“Unforgettable” (2017) Review

I wanted to enjoy Unforgettable for the trashy thriller it aimed to be. I really did. I knew this entire plot was going to lead into some ludicrous climax of Rosario Dawson duking it out with Katherine Heigl, wielding knives and fireplace pokers at they smash each other into glass. But my heart was broken to discover that director Denise Di Novi attempted to make a thriller that genuinely took itself seriously in its first act before launching off the rails in the second. And when the train finally crashes, it’s more disappointing than amusing to watch the ensuing cat fight. I never thought I’d find myself being saddened by actors being so good.

To my great surprise, both Dawson and Heigl are far too great for such a bad a movie. Dawson is always a likable presence and does a magnificent job at trying to embody the chipper and anxious Julia, a woman who wants to marry her boyfriend David and become closer to his daughter. Heigl is absolutely brilliant as the wicked ex-wife that goes quietly crazy for the woman stealing away her family. They’re not exactly deep characters that slowly reveal their intentions over time, especially how the movie begins with Dawson already bloody and accused of murder, but they do their best to make lemonade from coal.

For the first half of the picture, I was starting to genuinely enjoy the mind games of Heigl’s character messing with Dawson. She sets up fake Facebook accounts to speak with Dawson’s stalker, steals jewelry from her house and attempts to stir up controversy. The problem is that I watched with dread for the inevitable trashy conclusion. The point of no return happens around the second act where Dawson has wild sex with her boyfriend in the bathroom while Heigl masturbates to sex chatting with Dawson’s stalker. Whatever modicum of feasibility there may have been for this scenario is gone by this point and we’re just watching the movie attempt to go into trashy mode.

Now, I don’t mind if Unforgettable wants to be a trashy thriller where Dawson and Heigl sprint towards the inevitable bloody cat fight, but I do when the talent involved is too good for such a script. Dawson delivers a stellar performance for how little he is given and this may be the best role for Heigl I’ve seen in a decade. It’s a movie that has the ingredients for making something provocatively sexy and vicious, but seems to up with the usual Fatal Attraction style affair. This made the ride towards the inevitable showdown more depressing than exciting as the silliness and violence mounts. And what of the husband and the daughter? Mere props for the savage antics of Dawson and Heigl. The husband does little more than excuse any strange or sociopathic behavior, while the daughter can do little more than smile for montages, look sad for uncomfortable moments and shout “mommy” whenever in danger.

Is it wrong to wish that a bad movie such as this could be worse, if only to be so crazy enough to recommend as wine party entertainment? The movie seems to balance between a tough situation of toxic love and an over-the-top thriller of off the rails writing. Despite the film’s best efforts to go full trashy by the end, including a shocking stinger of a possible sequel, it never reaches such heights. I’m thankful that the movie at least has such a generic title that it will quickly be forgotten in the sea of third-rate thrillers.

“A Dog’s Purpose” Review

I would like to preference this review by stating that I’ve seen dozens of these cute dog movies wherein a dog is cast as the hero that saves Christmas, foils a crime or brings a family together. I’ve seen dogs do everything: karate, become ghosts, go into space, play basketball, play soccer and too many stunts to count. I write this to let you know that I’m coming from years of experience before you decry my slightly negative review of the cute doggie movie.

I will give the movie credit in that it does aim for a higher goal than most dog-centric movie, seeking a more philosophical angle. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the dog Toby and, surprisingly, his thoughts are not all about food and fetch. One of his very first thoughts, voiced by Josh Gad, seems to be about contemplating his purpose in life. That’s quite the question for a puppy to pose. I thought all dogs pondered about was where the food was and which smell is where. Could this dog really be more of a philosopher than another brainless pup? Don’t worry, kids; Toby’s not above knocking over dinner tables, eating hot dogs off the ground and farting loudly in the car.

Despite a stumbling start to life, Toby falls for his child owner Ethan instantly, forming the basis for the classic tale of a boy and his dog. Based in a 1950s rural community, it’s that familiar flavor of midwest mundanity where racial concerns and space race are mere background elements to the more immediate issues of Ethan making the football team and Toby causing a mess of a dinner with the boss. I will give the dinner scene some credit for its unfunny aftermath. The scene itself is portrayed with the expected amount of slapstick and silly music, but follows with the father becoming a bitter alcoholic about not being able to work closer to home. It isn’t long before dad goes bad and starts beating his wife, leaving Ethan to defend himself while Toby barks at the wife beater. But was it Toby who drove him to this point? Something to ponder for the obligatory noble segment where the dog pulls Ethan out of a burning building.

Just when I think the film has settled into its Homeward Bound style of soft drama, the plot reaches the moment early where Toby must pass on from this world. Surrounded by his family, including a college-bound Ethan, he passes away into the next life, which happens to be the life of another dog. Now reincarnated into a different dog, and a different movie, Toby becomes a German Shepherd police dog that works with a bitter cop. Shot on the job, Toby then becomes a Corgi and then helps a woman go from a binge-eating college student to wife/mother. One death later, Toby is a St. Bernard-Australian Shepherd mix and abandoned by abusive owners.

And by now I’ve lost all interest in whether or not Toby will ever find his master Ethan. Sure, Ethan’s time on Earth is limited where as Toby receives apparently unlimited tries to reincarnate, but what will happen if Ethan dies before Toby serves his purpose? Will he continue to reincarnate and find someone else to bring joy towards? Or will he go to hell or purgatory or something? What is at stake here?

Why am I asking such questions? I shouldn’t be. This is mostly a soapy dog movie for the easily-weepy to push out some tears at dogs dying and giggle when they topple over tables. I could buy that just fine as meaningless fluff, but this whole element of a dog trying to find his purpose in life is too meaty of a plot for this picture to handle.

In the rather low expectations of the dog movie subgenre, A Dog’s Purpose tries to add in a Terrance Malik angle to its rather simple story of a dog that warms hearts. There’s no philosophical treat at the end of this furry journey, as Toby’s hypothesis for life is nothing all that special. I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’s ultimate answer to the big question: Be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. That answer was intended to be humorous for being so obvious and underwhelming, but Toby delivers this statement as if it is an emotionally-moving revelation. And I’m sure it would be, if I were a dog. Too bad I’m not as amazed by the simplicity of catching a ball, the easy sadness of spending a night in the shed or the fun of knocking over dinner tables. Maybe then I wouldn’t question why a dog needs to question existence itself, in between farting loudly and wrecking dad’s dinner party.

“God’s Not Dead 2” Review

God’s Not Dead 2 is Christploitation at its most laughable levels of trashy hysteria. Similar in premise and themes to its predecessor, this spiritual successor takes aim at the persecution of Christians being allowed to express their faith. No, not the Christians being attacked and slaughtered in the Middle East or the Christians that faced violence from angry terrorists for believing something different. The poor Christian on parade here is an Arkansas schoolteacher on trial for talking briefly about the Bible in a classroom. It is the very definition of first-world problems for Christians and a prime example of propaganda and paranoid nonsense that I’m sure many Christians will cite as their case for mentioning Jesus in public schools. If they can’t talk about the Bible in school, what’s next? Government buildings? The mall? Churches? Somebody save these persecuted Christians before they’re forced to renounce their faith!

To make such a scenario more dramatic and riveting than it really is, the movie does its best to present good-natured Christian protagonists and misguided atheist villains. Grace (Melissa Joan Hart) is a high school history teacher that is portrayed as a sweet and innocent woman who cares for her ill father as any good Christian would. She finds herself quoting scripture in the classroom when a student asks of the correlation between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesus Christ. Such talk stirs up the “free thinker” parents that are appalled by Christianity in a public school. The administration wants Grace to apologize, but she refuses and the trial is on for the right to talk about Jesus in school, gaining enough traction to become national news.

Representing the prosecution is an ACLU attorney played by Ray Wise, a fitting bit of casting considering he once played the devil on TV’s Reaper. Playing such a sinister character, Wise has the honor of reading the line “We will prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that God is dead” with that wicked smile he does so well. The movie does improve slightly over the previous movie where the central antagonist of a college professor that challenges Christianity is actually a closeted Christian himself. The ACLU attorney is fully committed to being the evil atheist that will destroy God, one courtroom case at a time.

Representing the defense is the good looking Jesse Metcalfe, but, wait, he’s an agnostic! Think of him more or less as the straight man in this rather strange tale of the crisis of Middle Americans. He doesn’t so much want to make a case for Christ in the classroom as much as he wants to prove that Grace wasn’t malicious or preachy in her citing of scripture. There’s a twinge of hope for this court case when he states that he will not be putting Christianity on trial, but this is of course a lie. This is made abundantly clear when J. Warner Wallace, writer of the forensically based religious book Cold Case Christ, is called to the stand. To be fair, Wallace does have some interesting things to say about Christ in his findings, but it feels out of place for this movie. It is a little hilarious to believe that Christians could call upon Wallace for any case where someone cites Christ in the class or quotes scripture in a government building.

Also similar to the previous film is the subplots of Christian-themed stories that surround the case. A Chinese student quarrels with his dad about being a Christian, fulfilling some sort of diversity quota for these films as if to say “see, [insert non-white race] can be Christians, too.” I’m assuming the movie inserted this subplot in order to excuse a rather cringe-worthy scene where a white guy has to teach the black school principal about Martin Luther King. Other subplots include a reporter recovering from cancer and unsure of her devotion to Jesus. A little Christian rock music from a promoted Christian band does the trick. The most recognizable of returning characters is David A.R. White as Pastor Dave, a man that seems likable and silly for his many slapstick antics, but still views the central case as a war on faith. He views this event as a time to finally get serious and stop spilling his damn coffee with amusing results.

Director Harold Cronk has staged his clunky and choir-playing drama to be both a fear-mongering tale for Middle American Christians and a proclamation of faith fit for mom’s Facebook feed, urging others to Like if you believe God is not dead. It is a film built for rural Christians of quaint communities to feel as though there is urgency, a danger and a war that threatens everything about their faith. And I really don’t want to look down on movies about religion, but it’s hard not to with a franchise that props up Duck Dynasty as God’s must-watch TV.

“Steve Jobs” Review

What more can be said about the life of Steve Jobs? There are numerous documentaries and books divulging all his technological achievements and human failures. There are dramatizations that range from respectful (The Pirates of Silicon Valley) to bland (Jobs). So what is there left to explore in a new docudrama with an all-star cast? Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin find just the right angle to portray the creative genius of Apple: as a flawed human being reeling behind the curtain before facing the public.

For this picture, we focus on Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) during three crucial events of his career: the 1984 launch of the Macintosh computer, the 1988 launch of his NeXT computer and the 1996 unveiling of the iMac. The movie doesn’t focus so much on the event itself as it does on Jobs’ behind the scenes. At the launch of the Macintosh, his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and her daughter Lisa visit Jobs. As Steve and Chrissan argue over money and public perceptions, Lisa sits in front of the Macintosh computer. She plays around it with for a few minutes and Steve is floored when he witnesses her create a drawing in MacPaint. For a brief moment, he is taken out of his element as the calculated and arrogant creator. Her presence brings down the tension and breaks Steve down to more of a human with purpose than a shrill innovator.

For most of the picture, Lisa is present as a part of Steve’s life that reminds him of what he’s pushed away. She’s the only one whom Steve seems to have the most casual and interesting of conversations with. It becomes a tragic relationship in how Steve puts more effort into his career than spending time with his daughter. He is absent for much of her life growing up, but she continues to remind him of what he’s missing out on. It’s not until Lisa is old enough for college does Steve finally realized how important a daughter can be in your life.

When not conversing with his daughter, Steve is doing battle with the various co-workers that grow to detest the man over time. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) quickly becomes bitter with Steve refusing to acknowledge the Apple II team on the grounds that such development is in the past. CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) booms with frustration about Jobs’ refusal to work with the Apple board of directors, which led to Jobs being forced out of the company. The only one who seems to both know the man on a deeper level and still despise him is marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) who attempts to steer him in the right direction amid all the chaos. All of these people become byproducts of Jobs’ ego and it’s up to him to right the crucial mistakes of his career.

The all-star cast is in top form. Fassbender’s portrayal of Jobs doesn’t quite hit the visual level of a dead ringer, but his performance is powerful enough to match the core personality of the technological icon. There’s grace, arrogance and fear all mixed into a character that would probably be feeling all these before a big event. Kate Winslet almost deserves more credit for her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman, matching her both her dated style and insistent buzzing around Steve. The rest of the cast all feel perfectly utilized as well considering most get to share personal scenes between them in Fassbender with exceptional dialogue.

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is perhaps the most focused picture on the man and his legacy. It skips through most of the history we already know and delivers on the juicier moments of Jobs’ life. Seeing what literally happens behind the scenes is far more exciting than witnessing the actual press conferences built around the premise. Most technological history buffs are aware of the failures of the NeXT and the Newton as well as the popularity of the iMac. The script briskly glazes over these touchstones for Apple to keep a strict eye more on character than innovation. Even the origin moments of Steve’s past with Wozniak and the bitter internal feuds of Apple are kept to minimum flashbacks. We get to follow along with Steve in his fast-paced race towards the stage, realizing that there’s much more on his mind than the conception of the iPhone.

“White God” Review

White God is the dog movie I’ve been waiting for – namely one that doesn’t feature a pup saving Christmas or solving a crime. The direct-to-video market has seen a glut of these dog-sploitation movies that anything divergent is more than welcome. Finally, there is a film where the dog isn’t just a furry ornament or an easy target for sympathy. It’s probably the first film I’ve seen in a long time where the dog is actually a character with a real arc. And, thankfully, it’s a solid bit of grit worth the massive effort it must have taken to coordinate these scenes of dogs building character.

This little town in Hungary seems entirely against the forces of preteen Lili and her dog Hagen. Sent to live with her bitter estranged father and working with a harsh orchestra conductor, Lili’s only true friend is her dog. The two have such kinship that only Lili’s skill with the trumpet can satiate Hagen’s whining and barking. But when their relationship starts annoying her elders, Hagen is dumped on the street by the enraged father, leaving the dog to fend for himself and find his way back.

From that description, you might expect this to be your run-of-the-mill story about a dog on an adventure for his young master. But Hagen’s journey is one that is incredibly dark in a world where the people of Hungary seem to despise any and all dogs. This tone is established early as the first dog Hagen spots while on his own is a canine corpse – rotting in a heap of garbage. These are cruel streets filled with sneering dog catchers eager to exterminate and seedy men devoted to training dogs for bloody sport. Of course, Hagen will find an escape from these fatal traps, but not after being bruised and beaten. The trainer that buys him off the street beats Hagen until he is a snarling beast ready to tear out the throats of his enemies. You don’t exactly come out of a fight to the death as the same old playful pup.

By the second act, White God turns into a dog revenge film. Hagen slowly grows irritable and fed up with humanity that would rather carve him up than give him a pet. He leads a horde of dogs into the streets to savagely attack and murder all who wronged him. Such shots may sound silly the way it resembles a dog-version of Planet of the Apes, but it’s treated sincerely with believable drama and tension. There is a sense of control and character to this madness as when Hagen pulls back his forces when a blockade of police begin opening fire.

But the movie isn’t all dog as we get to follow Lili on a similar adventure of understanding humanity’s cruelty. Without her dog, Lili struggles to find something to latch on to in life. She checks the dog shelters, but they’re absolutely no help. She reluctantly throws herself back into music, but finds herself hating its soulless heart. She tries to make friends at a party, but her drinking and drug holding only land her in hot water. While she doesn’t delve as deep into the abyss as Hagen, she still makes a tough transition that we hope she’ll make it out of. And, of course, we want to see the girl reunited with her dog, but they may not be the same personalities they once knew before.

White God is white-hot with grit and style for a tale of a girl and her dog. Writer/director Kornél Mundruczó shot this Hungarian town with a keen eye for great shots as when all the dogs stop a few feet from Lili as Hagen approaches her alone. I rarely ever write this in a review, but the dogs really deserve some credit for adding real emotion in roles that are usually reduced to blank faces of cute. In fact, there was an award they won in the form of the Palm Dog Award. Yes, this is a real award and no film is more worthy of such an honor than this one right here. It’s about time dogs were given some real roles as opposed to just phoning it in as another cuddly face for the screen. I’m semi-joking, but I really am tired of these Christmas and cop dog movies that something like White God deserves more credit for creating a real story and not a cheap one. It works as a coming-of-age picture and a dog revenge picture. A strange combo, I know, but it makes it all the more entertaining that such a mixture warrants a great film.

“Ida” Review

It may seem a little expected and a little cliche that one of my favorite films of 2014 is a black-and-white foreign film of a quiet manner echoing Ingmar Bergman. But Ida is a film I can’t help but love for how it stuck in my brain with its unforgettable imagery and characters. Despite being a rather dreary drama about a bleak era in Poland, everything about this production kept me glued to the screen from its unique character studies to some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen all year.

The film follows the orphaned girl Anna of a Polish convent, readying herself to take her final vows as a nun. Having spent so much time devoting her life to Christ and knowing little of her lineage, Mother Superior recommends she takes time to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. This woman is everything Anna is not; she is a judge who spends her off hours drinking and sleeping with all sorts of men, damaged by the world she grew up with. But Wanda does have one big bombshell to deliver; Anna’s real name is Ida and her parents were Jewish. Her parents, murdered by Nazis during the war, were never accounted for. So Ida decides to take a trip around the snowy and gloomy countryside to find some closure in her parents’ secret resting place.

It’s a scenario that puts any awkward family road trip to shame for both the grand revelation, the dreadful end goal and the differing morals of the two women. Wanda constantly tests Ida by mocking her values in her various states of stupor. In all that downer babble, however, she does bring up one point that gets to her. How can you knock sin if you’ve never experienced the world outside a convent? Living a sheltered life in the convent, Ida has a very limited view of the world. She’s quiet, shy and very protective of her holy items.

But the more Ida explores the cold and cruel landscape of Poland, she starts to see the beauty and allure of it all. Wanda speaks of a barn they intend to visit in which her relatives would craft stained glass windows for. When Ida finally witnesses this bit of craftsmanship, she is quietly stunned by the sight. The presumably colorful light seeping through the elegant design says more than words ever could. But, just in case, Wanda perfectly describes it as beauty amid horse manure.

That is indeed what Ida finds in this world. Poland is not a good looking country from this perspective. It’s freezing, most of the locals are bitter individuals and the quest unearths nothing but heartbreaking closure. And, yet, there is some room to live a joyous life. While on their way to a hotel, the two women befriend a musician who will be playing at the same building. He’s an attractive boy and Ida finds herself somewhat consumed by his allure. She listens to his band and finds herself ever engrossed in such an individual. The constant taunting of Wanda drowning in booze makes her fearful of these new feelings, but all the more excited to take a leap into the unknown.

The cinematography of Ida sticks out in my mind most prominently in every way. Everything is shot to be deliberately boxy and large the way the characters occupy their world. The film was shot in the boxed 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the widescreen formats of current movies. I’m not sure where the director found these locations or what tricks he used with the camera, but every single exterior appears to tower over the characters.

Ida enters the offices of mother superior with the entrance featuring a flight of stairs that seems better suited for the upper entrance to a house. She later climbs what appears to be a giant set of stairs for an apartment complex. And the hotel she visits with Wanda is so barren to the point where a simple dining room appears like a spacious ballroom. What helps accomplish this as well is that the character never appear perfectly centered in shots. Every closeup forces the character so far down into a corner that they are just barely on the screen with the environment consuming them. The color choice of sticking to black and white provides a great contrast for the snowy setting. Life in this area appears cold and desolate as a country struggles to repair itself internally.

Ida, for all somber tones and sterile color, is amazing to witness for its masterful cinematography on a deeply emotional subject. For being a rather slow-burn of a road trip movie that only leads to heartache, there’s a strange sense of love and life amid all the depression of cold country trying to heal wounds. The more I talk about it, the more I just want to race back to my television and fiddle with the pause button to take it all in once more.

“Focus” Review

Focus is a caper that offers a challenge to the viewer. It dares you to try to follow along with its constant twists, double crosses, fakeouts, staged events and sneaky tactics at getting rich. You can try to tag along with the ever-bouncing plot that refuses to halt with the surprises right up until the last scene. At some point you just have to throw your hands up in the air at how constant and ludicrous the film becomes with its gotcha moments. But, like any caper, there’s enough pleasing elements to the eye that offer a welcome divergence from the plot.

Nicky (Will Smith) is an expert con man so familiar with the scam game that he willingly throws himself into traps just to see how far the scammers can get. When Jess (Margot Robbie) tries to pull the jealous boyfriend bit where she hires an actor to threaten Smith’s character, Nicky merely laughs at the execution having seen it many times. Intrigued by her determination for tricking others, Nicky decides to take on Jess as a sort of con job apprentice. He trains her in the fine art of always keeping the eyes open for areas to exploit and swipe from unsuspecting victims. He puts her to the ultimate test by keeping her out of the loop on a wagering game he performs at a football game where he seems to be losing millions of dollars. But Nicky ultimately wins a big payout thanks to a ridiculously intricate plan of subconscious suggestion.

The two part ways after the gig, but find themselves crossing paths while working on a con job for a race car driver. From this point the movie becomes a guessing game of who is playing who, who is in love with who and who is staging which events. Similar to both the title and Nicky’s tactics, this is a caper that dares you to keep your eye focused on the plot with so much flash going on around it. If you follow closely, you’ll start to see how ridiculous such a story becomes for twist after twist after twist until the story has tied a messy knot of money, deception and sex.

But, thankfully, Focus tries to distract the viewer with lots of shiny. The set pieces of stylish hotels and rich interiors give a perfect backdrop for the effective acting talent of Smith and Robbie. They have a unique chemistry on-screen for their teacher/student relationship that coyly develops into a romance where they’re not too sure if such a thing can exist in their line of work. And their schemes – for as ridiculously intricate as they’re conceived – are actually fun to follow in how they attempt to play gotcha with your perceptions. It may be a mess of twists and turns, but it’s a sleek and sexy mess that never bores.

Focus entertains with a handful of surprises, even if the surprises cause a few plot holes. Let’s face it, though; the real reason for this movie is to see Smith and Robbie together and they’re certainly the best aspect of this caper movie. This is a decent rental for some lightly sly thrills that’s refreshing for a first viewing, but not as strong on its second to warrant a purchase.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” Review

With all the controversy surrounding the sexual nature of Fifty Shades of Grey, I expected something either titillating, scandalous or laughably questionable. For a movie that features bondage and domination, I found myself surprisingly bored with the experience. Is this really what all the hub-bub was about? I’ve seen teen sex comedies and dopey romantic comedies that present copulation with more explicit content and more romance. If the original book was intended as trashy smut, then this movie adaptation certainly seems to fit that genre. However, it’s only risqué in a softcore sense the way it seems to be for older women who want to see something sexual, but not really sexual. A nipple hear and a butt there is plenty of titillation for that crowd.

Spawned as fan fiction from the tween-pleasing Twilight phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey entertains the scenario of a plucky college student being wined, dined and dominated by a rich boy. Ana (Dakota Johnson) has her whole life ahead of her as a college graduate, but decides to devote it towards pursuing one single man. Filling in for a friend, she interviews the wealthy industrialist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and is drawn to his mysterious nature. There isn’t much of any charm to his quiet personality, but that doesn’t stop Ana from glowing around the good-looking hunk. Whether she’s lost in his eyes or his skyline views, she’s impressed enough to start pursuing a relationship with mister Grey.

What pertains to their relationship? Lots of paperwork, lots of sex and lots of dry field trips in Grey’s various crafts. There’s no meaningful dialogue between the two – just more mystique about being so shy and closed off from each other. Some of their first encounters involve Grey making Ana sign a NDA and later attempts to get her to sign a contract for sexual intimacy. Is this what makes for an erotic fantasy in this new age? Paperwork over dinner about negotiating whether or not to use butt plugs? Has the art of wooing a woman over charm become a lost art form? According to this movie, you can skip all that if you have enough looks and money.

So since we can’t really rely on the characters to develop a romance, all that the movie leaves us with is an abundance of sex scenes. Their sex is of the bondage variety which involves plenty of leather, ropes, crops, feathers, etc. Based on the display of Grey’s playroom, one might expect some displays of passion that are a little intense. But director Sam Taylor-Johnson softens all the sex to a ludicrous degree. There are no explicit moments of intimacy – only laughably edited shots of nudity with a soft rendition of a pop song playing over the lovemaking. These moments are as artificial and soulless as the relationship itself.

This creates a shifting in tones for a movie that’s clearly terrible, but on different degrees of awful. At first, it’s so bad that it’s good. The dialogue is ridiculously juvenile, the characters are ludicrously flat and the sex scenes are so timid with all the sex appeal of a diamond commercial. I laughed for a while, but the laughter soon died down as the pattern set in. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey have an awkwardly dull dinner. Ana and Grey have sex. Ana and Grey go for a plane ride. Ana and Grey have sex yet again. On and on the formula continues until the movie mercifully decides to just stop dead in its tracks.

Fifty Shades of Grey is erotic junk food targeted at the women who want a smutty movie, but not too smutty. Rather than make something daring and telling of a relationship with a billionaire, the movie makes the raunchiest of teen sex comedies seem more heartfelt. There’s just nothing much to be felt by any of this – no arousal for its intimacy and no outrage over is subject. By the end of the picture, I was thoroughly bored with a mundane roller coaster relationship of Ana and Grey. And boredom is not something that should be attributed to a movie with bondage sex.

“Selma” (2014) Review

How does one make a film about the crucial aspects of Martin Luther King? Do you focus more on his personal life to make him more human or do you shoot for more of his public actions for the civil rights movement? For director Ava DuVernay, it was both and neither. She doesn’t just want to singularly show King as the complete human being and hero he was, but also how he affected all those around him. From the infuriated opposition to the unlucky martyrs that followed him, DuVernay provides many angles and perspectives for one of the most important events of American history.

David Oyelowo is thankfully the centerpiece performance as Martin Luther King. He plays the iconic historical figure with the right amount of courage and doubt. When speaking before fellow African-Americans on the street and in the church, he’s an inspiring voice of civil rights. When speaking among close friends and family, he’s a simple man that has the same amount of fear as those who follow him in the marches. Oyelowo encapsulates every aspect we want to see of King in a picture such as this – not just focusing on his historic speeches and movements, but his personal struggles. Based on various accounts of his actions, we get to see how he copes at home with his family and dealing with phone assaults to the foundation of his marriage.

But Selma, as the title implies, is not just about MLK. Ava DuVernay’s best films prior were those that dealt with women trying to deal with men. From that aspect, I expected her to deliver on MLK’s wife Coretta and she does not disappoint. Carmen Ejogo gives just as strong of a performance, capitalizing on Coretta’s fears and frustrations with having such a figure as a husband. She visits him in jail and puts up a stoic front as she can for seeing him in such a place. She confronts her husband when accusations of cheating have been suggested to her and approaches the subject with cautious reasoning.

And then we branch out into other characters around MLK. Oprah Winfrey plays a determined female voter who follows King despite being subjected to the violence that came with non-violent protests. Andre Holland plays a motivated Andrew Young who encourages King to continue with a march he has doubts about. Tim Roth fills out the role of the bitter Alabama Governor George Wallace who makes his racist nature public by recommending the use of force to put a stop to these marches.

As with any historical drama, there are some artistic liberties that for many is going to make or break the film. The most prominent being the handling of President Lyndon Johnson as a more apathetic figure in the civil rights movement. Most historians, including those who worked with LBJ, can attest that he was more of a fighter for the cause than a man who had no dog in this fight. At one point LBJ calls on both King and Wallace to knock it off as if he were trying to be more of an outside moderator. DuVernay altered this presumably for a better story in which MLK really did feel like he had nobody to turn to in his hours of truth. It may have also been done to give LBJ more to do given that his performances by Tom Wilkinson is not too shabby and nowhere near the level of a cartoonishly ignorant white leader. Even when trying to distance himself from the issue, he really does appear to be on the level in the way he chews out Wallace during their meetings.

Ultimately, though, Selma succeeds at capturing the importance of rising against racism the peaceful way for what is right. It aims to portray MLK as more of a human than a figure, bringing the man and his mission to the forefront for modern audiences. If nothing else, it’s worth the price of admission just to see David Oyelowo revive MLK’s presence and voice for the words that should remain immortal.

The film, for all its liberties with history, presents a unique and important aspect of Martin Luther King more human than icon. It’s a brilliant film for the classroom to wake up students from the overused archive footage. MLK’s speech footage is still the important piece of film ever captured, but a dramatized film helps breed more empathy for a man’s dream of equality. Worth every penny for the strong performances of a biopic that succeeds strongly at capturing a powerful figure and his effect on the country.

“God’s Not Dead” Review

2014 brought with it many different types of religious films from major epics (Exodus, Noah) to soapy melodramas (Heaven is for Real, Left Behind). Most of these were forgettable, but God’s Not Dead was such a poisonous piece of propaganda for the fundamentalist Christian movement. This is a film built specifically to tell that group of people exactly the kind of reassurance they want to hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s not based in truth, logic, individual spirituality or honest characters. All that matters is that the Christians are seen as righteous victims and that everyone who isn’t a follower are slithering bullies of belief.

My first preconceptions with God’s Not Dead was that there would be a film which openly talks about religion in an educational avenue. This could be really interesting and wind up being the type of film that gets people interested and talking about the topic. Perhaps I was far too hopeful as the film dips so far down into the fallacious Christian reasoning that the debate turns into classroom melodrama fit for a Hallmark production.

Kevin Sorbo plays Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor that is so over-the-top cynical he requires his class write down ‘god is dead’ on a piece of paper to acknowledge this and move on with the course. One student, Josh, writes the exact opposite and chooses to turn the classroom into a courtroom as he defends his position that god does exist. I question why he wouldn’t just go to the Dean and report the teacher for forcing his beliefs upon the class. I know the student doesn’t do this because then there would be no debate about religion, but, honestly, a movie more about the bias of college teachers and the aftermath of being reported would be far more intriguing.

Okay, so it’s a battle of atheist beliefs versus Christian beliefs. This could still be an enthralling duel similar to how Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson squared off against each other with surprising intellect. But, since this is a drama narrative, there has to be a personal aspect to this debate. And, once again, another Christian goes on the offensive that an atheist makes their belief structure based on hatred of fate rather than a documented and informed opinion.

In the closing moments of the debate, Josh yells at his teacher “Why do you hate god?” to which Radisson screams “Because he took my wife away!” Josh looks at him with a straight face and questions how Radisson can hate someone he claims does not exist. Mic drop. Not only does the movie have the audacity to have all the students rise up in a triumphant chant forcing the teacher to retreat in defeat, but the script then kills off Radisson. After being struck in a car crash, he accepts God before dying. What a childish and gross method to illustrate a debate.

If the movie were simply working on a character level focusing on the teacher’s emotional drive, it could’ve been a passable drama from that angle. But this is a film that wants to stage the debate and fix it so the Christian believers come out on top. Well, what about the opposition that isn’t just a closeted Christian turned Atheist by unfortunate events? Or do the filmmakers honestly believe that the teacher’s stance defines every Atheist approach to the subject? This debate was a lot like watching a meek boxer square-off against a chicken with a Mike Tyson name tag. The boxer will win and claim he defeated Mike Tyson even though all he did was tenderize poultry.

For those who feel I’m banging too much on this film for personal preference in faith, turn the tables for a moment and pretend there was an atheist spin on the script. A student is forced to prove to a teacher that god is dead. The teacher screams that he hates evolution and the student questions how he can hate something he claims does not exist. The teacher later dies and comes to realize there is no god before passing away. Sounds pretty stupid, doesn’t it?

And even looking at this film from a Christian perspective, I would think think that they would be offended by something so soft. Don’t you think a true Christian who has unshaken faith and dedication to their religion would be able to stand up to a harder target than Radisson? Where is the challenge? Why create yet another strawman argument? Why not make all these characters more fully realized so that they’re more than just the cookie cutter templates of every cheap production of this nature?

But the film is not just about the debate. Similar to Crash or Babel, we follow the stories of other students in how they come to terms with their own faith. Once again, another great idea hampered by the dim outlook of Christianity. A female Muslim displays a curiosity in the Bible the winds up with her father screaming her out of the house. A left-wing blogger who pokes fun at Duck Dynasty gets his just desserts when afflicted with cancer. And just to pound one last crucifying cross into your skull about the true message of the movie, a member of Duck Dynasty makes a cameo to call upon the college campus to use social media and shout out that God is not dead.

If God isn’t dead, he certainly received a headache from this shameless strawman of a picture carried out in his name. What could have just been forgettable Christian fluff goes on the offensive for what it believes to be an attack on religion. It’s still laughably bad for how dramatic the filmmakers believe they’re being for challenging the system with ludicrous villains, but a little less so when you realize there’s a large collective taking this tripe seriously. And that’s when the ironic laughs start turning into awkward ones.