Comparative Analysis: How People Like Us and the Lucky One Handle Secrets

SPOILER ALERT: Since this is an analytical piece rather than straight-up review certain plot elements will be discussed in some detail. If you do not wish to know such information please stop reading now.

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I believe what struck me most about People Like Us is that while it shares a plot device with The Lucky One, namely a lie told (or if you prefer information withheld). The reason this struck me so strongly was that while this was one of the major encumbrances of The Lucky One I feel that People Like Us handled it better in many regards such that is allows the film to succeed.

Now, the first way in which the secret(s) and lie(s) in these films differ is that in People Like Us it’s a far more tangible thing. Chris Pine’s character has just discovered that his father had a daughter with another woman. Therefore, he has to process and deal with this information. He had a bad relationship with his father, felt abandoned, but never knew about this. He has to sort it out himself. Furthermore, he discovers this in light of his father’s recent passing, where he is assigned to give her money his father left to her.

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In The Lucky One we understand the plight that Zac Efron’s character has: he feels that a woman in a picture was his lucky charm, the woman being a fallen comrade’s sister. With his struggles to adjust to life as a civilian he goes to seek her out, to what end he does not yet know. Now, he does eventually come to like the woman, and not the dream, and he does help give her closure about what exactly happened to her brother. However, his secret is not only far more nebulous, but is also one he comes much closer to having a chance to say.

Essentially, if a confession in a film is a necessity you’re really walking a tightrope. The longer the protagonist is forced to withhold that information the more precarious he and his plight become. Now, the external and internal conflicts of People Like Us are so well laid out and the different avenues so well-examined that the cat’s-got-your-tongue situations end up being far less annoying in that film than in The Lucky One.

Also, in The Lucky One it’s the kind of weird thing that you can either explain right away or you know you’ll wait on. However, the biggest issue is that he was so close to saying it and he just got motor-mouthed out of his opportunity upon first meeting her. Granted it’s a hard thing to say, but in People Like Us it was hard too but the film allowed the protagonist the opportunity to make the decision to wait on his own with minimal outside influence.

Neither scenario is really ideal for a prolonged secret, however, I feel People Like Us played it better than The Lucky One did.

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Review- Prometheus

I spent a good amount of time getting caught up on my reviewing. There’s no logical explanation as to why I get back-logged save for procrastination, but having said that I knew that I needed to have Prometheus last. Now, just the fact that I felt the need to stew on the film a bit longer is proof that there is a bit more to it than other films that just flat-out didn’t work at all. So in that regard, I do have to give it a grudging amount of respect, however, that was already there by the implication of its plot and the trappings. It’s not the aims of Prometheus that are so bothersome, but rather how it goes about trying to achieve said aims and fails.

As soon as you get aboard the Prometheus, the eponymous ship, you’re introduced to a rather different aim than in Alien, this is not strictly a cargo ship but a mission with a loftier goal, seeking the alien race that theoretically populated the earth. Essentially, seeking what we’ve come to call God. This is intimated visually with an archeological site, but we as an audience discover this when Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) memory is read. Granted this gives us some insight into both David (Michael Fassbender) and her but it’s an extremely clumsy way to introduce her theological views, especially when she’s not necessarily shy about sharing them with any and all who ask.

If a film wants to be a precursor to another film, inhabit its universe but not really have any drastic ties that bind it to the original film chronologically, I have no problem with that. I have been, on multiple occasions been surprised by a prequel or a remake, even when I saw the original product first, however, what confounds me about Prometheus is that it sets some pretty different aims in the beginning and then seems to spend much of the first and into the second act of the film doing a pale, sterilized impersonation of Alien, which makes you think maybe the God plot is a MacGuffin and you’re really going to get a rehash. It’s not the fact that it’s misdirection that bothers me, clearly films need to misdirect audiences for certain payoffs but it’s the amount of time dedicated to and the certain lack of follow-through and dispelling the other track that really gets to me.

There are more than a few rehashed tropes from the initial series of films that really don’t add that much drama or significance to this film. One of the most annoying ones is the character of David and his nature. This was a pretty huge reveal in the first film to both audience and characters involved, yet here it’s played blatantly and everyone knows. Well, why does an earlier crew know something a later crew doesn’t? Is it the nature of the manifest or something else?

I recognize that certain mysteries and certain tricks are harder to pull on multiple occasions, but it does sort of make you wonder why certain elements are even being reintroduced. If you’re wiping the slate clean, wipe it all the way clean. This way all the plot twists have impact. Instead, there are multiple sequences in this film that are just utterly hollow because I can already tell where a particular plot is going and there’s no real drama in its outcome. One of the more effective prequels in recent memory was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, simply because they rewound so far back in the narrative there was really no telling how you’d get from point A to B to C.

So there’s a major portion of the film that’s really just Alien Lite or Alien for Dummies, if you prefer but then there’s the part where something new is trying to be accomplished and the focus completely drifts away from it for rather significant stretches and when the film’s focus drifts what hope do we as an audience have or caring?

Is there more to this story than I’m giving credit for? Yes. However, part of the impetus for me (or almost anyone) to plunder the deeper depths of the film for meaning is a willingness to dig. What makes one willing to dig? Having something to latch onto in the first place, and there’s nothing that really gives you a handhold here. I’ve seen some commentary and read some reviews around that were rather interesting. Once cited Contact as a good double feature. The seeking some sort of greater meaning in the far reaches of the universe theme is there, but despite the surprise ending, the through-line of Contact is rather clear and never clouded. Many people disliked it for what it was or because of what they considered to be a deus ex machina in the story-line, but I’ve never seen anyone cite that it was confused about what it wanted to be. Relating back to the digging deeper comment I made above, A.O. Scott makes a fascinating comparison between the David of this film and the David in Artificial Intelligence: A.I., even as seemingly perplexed as I was walking out of that film for the first time there was something there I knew I liked it a lot, I just couldn’t put my finger on what. I’ve read some things and come to realize some things about Prometheus since I’ve seen it but none of it has illuminated it in my mind. It’s not a sense of revelation like I had after I walked out of The Turin Horse, it’s kind of like finding the occasional diamond in a pile of garbage; sure you have a diamond but you still feel dirty. The revelations do nothing because they’re not big enough and granted some films can get too grandiose, especially when failure is the more likely outcome but after a certain point there’s just an emotional flatline in this film that could’ve been at least jostled slightly by something pertaining to the purported point of this endeavor that could’ve helped.

Those are the more technical, narrative aspects. On the visceral front those shortcomings proved to make this my most boring moviegoing experience since Cowboys and Aliens. Note, I did not and will not say it’s that bad. This film does have a lot more going for it than that did, which I’ll get too but it’s by no stretch of the imagination enjoyable.

The film is unquestionably beautiful to look at, the effects work is pretty bullet-proof and while 3D isn’t amongst the very best I’ve seen it’s quite good and doesn’t distract or interfere with the experience at all. For more detail on the 3D from someone who appreciated that aspect a lot more than I did I refer you to CinemaBlend.

Most of the actors do what they can with the limited, usually one note characters they are given to work with. I wish Charlize Theron was given more range to work with, as her coldness in this does get a bit trite and it seems like she and Rapace are fighting over who gets to squeeze into the Weaver mold next. The slight power struggle is a bit enjoyable, but also a bit repetitive. However, some of the performances do fall a bit flat also namely Logan Marshall-Green, Sean Harris and Rafe Spall.

Sadly, Prometheus is an unmitigated mess. Some messy films can end up being lovely regardless of that fact, but this film never really has that chance. It’s pulled in different directions and slapped together with glue and scotch tape, as refined and brilliant as some of the images are, the construction and handling of the narrative is equally inelegant.

3/10

Review- Dark Shadows

With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.

From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.

What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.

There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.

Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.

Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.

Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.

Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.

An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.

Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.

In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.


4/10

61 Days of Halloween- Amityville II: The Possession

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Amityille II: The Possession

Jack Magner in Amityille II: The Possession (Orion)

While it may have been very tempting after the great flashes to tell the tale that made the Amityville house infamous on this occasion the result is comically bad and it was a tale better left untold at least the way it transpires here. There still is potential here that is completely untapped.

Now while in the first installment you could draw comparisons to The Exorcist there was definitely a tenuous but definite line of delineation separating the two. Mainly being that the priest was never heavily involved in the families plight and couldn’t be. Oh yeah, that and there was no exorcism performed.

There are other issues though. One of the talking points of the original film was about how the patriarch of that family looked like the previous assassin. Now this film doesn’t establish any prior history with the house so we are left to assume, especially by the construct of the family and who the killer is, that this is a prequel. So not only are the actors poorly cast in terms of appearance and ability but it totally changes the series by having someone trying to save his immortal soul.

So you have all that going against this film as if the idea of combining a haunted house film and an exorcism plot in a bifurcated tale wasn’t hard enough to pull off. You also lose the subtlety that the first film had and you wonder why the family spends even one night there.

There is also not one character who remains likable through the whole film and but one scene where the struggle of our protagonist/antagonist is truly felt. There’s also a random incident of incest.

To continue listing this film’s faults would be pointless except to say that it is a painful and nearly interminable experience. If you make it through to the end you’ll find some very humorous effects work that was likely not intended that way, other than that it is best avoided.

2/10

Review- X-Men: First Class

Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till in X-Men: First Class (20th Century Fox/Marvel)

I believe, when grading or reviewing a film, that taking a film for what it is and not comparing it something its not or not trying to be is of paramount importance. Thus, I will look at films from not just a genre perspective but also within the confines of subgenre and in some cases franchise. This clearly applies to X-Men: First Class.

It’s an action film, it’s a superhero film but moreover it’s a film in the X-Men series. I will state in the interest of full disclosure that I am a fan of the X-Men and it’s mainly through other interpretations be they the TV series I was hooked on as a kid or the films that came later.

I will here echo sentiments uttered quite astutely by my friend Joey Esposito because they are true and have bearing on any interpretation of this film. Those thoughts being that the connection many can feel to the X-Men are usually for either of two reasons: first, the mutants all feel outcast and most people at one point feel like outsiders, some more poignantly or persistently than others- this instantly adds to the appeal of the characters. However, perhaps the most intriguing dynamic in this universe is the dichotomy between Xavier and Magneto who have two diametrically opposite views on how to deal with this struggle and better yet anyone can see the logic in both approaches.

While I liked the previous installments in varying degrees, save for Wolverine, these truths and this philosophy was always hinted at and alluded to but never became central to the narrative. The films were engaging, flashy and fun, in short good entertainment that lacked that little something extra that made it necessary or desirable to revisit the film two or three times or more.

I have already seen X-Men: First Class twice because it not only gets everything I was talking about but delivers on it in spades. Never are you left wondering as the geriatric lady of infamy in the 80s advertising campaign said: “Where’s the beef?” Instantly the characters of this tale are built we see the circumstances that set Magneto on his course, likewise with Charles Xavier.

The films opening scenes are absolutely hypnotic and quickly establish suspense. The drama of the situation aided by Kevin Bacon who gives a wonderful and memorable turn in his first villainous role in some time confronts a Young Karl, played with utmost brilliance by Bill Milner, a young actor I’ve long contended is the best of his age group and he keeps proving me right. He is pushed and traumatized beyond his breaking point and it crystallizes his view of humanity. Meanwhile, Charles (Laurence Belcher) also gets a perfect introduction, not without its own bit of suspense, and we see him exhibit his nurturing, befriending nature.

Very quickly, dramatically and effectively the film establishes its characters before it really sets the story in motion, It’s a gripping start and I responded emotionally immediately which is rare. Like a few of the X-Men films it has memorable scenes with its lead characters in younger incarnations such as Cayden Boyd as Young Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand or Troye Sivan as Young Logan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What this film does is deliver on the promise that those early scenes show, in fact, there is a string of absolutely outstanding scenes that kick-off this film in tremendous style and the scenes end perfectly, carry great tension and importance are numerous in this film.

The success of this film hinges greatly on the strength of its script and it is simply put outstanding. The dialogue most of the time is sharp and concise and even though it wanders into typical superhero banter on occasion it is always purposeful and almost never wasted. Furthermore it communicates the philosophies of its characters, which needs to hit home, very well.

The characters are also made more interesting by the fact that they too have things at stake aside from the stakes of the plot. Not to knock that either. It’s hard to up the ante more than this film does but we’re not just seeing a spectacle because the characters are personally invested in their mission with different motives and that just makes it work that much better.

A few cast members were already singled out but a few more deserve mention. What wasn’t discussed in Kevin Bacon’s bit prior is that he, like a few other actors, was asked to speak a few lines in languages which are not his own and it just makes the experience that much more real and immediate. Having English as a substitute for foreign languages in a film is a slippery slope and I’m loving that people are trending towards using the foreign idioms themselves.

Clearly a lot of the kudos acting-wise need to go to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who play the two principal characters. They are the ones that intrigue us most and who bear most of the burden and knock it out of the park. While this role isn’t a showcase of her considerable talent as Winter’s Bone did Jennifer Lawrence does very well playing Mystique and each of the initial assemblage of mutants played by Nicholas Hoult, Edi Gathegi, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Kravitz and Lucas Till each have their moments to contribute.

The bottom line is that this is the best cinematic representation of who the X-Men to date are and why they are loved. The story is engaging and exciting but equal in intrigue are the characters. Add to that brilliant handling of how Xavier and Magneto whom are initially friends but just can’t see eye-to-eye philosophically and you have an absolutely dynamite film.

10/10

Review- Win Win

Paul Giamatti and Alex Schaffer in Win Win (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When writing a review I am not one who revels in deliberating on flowery prose with which to acknowledge the contributions of actors in a film. This is not to say an actors contributions to a film are insignificant, the prevailing reason for this fact is that as wonderful or irrelevant as a performance is, my opinion usually boils down to the narrative and how well it functions. However, on occasion you’ll find a character-driven piece that is so perfectly cast that it bears mentioning front and center.

That’s the case in Win Win. This film is all about its characters and each of the actors assigned to their respective characters could not be more well-suited, it’s quite literally pitch perfect. Paul Giamatti plays a more humbled and down-to-earth character than he’s usually given to toy with. The vulnerability there allows us to identify with him even when he makes mistakes and we know it at the time. He is flanked by friends who despite very different outward personas hide hurts from which they seek refuge. Each is played brilliantly by Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor respectively.

The mentions of the cast will continue as necessary but I can proceed because what works best in this film is that it never devolves into a self-indulgent character study but allows the plot to flow from the characters.

It takes a sufficient amount of time to develop the characters and then allows the information to progress the story rather than have the plot move ahead and character development is left chasing. A prime example is Alex Shaffer’s character, he first shows up as a complication in Mike’s (Paul Giamatti’s) plan then we learn who he is, he wrestles to have something to do and then we discover he’s good. Director Thomas McCarthy’s gamble to find an actor who was a wrestler first paid off big time, as Shaffer plays the role of a disaffected teenager to a tee and adds more dimension to the role than perhaps was even written.

The dialogue in this film is funny and like everything else is character-driven. Nothing is flippantly tossed out for a laugh but everything grows out of who we learn these people are and how they’ll react to given situations. Jackie, Paul’s wife (Amy Ryan) is a prime example of this. A lot of her dialogue is hysterical but only within the context of who we discover she is and not inherently.

The characters get introduced to in drips and drabs such that we quickly, without being spoonfed, discover what makes them tick. The family dynamic is introduced with a triad of scenes each punctuated in profanity, the depths to which Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is suffering from his divorce is revealed slowly and almost as an aside and even wrestling, which ends up being a major component of the film, doesn’t get thrown into the mix straight away.

The film benefits greatly from having a very tight and neatly structured script that paces itself to perfection. Aside from making sound and effective narrative decisions it is great mechanically. As I was watching it I wondered if Newmarket Press had picked it up for the Shooting Script series (it seems it has not but hopefully it will).

The title of the film reflects itself in the narrative in a subtle way in as you get the resolution you wanted. Yet, it’s the manner in which it’s handled that’s the most satisfying. It’s not a sappy or stereotypical ending. Ultimately, the characters end up with what they want but not how they expected to get and not without sacrificing.

The climactic conflict that needs resolving to get to said point is also very well dealt with. To put it simply it’s wordlessly and cinematically resolved. There are times in life when we know words are futile and an action must either be forgiven or not and life must go on. This is even more true in cinema and few films realize and this one does.

This is a great serio-comic film that resonates with truthfulness and is the rare film I’d categorize as a must see.

10/10