Friday, June 19, 2020

Three Cheapo DVDs

I needed a movie fix this past week, so during a shopping run at Walmart I picked up three cheapo DVDs – movies priced at either $3.74 or $5 – and watched them over a two-night period.

The first one I watched was a movie that I was a little afraid was going to be a Christian apologetics flick, titled The Healer (not to be confused with at least three other movies by approximately that name). In reality, it turned out to be a sly commercial for a line of camps for kids with cancer started by the late Paul Newman, and although there is one scene where the main character stands in an empty church and tries (for the first time in his life, apparently) to talk to God, he proves to be not very good at it – calls God a big meanie, yells an ultimatum, storms off, etc. It's actually the town's Catholic priest who, having lost his faith, gets it back during this film. Being a healer implies some sort of calling from God, but apparently (some might perhaps say mercifully) the movie doesn't lean into any notion of developing a personal relationship with God. It does, however, explore the personal and relationship implications when a guy, through no merit or fault of his own, suddenly comes into a set of weird powers that (he learns only at the point of the spear) run in his family, skipping a generation and focusing on one sleepy town in Nova Scotia.

Alec, played by handsome Oliver Jackson-Cohen, has a Daniel Radcliffe smile (when he smiles) but, ironically, strongly objects to being deceived, blackmailed, shamed, or otherwise dragooned into being Lunenburg, N.S.'s "Harry Potter." At the moment when he must make the critical choice, whether or not to accept the gift of healing, he balks like a mule. Then he has to face a town meeting full of people who are already primed to thank him for being their healer – an uncomfortable moment in a film well stocked with squirm-inducing scenes. It's kind of the movie's stock in trade, in line with a theme of wrestling with things you can't control, accepting things you can't change and regretting things you allowed to pass you by. It gets really uncomfortable, or rather emotionally wrenching, when the selfish young wastrel realizes that he'd give anything to have chosen differently so that he can save the life of a vivacious teenager who has terminal marshmallow (code for cancer). Suddenly, looking out for himself just isn't doing it for him.

So, yeah, it's a movie with a big heart. It has comedy in it that made me laugh, drama in it that brought a lump to my throat, a romance that's just a little off to the unchaste side compared to Hallmark Channel fare, and a dopey jingle at the end for the aforementioned cancer kids' camping program. I was willing to take that as an alternative to being clubbed over the head with a demand to ask Jesus into my heart. I was also intrigued by the overall quality of the writing, acting and production values throughout, including beautiful locations depicting a town that actually exists. The cast includes Jonathan Pryce (that guy who looks like Pope Francis) as an uncle who is so distant and uncommunicative that he seems to trail unanswered questions behind him at every turn; Jorge Garcia of modern-day Hawaii Five-O as Father Malloy(?!), whose heart attack death on Alec's front porch is caught on video but whose miraculous revival isn't, leading to Alec being arrested for murder; Camilla Luddington of Grey's Anatomy, playing a veterinarian who pretends to be a lesbian so Alec won't hit on her; and Kaitlyn Bernard, whose appearance in the Stephen King flick 1922 is the only role that IMDB puts ahead of this one in its list of what she's known for, as the cancer girl.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The slapstick bit where Alec tries to shift Father Malloy's dead weight from the porch to the back of his pickup so he can race into town and scream for help. I'm not sure which part made me laugh harder – the moment when the wheelbarrow flips over halfway across the yard, or the look Father Malloy gives Alec as he climbs out of the truck bed and sidles, wordlessly, into the church. (2) The town cop, who has been giving Alec heck since the moment he came to town – ranging from a $250 traffic ticket when he catches the kid pulled over on the side of the road, opening a bottle of beer to wash down a chip he's choking on, to arresting him for the murder of a guy who ain't dead – offers Alec a handshake and thanks him for what he's done. It's a good example of scenes on the "choked up with emotion" side of this film. (3) The lens follows the path of an insect into Uncle Raymond's basement lair, where it reveals the answer to any lingering question about whether Alec will actually become the town's new healer in a way that spares us unnecessary dialogue. And if I had to narrow down the strengths of this movie's screenplay to just one, I'd say that it leaves about the right amount unsaid.

Next, that same night, I finally watched Sully from beginning to end – a Clint Eastwood directed movie starring Tom Hanks, Laura Linney and Aaron Eckhart about the passenger flight out of New York's La Guardia Airport that successfully landed on the East River on Jan. 15, 2009 after a bird strike took out both engines. Amazingly, not one life was lost. One of the interesting things about this film is that it holds off on directly showing us the events of that day, opening instead with a nightmare of a not-so-successful attempt to land the plane while Sully is staying at a New York hotel during the post-crash investigation.

It moves on to depict the media circus that swirled around the pilot (Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger) and his copilot, Jeff Skiles, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board's apparent attempts to turn the heroes of the hour into the culprits, accusing them of unnecessarily risking the lives of everyone on board when (the NTSB panel felt) they could have safely landed at either La Guardia, Teterboro or Newark. Ultimately, Sully persuades the panel to re-run their flight simulations, adding the "human factor" accounting for the time he and Skiles spent reacting and deciding what to do, as opposed to immediately proceeding with a preordained plan. As a result, Sully and Skiles are hailed as heroes, in a really quite moving fashion, by people who only moments earlier were looking at them with hatred and suspicion.

The drama is built into the story, and you have to respect Eastwood's risky decisions regarding structure and pacing – such as holding off so long before showing us what happened on Jan. 15, then showing it twice (but from different angles), then having the whole audience sit through four computer simulations of the event in a row. It really shows a director's chops when he can pull off that kind of repetition without losing his audience. The quality of the acting probably also helped. I've actually seen that scene (with the simulator flights) used as an example in a sort of YouTube masterclass on how to do filmmaking right.

I just have a few minor quibbles with the job Eastwood did. One is that, while he got away with it this time, he has a tendency to try risky experiments in storytelling structure that don't always work out. He also has a knack for infusing dramatic, life-endangering events with an almost soporific calm – a tendency for low-key atmospherics that extends to a sound design that made me glad I was watching this movie on DVD, because I wouldn't have been able to follow a single line of dialogue without the subtitles. Pretty much the loudest event in the movie (repeated a couple times) was the bird strike. Even the closing credits music was below the threshold where I could clearly make it out, partly because I had the air conditioning on in my apartment.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The one moment when Hanks (as Sully) loses his cool somewhat – he almost cries, in fact – after someone finally confirms for him that all 155 occupants of the plane were alive and accounted for. (2) After being told that in one NTSB wonk's opinion, he was the "X" factor without which the equation (how everyone survived the water landing) would not have worked, Sully immediately responds, "I disagree. It was all of us working together." Holy cow! Why aren't guys like that running for office? (3) The air traffic controller who sat in a conference room, waiting to have it handed to him after he (in his own words) "lost a jet airliner in the East River" is apparently the last person in the aviation community to learn that the plane landed successfully and no one died. His change of mood must have been incredible.

One other thing I feel like noting – there was an actor, playing a passenger on the plane, whose face I thought was familiar, but I had to wait for the cast list to scroll at practically the end of the closing credits before I realized who he was – Sam Huntington, who played a werewolf whose housemates are a ghost and a vampire in the Canada-U.S. version of Being Human. I'd forgotten about that show; I only saw the first two seasons of it. Now, I learn, there were four. I'll have to look for Seasons 3-4 on DVD.

Finally, the following night (last night, actually), I watched the Peter Berg directed The Rundown, also known as Welcome to the Jungle, a movie from way back in 2003 when Dwayne Johnson was still billed as The Rock. Here he stars as Beck, a would-be restaurateur and rock-hard (heh) bounty hunter who only needs to do one more retrieval job to get the money he needs to start a little bistro. This time, he has to go down to Brazil to fetch a bad-boy college dropout named Travis, whose father wants him to face the music for some unspecified misstep that apparently involves either gambling debts, fooling around with married women, or both. Travis, played by Seann William Scott, proves more slippery than most of the retrieval targets to whom Beck has offered the choice of "Option A" (Do what I say) or "Option B" (I'll make you).

Travis is determined to retrieve a solid-gold idol called el Gato del Diablo, saying he knows where to find it. But a tough, wily rebel leader (Rosario Dawson) also wants the Devil's Cat to fund her people's freedom struggle, and then there's a ruthless businessman (Christopher Walken) who treats the local natives like slaves – hence the rebel faction – and who wants el Gato for himself. And there are lots, lots, lots and even more lots of chase scenes and fights, building up to a climax in which we see Beck demonstrate what he means about not liking guns (or rather, not liking what happens when he uses them).

Also in the picture are a bagpipe playing pilot with a "dodgy knee" and a broad Scots accent, played by Ewen Bremer (Trainspotting, Wonder Woman), a brother for Walken's character played by Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), an Indian martial arts master whose bare chest somehow gets more screen time than either the Rock's or Scott's (Ernie Reyes Jr. of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films), William Lucking (Sons of Anarchy) as Scott's dad and the Rock's boss, and Stephen Bishop (Criminal Minds) as the young football player whose party the Rock busts up in the movie's first scene.

Scott, Johnson and Dawson are all in top charm in this movie, and Walken is as threatening and weird as ever. Somewhere, I've picked up a sense that this is considered one of the Rock's worst movies, but I don't see it. I enjoyed it all the way through. It's got terrific action – people actually get hurt and in some cases killed, but it's played for fun and it hits the target. It's got good character chemistry between Beck, Travis and Mariana. The dialogue is well written and performed, and the story moves on at a good pace, accompanied by spectacular scenery and some "Raiders of the Lost Ark" hijinks. All around I think it's a smart and attractively made movie, with one of those clever endings that, upon further reflection, leads you to think, "Those guys are doomed. But hey, that was fun!"

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Right at the beginning of the movie, Beck has retreated to the nightclub bathroom after unsuccessfully trying to convince the football kid to give him his championship ring as collateral and getting hissed offstage by the kid's linebacker buddies. He gives you just long enough to think that he's going to tell his boss, "I can't do this," then says into the phone, "Are you sure about this? I don't want to hurt these guys. They have a chance at a repeat this year." As in, "I'm afraid I'm going to destroy a pro football team's entire starting lineup." That was me, going on the hook right there. (2) The Scots aviator saunters into town, playing bagpipes and making ominous sounding prophecies ... then his herd of cattle stampedes down Main Street. (3) The two (anti-)hero guys have succumbed to an intoxicating fruit that leaves them partially paralyzed and helpless to resist a troop of hump-happy monkeys in the surrounding trees. In a squeaky falsetto voice, distorted by muscle relaxant, the Rock delivers a tirade about the Amazon basin's penis-eating fish, psychedelic fruit, rapist wildlife and general lousiness, concluding, "I miss concrete. I want my Los Angeles Lakers!"

Or, of course, you could substitute any three big fight scenes. There are more than plenty to fill the dance card. Another runner-up is where Travis "translates" for Beck and a group of Portuguese-speaking rebels while making every effort to wind them up.

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