Sollers Point


McCaul Lombardi looks like he just walked in on something.

(2017) Drama (Oscilloscope) McCaul Lombardi, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Zazie Beetz, Everleigh Brenner, Imani Hakim, Wass Stevens, Alyssa Bresnahan, Ashley Shelton, Lynn Cohen, Greg Crowe, Liam Hughes, Pete Papageorge, Michael Rogers, Kazy Tauginas, Grace Doughty, Brieyon Bell-El, Vincent De Paul, Maya Martinez, Hilary Kacser, Marin Ireland. Directed by Matthew Porterfield

Redemption isn’t easily obtained. It requires a genuine determination to change and to make amends which requires hard work on the part of the seeker. Sometimes – often, in fact – even the best of intentions just aren’t enough.

Keith (Lombardi) has just been released from prison and has transitioned from incarceration to house arrest. He has moved in with his father (Belushi) who is wary of his son who had made a lot of mistakes and had hung out with the wrong crowd. A low-level drug dealer for local Baltimore gangs, Keith wants to put that life behind him and make something of himself.

He is not on good terms with his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Beetz) who also has his dog, or at least that’s how Keith sees it (she sees it as she’s got their dog which is at least equally hers). Some of the gang bangers from his past have come back, intimating that he owes fealty to them but Keith turns down the offer to rejoin, angering Aaron (Guiry) who harasses Keith in an escalating series of confrontations.

Keith’s biggest obstacle, however, is Keith himself. He wants to learn a trade that his father would find honorable like air conditioning repair but Keith misses the first class and is late for the second which gets him thrown out of class. He does some odd jobs here and there but he finds that in order to make real money he has to skirt closer and closer to his old life. Lonely, he initiates hook-ups with strippers that he knows which leads to a further falling from grace. And as Keith’s temper begins to get the best of him, he finally crosses the line and may bring his freedom to a crashing halt

This is Porterfield’s fourth film, all of which are set in his hometown of Baltimore. While there’s clear affection for the city coming from the director, it is not unconditional love – he sees its issues clearly and without sentiment. There is crime, racial division and an erosion of the ability of the working class to find jobs and dignity. Most cities have the same types of problems, particularly those that relied heavily on industrial economies in decades past.

Lombardi is a find; he’s had supporting roles in high-profile indies up to now but this is his first lead and he hits a home run. Facially a cross between John Cena and Mark Wahlberg, he carries the latter’s charisma and the former’s physicality. It makes for a very promising performance; keep his name in mind as I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more from him.

Beetz, who has a high-profile role in the upcoming Deadpool 2 comes off less impressively. Perhaps her character was written with less to work with than Lombardi’s but she came off flat and without energy for most of the film; I couldn’t for the life of me see what Keith saw in Courtney at all. The chemistry was much stronger between Lombardi and Belushi although to be fair they had a lot more screen time together. While I was disappointed in her performance here – she’s done some compelling work in Atlanta – I’m hoping she does better the next time out.

Jim Belushi has come a long way from The World According to Jim and he shows some pretty serious dramatic chops here. There’s a scene with him and Beetz in which he pleads with her for the sake of his son, made all the more poignant for what Keith is doing at that moment. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie for.

This isn’t the first film to explore the reintegration of ex-cons into society and the hurdles facing them. In many ways, this is a well-trodden path. Keith though is his own worst enemy; he loses his temper when he should keep it, he is passive when he needs to stand up for himself and he does the wrong things for the right reasons – and sometimes, the wrong reasons. He isn’t a guy I’d probably want to hang out with for very long. It is a testament to Lombardi’s charm that the audience still ends up rooting for him. While I wouldn’t say this is Porterfield’s best film yet, it is nonetheless a solid one that is elevated by the strong performances from Lombardi and Belushi.

REASONS TO GO: Lombardi has some potential. There are some sweet and satisfying moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Beetz didn’t impress me at all. The character of Keith doesn’t have a whole lot going for him.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Porterfield and Lombardi visited a state prison to get ideas on how Keith would behave in certain situations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Crimes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Fade

Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

(2016) Horror (Screen Gems) Lily James, Sam Reilly, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Emma Greenwell, Eva Bell, Aisling Loftus, Charlie Anson, Tom Lorcan, Robert Fyfe, Dan Cohen, Nicholas Murchie, Kate Doherty, Pippa Haywood, Bessie Cursons, Morfydd Clark. Directed by Burr Steers

Most of us have had our own encounters with Jane Austen’s masterpiece, either through high school or college lit classes, or through the multitudinous cinematic adaptations. Nothing you’ve ever seen before however will prepare you for this.

It is 1813 and the Regency period in Britain is in full flower. So is an invasion of the living dead as zombies have essentially overrun London which has a gigantic 100 foot wall and moat ringing it, with the environs between the moat and wall known as “The In-Between.” The redoubtable British army patrols the area but it is essentially deserted. Of the living, at any rate.

Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady) and Kitty (Waterhouse) have been raised by their father (Dance) as warriors, able defenders of the family home with sword and gun and dagger. Their mother (Phillips) still is stuck in a mindset where there are no zombies, hoping to marry off the girls to wealthy suitors. Jane already has one in the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Booth). However it is Mr. Darcy (Riley) who catches Elizabeth’s eye and not in a good way when he callously insults her at a party, then “saves” her from a zombie that accosts her outside the mansion trying to warn her about something. Elizabeth is far from grateful.

As the wealthy Darcy looks down his nose at the less fortunate Bennet family, the zombie problem is getting more acute as the London wall will soon be overrun and the one bridge over the moat will soon be dynamited. The dashing Lt. Wickham (Huston) arrives on the scene, not only to catch Elizabeth’s eye but also to map out a daring plan to make peace with the zombies. Darcy’s aunt, the Lady de Bourgh (Headey) listens to the plan with a saucy eye-patch covering her battle wound, but as Britain’s most acclaimed zombie killer and owner of the most fortified home in the land, she ultimately rejects any attempt at peace as does her nephew.

But the walls are falling and a crisis with Lydia Bennet leads Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham into the no-man’s land to rescue her (although one has different motives) and bring her back to safety before the bridge is blown up at dawn. Can the plucky Elizabeth rescue her sister and escape the hordes?

This is based on a bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith which is in turn based on the Jane Austen classic. While the title sounds more like a comedy than it really is not played for laughs; rather it is pretty much done straight with the horror elements emphasized. I think that’s the right move, quite frankly; there have been plenty of zombie spoofs and the bar is fairly high for those to begin with. However, it must be said that it also makes for an often discomfiting mash-up of styles.

The cast is solid, although unspectacular. The best-faring is James, who uses her Downton Abbey experience nicely. I’ve seen it said elsewhere but I’ll echo the sentiment; she’d make a fine Elizabeth Bennet in a straight-up production of the Austen novel. She is strong-willed and looks stunning in the dresses of the period. She also handles the physical work of the fighting gracefully.

Riley, one of the more underrated actors today, delivers a performance that is curiously flat. I suppose it might be said that Darcy is a character who doesn’t do emotion well, but even so Riley seems like he’s in a fog most of the time. There is also the odd wardrobe decision of putting the character in a leather greatcoat as if he’s some kind of Regency biker. It’s distracting to hear the leather creaking and crackling every time Riley’s onscreen.

Most of the humor here springs from Matt Smith’s portrayal of the dandified Parson Collins, who is an unwelcome suitor (and cousin to) Elizabeth. The former Doctor Who actor at times seems like he’s in a different movie than the rest of the cast, but his is in many ways more fun. As I mentioned, most of the cast plays this straight. It’s more the situation from where the humor is derived, other than through Collins and let’s face it, he’s also comic relief in the book as well.

The gore here is mainly of the CGI kind, but there is plenty of it – so much so that I was frankly surprised the movie didn’t rate an “R” but the MPAA has never shown a lot of consistency when it comes to rating films. Not all the CGI is of the top of the line variety, so expect to see a few images that will just scream computer generated. That’s never a good thing in any film.

This is solidly entertaining fare, surprisingly so considering the source. I won’t say that this is a new franchise for Screen Gems because it really doesn’t have that feel, unless the producers want to move on to other Austen novels or the Bronte sisters. However, if you don’t mind a little gruesome – okay, a lot of gruesome – in your classic literature, this might make for some interesting viewing for you.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting mash-up. James makes an excellent Elizabeth Bennet.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may be put off by the gore or the period. CGI is a little bit rough around the edges.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and zombie gore. There’s also some brief sexual suggestion.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; she remained on board as a producer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Deadpool

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

Tomorrow, When the War Began


Red Dawn? Red Schmawn!

Red Dawn? Red Schmawn!

(2010) Action (Freestyle) Caitlin Stasey, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lincoln Lewis, Deniz Akdeniz, Phoebe Tonkin , Chris Pang, Ashleigh Cummings, Andrew Ryan, Colin Friels, Don Halpert, Olivia Pigeot, Stephen Bourke, Kelly Butler, Julia Yon, Dane Carson, Matthew Dale, Gary Quay, Michael Camilleri, Masa Yamaguchi, Andy Trieu, Yolandi Franken. Directed by Stuart Beattie

I have to admit that not that long ago Australia was producing some of the best action and adventure movies in the world. Of late they seem to be better at horror films but that doesn’t mean they’re not putting out some entries in the former category.

Ellie (Stasey) is a teenage girl living in a rural Australian community. She’s pretty much an ordinary girl, maybe a little bit precocious. She wants to go on a camping trip to a nearby isolated valley locally known as Hell but her parents won’t let her go unless it’s in a group, so she wrangles her bestie Corrie (Hurd-Wood), Corrie’s boyfriend Kevin (Lewis), Ellie’s next-door neighbor Homer (Akdeniz), the son of the owners of the local Thai restaurant (and a guy Ellie’s been crushing on) Lee (Pang), and her friends Robyn (Cummings) and Fiona (Tonkin).

They take off in the Land Rover of Ellie’s parents and spend an idyllic day in Hell. That night though, Ellie notices the sky filled with military planes. This is a little disconcerting to Ellie but she doesn’t put two and two together right away. It is only after they go home to find their town deserted and all power shut off that they begin to get worried. From a hilltop later that evening they notice the only places with lights on are the hospital and the local stadium. When they investigate the stadium they find that all the townspeople are being held there by a military group of a foreign nation, the insignias unrecognizable to Ellie although most of the soldiers look Asian.

Unfortunately, one of them is detected and now the army is after them. They hide out in the home of local stoner Chris (Ryan) who is so baked that he isn’t aware that anything is wrong. However they do discover that the invading force is moving in their supplies and personnel over a single bridge. And Ellie knows that bridge has got to go – and the only people who have a shot at getting it done are her and her friends. But can a bunch of party-hearty teens stand up to a highly trained military force?

This is based loosely on the first of John Marsden’s young adult series Tomorrow. A big hit over in Oz and to a lesser extent over here, it seemed like a natural fit for the Aussie film market and indeed it was. However, it never really connected with the global market and plans to film the second book in the series have stalled, at least for the time being.

Director Beattie made his mark initially as a screenwriter for such films as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Collateral, Derailed and 30 Days of Night (he’s also writing and directing the upcoming I, Frankenstein). This is his first time in the director’s chair and he actually doesn’t do too bad a job. This is an action-heavy film with sequences that include helicopter and fighter jet battles, dune buggy chases and of course gun fights. There isn’t anything that is going to rewrite the action movie manual here but there is certainly nothing that disgraces the filmmakers either.

The young cast has a lot of pressure on their hands and the results are fairly mixed. Partially because their characters aren’t given a lot of development time other than for the very basics, they don’t come off as fully formed personalities in most cases. Methinks that they were hoping to do more of that in the sequels that were planned from the get-go.

Still, the movie moves at a very heady clip and you aren’t really allowed to catch your breath for very long which is crucial for a good action movie. While the plot borrows perhaps too liberally from Red Dawn, this is certainly a different take on that type of film, being a little bit more specific to a single event and less about the arc of the characters over the course of the war although the full series of books is more in that vein. It’s not a bad movie although it got virtually no play over on this side of the Pacific but that is perhaps due to the distributors not quite knowing what to do with an Aussie movie that feels more like a Hollywood film, but when compared to Hollywood action movies might come off as a bit rougher around the edges than what cognoscenti here are used to.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-paced. Some fine action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Déjà vu plot. Not terribly well-acted.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as more than a few situations involving peril to teens, not to mention some implied drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the highest grossing Australian film of 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.5M on a $26M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Brake

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Ben Barnes has sworn off taking LSD before battle sequences.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson (voice), Sergio Castellitto, Eddie Izzard (voice), Vincent Grass, Harry Gregson-Williams (voice), Tilda Swinton. Directed by Andrew Adamson

 

When last we left the magical world of Narnia, the Pevensies – High King Peter (Moseley), King Edmund (Keynes), Princess Susan (Popplewell) and Princess Lucy (Henley) have returned to our world of wartime England only moments after they left, despite having spent a lifetime in Narnia, growing up to be young men and women. Instead, they are children again with a lifetime of memories and experiences. I guess they can scarcely be called children with that in their heads.

While standing in a London tube station they suddenly realize that they are being called back into Narnia and wind up on the beach. But isn’t that Cair Paravel, their beautiful Camelot-like castle? And why is it in ruins?

Things have changed in Narnia. For one thing, centuries have passed and the Four Kings and Queens have passed into legend. Narnia has been invaded by a race called the Telmarines who speak with a Latin accent (some say Spanish, others Italian) who have routed the magical creatures that live there until they have faded into mythology. Some say they never existed.

Miraz (Castellitto), brother of the recently deceased King of Narnia and Uncle of the rightful heir Caspian (Barnes) , is the proud father of a newborn baby. It’s an occasion for joy, but what Caspian doesn’t realize is that Miraz was the one who had his father killed. He needed Caspian to legitimize his rule over the kingdom; now that Miraz has a son, Caspian is unnecessary. Caspian’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius (Grass) realizes this. He also, being a native Narnian (an increasingly rare breed under Telmarine rule) is privy to the information that the magical creatures are still alive and living in hiding in the woods of Narnia.

Cornelius urges Caspian to flee and find the natives which he does, but Miraz discovers his absence and sets out his soldiers to find him. Caspian blows on a horn – Susan’s horn – which is what summons the Pevensies back. It also gets Caspian aid from the creatures of Narnia, whom Caspian had always thought of as monsters. There are some tense moments as neither Caspian nor the Narnians trust each other.

However after the Pevensies witness some Telmarine soldiers preparing to drown Trumpkin (Dinklage), a surly dwarf, they rescue him and in return he takes them to the headquarters of the Narnians where they meet up with Caspian. Of course, a bit of a pissing contest ensues between the ancient King of Narnia and the rightful king but as Caspian’s confidence grows, Peter realizes that he isn’t there to run things.

As the Telmarines begin building a bridge that will allow their main army to attack the Narnians (over which they have a vast numerical advantage), the Narnians must lead a daring raid on the castle and then prepare to defend themselves against the Telmarines. With Aslan (Neeson) nowhere in sight, it will take a miracle to save Narnia and restore her to her rightful citizens.

This is a much darker film than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was more of a straightforward fantasy. This has political intrigue as well as medieval battle scenes which are realistic although fairly bloodless. It is also a bit more talky than the first movie which was a bit more action-oriented.

The problem with the Narnia series is that the lead quartet of actors are just not nearly as accomplished as the Harry Potter leads. Simply put, they’re bland and not as appealing – Keynes and Henley, the two younger ones, can be downright annoying in places (although Keynes would redeem himself in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Barnes, the latest addition to the main cast, is handsome but he seems a little bit unsure of himself in the movie. This isn’t his first rodeo but I doubt any of his other projects have put as much weight on his shoulders and on top of that he’s given a ridiculous accent to master, one that disappears (thankfully) in Dawn Treader.

Dinklage and Izzard fare well in their roles bringing some gravitas and comic relief and the effects can be marvelous. The battle scenes are well-choreographed and much better than those in the first film. While they don’t have an antagonist as evil as the White Witch nor a performance on par with Swinton’s (who makes a cameo as the Witch midway through the movie). However, the Telmarines are far more realistic a foe, giving the movie an entirely different feel, which is a good thing.

This is to date the weakest of the three films although it isn’t that bad as you can see by the score. The series is currently on hold; a fourth film was planned but the untimely death of one of the producers has left the franchise waiting for someone to pick up the slack and bring the series back on track. Certainly given the box office of this film, the future movies in the series (if any) will have much smaller budgets.

While this series has never gotten the love of other fantasy franchises, it’s still managed  to produce some quality movies thus far. That’s not to say that the movie measures up in quality to Potter or the Lord of the Rings films but it isn’t a total loss either. Let’s just say that those who love fantasy won’t be disappointed; those who loved the books from their childhood might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine battle and special effects sequences. Creature effects are pretty nifty. Peter Dinklage – need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Pevensies are still wooden and bland. The movie is a little more talky and why are the Telmarines Spaniards?

FAMILY VALUES:  Fantasy violence and a few somewhat scary creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing the White Witch, Tilda Swinton also makes a cameo as a centaur.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a fascinating featurette on how this big production affected the tiny village of Bovec in Slovenia, where the bridge scene was filmed. The Blu-Ray edition contains something called Circle Vision Interactive which allows the viewer to watch the castle raid sequence with commentary and features all shot with a 360 degree field with HD resolution. It’s pretty nifty.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $419.7M on a $225M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make its production and marketing budget back..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inkheart

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Jeff, Who Lives at Home


Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jason Segel believes he's being stalked by Muppets.

(2012) Comedy (Paramount Vantage) Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Evan Ross, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis, Benjamin Brant Bickham, Lee Nguyen, Tim J. Smith, Ernest James, Katie Aselton, Joe Chrest, Lance E. Nichols, Carol Sutton. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

 

Families are complicated things that we rarely can make heads or tails of, even of our own. We mostly see the people in our families as filling certain roles and rarely can adjust our thinking beyond those definitions we ourselves set. A lot of times those definitions are there from years of observation and experience but every so often those in our family can surprise us.

Jeff (Segel) is a 30-year-old unemployed man who lives in his mom’s basement and apparently has little ambition beyond getting stoned every day. His mom (Sarandon) is exasperated beyond words; she longs for him to find some sort of path that he can follow through life but he doesn’t seemed interested in finding one.

The truth is that Jeff really wants to find that path but isn’t quite sure how. He has determined that life is a series of signs and portents that one must be open to receiving and able to interpret once received. Jeff thinks he is able to do this but thus far hasn’t found the right way yet. So when he gets an angry phone call from a man demanding to speak to Kevin (there is no Kevin in the household) that starts the ball rolling.

It’s also his mom’s birthday and she wants just one thing from him; to go down to the local Home Depot (a bus ride is required) and pick up some wood glue to fix a slat on the shutter doors of the kitchen pantry. While on the bus, he sees someone with the name Kevin on a basketball jersey and follows him, leading him off the path of the wood glue and onto the path of something else.

Pat (Helms) is the married, responsible one. Or at least he is on the surface. In reality his marriage to Linda (Greer) is falling apart at the seams; there is little if any communication going on between them. Judy wants them to save their money to buy a house so that they can raise a family; Pat wants to buy a Porsche so that they can…own a Porsche. Pat impulsively buys one, prompting Judy to dump her breakfast over the car.

The paths of Pat and Jeff cross, leading the Porsche to take a path into a nearby tree. Their paths then intersect with Linda, who apparently is meeting another man in a fancy Bistro that Pat has refused to take her to. Linda’s path then takes her to a hotel room with that man while Pat and Jeff take separate paths, all leading to the same place.

Jeff’s mom, Sharon, is also on a path, looking for the kind of fulfillment and appreciation that comes from a close relationship but she’s been unable to form one since her husband had passed away. She confides in Carol (Chong), a friend from work that she’s been receiving some secret admirer messages from someone at work, but doesn’t know who it is. She is troubled by the attention but also intrigued by it.

Where will this all end up? I can tell you a few things for certain without giving too much away – one, all of the main characters will end up in wet clothes. Two, all paths lead towards New Orleans over the Pontchartrain Bridge. Third, some things take more than wood glue to fix.

The Duplass brothers, who directed this, have a fair amount of indie cred with such films as Baghead and The Puffy Chair to their credit. Their movies tend to be low-key and charming with a certain amount of complexity under the surface that make them ideal for discussion for days after you’ve seen them. They also know how to coax subtle, nuanced performances from the actors in their films and they do the same here.

Segel is rapidly becoming one of the most likable performers in Hollywood. He is big and lovable to the point where his brother calls him a sasquatch, but also has plenty of goofy stoner in him. There are those who compare Segel (somewhat unfairly) to Seth Rogen who is a different kind of performer. Not that Rogen isn’t a nice guy, Segel just seems nicer (see The Muppets). Here he is just kind of treading water through life, allowing the current to take him wherever it will. That can be kind of irritating to those who prefer to swim their own course as most of us do but Jeff is anything but a control freak – he prefers to see what is going to happen rather than making things happen.

Helms is rapidly becoming a go-to guy in the comedy landscape with roles in “The Office” as well as The Hangover series, as well as Cedar Rapids. This is a bit of a departure for him – he is not the lovable nerd here but he is more of a hustler sort, the kind of role more familiar to guys like Vince Vaughn. If this were a different sort of movie, I might have even preferred Vaughn in the part but to be honest, as much of a con-man as Pat is the movie wouldn’t be able to accept someone as over-the-top as Vaughn. Helms gives it just the right amount of undertones.

Judy Greer has graduated from mainly playing the best friend of the rom-com lead to playing terrific wives criminally ignored by their husbands (as she does in The Descendants). She is one of those actresses who doesn’t get a lot of kudos but quietly performs strongly in every role she takes on. This is the kind of part that can be easily overlooked by a performer of her caliber makes that impossible to happen.

Because Jeff is so innately a good guy, the movie has a quiet sweetness to it that never gets too sentimental or too saccharine. However, the Duplass brothers seem bound and determined to brand this as an indie feature; they have a tendency to zoom the camera in nearly every scene as kind of a Duplass trademark. It gets irritating after awhile and seems to be a minor case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

This isn’t a movie that is going to overwhelm you or offer some life-shattering insight, although you may come to one eventually on our own. It isn’t going to be the kind of movie you leave with your sides aching with laughter, although you will at least chuckle at some of the situations. This is a movie about life and about the resilience of family to overcome even the greatest of gulfs. I like this movie and even if it doesn’t shout its name from the rooftops, well, a quality movie doesn’t have to.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet to its core but not so sweet your blood sugar spikes. Nice performances from the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Camera moves draw attention to themselves. Occasionally suffers from over-quirkiness.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language including some with sexual connotations, and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the movie was shot in New Orleans suburb Metairie, doubling for Baton Rouge.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100. The reviews are good though not great.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cyrus

STREET BALL LOVERS: Early on, Jeff participates in a pretty convincing game of street basketball, although Segel appears more adept at hoops than you think he might be.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Ranch