchcock thrillers that make "Case 39" a memorable film. There is one exterior scene looking up the walls a cathedral to the gargoyles--the medieval monsters that served as drain spouts on the Gothic cathedrals. That image was perfect for conveying the horror that afflicts Emily.
Renée Zellweger is outstanding as Emily, and there is another touch of Hitchcock with the blonde hair of the protagonist. The film avoids the style of high camp, due to the subtle performances and the sensitive characters. Bradley Cooper is good as the gentle therapist, who is on the receiving end of one of little Lilly's phone calls. Ian McShane is rock solid as the hard-boiled detective, who learns too late what he is up against in the work of the devil.
"Case 39" combines smart dialogue with imaginative directing in the inventive set-ups and camera angles. The plotting was superb, especially the background on Emily and her relationship with her mother. The most memorable part of the film was the transformation of characters, including little Lilly and her parents, which in a span of minutes pivot 180-degrees away from our first impressions. This was first-rate screenwriting and a strong ensemble cast in nearly a perfect model of the horror genre.
The Poison Rose (2019)
Noirish Thriller Without Thrills
In the commentary track of the DVD of "The Poison Rose," the director made the analogy with his approach to this film and David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" at a crucial moment in the film. But the film came up short of the stylish Lynch in a predictable, by-the-numbers neo-noir film.
John Travolta plays the role of a seedy L.A. private eye, Carson Phillips, who is dragged back to his home town on the Gulf Coast of Texas. He takes an assignment of searching for a woman institutionalized in the local asylum. One thing leads to another in the corrupt city, and Carson learns that he is a father of a grown woman who is about to be accused of murder.
Travolta was not very credible at the ex-star quarterback, who disgraced himself by intentionally losing game that tarnished his career and his life. He compounded things by walking out on the love of his life, a woman who subsequently married a wildcat oil tycoon. Another intriguing character is Morgan Freeman's "Doc," a local godfather controlling all facets of business in the small Texas beach town. But by the end of the film, Doc had dropped out of the action for all intents and purposes. One of the most bizarre characters was the charlatan who was director of the mental asylum, as played by an enormous Brendan Fraser.
The biggest flaw in this film was to believe that somehow Becky would be a suspect in the death of her husband when there was no evidence that pointed to her, and an unlimited supply of suspects existed in this corrupt town. There was never any suspense in a film that desperately needed the spark of imagination from a David Lynch.
The Aftermath (2019)
War and Remembrance
In the bonus track of the DVD of "The Aftermath," director James Kent described his goal of evoking the "1945 cataclysmic episode in the twentieth century" in the horrors of the Second World War. The filmmaker wanted to recreate viscerally the devastation of a "war Armageddon." Without a doubt, he succeeded in his goals.
The bonus track of the DVD identified the film's true story, based upon a book of the same name, about an English military officer overseeing the very start of the rebuilding of Germany following the war. But the structure of the film drew upon more conventional approaches to World War II, especially the famous miniseries "War and Remembrance," which unfolds a romantic drama under the backdrop of the war.
The love triangle involves the British colonel Lewis Morgan, his wife Rachael, and a German architect, Stephen Lubert. Lewis and Rachael occupy Stephen's majestic home in the port city of Hamburg connected to the North Sea by the Elbe River. The film depicted the stunning contrast between the city of Hamburg reduced to rubble and the opulence of Stephen's mansion, Rachael's wardrobe, and the lavish celebrations that are thrown for the victors.
A subplot unfolds with the young Nazi soldiers of the 88th infantry. The double "8" stood for the eighth letter of the alphabet and represented the expression "Heil Hitler." A young man named Albert, who starts a relationship with Stephen's daughter Frieda, plots a terrorist attack on the British occupying forces.
It would be difficult to imagine a stronger contrast of characters than the stolid and reserved colonel and the architect with a refined aesthetic taste for Mies van de Rohe's Bauhaus style of the rejection of unnecessary adornment or the Austrian landscape painter Johann Joseph Eugene von Guérard. The cultured Stephen clearly appeals to Rachael, who sits at his piano and plays Debussy's "Clair de Lune" or the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler torch song, "Stormy Weather."
It does not take long for the major background to be revealed that haunts the three characters. During the war, Rachel and Lewis lost their young son during the Nazi bombing of England. In turn, Stephen's wife died in the allied bombing of Hamburg. The stiff-upper-lipped Lewis has withdrawn from Rachael and obsessed on the war in order to cope with the loss of his son. Rachael and Stephen are drawn to each other with their shared grief.
While the film's ending may have been melodramatic, the exceptional cinematography and the powerful depiction of the traumatic civilian casualties during the war made "The Aftermath" a haunting and unforgettable film experience.
Absentia: Accomplice (2019)
Superbly Crafted Finale
In the concluding episode, the evidence points to two people as the possible accomplice of Olawade. Seven years of e-mails are being decrypted by the FBI techs. But the identity of Olawade's contact is not spelled out in the episode, leaving the door open for a third season.
On the one hand, Julianne is a suspect because of her power play at the FBI office: Crown is out, and she will take over the operation of the Boston bureau. On the other, Alice is finally tied to the murder of Olawade as his devoted assistant. But she has also been exploited by the diabolical Olawade, and she might not have known the purpose of the testing of young Flynn's blood.
The screenwriters clever set up the final confrontation by isolating Nick and Flynn in the forest on a camping trip. That sets the state for the final confrontation among Emily, Alice, and Julianne.
The final episode skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal the background of Alice as an idealistic young medical student. But she abused her position as a therapist to start a relationship with Nick and worm her way into his life for the purpose of Olawade's study. If she survives, she faces prison time.
This was a solid closing episode that leaves some questions unanswered, yet still provides closure on the Olawade research project. A great finale!
The Mystery of Building 60
In this episode--the best in series--the FBI make use of illegal tactics as they investigate the past of Oduwale. Those tactics include entering the doctor's office without a warrant, plus holding him hostage and torturing him in his home. Wow! What if he is innocent? This episode definitively answers that question.
In one of the subplots, Alice lets Dr. Jack down hard after he purchased a gift for her. She rejects the beautiful birthstone, and she cruelly rejects him. This takes place in the inappropriately named venue of Mercy Hospital. Alice shows no mercy to Jack.
The two-pronged approach of Em and Cal's investigation into Wolfe and the six victims of fentanyl poisoning converges with the search for the truth about Emily's six years in captivity. The secrets lie in the Building 60 project at Saugus University. It was there that Dr. Oduwale appears to have conducted experiments to train resilient, vicious killers like Wolfe.
During the interviews with Emily and subsequently Julianne and Cal, Dr. Oduwale claims that he was only involved in "talks over ping-pong tables." But Em is suspicious of a picture on his office wall that seems familiar. Dr. Oduwale had worked with soldiers at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. Coincidentally, Wolfe had been stationed there and was treated by Dr. Oduwale.
The thesis explored by the FBI is that Dr. Oduwale was the mad experimenter behind the killings and the gas attack of Tyler Brandon Mills. The doctor was using Wolfe to clean up the messes, including the daring infiltration of the FBI that resulted in Mills' death.
Nick learns from Mrs. Mills that Dr. Oduwale had administered experimental psycotropic drugs to her son. For the mother, Tyler's mind began to "work like lightning." The kid was being turned into a killer.
The most suspenseful part of the episode begins with Dr. Oduwale deftly parrying the questions of Cal and Julianne. Em asks Cal to slow-walk the questioning so that she may prepare for Dr. Oduwale's return home. Donning a gas mask the using tear gas, Em forces the confession out of the doctor. The donor patients were the work of Laurie Colson, but the project failed to produce results except for Rex Wolfe, who became the model killer.
But how was Wolfe programmed? Dr. Oduwale reveals that the blood connected to the serum came from Em herself, who was the great success story of the doctor. Dr. Oduwale hints that some of the serum has been used on little Flynn, which would explain his violent outburst when he hauled off and slugged a kid during group therapy.
It now seems like the mystery of Em's past has been resolved. And then: boom! A car explodes outside, and the FBI agents leave the room. At that point, Dr. Oduwale is shot! Another key operative is clearly involved in the secret programming operation. The possible suspects may lie within the FBI: Crown? Julianne?
To be continued.
Absentia: Aggression (2019)
The Convergence of Catalyst, Barrett House, and Saugus University
In this episode, the strands begin to come together in identifying the mysterious connections between the fentanyl murder victims and issues related to Em's past. All of the victims had rashes and all were being treated or diagnosed by someone associated with Catalyst. Still, Em keeps studying the Barrett House files of the orphan kids.
The program opens with a police tribute to Tommy Gibbs. One of Boston's finest. A good man. A great detective. Blah, blah, blah. He was suspended by his boss who is now delivering the glowing accolades in a smarmy speech. The bombshell that is revealed to Em is that Tommy was suspended for investigating the shady Catalyst organization. Em discovers a clue with the word "Quill" written inside Tommy's garage.
Deputy Director of the FBI Webb is coming up from Washington, D.C. to be briefed on the death of Mills. Crown is prepping Em and Cal about the death of Wolfe that occurred outside of Zelena in Eastern Europe. When Webb arrives, he is much more cordial to Julianne than to Crown.
Nick and Alice have a heart-to-heart conversation. Nick opens up about his feelings of being a coward. Alice talks about the doctor's appointment where she learned that she could not produce babies. But she does not disclose her affair with Dr. Jack; she lies by telling her husband that she went to the hotel only to "decompress." Alice also believes that it is important for young Flynn to continue therapy with Dr. Oduwale .
Cal learns that the word Quill pertains to a research project at Saugus University. The project started in the 1970s, then ran out of funding in the '80s. Professor Ulf Maston was head of the project. When Em and Cal visit Saugus, Em has the feeling of déja vù. The professor still appears to be conducting lab work on aggression on a large scale.
Em feels that she is reliving the experience shark tank in building #60 at Saugus. Professor Maston describes how his experiments on stress were related to understanding PTSD. Human subjects were never used, but one of Maston's colleagues did cross the line: Dr. Lu-Feng Shen! As Em staggers through the halls with the realization of the connection of the Saugus project to her life, she comes across an old staff photo and recognizes a one of the clinicians. It is none other than her child's psychologist, Dr. Semo Oduwale!
The plot thickens.
The Hunter and the Hunted
In this seventh episode, Em and Cal are rescued by Cal's old special ops buddy, Holt. In a mountain retreat in Chisinau, Moldova, they take refuge along with Holt's friend Oksana, a sniper for the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980-81. Their mission is to hunt down Wolfe, and it is a mixed blessing. Holt dies at the hands of Wolfe, and Wolfe is blown up in a minefield blast before Em is able to extract information from him about who ordered the murders and why.
Still devoted to Em, Tommy makes a major discovery at Catalyst, as he accesses a secure computer to pull up the long list of names that presumably ties the murders together. But he is suspended by his supervisor for not following proper protocol, hands in his badge and gun, then commits suicide by asphyxiation, finally writing himself out of the script.
Alice has now started an affair with Dr. Jack. But she makes the major mistake of writing a list on the note pad of the Allsbrook Hotel. That is not a good idea for someone married to an FBI agent. Of course, Nick discovers the note. Nick's interview with Erica Lyle goes well, as he lies his way through the false scenario. Erica wants to interview Nick at home with Alice and Flynn to offer the world a portrait of the model family!
The theme of the episode is derived from the wisdom of Oksana, who talks about "the hunt," as expressed in the search for "independence, love, or truth." It is the latter for which Em is searching. For Oksana, what matters is to keep hunting. But Em returns home still without closure on the six murders and now with the death of Tommy on her conscience. His hunt for love came to nought.