Answers to Nothing


Dane Cook emoting.

Dane Cook emoting.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Julie Benz, Barbara Hershey, Zach Gilford, Erik Palladino, Gillian Vigman, Kali Hawk, Hayes MacArthur, Greg Germann, Tony Denison, Alan Rachins, Mark Kelly, Caitlin Gerard, Karley Scott Collins, Jacqueline Pinol, Brian Palermo, Aja Volkman, Miranda Bailey, Leslie Durso. Directed by Matthew Leutwyler

Ensemble movies with inter-weaving storylines can be really interesting when done well. When they’re not, they can be exceedingly frustrating to the viewer.

Here the lives of several people entwine and intersect in L.A. against the backdrop of a high-profile child abduction case that has Angelinos riveted to the unfolding events. Here we meet Ryan (Cook), a psychologist who is having an affair with a singer (Volkman) that is strongly conflicting him. His wife Kate (Mitchell) is an attorney and the two of them are having trouble conceiving a child. She finds out about his affair just before going under anesthesia for an in vitro fertilization although unbeknownst to her he has already decided to call off the affair.

One of his patients is Allegra (Hawk), an African-American who writes for TV. She also hates African-Americans which is not as unusual as you might think. She has been dating a young white guy (Gilford) who is sort of caught in the middle of her identity issues. Meanwhile one of Kate’s clients, Drew (Bailey) has all sorts of guilt issues. Her brother Bill (Palermo) is completely disabled but was only a year earlier an accomplished marathon runner. She feels guilty because his injury occurred in a post-race car crash after a celebration in which both Bill and Drew, who was driving, had both been drinking. She means to run the same marathon in tribute to her brother. Meanwhile she is fighting her parents who want to put Bill in a home.

Frankie (Benz) is Kate’s best friend and the lead detective on the child abduction case. She initially suspects Mr. Beckworth (Germann), the next door neighbor of the family but when some questionable porn is found on the father’s computer the suspicion shifts over to him. Lonely school teacher Carter (Kelly) becomes even further obsessed with the case and pesters his neighbor Jerry (Palladino), a police officer and a fellow gamer, to do some investigating. Jerry, a beat cop, tries to keep Carter calm but Carter is growing more and more psychotic about the case and the fate of the little girl.

That’s an awful lot of stuff happening for a single film, even one that’s more than two hours long. I think a good deal of the fluff could have been trimmed, as much as half an hour’s worth. As it is there are too many characters, too many storylines and not enough really holding it together. The entire Allegra subplot could have been excised from the story quite easily and really, so could the Drew and Bill story.

It’s not that I mind character studies – in fact, I love them but there has to be some strong characters worth studying and there simply aren’t many here. I did like Palladino’s performance as the police officer and Mitchell, a veteran of Lost, as the lawyer. Both were the most sympathetic characters. As for most of the rest of them, I really didn’t want to get to know them any better. That spells bad news for any film.

Leutwyler has been involved with some pretty impressive films before now as producer, writer and/or director (he performs all three functions here) but this is sadly not one of them. There are some worthwhile moments if you want to check them out but quite frankly this is a bit of a hot mess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the performances here are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many storylines and not enough story. Way too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly strong sexual content and nudity, a fair amount of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leutwyler studied film at the San Francisco Institute of Art.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,029 on a $3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

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New Releases for the Week of September 13, 2013


Insidious Chapter 2

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2

(FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Leigh Whannell, Steve Coulter, Angus Sampson. Directed by James Wan

Following the events of Insidious the Lambert family thinks the terror is behind them. However, little do they know that they were signed to do a sequel and the supernatural forces that bedeviled them in the first film aren’t done with them yet. Not only are they back but they are more frightening than ever – which is good news for gorehounds looking for a pre-Halloween scarefest.  

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror and violence, and thematic elements)

Austenland

(Sony Classics) Keri Russell, Jane Seymour, James Callis, Jennifer Coolidge.  A New Yorker with a not-so-secret passion for the world of Jane Austen, finds herself the perfect vacation – an English resort in a Regency-era estate which has been outfitted to take their guests back to that time, complete with actors playing the characters from the novel. But as she flirts and finds her perfect nirvana, perhaps someone will turn out to be her perfect Mr. Darcy.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)

The Family

(Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron. A mafia boss who testified against the mob has been in witness protection but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Unruly, unable to give up their life of crime and mayhem despite the danger it puts them in, their exasperated handler puts them in a house in rural France but even there they can’t get past that they’re most definitely not in Brooklyn anymore. And as the mob closes in on them, they realize they have no other place to go.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Action Comedy

Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality) 

The Investigator

(Gabriel’s Messenger) Wade Williams, David Sanborn, Kevin White, Mollyanna Ward. A veteran police detective, weary of the worst side of humanity he confronts every day, is forced to retire after a drug bust goes horribly wrong.  He becomes a criminal justice teacher and baseball coach at a local Christian high school, but after his wife’s miscarriage he questions his once-strong faith. However, one of his students urges him to put his police skills to the test – to investigate the murder of one Jesus of Nazareth. Based on a true story.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG-13 (for some drug material and a scene of violence)

Winnie Mandela

(RLJ Entertainment) Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard, Wendy Crewson, Elias Koteas. While many are aware of the accomplishments of the South African activist and politician Nelson Mandela, his wife Winnie was no less a formidable advocate for freedom and a major figure in bringing down the system of apartheid in that country. This is that story from her point of view.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some violence and language)

Insidious


Insidious

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson are skeptical this "breathing in the ear amplifier" will improve their sex lives.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Lyn Shaye, Andrew Astor, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Corbett Tuck, Heather Tocquigny, Ruben Pla, John Henry Binder, Joseph Bishara, Philip Friedman. Directed by James Wan

The things that happen to us when we sleep are mysterious, even with all the technology at our disposal. Nobody really knows what awaits us when we close our eyes.

At first glance things look pretty good for Josh Lambert (Wilson) and his wife Renai (Byrne) – pronounced “Renee” but spelled differently. They have just moved into a pretty spiffy old house. Josh works as a math teacher at the local high school – or is that college? We’re never really sure. I’m betting the latter because it’s a really spiffy house and Renai isn’t working. Well, she’s writing songs…but she’s also unpacking, taking care of two energetic young boys and a baby. Okay, she’s working harder than Josh is.

But there are some odd things going on. Things are being moved around. There are odd sounds that can be heard at night. Things disappear. Of course, some of it might be due to the chaos of moving. The sounds, well, it’s an old house, spiffy as it is.

Then things turn darker. Their eldest son Dalton (Simpkins) takes a tumble in the attic. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be anything particularly serious; a little bump on the noggin. But he doesn’t wake up the next morning and nothing can rouse him from his slumber.

The doctors can’t explain it. His tumble didn’t produce any brain trauma. There’s no inflammation, no infection, nothing that would explain his coma, but he is most assuredly in one. After a few months of fruitless tests, the boy is sent home to lie in his own bed. A home nurse (Tuck) explains to Renai how to lubricate his feeding tube while Renai muses how the universe must be testing her to see how far she’ll bend before she breaks. It’s an honest moment but the universe isn’t done with her yet.

Things go from bad to worse. The paranormal activity in the house increases. Sinister figures are half-glimpsed and then fully seen. Things don’t just go bump in the night, they go CRASH BANG!!! Security alarms go off without reason, while the security company that installed them doesn’t respond.

So they do what any sensible family would do. They move. Josh’s mom Lorraine (Hershey) welcomes them to the neighborhood. Renai is relieved; at last the nightmare is over. But it’s not – it’s just beginning. The apparitions are showing up in the new place, more menacing and more solid than ever. At last, the couple in desperation calls a psychic that Lorraine recommends – Elise Rainier (Shaye). But before she shows up, she sends a couple of paranormal experts – Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson), who show up with elaborate homemade equipment. The looks on the face of Josh and Renai are pretty easy to read although they’re polite.

Then Elise herself shows up and makes the pronouncement that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, its Dalton. You see, apparently he astral projects at night while he’s asleep and like most young boys, he goes a little farther than he’s supposed to, ending up in a realm she calls The Further (yes, it’s capitalized). That’s where people go when they die. That’s where Dalton is. That’s where dear old dad has to go to fetch him (you see, Dalton inherited his skills). And Josh needs to do it fast; there are some real bad dudes out there who have plans for Dalton’s empty shell of a body.

The movie was written and directed by the team who did the same for the Saw series, and produced by the guy who directed Paranormal Activities, so the pedigree is good. Wan does a good job bringing out the chills and that all-important sense of dread that haunted house movies need to have in order to be successful.

He’s got a decent cast to work with. Wilson is most often cast as a baddie but here he plays a troubled father with a skeleton in his own closet (and yes, that’s pretty literal) who is weak in moments when he should be strong. That makes him a little bit more likable in an odd way – he’s like, normal and not some Hollywood superdad. Byrne’s best scenes come early after which she’s mostly supposed to scream, cry and beg. She can do hysterical as well as anybody can.

For my money, Shaye steals the show as the psychic who is something of a nod to Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist. She knows far more about the afterlife than anybody alive, and is able to reach into the other dimension and communicate. Like Rubinstein, she knows trouble when she sees it and is well aware the other side has some things in it that should stay there – not that they’ll stop trying to cross over at any opportunity mind you. Whannell (who wrote the script) and Sampson add much-appreciated comic relief, looking at magnetic fields through View Masters. Priceless, I tell you.

Now, despite the twist (which is given away in the trailer so I don’t have a problem revealing it here) that I thought could have really been a game-changer much the way the twist in The Sixth Sense was, the movie doesn’t really add too much to the genre. What happens is that Elise Rainier goes off to explain the Further in great detail, with a whole lot of paranormal technobabble until all you can do is throw your popcorn at the screen and yell “enough!” The movie would have worked better without the explanation and left the cast to work it out on their own. I also thought the sending of the dad in to fetch his son was a little too reminiscent of JoBeth Williams going into the closet to rescue the late Heather O’Rourke from the light – I half expected Wilson and Byrne to start calling “Carol Ann!” in reference to the character.

Even with all that, this is still a crackerjack of a horror flick. It scares you properly; none of these false scares or red herrings; they come right at you and put the horror right in your face where it’s supposed to be. There’s no overt gore (although there are certainly some disturbing images of dead things) and the movie is the better for it. The humans act like rational people other than a couple of slight miscues but still in all this is as good a horror movie as I’ve seen for awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Some very effective scares and a nice performance for Shaye. Some of the off-beat humor is very welcome.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add too much to the haunted house genre and the twist is mostly a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of creepy images and big time scares, as well as some foul language. The overall theme that involves a child vulnerable to demonic possession might be way too much for small children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release from the new distribution company FilmDistrict.

HOME OR THEATER: While the big scary noises do enhance the movie and work best in a theater, the intimate nature of the movie is just fine at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cold Souls

New Releases for the Week of April 1, 2011


 

 

April 1, 2011

Yes, this rabbit plays drums. No, it isn't Thumper!

HOP

(Universal) James Marsden, Russell Brand (voice), Kaley Cuoco, Hank Azaria, Gary Cole, Elizabeth Perkins, David Hasselhoff, Chelsea Handler, Hugh Laurie. Directed by Tim Hill

The teenage son of the Easter Bunny decides to take a powder for Hollywood rather than inherit the family business, as it were. While he wants nothing more than to be a drummer in a rock and roll band (which is proof of idiocy – who in their right minds wants to be the drummer?!?), he hooks up with a fellow slacker who accidentally hit him with his car. While his dad is out to retrieve his son and save Easter, teenager E.B. is “impressing” his new housemate by pooping jelly beans. You heard me right. The future of our species is now officially doomed.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Animated/Live Action Family Film

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Insidious

(FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey. When a family moves into a new home, their young son falls into a coma shortly thereafter and the house is found to be possessed by evil spirits. After they do some digging, they come to the horrific realization that it wasn’t their house that is haunted. From the filmmakers responsible for the Saw series as well as Paranormal Activity, this is the first release for this new distribution company.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language)

Jane Eyre

(Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench. Once more Charlotte Bronte’s plucky heroine takes to the screen in search of the mysteries of Rochester, her employer and would-be love until the secrets of her past – and his present – collide in the kind of tragedy that makes bosoms swell and hearts weep.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: R (for some thematic elements including a nude image and brief violent content)

The Last Lions

(National Geographic) Jeremy Irons. A lioness and her two cubs struggle to survive in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, one of the last remaining homes of lions in the wild. The struggle of these individual lions is used as a metaphor for the struggle of all lions who are in danger of disappearing completely from the wild, causing a massive ecological catastrophe that we may never be able to recover from.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: PG (for some violent images involving animal life)

The Source Code

(Summit) Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright. A decorated soldier is transported into the body of a man during the last eight minutes of his life in order to discover who was responsible for planting the bomb that killed him and many others in order to stop him from planting the next one. However, nobody counted on the soldier falling in love with a woman who died in the explosion.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence including disturbing images and for language)

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood

New Releases for the Week of December 17, 2010


December 17, 2010
“What do you mean click your heels three times and you can go home?”

TRON: LEGACY

(Disney) Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, James Frain, Beau Garrett, Michael Sheen, Cillian Murphy, Daft Punk. Directed by Joseph Kosinski

It’s finally here! Sam Flynn investigates a signal that could only have come from his father, once the world’s leading video game developer who had disappeared 20 years earlier. His investigation finds him beamed into an incredible digital world that his father helped create only it has advanced a great deal in 20 years. Behind the scenes is an evil force that will do whatever it takes to keep both Flynns trapped in the electronic landscape.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews and music videos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language)

All Good Things

(Magnolia) Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall. The movie is loosely based on the story of Robert Durst, the notorious scion of a wealthy New York real estate family. His wife Kathie disappeared back in 1982 and has never been found. Durst has been accused of the crime (as well as others afterwards) but was never convicted. Here in Orlando you can see this exclusively at the Enzian Theatre.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Mystery

Rating: R (for drug use, violence, language and some sexuality)

Black Swan

(Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey. A ballerina in an elite New York City ballet company is finally getting the break she’s been waiting for as the lead in Swan Lake. However, the arrival of a new dancer who is far more sensual than she complicates matters and puts her ambition in jeopardy. She will need to get in touch with her own dark side which leads to frightening complications. This was originally not scheduled for wide release until January but the limited release did so well that it was rushed into theaters this week. It is also considered a leading Oscar contender next year, with Portman pretty much a lock for a Best Actress nomination.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use)

The Fighter

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo. The true story of boxer Irish Mickey Ward who overcame incredible adversity to become a champion. All four lead actors were nominated for Golden Globes, as did the movie itself for Best Drama. At this point it is considered one of the leading contenders for Oscar gold at next year’s ceremony.

See the trailer, interviews, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: R (for language throughout, drug content, some violence and sexuality)

How Do You Know

(Columbia) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson. Director James Brooks (Terms of Endearment) returns with a comedy centered around a love triangle between a businessman with integrity who is about to be indicted for fraud, a narcissistic professional baseball player and a softball player recently cut from her team and having to redefine her identity. Sounds like a busy afternoon.

See the trailer, promo and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some strong language)