Before I Disappear


When you're a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

When you’re a junkie in New York, the surreality never ends.

(2014) Drama (Fuzzy Logic) Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff, Joseph Perrino, Isabelle McNally, Joseph DeVito, Hani Avital, James Chen, Greg Connolly, Anthoula Katsimatides, Josh Mann, Sean Ringgold, James Andrew O’Connor, Patrick Miller, Jacqui Denski, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Roseanne Ludwigson. Directed by Shawn Christensen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Out of our life choices comes our life; those choices tend to define who we are and not only in the eyes of others. We are what we do. That doesn’t mean that our worst life choices can’t be redeemed but it’s never easy. Sometimes it takes a really bad night for us to find redemption, especially if we’re not particularly looking for it.

Richie (Christensen) is the very poster boy for “loser” – a New York City junkie. He makes what meager money he can by cleaning toilets in a hip club with underworld connections that don’t quite pay his debts and barely pay for his drugs. He lives in a POS apartment that even a cockroach might turn its nose up at – assuming cockroaches have noses which I don’t think they do. But I digress.

Late one night he makes a terrible discovery in one of the bathroom stalls, the kind of discovery that can shut a club down even if it’s connected. His hamfisted boss Bill (Perlman) encourages him not to speak of what he has seen and as a gift he gives him some heroin.

Richie may be a junkie but he understands the streets. He knows what’s what and he knows that his boss intends for him to take the heroin and die. Richie still has a little pride left however; he’s going to slit his own wrists. Ha ha on you, Bill.

As Richie soaks in the tub waiting for the end to come the phone rings. More as a Pavlovian reflex than anything else, he answers it – it’s his sister, Maggie (Rossum) whom he has been estranged from and hasn’t spoken to in years. She’s desperate – she’s been detained and has no one to pick up her daughter Sophie (Ptacek) from school. Maggie is shrill and nearly hysterical and so Richie rouses himself, bandages himself up with packing tape and plods off to save the day.

In the course of a day into the wee hours of the morning, Sophie will accompany Richie from the refined apartments and schools of the hoi polloi to the seediest underbelly of skid row. Sophie, smart and driven, is used to having her schedule planned to the tick. Richie is used to things going wrong. The two couldn’t be further apart on the evolutionary scale if Richie sprouted a tail and hung from trees by his toes. Yet somehow, they find that blood really is thicker than water and that not every winner has it all, nor every loser without redeeming qualities.

That sounds like typical Hollywood crap no doubt; two opposites coming together and making of each other something better than they were. Christensen does it so skillfully here however, so organically that you believe every sordid second of it. Part of the reason this works is that Christensen was wise enough to cast himself in the lead. Perhaps that sounds more like ego than wisdom but trust me, it’s not ego when you deliver. Christensen has that look of a puppy whose been kicked too many times by a cruel master. That cruel master in Richie’s case is life itself.

Throughout the movie, Richie is writing a suicide note to Vista (McNally), his girlfriend who he has been separated from. It’s never explicitly stated, but I get the sense that Vista has preceded Richie into the great beyond and that’s part of Richie’s motivation for wanting to slit his wrists. Still, his little niece gives him a reason to delay that trip at least for a little while.

The chemistry between Ptacek and Christensen is also genuine. Ptacek is a mature actress, much more so than you would think from someone of her tender years. Sophie has a great deal of strength on the surface, but beneath the veneer she’s a lonely little girl who wants to make her mommy proud. The part is equal parts sass and vulnerability and Ptacek pulls both off masterfully.

Schiff, Perlman and Rossum are all veterans who have a trio of fine resumes; other than Rossum, none of them are on screen much but they make the most of their time and give the film a little more cache than it might have otherwise.

Before I Disappear is essentially the extension of Christensen’s Oscar-winning live-action short Curfew which introduces the characters in a very similar situation. Ptacek and Christensen both appear in it, although there is a different actress playing Maggie. Still, when you can get someone like Emmy Rossum who to her credit is doing a much different role than we’re used to seeing from her.

This is a keeper, folks. It’s one of those movies that has just enough levity to keep from being dreary, but is serious enough to retain authenticity. It will put you through an emotional wringer and make you care about Richie and Sophie and even Maggie who can be quite bitchy. While some may not appreciate the sleazy element and the glimpse at a very sordid part of the world, one can’t help but think that this could be the kind of film that inspires an entire movement – call it modern noir if you like. Just be sure and give me the credit when you do.

REASONS TO GO: Gritty. Well-performed all around. Terrific story. Christensen amazing in lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too rough for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of foul language, disturbing images, drug use, violence and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at this year’s South by Southwest where it won the Audience Award.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: L’Enfant

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Le Chef

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Wild Girl Waltz


Nobody puts baby in a corner.

Nobody puts baby in a corner.

(2012) Comedy (Levrock) Christina Shipp, Samantha Steinmetz, Jared Stern, Brad Hemesath, Scott Lewis, Kim Barlow, Kim Gordon, Alexander Cook, Julian Lowenthal, Sean McDonald. Directed by Mark Lewis   

 

Ah, the small rural town. Peace. Quiet. Boredom. Nothing on TV but crap. The bars aren’t open yet. Bored with the Internet. What to do?

Angie (Shipp) is already having a bad day. Minding her own business walking on the side of the road, she’s pelted with a milkshake by two young men in a pick-up truck who call her a whore and drive off, whooping and hollering. She’s angry and humiliated and sticky, so she calls her friend Tara (Steinmetz) who in addition to being her BFF is also her brother Brian’s (Stern) girlfriend. Tara is a little bit amused but agrees to go get her.

Brother Brian can’t do it; he’s too busy tracking down Ernie (S. Lewis) who owes him money. After a bit of a blow-up, Brian takes the $15 Ernie offers him and tells him $20 a week until he pays off the $300 that he expected today and was banking on. This puts Brian into a pissy mood.

After Angie gets cleaned up and changed, Tara offers her something that will make her day better. She has two pills that she got from a co-worker; she’s unsure as to what they do other than they’ll “kick your ass.” Forget Iron Man and Superman, Tara’s my superhero. Angie figures the day’s effed up already so with a “why not?” shrug she takes her pill while Tara takes one of her own.

The pills are starting to kick in just as Brian gets home. His day is definitely going to be stressful now as he realizes that it will be up to him to babysit the two righteously high ladies. Angie is having a psychedelic reaction, seeing color trails at the end of her fingers (flesh-colored; in this town, even the drugs are colorless) while Tara gets horny as all get-out and offers to initiate a threesome with Brian and his sister (eww). Before the day is out, they’ll hit a local bar, attempt to get revenge on the shake throwers with a pie and spend a day figuring out that the most exciting thing of all is the bond between people.

While this is ostensibly a comedy, it’s not like the sort that are all the rage these days, the kind that throw as many jokes at the audience and hope one or two stick, nor are they the sort that build up outrageous bits and use shock as a weapon  (while the movie doesn’t shy away from frank sexual discussion, there’s no real raunchiness here and no nudity – sorry fellas). This is a more quiet kind of humor, one which allows you to see something of your own life and situation in the one onscreen.

Lewis was obviously operating on the kind of budget that doesn’t pay for toilet paper on a big Hollywood film but he makes the best of what he has. The movie has an organic feeling; he chooses his locations wisely and you get a sense of the rhythms of life outside of the big cities. The dialogue is pretty realistic too – the people in Wild Girl Waltz talk like people actually talk in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Like most people, the characters in WGW think they are far funnier than they are and when they joke around, they aren’t making zingers that pro comics would level at you but the kind of jokes you’d hear from your friend Jillian at work or your neighbor Kevin down the road. Assuming you know people named Jillian and Kevin, of course.

Steinmetz is a real find here. She reminded me of a young Helen Hunt who captured all our hearts in the 90s sitcom Mad About You. So too does Steinmetz, although I suspect she’s a bit more wild than the character Hunt played on TV – I just don’t see Jamie Buchman taking strange pills from someone she barely knew. Tara does so almost without a second thought; perhaps the difference comes from living in a small western Massachusetts town opposed to living in New York City.

There’s something magical about summer, even when things are boring. Some of our best memories come out of boredom – just hanging out with our friends, drinking a cold beer on a hot day, sneaking glances at the girls in their shorts, their legs summer-brown and their smiles promising wild summer nights. Movies that capture that are the kind that tend to remain in memory much longer than other movies and I suspect that my rating for this movie will creep up over the years.

This isn’t the fastest-paced movie you’re going to see, and there are a few filler shots of countryside passing by a moving vehicle. Montages are useful as a device linking one scene with another but should be used sparingly. That’s just quibbling though; considering the budget, this is a pretty impressive achievement. I mean, there’s enough here to warrant a look if it should ever make it out to your town, or if it makes it out on home video. It would certainly have been a fine representation in my annual American Experience review mini-festival which discusses movies that capture the essence of American life – as this one does here.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the boredom of a small town summer day perfectly. Steinmetz is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the “high” shenanigans are a bit forced.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of bad language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lewis’ previous film was Bay State Blues.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; outside of a few one-off screenings hasn’t received a limited or wide release yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Skateland

The Spy Next Door


Jackie Chan's lost his nunchuks.

Jackie Chan’s lost his nunchuks.

(2010) Spy Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley, Magnus Scheving, Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez, Katherine Boecher, Mia Stallard, Maverick McWilliams, Quinn Mason, Margaret Murphy, Esodie Geiger, Arron Shiver, Lucas Till, Richard Christie, Kayleigh Burgess. Directed by Brian Levant

How many times have we seen this one – a divorced/widowed single dad/mom starts dating a new guy/gal who has special skills – i.e. a Navy Seal, a martial artist, a superspy. The kids are suspicious/hostile towards the new boyfriend/girlfriend and find many ways to discourage them from dating their parent/break up the relationship. For whatever contrived reason the boyfriend/girlfriend is left alone with the kids who stumble into/are caught in the middle of a dangerous situation. The boyfriend/girlfriend must rescue the kids/keep them safe and eventually they join forces to defeat the bad guy/girl.

This is pretty much the plot of this kid-centric spy. Bob Ho (Chan) is the boyfriend, a boring pen salesman who is really a Chinese spy working for the American government (which is a stretch of disbelief right there). He has recently defeated a Russian baddie (Scheving) who had developed a virus that breaks down petroleum. He intended to infect the world with it, forcing everyone to buy Russian petroleum at ludicrous prices. Why Paul Ryan didn’t think of this I’ll never know.

Anywho, the baddie is broken out by a kind of living Natasha Fatale named Creel (Boecher) and he’s keen to get the formula back and finish the job. The formula is tucked away safely on Bob’s laptop. Of course, the first rule of kidflicks is that one of the three kids (and there are always three) has to be a computer genius. Ian (Shadley), the middle kid, fits this bill. By the way, the other two kids are always an angst-y teen or pre-teen rebelling against everything and pissed off at everyone (Carroll) and a cute as a button princess (Foley). It is with this motley crew that Bob is left when his main squeeze – er, girlfriend – Gillian (Valletta) is called away on a family emergency.

Chan is getting on in years, as we all must but even at 55 (which is how old he was when he filmed this) he is still as entertaining an action hero as there has ever been. His comic timing is priceless, his physical gifts extraordinary. If he’s lost a step or two, and if he relies more on wires than jaw-dropping stunts, well, he’s earned the right. He’s done plenty of spy flicks in his native Hong Kong but the two Hollywood versions he’s done don’t hold a candle to them despite having much larger budgets.

Unfortunately, the buck pretty much stops there. The kids are more or less atrocious with the usually reliable Carroll playing surly, spoiled and bitchy which simply renders her character unwatchable. Carroll would  do much better work in pictures that followed this, particularly in Flipped. Valletta who’s also a decent actress has zero chemistry with Chan; one gets the feeling that they’re just friends without benefits; I can’t imagine the two of them sharing more than a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then again, this is a family film. Lopez and Cyrus as CIA buddies of Bob at least show up on time.

One of my big pet peeves is kid movies that treats kids like absolute morons. I get that playing to the kid fantasy of being in charge is a safe bet but even kids know that adults aren’t bumbling idiots from beginning to end and kid flicks generally portray them that way (moms are the sole exception and for good reason; piss off a mom and her brood won’t be seeing your movie). Nearly as high on the list is Hollywood’s complete fumbling of Chan. One of the great action heroes ever and basically was cast  either in buddy flicks or in hack job kidflicks. It’s like making an Avengers movie with the Hulk and having him stay as Bruce Banner the entire time. No wonder Chan grew disillusioned with Hollywood. I would too.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackie Chan.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Everything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon spy flick violence and a bit of rude humor that will delight the average six year old but might have their parents rolling their eyes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening montage is made up mostly of Chan’s Hong Kong-made spy movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Chan’s films traditionally show a gag reel of outtakes and pranks over the end credits; if you want to see it without the distraction of the credits, it’s here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.2M on a $28M production budget; the movie was just shy of making back it’s investment during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pacifier

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Stories We Tell

Somewhere


There is always something to be said for room service.

There is always something to be said for room service.

(2010) Drama (Focus) Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Pontius, Lala Sloatman, Amanda Anka, Ellie Kemper, Laura Chiatti, Damian Delgado, Benicio del Toro, Kristina Shannon, Karissa Shannon, Ruby Corley, Angela Lindvall, Maryna Linchuk. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Fame isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. What do you do when any desire you could think of is yours for the asking? I think it’s very easy to become jaded and numb to everything.

Johnny Marco (Dorff) is in such a state. A longtime star of meaningless action films, he has boozed and pilled his way through life. His love life has become meaningless encounters that don’t always include sex – he likes to hire twin strippers (Shannon and Shannon) to do pole dances in his bedroom of his Chateau Marmont apartment. Chateau Marmont is representative of his life; no fixed address but there are staff members to pamper and cater to his every whim.

Into his life comes Cleo (Fanning), a daughter from a brief and ill-advised marriage. She needs somewhere to stay while her mom is in rehab. Johnny is agreeable enough; she’ll cramp his style somewhat but the role of father is one he hasn’t played yet, and Johnny needs to stretch himself.

So between Johnny and his best friend Sammy (Pontius) they act in a dad/buddy way, taking Cleo along for the ride in an endless parade of publicity events, interviews and award ceremonies. Johnny isn’t the best role model there is for his daughter, but at least he makes something of an effort. He isn’t unkind to her, although he tends to shift her out of his sight when she gets in the way of his priorities.

Coppola has some experience with this, being that she’s been around the industry all her life (her daddy is Francis Ford Coppola who has been bringing her to the set since she was a baby). How difficult is it to be a parent when you’re living in a world far removed from reality? I suspect quite a bit. If everyone around you tells you that you can do no wrong, how can you teach the difference between right and wrong?

I’m not sure that was what Coppola was after though. She has stated that she wasn’t trying to make a linear narrative so much as creating a mood. If that’s the case she’s definitely succeeded – there’s a mood here. I’m just not sure if it’s a mood you might want to get in. There’s an indolent feeling, a lack of energy and inertia that makes the whole movie feel like it’s getting over a bad cold.

It’s a good looking movie though. Cinematographer Harris Savides does a great job of catching the world of stardom through a soft lens. It’s a world of privilege and pampering, of people who have absolutely no idea what real people deal with and one in which Johnny Marco has to come face to face with when his daughter shows up at his door. Yes, it’s exactly like Ginger arriving at Gilligan’s Island.

I think the intentions here were noble but in the final analysis I just didn’t connect with the movie. Dorff, not a household name at least yet, is thoroughly likable in a lot of ways and actually makes the character live but it’s his occasional bouts with self-centeredness – which is really putting it mildly – that make the character ultimately one you don’t want to spend an hour and change with, let alone one you’d want to identify with. The trouble with living the life of the rich and famous is that it is an easy thing to lose one’s soul in doing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Dorff does a terrific job.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lifeless and numb. Makes it hard to get involved in a movie when you don’t get the sense the filmmakers were either.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dorff actually lived at the Chateau Marmont during filming in order to get a feel for the lifestyle and the character.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13.9M on a $7M production budget; it pretty much broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Janie Jones

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: A.C.O.D.

Map of the World


A Map of the World

Sigourney Weaver can't believe the box office numbers for this film.

(1999) Drama (Firstlook) Sigourney Weaver, David Strathairn, Julianne Moore, Chloe Sevigny, Arliss Howard, Louise Fletcher, Aunjanue Ellis, Sara Rue, Nicole Ari Parker, Ron Lea, Dara Perlmutter, Marc Donato. Directed by Scott Elliott.

We all live our lives in a kind of haze of normalcy. We take comfort in the little rituals of the everyday, ignoring the fear that it can all be taken away in a moment. Sometimes, day-to-day living is just so chaotic that we don’t even notice that we’re falling from grace until we hit bottom.

That’s essentially what happens to Alice Goodwin (Weaver). She’s a school nurse and her husband Walter (Strathairn) runs a farm in rural Wisconsin. They’re originally from the city and although the locals are friendly enough, most regard them with a certain amount of distrust. The exception are their best friends, Theresa (Moore) and Dan (Lea) Collins, whose children regularly play with the Goodwin children.

Where Alice’s home is a symphony of chaos and mess, Theresa’s home is orderly and well-kept. While Alice struggles to keep on top of things, Theresa always seems to find time to bake muffins and do crafts with her kids. Alice is envious, even to how well-behaved the Collins children are. Emma, the eldest (Perlmutter) Goodwin child, is an absolute harpy, shrill, selfish and mean. Alice gets little or no help from Walter in keeping the house kept and the kids minded, which frustrates her.

On the last day of school, Alice has a run-in with Carole McKessie (Sevigny), the irresponsible single mother of a high-strung boy (Donato) whom she repeatedly sends to school sick. Alice is weary of dealing with sick kids and irresponsible parents and makes wiseass comments to a fellow teacher.

When Theresa asks Alice to baby-sit while Dan and Theresa take a little romantic time for themselves, Alice is only too eager to oblige. After all, she has a pond on her property, farm animals and all sorts of things to keep bored kids busy. Things are going as normal – chaos on the brink of hysteria – when things take a nastier turn, as things often will. The resulting tragedy leaves Alice in a state of shock.

Her shock is about to multiply. A few weeks after the incident, Alice is arrested for sexually abusing the McKessie boy. The Goodwins, already on the edge of financial oblivion, cannot afford her bail so Alice is obliged to remain in jail while awaiting trial on the charges, which are beginning to pile up as other children come forward.

Alice, her world already reeling from shock, finds herself in a prison where she is harassed by Dyshette (Ellis), an inmate with plenty of attitude, a chip on her shoulder and anger management issues. Alice is slowly beginning to break down, sabotaging the efforts of her frustrated lawyer (Howard) to get her off the hook.

Meanwhile, Howard is struggling trying to keep home and hearth together. He is aided by Theresa, but an attraction is developing between them that neither one of them want. The map of the world which they’ve all drawn for themselves has grown vague; whether it can take them home or not is by no means certain.

Alice is a complex and not always lovable role for Weaver, who has made a career of playing strong role models. Her Alice certainly has some strength, but that is balanced by a lot of vulnerabilities. The resulting juxtaposition between the two characteristics makes Alice a compelling character, although not always likable. Her means of dealing with the grief of her situation borders on the self-centered, but certainly that’s understandable; her very core has been threatened and she has gone totally into self-preservation mode.

Strathairn is amazing as always in his role as Walter. He plays a man who is anything but strong, constantly leaning on his wife for everything. When he has to step up to the plate, he doesn’t always manage but he’s in there plugging away. When Theresa compliments him as being “a very good man,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. Anybody thinking of getting married on a lark should see what this man goes through before saying “I do.” Talk about “in good times and in bad.”

This is definitely a film meant for women. The standard of women as nurturers and caregivers for their family is seen here as the state of grace. When a woman falls from grace, she is no longer able to care and nurture her family, hence the fall. That Alice in some ways relishes the fall is what makes the movie real and compelling.   

This is one of those little films that kind of slipped under the radar when it was released. I saw it recommended on Netflix, and was curious, and was glad that I chose to satiate my curiosity. It’s well worth checking out, even if, through no fault of your own, you’re a guy.

WHY RENT THIS: An unflinching look at how things can spin out of control. Straithairn and Weaver are both terrific in their roles, and the cast is generally outstanding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weaver’s character is often unlikable, so much so that it takes some effort to relate to her.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex and a smattering of bad language, particularly in the prison scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her role.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,965 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Battle: Los Angeles

Bedtime Stories


Bedtime Stories

A rose by any other name doth smelleth.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, Richard Griffiths, Courtney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer, Russell Brand, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Laura Ann Kesling, Carmen Electra, Paul Dooley, Rob Schneider. Directed by Adam Shankman

There is something comforting about a good old fashioned bedtime story. They transport us to faraway places and show us fantastic sights with strange and magical beings. This is part of the comforts of our childhood, as well as the joys of our parenthood.

Skeeter (Sandler) had a vivid imagination and loved to tell stories almost as much as he loved his dad’s (Pryce) hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Times were hard and his dad wound up having to sell the hotel to Barry Nottingham (Griffiths), owner of a chain of hotels – the understanding being that Skeeter would one day run the hotel.

Years later, Skeeter was still working at the hotel as a handyman but the days of the hotel were numbered; Nottingham had plans to build a new hotel, the flagship of his chain. Unctuous manager Kendall (Pearce) has the inside track for the position, as well as for Violet (Palmer), the tabloid bad girl who seems to always have a cloud of paparazzi following her.

Skeeter’s sister Wendy (Cox), the principal of an eco-friendly school, is having to look for new work in Phoenix when her school is abruptly closed, the land sold to a hotel magnate (you can guess who that is). She needs someone to watch her kids, daughter Bobbi (Kesling) and son Patrick (Heit) and Skeeter is essentially her only resort since her best friend Jill (Russell) must work. She doesn’t trust Skeeter – in fact, she hasn’t spoken to him in four years and he can barely remember the names of her children. Family is family though, so he does the best he can.

Turns out they can’t fall asleep without a bedtime story. He has them suggest one to him and he tells it to them, incorporating elements of his own life into the story. When the kids change the ending to include a rainstorm of gumballs, he doesn’t think much of it…until the sky opens up the next day and gumballs rain down.

Skeeter realizes that the kids have the ability to make their bedtime stories come true and he tries to manipulate their stories so that he gets what he wants in life. However, try controlling a couple of kids with vivid imaginations and as this is a Disney movie, you can bet that things are gonna get complicated.

Sandler can be an engaging and charming guy and there’s no doubt that he can appeal to the younger set, but this is actually his first family movie and in a lot of ways it feels kind of vanilla – more so than a family film would demand ordinarily. Not that Sandler has to be blue to be successful, but he feels very toned down, scaled back and watered down. I get the feeling that was more the doing of studio execs at the Mouse House more than anything but still the effect is the same.

There are several story segments, ranging from Ancient Rome to the Old West to Outer Space and beyond. Some of them are imaginative, others less so but they mostly hold your attention at least. So too (but for all the wrong reasons) does the guinea pig with saucer-like eyes that is used as a running joke in the movie. It’s CGI and not particularly good CGI; it’s a tiresome one-joke bit that is used way too often.

The cast is pretty impressive and for the most part, the acting is solid enough but again, nothing really stands up and makes you take notice. Russell is one of my favorite actresses and she lights up the screen when she’s on, but never really generates much chemistry with Sandler. Pearce, in a moustache-twirling villain role, seems a bit out of his element.

 There really doesn’t seem to be much of a message here, which would be refreshing if there was something else concrete to take its place, like sly wit or humor. I felt rather indifferent after seeing this and that’s not where you want your movie to be. I would have liked there to be more edge here, but unfortunately it can be filed away with Tooth Fairy, The Pacifier and other family films of that ilk that have a bit of magic to them, but only a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the story segments are cute and imaginative. Sandler is likable in a kind of oafish way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sandler goes family-friendly but it comes off a bit bland.

FAMILY VALUES: Disney knows family friendly and this is it. A few bad words and some poo-poo jokes but otherwise easily family-friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the driving range, one of the golf balls that goes whizzing by bears the Happy Madison logo, a reference to the production company logo.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Art of the Steal

Amusement


Amusement

Jessica Lucas hear's her master's voice.

(Picturehouse) Keir O’Donnell, Katheryn Winnick, Laura Breckinridge, Jessica Lucas, Tad Hilgenbrinck, Reid Scott, Rena Owen, Kevin Gage. Directed by John Simpson

When a movie, which has been marketed for a theatrical release complete with release date and trailer, goes direct to video, there’s usually a reason. Sometimes it’s because the distributor goes belly-up, but mostly it’s because the movie is really bad. This is particularly true in the horror genre.

Shelby (Breckinridge) is returning home to Cincinnati with her boyfriend Rob (Hilgenbrinck) who has an inexplicable love of driving in convoys. After she bitches to him about driving too fast, they wind up filling up at a gas station with a guy who has been convoy-ing with them for several miles (O’Donnell) and a friendly trucker. The trucker tells them he heard on his CB that the Interstate was a parking lot and that the smokies were out in force laying bear traps, ten-four.

So of course they wind up driving down this deserted road in the middle of nowhere because those kinds of roads are always the alternative to Interstates and Shelby is nervous because she’s sure she saw a terrified woman in the cab of the truck. Rob is skeptical right up to the point where the terrified woman becomes a projectile that goes straight into his windshield. The other convoy guy and Rob try to find out what’s up with the trucker except of course the trucker kidnaps both the girls and Rob and the convoy guy have to rescue them…except we find out that the convoy guy is the real maniac. Jokes on you, Rob.

Tabitha (Winnick) is babysitting the unholy terrors that are her cousins at the spiffy new digs of her aunt. Everything is mostly okay except that her aunt has a thing for clowns and there are dozens of clown dolls everywhere, including a life-sized creepy clown that sits in a rocking chair and stares at Tabitha, particularly when she gets naked (why is it that none of my babysitters ever got naked?) or takes a nap. When her aunt calls to check up on the kids, it turns out that Auntie Clownlover has no life-sized clowns in the house. It turns out that Soylent Green….is peeeeeeeeeopullllllll or at least life-sized clown dolls are people. Either way you slice it, it’s bad for Tabitha, particularly since the guy in the clown suit is the same guy who went all convoy on Shelby and Rob.

Finally, there’s Lisa (Lucas) whose roommate has disappeared with a guy who apparently is staying in a hotel on the edge of town. Worrywart Lisa sends her boyfriend Dan (Scott) in to investigate and he winds up having a close encounter with a Victorola that has a very nasty speaker system. In the meantime, Lisa waits two hours and rather than call the police, decides to go into the spooky hotel where nobody has emerged from since she started watching it and find out for herself what’s going on. It’s brain-dead thinking like that which keeps the horror film industry alive.

Of course, by now you know that the guy in the hotel is the same guy who kidnapped Shelby and Tabitha…that’s right, kidnapped not murdered…and now they are trapped in his insane revenge game that goes back to some terrible event that happened in the fourth grade, which should teach you kids to be nice to everyone because you never know if they’ll grow up to be a homicidal maniac.

The problem here is that the script is just plain awful. Each of the three stories in this kinda sorta anthology has the exact same twist and by the third time around you’re finding much more interesting things by staring into the pattern on your Pepperoni Pizza than you are onscreen, which is quite a shame. Director Simpson actually has crafted a very good-looking movie with a competent cast that had they been given a better story to work with might have actually come up with a pretty darn good little horror movie. Unfortunately, there wasn’t, they didn’t and you shouldn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Very nice production values and the three leads are nice to look at.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a mess; the three stories all have the same twist and quite frankly by the third time around there’s not a lot to hold our interest.

FAMILY VALUES: Not a lot of gore per se, but there is a good deal of violence and bad language. Like most horror movies, mature teens and older only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was initially slated for wide release but when New Line shut down their Picturehouse division, it was left on the shelf for almost two years before being released on video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Sugar