Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

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Calvary

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Release: Friday, August 1, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Behold, The Passion of the Brendan Gleeson.

In John Michael McDonagh’s second collaboration with the lovable Dubliner, we get to watch a good Catholic priest endure a brutal psychological and emotional beating for virtually no reason whatsoever. To the tune of Mel Gibson’s graphic portrayal of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazereth, McDonagh takes a wholesome lead and breaks his spirit slowly and painfully.

It’s disheartening to watch because this is Brendan Gleeson and despite how good he is as Father James, there’s simply nothing funny about his character, his circumstances or the things he says, will say, or be forced to say or do. Any amusement brought about by Gleeson’s jovial rotundness remains frustratingly out of reach, sealed off by walls of misery and suffering. And if all of this is indeed meant to amuse (it’s billed as comedy/drama), we’ve stumbled upon the Guinness of black comedies here, folks — this is some dark, heavy stuff.

A mysterious parishioner makes a threat against Father James’ life one sunny afternoon, and tells him — a soul obscured by the privacy of the confession booth — that he has seven days to get his affairs in order. Asked why, the voice tries to reason thus: if you kill a corrupt leader the world fails to notice. Everyone ultimately views the act as justified on the level that that individual deserved what was coming. When harm befalls someone free of blame, the shock of the injustice would surely, ideally ignite the spark of rage within the community at large.

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll reemphasize the cynicism displayed by McDonagh’s filming sensibilities. Specific to this considerably bleak affair, he’s a strong advocate of the notion that misery loves company. His cameras force us to trudge through a town filled to the brim with unsavory characters whose collective depravity stems from a combination of miserable luck and self-made misery. The gang’s all here: perverts, angry drunks, doctors who are also atheists. The daughter of a priest becomes suicidal after the father’s failure to establish strong ties with family after the death of the mother. Yawn. The trigger for her own personal calvary is woeful and quite honestly annoying.

Enter Chris O’Dowd, and — I’m hesitant to admit this in fear of interrupting this free flowing vitriol  — at least he contributes to the picture its most complex character. As the town butcher, he doesn’t seem to mind who is sleeping with his wife. It’s only a piece of meat after all. There’s a lonely millionaire who favors luxury over happiness (this character is nothing more than a stereotype); a wife-beater; a washed-up American writer (M. Emmet Walsh) hanging on for dear life, in a pretty literal sense; and then we have the lead actor’s own son, Domnhall in an admittedly effective and borderline cameo appearance as a completely depraved, emotionless prisoner, guilty of some crime you’re probably better off not knowing about.

stoic foolish Father James (seriously man, just get out of town) makes the rounds to all of these wounded souls and more, all while the knowledge of his possible impending death hangs over his head. One shouldn’t call it a dereliction of duties if one’s life has been personally threatened in church. You’d be forgiven for taking a sabbatical in the face of an apparent act of terrorism — technically speaking, the threat is being made against this church as well as the priest. I suppose then, there’s the ultimate conflict of not having a story to film. That’s a pretty thin veil though, considering all that this intimate window into life in Northern Ireland happens to capture.

Calvary is a visually gorgeous film, one laced with scenic vistas and rich greens and blacks (beautifully emphasized in the above movie poster). It is also far too well-acted to completely dismiss. Despite the annoyance of Reilly’s character, this is not her fault and she handles a nuanced and fragile individual convincingly. She also happens to be one of the least offensive characters on display, a relative compliment. Little needs to be said about Gleeson, who happens to extend his streak of compelling protagonists with this peculiar nonpareil.

At the end of the day, despite deep convictions and some fine performances, the final product cannot be described as an enjoyable or even worthwhile experiment. You may as well add that to the list of things it shares with Mel Gibson’s relentless bloodletting farce.

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2-5Recommendation: I really can’t say that I recommend seeing Calvary unless you possess a masochistic streak in you. It’s next-to-no fun for most of the duration as the characters, while on some level identifiable, are not ones you’d ever want to share a room with, much less intimate confessions. Kudos goes to Gleeson and O’Dowd, however, for a pair of stellar performances that go beyond acting. I at times felt these people really were this far gone. That doesn’t exactly make me feel any better about the fact that sometimes the world is just evil; that there are priests out there touching kids. A fact this film all but rails against like a child in a grocery store unable to buy his candy bar.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “I think there’s too much talk about sins and and not enough about virtues.”

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Escape Plan

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Release: Friday, October 18, 2013

[Theater]

What do the Terminator, Jesus, Jurassic Park, 50 Cent and prison break all have in common? The answer: director Mikael Håfström’s beyond-ludicrous Escape Plan.

That may be the weirdest lead-in ever written, but ultimately it’s what you are going to pay for in this latest battle between Hollywood’s biggest brand name actors. Arnie and Sly team up as they try together to break out from the most highly-guarded and technologically advanced Chuck-E-Cheese (a.k.a. prison), with Sly being an expert at jailbreak — it’s sort of his career choice — and Schwarzenegger simply being the help from the inside Stallone will require to break out this time. If there is indeed a plot to this movie, that’s it and that’s as complicated as it gets, too, making the film open for big, dumb and entertaining fights and, not to mention, undoubtedly a whole lot of criticism.

As a sucker for Schwarzenegger schtick (can anyone NOT like the Austrian posed as the sheriff of a sleepy midwestern town, I mean come on!), and a moderate fan of Stallone’s, I have come to semi-defend this movie. But there’s only so much that can be said this time around. Needless to say, Escape Plan is unapologetically over-the-top and is far from taking itself seriously. The story is as loosely structured and simplistic in concept as possible to ensure that most attention and entertainment value is concentrated on the fight scenes, scenes which feature the big guys in even grayer and wrinklier form than when we last saw them. As per the usual formulas of Arnie/Stallone’s movies as of late, dialogue is equally dumbed down.

It was pretty easy to gather all this from trailers, though, so what exactly, if anything, does the Swedish director do here that makes his film appealing, worthy of your ticket purchase?

To be completely honest, there were only slivers of moments in this movie which felt original and which were truly worth seeing the film for, even if you’re only likely to catch it on DVD. (I don’t blame those who are going to pass right on over this, as the film doesn’t have much character.)

If you were to combine the popcorn-n-soda satisfaction of Arnie’s last movie, The Last Stand, with the dark and brooding atmosphere that Stallone likes to skulk about in for most of his (Bullet to the Head being the most recent example) what you would get is this product. Escape Plan, like its main characters, plays things extremely safe and does everything by the book.

A few introductions might help make this film make more sense to you, as well as it might clarify that opening sentence of this review. So. . .first things first. What’s Stallone’s beef this time? As it turns out, his Ray Breslin is one of the foremost authorities on safety standards as it pertains to prison securities. He’s written a book on the matter and has garnered respect for his ability to break out of any prison he’s ever been put into. He works in a tiny agency that is staffed by three others — Amy Ryan (The Office, Dan in Real Life), along with Curtis Jackson/50 Cent, work with Breslin under the supervision of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Lester Clark. (Horrible name, even worse performance.)

Breslin is informed of one last assignment he could take up; entering and then attempting to break out of a prison called “The Tomb,” a facility that is purportedly inescapable. This horrendous place is run by an evil man named Hobbes (played by THE Jim Caviezel from The Passion) who likes to refer to the inmates as “assets,” and who also speaks in quiet, menacing tones. Caviezel, it needs to be said, is actually pretty good in this film and his presence stacks up quite well against that of Stallone’s and Arnie’s.

Of course, when Breslin agrees to undertake this latest challenge. . .things go awry, and soon it becomes clear that his incarceration will be more permanent than anyone previously had hoped. His attempts to be tracked by his agency are quickly exposed and rebuffed by the brutal prison staff. His transportation methods are questionable at best, and seem to go differently than how Breslin had planned them to go. Has he finally taken a job that he can’t get himself out of?

Not before long Breslin comes across a similarly gargantuan, gray-haired man who introduces himself in a thick Austrian accent as Rottmayer. And, if you’re going to make friends in the joint, it may as well be with Mr. Universe, right? The usual tropes come into play as the two start drafting up a plan to bust out — each one sacrifices things for the benefit of the two of them, and so on and so forth — and these trials will inevitably come to involve the efforts of several other inmates along the way.

Reiterating: this by no means is a good film, but the enjoyment is derived purely from the comforts we find in the aging Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who still possess great on-screen chemistry. The affairs surrounding them are as buffoonish as ever, but this particular conceit serves them pretty well on a number of occasions. There are more than a few shamelessly dramatic reaction shots of Arnie and Stallone which caused uproarious laughter in my screening. I believe just this happening alone certifies this movie has done its job.

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3-0Recommendation: Plan on Escape Plan being the most generic plan ever. If you come in with the most tempered of expectations and an appreciation for supreme cheese, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Although it does get off to a slow start, it’s exactly what you would expect once Stallone crash lands in what appears to be Schwarzenegger’s stomping grounds. There’s also a good bit of nostalgic value to be had here as well, for any who have been long-time followers of these legendary action stars. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “You hit like a vegetarian!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Prisoners

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Release: Friday, September 20, 2013

[Theater]

Some will call it a movie. Others are going to call it psychological and emotional hell. It would be an insult to consider this merely the former, and one of the highest praises to call it the latter. Canadian director Denis Villenueve cranks up the tension like you’ve never seen before in a film that strikes extremely close to home for most of us.

When the children of Keller and Gracie Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, respectively) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) disappear at Thanksgiving in broad daylight, we are hereby thrust into a gauntlet of deeply personal fear, anxiety and despair as police and parents alike attempt to forge their own ways of getting to the bottom of one of the most baffling and chilling child abduction cases created in recent memory.

Not only is the fundamental concept disturbing — the very idea of young, innocent kids becoming victims a contributor to the dread and horror that this film so convincingly stirs up in us — but an incredibly well-directed story and first-rate acting are likely to leave considerable splashes in the pond of early Oscar contenders. While it may not win anything or even get nominated (it should), Prisoners for sure marks a change of seasons with regards to the kinds of releases we’re going to be accustomed to seeing in the upcoming months.

Breathe a sigh of relief. Fall is here.

Hugh Jackman puts on the performance of a lifetime as a blue-collar working, family man with perhaps one of the most macho names in recent movie history — Keller Dover, who’s likely to mess with a guy named that? His Keller is undoubtedly the devoted paternal figure, as well as he is a survivalist — “pray for the best but prepare for the worst;” and, it may also bear worth mentioning that he becomes central to the film’s complex morality play.

The reliably gritty role as a father on the verge of a complete mental breakdown plays to Jackman’s strengths as his character is forced to abduct the man he thinks is responsible for the disappearance of the girls, and to torture him accordingly. The entire ensemble is top-notch in Prisoners, but it is really Jackman who’s most haunting and takes us to some emotional lows we hadn’t quite experienced thus far in 2013. As time becomes more and more precious with every passing hour, Dover is forced to take actions that may taint his reputation as a decent man; is he just desperate or perhaps something more? At what point does a person sacrifice their dignity for the sake of finding out the truth?

The movie is able to handle such controversy and complexity as it features a range of reactions from each of its central characters who put on breathtaking performances. Terrence Howard is again excellent as a man who’s clearly devastated by the events but somehow cannot find it within himself to go to the lengths Dover does to try and find resolution. The wives — a distraught Maria Bello will break your heart, while Viola Davis shines in a couple of key scenes — are realistic, equally important to the story (though not as front-and-center as Keller and Franklin, clearly), and compelling to watch. No family member is unaccounted for and this is perhaps what makes Keller Dover’s cracking composure so interesting, and most of all, devastating to experience: he represents something of an extreme. (If Wolverine/Logan was a 9 out of 10, Keller is an 11 or 12.)

When we get saddled up with the oddball Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the situation jumps up a notch with the intrigue factor. The detective is a hard-working, thorough criminal investigator who stops at nothing to seek out justice — though his job may be viewed more-or-less as an impossibility. He doesn’t have enough information (supposedly the RV they detain and sweep over reveals no evidence of any kind that would be useful); he’s also slightly overwhelmed by the emotional outrages of Keller in particular (“I want you to look for my daughter!!!” — right, got it. He wasn’t doing this before you yelled this in his face), and his boss isn’t entirely convinced there is anything anyone can do in this case. Despite the bleak outlook, Loki is thoroughly committed to his duties; Gyllenhall committed to this commitment.

Undoubtedly, this review is all about some cast appraisal. There’s no way around it: each actor and actress herein sells the emotions — highlighted by Jackman’s rage and Bello’s descent into deep depression — as though these events were truly happening to them. To continue in this trend, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo (who plays Dano’s adoptive mother, Holly) cannot be overlooked either. Dano is back again in another shady role as a lead suspect in the abduction case, and as he falls victim to the emotional fury of one of the fathers, his Alex becomes quite the complex character in itself. In fact, he is proof that no character in Prisoners is free from the burden of doubt and disbelief.

Barring the third act which arguably overstays its welcome, this movie is a stroke of genius. It is unrelentingly emotional and in that regard, quite exhausting. Running at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Prisoners requires endurance. It also assumes the average moviegoer is able to keep up with a relatively involved crime investigation. There’s a lot going on here, and it will pay dividends if you’re meticulously paying attention to detail, perhaps as much as Detective Loki is.

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4-5Recommendation: Imagine your children are all of a sudden removed from your life. You’re not sure where they are or how they are doing; you don’t even know if they are alive after a week of being missing. What would you do to get them back, and to what lengths would you go to ensure that that happens? It’s not exactly an easy watch, no. . . but these dire circumstances make for extremely engrossing viewing. Even if you’re not the head of a household, you’re going to find this an involving and sprawling story that’s difficult to believe is not BOATS.

Rated: R

Running Time: 153 mins.  

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