Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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Rating: 4.3/5 (3 votes cast)

The Village

These days, mentioning the name M. Night Shyamalan while in line at the cineplex is a good way to get a punch in the mouth. Over the last five years, the man named after an orbital phase has become synonymous with insulting, navel-gazing movies like The Last Air Bender, The Happening, and of course, the unforgivable Lady in the Water. People especially hate him because the worse his movies get, the more in love with himself he seems to fall. The reason producers keep giving him chances has to be that his first few films were true masterpieces. Critics and Audiences alike called The Sixth Sense (1999) one of the best movies ever made. Unbreakable (2000) was less impressive, but definitely fit the mold of “both new and good.”  By the time Signs  was released in 2002, Shyamalan had his own genre.

And then, in between these gems and Shyamalan’s crimes against humanity, there was … this. The Village (2004) occupies an odd spot in history; Shyamalan’s pivot-point between greatness and sucking. Some loved it. Some hated it. It definitely isn’t your conventional movie, but then Shyamalan was always anything but conventional. On which side of the fence does it fall? Is it more like Shyamalan at his best, or his worst? Let’s find out.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

It must be acknowledged that the biggest selling point in the way this film was marketed turned out to be a total sham. A village full of apparently colonial people lives isolated from the rest of the world, oppressed by the fear of “Those We Don’t Speak of,” creatures that lurk in the forest around them. Good ominous beginning. As you might expect, there is a twist toward the end. But while the twist in The Sixth Sense  made us re-think everything that happened in the movie, and increased our enjoyment of the story, the twist in The Village  is a massive let down: the creatures are fake. Yep. That’s it. They spend 1:45 scaring you with these things, only to tell you what anyone over 5 knew walking into the theatre: that they are people in costumes. From this, and the dialogue that follows, it’s not hard to figure out the other twist: that this is actually happening present day, and the town elders have attempted to create a utopian world by isolating themselves from the rest of civilization, using the creatures to scare villagers from exploring beyond the village outskirts.

So this one must be a turd, right? Not so fast. I first saw The Village when it was newly made and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Some months later I found I was dying to see it again, so  I rented it. Obviously, I knew the twist, but I still was caught up in the story and the passion that the actors put into it. A young Bryce Dallas Howard and Jaquin Phoenix light up the screen as the primal couple, who only slowly begin to realize their love for each other. The older members of the cast include a number of actors who have had more glorious rolls, such as Sigourney Weaver, former slayer of aliens, now cast as a humble, devoted house wife, and Brendan Gleeson, who reveled in badassery in Braveheart, Gangs of New York, and  28 Days Later, now confined to a small roll as a man too old to do much more than smoke a pipe. You might think these post-stars would be a little bitter, but what they bring to the screen reminds us that there are truly “no small parts; only small actors.”

This film probably repulsed a lot of viewers on a first viewing just because of the obvious gaff discussed above, but it merits a second and third viewing. As I watched it a second time, I came to understand that the gaff doesn’t harm the film because it isn’t a film about monsters. It’s a film about the community on screen and the people in it. The power of the movie comes home as boys tease each other with dares and girls dream about boys. We are drawn deeper in as their utopian society is suddenly, unexpectedly shattered by the crime of murder. And, despite suspension of belief, we are on the edge of our seats as a young, frightened, and blind girl (Howard) is forced to trek alone through the forbidden wood to save the boy she loves. And of course, even after the “twist,” there are some scary surprises waiting in the wood.

As good as the cast is, they might be outperformed by the score. Composer James Newton relied mostly on the solos of violinist Hillary Hahn to enhance the picture. It serves well to reflect the isolation that the characters feel in many scenes. This is one of the few movies that is worth checking out just for the soundtrack. The music excites, builds tension, and carries emotion just as well as what we see. A great deal of effort was also put into the costumes and the set design, both for authenticity and beauty, and it makes for a lot of sumptuous visuals. And I have to say, Shayamalan’s directing was still pretty good at this point. One scene in particular comes to mind, in which Those They Don’t Speak of attack the village (below). The boy on the watchtower sounds the alarm, and there are several minutes of people scrambling to gather the children, get inside, and get into their hiding places. This can’t have been an easy scene to pull off, with the amount of fast activity that had to be captured, the number of child actors, and the number of plot points that have to be hinted at, but Shayamalan did it brilliantly. Not only is the story told, but it’s a truly beautiful scene. Even on a second viewing, when I knew there was no real danger, I was caught up in it. When the rubber meets the road, Shayamalan really can do it — when he’s not jerking us around, that is.

Even as early as Signs, some of Shyamalan’s annoying habits were beginning to come to light. He loved to have something really important happen, such as an alien attacking someone, at point A, and, for no reason, point the camera squarely at point B. Or else, force us to look through some distorting piece of scenery, or look at a poor reflection. There’s a lot to be said for not showing too much, especially if you want to build suspense or scare the audience, but in order to do those two things, you also have to make us feel with the characters. For example, in Signs, when the main family has retreated to the basement, an alien hand reaches through the coal chute and grabs Morgan. A scuffle ensues as Grant and Merrill try to pull him to safety. Shyamalan chooses this moment to wave the camera around incoherently, showing us nothing. The characters see what’s happening! Why the hell shouldn’t we? The next morning, Morgan is again grabbed by an alien. This time, for the first time in the movie, we get a really good look at one of these things. Merrill then kills the alien with a bat. And then Shyamalan treats us to one more bad reflection, in an over-turned tv, of the alien’s chest rising as it struggles to breath. What is the point of this? We’ve already seen the alien!

The Village takes this a step further. Some of the most crucial scenes are interrupted by completely meaningless things. For example, near the end, when one of Those They Don’t Speak of (who seem to get mentioned a lot) chases Howard’s character, Ivy, we see the creature lunge at her from behind a tree. She runs. Then, for no reason, we see an empty rocking chair in front of a grove of trees. Then we see the creature chasing Ivy. Then we see a close up of a weather vane, over looking a hilltop. Then we see Ivy running. Just when it looks like something’s about to happen, we see another grove of trees. What is the point of this? These cut away shots don’t even match the main scene, or each other; they were obviously shot on different days, in different weather at different times of the year, and they serve no purpose whatsoever.

Of course, Shyamalan went on to commit atrocities like Lady in the Water (2006), where we almost never see anything except as a distorted reflection. All in all though, The Village is well worth checking out. It’s not without its faults by any means, but when the dust settles, what you have is a series of great scenes, beautifully shot and beautifully acted, perfectly capturing the emotion of the moment, all with a haunting score playing in the back ground. Much like in Van Helsing, the power of the performances smooths over the imperfections in the plot.

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Rating: 4.3/5 (15 votes cast)

Adjustment Bureau

I really hate to down-grade a movie just because it doesn’t fit into an established genre. After all, some of history’s greatest sleeper hits, like The Crow or Dark City, are impossible to find a shelf for. Some, like The Matrix, actually wound up founding their own genre. The problem is, those genres do exist for a reason. There are certain kinds of stories that hit the mark and resonate with humanity, and for every movie that was good enough to break the mold, like those above, there are probably several that tried and failed, like this one. It brings to mind a scene from Tales from the Crypt, in which a starving artist protests to a museum curator, “You promised to give me a showing if I came up with something new!” She laughs, “I meant something new, and good.”

At the start of The Adjustment Bureau (Dir. George Nolfi, 2011), we meet David Norris (Matt Damon), who is running for Senator from New York. He is way ahead at first but, over the course of a five-minute montage, the campaign takes a turn for the worse. On election night, he realizes he’s done and enters a rest room to work on his concession speech. Inside, he finds a woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from security (long story). He is quite taken with her, and, after security shows up, and she runs away, he reenters his “victory” party and gives the greatest speech he has given in his life.

The scene switches to one month later, and Norris has returned to his old job in a corporate office, anticipating the next senate race. He boards a bus and, to his surprise, finds Elise. He sits beside her, they have instant chemistry, and he gets her phone number.

So it’s been a long set up process, but it looks like the story is finally starting to go some where.

Norris arrives at work, walks into his boss’s office, and suddenly sees his boss, immobilized in a standing position, surrounded by menacing figures in suits and opaque helmets who are scanning him with lasers. Norris runs, and is chased by an army of men in suits. Each time he stops at a coworker’s desk for help, he finds them immobilized and apparently unconscious.

Well, alright! This movie turns out to be a Matrix-esq thriller. Sure, it won’t be as good as The Matrix, but I’m intrigued. Who are these guys? From what sinister place do they come? What twists in this movie will make us question what we think we know?

Norris is captured and finds himself tied to a chair in a warehouse, surrounded by the men in black (above). The man in charge identifies himself as Richardson (John Slattery) and tells Norris “We are the ones who make sure things happen according to plan.” He responds to a few more question with equally cryptic, bureaucratic terms. They gave Norris’ boss an “adjustment.” He will be fine, and will not remember what happened. This is being done because Norris was not supposed to see Elise a second time, according to something called “the Plan,” which is being developed by the head of the Adjustment Bureau, known only as “the Chairman.” If Norris ever reveals what he’s seen to anyone, he will be “reset” (essentially lobotomized). Richardson burns Elise’s phone number and tells Norris to forget her. Norris is then returned to his office, where no one else is aware of what’s happened.

David takes the same bus for the next three years, hoping to see Elise. One day, he finally does, and tries to reconnect with her.

So … now we’re back to the romantic comedy?

She initially pushes him away for not calling her for three years, but seems unable to resist the natural chemistry they always have. He winds up taking her to lunch. As they walk around town, enjoying each other’s company, Richardson and the Bureau start following them around, trying to interfere. Richardson will give an order such as “have his aide call him now.” And then Norris’ cell will ring. A Bureau member tells Richardson “If they kiss, anything strong enough to break them up will cause ripples over your limit.”

Really? … This movie has an army of threatening figures in suits, armed with seemingly god-like powers and scarily cryptic dialogue, and this is what they spend their time on?

This is how the movie goes. As Norris and Elise flirt, fight, fall in love, break up, and get back together, we see these “agents” peeking around corners, running in and out of magic doors, and causing things like lost keys and untied shoes to nudge events back on Plan.

As I waited for this movie to end, I found myself wondering who out there would really get into it. It doesn’t work as a guy movie. There isn’t enough action to make it interesting. The agents are cool at first, but never develop into anything. Their offices and their attire are something right out of the 1940s, and they all have banal, hyper-anglo names like Mitchell and Thompson. By the end, watching them work is about as interesting as watching a clerk file papers.

While these guys look like something out of The Matrix, they might be more at home in a movie like Just Like Heaven or Simply Irresistible; films that play with the idea of some higher power intervening in romantic relationships. But The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t work as one of those movies either, partly because we don’t see much of Elise and there isn’t enough attention paid to the details of their relationship. So, as a chick flick, it still comes up short.

It also fails to deliver as any serious contemplation of the questions it raises. We see arguments about fate vs. free will, love vs. success, etc., but none of them do more than throw out the standard lines. All the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo really gets old after awhile. There are a lot of eye-roll-inducing lines like “Chairman has the Plan. We only see part of it.” Why can’t they just call him “God” like everybody else?

Most ships follow the established trade routes and, in so doing, still deliver some worthwhile goods. Once in a while, a ship leaves all known territory and discovers a new world. But this one leaves one harbor, only to make a dash for the safety of another, only to turn at the last minute and head for another, until it’s lost at sea. I have to give Nolfi some credit for trying to be different. So here’s to those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.

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Rating: 2.0/5 (2 votes cast)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third KindAs we head into another summer movie season full of action, dudes built like mack trucks, and explosions galore, I thought it would be fitting to take a step back to an earlier time before films were all about spectacle and marketing tie-ins.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind is, in many ways, the best kind of science fiction even though there are virtually no explosions and we only get glimpses of aliens or spaceships until the very end.  Directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the masters of the genre, it follows the story of average dude Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss, fresh on the heels of another little movie he did with Spielberg) who gets a tad too close to an alien spaceship one strange night while out in his pickup truck investigating a widespread power outage.  Over the next few days he starts having visions of an object that he feels compelled to re-create in paintings, clay, and mashed potatoes at the dinner table.  Meanwhile, other people around the country are having similar visions and experiencing otherworldly phenomena, most notably Barry Guiler, a kid with a curious bent who wanders a bit too far from his mom one night only to get picked up by the invaders. Throughout all this we never actually see the aliens–only the effect they are having on the people who claim to have experienced these encounters.

While North America is being sent into a tizzy trying to deal with the strange phenomenae, entire squadrons of missing World War II aircraft are discovered in the desert in mint condition.  It’s these strange events that cause French scientist Claude Lancombe to investigate the matter further, leading to the eventual discovery of a probably location for an alien landing site along with five distinct musical tones that might possibly lead to a method of communicating with the extra terrestrials.  Keep in mind there’s no gunfights, and no national monuments are singled out for destruction.  In many ways, Close Encounters of the Third Kind more accurately resembles a cerebral thriller or mystery like Inception or Vertigo rather than a traditional science fiction movie, but it’s these qualities that make it anything but traditional.  And yet, Spielberg keeps things engaging and interesting throughout, while building up to a climax that is as massive in scope as anything we might see in a multiplex today.

Close Encounters: Roy Neary

Roy Neary, searching for meaning in a pile of clay.

Just as E.T. was first and foremost a story about divorce that also happened to involve aliens from another planet, Close Encounters is a story about family that is struggling to stay together despite the father’s descent into madness.  Roy Neary is a good guy who is overcome with strange visions, and pushes his family away while they struggle to deal with changes they cannot hope to understand.  The focus is kept squarely on Neary’s quest for understanding, Jillian Guiler’s search for her son, and their refusal to accept anything other than concrete answers.  Strangely, there is little to be found in the way of redemption, as Neary makes some very unexpected choices near the end–choices that Spielberg himself has since admitted he would change if he were to make the movie today.  But these unconventional choices made by Neary lend an authentic quality to the movie that is fairly unique in modern cinema, and coupled with the stunningly realistic special effects that can easily hold their own against anything Hollywood has to offer today, catapult Close Encounters to the upper echelon of cinematic science fiction. This one is not to be missed by anyone who is a fan of the genre, or anyone who just likes good movies.


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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Lost: Season 3

Lost Season 3Warning: this review most likely contains spoilers, depending on how much of the show you have seen. Read at your own risk…

The second season of everyone’s favorite Gilligan’s Island-meets-The Matrix drama left off with several unexplained questions and one doozy of a cliffhanger.  And though Season 3 addresses a precious few of the lingering issues, by the end we are left with even more unexplained riddles and lingering problems.  So much so that the show begins to walk a fine line between engaging drama and self-parody, as the near-ridiculous heights to which the drama gets ratcheted are sometimes too outlandish to be taken seriously.  But through it all is a solid yarn of character-based dramatic storytelling that keeps things from spinning entirely out of control, and keeps the interest level high enough to hold the interest of even the most impatient of viewers.

Whereas the first season was mostly exposition, introducing us to the characters, their backstories, and the island, the second season went a great deal farther into what was actually happening on the island.  We were introduced to the Dharma Initiative, the Hatch, the Others, and the mystery behind characters like the french woman was swept away.  But Season 3 takes things in a different direction, as the group of survivors is now fragmented physically as well as interpersonally.  Sawyer, Jack, and Kate are imprisoned by the Others, and the rest of the Oceanic 815 survivors get by as best they can without their leader while also trying to rescue their friends.  Much of the first several episodes deal with the Others, who become much more humanized and less like faceless evildoers.  In fact, if there is a theme to Season 3 it would be the pulling back of the curtain, as some of the mysteries about the Others are found to have perfectly normal and rational explanations.  Even the mysterious smoke monster becomes more understandable, and we learn of its limitations as well.

Lost: John Locke

John Locke, not taking "no" for an answer.

One reason the series has always worked well is that the dramatic tension is a natural extension of the characters and their situations.  In Season 1, we wanted to know who these people were and how they were going to survive.  Season 2 furthers this idea by introducing new conflicts and revealing more about larger issues like the Dharma Initiative.  But Season 3, partly due to the compressed time frame (the events of the entire season only span a few weeks’ time on the island), tends to fall back on some relatively cheap 24-like tactics to hold viewer interest.  Watching Jack engage in yet another shouting match with Ben, or having an endless stream of people being held at gunpoint unless so-and-so does such-and-such, or ending episodes with cheap cliffhangers tends to deviate from the spirit of the show.  It’s not bad, just unnecessary, and possibly a response to somewhat downward trends in ratings too. (The first episode of Season 3 had almost 19 million viewers.  By the end it was down to just under 14 million.)  What is a travesty, though, is the killing off of some characters, both long- and short-term, that started near the end of Season 2 and continues here as well.  Killing off a beloved individual just to up the ratings or stymie a case of writer’s block is cheap, and it’s sad to see Lost treading down this path.

One of the biggest issues I have with the show is how characters just never give a straight answer to anything.  It seems as though many of the conflicts, problems, and deaths could be easily avoided if Ben and his friends sat down with Jack and the survivors and calmly explained what in the world was going on.  Even the most simplest of questions are met with enigmatic answers followed by a quick fade to the title card or a commercial break.  I still trust that the writers know what they are doing, but there are a couple times when it seems like the reason Jack or Sawyer can’t get a straight answer out of Ben or Juliet is because the show creators don’t even know what’s going on.

Lost: Hurley

Remember Hurley's all-important "numbers" from Season 2? Neither do the writers of the show...

However, when the show gets it right, it really gets it right.  Ben emerges as one of the more complex and characters in recent television, and the exploration of what is really going on with the island becomes thoroughly compelling. Character flashbacks continue to add new levels of depth to Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Hurley, and the rest of the core gang, and Desmond’s penchant for predictions is pretty potent as well.  There is even one character who kicks the bucket right at the bitter end, but in a meaningful and perhaps even inspirational fashion.  The budget is clearly bigger than ever before too, which means we are treated to grandiose sets, large explosions, and a lot more sheer grandeur than before.  The downside to all this?  Some characters are left behind, and by the end of the season if we didn’t have the occasional group shot to remind us of the 40-odd people on the island, one would think the survivors were limited solely to a mere handful of misplaced good-looking mid-20’s SoHo dwellers.

Lost is still one of the best shows on TV, and its rich blend of science fiction, drama, and mystery remain almost as compelling as ever.  But a few cracks are beginning to show around the seams by the end of Season 3, and I just hope things improve a little for the next go-round.


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Imagine a world where vampires live in fear. And not of Dr. Van Helsing or Blade, but of poverty, crime and environmental destruction. Sound hard to believe? That’s the world of Daybreakers (2009), directed by the Spierig brothers.

In 2019, vampires outnumber humans more than ten to one. The vampires have become somewhat comfortable with their dominant status, and now drive expensive cars away from suburban homes to boring white collar jobs in the city. Certain noteworthy changes in culture have resulted from this. For instance, all buildings and vehicles are now equipped with lead sheets that cover the windows during daylight hours, and loudspeakers broadcast warnings when there is one hour until daybreak. Vampires in suits line up at coffee stands for coffee with a shot of blood in it.

Subway commuters. And you thought vampires were cool.

But of course, there’s a problem; one that you’ve probably already guessed. With so few humans left, vampires are in danger of starvation. Most of the humans still in existence are kept sedated, hooked up to giant machines ala The Matrix, being farmed for their blood. The government rations blood more and more strictly, with those in control keeping a little extra for themselves, naturally. An increasingly fearful – and hungry –middle class hurries past dark alleys and hides in their homes, and the lower classes, “subsiders,” deprived of blood, mutate into something out of … well, a vampire movie (below).

Amidst all this, we meet Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief hematologist for a corporation that controls most of America’s remaining blood supply. With riots breaking out over the blood shortage, the company is putting increasing pressure on Ed to create some kind of “blood-substitute.” Meanwhile, Ed wrestles with his conscience over being a vampire and refuses to touch human blood, to the detriment of his health. This creates a good deal of tension between Ed and his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), who hunts humans for the U.S. Army.

A small number of humans are still free, hiding in rural areas. After a chance meeting with some of them, Ed receives an invitation to the countryside to learn about a cure for vampirism that they have discovered, and a chance to restore balance to the food chain.

The cast drives this one home with a number of powerhouse actors. Sam Neil, whom we seem to see about as often as a real vampire, plays Charles Bromley, the CEO of Ed’s company. One of history’s most under-rated actors, Neil blends the smooth charm of a Manhattan sophisticate with the sinister nature of a bloodsucker in a fascinating way. The inimitable Willem Dafoe also appears as the grizzled former vampire who stumbled upon the miracle cure. A collection of Aussie stars (Daybreakers was filmed in Australia) rounds out the cast nicely.

Hawke and Dafoe do not suck in "Daybreakers."

Daybreakers could justifiably be called a horror movie, but not in the way one normally thinks of horror. It does get gory – even ridiculously so – at times, but it’s not about the gore. It’s about the horrors of a society that has gotten too comfortable, and is eating itself. As corrupt potentates drink blood wine and eat blood caviar, we wonder how much longer civilization can bear the strain. The pristine homes and manicured lawns of suburbia are nothing more than petty amusements the vampires use to distract themselves from their impending doom. Near the end, we bear witness to the kind of moral travesties that desperation is often used to justify. And it’s all horribly familiar; the story of our lives, retold through the bloodshot eyes of the undead.

I wouldn’t want to put anyone off this movie, because it is one of the best I have

Neil drinks blood, but still does not suck in "Daybreakers."

seen in a long time. For all of the negativity, it actually has a pretty uplifting ending (especially for a vampire movie), despite a few painfully sad moments along the way. There are also a number of genuinely fun scenes, including a hair-raising home invasion by a bat-like subsider. Even better, this scene is followed by an unintentionally hilarious crime-investigation scene, with every law enforcement cliché from the past 60 years standing around the decapitated body of this bizare creature from hell.

I figured I could get some work done during this movie, but my papers were left forgotten on the coffee table as I was glued to the screen. Daybreakers was only the second movie done by the Spierig brothers, but it’s as gripping and thought-provoking as anything out there. If you’ve got a strong stomach, it’s a must see.

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Law Abiding Citizen

You’ve probably seen The Dark Knight, so imagine what that movie would have been like if the Joker had been the hero. That’s the basic idea of Law Abiding Citizen. The Joker is Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler, looking much more vulnerable than he did in 300), who has an experience in the first scene that would probably drive most people to super-villainhood. Two men, Ames and Dalby, break into his home, stab him, and rape and murder his wife and daughter.

Playing opposite Butler is Jamie Fox as assistant Philadelphia D.A. Nick Rice, who prosecutes the two defendants. The case draws a bad judge, who suppresses DNA evidence, making Nick nervous as to whether he can win. Nick then has the unpleasant task of telling Clyde that he feels he has no choice but to offer Dalby a plea bargain to testify against Ames and put Ames on death row. Clyde, of course, begs him not to do it.

Butler lights up the screen as a man who's lost everything.

As a prosecutor, I identified with Nick’s struggle a great deal. Prosecutors have to work in a flawed system, concerned more with the rights of criminals than those of victims, and we have to make a lot of hard choices. Nick’s decision is based partly on a belief that he has no choice and that “some justice is better than no justice at all.” However, he is also motivated partly by the desire to preserve his 96% conviction rate, and his ambition to one day become D.A. He devastates Clyde when he makes the deal.

Nick Rice searches for clues

The scene switches  to ten years later. Nick witnesses Ames’ execution, when something goes horribly wrong (or maybe right). As the serum slips into Ames, he begins to writhe and scream. The serum is supposed to bring about death painlessly, but Ames dies in agony. It is later discovered that somebody switched the canister of serum for another chemical. Meanwhile, Dalby, a free man, finds himself drugged and kidnapped by Clyde, and strapped to a gurney, where Clyde explains everything  he’s going to do to him in painful detail, before slowly cutting Dalby’s body apart while Dalby screams (the explanation comes in handy because the audience is mercifully spared most of what happens).

Nick gives Clyde a bracelet made by his daughter.

Clyde is arrested and interrogated by – you guessed it – Nick. He offers confessions in exchange for being provided luxuries during his pre-trial custody. Ever-concerned about his conviction rate, Nick agrees to purchase the confessions. However, it soon becomes clear that Clyde was planning on being “caught” the whole time. From inside a jail cell, he begins to unfold his plan for retribution against the entire corrupt legal system, saving Nick for last.

It's not a movie until something blows up!

Law Abiding Citizen is one of few movies that I have seen that actually give an accurate portrayal of the legal world. I definitely identified with the struggles – both external and internal – that prosecutors must face. We live in a dark world, and I often wonder how civilization holds together at all. Much like The Dark Knight, however, the realism breaks down as Clyde’s homicidal antics go further and further. It’s impossible to believe one man could hold an entire city hostage from inside a jail cell, even with ten years to plan. Foxx and Butler both turn in tour-de-force acting jobs and involve the audience in their struggles. We tend to root for Nick, and yet we can’t help but feel angry with him for chickening out and playing politics. Meanwhile, it’s fun at first to watch Clyde get his vengeance, but he goes way too far. The supporting cast also does a great job. Some of the most memorable shots are of people’s faces when they realize they are about to die – not an easy thing to pull off. Colm Meany gets a rare heroic roll, and actually survives the whole movie.

This is one of those movies not everyone will enjoy, but everyone should see.

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