The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

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The Hunt for Red October


The Hunt for Red October

Sean Connery lights up the screen.

(1990) Thriller (Paramount) Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden. Directed by John McTiernan

 

There are weapons of war – planes, ships, tanks, subs – that we all know about and each side keeps tabs on and has whatever countermeasures that are available to combat them. All sides have them and it keeps things honest. What if there was a weapon of war that only one side had, one which avoided the whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and gave one side a critical advantage, one which in order to have would have to be used without the knowledge of the other side?

In this classic Naval thriller set during the Cold War the Soviets have done just that. The Red October is a submarine with a propulsion system that allows it to run virtually undetected by sonar (who might mistake it for whales). This is bad news for the Americans who would never know if the sub parked itself off the Atlantic seaboard and start lobbing nukes into New York City, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia…hell all over the northeast with virtually no warning.

Captain Marko Ramius (Connery) realizes that this is the only use a sub such as this would have; the Red October has nearly zero maneuvering skills and  isn’t particularly fast. He knows that the vessel he has been tasked with taking on a trial run could mean the end of everything. Therefore he enters into a pact with his senior officers, including his second-in-command Borodin (Neill) to do the unthinkable.

In the meantime the CIA is frantic. They’ve monitored a new sub leaving the shipyards and then disappearing as monitored by the USS Dallas’ crack sonar operator Jones (Vance). His captain, Bart Mancuso (Glenn) is mystified. So is the CIA. Admiral Greer (J.E. Jones) has never heard of this kind of vessel. His expert in Soviet subs is Jack Ryan (Baldwin), an analyst who is currently living in London. They put him on the first flight to DC where he is shown some pictures of a sub with an odd pair of openings in stern. Ryan takes the pictures to a sub builder (Jeff Jones) who realizes what it could mean.

Soon it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is going on. The entire Soviet fleet is scrambled, apparently searching for something. Ryan reports his findings to the President’s defense counsel, including his most senior advisor Jeffrey Pelt (Jordan). While the military men think that this signals that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, Ryan – who wrote the C.I.A.’s analysis on Ramius suddenly realizes that Ramius might be intending to defect.

Nobody really thinks Ryan is for real but Pelt wants to hedge his bets; if he can get his hands on a piece of Soviet hardware this advanced, the opportunity has to be at least explored. He sends Ryan – who is not a field agent – to the Dallas (which is by no means an easy feat) to intercept the Red October and determine his intentions – while trying to keep out of the way of the entire Soviet and U.S. Fleet which are trying to sink her.

Jack Ryan is the creation of former insurance agent and now bestselling author Tom Clancy who has made his career out of these political thrillers with military overtones. Clancy knows his military hardware and while even at this date nothing like the Red October exists (at least to the knowledge of the general public), it certainly is within the realm of possibility.  This was the first Jack Ryan novel to make it to the screen and its success both critically and commercially paved the way for three other movies to make the transition (with a fourth scheduled for Christmas 2013).

A large reason for this is Connery. He brings dignity and gravitas to the part of Ramius. Though this is a Jack Ryan film it is Ramius you will remember and it is in many ways his show. The relationship between Ramius and Borodin is crucial in the film and Connery has some pretty believable chemistry with Neill.

The sub chase sequences are as good as any you’re likely to see with the possible exception of Das Boot. I also found the political intrigue that goes on during the movie to be second to none; you get the sense that everyone is playing a game that is unique to themselves, from the ship commanders on up to the President himself. That may well be how it is in real life.

There are some who have criticized Baldwin’s low-key performance as Ryan; certainly I think Harrison Ford nailed the part better in later versions of Jack, but I don’t think Baldwin is that bad. He plays it more intellectual and less action than Ford but that’s all right – his performance is well-suited for the film, which really makes most of its action bones with the sub duels rather than individuals. In that sense it’s the captains of the various vessels involved who make the action heroes here.

There is definitely an 80s film sensibility here (it was shot in 1989) although it would open the door for the 90s political film ethos. In a very real way this is one of the movies that transitioned the 1980s action film into the 1990s special effects film. As such it’s a classic and to my mind one of a kind. I do not necessarily agree with Clancy’s political beliefs, but the man can write an excellent story and he has done so here; I’m not entirely sure if he likes the movie that came of his imagination but I know that I do.

WHY RENT THIS: Quite realistic. Details are superb. Connery, Baldwin, Jones and Glenn are amazing. Great sets and breathtaking story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Something of a throwback to cold war attitudes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some violence, a few adult themes and a bit of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was released on VHS, the tape was colored red.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200.5M on a $30M production budget; this was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Das Boot

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Uncertainty

Titanic


Titanic

The great ship on it's last night of it's life.

(20th Century Fox/Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Bernard Fox. Directed by James Cameron

When Avatar was released, few would have predicted that it would overtake Titanic as box office champion but it did indeed. When Titanic was released, there were many who were predicting that the film would be one of the most expensive failures ever.

Brock Lovett (Paxton) is part of an expedition that is tasked with retrieving artifacts from the most famous wreck of all times, the Titanic. It becomes evident that he is searching for something specific; he sends his remote vehicles into a specific cabin and is thrilled when he retrieves a safe, sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80 years. When he opens the safe, however, the prize isn’t in it.

They do find a portfolio of pencil drawings (how these would have survived immersed in sea water for 80 years I have no idea), one of which depicts a nude woman wearing a necklace with a large stone on it. It turns out this stone is the Heart of the Sea, cut from a larger diamond owned by Louis XIV. It had been purchased by a wealthy industrialist and was presumed to have gone down with the ship he had been sailing across the Atlantic on in 1912 (you guessed it) and would be nearly priceless on today’s market.

When images of the drawing are shown on television, an old woman named Rose Dawson (Stuart) is startled. She makes a call that is transferred to Lovett aboard the Russian research vessel hovering in the sea above the wreck and tells him that the drawing is of her. Seeing as she is Lovett’s best lead to finding the diamond, he flies her aboard. As she watches footage of the deep sea rovers filming aboard the silent, dark wreck in the endless night of the bottom of the North Atlantic, she tells him her story.

Rose deWitt Bukater (Winslet) is preparing for the trans-Atlantic crossing on board the newest and most heralded ship of the White Star line, the RMS Titanic. She is accompanied by Ruth (Fisher), her mother and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Zane), a wealthy industrialist and his manservant Lovejoy (Warner). While most of them are looking forward to a crossing aboard the most luxuriously appointed ship of its time, Rose sees it as a prison ship taking her to a life of endless boredom.

Unlike many women of her era, Rose has a spark of curiosity and adventurousness, curious about the world and in love with life. She dreads being the meek and mindless mistress of a household, caring only for her husband and children’s needs and never spreading her wings. She may look calm and serene on the outside but on the inside she’s screaming.

Jack Dawson (di Caprio) lives by the seat of his pants. He wins his steerage tickets for the great ship in a poker game and looks at the Titanic as a means of transportation only, of getting back to the United States after years of knocking about Europe (and Paris in particular) as an artist, getting by on what drawings he can sell for pennies.

Rose, desperate and looking for a way out, sees only one. She runs to the bow of the ship and intends to throw herself off. Jack, stargazing on the bow sees her and manages to talk her out of carrying through with her plan. She nearly falls climbing over the railing but Jack rescues her. A couple of crewmen come upon Jack and Rose crumpled in a heap and mistakes it for an assault on a first class passenger by a third class passenger. However, as Cal and Lovejoy are summoned along with acquaintance Colonel Gracie (Fox), the misunderstanding is quickly sorted out and Jack is revealed to be a hero. Cal wants to give the boy $20 for his trouble but this displeases Rose and so Jack is invited to the first class passenger’s dining room for dinner the next evening.

The next day Rose spends some time with Jack and they begin to get to know each other better. Rose is at first a bit put off by some of Jack’s vulgarities but as Jack shows her some of his drawings, she realizes that he is a talented artist with a rather sensitive soul. She realizes that she really likes this young man.

Jack is completely unprepared for the dinner, but fellow passenger Molly Brown (Bates) takes pity on him and supplies him with a tuxedo that her son wore. Jack arrives at the dinner self-possessed and unflappable, utterly calm in a sea full of sharks. Rose becomes more intrigued and when the men adjourn from the dinner table to go to the lounge for cigars and brandy “and to congratulate themselves on owning the world” as Rose puts it, Jack invites Rose to a party down in steerage. She is very much taken by the wild lively dancing, the drinking and the frivolity.

The next day, Jack can’t get Rose out of his mind and attempts to go see her again, but is rebuffed. He finally corners Rose, pulling her out of a tour led by ship designer Andrews (Garber), but she tells him that their romance is impossible. He counters that he just wants to make sure she’s all right, because her lifestyle is snuffing out her spirit and will eventually kill the woman she is. She sends him away, but realizes he’s right.

The Captain (Hill) is aware of icebergs in the North Atlantic at this time of year and wants to be cautious, but the ship’s owner, Ismay (Hyde) is more interested in publicity and wants to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Captain Smith orders all the boilers to be lit and the Titanic sails full steam into destiny. Who will survive? Can Jack and Rose survive the sinking and end up together despite all the obstacles between them?

The voyage of the Titanic holds a fascination for nearly everybody. Deemed unsinkable at the time it was built, it has become a symbol for man’s hubris, as well as for the class structure that dominated society at the time; nearly everyone in steerage drowned and there are reports that crew members kept the steerage passengers behind locked gates while the 1st class passengers were loaded aboard half-full lifeboats that there were not nearly enough of.

Some say the definitive Titanic movie was the A Night to Remember (1958) which had more of a documentary feel to it but this one at least keeps most of the salient facts correct. While much of the vessels last minutes can only be conjecture, Cameron uses legends and intelligent guesses to fill in many of the blanks. He wisely doesn’t try to include the entire Titanic mythology (the movie was three hours long as it was) but instead focuses on the romance between the fictional Rose and Jack (a trivial aside here – there was in fact a J. Dawson that died on board the Titanic, a fitter named Joseph, and his grave in Halifax is now one of the most visited in the cemetery since the movie was released). Fortunately, the chemistry between di Caprio and Winslet is marvelous and we wind up caring that they wind up together, and feel concern that they both survive the disaster (in fact, we know for sure that Rose will since her character is seen in the opening modern day sequence).

This was the movie that made stars of di Caprio and Winslet, and even seeing it as many times as I have I never get tired of their performances. In fact, in Love Actually Liam Neeson uses a video of the movie as a tonic to cure his lovesick son and I’m sure that in reality many a lovelorn sort has done the same.

The recreation of the great ship was painstakingly executed, with many of the original providers of furnishings used to make new versions based on the original plans. As a result, the sets on board the Titanic are magnificent and historically accurate for the most part (there are some subtle differences – the Grand Staircase on board the original was a bit less grand, simply because people in that era were actually a little smaller than they are today).

A movie like this almost by definition has to be special effects-heavy and indeed it is, but they are rarely intrusive. There were some primitive computer animated shots of the vessel sailing the sea, some of which are crude by today’s standards (one such shot that was more or less a helicopter shot looked patently fake, even in 1997) but for the most part the movie holds up more than a decade after its release.

This was a movie that became an event. Nearly everything is iconic, from the image of Jack Dawson standing at the prow shouting “I’m the king of the world!” to Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning theme song. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen more than twice in a theater, and maybe one of the few I’d still go see again. On a personal level, the movie has a great deal of meaning to me – Da Queen and I saw it while we were dating, and less than three months before we were married. It holds significance on that personal level and of course on a historical level for the film industry.

In many ways it was the perfect movie. It attracted nearly every niche audience; women loved the romance, men loved the disaster and everyone loved the scope of it. It works on nearly every level and even though it is in some ways a standard Hollywood romance on an epic scale, it still remains one of the movies that will be a standard other movies are compared to for decades to come.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a modern classic and some of the action holds up well. Di Caprio and Winslet have a great deal of chemistry as a couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the digital effects are a bit crude and didn’t work even in 1997. It’s quite likely you’ve already seen this movie a number of times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and violence, but the disaster epic has some horrific images that may be too graphic for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most expensive film made during the 20th century, the production cost more than it did to build the original Titanic.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is no Blu-Ray edition yet for this film, but there are three DVD versions available; a bare-bones 1999 release, a 10th Anniversary release from 2007 that has a number of features and the three-disc Special Collector’s Edition from 2005. Most of the features are fairly mundane, but there is a commentary track by two historians that gives a great deal of insight into the historical accuracy of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Green Zone