The Pursuit of Happyness


The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Llewyn Davis
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Kill the Messenger

Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat


Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat

The Cat and Things One and Two scurry off into the sunset.

(2003) Family Comedy (Universal) Mike Myers, A,ec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning, Spencer Breslin, Sean Hayes, Amy Hill, Danielle Ryan Chuchran, Taylor Rice, Brittany Oaks, Talia Prairie, Dan Castellaneta, Victor Brandt (voice), Clint Howard, Paris Hilton. Directed by Bo Welch

After the success of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas it made sense for producer Brian Grazer to try for a repeat. Take a beloved Dr. Seuss classic, stick an A-list comedian in the title role, and watch the bucks roll in. The trouble with Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat is that instead of Ron Howard directing, it is Bo Welch making his big-screen directorial debut. And while this Cat looks slick (Welch is a production designer), it lacks the heart that made the Grinch film so charming.

Conrad (Breslin) and Sally (Fanning) are polar opposites. Conrad is constantly doing his own thing, breaking rules and finding new and unique pathways to trouble. Sally is a bossy, tightly wound control freak who is the perfect little angel to the adults around her, but a nightmare to her friends.

Their mom, Joan (Preston), works at a real estate agency whose hypochondriac boss (Hayes) has a phobia about germs, but insists his agents meet and greet clients at special monthly parties. It’s Joan’s turn to play the hostess, and the house must be absolutely immaculate or else, as the boss puts it, she’s “FIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-UR-DUH.”

When her babysitter conks out, Joan rushes home, where her next-door neighbor and would-be paramour Quinn (Baldwin) hopes to marry the attractive single mom and ship off the troublesome Conrad to military school. With an admonishment to her children to keep the house spotless, Joan leaves them in the care of a new sitter (Hill) who turns out to be narcoleptic. And for the two bored siblings, the rain truly begins to fall outside … which brings in a 6-foot tall Cat (Myers). The Cat is all about having fun, and after some initial moments of “scream and run,” he befriends the two kids in an attempt to bring them into balance.

Despite the protestations of a CGI fish (voiced by Hayes), the Cat wreaks havoc on the house, especially after the appearance of Thing 1 and Thing 2 (played by a phalanx of gymnasts). With the Things is a crate which — the Cat warns Conrad — must be left closed and locked, else the world from which the Cat in the Hat comes will encroach on this one. Naturally the rule-breaking Conrad opens the crate and gets the crab-like lock stuck on the family pooch’s collar. Said pooch promptly runs away, leading to a merry chase through town in which the suspicious Quinn follows, trying to get possession of the dog to finally bust Conrad permanently and give his mom a reason to ship the boy away.

If you’ve read the classic children’s book, you basically know the story and how it ends. There is a great deal more back story here, and a ton of gags, some of which are a bit more adult than Theodore Geisel might have used.

Myers plays the cat as a demented cross between SNL character Linda “Kawfee Tawk” Richman and the Cowardly Lion; he has moments where he is charming, but sometimes goes a bit more over-the-top than works. The kids are cute enough, but Conrad is such a jerk early on you kind of hope that he does get sent to military school — it might just do him some good.

The star here is the production design — no surprise, since that’s how Welch has mostly made his living. The town of Anyville is a melding of the kitschy suburbia of Edward Scissorhands and the curved-line chaos of Whoville, with a bit of theme park architecture. Everything is in bright primary colors, not unlike the books. And while Myers is more of a Cheshire cat than the thin, angular drawing of the Seuss books, the vision is still very Seussian.

But this Cat simply didn’t have as much heart as it needed. These days, kid movies really need to play to adults as well, but The Cat in the Hat goes a bit overboard in that direction. Some of the jokes are inappropriate for younger children. Myers’ Cat is more of a smarmy game show host than the force of nature depicted in the book, and there is almost no charm to him. Jim Carrey brought charm to the Grinch, which helped that film work.

This is a close call. It is a visually attractive movie, and there are some moments — particularly near the end — which are quite magical; just not enough to sustain an entire movie. Given what the character has meant to children for fifty years – even the grown-up ones – that’s a shame. The kids in this movie probably could have used a good spanking – although they probably would get a time out in this day and age. The filmmakers should have gotten one as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific production design. A theme park come to life.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to appeal to all audiences. Myers doesn’t capture the essence of the character. A major disappointment.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a little bit of crude humor, as well as a few jokes that might raise the eyebrows of parents as being inappropriate.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: As a result of this film, Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, refused to consider any more live action versions of her late husband’s work, giving as her reason that this movie veered too much from her husband’s family-friendly work.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a brief – very brief – featurette on Dr. Seuss, and also a feature on choosing which image to use on a U.S. Post Office Cat in the Hat stamp. For kids, there’s a dance along feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134.0M on a $109M production budget; the feature lost money during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cedar Rapids

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With


I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

Bonnie Hunt and Jeff Garlin are stunned by the news that they aren't in High Fidelity

(2006) Romantic Comedy (IFC First Take) Jeff Garlin, Sarah Silverman, Dan Castellaneta, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind, Paul Mazursky, Amy Sedaris, Joey Slotnick, Tim Kazurinski, Elle Fanning, Roger Bart, Wallace Langham, Gina Gershon, Aaron Carter, Mina Kolb. Directed by Jeff Garlin

We all want someone to share our lives with to some degree or another. Most want a lifetime partner, someone to raise a family with and growl old together with. Others have simpler needs.

James (Garlin) is a habitually unemployed actor who lives with his mom (Kolb). Overweight, his love life has been sinking like the Titanic. He hasn’t had sex in five years and quite frankly, the likelihood of him getting laid is remote at best.

He attends Overeaters Anonymous meetings but with little enthusiasm and inevitably winds up buying junk food from a corner market, then parking out by Wrigley Field to eat. He turns down roles from his long-suffering agent (Kind) while holding out hope that he’ll get the lead role in the remake of his favorite film of all time – Marty, the movie that won Ernest Borgnine his Oscar. His agent eventually drops him.

Still, even big men get lucky once in awhile. James meets Beth (Silverman) at an ice cream parlor and winds up having sex with her. He also develops a big crush on Stella (Hunt), whom he meets in a record store and who may or may not be a chubby chaser. Meanwhile, he is hit by a crushing blow – the part of Marty has gone to pop star Aaron Carter (himself). And his once-promising love life is imploding. Why can’t he find a woman to love? He’s a really sweet guy after all.

I think this movie was made with the best of intentions. Garlin, who at the time was best known for his work in the comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is also a legendary stand-up in the Chicago area and a veteran of Second City and other improv groups that the city is justifiably famous for. Many of the people in the cast also got their starts in Chicago or at one time lived and worked there.

Garlin himself is very likable and sweet. If you like his standup act, you’re going to want to rent this. It is very clearly a labor of love and of course the big question is how much of this is autobiographical. I suspect quite a bit of it is.

Even though Garlin is the center of the movie, he’s not it’s star. The city of Chicago is. Garlin films it with such affection and love you may want to pack your bags and move there straightaway. Garlin’s love for the city is obvious and captures Chicago in a way someone who is indifferent about it could never duplicate.

Where the film has its problems is in the area you’d think it was strongest in – the jokes. Many of them fall flat and quite frankly, the schtick about Garlin’s love and sex life combined with his caloric intake gets old. Also, many of the characters seem to be thrown in because they are buddies of Garlin and he wanted to make room for them in the movie. Lots of them don’t seem to have much of a purpose in the film, exacerbating the overall feeling of disjointedness that pervades the film.

Still, it isn’t bad. Garlin’s charm really floats the movie along and allows it to breathe somewhat. His relationship in the film to the very excellent Bonnie Hunt is more interesting to me than the one with Silverman, who may be too pretty for the role. Those who love Chicago and Chicago comics will also love this movie, and in a way, thinking about it from that perspective makes me want to rate it higher than I am actually giving it. However, the reason I’m not pulling t he trigger is simply this; it needed to be funnier. Hopefully, Garlin will have a nice long career – he may never do a movie as personal as this again, but I suspect he has a great role in front of him someday soon.

WHY RENT THIS: Garlin evinces a very likable persona here. Garlin uses Chicago as a wonderful backdrop, giving us a sense of the city as well as its landmarks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many jokes fall flat. Many of the vignettes seem designed to add specific comics into the movie when they really don’t need to be there.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is unrated, it’s pretty harmless; there are plenty of curse words and some sexual content but otherwise it isn’t too off-putting to the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After 30 days of filming, the shooting script was 237 pages. The first cut was over four and a half hours long. It took four months to complete the final edit of the version that made it to the screen.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $194,568 on an unreported production budget; the film undoubtedly lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cairo Time

The Simpsons Movie


The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons are startled by the first part of "Lights! Camera! Action!"

(20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Albert Brooks, Pamela Hayden, Tress MacNeille, Marcia Wallace, Joe Mantegna, Tom Hanks. Directed by David Silverman.

When they made their debut 20 years ago on Tracey Ullman’s short-lived sketch show, who’d have thought The Simpsons would become national cultural barometers? That’s exactly what happened though. Just after their 18th season, America’s most dysfunctional family took a crack at the big screen.

The pollution in Lake Springfield is getting out of control. After Lisa (Smith) nags the city fathers enough, joined in by a new Irish boyfriend named Colin (MacNeille), the mayor (Castellaneta) authorizes a no-dumping zone in the lake.

In the meantime, Homer (Castellaneta again) has picked up a pig for whom he’s developing an unnatural affection for. A depressed Bart (Cartwright) finds solace in the house of Ned Flanders (Shearer), who is more of a father to him than the self-involved Homer. As the pig’s droppings begin to accumulate, Marge (Kavner) demands that Homer dispose of the waste properly. As he’s about to do that, Homer is distracted by a free doughnut giveaway – curse those free doughnuts – and as a shortcut to doughnuts, dumps the waste into Lake Springfield.

That’s enough to tip the Lake into full-blown toxicity. Mutant squirrels convince President Schwarzenegger (Shearer) and his smarmy EPA Chief Cargill (Brooks) to imprison the entire town within a dome. Nothing can get out, nothing can go in – except Maggie (Smith), who discovers a sinkhole that allows egress. Still, it’s a good thing that FEMA wasn’t in charge – the dome would have been late and full of more holes than a fishnet.

Anyway, once the good citizens of Springfield find out that Homer was responsible, the town arrives on their doorstep with torches and rope. The Simpsons barely escape, and are forced to flee to a new life in Alaska. Still, when the family discovers that the government plans to destroy Springfield, Marge is eager to get back and save the town. However, when Homer refuses, the family splits up. Homer must now find his inner Simpson, rescue his family and save Springfield. Is there time for ribs too?

The question you always have to ask in a situation like this was “why make a movie of something that is available on television?” The evaluation has to include whether a big screen is necessary for the story, and will the experience be enhanced in a movie theater as opposed to one’s own home. In the case of X-Files: Fight the Future, the criteria were met. Here, however, it’s hard for me to say unreservedly that this is a movie that cries out for the big screen.

There are some scenes that make for nice movie viewing – the Doming of Springfield, the trip to Alaska, Homer’s encounter with the Northern Lights spring to mind – but for the most part, the movie doesn’t do much more than give us a few obscene gestures and sequences that wouldn’t make it past the network censors. I agree, there are some really awesome laughs, like Homer’s scorn at the Itchy and Scratchy movie and Maggie’s barroom brawl, but the ratio of big laughs is about the same in any typical episode of the series.

I really liked Marge’s videotaped sequence – that was truly a tearjerker – but for the most part the performances were solid as always. The thing I didn’t like was the scale. It just didn’t seem so epic that they couldn’t have done it as a two-parter in the show.

It took 158 drafts to get to the script they eventually used. Plans for a Simpsons movie have been in motion for nearly 15 years now; something tells me, they could have used a little more time to get it right.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s the Simpsons. Some good laughs. Alaska, the last unspoiled wilderness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never delivers a compelling reason for this to be a movie and not a TV show.

FAMILY VALUES: If you feel comfortable having your kids watch the TV version, there’s nothing here that is any worse than on the broadcast edition.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During the month of July 2007 when the movie was released, a dozen 7-11 stores throughout North America transformed themselves into Kwik-E-Marts, with several items made famous on the TV show for sale including Duff Beer and Buzz Cola.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: A parody of the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” intermission cartoon and appearances of the Simpsons characters on live television are included.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Passengers