Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

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Real Steel


Real Steel

Rocky Sock'em Robots

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Kevin Durand, Marco Ruggeri, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune, John Gatins, Gregory Sims, Torey Adkins. Directed by Shawn Levy

There are family films that are palatable; the kids in them aren’t cutesy, or unrealistically savvy or anything other than what kids really are (if you’ve had the chance to talk to one or two of them recently). Others are not – they pander to the kids hoping that they’ll drag their parents to the multiplex again and again forgetting one immutable law – the parents control the cash and if they hate a movie, they aren’t going to take their kid to it more than once.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a down on his luck ex-fighter who now bottom feeds on the robot boxing circuit, taking his beat-up robots into backwater county fairs and skeezy underground joints and putting them into impossible odds, betting money he doesn’t have and skipping town when he inevitably loses, his robots reduced to scrap metal.

To make matters worse, Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has passed away abruptly, leaving Charlie with legal rights to his son Max (Goyo) whom he has had minimal contact with after walking out on both him and his mom when he was born. Max’s Aunt Debra (Davis) is keen to get custody and Charlie is disposed in that direction – for a price, which Debra’s rich husband (Rebhorn) is willing to pay.

Max turns out to be quite the Robot Boxing fan and quite vocal in his opinions. Charlie’s kinda-girlfriend Bailey (Lilly) whose dad trained Charlie back in the day (and in whose gym Charlie essentially lives when he’s not on the road) finds Max to be charming, Charlie not so much. After Charlie’s last chance robot Noisy Boy gets torn into pieces, Charlie needs to find a robot quickly. They find an old-fashioned sparring robot of an obsolete generation. Charlie isn’t terribly optimistic but Max sees something in the machine, which is named Atom.

Atom turns out to have a pretty good memory for moves after Charlie teaches him a few. Atom, boxing more like a human than a machine, begins to compile a winning streak and for the first time it looks like Charlie Kenton has a chance to be somebody. However, some of Charlie’s old sins are about to catch up to him. Can Charlie get his last chance at the brass ring – and more importantly, make something of his last chance to be a father?

Levy is best known for Night at the Museum and its sequel. Yes, this is very much a kids movie and has ready-made marketing tools in the robots. Yes, the robots are pretty impressive and cool. Their inevitable action figures will make great stocking stuffers. Kids are going to go absolutely bananas over them, particularly young boys.

Jackman tries hard but he probably should have tried harder when deciding whether or not to do this movie. It’s the kind of kids movie that I absolutely hate; it turns the adults into buffoons to be disregarded and kids into wise, worldly sorts who instinctively know the right thing to do because, as we all know, kids make such great life decisions when they’re eleven.

Lilly, who nabbed a cult following on “Lost,” doesn’t show signs of having big screen charisma although to be fair, she is given a part that is largely ornamental. There isn’t anything here really for her to work with; Bailey is a long-suffering girlfriend who patiently hopes for her man to turn things around. Kate (her character on the TV show) would never have put up with Charlie this long – she’d have moved on to Sawyer or Jack long ago.

Da Queen thought at first that Max was played by the same actor who played Anakin in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. That, by the way, is not an encouraging sign. While Jake Lloyd isn’t Dakota Goyo, they seem cut from the same cloth – trying so hard not to be a kid that they turn out  to be not really relatable at all. He’s stiff and insufferable, the kind of character you are rooting to get written out of the film.

In fact, I suspect this would have been a much better movie without the kid factor; had the writers and filmmakers just stuck with the redemption of Charlie through his robots, this might have been a way more interesting movie. However in making a movie in which the most important element was the toy tie-in the filmmakers have created a film that please nobody, cribs its plot shamelessly from Rocky and wont remain in memory in the time it takes to walk from the theater seat to your car.

REASONS TO GO: The robots are pretty nifty and their boxing matches are well-choreographed.

REASONS TO STAY: The kid is smarter than the adults and the plot is predictable and lacks credibility. Just awful family movie pablum.

FAMILY VALUES: While there is some violence, it is mostly of the robotic boxing sort and the bad language just isn’t that bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The girls who ask to pose with Ambush early on in the movie are director Shawn Levy’s daughters.

HOME OR THEATER: Toss-up; some of the arena scenes look nice on the big screen but the rest…your call.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: City of Your Final Destination

Charlotte’s Web (2006)


Charlotte's Web

Some loves were just never meant to be.

(2006) Family (Paramount) Dakota Fanning, Julia Roberts (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), John Cleese (voice), Oprah Winfrey (voice), Cedric the Entertainer (voice), Robert Redford (voice), Kathy Bates (voice), Reba McEntire (voice), Dominic Scott Kay (voice), Kevin Anderson, Sam Shepard, Gary Basaraba.  Directed by Gary Winick

The truth of the matter is that as much as I was looking forward to seeing this star-studded live action version of the E.B. White children’s novel, Da Queen had even more anticipation than I. There was, therefore, no question that we would be seeing it as soon as it was possible to see it in the theater, and eventually buying the DVD for it as well. Still, the cynic in me wondered; was it possible that the filmmakers could take a beloved novel and completely mess it up?

The plot is simple enough. Fern Arable (Fanning) saves a runt pig from being put down by her farmer dad (Anderson) and raises the pig, whom she calls Wilbur, herself. The two are inseparable, the pig even joining Fern at school. Eventually, the pig grows as baby pigs will, and Fern’s parents put their collective feet down. They send the pig across the road to Uncle Homer’s farm. Kind-hearted Homer Zuckerman (Basaraba) installs the pig in a large, comfortable barn and there Wilbur (Kay) meets the animals of the farm.

There’s unctuous Samuel the Sheep (Cleese), prissy Gussy the Goose (Winfrey), down-to-earth Golly the Goose (Cedric), wry Bitsy the Cow (Bates), neurotic Ike the Horse (Redford) and devious Templeton the Rat (Buscemi). However, Wilbur’s best friend of all is Charlotte A. Cavatica (Roberts), spider.

However, all is not idyllic in the barn. The other animals are aware of what happens to spring pigs on Zuckerman’s farm. They become summer bacon. Alarmed, Wilbur turns to his friends for help, and he finds it in the most unlikely of places – in the miraculous webs of Charlotte.

Most of my generation grew up reading the book and seeing the animated version of it, voiced by Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte), Henry Gibson (Wilbur) and Paul Lynde (Templeton). Quite frankly, it was one of my favorite books and I read it and re-read it regularly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people – a whole lot – that could say the same. I think I speak for the majority of us when I say that most of us who love the book would not take too kindly to having it messed with unnecessarily.

Thankfully, director Winick doesn’t. In fact, if recollection serves me correctly (and Da Queen bears this one out), I think this new version is if anything even more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Winick also takes the movie out of the depression era that the book was set in and makes it a bit more timeless, setting it somewhere in the late 20th century, but cleverly doesn’t give too many clues as to when the story is taking place. Rather, he puts the action in a rural setting that is nearly archetypal, so perfect as to be almost too good to be true, and as a result we feel comfortable in this world.

The problems I have with the movie are three-fold. The first is that some of the voice actors – not all, just some – come off rather flat. My favorite moments from the movie tended to come during exclusive live action sequences, as when Fern confronts her father about Wilbur’s fate, or Henry Fussy’s (Julian O’Donnell) awkward courting of Fern. Considering how much this movie and the story relies on the animals, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Second is Charlotte herself. She’s CG, and quite frankly, they do a little too good a job with her. Strangely, they give her almost human eyes rather than the multi-faceted insect eyes that spiders actually have. Rather than humanizing her, it makes Charlotte seem kind of creepy if you ask me. There were times during the movie that I half-expected Charlotte to pounce on some poor unsuspecting critter and eat it alive. Sorry, spiders aren’t cute and cuddly creatures and quite frankly, they should have kept away from close-ups of Charlotte. I’m sure some of the younger kids might have been freaked out a little bit.

The most glaring problem I had with the movie, however, is Wilbur. Child actor Kay doesn’t have the emotional depth to really make Wilbur live, as Henry Gibson did thirty years ago. I know that Wilbur is supposed to be a child, but quite frankly he’s also supposed to be “some pig,” among other things and Kay never makes Wilbur seem anything more than whiny and out-of-sorts.

Still, the good outweighs the bad in the movie. The live actors do a tremendous job and make up for some of the surprising star flops. Shepard’s narration is spot-on; he’s the perfect guy for the job. Winick also captures the mood and the charm of the novel nicely, which is really what you’re looking for most. The animated version stands up even today as a timeless classic; I don’t know necessarily if this version will get the same sort of distinction, but something tells me it will not. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and nearly perfect family fare at the right time of the year. Take a break from the big-budget CG animated features and check this out with your kids. It will give you, at the very least, a chance to revisit something beloved from your own childhood.

WHY RENT THIS: The live action version is more faithful to the book than the animated classic. Fanning is terrific in her role as Fern.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The child actor voicing Wilbur isn’t up to the task, sadly – but then many of the voice actors seem curiously flat. CG verion of Charlotte is creepy enough to freak out the smaller tykes.

FAMILY VALUES: Pretty much suitable for the entire family, although younger children might have problems with the realistic CG version of Charlotte.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The two crows, Elwyn and Brooks, are a tribute to the name of the original book’s author E.B. White, whose initials stood for Elwyn Brooks.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a pair of music videos, as well as a featurette that focuses on what happened to the more than 40 piglets that played Wilbur after shooting wrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $144.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: African Cats