Wilson (2017)

A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson


We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
NEXT: Barry

New Releases for the Week of March 24, 2017


(Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), David Denman. Directed by Dean Israelite

Five ordinary high school kids from a small town suddenly become humanity’s last hope. They discover a buried spacecraft and they are each given extraordinary powers. However, a threat from a different alien race threatens the Earth and the teens, with some guidance, must learn to work as a unit if they are going to save the day and become Power Rangers.

See the trailer, a clip and B-Roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor)

American Anarchist

(Gravitas) William Powell. One of the most notorious books of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s was The Anarchist’s Cookbook which among other things gave detailed instructions on how to build homemade bombs. The book has since been used by terrorists as something of a Bible. The original author, William Powell, was also deeply affected by the book which he wrote at age 19. Now 65 years old, his perspective has changed a great deal. This film documents his journey from angry young man to where he is now.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR


(Screen Media) Maika Monroe, Matt O’Leary, Arnar Jónsson, Gunnar Helgason. A young American couple on a romantic vacation in Iceland wakes up one morning to find that every other person on Earth has disappeared. At first reveling in their freedom, the reality of their situation starts to sink in. If they get hurt or sick, there are no doctors. There are no pilots or ship captains to take them back home to America – they’re stuck in Iceland. There are no farmers to grow crops, no ranchers to raise cattle, no technicians to fix broken devices. They are truly, frighteningly, on their own.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Premiere Fashion Square Cinema

Rating: NR


(Warner Brothers) Dax Shepard, Michael Peña, Jessica McNamee, Adam Brody. Allegations of corruption in the California Highway Patrol have led the F.B.I. to plant a mole in the Patrol. That mole is paired up with a battered veteran of the Patrol who is just trying to get his life and marriage back on track. However, that’s easier said than done considering there’s a multimillion dollar heist whose mastermind just might be a CHiP.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use)


(Columbia) Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada. The crew of the International Space Station retrieves a satellite launched from Mars bringing samples to Earth. Once the satellite is opened, a discovery that could change our entire concept of life and the universe is made – but it’s a discovery that could very well also be the death knell of humanity.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)

Slamma Jamma

(RiverRain) Chris Staples, Michael Irvin, Jose Canseco, Ray Gunnarson. A former basketball star with a bright future is released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Determined to get back what was lost, he enters a national slam dunk competition in order to win redemption for himself and to regain the respect of his family and friends.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal The Loop, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some violence and language)

Song to Song

(Broad Green) Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman. Two couples involved with the Austin, Texas music scene become entangled in both their musical careers as well as their personal careers. Chasing success is not always an easy thing in the cutthroat music industry.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

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


(Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines. A middle-aged misfit named Wilson who has absolutely no filter and is as neurotic as a cat in a house of mirrors discovers that his ex-wife put a baby up for adoption after they divorced. Overjoyed that he’s a father, he drags his estranged ex to meet their daughter and connect with them as a hopelessly warped family. This is based on the Daniel Clowes graphic novel.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality)

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
NEXT: The Drop

The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Truth

Katherine Heigl listens intently while Gerard Butler tells her the ugly truth.

(Columbia) Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter, John Michael Higgins, Nick Searcy, Cheryl Hines, Kevin Connolly, Bree Turner, Jesse D. Goins, Noah Matthews, John Sloman, Nathan Corddry, Bonnie Sommerville, Yvette Nicole Brown. Directed by Robert Luketic

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that men and women evolved from the same species, so vast the difference in our way of approaching things. Finding a common ground is a necessity for relationships to work, a task that can seem impossible at times.

Abby Richter (Heigl) would seem to have a great life. She’s an award-winning producer for a Sacramento morning show, much admired by her superiors and industry peers. She has a knack for making quick decisions that are generally the right ones. The same is not true, unfortunately, for her romantic life. The attributes that allow her to take control over the chaos that is her job are the ones that frighten men off. Yes, she’s a little bit neurotic but as beautiful as she is, you’d think there’d be someone willing to look past that.

Mike Chadway (Butler) is a local access cable personality (do they still have those?) who espouses theories of relations between the sexes that would do a Neanderthal proud. He’s flabby, opinionated, scruffy and a bit of a slob. After yet another disastrous date Abby stumbles on his show and appalled at the opinions of the host, calls in. He gets her to admit that while she has specific ideas of who the perfect man is, she hasn’t met anyone who fills the criteria.

As good a producer as Abby is, the chaos is catching up to her. The ratings of her morning show are tanking, and the harried station manager (Searcy) has no choice but to make some drastic changes. He hires Chadway in a move that flat-out leaves the real world behind. The loutish Chadway spends most of his first broadcast on the show psychoanalyzing the marriage of the co-anchors (Higgins and Hines) and proclaims that the relationship is on the rocks because they aren’t having enough sex. Predictably, this revelation turns the couple into a couple of horny middle-aged teenagers. This infuriates Abby, even more so because the ratings are going through the roof.

Abby’s eye, however, has fallen on the handsome orthopedic surgeon (Winter) who has moved in next door. He seems at best ambivalent about her and in desperation she turns to the resident expert on male-female relations – Chadway – to help her win her man. His instructions prove to be just the thing she needed and the relationship takes off. So does the working relationship between Abby and Chadway.

Director Luketic previously helmed Legally Blonde (two of the three female co-writers on The Ugly Truth also worked on that film) but this isn’t anywhere close to the charm displayed by his previous film. The script is by-the-numbers rom-com chick flick formula, so much so that there is absolutely no suspense as to where this will end up whatsoever. I will say that it is well-made formula, however, with some genuinely funny moments.

There is some good chemistry between the leads. Heigl is making a living out of playing uptight career women – I’d love to see her in a role that is neither uptight nor professional. Butler has an easy charm that was much evident in P.S. I Love You and continues to be on display here as the caveman with a heart of gold. So much of the movie revolves around the leads in fact that there is little for the supporting cast to do. This is definitely Heigl and Butler’s movie to make or break.

The movie is just poorly written. One gets the feeling that it went through endless re-writes and revisions until it became obvious that certain things left over from one version were not fully coherent in the final one. For example, the television station where this all takes place is said early on to be an independent station, yet they are visited by network executives which to be fair, leads to one of the funniest scenes in the movie, involving a pair of vibrating panties and a remote in the hands of a kid.

That leads to another point. Despite having been written by three women, this is raunchy beyond reason. The F-word is dropped with such numbing regularity that you’d think the F-Bomb had become a carpet bomb. Not that I mind seeing Heigl in lingerie, mind you, but it seemed unnecessary and exploitative here.

There are a lot of reasons to like this movie, and a lot of reasons to despise it. There are certainly some very talented people on both sides of the camera that worked on it, and if Heigl and Butler had been given better material, this could have been one of the summer’s highlights. Instead, it’s just a passing entertainment made bearable by its attractive stars. It’s too bad that the writers, who had previously given us Legally Blonde couldn’t have lived up to those standards but I guess everyone is entitled to a bad choice and that’s the ugly truth.

WHY RENT THIS: Some generally funny moments and surprisingly solid chemistry between the attractive leads go a long way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written, full of clichés and generally uneven.

FAMILY VALUES: Far too raunchy and potty-mouthed for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film’s climax takes place at the Sacramento Hot-Air Balloon Festival, no such festival exists.



TOMORROW: The Children of Huang Shi

Henry Poole is Here

Luke Wilson ponders why their mother likes his brother Owen better.

Luke Wilson ponders why their mother likes his brother Owen better.

(Overture) Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Adriana Barrazza, George Lopez, Cheryl Hines, Rachel Seiferth, Morgan Lily, Richard Benjamin. Directed by Mark Pellington.

We all of us handle devastating news in different ways. Some of us become drama queens, crying out to the heavens. Others surround themselves with friends and family for comfort. There are also those who, in the words of the immortal Greta Garbo, just want to be left alone.

Henry Poole (Wilson) has been hit with just that kind of devastating news and looks it. His expression is perpetually forlorn, his demeanor melancholy. A perky real estate agent (Hines) is showing him cookie cutter homes in suburban Los Angeles. She is mystified at how uninterested he is in the details of the home. When they find one he likes, she is further surprised that he wants to pay the asking price for the home and wants it as is with no improvements or repairs done.

Despite his protestations, she has a wall re-stuccoed, but the contractors botch the job; there’s a large stain left on the wall. Poole, however, despite his annoyance just wants the episode to come to an end so he can pull the blanket of suburban conformity over himself and wrap himself in it, cocooning in his tract home paradise with a case of vodka and a lawn chair to sun himself in.

But it is not to be. As much as he wants to be left alone, Henry’s barricades begin to crack. Effervescent neighbor Esperanza Martinez (Barrazza) brings homemade tamales as a good neighbor gesture which Henry accepts, somewhat begrudgingly. The truth is Esperanza is the neighborhood busybody who knows everything about everybody, but is largely harmless. That is, until she gets a look at the stain on Henry’s wall.

She becomes convinced that the stain is the face of Jesus. This puts a quick end to Henry’s privacy as gawkers and believers make pilgrimage to his wall, leaving candles and flowers. He becomes aggravated, angry, belligerent and rude. He sees no face on his wall; just a stain left by an incompetent contractor. He doesn’t see the work of the Divine; more like shoddy workmanship from a guy in a pair of jeans showing far too much of his ass-crack.

He discovers the little girl next door (Lily) tape recording his voice. She flees in terror, leaving behind her tape recorder. A little sheepishly, he returns it to her mother, the beautiful Dawn (Mitchell). It turns out she is divorced, and her daughter has not said a word since her father did the philanderer’s fandango out the door. Little by little, Henry draws her out. In turn, the little girl and her mother draw Henry out.

The reason that Henry is so sad and angry (a fact so apparent even the grocery checkout clerk (Seiferth) notices) is that he’s dying of a disease, as his doctor (Benjamin) puts it, that is rarely seen in this country. Henry is looking at an ordeal of pain and sickness, and simply wants to end his days in as much peace and tranquility as he can muster. Now, with his home a religious shrine, this will prove to be quite a challenge.

By nature, I’m not a religious man. I look at myself as a more spiritual person. I’m not fond of organized religions and I hate – absolutely hate – being preached to. At the same time, I believe in things beyond my understanding and in things greater than myself. I think director Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) is of a similar nature. This is not a movie meant to bash you over the head with its Christian morality. It is more of a movie about faith than it is about belief. Pellington is content to present you with the facts of his story and let you draw your own conclusion. Some critics have complained that the facts are skewed in a specific direction, but I don’t agree.

The cast does a pretty good job here. Wilson plays a character who is trying to push people away from him as much as possible, but at the same time may not necessarily want to be alone. It’s a very interesting portrayal and some solid work for an actor who rarely gets the appreciation he deserves. Barrazza, an Oscar nominee for her work in Babel, is heart-warming as the big-hearted Esperanza. Her faith and her perception of the divine in the everyday never wavers; equally steadfast is her faith in her neighbor Henry. George Lopez, who has a small role as a pragmatic priest, was impressive. He should be getting more work than he does; hopefully this is the kind of part that can demonstrate he can handle non-comedic parts as well.

This is the type of movie that can force you to examine your own convictions. Al Michaels asked in a famous hockey game “Do you believe in miracles?” The question is a much deeper, more complex one than he intended it to be. How do you explain the unexplainable? When there is no science to rationalize, no words to explain, what then is left? Is it God, or just the power of the human will? These are the types of questions that define us as people, and if a movie asks us to consider them, I can’t say that’s a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Although well-acted and heart-warming, at the core of the movie lay complex, important questions worth considering. Although the movie has a spiritual bent, it doesn’t preach.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those uncomfortable with debate on spiritual matters will find this too much to handle.

FAMILY VALUES: While there are some pretty complicated issues being sorted out, this is perfectly family-friendly.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The filmmakers ran a contest on MySpace asking for submissions of songs from amateur singer-songwriters as a theme song for the movie. Out of more than 3,450 submissions, the winner was a gentleman named Ron Irizarry whose song was made into a music video by director Mark Pellington.



TOMORROW: Snow Angels