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The Adderall Diaries (2015)
Victims and Villains in American Dysfunctional Families
Despite the good performances of James Franco, Ed Harris, Amber Heard, and others, "The Adderall Diaries" is disappointing as a drama that seeks to probe into dysfunctional family systems in America.
Franco's character, Stephen Elliott, is the focal point of a multi-layered narrative of child abuse, false memories, and adults acting out childhood neuroses. Stephen has turned his troubled family experiences into a gold mine as a bestselling author. But when his father shows up to challenge Stephen's point of view, the life of the author is turned upside down.
As the film developed, it seemed to grow more and more unpleasant with sado-masochistic practices in the bedroom, and a tabloid trial of a man (Christian Slater) accused of murdering his wife. The various strands of the film are not effectively tied together, and, by the end, there is no genuine sense of redemption, except in the relationship of Stephen and his best friend from childhood, who seems to have succeeded in creating a conventional and happy family life for himself.
The biggest disappointment of "The Adderall Diaries" is that it was incapable of shedding light on such psychological dilemmas as the "false memory" syndrome. The James Franco-Ed Harris relationship of father and son was an interesting tug-of-war. But, sadly, it really never generated much of an emotional response in the viewer.
I Am Wrath (2016)
Corruption in Columbus
To watch this movie, one would believe that the principal pastime in Columbus, Ohio is not college football, but murder! From the top to the bottom of the social ladder, there was a seething undercurrent of corruption and the motivation to stop at nothing in illegal and violent crime.
John Travolta plays the central role of a former intel officer and killer, whose wife is murdered in an apparent random act of violence. But from the outset, it is clear that the act was not random. Travolta's character links up with his old barber shop buddy from his days of secret ops for a veritable killing spree to enact revenge.
SPOILER ALERT: The linchpin of the corruption starts in the governor's office. Travolta's wife had uncovered a phony water management plan in which the drinking water may be contaminated. Her death was part of the attempt to keep her findings under wraps. The oily governor and the Columbus cops are the mustache-twirling villains.
A weakness of this film is the one-dimensional portrayal of all of the characters. While Travolta brought some depth to his character, the scene when he went to confession seemed unbelievable, given the extent of the crime-ridden environment in which he lived. Aren't those confessionals supposed to take place in a private "booth," as opposed to the public pews?
Overall, this was a grade-B film with a grade-A actor struggling to keep up a semblance of interest. But, in the end, it is difficult to truly care about the characters in a potboiler in which the characters are purely melodramatic as studies in good versus evil.
Cosner is Excellent in Convoluted Thriller
In a film filled with unsavory characters, it turns out that the most likable is the hardened criminal without a heart or a brain, as played by Kevin Costner.
"Criminal" weaves together three strands in a race against time to stop a potentially mad industrialist named Xavier Heimdahl may potentially destroy the world with stolen software. An intelligence agent played by Ryan Reynolds dies in the attempt to thwart the villain.
In the meantime, the protegé of Heimdahl, a young man called The Dutchman, has intercepted the secret computer program, and he becomes a threat to national security.
To stop the villains, the research scientist played by Tommy Lee Jones implants stem cells of the deceased Ryan Reynolds character into the brain of the criminal played by Costner. The criminal has no function of his front lobe area, so he is the perfect recipient of the "mind" of the Reynolds CIA agent. Coaster's character, named Jerico, then becomes the bait to get back that precious software. The head of intelligence, who should one of the heroes, is actually one of the most nefarious creatures in the film, and is played with great gusto by Gary Oldman.
But the strength of the film is the softening of Costner's character Jerico, especially in his budding relationship with the widow and daughter of the deceased intelligence agent. In a film that includes nonstop action, the best scene was a quiet moment at the piano where the young daughter teaches Jerico how to play a duet. There was also a final closing scene to the film in which Oldman's character finally loosened up and we saw a spark of emotion. Most of the characters in the film were truly brain dead. But the character with the biggest heart was Costner's Jerico.
Midnight Special (2016)
The Immaculate Conception of "Midnight Special"
"Midnight Special" concerns the special gifts of a boy conceived by ordinary parents. The lad has such a powerful intellect and intuitive abilities that the gaze of his eyes will instantly transform people with the spiritual "high" of their lives! The boy has gained the attention of a religious cult in Texas, who interpret his presence as a sign of the Second Coming. But his gifts have also alerted the national security network that he may be an enemy of the state. That is the backdrop for the two parents, who, with the aid of a kind state trooper, seek to rescue the boy from the religious and national security authorities and deliver him to a higher power.
The film combines science fiction with elements of the action film, including daring chase scenes and constant life-and-death situations for the boy and his parents. But the true strength of the film lies in the sparse dialogue of screenwriter Jeff Nichols. There is a deft touch to the understated phrases and lines that raise more questions than they answer. A fine cast of actors, led by the always engaging Michael Shannon, create a truly creepy, yet engaging set of characters.
While "Midnight Special" may not be a film with a clear or even deeply emotional message, it is nonetheless compelling drama. The cinematography is superb with interesting locations, camera angles, and compositional choices. We may never know the full details of the immaculate conception of little Alton. But "Midnight Special" leaves the viewer with some striking images and quirky moments in a film that was done with imagination.
The Young Messiah (2016)
The Education of Jesus bar Joseph
In the bonus segment of the DVD version of "The Young Messiah," the screenwriter described how the goal of the script was "informed conjecture" about the life of young Jesus bar Joseph. In turn, the conjectural screenplay was based on the Anne Rice novel "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt." One of the strengths of the film is the choice of shooting sites, especially the town of Matera in Italy, which stood for Jerusalem. The roads, rivers, and mountain locales were also stunning.
But the heart of the film is the story of a year in the life of the young Jesus bar Joseph. The two main strands of the narrative are: 1) the action scenes in which the young messiah is pursued by the Roman centurions, seeking to kill the boy at the behest of King Herod; and 2) the drama of determining the precise moment when the kind parents will reveal to the boy that he is son of God.
The actors are uniformly earnest in their roles. The child actor playing Jesus is excellent, and the performers playing Mary and Joseph are also very convincing. Jane Lapotaire turns in a good character performance as Old Sarah. And Christian McKay as Cleopas, the uncle of Jesus, is a scene-stealer in his robust and slightly cynical character.
If there is a criticism to be aired about the film, it would be in the one-dimensional treatment of the story and the characters. There is a highly melodramatic rendition of a creepy devil, lurking in the background and taunting the boy Jesus at every turn. And the over-the-top interpretation of King Herod was cloying. Even Joseph and Mary were somewhat saccharine in their one-dimensional wholesomeness. At one point, Mary is praying and asks forgiveness for her sins that day. But there is nary a blemish on her spotless character evident in the entire year encompassed by this motion picture.
Criminal Activities (2015)
Sluggish Pace & Short on Action
"Criminal Activities" aspires to be a Quentin Tarantino-like riddle of a crime-action-dark comedy. Unfortunately, it fails on all three levels of a crime saga, action picture, and dark humor.
John Travolta is good as a mob boss who appears to be the center of convoluted crime story. Or is he? The screenplay for "Criminal Activities" resorts to an epilogue that seeks to put a twist on the story a kidnapping and high stakes blackmail of a group of four men who have made a lapse in judgment in borrowing money to invest in a pharmaceutical company. Their scheme backfires, and they are now confronted by Travolta's mob boss for payback time.
There are too many stretches of the film that are poorly paced and thin on action. Also, it is difficult to understand a good portion of the dialogue that is spoken too fast by the actors.
In the bonus section of the DVD, the character actor Jackie Earle Hayley recalls how he came to direct the picture. In a conversation with Travolta, Hayley discusses the great potential of the screenplay. Unfortunately, the cliché-ridden script was the biggest problem of the film. There was a fine cast of young actors, especially Edi Gathegi, who steals all of his scenes with clever line readings. But the final effect of the film is flat and non-engaging.
Term Life (2016)
Briskly Paced and Highly Entertaining!
"Term Life" succeeds as an action film and a drama of father-daughter bonding primarily because it does not take itself too seriously. The film is designed as light entertainment with no other pretensions.
Vince Vaughn is good as the beleaguered, yet inventive, planner of heists. After doing the leg work on a stick-up opportunity, he "sells" his plans to the criminal buyers. After a heist goes sour, Vaughn's character must go into hiding, and he is forced to "kidnap" his daughter, in order to protect her from the two principal villains--a drug lord and a crooked cop.
The film becomes engaging when the daughter begins to "learn the ropes" of the business of crime, and, above all, the mindset of the criminal. The young woman is a fast study, and the actress playing the daughter, Hailee Steinfeld, steals the show.
The best scene in the film was the moment when the father and daughter are at a fair, and the dad intercedes when a woman and her child are cheated out of a prize. He violates one of his cardinal rules as a criminal by making himself so conspicuous that bystanders may remember him. One of those bystanders is a cop, who is played by Terrence Howard. Of course, the cop will later remember the face of the kind man at the fair. This well-crafted scene pays dividends in the development of Vaughn's character as a criminal who has a heart.
Overall, "Term Life" was not a great film. But it included a fine set of character actors, brisk pacing by the director, and an excellent dose of sheer entertainment.
By the Sea (2015)
The Ultimate in Voyeuristic Filmmaking
The most lurid scenes in "By the Sea" are those in which the writer named Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina) are engaged in spying through a peephole into the bedroom of a couple in another suite at an exclusive Mediterranean hotel in France.
But on a second level, it is clear that as the viewers, we too are voyeurs, as we gaze into the room of Roland and Vanessa, as they struggle with a crisis in their marriage.
On a third level, of course, there is the voyeuristic appeal felt by audiences who keep up with the tabloids on the relationship of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, leading us to wonder whether art is imitating life in this film.
In the bonus segment on DVD of this film, the writer-director Angelina Jolie described how she wanted to recreate the essence of French art films in the late 1960s and '70s. In this regard, the film may have succeeded. But what Jolie did not seem to grasp is that those arty French films are often a crashing bore.
Much of "By the Sea" was self-indulgent and pretentious filmmaking. The turgid relationship of Roland and Vanessa occasionally lapsed into near comedy, especially in the scenes where the couple was crouching on the floor and peering through the opening, experiencing the couple's intimacies in the other room.
The crisis in the marriage of Roland and Vanessa stretched credibility to the limits. Roland seemed abnormally patient with the Vanessa, who was struggling with depression, yet was making his life a living hell.
There was an interesting bonus segment in which Pitt and Jolie were in conversation with the actress Gena Rowlands, who described similar films she made with her writer-director husband John Cassavettes. Roland had viewed a screening of "By the Sea" and stated on camera that she empathized with Jolie's character Vanessa, who seemed to her to be trying hard to find release from her depression. If you agree with Rolands, it is likely that you will admire this film. If you disagree with her, then the experience will be a long two hours of voyeuristic viewing.
Racing for the Gold
This successful film biography traces the life and career of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The film is well acted, and the closing sequence recreating the Berlin Olympics was especially dynamic.
Stephan James is a clearly a gifted athlete and a fine young actor, as apparent in his interpretation of the role of Jesse Owens. Much of the film was presented through the lens of Owens' relationship with his Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder, convincingly played by actor Jason Sudeikis. The cast included Jeremy Irons, who was excellent in the role of the controversial Olympic administrator Avery Brundage.
Another strength of the film were the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the Nazis in Berlin. The most interesting character interpretation was that of the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, which was played very well by Dutch actress Carice van Houten. The unique spin taken by the screenwriters was to make Riefenstahl a very sympathetic and even impartial filmmaker, who defied Goebbels' edict to ban the filming of the final relay race, which was Owens' fourth gold medal. Some of the best scenes of the film were those of Riefenstahl at work in filming her famous documentary "Olympiad." This revisionist view of Riefenstahl may serve in thawing the longstanding prejudice about her as a pawn of the Third Reich and a director associated exclusively with Nazi propaganda.
Overall, "Race" was a well-made and well-performed historical drama and biography of one of the great athletes and heroes of the twentieth century.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
The Cost of War
Led by Helen Mirren and a superb cast, "Eye in the Sky" is a taut suspense drama focusing on the behind-the-scenes decision-making process of making joint U.S.-British drone strike on terrorists in Kenya.
The film is successful in developing a set of characters who possess a conscience about collateral damage. The focal point is a child selling loaves of bread near the bomb site. Will the drone strike be authorized? Or will the issues be carefully weighed to assess the odds of the child dying in the bombing? The bureaucratic wrangling is at the heart of some of the finest scenes in the film, as the legal experts, politicians, and military debate the protocol in launching the strike.
There is a key line at the end of this film, as spoken by the late actor Alan Rickman about "the cost of war." But the film is really about the ethics of the contemporary war on terror. "Eye in the Sky" is a thoughtful reflection on this important moral issue.
For film-goers who appreciated this film, there is a similar and equally well-made film starring Ethan Hawke, entitled "Good Kill." Both dramas touch on important issues of "the cost of war" in the twenty-first century.