All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa

We’re the Millers


The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

The cast gets their first look at the finished film.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms, Molly Quinn, Tomer Sisley, Matthew Willig, Luis Guzman, Thomas Lennon, Mark L. Young, Ken Marino, Laura-Leigh, Crystal Nichol, Dickson Obahor, Brett Gentile, Kelly Lintz, J. Lynn Talley, Deborah Chavez. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

What could be more middle America than a road trip vacation with the whole fam damily in the ol’ RV? Nobody is going to take a second look at one of those, not even George Zimmerman even if the entire family is wearing hoodies and munching on Skittles.

David Clark (Sudeikis) is a low level drug dealer; he has a certain moral compass (he doesn’t ever deal to kids, even 18-year-olds) and is part of the neighborhood fabric, making deliveries like the milk man used to. He lives in an apartment building where his neighbors include the dorky latchkey kid Kenny (Poulter) and the grouchy stripper Rose (Aniston).

When David gets robbed of all his cash, he knows he’s in deep to his supplier, Brad (Helms). However, Brad gives David an assignment; go to Mexico, pick up “a smidge and a half” of weed, and bring it back to Denver and not only will the debt be forgiven but he’ll get the standard courier rate of $100K. David isn’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to be a drug smuggler with potential federal ramifications but he doesn’t have much of a choice.

He’s a bit worried on how exactly to go about it when he hits the idea of the family RV road trip. Nobody at the border will give him a second look, particularly if he clean up and shaves. However, David is single so he’ll have to rent a family. Kenny is all in, and David convinces a street urchin named Casey (Roberts) to be the daughter. That leaves mom.

David approaches Rose but she – having an ingrained distrust of drug dealers to begin with – isn’t having it. However her finances are, shall we say, in crisis so reluctantly she agrees to get on board. And of course, we know this isn’t going to be a trip one is going to show home movies of afterwards.

As with most R-rated comedies these days there’s a fair amount of raunchiness although surprisingly less than you might expect. There’s plenty of drug humor although not so much of the Cheech and Chong variety; this is a stoner film where nobody gets stoned. Then again, it really isn’t about the marijuana.

Aniston plays very much against type; ever the girl next door, she does one scene where she delivers a pretty hot strip tease (down to her undies – sorry pervs) and she’s not so much brassy as she is grumpy, but she is definitely the star attraction here. Sudeikis meshes well with her, maybe as well as any actor since David Schwimmer, and plays against his usual nice guy type as well.

Hahn and Offerman are hysterical as a straight-laced couple also on an RV adventure who aren’t as straight-laced as they might lead you to believe; Offerman’s career in particular is really taking off and I suspect it won’t be long before he’s headlining some big flicks of his own.

There are some really wicked bits here, including a girl-on-girl action scene, one in which Kenny is taught how to properly kiss a girl, and an adverse reaction to a spider bite. A lot of the humor has to do with taboo sex and those whose values are a bit straight-laced might be offended – of course not many of those will be lining up to see a comedy about drug smuggling I would think

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film – the comedies this summer have been a pretty dismal lot in general and I suspected that the funniest bits of the movie might well be in the trailer but that doesn’t turn out to be the case (although the trailer hints at them). While the ending is a bit predictable, the cast – particularly the core family cast – get on so well that you feel a genuine affection for the lot of them by the film’s end and do stay for the credit roll outtakes; one of the funniest moments in a movie I’ve seen all summer can be found there.

We’re the Millers is one of those summer movies that the expectations are pretty low for and manages to exceed them. In a summer where most movies haven’t met the expectations set for them, mild or not, it’s a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe Detroit-smelling air. Not really fresh mountain air. You smell what I’m cooking.

REASONS TO GO: Laugh out loud funny. Nice chemistry between Sudeikis and Aniston. Offerman and Hahn nearly steal the show.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like drug humor might take offense. Pushes the taboo sex angle a bit hard.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh, where to begin? A ton of foul language, plenty of drug humor, a ton of sexual references and one scene of brief but unforgettable nudity (as in you can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter stayed up all night listening to TLC’s ”Waterfalls” in order to learn the rap portion properly for shooting the following day.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Life, Above All

The Syrian Bride


The Syrian Bride

A beautiful bride in a war zone makes for a compelling image.

(Koch-Lorber) Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyne Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth, Adnan Trabshi. Directed by Eran Ricklis.

The Druze are an ethnic group living in the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria. Their passports list their country of origin as “unaffiliated” although many think of themselves as Syrian. Their lives are a kind of grey area where they live in one world in which they are more or less at peace but their hearts yearn for another world entirely.

Mona (Clara Khoury) is a beautiful young Druze woman who is about to get married. This should be a happy occasion, but there are many reasons why the young woman appears sad and depressed. She is in an arranged marriage with a Syrian actor whom she has never met. In order to marry, she must immigrate to Syria with her new husband. Once she does that, she will not be allowed to return to Israel to see her family, potentially for the rest of her life.

Hammed (Makram Khoury and Clara’s real life father) is the family patriarch who has already been jailed by the Israelis for his pro-Syrian activism. Embittered by the experience, he plans to attend a protest march on the day of the wedding despite the ramifications that might have on his daughter’s big day. Recently paroled, he has been told that he won’t be allowed to the border area, a sensitive military zone, to see his daughter off.

He has rocky relationships with his sons. Marwan (Barhoum) is a slick salesman who travels frequently to Europe. He calls himself a businessman but offers only vague explanations as to what that business actually is. A serial womanizer, he allows his charm and rakish good looks to scam his way through life. Hattem (Sheety) hasn’t spoken with his father in eight years after moving to Russia and marrying a Russian doctor. Outcast by the village elders, Hattem has returned for his sister’s wedding hoping to repair the damage in the relationship with his family bringing his tow his somewhat nervous wife and a son named for his father.

Orchestrating most of this is Amal (Abbass), the older sister. Married to a conservative man who has a somewhat bronze age view of women, she is independent, smart and ambitious. Intending to attend college in Israel now that her daughter is nearly grown, she is meeting stiff resistance from her husband who is more afraid of what the village will think than what will make his wife happy.

The wedding party soon makes its way to the immigration officer at the border where Mona presents her passport for the journey to a new life. However a new stamp, new Israeli policies and stubborn Syrian military officers jeopardize the wedding, which could leave Mona in a no-man’s land; a bride without a groom, a woman without a country.

Director Ricklis presents a story simply told about a situation which is not uncommon in that part of the world. Taking no sides, he instead lets the richly drawn characters tell the tale. But despite the movie’s title, this is less Mona’s movie than it is Amal’s. She is the driving force of the story and Abbass plays her like a young Irene Pappas with a bit of Sophia Loren mixed in.

I’ve always been fond of movies that present a slice of life in a part of the world that we don’t get to see much of on the evening news or in major movies. There have been quite a few of those types of movies emerging from the Middle East lately; The Band’s Visit, Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding are just a few of the better ones. Ricklis wisely doesn’t cast stones here; he presents the situation as a fact of life, and that suits the story better.

Makram Khoury plays Hammed as a smart but bitter man, one who loves his family but might love his cause just a little bit more. While this is Amal’s movie, his journey from the stiff-necked patriarch to loving father during the course of the film is equally as compelling. While Hammed’s family is plainly dysfunctional, it is also just as plainly tight-knit. They bicker, yes, but they also come to one another’s aid when the situation calls for it. These are smart, independent people, and I would love to get to know them just a little bit better.

Cinematographer Michael Weisweg does an outstanding job of framing compelling images, such as a beautiful bride walking slowly in a demilitarized zone past signs warning of land mines, and of the desolate but oddly beautiful landscape of the Golan Heights. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

One of the things I loved about the movie is the ambiguous ending, although some might be frustrated by this. Like the situation itself, there are no easy solutions and things are only going to change when somebody decides to lay down their rage and suspicions and make peace. Until then, movies like The Syrian Bride are going to be all-too-common.

REASONS TO RENT: A slice of life set in a world we see very little of in the States. Strong performance by Abbass. Gorgeous cinematography capturing compelling images.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many characters in the family (such as the story of Amal’s daughter who is in love with a man her father disapproves of) that muddy up the plot. Ambiguous ending may frustrate some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some harsh language but otherwise nothing not suitable for entire families. Younger sorts might not understand the complex issues presented here.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming had to be done in two different Druze villages, one pro-Syrian the other pro-Israeli. Which village was filmed in that day depended on the political leaning of the scene. Since the Israeli government wouldn’t allow filming to take place at the actual border, a mock-up was constructed some miles away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The commentary from director Riklis gives additional insight into the history of the conflict and how it affects those living in the region.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Avenue Montaigne