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Films I Neglected To Review: Get In The Cage
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Ashby," "A Brilliant Young Mind" and "Pay the Ghost."

If there was an explosion down at the old screenplay factory and someone just grabbed a bunch of pages floating around and stuck them together at random, the results would be hard-pressed to be as odd and ungainly as the script for the odd comedy-drama "Ashby." In it, nerdy teenager Ed (Nat Wolff) decides that the best way to fit in at his new high school is to make it on the football team, despite lacking the athletic prowess required to ride the bench. While struggling to make that dream happen, Ed finds himself profiling his aging new neighbor, Ashby (Mickey Rourke), for a school project and once he gets the grumpy old man to open up, he discovers that he is actually a terminally ill CIA assassin who may not be quite as retired as he claims to be. Nevertheless, while Ed unknowingly drives Ashby to assignments of a more personal nature, the two bond and the older man even gives the kid a few life lessons that help him to assert himself at last and win a place on the football team and the heart of an adorably dorky classmate (Emma Roberts).

In other words, this is your standard-issue fusion of elements borrowed from the likes of "St. Vincent," "Collateral," "Lucas," "American Beauty" (oh yeah, Ed his having trouble with his clueless parents as well) and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl rom-com of your choice. While this bizarre combination of elements is enough to keep the film going for a little bit--if only out of sheer curiosity about how the pieces can possibly fit together--the constant clashing of tones proves to be more enervating than intriguing after a while and the way in which the film introduces new subplots only to quickly abandon them gets really tiresome after a while. The one thing about the film that does actually work is the strangely compelling performance by Mickey Rourke in the title role. Sure, it is a preposterous role in a preposterous film and his mere presence serves as a sad reminder of how he somehow managed to fail to capitalize on the enormous good will that he engendered with his comeback turn in "The Wrestler" just a few short years ago. That said, the guy still has the raw screen charisma that made him a star back in the day and which managed to maintain throughout his extended period on the fringes of the film world. "Ashby" does come to life whenever he is on the screen but not even his efforts can rescue this curiosity from the obscurity to which it is so clearly headed.

If "A Brilliant Young Mind" were half as good as it is well-intentioned, it would go down as as one of the great films of the year but alas, it isn't and it isn't. It tells the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a young British boy with autism who is still grieving the tragic death of his father and is unable to connect with his friendly and well-meaning mother (Sally Hawkins) or with any of his classmates. What he does have going for him is a brilliant facility for numbers and this leads him to Mr. Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a grouchy sort who used to be a math genius but who now finds himself teaching to students who could care less about the subject. Recognizing Nathan's genius, he gets him to join the school's mathematics team and winds up as a finalist in the International Mathematics Olympiad? Does Nathan learn to deal with the trauma over his dad, figure out how to connect with his mother and classsmates and triumph at the competition? You do the math.

The film has its heart in the right place but its brain seems to be somewhere else. What might have been a small triumph in dealing with the subject of autism on screen or the world of complex mathematics has sadly been dumbed down so that those comparatively complex ideas are shunted aside so that more time can be spent on the relatively uninteresting questions about whether he can figure out what X+Y is or if he can hug his mother or not. It is a shame because there are a bunch of good actors here (Butterfield was amazing in the title role in "Hugo" and the likes of Hawkins and Spall presumably need no introduction) and while they do as much with the material as they possibly can, their talents are largely wasted on a project that is not worthy of them. Admittedly, I may be a bit prejudiced because math has always been my weak but I like to think that when a great movie on the subject, such as the cult classic "Pi," comes around, I can still recognize its qualities. As for "A Brilliant Young Mind," my guess is that, unlike "Pi," most viewers will find that they need it like they need a hole in the head.

At this point, the once-peerless career of Nicolas Cage has devolved into a sort of Dud Of The Month Club--every four weeks or so, a new slab of cheapo cinematic cheese is delivered to the delivery system of your choice featuring him coasting through the kind of roles that used to go to the likes of John Agar a few decades ago. This month's offering is "Pay the Ghost," an early kickoff to this year's Halloween movie season that sees him as a New York professor whose life is turned upside down when his young son () vanishes when they visit a neighborhood Halloween carnival. One year later, he is still obsessed with finding his son and begins seeing and hearing him wherever he goes. Upon investigation, he and his now-estranged wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) discover that their boy may have been snatched by the spirit of a Celt woman that is still seeking vengeance for her and her own children having been burned at the stake three centuries earlier.

If you think this description was boring, try sitting through the movie, a move that I do not recommend under any circumstances. The screenplay is a boilerplate ghost store in which every move is telegraphed well in advance and which falls apart the moment one applies even the slightest bit of analytical thought to it. (If three kids disappeared from the same neighborhood every year at Halloween for over 300 years, don't you think that someone else might have noticed before now.) Behind the camera, director Uli Edel (whose schizophrenic career runs the gamut from such sublime works as "Christiane F" and "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to the silliness of "Body of Evidence") just goes through the motions and utterly fails to create the atmosphere of fear and dread required for this kind of film. That said, his approach to the material seems borderline obsessive when compared to the somnambulistic take favored by Cage--not only does he fail to bring the histrionics that one might reasonably hope to find in a cheesy Nicolas Cage ghost movie, he barely seems to register a pulse in of most of his scenes. Throw in listless supporting players (although I do love the one woman who is buttonholed for information at a neighborhood Celt ceremony by Cage, confesses to him that she is just a schoolteacher who doesn't know what she is talking about and then supplies him with all the necessary information to get to the finale), a less-than-thrilling orgy of cheap CGI effects at the final and the promise/threat of a sequel and you have a film so profoundly uninteresting in every possible way that it makes "Sinister 2" seem vital by comparison.

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originally posted: 09/26/15 01:22:54
last updated: 09/27/15 01:05:04
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