Paul Haggis loses his way in “The Next Three Days,” a labored prison escape drama that never recovers from a serious miscalculation midway through and then goes completely off the rails in the end.
Russell Crowe plays a sometimes deliberate and over-thinking professor named John Brennan who is completely devoted to his sometimes hot-tempered and impetuous wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks). After a public quarrel, Lara’s boss is murdered and Lara is arrested. She protests her innocence, but the circumstantial evidence is too persuasive, and she is found guilty. Three years later, all of her appeals exhausted, she cannot bear the thought of a life in prison, and attempts suicide. John, who teaches “Don Quixote” and knows something about righteous quests, decides he will find a way for her to escape. “I promise you, this will not be your life.” He consults an expert (a brief movie-brightening moment with Liam Neeson), watches a video on YouTube about skeleton keys, and comes up with a plan.
Every movie creates a world for us, and each of them can be plotted along the continuum between real world (a verite documentary) and movie world (flying dragons, superheroes, planets with long blue people). It does not matter at which point a movie locates itself, but once it does, it has to stay there. If you tell us horses can fly in one scene, then don’t tell us they can’t in the next. This movie tells us that justice matters, killing people is wrong, and that John is an English professor. It establishes itself as being on the drama-about-people-like-us point on the continuum. It then veers into a whole other over-the-top heist-style scenario with one of those plans where a lot of things have to go exactly right and then somehow they all do and killing people might not be such a bad thing after all. And then it insults the intelligence and goodwill of the audience with an ending that is jarringly out of place. One of the worst mistakes a movie can make is to assume greater fondness for its characters than we are willing to feel. This movie never lets us like its characters and then tries to make that seem like our fault.
For Women’s History Month, try some of these feature films about women of extraordinary courage, intelligence, determination, and achievement.
1. Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts won an Oscar for this story about a clerk in a law firm who helped win the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. history for the people who had been damaged by inappropriately and illegally disposed chemicals.
3. The Miracle Worker Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke both won Oscars for this story of two extraordinary women, teacher Annie Sullivan and her deaf and blind student Helen Keller.
6. The Rosa Parks Story Angela Bassett stars as the woman whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus began the Civil Rights movement.
And try these documentaries, too:
1. Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Stanton & Anthony The lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their fight for women’s right to vote is much more accurately depicted in this documentary than in the fictionalized “Iron-Jawed Angels.”
2. Life of Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman? Has there ever been a better name for someone who fought for justice? Sojourner Truth was a slave who became an activist for the rights of African-Americans and women.
3. The Spirit of Sacajawea Native American Sacajawea and her infant son guided Lewis and Clark in their expedition through the western United States.
4. American Experience – Eleanor Roosevelt The niece and wife of Presidents, Eleanor Roosevelt was a shy, bookish girl who became a world-traveling advocate for peace and for human rights.
Americans are generous in need and forgiving of mistakes. But we are outraged by injustice. This indispensable film shows us the who, what, when, where, and how of the financial crisis, finally placing it in the context it requires — a failure of decency, fairness, accountability, and honor. Even for those who want to put a pillow over their head when they hear terms like “credit default swap” and those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of watching a hearing on C SPAN will find this movie, the 2011 Oscar-winner for best documentary, a mesmerizing saga of corruption and greed, the biggest heist story of all time, and sadly, all too true.
Charles Ferguson (“No End in Sight”) is now at the front rank not just of documentarians but of film-makers, investigative journalists, and participants in the public policy debates. He begins with the story of what happened in Iceland, which went from one of the world’s most stable economies to bankruptcy almost overnight following deregulation. Its GDP was $13 billion; its debt was $100 billion. Still, at first this seems like an odd choice, but it quickly becomes clear that Iceland illustrates the same mistakes, oversights, bungles, and corruption that led to our own financial catastrophe. And by the final chapter of the film, it comes up again in a stunning interview. A flustered academic has to explain why a paper he once wrote about the financial stability of Iceland (without disclosing his financial arrangement with the people behind the deregulation) is now listed on his c.v. as being about Iceland’s instability. His explanation? It must be a typo.
This chilling absence of any sense of honor or shame or responsibility pervades the film. This is the story of “massive private gains and public loss.” Ferguson points out that this is just the most recent in a series of financial crises, each one causing more damage while the industry made more money. He describes the “great big global Ponzi scheme.” And he names names and shows us the faces of the people involved. He makes leverage, securitization, and yes, credit default swaps as fascinating as the Empire’s plans for the Death Star. And he points out that in the 21st century, it is financial instruments that are the real weapons of mass destruction.
Lou Costello was born on this day in 1906. His work with Bud Abbot made them one of the most successful comedy teams of all time, and their “Who’s on First” sketch is still one of the funniest exchanges ever put on film.
This is another one of my favorites, as Lou tries to get some sleep:
And here he is re-creating a vaudeville routine performed by many comedians, including the Three Stooges. His co-star is Sid Fields.