Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

Newt Scamander is about to make the 20s roar.

(2016) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Dan Hedaya, Jon Voight, Gemma Chan, Ron Perlman, Zoë Kravitz, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Peter Bretmeier, Kevin Guthrie, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ellie Haddington, Johnny Depp, Anne Wittman. Directed by David Yates

 

J.K. Rowling is a household name and for all the right reasons. A single mum living on the dole at one time, she wrote a fabulous book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter that while ostensibly for children was also well-written enough that adults got into it too. Seven books later, she was a billionaire and the wealthiest woman in Britain save for the Queen herself. Admirably, she gave much of her wealth away, returning it to the government whose assistance allowed her to survive while she wrote her books. Their investment in her paid off.

One of the textbooks that Harry Potter studied at Hogwart’s was Newt Scamander’s bestselling textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He even had his own Chocolate Frog wizard card. So how did he get to be so famous?

Rowling – who wrote the script as the first of five movies – set this some seventy years before the Potter films and across an ocean. Scamander (Redmayne) arrives at Ellis Island in New York City in 1926 en route to Arizona. Newt is a magizoologist – an expert in magical creatures. He is carrying a ratty old suitcase with him, one with a latch that just won’t stay closed. Inside his TARDIS-like case is a whole ecology where specimens of the various creatures he has collected are residing. Some are being relocated to places where they have a better chance of surviving. None of them are allowed in the United States.

Rather than having a Ministry of Magic, the wizards in the New World are governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America – MACUSA for short. They have recently emerged from a battle with the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and they are a bit by-the-book these days. When Newt’s case is accidentally switched with the case of Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), an aspiring baker and No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle, or person without magical skills), chaos ensues as several creatures escape.

Demoted MACUSA agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard but when the case he is carrying is revealed to have baked goods in it, he is released. Tina and Newt end up joining forces to re-capture the beasts with the assistance of Tina’s sister Queenie (Sudol) who has precognitive powers, and Jacob. However, with Chief Auror (magical investigator) Percival Graves (Farrell) hot on their trail, they need to find the creatures quickly.

But that’s not all that’s going on. A malevolent magical force has been wreaking havoc on the city and there is a society of No-Maj activists led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton) and her abused son Credence (Miller) and daughters Chastity (Murray) and Modesty (Wood-Blagrove) are helping to create an atmosphere in which the magical community is feeling threatened. Keeping the existence of wizards and witches may no longer be possible when Newt’s beasts begin to make their presence felt.

This has been justifiably one of the most hyped movies of the year and certainly one of the most eagerly anticipated. Does it measure up with the Potter franchise? Well, yes and no. From a sheer spectacle standpoint, the beasts themselves are entirely magnificent. Yates has also created a very living and breathing jazz age New York City and in many ways that’s being overlooked by those praising (and a few damning) the film. The environments both magical and real are visually compelling and inviting.

Part of the issue is that while millions are familiar with Hogwart’s and the world of Harry Potter, in essence Rowling is starting from scratch. The Wizarding World is distinct and different from the world being built in the Fantastic Beasts series. Sure, they name-check Albus Dumbledore (and he is due to appear in the second film of the series) and of course Scamander himself is name-checked in the very first Potter film but there is little overlap. Therefore there is a ton of exposition so the movie feels turgid at times.

Fogler as Jacob felt far more sympathetic and heroic to me than Redmayne did. Of course, Scamander is somewhat socially awkward and tends to isolate himself from people and wizards, being more comfortable around animals. Still, Redmayne is rather bland in his portrayal of the wizard and my attention is less on him than on Jacob who has no magical skills but has a ton of heart. His romance with Queenie is sweet and touching and the most emotional moment in the film belongs to Fogler and for my money, that is the moment that will stay with me from this particular movie.

While I’ve been perhaps a little overly critical of the movie, don’t think for a moment that this isn’t sheer entertainment. Yates is a veteran at creating magical spectacles and the movie retains the feel of the later-stage Potter films that Yates directed. Hopefully the succeeding movies won’t need to set up as much backstory and be able to just tell the story at hand.

REASONS TO GO: The fantastic beasts are enchanting as are the special effects. Fogler steals the show. The place and period is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Redmayne is actually rather vanilla here and doesn’t seem capable of bearing the weight of the franchise on his shoulders as Radcliffe did. There is a ton of exposition here which slows down the pacing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of a fantasy nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The grey and yellow scarf that Newt wears is a nod to his origins as a member of Hufflepuff house at Hogwart’s.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spiderwick Chronicles
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Loving

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Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January

Please Help


While this is a movie review site, I’d like to take the time to ask all of my readers a favor.

I’d like to introduce you to Kellyn Nabozny, a student in Michigan. She’s the pretty gal in the picture above. She is an amazing young woman, someone who has been dealt a few lousy cards by life. Most of the details are on the site I’ll be directing you too and it’s explained much more concisely there than I ever could here but here’s the skinny; she needs a service dog.

She has some serious neurological issues that leave her barely able to walk (with the aid of a walker) as well as back issues that leave her in chronic pain, unable to bend at all which means she needs assistance to do even the simplest of tasks. She is a beautiful 23 year old woman who has been going to school and running her own business – a bakery and catering business – until a combination of mounting medical bills and her pain and neurological issues rendering her unable to do the physical work needed.

Her website will enable people to donate money to help her get her dog. Service dogs are expensive propositions and Kellyn needs the dog to help her get around and lead a normal life. I’m asking all of you who stop by to read my reviews to take a gander at her site and if you can, donate whatever you think is appropriate. Even a $5 donation, the cost of a cup of coffee, can help change this young lady’s life for the better.

Come on down and meet Kellyn at this site. Please give if you can. Thanks.

Bridesmaids


Bridesmaids

For losing the bet, Wiig has to give Rudolph a manicure with her teeth.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Jill Clayburgh, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Franklyn Ajaye, Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas, Jon Hamm, Richard Riehle, Mitch Silpa. Directed by Paul Feig

There’s something in the female hormone that just goes ballistic when it comes to weddings. Smart, capable, logical women turn into absolute emotional maniacs when confronted with the nuptials of a friend. Gather together an entire bridal party and you have enough cattiness and one-upsmanship to fill up thirty seasons of “Project: Runway.”

Annie (Wiig) and Lillian (Rudolph) have been the best of friends since childhood. Annie’s going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment. Her bakery, co-owned with her then-boyfriend has gone belly-up and her ex walked out out on her, leaving Annie holding the bag. Deeply in debt, she works at a jewelry store owned by a friend of her mom and rooms with a pair of English siblings, Gil (Lucas) and Brynn (Wilson) who would make Ellen DeGeneres homicidal. Annie is the regular booty call of Ted (Hamm), an egotistical jerk who wants no part of Annie other than to get his rocks off and Annie is more or less accepting of this relationship.

Things are looking up for Lillian however. She is engaged to her sweetie Doug and she wants Annie to be her maid of honor. Annie is only too happy to do it, not realizing the expense and frustration that goes hand-in-hand with the job. The bridal party includes Megan (McCarthy), Doug’s big-boned sister who shoots from the hip and has a somewhat skewed view of life; Rita (McLendon-Covey), Lillian’s cousin who is married with three kids and is horny as all get out; Becca (Kemper) who’s a newlywed and blissfully in love and finally Helen (Byrne), the wife of Doug’s boss and one of those rich people who thinks the world not only should revolve around them but in fact does.

Of course, Annie tries to keep costs under control but that’s simply not possible with Helen around. Annie and Helen regard each other with wary distrust, each vying for Lillian’s affection and to be top dog in the pack. As Annie initiates disaster after disaster (a pre-dress fitting meal causes a very nasty case of food poisoning which leads to a scene that isn’t for the squeamish and a drunken incident on a plane to Vegas for the bachelorette party which results in Annie not only making a fool of herself but for the plane not to reach its destination) the strain grows in her relationship with Lillian. Not even reconnecting with her mom (Clayburgh) and connecting with a sympathetic Irish cop named Rhodes (O’Dowd) can help Annie in her downward spiral towards an inevitable rock bottom.

This was produced by Judd Apatow and early indications that this is going to be another big box office hit for him. Like most Apatow movies, there is a good deal of vulgarity and a tendency to not skimp on sex or cussing which is the kind of thing that some folks are going to shy away from.

There are some genuine laughs here, and Da Queen pointed out that any woman who’s ever been involved with a wedding – their own or someone else’s – is going to find a lot of common ground here from the bridal party back biting to the absolute disasters that befall any wedding.

This is Wiig’s first leading role and the SNL veteran shows that she has the ability to be a charming and sympathetic romantic comedy heroine. Not only is she sexy and beautiful, she’s got great comic timing and she gets the audience squarely behind her for the most part, even when she’s sabotaging her own best friend in a fit of self-pity.

McCarthy often steals the show here and could wind up being the Zach Galifianakis of this little posse. Plus-sized women get the shortest of shrifts from Hollywood and it would be a shame for someone this talented and this funny to not turn a performance like this into a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Byrne plays the tightly wound Helen note-perfect and while I haven’t seen much of her in comedic roles (she’s best known for the cable hit “Damages”) she has a future in comedy as well as drama. O’Dowd has also been receiving raves for his role and could well wind up as a leading man somewhere down the road although he seems better suited to comedy than drama.

The movie overuses the awkward situation as laugh template, leaving me feeling uncomfortable more than anything else. However, thankfully, there’s enough genuine humor here and coupled with the genuine chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph (honed by years of working together on SNL) makes for a movie that hits the right notes most of the time. It’s good to see a movie that primarily focuses on the female point of view that can be enjoyed by both sexes equally – that’s a fairly rare bird in the Hollywood aviary.

REASONS TO GO: Enough laughs to keep things moving along. Good chemistry between Wiig and Rudolph.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the bits go on too long. A few too many awkward moments masquerading as laughs.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of bad language and tons of sex, not to mention a few disgusting images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Jill Clayburgh’s final film before she passed away from leukemia last November.

HOME OR THEATER: No need for a big screen on this one.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fish Tank

Paris


Paris

Romain Duris contemplates his mortality.

(2008) Romantic Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, Francois Cluzet, Karin Viard, Melanie Laurent, Gilles Lellouche, Julie Ferrier. Directed by Cedric Klapish

The heartbeat of a city is often inaudible to those who live in it and are caught up in the dull roar of their daily lives. Those who are able to hear it often bestow a love upon their city that nothing can shake.

Director Cedric Klapish is one of the lucky ones who know the rhythms of Paris intimately. Renowned for such films as L’auberge espagnol, Klapish is a master of finding the intricacies of life and breaking them down into simple stories.

Pierre (Duris) is dying. He is a dancer whose heart is giving out. Without a transplant, he will inevitably die. His sister Elise (Binoche) who has just endured a heartrending divorce, moves in with him along with her two children so that she can better care for her brother who grows weak easily.

Mostly he stares down at the city from his apartment balcony, observing the comings and goings in the neighborhood with the immense Rungis open-air food market, or in the many cafes that serve as the living rooms of Paris. And there are so many stories to tell, like the middle aged professor of history (Luchini) who falls deeply for one of his students (Laurent), sending her anonymous text messages worthy of de Bergerac (if Cyrano were alive today, do you think he would text fair Roxanne?) while navigating a difficult relationship with his brother Philippe (Cluzet), who being married with children and with a successful business seems to have much more than the professor does, even though he is hosting a television program on the history of the city.

There’s also a highly opinionated baker (Viand) who against her better judgment hires a West African worker who turns out to be much more than she bargained for. There’s a very civilized divorced couple whose lives are drifting apart, and who, they find, are terrified of the prospect.

If an American director had been given this material to direct, he would have intersected these lives, making sure they all interrelated because that is all the style these days. Klapish ignores the temptation in favor of making their lives parallel. The only time they come close to interacting is during one of the final scenes when one of the characters is being driven down a road in a taxi and passes them all along the way at various points in his route. It is a marvelous scene in which Klapish seems to be commenting about the fragile connections we have.

The cast is marvelous, all of them well-known in France. Binoche is in my mind the epitome of the French woman; smart, sexy and compassionate with a wonderful sense of irony. It is my studied opinion that as French women become older, they become more alluring. That is the opposite of Hollywood’s way of thinking; as American women get older they become disposable and marginalized. She is wonderful here, not one of her greatest performances but definitely a good one.

Duris also lends dignity to the role of the dying dancer. He’s not well-known in the U.S. but he’s a marvelous actor who has worked with Klapish throughout his professional life. He doesn’t reveal a lot going on with Pierre, but neither does he milk the pathos. He just hits all the right notes and gives the character dignity without relying too much on sympathy.

Klapish uses Paris as a backdrop and rather than dwell on the familiar sites, or go to grandiose with the imagery, he prefers to show the human side of Paris, allowing us to see the everyday lives of Parisians with an insider’s eye. There is a beauty to the look of the movie that is much more subtle, like an impressionist portrait in many ways.

Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips compared this to Love, Actually and he’s right on the money, although it’s a subtle comparison – the central theme in that film is love and here it is life, although a true Parisian would argue they are one and the same. Here, one sees the heart of Paris through the eyes of someone who loves the City of Light very much – and instills in those who watch the same feelings.

WHY RENT THIS: The central story is riveting and this slice of Parisian life is worth consuming. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many threads, not all of them absolutely necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and sexuality here, and some thematic issues that are a little bit heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romain Duris’ sister is noted pianist Caroline Duris.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Dear John

Life As We Know It


Life As We Know It

Josh Duhamel is only glad there's no poop on HIS face.

(Warner Brothers) Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas, Hayes McArthur, Christina Hendricks, The Clagett Triplets, Sarah Burns, Jessica St. Clair, Britt Flatmo, Kumail Nanjiani, Will Sasso, Majandra Delfino, DeRay Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Rob Huebel, Andrew Daly. Directed by Greg Berlanti

Is there a secret to life? Most people agree that if there is, it is elusive at best, but there is one secret that’s fairly graspable; change is inevitable.

Uptight upscale bakery owner Holly Berenson (Heigl) has just exited from a long-term relationship that went nowhere. Her best friend Allison Novack (Hendricks) has set her up with her husband Peter’s (McArthur) best friend Eric Messer (Duhamel).

It would have been the date from hell had it even gotten that far. The laid-back lothario Messer (who prefers to be addressed by his last name) arrives an hour late, sans dinner reservation and to top it all off takes a booty call that he sets up for the same night. Amused at first, Holly is at last infuriated and storms back into her apartment, having not even pulled away from the curb.

Three years later they are celebrating the first birthday of little Sophie Novack (Clagett). While the date went sour, Messer and Holly still remain best friends to the Novacks and while Messer annoys Holly terribly, they remain civil for the most part for the sake of their friends. All that goes by the wayside when they get the phone call that Peter and Allison were killed in an auto accident. However, that’s almost equal to the shock they receive when they find out that their friends named them as guardians of little Sophie in the event of their demise.

The will specifies that Sophie remain in the suburban Atlanta home…or maybe estate would be more accurate…that the Novacks lived in. With the mortgage pre-paid for a year, the two godparents take up uneasy residence in the house and try to somehow be parents.

It’s a rough go, as they are completely clueless about childcare and they still get along like Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, only less violent. However their love for little Sophie and their feelings of obligation towards their dead friends keep them plugging away, despite Messer’s attempts to seduce half of Atlanta, Holly’s ambitious expansion plans for her bakery and her own romantic interest in Sophie’s handsome pediatrician whom Messer names, not unkindly, “Dr. Love” (Lucas).

While there is clearly tension between Holly and Mess, there is also just as clearly attraction between the two as the social caseworker Janine (Burns) notices. However, what little connection they have is stretched to the breaking point when Messer gets a job offer for his dream job – which will take him out of Atlanta and into Phoenix if he accepts.

This is a movie that careens from romantic comedy to drama, sometimes in a jarring fashion, but I get the sense that overall the filmmakers saw this as the former. Somewhat ironically, I think the dramatic sequences tend to work much better than most of the comedic ones, which rely on baby poop, baby vomit and sleep deprivation for most of the gags. Had the movie steered itself away from the romance, toned down the comedy and concentrated on the bringing up baby aspects a little bit more, I think this would have been a really great movie.

Unfortunately, the romantic comedy formula is followed nearly to the letter; boy and girl meet, dislike each other intensely, come together and then are split apart before coming back together in the final reel. It seems like every studio romantic comedy follows the same bloody formula without exception and I for one am tired of it, but it seems the appetite for such formula romcoms is endless so until Hollywood stops making money hand over fist with them we will continue to see them churned out one after the other into multiplexes all over the world.

That said, the chemistry between Heigl (who is the mistress of uptight professional women roles) and Duhamel, who has become a pretty decent romantic lead in his own right, is undeniable. The two are believable as a couple which is at the heart of any romcom. Lucas, who is one of those actors who just does a good job every time out but never gets the credit he deserves, is solid as the third part of the romantic triangle.

I am not big on babies in the movies, but I will say that Sophie may be the most charming baby I’ve ever seen onscreen. She is portrayed by triplets (and then at the film’s conclusion by twins as she ages in the film) and they all seem to have a fairly expressive facial palate.

While I would have liked to have seen either less formula in the romantic comedy aspect, or more of the serious drama of picking up the pieces after the death of the parents, the filmmakers seem to settle for a little bit of both and wind up with a playing-it-safe mish-mash that ends up curiously unsatisfying, despite all the items on the plus side of the ledger. I don’t know if Berlanti and his writers went the taking-no-chances route of their own volition, or if studio bigwigs hamstrung them but I wish they had been a bit bolder in their choices.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Duhamel and Heigl; the baby may be the most charming movie baby ever.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is awfully formulaic and doesn’t really send any surprised the audience’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of bad language, a little bit of drug humor and a good deal of baby poop. Pretty much acceptable for most reasonably mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who stay to the very end of the movie will hear a currently unreleased Faith Hill song (“All I Needed”) on the soundtrack.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly this is a movie that will make you want to cuddle with your loved one; definitely worth seeing at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Amreeka

Stranger Than Fiction


Stranger Than Fiction

Will Farrell falls prey to one of the oldest gags in the book - the fake falling snowflake.

(Columbia) Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Larry Newmann Jr., Andrew Rothenberg, Christian Stolte, Tony Hale, Denise Hughes.  Directed by Marc Forster

The implication of the title of this movie is Truth because, after all, that is what is proverbially stranger than fiction. Truth is a very subjective thing, even to filmmakers and perhaps especially so. Indeed, truth is what we make it.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) has no trouble separating truth from fiction. He is an IRS agent, a man used to dealing in facts and figures; everything else comes a distant second. Harold likes his life well-ordered, like the numbers he worships. He has created a world for himself that is quiet, calm and serene. He can walk to the bus stop confident in the knowledge that it will take 53 steps – no more, no less – every time. His life is predictable, and there is comfort in that.

You get the feeling that he is the kind of man that abhors chaos, and when something unusual comes into his life, he is not prepared for it. He begins to hear a voice, a pleasant, educated, well-mannered female voice with a proper British accent. Just the sort of voice most people enjoy listening to. The problem is, Harold is the only one who hears it. Even worse, the voice is narrating what is happening in his life, from counting brush strokes to analyzing how he’s feeling about things. While Harold doesn’t necessarily feel as if he’s being watched, the whole thing is rather creepy.

He goes to psychiatrists, hoping to find an answer but they don’t have one. He talks to government H.R. specialists, but they can’t help him either. He is in the middle of an audit with a spunky baker named Ana Pascal (Gyllenhaal) whom he finds fascinating, but the narration distracts him. At last, when the narrator informs him that his death is imminent, Harold decides to visit a literary professor at the university, Dr. Jules Hibbert (Hoffman). At first skeptical, Hibbert at least has the courtesy to play along. He tells Harold that first, he needs to determine what kind of story he is in; a comedy or a tragedy. The impending death would indicate a tragic fate. Finally, as they are trying to narrow down who the author might be, Harold hears her voice coming from the television. To the professor’s chagrin, it’s Kay Eiffel (Thompson), one of Hibbert’s favorite authors.

For her part, Eiffel has been trying to write her latest book for a number of years without success. She is caught in the middle of a massive writer’s block, and her publishers, trying to help her get her creativity back in gear, send an assistant named Penny Escher (Latifah). At first, Eiffel isn’t very receptive; she’s the kind of woman who likes doing things in her own way. The problem, she tells Penny, is that she doesn’t know how to kill Harold Crick. She’s racking her brain trying to think of the perfect way to do Harold in.

Harold is becoming desperate. He doesn’t want to die, and now he has fallen in love with Ana and she has fallen in love with him. At long last, he finally has a life, but it’s about to be cut short. He has a confrontation with Eiffel, who is completely freaked out at the thought that her character is real. By this time, she has determined how to kill Harold, but now that she knows he’s real, she’s reluctant to do it. She gives Harold the manuscript to read, but he can’t bring himself to; he gives it to Hibbert, who proclaims it her greatest work and his death necessary to making it so. It’s the kind of work that could give people great insight into life and living, but is it worth killing Harold?

I was reminded very much of the work of screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who is known for writing screenplays that are inventive and challenging with just a hint of the fantastic, and this one also delivers in all those departments. I don’t know if writer Zach Helm was consciously trying to emulate Kaufmann, or was using him more of a role model, but I found this to be a very tight, well-written comedy that challenges the viewer to take a different view of life.

It doesn’t hurt that Will Ferrell gives his best performance to date here. Harold Crick is much more well-rounded and emotionally complex than most of the other characters he’s played, from Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy to Buddy the Elf. Like comedians Robin Williams and Jim Carrey before him, Ferrell is stretching himself as an actor and making the next logical step from being a great comedian to being a multitalented star.

He gets plenty of support. Thompson turns a character who could be a cliché neurotic writer into a living, breathing author who has a certain amount of eccentricity, much of which has been brought out by the stress of trying to write a new bestseller. She is ably supported by Queen Latifah, who is very subdued and content to take a more supporting role here. She’s done well carrying movies of late (see Last Holiday) and you get a sense that she is happy to remain in the background and just contribute.

For my money, Dustin Hoffman has the most fun of anyone here. He clearly is enjoying himself throughout, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself with him. He adds lots of nice little touches – being barefoot in his office, taking a Sue Grafton novel to read at the pool, all of which help define his character a little more. Still, I might have enjoyed Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance the most. She is blossoming into a true lead actress, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we started to see her in much more important roles soon.

Kudos must go to Britt Daniels for a terrific soundtrack. Daniels, the main man for Spoon, also collects several Spoon songs as well as some terrific alternative songs for the soundtrack. Rather than trying to find a group of well-known hits to pad soundtrack sales, Daniels instead gathers songs that fit the mood of the scene nicely, and while some of the bands are well-known in Indie Rock circles, most have little bang past that. No matter; it works real well.

The movie explores mortality and our relationship with it. Harold must cope with his own impending death, and he chooses to live rather than curl up and die. It’s a metaphor, I suppose, for how we all live our own lives, oblivious to the fact that it could be cut short at any moment. Reminders such as this to stop and smell the roses are always welcome, particularly when they are presented as imaginatively and with such great humor as this.

WHY RENT THIS: Farrell and Gyllenhaal make for appealing leads, and they are ably supported. The script is very Charlie Kaufmann-esque in a good way. Terrific soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gets a little way out there in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language, some sexuality and implied nudity, but nothing that older teens would consider unusual.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the film revolves around mathematics; street names refer to Euclidian geometry, while all of the characters’ last names are of mathematicians, engineers and artists known for art that is a reflection of mathematics. Even the bus line is named after a mathematician.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting feature on the making of the graphics that enhance the film so nicely.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Babylon A.D.