William (2019)


So simple even a caveman could do it?

(2019) Drama (Dada) Will Brittain, Maria Dizzia, Waleed Zuaiter, Susan Park, Beth Grant, Callum Seagram Airlie, Krystle Dos Santos, Kevin Dzah, Stefania Indelicato, Jaren Moore, Ellie Harvie, David Nykl, Nisreen Slim, Christian Convery, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Sydney Bell, Finn Haney, Michael Meneer, Kurt Ostlund, Iris Paluly, Lisa MacFadden. Directed by Tim Disney

 

Neanderthals occupy an interesting place in pop culture. On the one hand, they are our ancestors; we evolved from them and then eventually wiped them out (or out-survived them). On the other hand, they are portrayed as both stupid (“So easy even a caveman could do it”) and brutish, normally portrayed as being possessed of enormous strength and aggressiveness. In truth however, we really don’t know very much about them.

Paleontologist Julian Reed (Zuaiter) would very much like to change that. He dreams of coming face to face with a Neanderthal, particularly after a colleague (Grant) of his at Wallace University where he teaches discovered a nearly-perfectly preserved body in a Pacific Northwest bog not far from the University. Bio-engineer Barbara Sullivan (Dizzia), attending one of Julian’s impassioned lectures on the subject, thinks she can make it happen by cloning a Neanderthal using DNA from the remains of the Neanderthal. The two find common ground and eventually get married.

As for cloning the Neanderthal, the University brass reacts with horror. It’s not just a no but a Hell, no! Being the maverick scientific power couple that they are, they decide to do it anyway, using one of Barbara’s eggs as an embryo. By the time the university finds out, the deed is already done and a baby – named William, after Irish naturalist William King who was the first to identify Neanderthals as a separate species – and the university has no choice but to support the two scientists after the fact.

Barbara and Julian develop a deep rift in their relationship on how William’s upbringing should be handled. Julian wants to keep the boy at the University where he can be closely monitored, whereas Barbara, once the gung-ho maverick, has turned all mom on him and demands the boy be raised in an environment where he has a shot at a normal life which in retrospect doesn’t seem terribly realistic because there’s no way other children are going to let up on a completely different species. William mostly tolerates the abuse although from time to time when cornered he does show an ability to more than adequately defend himself.

William also has trouble with literary interpretation, particularly when it comes to humor and metaphors. Think of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy who didn’t understand anything in other than a literal sense. William is that, only more soft-spoken and less blue. William is in all ways polite and brilliant but his shortcoming in this one department threatens to derail his plans for college – or perhaps more his dad’s plans. Also, William is getting a little tired of other people making decisions about what’s best for him.

While this sounds like soft sci-fi along the lines of Creator or Encino Man, this is more of a coming-of-age drama with some light science fiction overtones. This is not so much about the creation of William but of the practical ramifications of creating him. Given that some scientists believe that we’ll have the ability to clone dinosaurs by the end of the next decade, the immortal line “They were so busy trying to figure out if they could they never bothered asking themselves if they should” from Jurassic Park immediately comes to mind. The premise is an interesting one and it is handled in an unexpected way which is reason enough to recommend it right there.

Brittain does a great job of making William sympathetic and alien at the same time. He’s just like us, only he’s not. There is a universal truth hiding in that statement; that truth is that we’re all under that category. I don’t know if that was a message Disney meant to send but it was one I read loud and clear all the same.

Cinematographers Graham and Nelson Talbot utilize the Pacific Northwest setting nicely and some of the shot compositions should be used as teaching tools in film school. The negative here (and it’s a big one) is that the ending is completely tone-deaf with the rest of the film. Disney went out of his way to approach the subject in a unique way and then just about wipes out the good will of the audience by tacking on a cliché ending. The ending is an easy one that has the advantage of tying things up neatly more or less but it is almost like it came out of another movie – and not a better one.

Despite the disappointment of the film’s ending this is still that rarity – an intelligent movie with an intriguing premise that never talks down to its viewers (until the last ten minutes) and generally takes the road that isn’t easy or safe. I only wish that Disney had the faith in his own project to give us an ending that didn’t feel so out of tune with the rest of the film.

REASONS TO SEE: The premise is interesting. I liked the shot composition going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a bit of violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim Disney is Walt’s grand-nephew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
One Child Nation

Six LA Love Stories


Love can be exhausting.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Random Media) Beth Grant, Matthew Lillard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Carrie Preston, Alicia Witt, Peter Bogdanovich, Ashley Williams, Michael Dunaway, Ross Partridge, Marshall Allman, David Claassen, Jennifer Lafleur, Michael Milford, Davie-Blue, Hayley Polak, Mitch Swan, Don Most, Savannah Remington, Kayla Swift, Ogy Dunham, Summer Rose Ly, Jamie Anne Allman. Directed by Michael Dunaway

 

The rest of the country has a kind of love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Some admire the beautiful beaches and the energy that has made it one of the world’s great cities. Others decry the shallowness that comes from essentially being a Hollywood company town. Still, like every town, city, megalopolis and village around the globe, love occurs on a daily basis.

This film takes place on a single day in sunny Southern California and follows six different couples, all at varying stages in their relationship. None of the stories are interconnected and all have just one thing in common; a couple either falling in love, deeply in love, or falling out of love.

At a pool party at a Hollywood producer’s mansion, Robin (Williams) bitches on her phone about her air-headed sister while Wes (Partridge) overhears. The two strike up a conversation and although Robin initially reacts with distaste, she soon finds that she and Wes have a lot more in common than she thought.

Alan (Lillard) arrives home early from work to discover his wife Diane (Preston) having sex with another man. Infuriated, then deeply wounded, Alan struggles to find out why she betrayed him like that; Diane’s answers aren’t what he expects nor are they necessarily what he really wants to hear.

Amanda (Lafleur) is the stage manager at a self-help convention event where multiple speakers are given a limited amount of time to address the audience. As Duane (Bogdanovich) goes up, Amanda is confronted with her ex-lover Camille (Dunham) who is getting ready to speak. As Amanda seems to be okay with things the way they are, Camille has something she specifically wants to say to her.

Mara (J.A. Allman) meets up for a drink with her ex-boyfriend Pete (M. Allman) whose acting career has stalled and has decided to take a stab at screenwriting instead. As Pete describes a recent meeting with a studio exec, Mara is reminded of all the things that led to their break-up but can’t quite deny that there isn’t a spark there.

Terry (Witt) visits her ex-husband Nick (Dunaway) to discuss the schooling options for their daughter. Nick appears to have moved on from their amicable divorce but Terry clearly hasn’t. Her feelings of anger towards her ex hide something much deeper and much less unpleasant inside her.

Finally, John (Tobolowsky) is the only tourist on the tour of the Will Rogers estate with Meg (Grant), a guide there. While they are initially at odds with each other – John is a college professor who also writes books for a think tank on Rogers and is a bit of an insufferable know-it-all – Meg senses that she can supply something that John may need even more.

The moods on the various vignettes vary from overtly humorous (Meg-John) to bittersweet and dark (Alan-Diane) to surprising (Terry-Nick). Like most ensemble pieces, the quality varies between the stories, ranging from authentic (Alan-Diane) to goofy (Meg-John) to downright unrealistic (Meg-John). The cast is pretty solid though and the performances are generally reflective of that, although Lillard and Preston essentially steal the show in their vignette which is very much the best of the six. While I liked both the Meg and John characters and the performances by Grant and Tobolowsky, I just didn’t connect with their story which seemed tonally at odds with the other five. The one that the director appears in as an actor oddly enough was for me ironically the weakest vignette of the six.

This was originally released on home video back in 2016 but was re-released last month by Random Media who apparently cleaned up some sound issues (reviews from the original release complained about the sound but I didn’t notice any problems with it). While it is reminiscent of Love Actually in terms of subject matter, this movie first of all doesn’t have the interconnection between the stories that film has which while totally not a bad thing, I found myself wondering why they needed a full length movie (albeit one only an hour and 20 minutes long) for this movie when six individual short films might have worked better. Besides, London at Christmastime trumps L.A. in the summer anytime.

The Alan and Diane story is the one worth seeing but because the six stories are intercut together, you have to watch the other five as well and while none of them are painful to watch, none of them approach the quality of the Alan-Diane saga so keep that in mind. Otherwise a solid effort by a first time narrative feature writer-director.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue is generally pretty well-written.
REASONS TO STAY: The quality between vignettes varies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bogdanovich appears at the behest of his daughter Antonia who is a producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Actually
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Hearts Beat Loud

Lucky


The late great Harry Dean Stanton gives us one last hurrah.

(2017) Dramedy (Magnolia) Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong, Bertila Damas, Ana Mercedes, Sarah Cook, Amy Claire, Ulysses Olmedo, Mikey Kampmann, Otti Feder, Pam Sparks, Alan Corvaia, Rhandy Torres, K.C. Page, Bonnie Williams. Directed by John Carroll Lynch

 

Hollywood lost one of it’s all time greatest character actors in Harry Dean Stanton on September 15 last year. Fittingly, he had one film left in the pipeline that turned out to be an appropriate farewell for the late actor.

Lucky (Stanton) is a curmudgeonly World War II vet and nonagenarian living in a small desert town in the Southwest. He has an unvarying routine; yoga in the morning, breakfast at the local diner while he does the crossword puzzle, a stop by the local corner grocery to pick up milk and cigarettes, then back to his house to watch the afternoon game shows and water the cacti. Finally, over to Elaine’s, a local watering hole where he drinks down an adult beverage in the company of friends, most especially Howard (Lynch) who is grieving the loss of a tortoise. The tortoise didn’t die, mind you, he just wandered off.

Stanton rarely played lead roles but on the occasions that he did he always shined. This is a Seinfeld-esque film all about nothing really; there’s some lank attempts at deciding who’s figured out life better but in reality this is simply an excuse to watch Stanton do his thing and that in itself is all you really need. There are some fine character actors backing him up (James Darren, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley) and one behind the camera – John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David), best known as Drew Carey’s brother on his sitcom some years ago, who does a pretty decent job of setting the tone and allowing his lead enough space to shine.

This isn’t really a eulogy as such but it is a nice way to say farewell. Stanton was always more of a cult figure than anything else but he still had some moments in films like Alien, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Repo Man and particularly Paris, Texas. This probably doesn’t hold up with any of them except the second but still in all not every actor gets a sendoff like this one and it’s nice that someone who didn’t get the acclaim he deserved generally got one.

REASONS TO GO: Stanton’s final performance is a strong one. The soundtrack is righteous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points feel a bit contrived. The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a healthy amount of profanity, some sexual material, a bit of violence and a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton passed away at the age of 91, two weeks before the September 29, 2017 release date for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Low
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Wind Traces

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

In My Sleep


Sometimes, the water isn't fine.

Sometimes, the water isn’t fine.

(2010) Thriller (Morning Star) Philip Winchester, Lacey Chabert, Abigail Spencer, Tim Draxl, Kim Overton, Michael Badalucco, Beth Grant, Tony Hale, Amy Aquino, Kevin Kilner, Aidan Mitchell, Alexandra Paul, Kirsten Vangsness, Allan Wasserman, Patrick Labyorteaux, Bellamy Young, Shanna Collins, Marcelle Larice, Kathryn Fiore. Directed by Allen Wolf

Sleep is a time for rest, for letting our bodies and minds recharge. But sleep is a mysterious state which we really don’t understand. Where does our mind go? What is it capable of? And how does our dream state relate to our waking state?

Marcus (Winchester) has a pretty good life. He’s handsome, the ladies love him (and he loves them too, one night at a time) and he works as a masseuse. His best friend Justin (Draxl) and Justin’s wife Ann (Overton) hang out in some pretty sweet digs, and his neighbor Becky (Chabert) is very interesting to him.

Marcus also has parasomnia, a form of sleepwalking in which he does things he can’t remember doing the next day. One morning he wakes up with blood on his hands and a bloody knife on the floor at his side. He finds out that one of his closest friends has been stabbed to death. Of course, the signs point to Marcus who can’t remember a thing about the night in question. Now he has to get to the bottom of the incident to find out what happened – to clear his name, or find out once and for all if he’s guilty.

The premise is fairly standard, although the sleepwalking aspect is something new. However we’ve seen the amnesia angle before, the “did I do it or didn’t I” question hanging over the proceedings. In that sense, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Winchester, who’s best known as Frank Stanton in the cult TV show Fringe is required to carry the movie and unfortunately, he doesn’t do it on this occasion. While he’s terribly good looking and is shirtless at every opportunity possible (and a few that aren’t) his character is pretty bland and forgettable. He’s kind of a generic thriller hero.

There’s a whole lot of eye candy in this film – not of the special effects kind but the beautiful people kind. For those who prefer female forms, there are a lot of women in the movie in various states of undress. Can’t complain about that – unless said states of undress are gratuitous and unnecessary, which they mostly are.

It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on and by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have figured it out (to be fair, there aren’t a lot of suspects to choose from). Quite frankly, by the time the big twist comes around pretty much everybody will have long since stopped caring.

Chabert has never been a favorite actress of mine but she more than holds her own here, leading me to think I should revise my opinion of her. Hopefully she’ll continue delivering performances like this and hopefully in better movies than this one. Sadly, this is a movie that had some potential but at the end of the day, simply doesn’t have much to recommend it, unless you don’t mind checking out all the beautiful people and their bodies that decorate the film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice premise. Chabert does a fine job. Winchester is awfully handsome.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks suspense. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: In addition to some fairly strong sexual content, there’s also some violence and foul language and some gruesome bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to help finance the movie, Wolf created Morning Star Games, a board game company that created award winning games that are still being produced today (one of them, “You’re Pulling My Leg” appears in the film).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel. On the Blu-Ray edition there’s also a music video and a gag nightmare..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90,093 on a $3M production budget; obviously this film was unprofitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trance

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Despicable Me 2

The Artist


The Artist

Ta-da!!!!!!!!!!

(2011) Romance (Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Bitsie Tulloch, Joel Murray, Ken Davitian, Basil Hoffman. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius

 

Some movies try to re-invent the wheel. On occasion they are successful and create something new and exciting. Strangely, sometimes going back to the beginning can in itself become something new.

George Valentin (Dujardin) is at the top of the world in 1927. He is a movie star, beloved by women and admired by men. His movies are smash hits, the studio loves him and he is married to a beautiful woman (Miller). There are clouds on the horizon however; the talkies are coming and George has a thick French accent.

But that is still on the horizon. For now, George has another fabulous premiere of another big hit to attend. Outside, while mugging for reporters, a female fan named Peppy Miller (Bejo) accidentally bumps into him; the two mug for the cameras and Peppy bestows upon George a kiss which makes all the industry papers.

George, a generous soul, gets her a bit part in a movie and thus begins the inevitable decline of the big star and the rise of a fresh face. George, refusing to do talkies, gambles everything on a big budget silent that nobody wants to see. Peppy, on the other hand, is just as her name describes her; energetic, smart, sly and full of moxie, see? She is the embodiment of the new Hollywood; stars that not only are beautiful but have something to say.

George’s fortune is lost in the crash. His wife leaves him. The studio boss (Goodman) fires him. As time passes, he is unable to afford his faithful valet (Cromwell) and fires him. All that is left is his dog – and Peppy, who is hopelessly in love with him but George’s pride won’t let him accept her aid. Pride goeth before the fall and George has an awful long way to go before he hits bottom.

Who would have thought that one of the best movies of 2011 would be a silent movie (not completely silent – there is a musical soundtrack, some sound effects during a dream sequence and a few lines of dialogue near the end of the movie). Hazanavicius has skillfully re-created not only the era but the style of the films. He went after a melodramatic look and it pays off; even though there are elements of the screwball comedy as well as the swashbuckler.

Valentin is a cross between John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks – dashing, handsome and with a crooked grin that is endearing, he is both masculine and charming. Dujardin plays him with a bit of a wink but as Valentin’s fortunes fall, the French star adds an element of pathos that really gives the movie a complete emotional gamut; it’s part of why the movie is so wonderful. At various times in this movie you’ll laugh and cry and Dujardin is a big reason why.

Bejo who is the daughter of an Argentine filmmaker but grew up in France is also the director’s wife; formerly best-known for her role as Christiana in A Knight’s Tale (2001) she is almost a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination (she already has a Golden Globe nomination among others). She brings a liveliness and joie de vivre to Peppy that adds a great energy to the picture. In fact, there is a great joyfulness to the movie that separates it from much of the dark, depressing fare that comes out of Hollywood these days.

There are some terrific supporting performances, particularly from Cromwell as the loyal valet but the performance most people are going to remember is the dog. Jack puts Lassie to shame. Jack gives the movie one rating point all by himself.

Needless to say, the critics are falling all over themselves to praise the movie and with good reason. Rarely does a movie come along that has as much heart and soul as this one. It has become quite literally the must-see movie of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Charming and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the silent film to be gimmicky.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s one disturbing scene and an obscene gesture but otherwise fit for most families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog Jack was actually played by three separate Jack Russell terriers and each one was colored to resemble the other dogs so that they matched onscreen.

HOME OR THEATER: Best viewed in an old movie theater, preferably one more than 70 years old if you can find one around.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination

Little Miss Sunshine


Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family weathers yet another catastrophe but they suck it up in the end.

(2006) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Wallace Langham, Lauren Shiohama, Matt Winston. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Some families seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to live under a cloud. Thus it is with the Hoovers, a middle class family living in suburban New Mexico that on the surface seem pretty normal – a supportive mom, a self-employed dad, an irascible grandpa and two kids. However, beneath the surface, there is nothing normal about any of them. 

Into this mix comes Uncle Steve (Carrell), the brother of mom Sheryl (Collette). He has just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At the dinner table, he tries to explain why he tried to kill himself. It wasn’t because of the failed love affair with a grad student – a male grad student to the bemusement of grandpa – or the loss of his job after a meltdown, or the fact that his ex-lover has taken up with his rival, the second best Proust scholar in America. It’s just that his grant has been yanked and given instead to his ex’s new beau.

Everybody is kind of living in their own little world. Grandpa (Arkin) has been kicked out of the retirement community he loved being in because of his excessive drug use, and I’m not talking about the kind prescribed for his colon problems. Teenaged Dwayne (Dano) dreams of going to flight school and flying fighter planes for the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves that dream. Little Olive (Breslin) wants only to be the next Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant winner.

Sheryl is trying to hold everything together, but it isn’t easy. Money is tight, especially since her husband Richard (Kinnear) has quit his job in an attempt to sell a self-help system he came up with called “The Nine Steps.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – his agent Stan Grossman (Cranston) is going to a self-help convention in Scottsdale, Arizona and is supremely confident he’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. Richard is nervously…ok, agonizingly, awaiting the phone call that the deal is done.

Things change when a different kind of phone call arrives. The little girl who won the regional pageant that Olive was runner-up in has been disqualified and Olive can now go to the finals in Redondo Beach, California. She goes absolutely nuts with joy. Flying her there is out of the question – the family can’t afford it. Sheryl can’t drive her all the way there, since they won’t all fit in Sheryl’s car and the VW microbus is a stick shift and Sheryl only drives an automatic. There is no question of leaving Steve by himself, since he is still technically on suicide watch. That means everybody goes, even though Dwayne would rather be eaten alive by army ants.

They set off into the land of the surreal; driving along the southwestern highways that lead from Albuquerque to L.A. Along the way, every disaster you can possibly think of befalls the family, from financial to mechanical to personal. As the journey continues, each member of the family will have to face their own personal crisis and eventually, all of them will have to come together to support little Olive in her dream, despite enormous obstacles.

This is quite plainly the funniest movie I saw that year by far. I was laughing out loud throughout the movie, and during the climactic scene, nearly nonstop. I was laughing so hard Da Queen was beginning to wonder what species had accompanied her to the theater; judging from the hooting sounds I was making, it sure wasn’t Homo sapiens

Unlike a lot of modern comedies, this is a movie that doesn’t rely on one cast member to carry the jokes. In fact, it’s fair to say that nobody in the movie is overtly comedic. This is a comedy of situation and of character. Yeah, there are some good one-liners, but for the most part, this is a bunch of more-or-less ordinary people just trying to get by as their situation spirals out of control. They are riding in a microbus that sabotages them at every turn (they must push the bus to start it and then run like track stars to leap into the side door, and this bus also has the most persistent horn in the world – it emits the noise that you would expect of a wounded or dying roadrunner). 

A lot of people will go to see this because Steve Carrell is in it, but he isn’t the star of the movie. This is most definitely an ensemble piece and everyone continues pretty much equally. Kinnear generally appears in roles as affable but backbone-challenged guys, and he gently spoofs his own image here, a kind of nudge-and-wink job that doesn’t get in the way of the movie but adds to it. Carrell plays it very low-key, keeping the wackiness pretty much to everyone else. He isn’t the straight man per se, but the closest thing to it in this movie. Youngster Paul Dano has the toughest row to hoe, having to be completely without dialogue most of the movie, but he does a great job at getting across teen angst without saying a word.

Still, I loved Toni Collette in this. She plays a supportive mom who has to deal with a chaotic situation nearly non-stop and she loses it in a couple of places but in a manner that is not so over-the-top and perfectly believable. I think that’s really the key as to why this movie works so well – everyone in it is so believable, even the bitchy pageant official (Grant). Nobody sinks to caricature in this. Even Breslin as Olive is not annoying in the least.

As with all good comedies, there are moments of pathos and revelation. In the end, what keeps the Hoover family going is that they are a family and they lean on each other, dysfunctional as they are. There is a tender moment during the movie where Dwayne is completely shattered, sitting in a field and utterly lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore. Little Olive just walks out to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. A simple moment between a little sister and her big brother that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative at all; it’s a completely natural little gesture of comfort that works because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Dayton and Faris come from a music video background; this is only their second feature and the first to really make any impact. They took a tightly written script (by Michael Arndt) and delivered it without hamstringing it with cliché. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff; it’s simply a seriously funny movie that will be the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch a lot of times without it losing its freshness, and that’s a very difficult and rare achievement for a comedy.

WHY RENT IT: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout that isn’t dominated by one chracter or actor; the actors are believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a Steve Carrell movie will be disappointed; he is as restrained as he ever has been in a movie and is simply a cog in the machine here.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bad language, a little sex and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Abigail Breslin wore a fat suit during filming to make Olive look a little chubbier than she actually is.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a music video by DeVotchKa as well as four different alternate endings.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.5m on an $8M production budget: the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Illusionist