Ruby Sparks


Zoe Kazan has just punk'd Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan has just punk’d Paul Dano.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan, Chris Messina, Deborah Ann Woll, Aasif Mandvi, Toni Trucks, Jane Ann Thomas, Alia Shawkat, Wallace Langham, Emma Julia Jacobs. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 Cinema of the Heart

The problem with love is that we can’t have the perfect mate. That’s because we ourselves are imperfect and besides, how boring would it be if the person we were with was perfect? There’d never be any growth…ever. It would always be exactly the same. What would you do with perfection?

Calvin (Dano) isn’t really worried much about perfection. He is worried that he might have already peaked in life. He wrote a wildly successful, award-winning novel when barely out of high school. That was ten years ago and he hasn’t written a word since. His brother Harry (Messina) is supportive as his agent (Coogan) who surely must be the most tolerant agent in history. Calvin still does the occasional reading and still carries enough cache to get numbers slipped his way but he is in a funk that has finally compelled him to see a shrink (Gould) who tells him to write about the perfect girlfriend.

This works wonders. Calvin starts writing in a feverish pitch about the most wonderful girlfriend ever. She makes all other girls look like harpies by comparison. Calvin can’t stop writing about her…until she shows up in his house, just as real as you or I.

At first, Calvin thinks he’s blown a fuse. Then he realizes that everyone can see her, and that she is in fact real. Calvin freaks out quite naturally while Ruby (Kazan) wonders why he’ s acting so strangely. However it turns out that when Calvin writes about her, whatever he writes happens; if he writes she speaks French fluently, she starts conversing in perfect French. If he writes that she’s doing naked jumping jacks…well, you get the idea.

The relationship turns toxic though. Calvin turns into a right little shit about it and starts abusing his power over poor Ruby who although compelled to do as he writes is still an autonomous thinker in all other ways. Can a man mess up the perfect situation?

Of course he can. That’s the nature of men after all. Dayton and Faris, the team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, have this as their follow-up and while it doesn’t measure up to their last movie in terms of sheer quality and laughs, proves that it at least wasn’t a fluke either.

Dano is at once both the perfect choice and the wrong choice for Calvin. He’s perfect in that he captures Calvin’s indecisive nature and his kind of general “wandering through life” vibe. He is the wrong choice however in that the very things that make him perfect make it difficult for an audience to connect with the lead character. Is that a fault of the actor? I dunno. I think that a lot of indie comedies have aspired to a Jon Heder-like character in every comedy which perhaps is an unconscious attempt to duplicate the success of Napoleon Dynamite which is the kind of studio douchebaggery the indie scene is supposed to be against.

The movie has a kind of a sweet core though which is nothing to sneeze at, and Kazan does make for the world’s best girlfriend, which isn’t surprising since she co-wrote the movie. While the ostensible protagonist is Calvin, it is Ruby that you’ll remember from the film and Kazan’s portrayal of her. She has the same kind of screen attractiveness that another Zoe (well, Zoey – Deschanel) possesses and may well have the same kind of successful career that she has.

I like the premise a lot but thought the execution of it was uninspiring. Calvin’s decline from nice nebbish to real jackhole is a bit jarring and doesn’t serve the story well. I kept wondering what the point was that the writer were trying to make – that all men are manipulative jerks, or that perfection is something we can’t handle, or that we’re never satisfied with what we make up in our heads – I don’t really get it. But then again that might be part of the master plan, to leave you trying to figure it out which isn’t a bad thing. It’s still a really good movie despite my criticisms of it and I really do recommend it whole-heartedly but I’m still scratching my head a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Kazan makes a great perfect girlfriend. Intriguing premise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. Dano a bit too laid back.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of bad language and a little drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, not only were Dayton and Faris a couple but so were Dano and Kazan.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a real interesting but brief featurette on real life couples involved in the making of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget; I think that the movie was profitable in all likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Than Fiction

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Conclusion of Cinema of the Heart 2013

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Open Range


Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

(2003) Western (Touchstone) Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates, Herb Kohler, Peter MacNeill, Cliff Saunders, Patricia Stutz. Directed by Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner returns to the American West, a setting which has seen his greatest triumph to date in Dances With Wolves. Like that Oscar-winning classic, Costner directs as well as stars and once again proves effective in both roles.

Charlie Waite (Costner) is a former gunslinger who earns his keep these days as a free-grazing cattleman, along with his partner, Boss Spearman (Duvall). They are grazing their cattle on what appears to be an uninhabited meadow near a town; one of their hands, an easy-going doofus named Mose (Benrubi) gets into a fight in town and eventually has to be brought back to the range by his employers. The cattle baron who runs the town, Denton (Gambon) can’t abide the thought of free grazers in his territory, and he orders his thugs to take them out, while the law turns a blind eye.

Mose is killed, and Button (Luna), a young man that the partners have essentially raised, is gravely wounded. Of course, Waite and Spearman can’t just let this go by, and they return to town, aided by a comely physician (Benning), to take justice as best they can.

This blends the best of modern Westerns, including the easygoing relationship between Waite and Spearman, which is straight out of Lonesome Dove (it’s no accident that Duvall starred in both), as well as the division between town and prairie, with the town representing corruption and violence as opposed to the freedom of the range. This is a theme that recurs in Clint Eastwood’s best movies, especially The Unforgiven and Pale Rider.

Costner is a better director than he is often given credit for; he has had his share of bombs (Waterworld, The Postman) but he knows when to show us a pretty picture and when to show us an ugly one. He juxtaposes the openness of the West with the confines of the town, and makes the hard, relentless life of a free grazer almost desirable. He is also appealing as the lead here, and that is what makes Open Range so good. Charlie Waite is a wounded soul, suffering from the demons of his own guilt seeking to forget his past in the vastness that was the West. Boss, his truest friend, is a rascal, yes, but a fair one. The two have a compelling chemistry.

Costner as an actor has an affinity for Westerns. He gets the rhythms and the flow of them. Now, he doesn’t necessarily sound like someone from the Old West in the sense that he uses the same style of speechifyin’ but I’m talking about Westerns. He has the laconic delivery of a Gary Cooper with the innate honesty of a John Wayne and the rugged chiseled good looks of a young Eastwood. Costner captures the essence of a Western hero and by extension, of American men in general. We all aspire to those values that made Westerns the king of movies during an era when arguably America was at its most prosperous. We also yearn for a simpler time when life was hard but our prospects were unlimited. The West meant freedom and a man could make a fresh start out there, get a second chance in some cases. It is the most American of aspirations.

The gunfights are often at the center of traditional Western, and there is a mighty good one here. You should be warned that the gun battle is extremely loud; those who are sensitive that way may want to think twice before seeing this in a state-of-the-art home theater with Dolby sound and all the bells and whistles. Otherwise, this is a sprawling, wide-open movie with a terrific human story at its heart, aided and abetted by some fine performances in the lead roles. Even those who are not particularly fond of Westerns, such as my spouse, Da Queen, will give this a rousing thumbs up as she did.

WHY RENT THIS: A throwback to classic Westerns. Costner is at his finest. A human story on an epic scale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly loud in places. Cliche in other places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Can be loud and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Tig is not only the name of the dog in the movie but also the name of Costner’s production company. It’s taken from his grandmother’s nickname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 12 minute documentary about the history of the open range and free-grazing as well as a music video. It should be noted that the making-of featurette is unusually candid, dealing with the problems the film had obtaining financing (Costner and producers Jake Eberts and David Valdes put up about half of the budget from their own money) which weighed heavily on Costner during filming when there were no distributors lined up. Near the end of production, Costner was also working through severe abdominal pain which turned out to be appendicitis.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.3m on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Nice Guy Johnny

Mother and Child


Mother and Child

Nobody beats Samuel L. Jackson in a staredown. Nobody.

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Naomi Watts, Annette Benning, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, David Morse, Marc Blucas, Shareeka Epps, Lisa Gay Hamilton, S. Epetha Merkerson, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Amy Brenneman, Tatyana Ali, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

 

Motherhood has a unique place in the female psyche. It may well be the driving force; the urge to procreate and then care and nurture for that child. Sometimes it’s not always possible for those instincts to be indulged the way you want to.

Karen (Benning) is an emotionally brittle caregiver in every sense of the word – by day she works as a physical therapist, by night she returns home to care for her elderly mother (Ryan). Karen is not the easiest person to get along with; she tends to keep people at arm’s length. She’d had a baby when she was 14 and was forced to give her up for adoption. That has haunted Karen’s entire life; she won’t let anyone in, not even sweet-natured co-worker Paco (Smits), although his patience seems to be limitless.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven attorney who never seems satisfied with anything in life. She is hard, occasionally crude and tends to keep people at arm’s length. She has started work in a new firm, and in order to cement her position – and possibly even improve it – she has initiated an affair with her boss, Paul (Jackson). It is a relationship all about sex, power and ambition. Elizabeth was adopted and seems to have no desire at all to find out who her birth mother is (although I’m sure you can guess). However, her world turns upside down when she discovers she’s pregnant.

Lucy (Washington) is unable to have children. She and her husband Joseph (Ramsey) have elected to adopt and are looking for a baby to call their own. The agency that Lucy is going through, whose representative is Sister Joanne (Jones), sends along several expectant mothers who are giving up their babies for adoption. Ray (Epps) seems to be a suitable candidate, but she is understandably picky about what kind of home her baby will be placed in and has enough attitude to choke an elephant.

All three of these women’s lives are entwined in ways that are both visible and invisible. Their stories may be told separately, but they are all a part of the same story, one that will not end as expected for all of them.

This is a bit different than most ensemble anthology dramas in that the story really is a single story although told from the viewpoints of three different characters. Much of the story is telegraphed – anyone who doesn’t figure out that Elizabeth is Karen’s biological daughter is probably not smarter than a fifth grader. However, it is saved by some pretty good performances.

Benning, who would get Oscar consideration for her performance in The Kids are All Right that year showed why she is as underrated an actress as there is in America. It is difficult at best to play an emotionally closed-off character and still make them sympathetic, but Benning does it. In some ways this was a tougher role than the one that got her all the acclaim that year but because the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the other one she probably didn’t get the scrutiny here.

Watts also has a similarly difficult job and while she doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully as Benning does nevertheless acquits herself well and shows why she is also a formidable actress given the right material. Sometimes she flies under the radar, mainly because her films aren’t always as buzz-worthy but time after time she delivers film-carrying performances and while she isn’t the household name she deserves to be, she is still well-respected in Hollywood as one of the top actresses working today and this movie illustrates why.

The ending smacks a little bit of movie of the week schmaltz and the story relies way too much on coincidence. However one has to give the filmmakers credit for putting together a movie that is female-centric and tackles the effects of adoption on the birth mother, the child given up for adoption and the person doing the adoption in a somewhat creative manner. While other critics liked the movie a little more than I did (and I can understand why, truly), the contrived nature of the plot held the film back from a better rating. Had the three stories been a little bit more independent of each other I think it would have made for a better overall film. Not all stories have to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

WHY RENT THIS: A surprisingly potent examination of women and their maternal instincts. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending strives for grace and lyricism but falls short.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sex and nudity, along with a decent dose of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Naomi Watts was pregnant with her son Samuel during filming; when you see her baby moving in utero during one scene, that’s actually Samuel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.0M on a $7M production budget; the movie wasn’t a financial success from a box office perspective.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls

New Releases for the Week of July 23, 2010


Salt

Evelyn Salt looks guilty even when she's trying to look nonchalant.

SALT

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher, Daniel Obrychski, Daniel Pearce, Hunt Block, August Diehl. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It starts off as routine, with decorated CIA agent Evelyn Salt interrogating a Russian intelligence agent who wants to defect to the United States. Then, he drops a bombshell; there is a Russian spy hidden in the very fabric of the U.S. security whose mission is to assassinate the President. That spy is named Evelyn Salt. From there a tense chase begins, with Salt’s husband the unwitting pawn and every law enforcement agency in the country after a lone woman. Is she being set up? Is she what the Russian says she is? There’s only one way to find out the truth…see the movie!

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

Khatta Meetha

(Baba Films) Akshay Kumar, Trisha Krishnan, Makrand Deshpande, Kainaat Arora. A struggling contractor tries to navigate the corrupt and often confusing bureaucratic system in India to try and snag some lucrative government contracts and keep his business afloat. He has no money for kickbacks or bribes, so he has to use some unconventional means to get what he wants.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR

The Kids Are All Right

(Focus) Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska. The two teenage children of a lesbian couple decide to seek out their biological father and introduce him into the family equation that their two mothers built for them. This simple act creates absolute chaos as boundaries are stretched, lines are crossed and nothing remains the same – except that there is nothing more important than family.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use)

Ramona and Beezus

(20th Century Fox) Selena Gomez, Joey King, Josh Duhamel, Bridget Moynahan. Based on the beloved series of children’s books by Beverly Cleary, the movie follows the adventures of young Ramona Quimby and her big sister Beezus as the effervescent Ramona tries to save the family home, using her boundless energy and wild imagination.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: G