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Updated: 2017-10-23T12:26:49-05:00


"Killing Jesús" Wins the Roger Ebert Award at the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival


Laura Mora's extraordinarily moving Colombian drama "Killing Jesús" won the Roger Ebert Award last Friday at the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival. Beyond its thrilling cinematography and exceptional cast of non-actors, this film contained the richest, most deeply moving example that the New Directors jury saw of a quality Ebert treasured in cinema. He once wrote, “If you can’t try to understand how the other person feels, you’re a captive inside the box of yourself.” Mora’s lead heroine tracks down her father’s killer initially in pursuit of vengeance, until she realizes that his crime was merely a symptom of a corrupted society. The film is wise and perceptive in its suggestion that empathy itself can serve as a form of catharsis. Argentinian director Diego Lerman’s "A Sort of Family," took home the festival's top prize, the Gold Hugo, in the International Feature Film Competition, while the Silver Hugo for Best Director went to Polish directors Joanna Kos-Krause and her late husband/co-director Krzysztof Krauze for "Birds Are Singing in Kigali." The Silver Hugo Special Jury Prize went to Alain Gomis' Senegalese-French-Belgian co-production, "Félicité." The other awards in the New Directors Competition, the Gold Hugo and Silver Hugo, were awarded respectively to Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand's "No Date, No Signature" and Milad Alami's Danish thriller, "The Charmer." Stephen Cone earned the Chicago Award for his self-professed love letter to the Windy City, "Princess Cyd," while the Founder’s Award, selected by CIFF founder Michael Kutza, was given to the festival's closing night selection, "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo del Toro. Below is the full list of winners... International Feature Film CompetitionGold Hugo"A Sort of Family" ("Una especie de familia"), Dir. Diego Lerman, Argentina. Best Director"Birds Are Singing in Kigali" ("Ptaki śpiewają w Kigali"), Dirs. Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, Poland. Silver Hugo Jury Prize "Félicité," Dir. Alain Gomis, Senegal, France, Belgium. Silver Hugo Best ActressAwarded ex-aequo to Jowita Budnik and Eliane Umuhire in "Birds are Singing in Kigali" ("Ptaki śpiewają w Kigali"), Dirs. Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze, Poland. Silver Hugo Best ActorAwarded to Aleksandr Yatsenko in "Arrhythmia," Dir. Boris Khlebnikov, Russia, Finland, Germany Silver Plaque Best ScreenplayAwarded to Mohammad Rasoulof for "A Man of Integrity" ("Lerd"), Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran. Silver Plaque Best CinematographyAwarded to Chayse Irvin for "Hannah," Dir. Andreas Pallaoro, Italy, France, Belgium. Best Art DirectionAwarded to Václav Novak for "The Line" ("Čiara"), Dir. Peter Bebjak, Slovakia, Ukraine, Czech Republic. Founders Award"The Shape of Water," Dir. Guillermo Del Toro, USA New Directors CompetitionGold Hugo"No Date, No Signature" ("Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza"). Dir. Vahid Jalilvand, Iran. Silver Hugo"The Charmer" ("Charmøren"), Dir. Milad Alami, Denmark.Roger Ebert Award"Killing Jesús" ("Matar a Jesús"), Dir. Laura Mora, Colombia, Argentina. Documentary CompetitionGold Hugo"The Other Side of the Wall" ("Al otro lado del murk"), Dir. Pau Ortiz, Spain, Mexico. Silver Hugo"Mr. Gay Syria," Dir. Ayse Toprak, France, Germany, Turkey. Out-Look CompetitionGold Q-Hugo"BPM" ("120 battements par minute"), Dir. Robin Campillo, France. Silver Q-Hugo"God’s Own Country," Dir. Francis Lee, United Kingdom. Chicago Award"Princess Cyd," Dir. Stephen Cone, USA. Documentary Short Film CompetitionSilver Hugo"The Rabbit Hunt," Dir. Patrick Bresnan, USA. Gold Plaque"The Streets Are Ours: Two Lives Cross in Karachi," Dir. Michelle Fiordaliso, USA. Special Mention"The Painted Cal[...]

“Stranger Things 2” Operates From the James Cameron Sequel Playbook


How do you follow-up a phenomenon? How do you engineer lightning striking twice? In today’s increasingly crowded Peak TV landscape, it feels like sophomore slumps are harder to avoid than ever, and there’s a lot of pressure on Netflix and the Duffer Brothers to recreate the worldwide buzz attained by 2016’s breakthrough hit when “Stranger Things 2” launches this Friday on the streaming service. The first hint at their approach is right there in the unique title. This is not just another season—it is arguably the dominant Hollywood product of the ‘80s, the era that so influences this show, a blockbuster sequel. And the most obvious parallel here is one the brothers have mentioned in interviews: James Cameron, and, most specifically his work on “Aliens.” “Stranger Things 2” doesn’t just cast Paul Reiser in a suspicious authority role but it expands on so many of the themes, ideas, and even set pieces of the first season that the “Aliens” to “Alien” parallel becomes impossible to ignore. Yes, a show that was primarily influenced by the Stephens (King and Spielberg) is layering that nostalgia cake with a frosting of James Cameron. Fans are going to eat it up. Netflix is understandably wary about spoilers, and much of the joy of “Stranger Things” is in watching how it unfolds narratively, so I’ll be very cautious about spoilers. To start, “Stranger Things 2” feels a great deal like its predecessor. Once again, nostalgia is a MAJOR part of the narrative of the show, and it’s even less subtly so in the first two episodes of this new season than it was the first. Remember arcades and games like “Dig Dug”? Remember “Ghostbusters”? You loved that, you’ll love this! If the nostalgia aspect of season one frustrated you, be warned the volume has not been turned down in season two, at least to start. The overwhelming wave of the past seems to pull back a bit in about episode three (of nine this season) when the show becomes more of its own defined thing, but even the casting this season taps that vein. It’s not just Reiser. Who do you cast as a love interest for Winona Ryder in a show that’s been compared to “The Goonies”? Sean Astin, of course. While the nostalgic stunt casting is fun (and both Reiser and Astin are quite good, for the record), “Stranger Things 2” doesn’t lose its focus on the kids of Hawkins, Indiana. The quartet of boys—Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp)—is still the beating heart of this show, and it’s essential that theirs are the most prominent and developed characters this season. Mike is broken over the still-missing Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown); Will is deeply traumatized from what happened in season one and working with a new doctor, played by Reiser, to define exactly how tied he remains to the Upside Down; and Dustin and Lucas get well-developed interesting subplots as well, which I won’t spoil. Tossed into this young-male mix is “Mad” Max (Sadie Sink), a new redhead in town who first dismisses but becomes involved with the Scooby gang of the show. Of course, Winona Ryder returns—again mostly concerned about her son’s fate and with a similar aesthetic of house remodeling in the way she tries to communicate with him—and David Harbour is even better this year than he was last, particularly in the final episode. There are other new characters, new subplots, and even new monsters, but “Stranger Things 2” undeniably echoes the first season to a degree that could turn off some viewers hoping for something different. Many of the themes, villains, and even character arcs recall what happened last year, to the degree that the disappearance of Barb even returns as a major plot point. Should the Duffer Brothers have distanced themselves more from the first year and done something completely new? Once again, if we consider the Cameron model, the answer is obviously no. Hit sequels like “Alien[...]

The Time That David Schwimmer Understood the Danger of Hollywood Culture


When I interviewed David Schwimmer in 2011 about his movie, “Trust,” we were scheduled to meet in a restaurant on the first floor of his small boutique hotel in Washington DC. But it turned out to be too noisy and crowded for us to hear each other. He asked me if I would be comfortable moving to his room, and offered to have someone come along if that would make me feel safer. At the time, I thought he was being overly cautious, perhaps due to the subject matter of the movie, about a young girl who is raped by an online predator. And then I forgot about it until the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein made me think of it, and made me appreciate Schwimmer’s integrity and thoughtfulness much more. It wasn’t enough that he knew he was a good guy. He understood the perpetual alert all women are under all the time. I shared this story on Facebook and my friend James Warren asked for my permission to publish it on Poynter and Vanity Fair. I am very glad to share the story, first to thank Schwimmer for his courtesy, but also to make it clear that some people know what is right and to provide an example of how it is done. The following was originally published on April 10, 2011 on David Schwimmer is the director of a new film called “Trust,” the heartbreaking story of a 14-year-old girl who is molested by an internet predator and the devastating effect it has not just on her but on her family.  It is a sensitive, thoughtful, compassionate drama that avoids the overheatedness of television movies.  Schwimmer is best known for appearing as Ross on “Friends,” but his accomplishments also include co-founding the distinguished Lookingglass Theatre and directing “Run Fat Boy, Run.”  I spoke to him about how is work with a program for survivors of sexual abuse inspired this story and working with actors as experienced as Tony-award winner Viola Davis and as inexperienced as newcomer Liana Liberato. Tell me how this movie came about. I’ve been a part of this organization, The Rape Foundation, for fourteen years and a member of the board for the last ten. This movie is inspired by the child victims and their families that I met and it was developed in conjunction with the counselors there and one friend who is an agent with the FBI who worked on these cased for many years until he burned out.  The people who work on the “Innocent Images” program have a psych test every six months and the burnout rate is very high.  When he had his own daughter, he had to quit.  These people are real heroes to me. A few years ago, we had a fund-raising event for The Rape Foundation and for the first time, we invited a father to speak about what he went through when his 14-year-old was brutally raped.  What he described was so devastating to me, so moving, it make me realize that this traumatizes the whole family.  He was a big, lumbering guy, a professional, not at all a public speaker, shaking the whole time in front of this crowd of 1000.  But he articulated so beautifully his combination of grief, and what a lot of these fathers describe as an incapacitating rage, and impotence because they can’t do anything and men want to fix the problem.  He described all these feelings — guilt, shame, responsibility, and it almost destroyed his marriage, his work, his relationship with all of his kids.  And I thought, “That’s a lens I haven’t seen before, the father/daughter relationship.”  So I started the process of developing it and writing it. The therapist is played by one of the finest actresses in the world, Viola Davis. I love Viola.  She was my first choice.  She is such a presence in the film and she was only on the set for two days.  Some of her scenes were among the toughest in the movie and they were the first two days of filming.  The person she plays is inspired by Gail Abarbanel, director of The Rape Foundation, so we named t[...]

Finding the Center: Griffin Dunne on His Film About Joan Didion


Griffin Dunne’s documentary “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” which opens October 27th at the Metrograph in New York and starts streaming on Netflix then, is an unusually personal and close-up look at one of America’s greatest writers. While relatively formally conventional and reliant on talking-heads interviews, it inserts Dunne himself into the picture: Didion is his aunt, and he is often seen onscreen interacting with her. Without hitting the obvious series of points, it tells the history of her life and work, which includes chronicling the faults of the ‘60s counterculture and finding a new level of fame by telling the story of her husband John Dunne’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking. She has demonstrated a rare ability to go back and forth between novels, essays, screenplays and memoirs. With his first documentary, Dunne, who has alternated between acting, production and making narrative films, shows his own skill at doing justice to her varied talents. Did it make you nervous to direct a film about a family member? Very much. Not just a family member. But someone who a very large body of people have a connection to and who has identified the way they live their lives and the professions they’ve chosen. You take on a subject that most people feel ownership in. The fact that she’s my aunt only added to that factor. I showed her my film long before I showed it to anyone else: the studio, my financial backer. I had a three-hour cut. Just so she could see how it was shaping and say “I hate it” or put my mind at rest. It was obvious how much she loved it and appreciate it and all the work that went into it. Well, it began as a promotional video for her book Blue Nights and then you started a Kickstarter fund to expand it. It became apparent I needed a serious amount of money to get the music, archival film and the shooting days required. And despite hitting our goal in one day on Kickstarter, it still wasn’t enough. We made a trailer for Kickstarter, which went viral. It went far beyond just being a documentary about a writer. A lot of people really wanted to see this movie. The interview requests came from all over the world, from Japan and every country in Europe. The interest in this movie has been unlike anything I’ve ever been involved in. How does she feel about the way she’s become especially iconic after The Year of Magical Thinking? It’s a bitter irony that her greatest success couldn’t be shared with the man she loved. It wasn’t intended by Joan to provide comfort to others. She wrote it to understand the world of grief she was in. Even her publishers underestimated its popularity. It was read by so many people who all shared loss in common. It brought her an entirely new audience as well, a younger audience who went back and read her other books. When Blue Nights came out, I saw a 15-year-old girl on the subway who was engrossed in it. I went up to her and asked how she liked it. She said, “I’ve read everything she’s written since The Year of Magical Thinking...” There’s a lot more. That was her new audience. You’ve directed five narrative films, but this is your first documentary. Are you interested in continuing with the form? I can’t wait to work with a script, where I know how it begins and ends. It was an incredible experience, but my history and experience has been with narrative. Part of what humbled me is that I loved every day of editing, but three years of that, with all the shooting and interviews…you know what you want with a narrative film and when you get it. I never knew when I got it. I never felt I had it. I never knew when to move on. I’d like to do a narrative next. I’d be happy to do a documentary depending on the subject. The strength I had going into this documentary was being so close to the subject and the fact that it was such a personal story for me. I’d like to find something that’s not necess[...]



There has been some question as to whether now is the proper time to release a film like “Geostorm” and not just because it arrives in theaters bearing all the hallmarks of a cinematic disaster in the making: numerous release date changes, reports of extensive reshoots that eliminated some characters entirely while introducing new ones, and the presence of Gerard Butler in the lead role. No, the question is whether the general public will be in a mood to see a movie in which the entire planet is threatened with attacks of extreme weather in the wake of all the meteorological chaos of the last few weeks. As it turns out, people who were leery of going to see it for that reason can rest easy because, despite the ad campaign to the contrary, the film is actually an utterly idiotic and oftentimes boring amalgamation of “The Day After Tomorrow,” “San Andreas,” “Gravity,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and the lesser Irwin Allen productions. “Geostorm” fails to work either as awe-inspiring spectacle or as campy silliness. As the film opens, we learn that Earth was hit with a series of catastrophic extreme weather events in 2019 that wiped out entire cities. Finally recognizing the dangers of global warming (which proves that the film is a fantasy), the U.S. joins the other countries of the world to combat it by taking point in the creation of a massive satellite system, nicknamed “Dutch Boy” because why not, that tracks extreme weather systems and eliminates them before the destruction can begin. Dutch Boy is the brainchild of two-fisted, hard-drinking and inexplicably Scottish American scientist Jake Lawson (Butler) who runs the system along with an international crew up in space. However, he is one of those guys who just cares too much and when a Senate hearing goes sideways, he is fired from the project by its new head, his own brother, Max (a burr-free Jim Sturgess).  Three years later, the U.S. is about to cede its authority over Dutch Boy to all the countries of the world when a mishap occurs involving a malfunctioning satellite and an entire village in the theoretically sweltering Afghanistan desert is flash frozen as a result. Not wanting to turn over a flawed system, the President of the United States (Andy Garcia) opts to have Max send someone up to find out what happened and fix it and (spoiler alert) Jake ends up going up to do it. After about six minutes, Jake and the station commander (Alexandra Maria Lara) figure out that system has been sabotaged, a conclusion that Max also comes to down on Earth. While other cities are hit with insane weather—Tokyo gets hail the size of canned Okja while a bikini babe in Rio is seen trying to outrun the cold—the two brothers try to get to the bottom of what appears to be a massive conspiracy and stop it before the satellites can create a “geostorm,” an ever-expanding mass of cataclysmic weather that could kill untold millions throughout the world. You know how when a big-ticket genre film comes out and within a couple of weeks, there will already be a knockoff of it featuring cut-rate special effects, an utterly insane storyline and B-level actors (if we are lucky) traipsing through the silliness in exchange for a quick paycheck? “Geostorm” feels like the first $120 million (according to the studio) version of such a film—the effects may be somewhat better than the stuff you see on the Syfy network but even the producers over there might have blanched at the nonsense offered. To mention all of the major problems here would run the risk of turning this review into a mere list, so I will only highlight a couple of them. For starters, our hero is a loud, obnoxious jerk that few people would want to spend any amount of time with and I fear that Butler embodies that characteristic to a T—you spend the first half of the movie hoping that the film is going to pull an “Executive Decision[...]

Same Kind of Different as Me


“Same Different Kind of Me” is a top nominee for the Nice Movie of 2017, in that it just wants to exist and be kind when not trying to extract tears from its audience like test subjects. Spiritually, it feels relatively tame compared to other religious movies, as it doesn’t proclaim that “Heaven is For Real” or “God’s Not Dead,” but it does use the Bible as a moral compass on its bland journey of selflessness. Its biggest risk is that it might alienate members of the KKK, but in this climate the film’s producers might think that’s ballsy enough.  Based on the bestselling book, which inspired both a sequel and a children’s adaptation, “Same Kind of Different as Me” is the true story of a wealthy Texas white couple, Ron and Debbie (Greg Kinnear and Renee Zellweger), who befriend a violent homeless man (Djimon Hounsou). He calls himself Suicide, but is actually named Denver. Debut co-writer/director Michael Carney doesn’t have much of an eye for any of this saga, which includes a “Blind Side”-like narrative that transitions into a weepy sickness tale fit for Nicholas Sparks that I won’t spoil, but the true story aspect is a type of preservation itself. It can be hard to disagree with the heart and events of this true tale, except for when the movie reveals itself to be mighty self-congratulatory.  The book, which features the “voices” of Ron and Denver as organized by their co-author Lynn Vincent, makes a point of starting with Denver’s narration before then going to Ron, as Denver shares a horrifying racist episode from his youth that’s featured in the middle of the film. But instead of feeling like the story belongs to both men, this movie is told from Ron’s perspective, framed as the tale of a Texas art dealer who knew a great woman who helped introduce him to a sidekick. Ron is brought into the world of taking care of homeless people as a type of penance after Debbie catches him cheating; she takes him to a shelter in a less-loved part of Fort Worth, which leads to a lot of plainly “nice” scenes in which Debbie and/or Ron interact with homeless people, treat them like human beings. One night, Debbie dreams of walking through a field and seeing a black man, the type of straight-faced narrative detail that proves to be a big deal in a movie like this.  That mental image soon barrels into the movie in the form of Suicide, literally with a baseball bat in hand as he tears up the homeless shelter's cafeteria. Scene-by-scene, as Ron & Debbie reach out to him by acknowledging him and feeding him, the intense man loses the thick exteriors and offers perfect wisdom after perfect wisdom. He is later welcomed into their home, and their social lives. We learn, through monologues accompanied by flashback, about Denver's truly unbelievable past: that he lived in Louisiana and picked cotton in what was essentially slavery, completely removed from the civil rights movement or any such modernity; that he was beaten by KKK members as a teenager, and later went to prison for trying to rob a bus in Shreveport. Hounsou's scraggly voice shares these stories through extensive monologues as Kinnear and Zellweger listen, with Hounsou doling out precise line-reading and tears. True to the hollow cinematic spirit of this movie, Carney can only accompany with bland flashbacks or stubborn modern-day close-ups that soak us in Hounsou’s wet eyes.  The film gives a strong juxtaposition of why Ron & Debbie and Denver would be unusual as friends, which makes for a sweet spot in the middle when Denver is shown hanging out with them. The scenes are cringeworthy to be sure, like when one of Ron’s peers at a country club calls Denver an “amigo Negro,” but the shimmer, that value of “nice” is prominent, as performed by three capable actors. In fact, in many instances, Kinnear, Zellweger an[...]

One of Us



The title "One of Us" cuts deeply, in two directions. This documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady zeroes in on three individuals who were once part of a tightly knit community of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, New York. All three eventually left the tribe, as it were, because they found its conditions for membership suffocating, even abusive. 

All three are caught by the filmmakers in the process of transforming themselves into secular Americans living life in the mainstream, enjoying the freedom that comes from being about to make bold personal choices, but also feeling abandoned and hated by the family and friends who remained on the other side. They're becoming part of a larger world now—one of "them" as opposed to one of "us," or maybe the other way around. 

Teenaged Ari endured a horrendous crime as a child that was covered up by his community; it eventually contributed to his cocaine addiction (he's survived two overdoses). Luzer is a twenty something man who realized one day that he couldn't stand to live under the constraints of the community, got a divorce, left his family New York and moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Etty, now 32, has the most disturbing story. She was pushed into marriage with an abusive man at 19 and has had seven children. The entire extended family plus a wider circle of friends have joined forces to stop her from divorcing her husband and starting over. 

This is complex and often explosive subject matter, and in examining it, the excellent team of Ewing and Grady (“The Boys of Baraka,” “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia") tread as carefully as they can, given the constraints they're under. Specifically, they can only tell one side of this story: the Hasidim, who rail against the secular world and are suspicious of cell phones and the Internet, aren't about to sit for interviews with these filmmakers. That means that we're never going to hear their side of things. 

This is not to say that whatever we might might have heard would have created an "one the one hand, on the other hand" dynamic—clearly, all three of the filmmakers' subjects had excellent reasons for leaving the community, and even if their reasons had been flighty or specious, they should still have had the right to determine their own destiny without fear of being ostracized or punished. That said, the most fascinating, albeit quite brief, portion of the movie comes in the form of a history lesson: we find out that the Hasidic Jewish community sprung up as a response to the Holocaust—that they see themselves as holy replacements for the millions who were slaughtered in the 1930s and '40s. Everyone, including abusers, have reasons for doing what they do; a bit more on this subject might've made an already wrenching documentary even more powerful. 

Then again, "One of Us" is so strong as-is that its more harrowing sections—particularly Ari's account of his childhood suffering and the details of Etty's fight for freedom—are so already hard to watch that you might want to turn away. There's nothing more exhilarating or more terrifying than taking control of one's own life. 

Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween


Last time on “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” Madea (Tyler Perry) and her elderly cohorts Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), Hattie (Patrice Lovely) and Joe (Tyler Perry) matched wits with a bunch of trifling frat boys and the disrespectful high school senior girls who were trying to crash the frat’s Halloween party. The trailer promised comic scares but the movie provided none; it tipped its hand early to let us know that all of the supernatural happenings were pranks on Madea’s crew. Madea got her revenge by trapping the frat boys in a prison bus with big, burly prisoners just itching to sexually assault them. There was some moralizing in there somewhere, too, which is par for the course here in Tyler Perry land. Your humble reviewer covered the prior film, and my biggest problem with it was that I had sincerely hoped to see Madea match wits with the actual monsters and killers from horror movies. After all, broad comedy and horror can yield entertaining features like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” If Madea were here right now, she’d scold me and tell me I should be “careful what I wish fuhrrr.” Because her creator has now blessed us with “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween,” which adds more blatant horror elements into the mix. This time, it’s possible that the guy chasing Joe with a chainsaw might actually want to butcher him. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. The first thing I should address is that damn title. “Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween” is not only unwieldy, it’s such a missed opportunity. I know Mr. Perry has seen “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” the film that contains the greatest subtitle every slapped on a movie. Had he named this film “Boo 2: Electric Boogaloo,” I would have given it four stars sight unseen. But Perry’s problems with sequel titles goes back to “Why Did I Get Married, Too?” You may think that kvetching about a title is a petty affair, but it can be the difference between box office success and failure. Just ask “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Of course, Madea doesn’t have to worry about bad box office. She has a built-in audience of the faithful (and faith-filled) who will pack the seats on opening weekend. They will sit through all 104 minutes of “Boo 2!” not once demanding that Perry present them with something new or innovative. And that’s the problem. This is Madea’s tenth appearance in films, and no matter what the topic, she exists in a cinematic universe filled with numerous scenes of her just sitting there arguing with her people in a room. Granted, those scenes can be amusing, but you’d expect some visual potency by now from a man who has 45 directorial credits on imDB. Don’t get me wrong: Nobody is expecting Citizen Kane here. But would it hurt to make the film look presentable? But I digress. You’re going to Madea’s house to laugh, forget your troubles and perhaps get a good Christian message. To Perry’s credit, he does a far better job of folding that message into the film than usual. Before we get there, however, we must contend once again with Madea’s niece, Tiffany (Diamond White), who, as in “Boo 1,” wants to attend a Halloween frat party. This time, she gets permission from her mother, Debrah (Taja V. Simpson). Tiffany is 18 and should be trusted more than her father Brian (Tyler Perry) allows. Tiffany walks all over Brian, and he’s such a wimp that it’s solely by the grace of God that Tiffany isn’t in Juvie Hall for murder. Brian is so out-of-touch that he has a petting zoo at Tiffany’s 18th birthday party. Events in the first film caused a moratorium on frat house parties, so the frat decides to have their shindig at Camp Crystal Lake, or whatever Perry calls his haunted vista. Like in “Friday the 13th,” sex-obsessed camp counselors were butchered at this camp, leading to rumors[...]

The Snowman


In the year 2075, if man is still alive, if woman can survive, and they start writing histories of 21st century cinema, “The Snowman” will make a very excellent case study. Perhaps by that time sufficient evidence will have been gathered to explain just why a movie assembled by a group of mostly first-rate talents wound up such a soggy, slushy mess. I myself cannot quite figure it out. Adapted from the bestselling mystery novel by Jø Nesbo, the movie stars Michael Fassbender as a Norwegian police detective with the much-already-remarked-upon name Harry Hole. Why they couldn’t have just called him Harry Chasm or Harry Abyss is beyond me. The movie begins with what turns out to be a flashback. The scene is shot with what appears to be a lilac petal dangling in front of the lens. In a large cabin in a snow-covered field, a man in a police car visits a young boy and his mother. And there the man administers a test to the boy, slapping the mother every time the kid gets a question wrong. Things go from bad to worse, and eventually a Volvo sinks into a lake, and a kid is left homeless. Cut to the present day, and Harry is sleeping off a drunk in a bus shelter. Heckuva way for a cop to conduct himself, but Harry’s a special cop. A little later on in the picture, Katrine Bratt, who becomes Harry’s unofficial partner on a serial killer case, tells him that she studied his cases in “the academy.” Harry’s a genius detective whose personal life is an utter mess. One of the movie’s many problems is that the viewer is treated to much more of the mess part than the genius part. In point of fact, I don’t think the genius part ever emerges. I mentioned first-rate talents. The cast is what they used to call one of “International All-Stars.” Aside from Fassbender, there’s the engaging Rebecca Ferguson as Bratt. Charlotte Gainsbourg is here as Harry’s ex-girlfriend. Toby Jones is a policeman in another Norway town. Val Kilmer, his voice rather badly and inexplicably dubbed, turns up. As does J.K. Simmons, speaking in his own voice and applying to it a credible and yet somehow incredible mid-Atlantic accent. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard him say “gah-raaaahzzh,” but I’m not sure I’d pay sixteen bucks for the privilege. There are big names who should know better behind the camera as well. The director is Tomas Alfredson, who made the very excellent 2008 “Let the Right One In” and the very ambitious and mostly excellent 2011 “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The three screenwriters, Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Søren Sveistrup, have not unusually disgraced themselves in the courses of their respective careers. The editor is Thelma Schoonmaker, the veteran of much work with Martin Scorsese, who is here an executive producer. On the subject of editing, let’s move back to that opening scene. Given to where it cuts to, the viewer might infer that the movie’s orphan grows up to be its hero. Which provides a frisson, or is meant to provide a frisson, to the fact that the movie’s serial killer seems to know an awful lot about Harry, and that the killer constructs snowmen at the scenes of his crimes, snowmen that look an awful lot like one that appears in the opening scene. How, one might wonder, did the killer get sufficient insight into Harry and his past to be able to taunt him like this? Well, not to give anything away, but the film is constructed to misdirect the viewer as much as possible. I think there’s a relatively simple reason for this, and it also has to do with why this ostensibly adult thriller has an ending that’s almost literally a gloss from a “Scooby-Doo” episode: the actual plot, once laid out in a way that makes sense, is so patently packed with convenient coincidences that it’s practically simple-minded. Another proble[...]

Only the Brave


“Only the Brave” is the latest in a string of reality-based disaster films in which horrible tragedies are brought back to life via special effects and offered up for the delectation of the multiplex crowds—a sub-genre that has become so prevalent as of late that Mark Wahlberg has pretty much made a personal cottage industry out of them. This is a type of filmmaking I have always felt a certain level of ambivalence towards because good intentions can’t hide their tendency to feel hollow and exploitative in nature. “Only the Brave,” which chronicles an Arizona firefighting crew known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots from their early days struggling to get certified to their tragic encounter with the Yarnell Hill fire, has been made with a combination of sincerity and technical skill that is effective on a fundamental level, even if it never quite becomes the devastating emotional experience that it clearly wants to be. “Hotshots,” the film explains upfront, are an elite group of forest firefighters who are specially trained and certified to go into on-fire areas and establish a controlled fire line that the approaching inferno cannot cross. As the story begins, a team from the small town of Prescott, Arizona, under the leadership of chief Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) is trying to get certified, a feat that would make them the country’s first municipal hotshot squad. For now, they are merely part of the second wave that has to look on while the hotshots get to do all the real work, even if they have a better idea of the terrain and how the fire might turn in an instant than the top dogs. Eventually, local wildland division chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) gets them in position to finally get an official evaluation. As the group begins to train for this, they take on a new recruit in Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a local screw-up who decides to finally get off drugs and become responsible after learning that his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. To take Brendan on at this time seems like an enormous mistake, as fellow firefighter Christopher McKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) is constantly reminding him, but Marsh sees something in McDonough that inspires him to take that risk. Ironically, it is Marsh who almost blows it for the group during their evaluation when he elects to utilize a risky maneuver to combat a fire. Nevertheless, the group is officially certified at last and the newly dubbed Granite Mountain Hotshots quickly establish themselves in a series of fires, even becoming local heroes when they help save a cherished tree from a nearby blaze. However, the dangers of the job, not to mention the extended periods of time they are away from their families, do begin to take a toll. For McDonough, who has fully pulled himself together in order to establish a relationship with his baby daughter, he fears that the absences will turn him into the never-there father that he had and vowed that he would never become. As for Marsh, the new job pressures cause additional stress between him and his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who knew what she was getting into when she first married him but is no longer thrilled with him devoting so much of his life to his job and so little to her. Although one might think that the Yarnell Hill blaze and its aftermath might dominate the proceedings, “Only the Brave” spends the majority of its time showing how the crew grows and develops, both professionally and personally, with special emphasis on the lives of Marsh and McDonough. This is not necessarily a bad approach to take but it does lead to some clunkiness in the early going due to a screenplay by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer that has to deal with a mass of exposition involving the details of what a hotshot crew actually does and the group’s internal politics. One o[...]