Circus Kid


Where do kids who already live in the circus run away to?

(2016) Documentary (Points West) Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, Peggy Snider, Lorenzo Pisoni, Harvey Robb, Geoff Hoyle, Terry Lorant, Paul Binder, Hovey Burgess, Gypsy Snider, Jess Pisoni. Directed by Lorenzo Pisoni

Being in a circus, to a kid, would seem to be the most wonderful thing ever. Traveling from city to city, performing in front of adoring crowds and all those wonderful animals! Oh my, what kid of my generation would not want to join the circus?

Well, Lorenzo Pisoni did just that but not the way you’d think. His father Larry and his mother Peggy Snider were co-founders of the Pickle Family Circus in 1974 in San Francisco. The Pickles were at the forefront of the New American Circus movement, one which eschewed animal acts and while they did use traditional circus performers like clowns, jugglers, high wire acts, tumblers and did I mention clowns? Larry was the head clown and his act made the world take notice.

As a 2-year-old boy Lorenzo wandered out onto the center of the ring and performed his own clown act. Soon he was partnering with his dad who became not just his parent but his coach, mentor and of course onstage partner. Although Lorenzo got his share of home schooling, he had little contact with other kids his age. He was too busy performing and practicing when he wasn’t performing. It speaks volumes that Lorenzo signed a contract as a performer as a seven-year-old, locking him into the life of the circus.

His father also developed a drinking problem, one that got him pushed out of the circus he founded. That forced a change in the life Lorenzo had already known. While Peggy was now staying in San Francisco looking after the financial affairs of the circus, Lorenzo as an 11-year-old boy was traveling with the show without either one of his parents now that his father was out of the picture, although he did have a legal guardian with him.

Years later, Lorenzo would create a one-man show detailing his childhood in an off-Broadway production called Humor Abuse – snippets of it are shown paralleling events being discussed in the film which Lorenzo directs. At first it’s essentially a story of the Pickle Family Circus but eventually it becomes the story of a boy’s relationship with his dad, how it became toxic and how the two reconciled. The latter part is the more interesting element of the two, although the circus history and backstage peeks are also fascinating in their own right.

Bill Irwin was probably the most famous graduate of the Pickle Family Circus, with Geoff Hoyle a close second. Both appear here to talk about their time as part of the Pickles and Irwin gets fairly emotional about it. For those wondering, the group has changed quite a bit over the years – they have incorporated Chinese acrobatics into the show and still do weekend shows in the San Francisco Bay Area three months a year.

Being a West Coast boy, I’ve seen the Pickle Family Circus on more than one occasion in their heyday. Like Cirque du Soleil which was inspired by their example, they have only a single ring rather than three. The clowns which I remember vividly were perhaps the most important element of the circus; the feats of agility were certainly amazing but I remember the clowns. It was a more innocent age.

The movie gives some insight not only into the dynamic between Larry and Lorenzo but also into the Circus itself, but it feels like almost two movies. Lorenzo, now a family man himself, doesn’t really bring the two aspects of his film together as smoothly as it might have been. Still, if you ever dreamed of running away to the Circus, this might be the film for you although I have to admit that running away to the Circus generally didn’t mean having my parents along when I was daydreaming about it as a young boy.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at the lives of traveling performers and of the history of the Pickle Family Circus.
REASONS TO STAY: The two elements of the movie – the history of the Pickles and the father and son dynamic between Lorenzo and Larry don’t mesh as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing you wouldn’t want your kids to see – especially if they’re threatening to run away with the circus.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lorenzo’s sister Gypsy created all the circus sequences in the recent Tony-award winning revival of Pippin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Fang
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Rat Film

Advertisements

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

Higher Ground


Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Reagan Leonard, Lucy Owen, Nina Arianda, Dagmara Dominczyk, Molly Hawkey, Warren Haynes, Sean Mahon, Natalie Thomas, Deborah Hedwall. Directed by Vera Farmiga

Karl Marx once described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” There is some truth to this, although as with most pronouncements about faith, religion, belief and the lacks thereof, it comes off as rather simplistic. Religion is many things to many people.

Corinne Walker (V. Farmiga) got married early in life. As a teen (T. Farmiga) she got pregnant by would-be rocker Ethan Miller (Holbrook) and, as Springsteen once said, man, that was all she wrote. While traveling by bus to a gig, an accident changes all their lives and in the aftermath Corinne and Ethan find religion.

Now a grown-up Ethan (Leonard) and Corinne live in what could be characterized as a Christian commune; a community of evangelical sorts in the Midwest for whom folk singing and Bible study occupy large portions of their time. Now with two daughters, Corinne has not questioned her faith and has been a devout follower of Christ.

But doubts are beginning to rear their heads. She feels constricted by the traditional roles assigned her and when she attempts to voice an opinion she feels the disapproval of her community, particularly from the women. Her lone confidante is Annika (Dominczyk), a free spirit who talks frankly with Corinne about her sex life and her female needs. Corinne craves these talks like Robinson Crusoe craves companionship.

But when a further test besets Corinne and the religious community, her faith is tested to the breaking point. When does faith become blind obedience, and how long do you blindly obey before making your own mind up about faith?

Now these sounds like questions that an atheistic Hollywood would be using to attack Christianity but I assure you that’s not what’s happening in this movie. Rather, what Farmiga and screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs (who based her screenplay on a book based on her own experiences) are trying to do is to examine the nature of faith, when it is appropriate to question it and the powerful role it plays in all our lives.

To the credit of writer and director, the believers are not painted with the fanatic paintbrush that believers are often painted with in Hollywood; rather those of faith come by it honestly, either through tragedy or self-examination or more to the point, both. Also to the credit of writer and director, there is no judgment going on here either. Religious faith isn’t portrayed as a crutch but the fact that it can be isn’t ruled out. Instead, it is portrayed as part of the tapestry of our lives. In some ways it reminded me of the 1991 apocalyptic movie The Rapture in which a hedonistic Mimi Rogers is brought to faith by a gentle, loving man whom she later marries, then loses it when her husband is senselessly murdered. While the events her are less epochal, the examination of faith has the same honesty to it.

Farmiga, whose younger sister plays her as a teen, carries the movie. Her Corinne is never shrill but she isn’t meek either. She has questions that need answering and they require answers that aren’t “mind your place.” Corinne is not the sort of woman who can fit in to a mold and indeed most women aren’t. However, there are some that can and do, and some who believe it is their religious duty to do so. That is the part of faith that can be difficult to understand.

The odd thing here is that while these are based on someone’s actual experiences, there is kind of a contrived feeling to the plot – as in that certain characters show up at crucial times when they are needed, or events happen at exactly the right time to have maximum impact on Corinne’s faith and doubts. While the movie doesn’t stereotype the faithful here other than perhaps the disapproving pastor’s wife, it doesn’t really explore them as people as much as I would have liked and the questions of faith that are raised here don’t get more than a very surface examination. While that does leave room for finding your own answers, you don’t get a sense of what the filmmakers think of all this and I would have really liked that insight as well.

This had the potential of being an important movie and indeed I do admire it for raising questions that Hollywood – and independent film for that matter – doesn’t tackle and while it ends up being more or less a morality play without really explaining the morality, you do have to admire its gumption if not its execution.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t sink to stereotypes. Farmiga is a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a bit contrived. Tackles the subject in a cursory manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual situations, as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farmiga directed the film as well as acted in it while five months pregnant.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of outtakes and a production diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $841,733 on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rapture
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Toast

Interstellar


To infinity and beyond.

To infinity and beyond.

(2014) Science Fiction (Paramount) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin (voice), Ellen Burstyn, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Collette Wolf, William Devane, David Gyasi, Topher Grace, Josh Stewart (voice), Matt Damon, Leah Cairns. Directed by Christopher Nolan

Physics is a fascinating and maddening field of study. The wonder of the universe is written in the language of physics but so too are its rules and regulations. There are those that see the handwriting of God in physics but there are also those who see it as a frustratingly difficult to coalesce glimpse of the infinite simply because we are still learning to understand the language. In that sense, we are as children trying to speak in a language we only know a few words of.

Reality is a bit less hard to fathom. The Earth is dying. Something called the blight has killed most of the crops and, it seems, the animal life on Earth other than the human species. Only corn remains and when that goes, humanity starves. America has become a gigantic dust bowl straight out of the Depression, covering everything in dust and despair.

Cooper (McConaughey) is a farmer who once had higher aspirations. A test pilot and engineer who’d worked for NASA until a crash had taken him out of the ballgame, he grouses to father-in-law Donald (Lithgow) that whereas once mankind looked up at the stars and wondered at our place in the universe, these days mankind looks down at the ground and wonders at our place in the dirt. As with most intelligent people, he can read the writing on the wall but still he labors to try and get his crop in as best he can while raising his 15-year-old son Tom (Chalamet) and his 10-year-old daughter Murph (Foy) in a world of frequent dust storms and a malaise where technology is no longer worshiped or seen as the answer to our problems (where in fact technology is largely seen as the source of our problems) and nations no longer bother to field armies because, well, why bother?

Murph and Cooper have a special relationship. Whereas Tom seeks only to follow in his father’s boots as a farmer, Murph is smart, inquisitive and a bit of a firecracker. When she says she’s haunted by a ghost, Cooper gently tells her that ghosts aren’t real from a scientific standpoint, and yet books get knocked off of her bookcase without explanation, and dust that blows into her room settles into a strange patter which turns out to be a binary code of co-ordinates.

Intrigued, Coop drives to the location of the co-ordinates and finds a secret base where NASA still functions. Led by his old mentor Professor Brand (Caine), the facility is constructing one final rocket. It turns out that a wormhole has opened up near the rings of Saturn and have made accessible a dozen planets that are potentially capable of supporting human life. Probes have been sent as well as brave human astronauts. One last mission is planned; to choose between three of the most promising locations and either set up a human colony there or if Professor Brand is able to solve an equation that will allow him to do it, to relocate the remainder of the human race from dying Earth to a new home. However, human astronauts would be needed to make decisions a computer or robot cannot and the journey would be a long one – two years just to make it to Saturn. Coop, being a test pilot and an engineer would be the perfect choice to lead the mission, particularly since he was apparently led to NASA by divine providence – or an alien fifth-dimensional beings who might have a benevolent interest in the human race.

This doesn’t sit too well with Murph who is furious that her father is abandoning her but Coop knows that if he doesn’t go his children will be the last generation of humanity left. Along with Professor Brand’s super-smart daughter (Hathaway), astronauts Doyle (Bentley) and Romilly (Gyasi) as well as a couple of military robots named TARS (Irwin) and CASE (Stewart). In a ring-shaped ship the astronauts enter the wormhole for a system dominated by a giant black hole to find a new home for humanity but the mission becomes even more critical as the relative aging of the crew is drastically affected by the proximity of the black hole. Hours spent exploring a planet will pass in decades on Earth. This means that even if the spaceship is able to return home, Coop will be the same age as Tom (Affleck) and Murph (Chastain) when he returns. While Murph has grown up to assist Professor Brand at NASA, Tom – who thinks all of this is foolishness – continues to farm despite the mounting odds against human survival.

This is as epic a movie as you could hope to make about human survival. It is not an action-packed apocalypse with roaming outlaws and thunderdomes, but one of resignation and despair. It depicts a human race going out essentially with a whimper largely, although there are those fighting to try and make it a bang. Seems reasonably accurate to me.

In fact, the accuracy of the science is one of the film’s selling points. Physicist Kip Thorne, one of the most honored in the field, is a producer and has vetted the science. While some of what is onscreen is conjecture, it is based on real scientific theorem about the nature of wormholes, black holes and relativity. This is science fact, not science fantasy.

McConaughey continues his career renaissance with not only a high profile role but a fine performance in it. His Cooper is extremely conflicted, motivated not so much to save the world but his two children which really is what heroism boils down to – saving those closest to us. It isn’t the kind of stunning Oscar-worthy work that was Dallas Buyers Club but it is memorable nonetheless. Also worthy of mention is Chastain’s performance as the adult Murph. She’s angry but also open-minded and eventually comes to believe in the mission and her dad. Lithgow also is impressive in a brief role as the curmudgeonly father-in-law who is absolutely devoted to his grandkids.

The visuals here are breathtaking, from the majestic black hole to the rings of Saturn to the psychedelic wormhole. As with Gravity before it, you get a real impression of space flight and while no human being has witnessed a lot of the wonders depicted here, again the science is carefully sound so that even physicists have written papers based on the science and images of the film. I don’t think you can get a better testimonial when it comes to authenticity than that.

The one sour note in the symphony are the last 20 minutes. I won’t discuss specifics other than to say that of all the potential doors that the writers could have chosen to go through to end the movie, it felt like they chose the closest one. I won’t say easiest because it requires a bit of explanation but it felt like they painted themselves into a corner and then bent space and time to extricate themselves. Most people who dislike the movie do so because of this sequence.

However, I won’t discount the two and a half hours of magnificent filmmaking that preceded it because of essentially a poor choice of finishes. Perhaps that makes the movie all the more worthwhile to remind us that even Christopher Nolan is human, and even smart humans can make questionable calls.

This is the kind of movie that can be discussed endlessly. Like Stanley Kubrick’s iconic opus which in many ways influences Nolan here, there is plenty of room to figure out What It All Means. This is a movie which rather than staring at the ground and wondering about our place in the dirt looks up at the sky and wonders at our place in the universe. While the filmmaking here does have a major flaw which keeps it from a higher score, it nonetheless is worthwhile filmmaking that deserves your attention and can be recommended wholeheartedly not only to film lovers but to science geeks as well.

REASONS TO GO: Epic sci-fi filmmaking on a grand scale. A rare scientifically accurate sci-fi movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Last 20 minutes are disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rough language and some fairly intense sci-fi peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original screenplay for the movie, Murph is a male.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)


A Midsummer Night's Dream

Why is it that beautiful women always fall in love with asses?

(1999) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic West, David Strathairn, Sophie Marceau, Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, Bernard Hill. Directed by Michael Hoffman

 

At first glance, you’d think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be an excellent choice for a modern interpretation of Shakespeare. In fact, with the glut of Shakespeare adaptations that were in theaters at the time – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V among them — it’s actually amazing this one didn’t get the star-studded, splashy treatment sooner.

In fact, of all of Shakespeare’s body of work other than those named above, only Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and The Tempest have more resonance to 21st-century sensibilities than this in my opinion. Of course, you may have an opinion of your own.

A talented cast makes this a Dream worth having. Updated to a late 19th-century Italian setting, Hermia (Friel) is betrothed to Demetrius (Bale), but is in fact in love with Lysander (West). Demetrius is being pursued by Helena (Flockhart), who loves him unrequitedly. Hermia and Lysander plan to flee her intractable father (Hill) and Lord Theseus (Strathairn) – who as it turns out intends to wed himself, in his case the astonishingly beautiful Hippolyta (Marceau)  – because they are forcing Hermia to wed her betrothed.

Perchance all four young people flee into a nearby forest, where Titania, Queen of the Faeries (Pfeiffer) has been carrying on, much to the chagrin of her husband Oberon (Everett). Oberon dispatches Puck (Tucci) to fetch a particular flower that when its essence is rubbed on the eyelids causes that person to fall in love with the first person they see. Mischievous Puck makes sure that the wrong lovers are paired up by the potion and that the Queen espies a would-be actor (Kline) who has been given the head of a donkey by Puck. Make sense yet? It’s Shakespeare – pay attention.

And by that I mean of course not. Truthfully, all you really need to know is that All’s Well That Ends Well and you won’t understand half of what’s going on and that’s quite okay. Still, it’s great fun to behold and I found myself laughing at lines written 500 years ago that are still uproariously funny. I’m not sure whether to be comforted or saddened that human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening centuries.

Kline, Tucci and Everett are wondrous to behold; their classical training is in evidence and all of them take their roles and run with them. Pfeiffer does surprisingly well as the promiscuous Titania; she is at the height of her beauty here and to add fuel to the fire, she is showing signs here of her immense talent which had often to this point been overshadowed by her looks. Strathairn, one of John Sayle’s repertory actors, shows a great deal of affinity for Shakespeare which should not really be surprising – a great actor will rise to the occasion when given great material.

The element of fantasy is not as intrusive here as it might be in other romantic comedies and the filmmakers wisely shy away from turning this into a special effects extravaganza, using technology sparingly and subtly to enhance the story instead of overwhelming it. Kline and Tucci are particularly enjoyable in their performances – both are terrific actors but have never been regarded as Shakespearean classicists. They handle the challenge well here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything but boring although an atmosphere free of distraction is preferable when viewing it – having a 10-year-old demanding my attention probably deducted at least half a star from the rating which is patently unfair. Nevertheless, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is frothy, lighthearted and enjoyable – a perfect introduction to the Bard for those who have had little or no experience with him.

WHY RENT THIS: Light, frothy entertainment solidly acted. A good introduction to The Bard if you are unfamiliar with his work.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be awfully confusing for those with short attention spans and an impatience for language.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Some of the incidental music is taken from composer Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the 1843 staging of the play.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.1M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a mild box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tempest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Argo

New Releases for the Week of September 9, 2011


CONTAGION

(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, Elliott Gould. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

An innocent cough turns into a global pandemic as the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention tries to get a handle on a rapidly mutating virus that seems to anticipate their every attempt to come up with a cure. In the meantime, fear and paranoia turn out to be nearly as deadly as the virus itself.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Medical Thriller

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

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star

(Columbia) Nick Swardson, Christina Ricci, Don Johnson, Stephen Dorff. A somewhat dorky slacker in the heart of the Midwest discovers to his shock that his conservative parents used to be porn stars back in the 70s. Believing this to be his genetically-imposed destiny, he heads to Hollywood to follow in their footsteps despite lacking certain…equipment. Adam Sandler produced this so send your cards and letters to him.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sex Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive crude sexual content, language and some nudity)

Creature

(The Bubble Factory) Mehcad Brooks, Serinda Swan, Amanda Fuller, Sid Haig. A group of young people on a road trip to New Orleans stop at a roadside convenience store for supplies and learn about the legend of a creature that is half man, half alligator. They decide to check it out for themselves, only to discover that the legend is real – and the creature is not even the worst aspect of it.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for bloody violence, grisly images, some sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use)

Higher Ground

(Sony Classics) Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin, Donna Murphy. A woman finds herself coming to terms with her love relationships in the 1960s as part of a spiritual community and trying to balance that against her own burgeoning feminism. This is also the directing debut of Farmiga.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for some language and sexual content)

Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain

(CODEBLACK) Kevin Hart, Na’im Lynn. Comedian Kevin Hart’s recent comedy tour smashed box office records for African-American comedians held for more than twenty years by Eddie Murphy. There are those who say that he is the funniest stand-up comedian working in the field today and this movie aims to present evidence to that effect.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy Documentary

Rating: NR

Terri

(ATO) John C. Reilly, Jacob Wysocki, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia. Yet another Florida Film Festival entry that Da Queen and I were unable to fit into our schedule, this moving and yet funny indie film follows a plus-sized teen who forges a relationship with a well-meaning yet often inept vice-principal. As things progress, he begins to find a little bit of the inner man he is to become even as he sheds his own self-image.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, language and some drug and alcohol use, all involving teens)

Warrior

(Lionsgate) Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison. Two brothers, driven apart years earlier, find themselves on a collision course in the biggest winner-take-all event in Mixed Martial Arts history. Each is doing it for different reasons – one for redemption, the other to save his family from financial ruin. Neither is expected to get there – and they must both confront their own demons if they are to win and become the warrior they have within them.

See the trailer, a clip and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material)

Dark Matter


Dark Matter

Ye Liu examines Meryl Streep's face for unsightly blemishes.

(2007) Drama (First Independent) Meryl Streep, Ye Liu, Peng Chi, Aidan Quinn, Blair Brown, Yonggui Wang, Lei Tsao, Jing Shan, He Yu, Bo Yi, Boris McGiver, Bill Irwin, Taylor Schilling. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng

We struggle to understand the complex workings of the universe. Mostly the discoveries we make serve to illustrate that we are painfully ignorant and that the universe is a far more wondrous place than we could ever imagine. However, there is a dark side to the universe, one that resides in the matter that not only binds the universe together but touches the dark places in the human heart.

Liu Xeng (Liu) is a Chinese student studying for his doctorate at an unnamed Southwestern U.S. university. He is admonished by his family as he leaves for the great unknown that is America to make his family proud and bring no disgrace to the family name. No pressure, right?

He is brought into a world of academic politics, woefully unprepared. Brilliant in the science of cosmology (the study of the workings and origins of the universe), he is interned to Dr. Reiser (Quinn), one of the most respected scientists in the United States. At first, they get along very well – Xeng is brilliant which reflects positively on Dr. Reiser.

Xeng joins a number of other Chinese students sharing a house in the university community. Mostly, they like to hang out, drink beer, talk about chicks – and particle physics. Those wacky college students! Xeng even develops a crush on a comely barista (Schilling), although that turns out to be unrequited. He’s living the American dream, college nerd style.

The Chinese students stay in America is being facilitated by Joanna Silver (Streep), a wealthy patron with a keen interest in Chinese culture. She takes a special liking to the young Xeng, whose brilliance and shy sweetness intrigue her. Then one day, Xeng has a breakthrough – a theory about dark matter that might change the way we see the universe.

But the wheels start to fall off. His theory comes into direct conflict with Dr. Reiser’s own – which the arrogant and egocentric Reiser can’t allow. Reiser works behind the scenes to discredit Xeng, who loses an important prize to one of his roommates who has been making a point of kissing Dr. Reiser’s ass. Xeng is unable to land a job following his graduation and is forced to sell skin care products door to door to make ends meet. His mental state fractures and shatters, leading to tragedy.

This is loosely based on events at the University of Iowa in 1991 when a graduate student named Gang Lu opened fire on several professors and students, killing five before turning his gun on himself. The academic world depicted here is not necessarily the one that was encountered by Lu in his downward spiral, but it is pretty accurate as to some of the down side – dark side – of modern American universities. It is sadly true that politics usually trump performance when it comes to human endeavor.

The culture clash between the Chinese students and their American hosts is one of the most compelling things about the movie. The students are astonished to discover that Americans send their elderly to separate facilities; in China, caring for the elderly is part of a family’s responsibility and to not do so would be a serious loss of honor.

There are a lot of scientific ideas that are put across here that are necessary for the advancement of the plot. They could easily be dry and confusing to the audience, but Shi-Zheng manages to make them at least reasonably understandable with a liberal use of computer graphics to aid him.

Getting Streep was amazing; I don’t know how they convinced her to do this movie but she is typically wonderful, performing in a way that is effortless and authentic. She doesn’t exactly steal the movie but she is the most prominent reason to see the film. Liu as Xeng does a credible job, but his mental deterioration doesn’t feel authentic; he goes from frustrated to homicidal almost without any sort of transition. It’s a little bit jarring, even if you do know it’s coming.

The middle third drags a little bit, but the first and last parts of the movie are exceptionally paced. The feeling of impending tragedy hangs throughout the movie. Shi-Zheng has divided the film into five chapters, each pertaining to a specific element. He utilizes a Chinese children’s chorus singing standard American songs as a kind of linking device that foreshadows and forebodes.

I like many of the elements of the movie; it just doesn’t generate a movie that is a cohesive whole. The conceit of Dark Matter as an allegory for petty human emotions under the surface is a nice one, but a bit obscure. That may wind up losing some audience; still, anything with Meryl Streep is going to be worth a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Meryl Streep elevates the movie with yet another unforced performance. Shi-Zheng manages to present complex scientific ideas without sailing completely over the heads of the audience. The cultural clash between the students and their hosts are the best element of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third drags a bit and Liu Xeng’s mental breakdown doesn’t feel authentic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of intense violence, some sexual content and a modicum of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Chen Shi-Zheng is best known in China for directing Chinese opera productions; this is his feature film directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $66,375 on an unreported production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With