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Review: ‘The Son,’ Chronicles of Unhappiness

Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Zen McGrath, and Anthony Hopkins star in an agonizing drama.

By all appearances, it’s a tragedy in the making. 

Unhappy Nicholas (Zen McGrath) lives unhappily with his unhappy mother, Kate (Laura Dern), and wants very much to live with his happy father, Peter (Hugh Jackman), nevermind that Peter entered into an adulterous affair with happy Beth (Vanessa Kirby), thereby ruining his marriage and breaking up the household. Peter now lives happily with Beth and their newborn infant, but upon hearing Nicholas’ plea, he quickly caves, overruling Beth’s natural concerns. 

Very soon, everyone is unhappy. 

Two years ago, Anthony Hopkins starred in The Father, an adaptation of an acclaimed French-language play by novelist Florian Zellner that was then translated into English by Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Hampton wrote the screen version, helmed by Zellner in his feature directorial debut, and I was very much impressed by the film, which staged the lead character’s splintering existence “as a horrifying reality.” I could relate to it on a personal level, too. 

The film raised my expectations for The Son, which is adapted from Zellner’s stage play of the same name, which, like The Father, was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and staged in London. (In between the stage versions of The Father and The Son, The Mother premiered, but that’s not yet been adapted.) The script for the screen version is credited to both Zellner and Hampton, with Zellner once again directing. 

Unlike The Father, though, The Son is a forthright melodrama, and suffers from any comparison. Its narrative proceeds, inexorably depicting the slow self-strangulation of a teenager who is not merely unhappy, but is clinically depressed. Unable and unwilling to address Nicholas’ serious mental-health issue, Peter continues on his merry, busy way, leaving Nicholas in the hands of Beth, who is consumed with caring for their newborn child, and is already stressed out herself. 

Acting more out of guilt over his adulterous affair, which clearly destabilized the unsteady Nicholas in the first place, Peter steadfastly pursues his own career goals, while throwing money at Nicholas and pretending that he has any idea how to raise or help him. He thinks he is acting differently than his own father did, but in truth, he is acting just as horribly, though perhaps in a more dignified manner. 

It’s agonizing to watch the slow decline in Nicholas, whose simmering anger and seething resentment gradually becomes manifest, mostly expressed against the long-suffering Beth, who is trapped at home, while Peter skips above the fray. With a self-confidence born of his upbringing and professional success, Peter thinks he knows how to “fix” Nicholas, yet in truth, he hasn’t a clue. 

The actors all bring their anguished characters to life, which only makes watching them all dance toward doom all the more difficult to watch. It’s like watching a slow-motion automobile accident, frame by frame, without being able to do a thing to stop it. 

What made The Father freshly disturbing to watch was that it developed empathy for its characters in an unexpected, cinematic fashion. What makes The Son difficult to watch is that it evinces no sympathy for its beleaguered characters, and does so in a profoundly straightforward fashion. 

The film opens Friday, January 20, in Dallas, Frisco, Fort Worth, Garland, Grapevine, and Plano via Sony Pictures Classics. Get tickets here. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Chappie’


Based on his first three feature-length efforts, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp seems inherently drawn to the paradox of technology’s advancement colliding with man’s inability to reconcile his increasing minimization within that world. At times more successful than others (such as in District 9 and the terrific Elysium) it’s an important rhetoric as the world becomes more plugged in and downloadable every single day. But Chappie, his most direct exploration of this theme yet, falls maddeningly short of anything but derivative and empty spectacle.

Set in the near future of Johannesburg, South Africa in 2016 (and does that even count as “futuristic”?), Chappie is one of several hundred robot police officers designed by whip-smart engineer Deon (Dev Patel) and employed by the local police to help curb the spiraling crime rate.

Part of that spiraling problem involves Ninja and Yolandi (both played by actors with those real names apparently) and their quest for quick cash to pay back the local crime boss, Hippo (Brandon Auret), whose ‘badness’ is assured since he’s covered in tattoos and speaks a South African dialect so broken and unintelligible that he’s subtitled throughout the movie. He also uses a gold-plated gun, which any action fan understands always belongs to the villain. Ninja and Yolandi concoct a scenario where they steal the controls to a random police robot and utilize its superhuman strength for their own devious motives and exact their debt to Hippo.

At the same time, Deon is mired in bureaucratic indifference by his boss (Sigourney Weaver) at not wanting to test a new consciousness simulation on the robots as well as friction with competitive designer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), a man just chomping at the bit to invent any excuse for his own brand of robotic killing machine to become the new police frontline over Deon’s invention. And did I mention his version happens to look just like that marvelous Ed 209 machine in Robocop?

From these varying factions, Chappie is born, figuratively, from the scrap heap and manipulated in a number of ways. Once kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, Chappie resembles an orphan adopted by a very bad set of parents while the film desperately tries to equate the travails of puberty and adolescence onto this conscious hunk of metal. Ninja and Yolandi teach it to walk, talk, strut and hold a gun. Chappie develops intelligence and begins to have internal moral conflicts when it comes to committing crimes with his “father” Ninja. Some of the best moments with Yolandi, who forms a maternal bond with the machine, are too few and far between until the film shifts its focus back to the muttering, macho Ninja or the pouting Hugh Jackman, maneuvering computer viruses and late night download sessions to create his own robotic apocalypse.

Despite all this tech affluence and seamless CGI interaction of Chappie himslf (embodied by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley), it’s an especially bone-headed film and the type that defies common logic. Just why is such an ultra secure, top-secret hangar so easy for everyone to whisk materials and weapons in and out of? Why does Sigourney Weaver, when faced with the situation of a robot pounding a man to death in front of her, grab her jacket and purse before fleeing the room? How does anyone expect any sympathy for such an annoying, nihilistic group of thieves and murderers? Why does a film hinge its power on the affection for a robot (call it the lost puppy syndrome) then utterly fail to create any indelible characteristics of said robot?

Like an adrenalized update of Short Circuit, Blomkamp and partner writer Terri Tatchell yearn for the film to hurdle through emotions of compassion and sentiment for this little robot trying to find his way in a violent, chaotic world. It doesn’t work, and I wager that there’s more depth and heart in just a few minutes of Short Circuit than this film’s entire looong running time of two hours. I honestly never thought I’d type that.

Chappie opens in wide release across all of North Texas on Friday, March 6.

Review: ‘The Wolverine’ Stands Tall, Thanks to Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman and Tao Okamoto in 'The Wolverine' (20th Century Fox)
Hugh Jackman and Tao Okamoto in ‘The Wolverine’ (20th Century Fox)

Hugh Jackman stands tall in the latest addition to the Marvel film universe, which is quite a feat when you consider that the character he plays, a mutant whose skeleton has been reinforced with the indestructible metal adamantium, tops out at 5 foot 3 inches tall in the original comic book series.

But then Jackman, who stretches two inches higher than six feet in real life, has made Logan, aka The Wolverine, his own sort of gruff, cynical, somehow still lovable character in the course of four films in nine years. The last one, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first stand-alone mutant-powered feature, is widely acknowledged to have gone off the rails and could have threatened the future of the franchise. Just like in the comics, however, movie heroes have an alarming propensity for returning to life against all odds, and so The Wolverine has returned.

The story picks up Logan’s life after the events in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), when the relationship he had enjoyed with fellow mutant Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) came to a most disagreeable parting of the ways. Logan is still haunted by unhappy memories, not only of his beloved Jean, but also of a terrible day during World War II when he was imprisoned behind enemy lines in Nagasaki, Japan.

On that day, Logan saved the life of a young Japanese soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura), who went on to become a wealthy and powerful industrialist (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Now an old man, Yashida is dying, and so he sends his trusted servant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to find Logan and deliver him to Japan so as to say goodbye.

Of course, Yashida wants something more from Logan than a solemn farewell, and the plot thickens into a sludgy substance that stubbornly resists easy or quick summary. Eventually, Yashida’s son, granddaughter, and oncologist, as well as a ninja protector, are involved in a power struggle whose consequences are not made terribly clear.

Of these characters, Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is key, not least because she develops romantic feelings for Logan when they are forced to go on the run. She and the other Asian cast members, including Hiroyuki Sanada, Brian Tee, and Will Yun Lee, fare well, even though it seems they might have delivered better performances if they weren’t required to speak English so often. Meanwhile, Svetlana Khodchenkova is in over her head as Yashida’s oncologist, who has a secret agenda that reveals her to be a villain without a soul; the actress is unable to bring any menace to her role, which is a serious shortcoming for an antagonist in a superhero movie.

Despite the welcome dramatics from Jackman and Okamoto, especially, The Wolverine is still a superhero movie, which requires multiple action set-pieces. The screenplay, credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, provides a variety of settings, but director James Mangold doesn’t have a great feel for constructing action sequences, shooting and staging them in a rudimentary manner. A duel set on top a speeding bullet train, requiring the participants to jump and leap to avoid being thrown off and/or beheaded, lacks any semblance of reality — we know it’s all taking place inside the computers of talented graphic artists — and so we simply must wait impatiently for it to come to a foreordained conclusion.

It’s an odd thing to say for an action junkie like me, but the best bits in The Wolverine are the ones that come between the fights and the running and the jumping: the scenes between Jackman and Okamoto and between Jackman and Fukushima are particularly strong, and go a long way toward making the movie a pleasant, though not essential, experience on the big screen.

Note: Viewed in 3D on a fine, large, brightly-lit screen at the Cinemark West Plano, I must add that 3D added nothing discernible to the movie. Ticket buyer beware.

The film opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, July 26.