The Last Word (2017)


Even in the movies selfies must be taken.

(2017) Dramedy (Bleecker Street) Shirley MacLaine, Amanda Seyfried, Ann’Jewel Lee, Philip Baker Hall, Thomas Sadoski, Gedde Watanabe, Anne Heche, Tom Everett Scott, Todd Louiso, Joel Murray, Yvette Freeman, Valerie Ross, Steven Culp, Adina Porter, Chloe Wepper, John Billingsley, Sarah Baker, Nicki McCauley, Marshall Bell, Marcy Jarreau, Brooke Trantor. Directed by Mark Pellington

 

As we get older we begin reflecting on our lives; the accomplishments we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve squandered. It’s a natural part of the process. For some, however, that’s simply not enough.

For Harriet Lauler (MacLaine) life is all about control. She’s a smart, tough woman who built an ad agency in a small California town into one of the biggest and best, a great accomplishment for anyone but particularly for a woman in the era she was doing the building. In the process, she alienated just about everyone; her husband (Hall) from whom she has been divorced for decades, her daughter (Heche) with whom she hasn’t spoken in five years but the separation between the two had been going on for far longer and eventually her colleagues who couldn’t stand her domineering and belittling. Even her gynecologist and priest can’t stand the sight of her.

As she reads the obituaries of contemporaries, she knows that when she goes her obituary will read like a greeting card and say nothing about what she’s accomplished. To prevent that from happening, she goes to the local newspaper which her company kept afloat for years and commandeered their obituary, perky young Anne (Seyfried) to write her obituary while she’s still alive so that Harriet can make sure it’s up to snuff.

As Anne gets into this daunting task, the frustration grows with both the job and with Harriet whom, in one angry moment, Anne exclaims “She put the bitch in obituary!” This being one of those movies, the two women begin to find common ground and help each other grow. Harriet, hoping to get a “she unexpectedly touched the life of…” lines in her obit also commandeers Brenda (Lee), a cute as a button street-smart urchin, the “at-risk” youth as the kids today call it.

There isn’t anything in this movie you haven’t already seen in dozens of other movies like it. The script is like it came out of a beginning screenwriting class by someone who’s seen a lot of movies but has no ideas of their own. What the movie has going for it is MacLaine. Ever since Terms of Endearment she has owned the curmudgeon role and has perfected it in dozens of movies since. This is more of the same and I frankly can’t see what attracted her to this part; she’s done dozens like it and this character isn’t really written as well as the others. Still, MacLaine is a force of nature, a national treasure who at 82 is still going strong but one should take any opportunity to see her perform, even in a movie like this.

Seyfried is getting a bit long-in-the-tooth for doing waif-ish ingénue roles. She still has those big doe eyes and pouty lips that give her the physical attributes but she is much smarter than parts like this allow her to get. She does get a few good zingers off but her character has so little backbone – and it is sooo inevitable she’s going to grow one by the end credits – you expect her to be blown to kingdom come by Harriet, but that never really happens and it is to Seyfried’s credit she holds her own with MacLaine.

There really is no reason for the movie to have the street-smart urchin in it. Lee in particular is cute enough but she suffers from the curse of child actors – she doesn’t act so much as pretend. The difference is noticeable and you never believe the character for a moment but then again Brenda doesn’t really add anything to the movie that couldn’t have been delivered there by an adult. I suppose they wanted her in there so that she could appeal to the grandchild instincts of the target audience.

I can’t say this was a disappointment because the trailer was pretty unappealing but for the most part this is disposable as it gets. You won’t waste your time seeing this exactly but then again you won’t make the most of it either which, ironically, is the message Harriet is trying to deliver to Anne. Definitely the filmmakers got an “A” in Irony 101.

REASONS TO GO: MacLaine is one of the last of the old-time movie stars and any chance to see her is worth taking.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary child actor alert.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s world premiere was actually here in the U.S. at the AFI Latin American Film Festival last September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bucket List
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Comedian

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove)


Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

Parvaneh and Ove make their daily rounds.

(2015) Dramedy (Music Box) Rolf Lassgärd, Bahar Pars, Tobias Almborg, Ida Engvoll, Börje Lundberg, Chatarina Larsson, Holger Hastén, Ola Hedén, Stefan Gödicke, Sofie Gallerspáng, Filip Berg, Zozan Akgun, Viktor Baagøe, Simon Edenroth, Anna-Lena Bergelin, Poyan Karimi, Nelly Jamarani, Simeon Lindgren, Maja Rung, Jessica Olsson Directed by Hannes Holm

 

As we make our way through life, we are sometimes fortunate enough to find that perfect someone, someone who compliments us and completes us. That person makes our life so much more satisfying; we share all our highs and lows with that person. We can’t imagine life without them. When that person is taken from us too soon, we feel an emptiness that can never be filled, like a part of us is missing never to return. It is understandable that when that happens our thoughts turn to leaving this life.

Ove (Lassgärd) is 59 years old and six months a widower. A crotchety, grumpy sort, he lives in a quiet development in Sweden where the homeowners association – once headed by Ove himself – has forbidden driving on the streets of the development, and requires gates to be closed, dogs to be leashed and bikes to be properly stored. Ove makes daily rounds to make sure these rules are adhered to, although they rarely are it seems. He has worked for the train authority for 43 years, starting out by cleaning the trains when he’s 16 years old. Now, his job is being automated and he’s being put out to pasture.

He’s ready to end it all and join his wife Sonja (Engvoll) in the hereafter. However his attempts to take his own life are continuously interrupted, particularly by Parvaneh (Pars), the Iranian-born (and very pregnant) wife of Patrik (Almborg) who is Swedish. The couple has just moved in across the street with their adorable but noisy children which irritates Ove no end. To make matters worse, Patrik is hopeless around the house so Parvaneh turns to Ove to help, borrowing a ladder (which Patrik promptly falls off from, requiring a hospital trip that rescues Ove from yet another suicide attempt) and eventually asking him to help her get her driver’s license. The two begin to bond as friends in a kind of father-daughter way but still definitely friends. They enlist Ove to babysit and he begins to connect with the little ones.

We see Ove and his relationship with Sonja in a series of flashbacks that are cleverly disguised as his life passing before his eyes during his various suicide attempts. Eventually he begins to respond to those around him, adopting a cat he’d been trying to chase away – while we discover what it was that made him so bitter in the first place.

Part of why this works – a significant part – is the performance of Lassgärd which is quite special. The cranky old man is a global cinematic trope which extends back to the silent days, but Lassgärd imbues Ove with a dignity that makes him larger than life, but at the same time allows his humanity to show sometimes unexpectedly. It is the latter bit that makes Ove real and relatable; he has been through some real tribulation and through it all he had Sonja by his side to bring out the angels of his better nature, but with her gone he has fallen into despair and loneliness. He knows what other think of him and while he sloughs it off, deep down he hurts. Lassgärd brings that all out to the surface and makes Ove vulnerable and intimidating at once.

There’s a scene where Ove is dressed down by one of the dreaded “white shirts” – his code for bureaucratic bullies who have antagonized him all his life, going back to when he was a young man living in his late father’s home where he’d grown up and a council member who wanted the land his home stood on, condemned his house and allowed it to burn with all his possessions in it, ordering the fire brigade not to put it out. Had it have been me I’d have thrown the bastard into the house and say “I’ll bet he wants you to put it out now.”

The relationship between Ove and Parvaneh is also very natural and realistic. She’s sweet and caring and she doesn’t allow Ove to bully her. Of all the residents of the development, she seems to be the only one who sees past his gruff behavior and realizes that there’s a good man buried under all that. She hears him refer to nearly everyone else (particularly her husband) as “idiots,” which seems to be a fairly common epithet in Ove’s world. In my more curmudgeonly moments I can relate to the sentiment.

I can get why some may have difficulty with this movie; it is, after all, unashamedly manipulative. Some people really don’t like having their heartstrings tugged and I get that, but maybe I was just in the right place for it. I was truly moved by Ove and his life, and when the end of the movie came I was bawling like a cranky baby. Movies like this one used to be called “tear-jerkers” and they came by the epithet honestly.

Watching Ove’s life unspool over the course of the film is satisfying. Everything makes sense here and while some might feel that some of the tragedies are a little contrived, I thought that it was very much a highlight reel; we get a sense of the day to day but like most of us, the big events are what stick in the memory. There are some moments that are shocking and unexpected; life doesn’t always come at us from an angle we see clearly. Sometimes, we are taken by surprise.

This is definitely one of my favorite films so far this year. I know not everyone will agree with me but I found it cathartic and touching and real. When the tears came, they were come by honestly. I don’t know that I’d want to hang out with Ove – it would be like hanging with a grouchy bear – but I really loved getting to know him and seeing his life. I don’t do this very often, but after seeing this on a press screener, I’ve made plans to go see it at the Enzian and bring more family along. It’s that good.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Lassgärd. A very poignant but sweet and sometimes stirring film. There are some unexpected incidents that make the film even more powerful. Very much a “slice of life.”
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that are disturbing as well as a few brief instances of mild profanity and a couple of instances of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the official Swedish submission to the next Academy Awards Foreign Language film competition in 2017.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick

Waking Ned Devine (Waking Ned)


David Kelly doesn't like his wardrobe.

David Kelly doesn’t like his wardrobe.

(1998) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, James Nesbitt, Susan Lynch, Maura O’Malley, Eileen Dromey, Brendan Dempsey, Paul Vaughan (voice), Adrian Robinson, Robert Hickey, Paddy Ward, James Ryland, Fintan McKeown, Kitty Fitzgerald, Dermot Kerrigan, Jimmy Keogh, Matthew Devitt, Rennie Campbell. Directed by Kirk Jones

Once in a while, movies come in from left field that are sweet, gentle, and good-natured. They make the viewer feel like he or she has become, for two hours, part of a family or a community. These movies generally look at the foibles of life with a little bit of a wink and a wry smile. There is a sense of reality about them, or at least reality as we wish it were.

Movies like that are worth seeking out and embracing with both arms. Waking Ned Devine is such a movie. With the Isle of Man subbing for Ireland, the movie engenders such a feeling of warmth you’ll swear you’ve had a drop of the most heavenly whiskey west of the Emerald Isle.

Aging roustabout Jackie O’Shea (Bannen) has discovered that someone in the tiny town of Tulaigh Morh (i.e. Tullymore) has won the jackpot in the Irish lotto. He, his best friend Michael O’Sullivan (Kelly) and his long-suffering wife Annie (Flanagan) set out to ingratiate themselves amongst the townsfolk to find out who the lucky winner is.

And a charming lot the townsfolk are, for the most part. There’s Finn (Nesbitt), a pig farmer who has a deep, abiding love for the lovely poet Maggie (Lynch) who returns his love, only she can’t stand the smell of him. There’s the amorous store clerk, Mrs. Kennedy (O’Malley), and certainly not least, there’s the vicious Lizzie Quinn (Dromey), a mean-spirited cross between Lizzie Borden and the Wicked Witch of the West, only less friendly. She’s the type of woman who rides a wheelchair not because she’s disabled, but because she likes rolling over other people’s feet.

Jackie, Michael and Annie rule out the townsfolk one by one until they figure out who it is: Ned Devine (Keogh), a fisherman who lives in the remotest section of town. Trouble is, when they go to visit Ned, they discover that the shock of the lottery win has stopped his heart.

Therefore, the three perpetrate a bit of a scam; to convince Jim Kelly, the representative of the Irish Lottery (Dempsey) that Jackie is Ned Devine, and claim the winnings for themselves. Unfortunately, the early arrival of Kelly (signaled by the unmistakable sound of the poor man’s hay fever) puts their plans in a tizzy and the less, ummmmmmm, untruthful Michael is forced to assume the role of Ned. However, when Kelly explains that he has to verify Ned Devine’s identity with the townsfolk, and that the amount of the jackpot is several MILLION pounds instead of a few hundred thousand as they expected, they must involve the entire town. Some are willing than others.

The acting is so good you can’t tell that anyone is acting. These all seem like real people who have wonderfully rich lives. Every character has character, and there’s a sweetness about the movie that hits every charm button you may have. It’s a shame that Bannen passed away in a traffic accident a year after the release of this movie; he makes the most charming rogue that I have seen onscreen since Darby O’Gill.

The term “feel-good movie” is tossed about in reviews and on daytime shows without regard, but this film defines it. The movie not only feels good, it makes YOU feel good about watching it. It’s the kind of movie you won’t be able to avoid telling your friends about, and it’s one you’ll almost certainly want to own once you’ve seen it. If you need a pick-me-up after the world has kicked you around some, Waking Ned Devine is tonic for the troops.

WHY RENT THIS: As Irish as a pint of Guinness. Makes you feel toasty-warm inside.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry sense of humor.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, a bit o’ foul language and some mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: UK and European distributors shortened the title to Waking Ned because they felt it was snappier and more user friendly. The US and Canada were the only territories to keep the original working script title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brigadoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Legend of Hercules

Unfinished Song


Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

(2012) Dramedy (Weinstein) Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Eccleston, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Orla Hill, Bill Thomas, Willie Jonah, Calita Reinford, Federay Holmes, Alan Ruscoe, Sally Ann Matthews. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Florida Film Festival 2013

We call ’em tearjerkers. They are movies that (sometimes shamelessly) manipulate us emotionally, bringing us to a nice cathartic cry. There are critics who can’t stand those sorts of movies and excoriate them up one side and down the other. Personally I think these scribes have a real hard time getting in touch with their feelings but that’s just a generalization on my part. However, it is also true that sometimes a good cry is what we need to clean out the old emotional tank and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are manipulated into doing so – if it’s done artfully.

Arthur (Stamp) is an elderly retired Brit who seems to be in a perpetual state of grouchiness. He hangs out playing dominos at the pub with his friends and lives with his frail wife Marion (Redgrave) who must be some kind of saint to put up with Arthur’s behavior. She’s a dedicated member of a senior choir who calls themselves the OAPz (for Old Age Pensioners, adding the “z” to show they aren’t out of touch – although that sort of thing is about five to ten years out of date). The choir mistress is the plucky, terminally cheerful Elizabeth (Arterton) whose song choices include the B-52s “Love Shack” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Marion has cancer and so it falls on Arthur to take her to and from choir practice. A regional competition is approaching, but Marion’s days are numbered and everyone knows it, including (and especially) Arthur who becomes more and more fiercely protective of her as time goes on. However, as it often does, time runs out before Marion gets to sing at the competition.

Arthur is devastated and his strained relationship with his son James (Eccleston) grows even more so. In fact, Arthur wants nothing to do with his boy and says as much. James is crushed, essentially losing both parents in a fell swoop but  gamely continues to try reaching out until it becomes obvious that nothing will ever come of it.

Elizabeth forms an unlikely friendship with Arthur; both are wounded souls who need someone to lean on and to both of their surprise, it turns out to be each other. Arthur is at last convinced to join the chorus but whether they can defy the odds and beat much more classically-oriented choirs in the competition remains to be seen.

Of late there have been a number of fine movies regarding aging and the elderly coming out of Britain, including (but not limited to) Quartet, How About You? and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is indeed a worthy addition to that list and is so because of the moving performances of the leads, particularly Stamp and Redgrave. Stamp, best known for his villainous portrayals over the years, channels his inner curmudgeon and gives us a character whose inner bitterness is mitigated by the influence of his wife. When she passes, he is utterly lost and we see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

Two of the most affecting scenes in the film take place when Marion and Arthur sing to each other about their feelings, Marion singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while Arthur sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” after Marion is gone. Definitely not a dry eye in the house for that one. Between them, Stamp and Redgrave have 106 years of experience on the silver screen and it shows here.

Eccleston, better known as the ninth Doctor in the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who shows his dramatic side as Arthur’s somewhat life-wearied son. A single parent, James has a difficult time of things that Arthur doesn’t help much with; he seems to be a decent sort but is clearly frustrated at the gulf between him and his Dad and isn’t sure how to bridge it. Arterton is also building quite the satisfying resume in her career and this might well be her best performance yet which is saying something.

The one gripe I have with the movie – and to be truthful not just with this movie but in general – is its portrayal of the elderly. Yes, I know it’s cute to have them singing rap songs and pop songs from the rock era but I get the sense that the writers of these screenplays have little if any contact with actual elderly people. You know they do sing rock songs, they do dance and they’re more active than ever. Portraying them as cute but befuddled idiots, hopelessly anachronistic, does a disservice to those old people who are a part of our community and should be more valued than they are, but in all fairness Hollywood’s bias is just symptomatic of an overall disrespecting of the elderly going on in society.

That aside, the movie is definitely maudlin in places but is rescued by the dignified and assured performances by the leads. I knew that I was being manipulated but when it is done by master thespians, it’s hard to mind because the performances are so worthwhile. This is playing in limited release but is absolutely worth seeking out if it’s anywhere near you, or catching it on VOD if not.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting performances by the leads. Heart-warming.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit patronizing to the elderly.

FAMILY VALUES:  Arthur delivers a few choice rude gestures and there’s some intimations of sensuality in the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Song for Marion under which name it was released in the UK.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; the reviews aren’t scintillating but are trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young@Heart

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Purge

Hancock


Hancock

The Fresh Prince don't get any fresher than this.

(2008) Superhero (Columbia) Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan, Jae Head, David Mattey, Thomas Lennon, Johnny Galecki, Nancy Grace, Mike Epps, Hayley Marie Norman, Darrell Foster, Liz Wicker.  Directed by Peter Berg

We look to our heroes to be paragons of virtue. They are handsome (or beautiful), brave, selfless and modest. However, not all heroes are built that way. Sometimes it takes more of a hero to overcome the lack of those qualities and still remain heroic.

Hancock (Smith) is one such. He is irritable and socially awkward. He is also a raging alcoholic who often makes a shambles of his attempts to help – the clean-up bills for his appearances are often more than what he prevented from being stolen. The public despises him because of his attitude and his apparent uncaring that his actions cause millions misery.

One day he rescues an idealistic P.R. flack named Ray Embrey (Bateman) from certain death when he stops his car from being hit by a train. Grateful, he takes Hancock home for dinner, introducing him to his wife Mary (Theron) and his son Aaron (Head). Ray offers Hancock his services to help rehabilitate his image but Hancock sullenly declines. Mary, who has taken an intense dislike to Hancock, tells Ray he’s a lost cause and to forget him.

Part of Hancock’s issue is that he has no memory of his past. He doesn’t know how he wound up where he is, only that he’s there. Now he wants more, having had a taste of a normal life. Reluctantly, he agrees to have Ray rehabilitate him.

Part of Hancock’s rehabilitation involves him making amends, so Hancock agrees to go to prison to make up for all the damage he’s caused. While there Ray designs a new suit for him so that when the city becomes besieged by criminals who are attacking citizens with impunity, realizing Hancock isn’t around, Hancock will be ready to display his new image – and he does and as Ray predicts, people begin to love him. However, there is something on the horizon – something that goes back to the secret of Hancock’s past, something far more insidious or deadly than any super villain.

In many ways, this is one of the more imaginative super hero movies to come along. Here we have a hero who isn’t particularly likable, played by an actor who is known for his charm. The result is a little surprising. We’ve never seen Will Smith like this before.

Bateman, who is currently one of the most sought-after comedic actors in the business, was more or less known more for his TV roles as a juvenile (and getting his career jumpstarted again with “Arrested Development” after essentially losing the 90s to drug use and alcohol) before Hancock and it is his performance here that really ignited his movie career.

Theron has good chemistry with Smith and her little secret is surprising (if you haven’t seen the movie I won’t reveal it here) and well-played. Unfortunately, the studio blundered into revealing the secret in the trailer so if you haven’t seen the trailer, don’t watch it before renting the movie.

The special effects are surprisingly unremarkable, although I think most of the big-budget big-ticket superhero movies have pretty much shown off all a superhero can do, at least at present. There is a climactic battle that doesn’t seem particularly spectacular, although there are some shots that are pretty nifty.

What I like about the movie is the smart premise and the different take on the superhero, one who is vulnerable emotionally and not always there to save the day for the right reasons. He is fully capable of messing up, and often does, doing more harm than good despite his best intentions – and his intentions aren’t always his best. Hancock is depicted as going through the motions, another day at the office. Even a superhero has off days.

There is a generous amount of humor here but the filmmakers play it surprisingly safe, which I think is a good call. Turn this into a spoof and it just becomes another shot at comic book fandom (and there are plenty of those out there). However, play it straight and it becomes a serious look at what makes a hero heroic. We see that the best of men can be humbled, and it is often the not-quite-the-best of men who make the best of heroes.

WHY RENT THIS: An unusual take on the superhero genre. Bateman is awesome in a role that helped turbo charge his career. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A noticeable shift in tone from the first part of the movie to the last reel.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of action-like violence peppered by a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Mary gets ready for bed, she is wearing a Macalester College t-shirt; that is director Peter Berg’s alma mater.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a single disc DVD with just the movie, a two-disc Special DVD edition which has both the theatrical release and unrated versions of the movie, also available on the Blu-Ray which gives viewers the option to watch the eight-part making-of featurette as a picture-in-picture accompaniment to the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $624.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

The Answer Man


The Answer Man

Jeff Daniels finds Lauren Graham's resemblence to Shirley MacLaine more noticeable than ever in this scene.

(2009) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale, Anne Corley, Max Antisell, Thomas Roy, Peter Patrikios. Directed by John Hindman

We all want insight into the way the world works. We muddle through as best we can, but the truth is life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. We have to make it work with the tools we have, often with imperfect information.

Arlen Faber (Daniels) seems to have the answers. He wrote a bestselling book entitled “Me and God” which in the words of one person, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” However, in the words of another person, “He may have written ‘Me and God’ but he did not read it.” Faber has locked himself away in a charming row house in Philadelphia, shying away from the limelight and the millions of people who want more answers from him. He’s a little bit of J.D. Sallinger in that regard, only without the charm.

When he throws his back out, he’s forced to crawl – literally – to the nearest chiropractor which happens to be Elizabeth (Graham) who’s never heard of him. However her receptionist Anne (Thirlby) certainly has and after Elizabeth renders him (temporarily) pain-free, he swears by his new savior. Mainly he just swears.

He also wants to get rid of a library-full of self-help books he’s accumulated over the years and so he decides to unload them at the local used-book store owned by Kris (Pucci) who himself has just returned from rehab to find a dying father and a bookstore that is nearly as dead. Frustrated and in need of answers, Kris agrees to take the unwanted books in exchange for answers which Arlen reluctantly agrees to. In the meantime, a romance begins to blossom between Arlen and Elizabeth, who is highl protective of her son Alex (Antisell), another one of those precocious indie movie children. Arlen, Elizabeth and Kris are all individually wounded in one way or another; could it be that together they can help each other heal, or at least learn to cope better with their wounds?

That’s really about it in terms of plot. Being that this is an indie movie the film is a bit highbrow in a lot of ways, substituting spiritual/philosophical discussion for the usual banter you find in typical rom-com fare. That’s kind of refreshing for starters. The relationship between Elizabeth and Arlen is actually pretty realistic and there’s some actual chemistry there. That’s also kind of refreshing these days.

I like the idea of the movie using the romantic comedy as a forum for exploring bigger questions about existence, our place in the universe and our own self-image but there are times I get the feeling that the writers were grappling with too many of these big ticket issues and wound up doing justice to none of them. Sometimes less is more, particularly when you’re tackling the big picture.

Daniels is certainly an underrated actor. He always seems to turn in a solid performance; it has been quite awhile since he was in a movie that I didn’t think he was compelling in. That streak continues here. He makes the curmudgeonly, socially awkward and extremely lonely Arlen actually a relatable figure which is an achievement in itself. Certainly on paper Arlen is not terribly likable.

There are similarities between this and the James Brooks comedy As Good As It Gets (which has been the touchstone most critics have been using), but they are definitely very different movies. At the end of the day this is a flawed but ultimately interesting movie that while being ostensibly a romantic comedy certainly doesn’t fit in the typical rom-com cliche film that Hollywood churns out these days. While ultimately this is about the redemption of Arlen Faber, it’s also about our own need to find ourselves in a world where many are willing to give us their own answers, but few of them really pan out.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Daniels and Graham. I like the overall themes to the movie. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film overreaches at times, trying to make a bit more out of its spirituality themes than perhaps it should.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of harsh language, I have to admit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is John Hindman’s directing debut.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26,676 on an unreported production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Boys Are Back