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Running on empty.

Running on empty.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Brooklyn Decker, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer, Tishuan Scott, Zoe Graham, David Benton, Greg Dorchak, Donn Adelman, Graham Carter, Laura Frances, Lindsay Anne Kent, Stephen Latham, Katie Folger, Elizabeth Berridge. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Florida Film Festival 2015

When it comes to fitness, only results matter. Either you go from overweight and flabby to fit and muscled or you don’t. Either you start a wellness regimen that works for you or you don’t. If the latter, than no matter what your diet is, no matter how much effort you put in, you are still out-of-shape.

Trevor (Pearce) owns a gym, or as gym owners tend to characterize them these days, a fitness center. He has high hopes to expand his Austin-based property into a franchise, and is on the verge of doing just that. His Power 4 Life fitness center has incorporated a goals-based training philosophy into its way of doing business and employs some fairly expert personal fitness trainers. Chief among them is Kat (Smulders), a high-strung trainer with anger issues. She’s an effective motivator and a patient teacher for the most part but get her outside the training regimen and she’s a mess.

Into the mix comes Danny (Corrigan), a lonely divorcee who is new to Austin. Just days after his divorce became final, he inherited millions and now has nobody to share his new-found wealth with. He vaguely wants to become more fit, fit enough as he tells Trevor, to take a punch. Trevor is a little bit nonplussed but everyone has their reasons for getting fit. As long as the check clears, it’s all good. After some soul searching, he assigns Kat (with whom he’s had a previous relationship that didn’t work out) to be Danny’s personal trainer and sends her to Danny’s palatial but empty mansion.

Danny has enough money to buy him everything but happiness and while he has made the acquaintance of a kind of semi-shady lawyer sort (Ribisi), he really has no friends. So of course he becomes a bit besotted by Kat who reacts – or some would say overreacts – accordingly. This leads to an adjustment in the relationship between Trevor and Kat, a new friendship between Danny and Trevor which eventually dissolves – because of Kat. Relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than getting in shape.

Bujalski has plenty of indie street cred for his quirky black and white comedy Computer Chess. This is his second feature and has a much bigger budget and recognizable stars, not the least of which is the always reliable Pearce who as usual has the kind of screen presence that plenty of bigger stars don’t come close to possessing. Utilizing his native Aussie accent here, Pearce gives Trevor a kind of Zen-like external calm but inside he’s the proverbial chicken with his head cut off as he tries to cut a deal with the Russian fitness master Grigoriy (Hall) to invest in his gyms.

Smulders, who’s stint on How I Met Your Mother made her a TV star and her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Agent Maria Hill has given her a steady paycheck after that series ended gets to exercise her indie legs, albeit in quite the challenging role. She doesn’t quite pull it off though, being written to be so thoroughly unlikable that even Leona Helmsley seems like Mother Teresa in comparison. Even though she mellows a little by the end of the movie, she has just been so damn annoying all the way through that you don’t much care.

Corrigan, a long time indie stalwart, shines here. He is kind of an Oliver Platt for this generation and that’s a pretty high compliment. Even though Danny is quite the schlub and turns out to be rather petulant and a bit of an asshole at the end of the day, you still end up liking him a little bit.

In fact none of the characters are truly likable, although you end up rooting for Trevor kind of by default. Also, don’t be fooled by the “comedy” portion of the romantic comedy; the wit here is dry as the Mojave in August and those into a broader kind of humor and a more formula kind of romantic comedy may take issue with what they find here. Still, those who appreciate that kind of humor are going to really dig this movie which has a lot going for it, although at the end of the day ends up being a fairly entertaining film but ultimately one that you aren’t going to remember much about once the end credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Has a bit of fun with gym culture. Pearce always does yeoman work.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly disposable. Cat is so unlikable that she becomes annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of harsh language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smulders was five months pregnant during filming and great pains were taken to disguise her pregnancy. Director Bujalski’s wife also gave birth with two days left remaining in the shooting schedule, forcing a brief delay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: San Andreas

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Dear John


Dear John

Sharing a kiss in a southern summer rain.

(2010) Romantic Drama (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Keith Robinson, Scott Porter, Braeden Reed, D.J. Cotrona, Cullen Moss, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Nicholas Sparks is a novelist, many of whose works have been turned into movies (all based in his native South Carolina at least to some degree) including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and The Last Song. There are many who adore his novels and although I haven’t read them, I’m sure he’s a decent enough writer. In all honesty while I liked the adaptation of The Notebook, I have not been felt the magic in his other adaptations.

So when noted director Lasse Halstrom (Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News) was attached to it, I had some hopes that this movie might actually be the second Nicholas Sparks movie to move me.

No such luck. John Tyree (Tatum) is a soldier on leave who must return to Germany in a few days in the summer of 2001. When young Savannah Curtis (Seyfried) accidentally knocks her purse into the water off of a pier, John dives in to its rescue, forever earning her gratitude. Yes, it’s yet another case of a sodden accessory leading to romance. Happens all the time.

There before our eyes young love blossoms. We know it does because there are montages of late summer South Carolina and soulful music. But then he has to return to his post in Germany. But they’ll write….he’ll send her all his love every day in a letter….sealed with a kiss. Hey, they had to say goodbye for the summer after all.

Of course, September arrives and we all know what happened in September 2001. His enlistment nearly over, John winds up with a choice – either love or duty. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, he chooses duty. Savannah understands but she winds up falling in love with someone else while he’s gone; hence the double entendre title. Clever, this Nicholas Sparks fellow.

I neglected to mention the autism factor here. Sparks’ son suffers from a mild form of autism and so that becomes a major theme here. Savannah has a neighbor (Thomas) whose son (Reed) is autistic. John’s dad (Jenkins) is mildly autistic, or at least so Savannah thinks – this leads to a fairly major argument between John and Savannah.

Halstrom is a gifted director who has a habit of choosing material that is overly maudlin. Sparks is pretty much the poster boy for maudlin, 21st century style. That’s why the pairing of the two makes much more sense than it at first appears. Like with most Sparks works, there is a palpable sense of melancholy that suffuses the mellow golds and oranges of the half-light of a South Carolina sunset. It lends a certain nostalgic air, particularly with the scene, pictured above, in which the lovers kiss in an idyllic summer shower. Yes, it’s very cliché but it’s also very effective.

Seyfried is a very charming actress but sadly in my opinion, she has a much smaller role than you would think. It is Tatum who must carry the load, and quite frankly it’s a little beyond him at this point. He is not one of the most emotionally open of actors, which in a situation where the audience needs to strongly identify with the lead, can be a deal-killer. Tatum is good looking and when given roles in his emotional wheelhouse can bat them out of the park, but this one is not one of those.

A quick word about Richard Jenkins. Ever since winning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor Jenkins has performed in a series of roles that have played to his strengths. This is actually a little bit different than we usually see from him; he is pushed in the role of the coin-collecting dad who cooks lasagna every Sunday (my kind of dad) and has a bit of the obsessive-compulsive to him. Jenkins lends the role dignity and compassion and makes it the most interesting and human of all the characters here.

Dear John isn’t going to boost me on to the Nicholas Sparks bandwagon; for me, he is an acquired taste that I have failed to acquire. I realize that there are some who think he is the bee’s knees, and that’s fine – there is nothing wrong with a good bittersweet romance. I would just like to see a little variation in the storyline and until then, his first movie that I had contact with – The Notebook – remains the one that I will hold up as the bar to judge all his adaptations against and unfortunately, Dear John falls short of that bar.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried. Jenkins as always puts in a memorable performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Nicholas Sparks formula holds true. Seyfried’s character disappears for a good chunk of the movie and when she reappears near the end, the movie loses a lot of its steam.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and a little bit of sensuality but not so much as to alienate family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the movie that dethroned Avatar from the #1 spot in the box office which it had held since its debut in December 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a moving featurette on Braeden Reed, the actor who has autism in real life and plays the autistic Alan here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115M on a $25M budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: When in Rome

Gigantic


Gigantic

Paul Dano is all wrapped up in Zooey Deschanel.

(First Independent) Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, Ian Roberts, Brian Avers, Robert Stanton. Directed by Matt Aselton

We all have our own set of aspirations. Some of them border on obsessions, which is fine. Some of them are a bit out there, which is also fine. Some of us give up on them, which is not so fine. And still others do not deviate from their plan on achieving those goals.

Brian Weathersby (Dano) is a mattress salesman in New York with seemingly low career goals, but that’s only on the surface. What’s really on his mind is the adoption of a Chinese baby, which he has wanted to do all his life and which he is now so close to he can just about taste it.

While his personality is rather bland, his life is somewhat complicated. He is repeatedly and without explanation attacked by a homeless man (Galifianakis) who might well be a figure of his imagination other than the facial wounds he leaves. He, his brothers and his father (Asner) bond over hallucinogenic mushrooms. Indeed, a Norman Rockwell family at its finest. Remember his famous Saturday Evening Post painting “Daddy gets high on mescaline”?

Brian sells a high-end mattress to Al Lolly (Goodman), an oversized man with severe back troubles. The mattress costs north of $14K so it’s not a slam dunk procedure. Al decides to send his daughter Harriet (Deschanel) over to test it out for herself before arranging the payment.

Harriet turns out to be one of those New York waifs with an independent spirit and who acts as if every moment needs to register on the quirk-meter in order to be meaningful. She falls asleep on the mattress, well past closing time. Brian somewhat sweetly places a blanket over her, more to make sure nobody looks up her skirt while she’s asleep.

They converse in murmurs. She asks if he is interested in having sex with her, and he confides that he might be. He tells a friend he’s not sure if he likes her. Brian’s whole life is about getting that baby; the presence of Harriet might jeopardize that in some odd way.

There’s no denying he feels something for her though. He brings her to meet his family which is a bit risky; only his mother (Alexander) is even halfway sane. Still, he’s not sure he can bring himself to love her when loving her might mean that he has to change the plans he has for his life.

This is the kind of movie that a lot of folks characterize as “fiercely indie” and that’s not in a good way. Not long ago these types of movies were all the rage at Sundance and Toronto, but these days more traditional storytelling seems to be more in vogue. That’s not to say that Gigantic is without merit. It’s perfectly cast and that cast is impressive, with all of them delivering solid performances at the very least.

Deschanel is one of those actresses who can make even an uninteresting role interesting and a too-quirky role seem more down-to-earth. She makes Harriet real and believable; in lesser hands the character would have been so annoying that Ellen DeGeneres might have been moved to punch her in the face. Dano has made a niche for himself as a somewhat deadpan character who displays little in the way of emotion except for occasional tiny cracks. It served him well in Little Miss Sunshine and it serves him well here. The romance between the two becomes believable.

This movie might have well made higher marks with me had they not tried so hard to be funny and quirky. Scenes like the one in the massage parlor are unnecessary and serve to jar you out of the overall mood of the movie; it’s like driving a car whose transmission is on its last legs. If they had just tried to tell the story of Brian and Harriet straight it might have worked out better.

Still in all, this is a solid film with several moments that are worth cherishing. It may not be the kind of indie film that breaks the mold but at least it gets points for doing what it does do very well.

WHY RENT THIS: Any movie with Zooey Deschanel is worth seeing. Great cast who all have their moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film loses steam in the last half. At times it feels like they’re trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and some scenes of sudden violence make this a bit rough for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Galifianakis’ role although listed as “Homeless Man” on IMDB, does not in fact appear on the film’s credits.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Easy Virtue