Review: Seven Days in Utopia

This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com

Seven Days in Utopia is perhaps the most blatant piece of propaganda I have recently come across in mainstream cinema. The new “inspirational” sports drama based on the novel Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia follows young pro golfer Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black) as he learns zen and the art of proper putting technique under the tutelage of reformed drunk and retired PGA golfer Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall) in Utopia, Texas.

This film treads entirely on the surface and how Luke ends up in Utopia is inconsequential. Suffice it to say that after a dismal performance at the previous year’s Texas Open complete with grown man temper tantrums, the relationship between Luke and his overbearing father and caddy implodes on national television. Still haunted by the event, Luke drives off in a huff towards Utopia, narrowly misses hitting a cow in the middle of the road, and instead crashes into Johnny’s fence. Just like God’s green earth, the car will take seven days to make new again, which is perfect because that’s exactly how long it takes for Luke to get back his game face under Johnny’s ever watchful eye.

What follows is a bland sequence of formulaic events spanning the titular seven days and the following PGA Texas Open. By divine grace, Johnny  just happens to have built a golf course in this town of less than 500 people and each day Luke learns a different lesson about life and golf in an unorthodox way. “[Blank] is a lot like golf,” says Johnny, and like a white southern Mr. Miyagi he proceeds to tutor Luke in the ways of fly fishing, painting, and even aviation, all the while insisting that these activities have connections to “the game.” And as any good man with daddy issues can do, Luke rolls his eyes and obeys.

It isn’t until the third act that Seven Days clumsily morphs from a run-of-the-mill inspiration film into one of outright evangelical Christian recruitment. I was not entirely prepared to find Luke on his knees crying in prayer, or see Johnny stride into a church on Easter morning with a country-rock song repeating the words “born again” playing in the background. The Christian angle even includes a chaste romantic relationship between Luke and Sarah, a drink of sweet southern tea played by Deborah Ann Woll (ironically of True Blood fame). There’s nothing more awkward then watching adults stumble through a conversation like they’re at a 5th grade dance. They get to hug!

Recruitment of any kind requires action and that’s precisely what we get as Seven Days presents the audience with probably the most random ending I have ever seen. Per the sports film formula, Luke is in the showdown of his life to determine the winner of the Texas Open. He takes out his secret weapon, a club bestowed to him by Johnny, and takes his shot. Freeze! The camera then pans upward towards the heavens before we are able to see if in fact fly fishing is the secret to sinking a putt. I sat through this movie, even resisted a bathroom break to see this guy get his mandatory redemption and instead I was met with a black screen and the phrase,  “to continue the journey…go to http://www.didhemaketheputt.com.” Yes, a website. Needless to say, this was met with laughs at our screening. If the website (which launches today) is anything like the one for the book, it is a direct call for church membership.

Religious browbeating aside, Seven Days is at its core a poorly made film. Director Matthew Dean Russell cuts hard and fast in an attempt to create moments of drama and emotion where, quite frankly, there are none to be had. Four screenwriters are credited for this film and it shows with dialogue that is stilted, hokey, and devoid of the very conviction the movie is trying to impress upon viewers. And for a film that probably didn’t need any, Seven Days also features some of the worst effects shots I’ve seen all year which is disappointing given Russell’s background as an effects supervisor.

This film is obviously made for a subculture I don’t understand, and I want to respect it as such. I could actually forgive its self-righteousness if the film was able to tell a good story in an interesting way. But it doesn’t. Ultimately, Seven Days in Utopia is an advertisement that treats its audience like sheep in every way imaginable.

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From The List of Shame, File #13: Nine to Five

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

Workin’ 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’
They just use your mind
And they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you
Crazy if you let it

Dolly Parton, “9 to 5 (And Odd Jobs)”

Nine to Five (or 9 to 5) opens with Dolly Parton’s boisterous anthem of the working woman. As we hear her belt out this Oscar-nominated theme song, we see a montage of women in pantsuits hightailing it in heels on their way to work. They’re eager, bright, and ambitious. And they’re all most likely working for an incarnation of the film’s villain Franklin M. Hart, Jr. (Dabney Coleman), the stereotypical nightmare of a boss, incompetent, sexist, and the bane of existence for any woman looking to break through the glass ceiling.

With an opening like that, I was expecting this film to be a lot like South Park, a comedic romp with a poignant social message to grab onto…minus Mr. Hankey. And for awhile it seems that is precisely what we are going to get. We are introduced to Mr. Hart’s “girls” a.k.a his personal assistant Dora Lee (Dolly Parton), the office’s can-do senior supervisor Violet (Lily Tomlin), and the recently divorced workforce newbie Judy (Jane Fonda). There are some great scenes leading off the film between Dolly’s Dora Lee, and Mr. Hart as she denies his sexual advances with her trademark Southern sweetness and wit. Tomlin drips with sarcastic comments and jabs at Hart’s bumbling incompetence. And Fonda’s bright-eyed bushy-tailed portrayal of a woman just getting her professional footing is endearing at first, but unfortunately becomes just as forgettable as the focus of this film come the second act.

I really did enjoy the first half of this film. But then things get a little too wacky. We are lead to believe that this film will focus on women’s rights in the workplace, and while I was expecting these gals to get revenge on their ass of a boss, the plot becomes so convoluted I can barely recollect where it started. After a bad day at the office, Dora Lee, Violet, and Judy head out for a drink to wallow in their misery. A drink turns into a night of smoking pot and fantasizing about the ways they each would like to off Mr. Hart. No harm there, people have thoughts just as bad when they’re sober. The fantasy sequences are silly, but I can forgive them this indulgence. It’s what comes after the next day in the office that sets the wheels in motion for the insanity to come. A box of rat poison, conveniently resembling the creamer used in Mr. Hart’s coffee, makes the ladies believe that they have poisoned their boss, accidentally of course.

Without going into specifics, the ladies end up kidnapping a body from the hospital they believe to be the dead Mr. Hart. It’s not. Back to the hospital they go. When they discover Mr. Hart in the office the next day, released from the hospital and fully aware about their “plot” to kill him he threatens to have them thrown in jail. Obviously, they’re not having any of it and decide to kidnap him and hold him for blackmail at his house (his wife, a lovable ignoramus, is away on vacation).

I could go on but there really isn’t any point. All the social issues this film could have addressed are condensed into a pithy 15 minutes towards the end of the film when the ladies institute a series of office initiatives including flex and share hours, and company daycare, while their boss is left tied up in his own house. Dora Lee, Judy, and Violet are all interesting enough characters thrown in wacky and unbelievable circumstances that surpass the scope of the film itself. Any wit or humor achieved in the film’s first 45 minutes is abruptly lost, and the story instead makes a series of weird choices that result in a story that seems to be a splice of two completely separate films-part screwball comedy, part espionage farce.

Even moments that are meant to be humorous, like Hart’s wife coming home from vacation to find her husband strapped to the ceiling in pseudo-bondage wear should have been funny, but just fell utterly flat. I think such a sequence could have benefited from a more frenetic pace where the audience senses there is much at stake for these characters. Instead the story lobs along and even resurrects a story arc from the very beginning of the film involving Jane Fonda’s ex-husband turned stalker. The result is a creepy encounter that just feels wrong given the hilarity that should be ensuing.

I’ve made frequent mentions of time in this review. That’s not a good thing. When you find yourself watching the clock during a movie there’s a problem. The only true beacon of light in an otherwise murky film is Dolly Parton. Nine to Five was her first screen role, and I wish better material was given to her. She is a truly gifted actress and if nothing else, this film will be historically remembered for her breakthrough performance.

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

Review: Fright Night

Fright Night is a remake of the 1985 film of the same name, and though I haven’t seen the original in a long time, I feel as though a successful remake formula could be thus: 1. Don’t remake the best films and 2. When you do remake a film, put your own stamp on the material.

Its unique voice is what makes the new Fright Night so much fun. From the script upward the film has a sense about it that is one part scare, one part tongue- firmly-in-cheek. The film was written by Marti Noxon, an alum of both Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. Noxon brings a wonderful voice to the film, especially through the dialogue. Her creativity and unique ideas really shine through, elevating Fright Night into one of my favorite movies of the entire summer.

Besides the battle plan featured in the film’s climax, Noxon’s most interesting contribution may be in the location. The new incarnation is set in a suburb of Las Vegas, as Noxon was inspired by her trip there during the last presidential election. She writes:

You’d think I would have been contemplating the greed and ineptitude that led the nation to this sorry state, but instead my mind was fixed on one dogged thought: “God, this would be the greatest place to be a vampire. Sinners aplenty just down the road, a transient population that works all hours of the night and day … and all these abandoned homes. You could pick people off and who would ever be the wiser?”

She cites additional inspiration coming from the Amblin films she grew up with, like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, and Jaws. All of these films bring the fantastic and danger to the mundane world of the suburbs, and Fright Night captures this better than any American film in recent memory, including Super 8. In fact, I imagine replacing the film’s soundtrack with the most recent Arcade Fire album would be a fascinating experiment.

The other thing that makes this film one to be seen are the performances. Colin Ferrell is terrific as Jerry the neighborhood vampire, and the actor’s charisma is used to great effect. Jerry is so much fun to watch, as is the scene-stealing David Tennant (Doctor Who) as the vampire expert Peter Vincent (a stage magician in this incarnation). Tennant’s particular sensibilities are a perfect fit for the role, and he provides much of the comic relief in the film’s last third.

I also applaud Fright Night for bringing back the old school evil vampire. Jerry is malevolent, unrelenting, and insatiable. There is nothing redeeming (or sparkly) about him. He, like the shark in Jaws, is a force of nature to be reckoned with, not reasoned with or interviewed. It’s also refreshing that with these ‘chaste’ Twilight vamps running around, Fright Night brings the sexy back, showing Jerry as having an intense physical reaction to being near his prey, especially in the olfactory sense.

Fright Night is easily the surprise of my summer, one I wasn’t even anticipating (it didn’t even make our summer movie preview). Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I recommend it if you’re looking for a retro fun monster movie.

Review: The Help

This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com.

When Tate Taylor set out to write his screenplay for The Help, he must have been nervous. Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular novel not only has a loyal fan base but a lot of detractors who felt they were being spoon-fed yet another story about helpless black victims and their selfless white savior a la The Blind Side. But The Help transcends such definitive lines in the sand by creating a story that focuses on individual characters navigating the complex and ultimately interdependent relationships between black maids and white socialites.

There are so many rich characters in this story, and subsequently more plot lines, that it can be hard to pinpoint precisely who this film is about. Perhaps it’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan’s (Emma Stone) story. An aspiring journalist and recent college graduate, Skeeter returns home to Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s to find that being a college educated woman doesn’t get you in any closer with the ladies at Bridge club. It also puts pressure on an already strained relationship with your mother whose only wish is to see you married. She is plucky though, and lands a job at the Jackson Journal writing a cleaning advice column.

Or maybe it’s Aibileen Clark’s (Viola Davis) story, she does narrate the entire film. Aibileen is a maid in Elizabeth Leefolt’s home, where her primary job is to raise Elizabeth’s little girl. One of the interesting subtexts running through this film is the notion that part of being a member of the married social elite in Jackson (and I assume elsewhere in the South) is having children, but not necessarily raising them. Like little puppies in designer carriers, children are merely accessories needed to paint a picture of southern societal bliss, the more beautiful the better. Aibileen’s little charge is all but dismissed by Elizabeth because of her heftier-than-desired stature, leaving Aibileen to instill in the child a sense of worth I imagine she herself questions on more than one occasion. We see that Aibileen all but raises this child as her own, and consequently, the moments between Aibileen and the little girl are among the most heartbreaking in the film.

Regardless of whether the film is about these two women, or the other superb characters in the supporting cast, it is certain that the film addresses the unique relationship between them. When Skeeter gets the idea to write a book from the maids’ perspective she is met with fear from Aibileen and downright hostility from the other maids who are suspicious of her motives. Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) is particularly wary. As the former maid to Jackson’s social “Queen Bee” Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny certainly has dirt to dish but doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by the willful Skeeter. But as racial tensions heighten in Jackson, Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids begin to realize that now more than ever their voice needs to be heard.

The partnership between Skeeter and the maids is the quintessential model for the interdependence of white and black women that permeates the entire movie. The maids need Skeeter’s help in getting their stories out and Skeeter needs the stories in order to get published, but at no point is Skeeter the owner of this project. Although Skeeter asks the questions, the maids, in particular Minny, orchestrate the conversation. Because their safety is most at risk they dictate not only the time and place of their meetings, but what is to be documented and how it is presented. From the moment each interview begins Skeeter simply becomes a pen and paper. The maids clearly run the show. The process ends up being a very cathartic experience for Skeeter, who actually contributes her own story about Constantine Jefferson, the maid who raised her and was her closest confidant when her own mother was distant. We see Constantine, played by the luminous Cicely Tyson, in a series of poignant flashbacks throughout the movie.

What began as a purely self-serving endeavor for Skeeter becomes a great source of strength for herself and the maids, in particular Aibileen and Minny. I don’t doubt that Aibileen and Minny weren’t aware of their inner strength or the knowledge that they had something important to say. What they lacked was the means of getting people to listen. In the end, Skeeter did not give these women their voices, she gave them an audience.

The Help is the most significant film production set in Mississippi since Oh Brother Where Are Thou?, and Taylor creates a film that never once makes a parody of its environment or its characters. The performances in this film are nothing short of brilliant, with Oscar buzz already thick in the air. Octavia Spencer is delightful as Minny bringing with her sharp wit and pitch-perfect comedic timing. Bryce Dallas Howard is too perfect as villain Hilly Holbrook, everything down to her sweet-as-pie expressions of contempt make the audience love to hate her. Viola Davis brings the heart of the film as Aibileen, and Sissy Spacek steals every scene as the slightly loopy Mother Holbrook. And I think it is safe to say that Emma Stone has successfully navigated her way to serious dramatic actor, proving she is a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Taylor assumes that the memory of the Civil Rights Movement lingers for most, so in terms of historical backdrop we only get brief snapshots that tie us to any particular timeline, namely the assassinations of Medgar Evers and JFK. I would have enjoyed more time and place descriptors, but for a two and a half hour movie, it’s all about the characters, and their development. And given the tapestry of beautiful personalities we are given in The Help, I am more than satisfied.

Review: Cowboys & Aliens

“Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.” – Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The aliens are having a landmark season with director John Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens arriving as the fifth major alien film of the summer (eighth if you count Thor, Transformers, and Green Lantern!). And while I would rate Cowboys & Aliens well below Super 8 and Attack the Block, (seriously, if Attack the Block is playing in your city…see it. Right now. Go.) it’s a fun entry in the genre, mostly due to the principal cast of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.

Daniel Craig seems poised to cement himself as the new Harrison Ford, the one we know and love from Star Wars, Indy, Air Force One, and the like: The craggily, annoyed, reluctant hero. It’s a role that suits Craig well, and he does a good job not saying much and being a badass. Similarly, Harrison Ford’s role as the disappointed father/entitled cattle rancher is also good for him, allowing him to play a new archetype in a familiar way. His character’s non-sequitors also provide a lot of the humor in the latter half of the film.

As for the supporting cast, the only one who leaves a real impression is Clancy Brown’s Meachum, the local preacher. He may be the only one that feels truly rounded out, and has a lot of nice character moments. Olivia Wilde performs admirably as beauty-turned-exposition-fairy, the key being able to deliver lines of gibberish convincingly (thanks, Dr. House!), though I liked her better in Tron: Legacy. Sam Rockwell is criminally underused as Doc, the local bar owner/nerd. Sam Rockwell is a fantastic character actor, and gloriously chewed scenery in Favreau’s Iron Man 2, but here he comes off as pretty bland.

The aliens in this film definitely fall into the monster mold, like Independence Day or Attack the Block, where they are a force of nature our heroes have to defeat. Although the creature design feels pretty derivative, I find it hard to fault the movie for it, since it’s hard to come up with a convincing original design (although Attack the Block actually pulls this off. Did you see it yet? Because that’s kind of the point).

As a fan of Westerns, I was very excited for this film initially. The genre is mostly forgotten by current filmmakers, and while we get the occasional 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit remake, anytime there’s a Western, I want to give it a shot. I have to say, sadly, Cowboys & Aliens borrows mostly aesthetics of the genre, and not so much from its conventions. It borrows the mythical ‘after the Civil War’ setting and the cool hats and guns, but that’s about it.

There are two central mysteries in this film, the identity of Daniel Craig’s character, and why the aliens come to Earth. The answer to the second questions provides a MacGuffin that is easy to understand, and after three Transformers movies, is extremely refreshing. While we never find out exactly why the aliens need this particular Earth-bound metal, at least they didn’t have to explain what the damn thing is for 20 minutes in the middle of the film.

If you’re looking for a great afternoon matinee, Cowboys & Aliens perfectly fits the bill. It’s a fun ride, and I know it’s the kind of movie I’ll watch on cable about 25 times in the next few years.

Filmhash List: Top 5 Talking Animal Movies

A list from the esoteric brains behind Filmhash. If you have a list topic, let us know, and we’ll…come up with something!

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
One of the reasons that making a ‘talking animals’ film is so challenging is the inherit fancifulness of the concept. Over the course of this list, we’ll see several strategies to get around it. Fantastic Mr. Fox sidesteps the issue entirely by making everyone a cartoon. While we spend most of our time with highly anthropomorphized animals, the stylization of the world also extends to the human antagonists, who are also shown in a fun stop motion style. The other thing that sells it is the stellar voice cast with George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, and more all doing fantastic work.

2. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
Another way to avoid cartoonish talking animals is to not animate the animals. This is the approach taken by Homeward Bound. The heartwarming story of lost pets finding their way home uses voice over to great effect. And while the animals don’t talk to humans directly, the audience is privy to all of their thoughts.

3. Babe (1995)
This is the exception that proves the rule. Most films in which real animals are animated with lip movements are pretty terrible. Babe is pretty good. All things considered, the lip animations are fairly subtle and that helped elevate the material (as much as talking animals can be elevated) to the Best Picture nomination this film earned. “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”

4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The original is still the best, and the other way to get past ridiculous-looking animals is to go the sci-fi route. Watching this film recently, I was struck by how good the ape makeup effects are. It actually looks really good, and though the quality of it declined with each sequel (thanks to reduced budgets), the first entry is a landmark for actor makeup. And it’s classic sci-fi to boot (an early script draft was done by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame). The new film seems to use mostly CGI motion capture, so we’ll have to see how that turns out. But it’s not like Andy Serkis does’t have the requisite experience…

5. Doctor Doolittle (1967)
I recently read about this road show picture flop in the book Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, and it caused me to recollect how much I enjoyed this film as a kid. Although, at two and a half hours it’s too long by half, the production took years, and filming took place in three places. However, the animals (who were not treated all that well) actually look pretty good in the film (except for the Giant Pink Sea Snail).

Jill’s Honorable Mention: The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986)
Using a similar voice-over/narration technique to Homeward Bound, Milo and Otis remains to this day one of my favorite movies. It also cultivated my obsession with Pugs at a young age, and the possibility of one day having my own cat and dog best buddy duo.

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Review: Another Earth

By now you may already know this mysterious film called Another Earth, that was a Sundance darling and is now being touted as the best indie drama released this year. For all I know, it very well is. But essentially the story of Another Earth is simply that of Rhoda (Brit Marling), an MIT-bound young woman who after a night of celebration makes a bad decision that ends up changing (ruining?) her life and the lives of the Burroughs family forever (forever?).

And of course, there’s that second earth. In fact, the moment Rhoda sticks her head out of the car window to search for this amazing sight is when the course of her foreseeable future was altered. Over the years, the second earth grows bigger in the sky, until it ultimately just becomes a part of everyone’s reality. No longer on the road to college, Rhoda becomes a janitor at the local high school, everyday seeing the second earth. People don’t really talk about it, scientists continue to study its strange presence, but there doesn’t appear to be any threat, and life goes on as usual.

It isn’t until Rhoda visits the composer-turned-recluse John Burroughs (William Mapother) that the second earth begins to spark questions within Rhoda that force her to contemplate whether second chances are possible. Rhoda intends to make amends for her mistakes by seeing Burroughs, but instead she lies about belonging to a maid service, and ends up cleaning his house all the while getting closer to a man who doesn’t know who she is, and could never forgive her for what she did to his family. In the end, she makes the only choice she knows will allow Burroughs to find closure, and possibly a new life that begins, ironically, with the one he lost.

Sci-fi films generally have the difficult task of balancing often complicated metaphysical plot lines with characters that spout more than just mind numbing exposition. Few films succeed in the act, and more times than not audiences are dazzled by images rather than story or character development. Another Earth represents the beginning of something that I hope becomes a trend in both indie and blockbuster sci-fi dramas: an unpretentious film that doesn’t get too mired down in being “smart.”*

This isn’t to say that Another Earth doesn’t possess intelligence, or that it doesn’t take its science fiction aspects seriously. In many ways, by not delving too deep into the reasons why there is suddenly a second earth, the film can explore subjects that are not present in most traditional science-fiction films that are often too involved with thwarting some dangerous threat to human existence. The second earth is merely a metaphor that represents all mankind’s yearning for second chances, the belief that maybe another me, in another place, got it right, and maybe I can too.

Another Earth spends a lot of time asking questions, providing intriguing theories and hints, while simultaneously backing off. Sometimes the theories seem to only be present in order to further the plot, or offer a reason behind a character’s actions. This is certainly the case at the end of the film when Rhoda, after hearing one scientist on TV discuss his theory on the presence of the second earth, gives up her shot at a new life to give Burroughs another shot at his. The ending of the film is an interesting twist that may raise even more questions, but for me, it actually answered the presence of the second earth, and the purpose of the film. Other viewer experiences may vary.

Another Earth suffers from a few problems, including what many have cited as sloppy camera work and low production values. It’s true that some of the hand- held camera work can be distracting, but at times it gives the film its necessary gritty atmosphere. I enjoyed Brit Marling as Rhoda, perhaps because it reminded me so much of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone (two long blonde-haired beauties in crappy situations).

Also, what little science the film does present is often contradictory, vague, and leaves many questions unanswered. But isn’t that sometimes the case with science? Have sci-fi movies filled our heads with notions of tightly wrapped packages of information where everything has an answer, and everything can be explained for the sake of the plot? This is hardly ever the case, and I think this film recognizes that great scientific phenomena can occur everyday, but life also continues. Life adapts to science, it adapts to giant planets in the sky, it adapts to discoveries that may pose threats or offer freedom. We’re not all running around trying to find a rock to hide under. SPOILER ALERT: And when Rhoda sees herself from Earth 2, I believe she met a woman who found her second chance, and it didn’t come with a degree from MIT necessarily, but from the ability to adapt to the consequences of choices made, good and bad, and the strength to perservere.

*Inception is a film that has unfortunately suffered some backlash mainly because its intelligence overshadowed pretty much everything else the film had to offer. It’s no easy feat explaining the theory behind “inception,” or even the science behind dreaming itself in a way that an audience can digest quickly and still keep up with the action. And what’s more, such a film will separate sci-fi enthusiasts and the rest of us: “Oh, you didn’t understand the point of the spinning top at the end? I guess you just don’t get it.”