Category Archives: Now Showing

PROJECT ALMANAC

Producer: Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller 
Director: David Israelite 
Writer:  Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman
Stars:  Jonny Weston, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Ginny Gardner, Amy Landecker, Gary Weeks and Gary Grubbs
Studio:  Paramount Pictures

D

One might have thought that the overused found footage technique had reached its nadir with the abysmal “Earth to Echo,” but one should never underestimate the capacity of Michael Bay to take us to new depths. He produced this visually hysterical, narratively nonsensical time-travel cheapie that also betrays its MTV connections in an ear-splitting soundtrack and the pride of place given to the Lollapalooza music festival.

The main characters in the dumb script by Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman are a trio of high-school science nerds—David Raskin (Jonny Weston) and his best buds Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner). David dreams of getting into MIT, and the story opens with his sister Chris (Ginny Gardner) filming his photo essay for submission to the school—a demonstration of a hand-controlled drone he’s invented. But the conceit is that Chris goes on filming everything else, too, including David’s search through their house’s attic for some great idea left behind by their late father (also a techno-genius) that might become the basis for a scholarship-worthy project. What they find is the old man’s video camera, which still contains footage of David and his dad at the boy’s seventh birthday party—the very day that the man died. And what that footage reveals is shocking: the present-day David can be glimpsed skulking about in the background.

How could that be? It turns out that Raskin père had been working on a “temporal displacement” machine, the prototype of which—along with blueprints to finish the device—are discovered by David in a secret cubicle beneath the floor of his father’s basement workshop (apparently left untouched for a decade or so). Naturally he, Adam and Quinn undertake to complete the project, their efforts documented by Chris. And joining their work by accident is Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia), the pretty girl David has always been infatuated with from afar but has always seemed unapproachable.

Much of the first part of the movie is devoted to the crew working on the machine, but once the device is operational they apply it only to important matters—like winning the lottery and using the funds to get friends on campus. But David also arranges a trip back in time to Lollapalooza where he can romance Jessie. Unfortunately, that escapade doesn’t work out exactly as planned due to his ineptitude, and so he breaks the rules of usage he’s carefully formulated for him and his friends by jumping back to Grant Park again, this time alone, in order to manipulate events to his own benefit. In fact, though that wins over Jessie, his ever-more-frequent solo forays have the inevitable “butterfly effect,” changing reality in tragic ways. And in the end David will have to choose between living with the world his attempts to control things have wrought or going back to the past and erasing all the alterations his temporal journeys have caused.

As far as time-travel sci-fi is concerned, this isn’t a terribly innovative plot, but it might have afforded some modest pleasure if the characters weren’t such a bunch of irritatingly self-absorbed numbskulls. Lerner’s Quinn is the most unattractive of the group, but though Weston is a reasonably likable actor, he can’t do much with David’s turn to the dark side in the latter reels of the story, to which he can only bring a generalized sense of desperation. Evangelista seems to be channeling Aaron Yoo from “Disturbia,” and Black-D’Elia and Gardner are mostly decorative feminine additions to the crew.

Worse, the movie looks perfectly hideous, with the same sort of muddily hyperactive hand-held camerawork and washed-out images (by Matthew Lloyd) and whiplash editing (by Julian Clarke and Martin Bernfeld) that characterize these found-footage monstrosities. Even the Chicago skyline in the Grant Park sequence is made to look ugly, and of course the constant movement is likely to bring on nausea, headache or both. The effects, such as they are, are of Saturday-morning TV quality, and the background music is noisy and unremitting. This is director Dean Israelite’s first feature, and frankly his inexperience—and overdependence on inferior models—is evident from frame one.

At the end of “Project Almanac,” David burns his father’s time-machine blueprints. They should have burnt the movie instead.

BLACK OR WHITE

Producer: Kevin Costner, Mike Binder and Todd Lewis 
Director: Mike Binder 
Writer:  Mike Binder
Stars: Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Anthony Mackie, Andre Holland, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Jillian Estell and Paula Newsome
Studio: Relativity Media 

C-

The best thing one can say about “Black or White,” Mike Binder’s attempt to grapple with the issue of race relations in the country today, is that it’s terribly earnest. The worst is that it’s earnestly terrible, a heartfelt but contrived and simplistic take on the subject that feels like it would be more at home as a “very special” cable TV movie.

Kevin Costner stars as Elliot Anderson, a well-to-do Los Angeles lawyer whose beloved wife Carol has just died in an auto accident. The couple were raising their biracial granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) after their daughter had died in childbirth. The father was Reggie (Andre Holland), a drug addict who abandoned the girl and left Los Angeles. Elliot is devastated by his wife’s death, but struggles to carry on with Eloise, despite hitting the bottle awfully hard. That’s when Rowena (Octavia Spencer), the girl’s paternal grandmother, enters the picture. A hard-driving, hard-loving woman from South Central who’s built an impressive array of businesses on sheer grit and determination and supports a large extended family, she’s concerned about the lack of maternal influence—and cultural sensitivity to her background—in Eloise’s life, and enlists her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a hot-shot lawyer, to file a custody suit against Elliot. Meanwhile Reggie, claiming to be clean, comes home and joins the case, though how serious he is about becoming a father remains in doubt—and his return sets off Elliot, who’s always blamed him for his daughter’s death and considers him nothing more than a junkie looking to extract some money in return for disappearing again.

The strength of “Black and White” lies in Binder’s attempt to depict the story in shades of gray. Both Elliot and Rowena are imperfect people—Elliot because he’s running on anger and Scotch, and Rowena because she’s blind to her son’s flaws and has a hair-trigger temper, as well as a tendency to bulldoze her way through any problem. The script also raises the question of just how post-racial American society is, and answers quite rightly that it isn’t, and is fooling itself if it believes—and acts—otherwise.

Unfortunately, even these positive points are dramatized without much subtlety or nuance. Costner and Spencer try hard—in her case too hard, in fact—but neither Elliot nor Rowena ultimately impresses as a fully rounded character. Costner comes closer merely because he has more screen time, but also because it appears that Binder, who of course is white himself, is more comfortable pointing out Elliot’s failings. By contrast he doesn’t offer much insight into Rowena’s character; she remains a sort of generalized earth-mother figure, far less developed than Lena Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” was more than half a century ago, and Spencer attacks the part with a wide-eyed intensity that makes both the dramatic and the comic aspects of the woman come across as oversized and almost stereotypical. (Binder doesn’t even have the courage to depict South Central with much sense of reality: Rowena’s house—and that of her lesbian daughter across the street—feel like a Mayberry-flavored oasis.)

The rest of the cast don’t fare well under Binder’s heavy-handed approach either. Mackie, a fine actor, is, like Spencer, far too broad and aggressive, and Holland is similarly encouraged to play to the rafters. Bill Burr isn’t much better as Elliot’s friend and lawyer Rick, nor is Gillian Jacobs as his girlfriend Fay, though they get some (fairly weak) comic moments to play with. And young Estell is just too precious for words; she’s not far removed, in looks or precocity, from Quvenzhane Wallis in the new “Annie”—in fact, you half expect her to suddenly belt out “Tomorrow.” There’s some compensation, though, in the work of Paula Newsome, who has some great reaction shots as the family court judge, and Mpho Koaho, as Duvan, the ultra-prepared tutor Elliot hires as a tutor for Eloise (and an occasional driver for himself). They’re both sitcom-level characters, but the actors milk the parts for all they’re worth. Jennifer Ehle looks beautiful in the obligatory flashbacks as Elliot’s late wife.

“Black or White” is nicely made, with an attractive production design by Pipo Wintter and smooth cinematography by Russ T. Alsobrook, though Roger Nygard’s editing could be crisper (the two-hour film really indulges both Costner and Spencer overmuch) and Terence Blanchard’s score lays on both the sappiness and the comic boisterousness too thick.

In the end, though, it’s neither the behind-the-camera work nor the acting that sinks the film. It’s the wimpiness of Binder’s script, his unwillingness to treat the issues the film raises about race as seriously as they deserve. It’s no surprise that when things wind up, the outcome is nothing more than a long, innocuous cinematic take on Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?”—a veritable group hug in which everybody does the right thing, and not in the Spike Lee sense. Somewhere Stanley Kramer might be looking down and nodding in approval—and that’s no compliment.