New Releases for the Week of March 15, 2013


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

(New Line) Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield. Directed by Don Scardino

A duo of superstar Vegas magicians rule the strip with iron fists; publically they’re the best of friends while privately they can’t stand each other. However, when competition in the form of a cocky street magician whose outrageous stunts puts their illusions to shame threaten to derail their reign, the two must put aside their differences while the incredible Burt Wonderstone gets in touch with that which made him love magic in the first place – that is, if his ego hasn’t crushed it forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language)

The Call

(Tri-Star) Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Imperioli. A 911 operator is shattered by the worst experience someone in that profession can have – to listen to a caller die due to their own mistake, in her case at the hands of a brutal serial killer. When she receives a call from a panicked teen calling on a disposable cell phone from the trunk of a car where her kidnapper has stored her, she soon realizes that the kidnapper is the same serial killer. It will be a race against the clock if the operator is going to be able to save the killer’s latest prey.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R  (for violence, disturbing content and some language)

The Gatekeepers

(Sony Classics) Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin, Carmi Gillon. The Shin Bet is the Israeli equivalent of the CIA; their covert operations have been at the center of Israel’s policies towards defense. Six former heads of the agency are interviewed for the first time anywhere regarding their roles in the decision-making process and implementing their countries policies towards terrorism foreign and domestic.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for violent content including disturbing images)

Stoker

(Fox Searchlight) Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney. When a young girl’s father dies in a car accident, her uncle that she never knew she had comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother. The girl begins to suspect that the uncle is much more than he claims to be and may have ulterior motives for his presence. This only serves to deepen her infatuation with him, leading her down a deadly dangerous path.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing violent and sexual content) 

Janie Jones


Janie Jones

Alessandro Nivola gives Abigail Breslin some lessons in rock star cool.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Shue, Brittany Snow, Peter Stormare, Joel David Moore, Frank Whaley, Frances Fisher, Rodney Eastman, David Lee Smith, Michael Panes, Guy van Swearingen, Jessica Joy. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

Reaping what we sow is an American pastime. It is easy when you’re young to go out and have a good time and think yourself consequence-free. Sooner or later though, those pesky repercussions come storming back into our lives, sometimes with devastating effect.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the rock star industry. Musicians tour from city to city, often with a groupie at every port. They party, they live for the moment and then their inspiration dries up. That’s exactly what’s happened to Ethan Brand (Nivola), once a promising talent who is on the downward slide of his career. Once a young lion of the alternative rock movement, Brand goes from one dump to another, each one getting progressively dump-ier.

At one such dump-o-rama a groupie named Mary Ann Jones (Shue) makes her way backstage where Ethan and his band – drummer Chuck (Whaley) and bassist Dave (Moore) are celebrating as bands do the end of another successful gig. Mary Ann has had some substance abuse problems and is going off to get clean. However, before she goes she wants to leave her precocious child Janie (Breslin) with her daddy. That would be Ethan.

Ethan and his bandmates react with guffaws. No way they can take it seriously, right? Wrong. While the band is loading out their equipment, Mary Ann moseys, disappearing into the sunset (were it not 2am) and leaving Janie with nowhere to go. Ethan just wants to dump the kid in whatever hellhole they can find but a friendly police officer (Smith) convinces Ethan that the best thing for him to get out of the state un-arrested would be to take the girl on tour with him.

At first Ethan doesn’t want the girl anywhere nearby – a rock tour isn’t anywhere for a 13-year-old girl to be. But a funny thing happens; the two begin to bond over music. Janie has a surprising amount of talent (surprising to Ethan anyway) not only at singing and playing guitar but writing some pretty nifty songs (which were written for the film by Dutch power pop legend Eef Barzalay) which interests Ethan’s manager (Stormare) and the two get closer which irritates Ethan’s girlfriend (Snow).

But Ethan’s got a streak of self-destruction a mile wide. He is often irritable and egotistical; even his bandmates are beginning to weary of his diva-esque attitudes. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, Ethan’s world is spinning into wreckage and the only thing that might save him is a 13-year-old girl.

Fans of films like Crazy Heart will find the territory familiar here. Fading star with demons galore on the rock and roll/country/blue road trying to reconnect with family and finding that connection after a series of disasters. It’s almost like an Afterschool Special version of rock and roll.

Nivola has been the star that wasn’t. He has plenty of charisma and acting chops but he tends to choose material that’s more cerebral than mainstream audiences tend to look into and he lacks the kind of blockbuster to build on that Viggo Mortensen has. You can see it here – not Oscar-winning material to work with necessarily but at least something with a bit of bite to it.

Breslin is simply put one of the greatest juvenile actresses of our time. The kind of depth she puts into Janie is rare in an actress twice her age. Janie is not merely some precocious child who is going to save her dad in spite of himself by the end credits, she is wounded and wary, having been stuck with parents who were far too busy indulging their own needs to worry about those of a young girl. Not many actresses could pull off a role like this without resorting to cliché tricks, let alone one not old enough to get a driver’s license (when it was filmed).

The music (with Breslin and Nivola both singing their own parts) is actually pretty outstanding. It’s a little bit on the folky-rootsy side of adult alternative – a helping heaping of Ryan Adams, a little more Tommy Keene and a dash of Howie Day. It’s got that singer-songwriter vibe that can be a little pretentious but let’s face it – Ethan’s a bit of a jerk and that vibes fits perfectly with his character.

Now, this is kind of a romanticized version of life on the road and quite frankly, it’s beginning to be a bit outdated given the realities of the music business. Still, the grin of a small time tour full of fleabag hotels and cheap fast food grabbed quickly and economically between point A and point B is all here in spirit if not onscreen.

While I’m not sure any self-respecting cop would allow a 13-year-old girl on a rock tour with musicians who may not necessarily be the best of role models stretches credibility a bit far even for a movie, for the most part the movie feels authentic. With some good music and fine performances starting with the two leads, this is really one of those dark horse movies that you wind up going in not knowing much about it and leaving it happy you saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: A cut above these sorts of movies; nice performances throughout. Breslin is outstanding. The music is surprisingly good

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that. Stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and drug usage, a whole lot o’ foul language and a teensy weensy bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer-Director Rosenthal based the movie on his own experiences learning at age 30 that he had a 13 year old daughter – in fact, the film is dedicated to her.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,840 on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was not a winner at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2012

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love

Rango


Rango

Rango and posse mount some roadrunners in search of Wile E. Coyote.

(2011) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, Charles Fleischer, Claudia Black. Directed by Gore Verbinski

We all want to find ourselves. Our entire life journey is all about that – discovering who we are and what we’re meant to be. The journey isn’t always an easy one and the answers are rarely obvious – at first. But the truer we stay to ourselves, the easier the path becomes.

Rango (Depp) is a lizard. No, that’s not quite right – he’s a chameleon, but he’s lived in a terrarium all his life. He wants to be a thespian; not the kind that can get him shot in Arizona. No, the kind that recites Shakespeare and waits tables while they go on auditions. However, his audience is kind of limited, especially with a company that includes a plastic palm tree, a wind-up fish toy and a dead cockroach. Someone really needs to clean out the terrarium.

However, things are about to change. A bump in the road literally finds Rango stranded in the desert. A somewhat squashed armadillo (Molina) steers Rango to a small town named Dirt. A young farmer’s daughter (no cracks!) named Beans (Fisher) rescues Rango and gives him a ride into town. There his tales of heroic acts he never actually did win the admiration of the townies, including a doe-eyed badger named Priscilla (Breslin).

The mayor (Beatty), an aging turtle who might remind older viewers of John Huston’s character in Chinatown and younger ones of Mr. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc. deputizes…um, sheriffizes…oh Hell, anoints Rango Sheriff. He is charged with protecting the town’s most precious asset – water. The town’s supply is dwindling and their longtime source seems to be drying up. When Balthazar (Stanton), a grizzled mole steals the town’s remaining supply, things get ugly in a hurry.

This is one of the most offbeat movies you’re ever likely to see, a wild mash-up of Carlos Castaneda, Hunter S. Thompson, Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone, with a very heavy nod to the desert of the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons from Warner Brothers. I’m pretty certain mescaline was involved with the writing of this movie. Then again, Verbinski – auteur of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that also starred Depp, is behind the camera so that explains a lot.

It’s a great looking movie. The desert is bleak and beautiful, stark and hostile. The town is a hodgepodge of found items (a discarded mailbox is the Post Office) that looks familiar and rundown at once. It doesn’t look so much lived in as it does inhabited. The animals are rendered beautifully, anthropomorphic but never cartoonish. Ironically, Rango is the most cartoon-like of all the characters; the rest look like something out of a Salvador Dali painting if Dali had embraced photorealism.

Depp is terrific as the titular character, but then it really isn’t much of a stretch. I thought it brilliant they made him a chameleon who wants to be an actor – how much more ironic can you get than that? Rango is all bluster and bravado but he isn’t really a bad sort; he’s just trying to survive without any real survival skills.

There are some very interesting supporting roles here. Nighy plays Rattlesnake Jake, a mean little sidewinder who carries a Gatling gun on his rattle and may be the most villainous gunslinger ever. There is a late cameo for someone playing the Spirit of the West that’s perfectly done; the person depicted isn’t the actor you actually hear speaking but you’d never know it, but it is so right you instantly smile and nod.

Some parents may be thinking of bringing their kids to see this just because it’s animated and I would urge them strongly to think hard about it. There are some pretty scary moments here, some choice words and it is not as kid-friendly as other animated features are. If your kids are five or six, I’d probably send you over to Mars Needs Moms first; some of the images might give ‘em nightmares. Then again, Mars Needs Moms might give you nightmares.

The story is a bit on the adult side as well, and while some of the characters might well generate some kid-attraction, they are far from cute and cuddly here. In fact, I suspect this movie was geared to adults first and kids second. Too much of the weirdness may go sailing over the heads of the Nickelodeon generation, like the Greek chorus of Mexican mariachis who keep promising that Rango is going to die. If you can’t trust a mariachi, who can you trust?

With animated movies so generally mediocre last year, the first two I’ve seen this year (this one and Gnomeo and Juliet) have been surprisingly good. Both took some chances with their stories and wound up hitting if not home runs, solid ground rule doubles. Rango gets a slight nod because the animation is so much better than the other, but hopefully this is a sign that we might see better overall quality in the animation genre this year.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is simply amazing. The story is a bit more adult than the average animated feature. Anything that has the potential for resurrecting the Western is fine by me.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the imagery, particularly those centering around Rattlesnake Jack, may be too intense for the little ones.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some images of smoking, a little bit of action and some crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was done by noted effects company Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: A Map of the World

Little Miss Sunshine


Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family weathers yet another catastrophe but they suck it up in the end.

(2006) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Wallace Langham, Lauren Shiohama, Matt Winston. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Some families seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to live under a cloud. Thus it is with the Hoovers, a middle class family living in suburban New Mexico that on the surface seem pretty normal – a supportive mom, a self-employed dad, an irascible grandpa and two kids. However, beneath the surface, there is nothing normal about any of them. 

Into this mix comes Uncle Steve (Carrell), the brother of mom Sheryl (Collette). He has just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At the dinner table, he tries to explain why he tried to kill himself. It wasn’t because of the failed love affair with a grad student – a male grad student to the bemusement of grandpa – or the loss of his job after a meltdown, or the fact that his ex-lover has taken up with his rival, the second best Proust scholar in America. It’s just that his grant has been yanked and given instead to his ex’s new beau.

Everybody is kind of living in their own little world. Grandpa (Arkin) has been kicked out of the retirement community he loved being in because of his excessive drug use, and I’m not talking about the kind prescribed for his colon problems. Teenaged Dwayne (Dano) dreams of going to flight school and flying fighter planes for the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves that dream. Little Olive (Breslin) wants only to be the next Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant winner.

Sheryl is trying to hold everything together, but it isn’t easy. Money is tight, especially since her husband Richard (Kinnear) has quit his job in an attempt to sell a self-help system he came up with called “The Nine Steps.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – his agent Stan Grossman (Cranston) is going to a self-help convention in Scottsdale, Arizona and is supremely confident he’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. Richard is nervously…ok, agonizingly, awaiting the phone call that the deal is done.

Things change when a different kind of phone call arrives. The little girl who won the regional pageant that Olive was runner-up in has been disqualified and Olive can now go to the finals in Redondo Beach, California. She goes absolutely nuts with joy. Flying her there is out of the question – the family can’t afford it. Sheryl can’t drive her all the way there, since they won’t all fit in Sheryl’s car and the VW microbus is a stick shift and Sheryl only drives an automatic. There is no question of leaving Steve by himself, since he is still technically on suicide watch. That means everybody goes, even though Dwayne would rather be eaten alive by army ants.

They set off into the land of the surreal; driving along the southwestern highways that lead from Albuquerque to L.A. Along the way, every disaster you can possibly think of befalls the family, from financial to mechanical to personal. As the journey continues, each member of the family will have to face their own personal crisis and eventually, all of them will have to come together to support little Olive in her dream, despite enormous obstacles.

This is quite plainly the funniest movie I saw that year by far. I was laughing out loud throughout the movie, and during the climactic scene, nearly nonstop. I was laughing so hard Da Queen was beginning to wonder what species had accompanied her to the theater; judging from the hooting sounds I was making, it sure wasn’t Homo sapiens

Unlike a lot of modern comedies, this is a movie that doesn’t rely on one cast member to carry the jokes. In fact, it’s fair to say that nobody in the movie is overtly comedic. This is a comedy of situation and of character. Yeah, there are some good one-liners, but for the most part, this is a bunch of more-or-less ordinary people just trying to get by as their situation spirals out of control. They are riding in a microbus that sabotages them at every turn (they must push the bus to start it and then run like track stars to leap into the side door, and this bus also has the most persistent horn in the world – it emits the noise that you would expect of a wounded or dying roadrunner). 

A lot of people will go to see this because Steve Carrell is in it, but he isn’t the star of the movie. This is most definitely an ensemble piece and everyone continues pretty much equally. Kinnear generally appears in roles as affable but backbone-challenged guys, and he gently spoofs his own image here, a kind of nudge-and-wink job that doesn’t get in the way of the movie but adds to it. Carrell plays it very low-key, keeping the wackiness pretty much to everyone else. He isn’t the straight man per se, but the closest thing to it in this movie. Youngster Paul Dano has the toughest row to hoe, having to be completely without dialogue most of the movie, but he does a great job at getting across teen angst without saying a word.

Still, I loved Toni Collette in this. She plays a supportive mom who has to deal with a chaotic situation nearly non-stop and she loses it in a couple of places but in a manner that is not so over-the-top and perfectly believable. I think that’s really the key as to why this movie works so well – everyone in it is so believable, even the bitchy pageant official (Grant). Nobody sinks to caricature in this. Even Breslin as Olive is not annoying in the least.

As with all good comedies, there are moments of pathos and revelation. In the end, what keeps the Hoover family going is that they are a family and they lean on each other, dysfunctional as they are. There is a tender moment during the movie where Dwayne is completely shattered, sitting in a field and utterly lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore. Little Olive just walks out to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. A simple moment between a little sister and her big brother that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative at all; it’s a completely natural little gesture of comfort that works because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Dayton and Faris come from a music video background; this is only their second feature and the first to really make any impact. They took a tightly written script (by Michael Arndt) and delivered it without hamstringing it with cliché. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff; it’s simply a seriously funny movie that will be the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch a lot of times without it losing its freshness, and that’s a very difficult and rare achievement for a comedy.

WHY RENT IT: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout that isn’t dominated by one chracter or actor; the actors are believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a Steve Carrell movie will be disappointed; he is as restrained as he ever has been in a movie and is simply a cog in the machine here.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bad language, a little sex and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Abigail Breslin wore a fat suit during filming to make Olive look a little chubbier than she actually is.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a music video by DeVotchKa as well as four different alternate endings.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.5m on an $8M production budget: the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Illusionist

My Sister’s Keeper


My Sister's Keeper

It's an awkward moment as Cameron Diaz asks Alec Baldwin about any openings on 30 Rock.

(New Line) Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson, Emily Deschanel, Thomas Dekker. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children. It is a given that we will do anything – absolutely, positively anything – to keep our child safe from harm. When we are helpless to do so – as in the case of a terrible disease for example – our fight takes on a different tone.

At first glance the Fitzgerald family seems nearly perfect. Dad Brian (Patric) is a fire chief, while mom Sara (Diaz) is a top-notch lawyer. They have three great kids; Kate (Vassilieva), Jesse (Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

“Nearly” can be a very important word, however. Kate is suffering from a particularly dreadful and aggressive strain of leukemia. As a matter of fact, most kids who have it don’t live past the age of five. However, Sara is willing to do anything to keep her daughter alive. That includes having another child, fertilized in vitro, to supply Kate with bone marrow, blood and other spare parts to keep her alive.

The plan works, although it’s far from perfect; Anna (the test tube baby) is subjected to frequent and often painful hospital procedures in order to procure whatever it is that Kate needs to continue to live. She’s a teenager now, and the disease has reared its ugly head again and this time it’s going to take more than a blood transfusion or bone marrow; Kate’s kidney has shut down and she needs a new one to survive.

Normally she’d go to the spare parts store that is her sister, but Anna has had enough. She realizes the consequences of having only one functioning kidney and it means the end to any sort of normal life that she might want to lead. She engages the services of a lawyer, the kind that advertises on bus benches and late night TV. His name is Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) and after some deliberation, decides to accept her suit for medical emancipation from her parents.

Sara is no slouch as a lawyer and prepares her own defense, but as the case drags on, Kate grows weaker and weaker and the case tears the family apart. Is Anna turning her back on her sister or is she just reaching for the only chance at a normal life she may ever have?

This is a movie that raises some interesting, fundamental questions and to its credit, gives the viewer much room for thought. The unfortunate part is that it wraps the compelling concepts in so many tearjerker clichés that after awhile what might have been a fresh take on a difficult subject seems very formula and rote.

There is some fine acting going on here. Breslin is in my opinion the best child actor in Hollywood at the moment, having dethroned Dakota Fanning who is in the teen actress realm now. She plays Anna as terribly conflicted but intensely driven. Her Anna is much more like her mother than her mother would care to admit, and rather than showing the common traits in the same way that Cameron Diaz shows them instead gives them her own take.

Baldwin, who is as hot as anyone in Hollywood at the moment, is also superb as the quirky lawyer who has a bit of a prima donna in him. He’s self-deprecating and the part is so solidly in Baldwin’s wheelhouse that you can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Diaz is not normally someone I’d turn to for her acting chops, but she delivers here. She does chew the scenery a little bit but just a little bit. The mother is a bit of a shrew and more than a little of a control freak, but there is a fierce love for her child that is so consuming that it nearly blocks her other children out entirely. It’s not an unusual situation in families, and it’s played out here quite naturally.

There are some nice turns. The hospital romance between Kate and another cancer patient (Dekker) provides the movie with some of its sweetest moments, although the outcome is somewhat predictable. Joan Cusack plays the judge who has some empathy for Kate, but much more wisdom than the tunnel visionary mom.

There is also an unnecessary third child who I guess is in the movie to illustrate Sara’s complete focus on her one sick daughter at the expense of her other children. He is usually onscreen accompanied by melancholy folk music; it gets a bit distracting, to be honest.

Still, the movie is strong enough for me to recommend. I know that it is fashionable for critics to snipe about movies that manipulate emotionally, but I find that hypocritical; all movies are manipulative in one form or another; these tearjerkers are just upfront about it. If the manipulation is done well and brings me a bit of catharsis, I consider it a job well done and so I can recommend My Sister’s Keeper on that basis. If you are in need of a good cry, by all means your ship has arrived.

WHY RENT THIS: For those in need of a cathartic release, this is the movie to see. Breslin again shows she is the best child actor in Hollywood.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times, the movie sinks unnecessarily into maudlin cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: The topic is very mature and certainly will upset children who may not understand the dynamics of what’s going on; the frank depiction of the disease and its consequences will also be difficult for the sensitive. Parents should also be aware there are some scenes of teen drinking and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Kate was originally offered to Dakota Fanning, with her sister Elle to be cast as Anna; however, Dakota reportedly balked at shaving her head for the role, so both sisters bowed out of the production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valkyrie

Zombieland


Who wants the last ticket to the George A. Romero film festival?

Who wants the last ticket to the George A. Romero film festival?

(Columbia) Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray, Amber Heard, Derek Graf, Mike White, April Rich, Jacob C. Akins, Joan Schuermeyer, Shaun Lynch, Lynn McArthur, Michelle Sebek. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

When zombies take over the world, the remaining humans will have to adapt to not being the dominant species on the planet anymore. They will have to be ruthless, tough and pitiless. In other words, they’ll have to become assholes.

The movie is narrated by Columbus (Eisenberg), a somewhat timid nebbish attending the University of Texas in Austin who is trying to return home to Ohio to see if his parents are all right – not so much out of concern but out of curiosity since, as he repeatedly tells us during the movie, he and his parents aren’t close.

An early encounter with a comely neighbor (Heard) who becomes zombiefied leads him to develop a series of rules for survival. I won’t go over all of them but they are accompanied by graphical representations that become part of the action in amusing ways. He meets up with a redneck zombie asskicker who calls himself Tallahassee (Harrelson) because he doesn’t want to get attached to anybody by learning their real names, so he assigns everyone – including himself – a designation based on their eventual destination.

Tallahassee has several quirks, most notable of which is his single-minded obsession with Twinkies. He looks for the golden snack cakes everywhere he can, without success. On one such venture into a grocery store, they meet Wichita (Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Breslin) who turn out to be con artists, stealing their firearms and their wheels.

After finding a hummer loaded up with big guns (“Thank God for rednecks” exclaims Tallahassee), they go out in search of the girls who robbed them and find them – only to get duped again. However, this time the girls allow the boys to come along. They’re headed to Pacific Playland, an amusement park just outside of Los Angeles which is reportedly zombie-free. Wichita confesses that she knows it’s unlikely but she wants to give her sister a chance at being a child one last time.

They crash at the mansion of Bill Murray only to find the great comedian fully human and in residence. He is dressed and made up to look like a zombie, mainly so he could go out and play golf. Columbus is starting to fall for Wichita, but both are wary of getting close to anyone in a world where death is around every corner.

This is the kind of movie that is going to achieve cult status relatively easily. It’s full of sight gags and plenty of gore. Better still, it has a sense of its own hipness and is chock full of easily memorable lines that teenagers across the country are going to be crowing back and forth to one another, either in person on school grounds or on social networking sites. I wonder how many “It’s time to nut up or shut up” statuses are going to be seen in the next couple of weeks? I’m sure some dweeb somewhere is counting.

Eisenberg plays as a kind of Michael Cera lite throughout although he does break away from that persona every now and again. However, it’s Woody Harrelson who steals the movie as the redneck with the big time Twinkie Jones. He’s amusing and his timing is dead on (we sometimes forget that he got his start on “Cheers”). He has more depth to him than any of the other characters and being the veteran actor he is, uses every bit of it to flesh out his role (pun intended).

Unfortunately, the girls are little more than afterthoughts, particularly Breslin who is criminally underutilized. They have almost nothing compelling about them and quite frankly, the movie could very easily have done without them. Basically Wichita is in the movie to belabor the point that Columbus is a virgin (and how often will I ever get the opportunity to write lines like that?) and as attractive as Stone is, she never quite captures the attention onscreen as ladies like Megan Fox have been lately.

My son saw an early screening of this movie and proclaimed it as the funniest movie of the year. I was a bit skeptical myself, until I saw a scene where the Jesse Eisenberg character was depicted hunkered down in his apartment on a Friday night, playing Worlds of Warcraft and drinking Mountain Dew Code Red. In other words, pretty much one of Jacob’s Peeps.

This is definitely a movie for rednecks; at the screening we were at there were a couple of loud and obnoxious ones sitting in the row ahead of us. Jethro and Bubba’s commentary was completely unnecessary and further illustrates why Mystery Science Theater 3000 wasn’t recruiting from the Dukes of Hazzard crowd.

The movie is reasonably entertaining and director Fleischer shows a lot of imagination and promise. This was meant to be an American answer to Shaun of the Dead and while it isn’t completely successful at least manages to take some potshots at a few American sacred cows. I was a bit more taken by it than Da Queen was and a bit less in love with it than my son was. It’s decent entertainment and for the most part, as long as you don’t mind gore and poo-poo humor, you won’t walk away from the multiplex feeling you wasted your ten bucks.

REASONS TO GO: Fleischman shows some promise, with clever graphics and plenty of violent things done to the undead. Woody Harrelson takes this movie in hand and shows that while he has been a character actor in recent years, is very capable of carrying a movie on his own. The midnight movie hipness quotient is off the charts.

REASONS TO STAY: The female characters are totally unnecessary and Eisenberg continues to remind me why I find Michael Cera so annoying.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of gore, horror violence, foul language and some sexuality; in other words, not for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tallahassee writes the numeral 3 on the side of all his trucks during the course of the film as a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.

HOME OR THEATER: Load up on the pork rinds and Budweisers, settle back in your recliner and be prepared to slow-mo all the parts where the zombies are blowed up real good. Give me a Hell Yeah! No, a Hell Yeah, not a Yeehaw!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman