Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

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Logan


The claws are out.

(2017) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse, Rey Gallegos, Krzysztof Soszynski, Stephen Dunleavy, Daniel Bernhardt, Ryan Sturz, Jason Genao, Hannah Westerfield, Bryant Tardy, Ashlyn Casalegno, Alison Fernandez. Directed by James Mangold

 

The end of an era can be a cause for celebration, a cause for sadness or both. Hugh Jackman announced prior to the release of the latest X-Men Universe solo film that this would be his last go-round as Wolverine, a run that has lasted 17 years and nine appearances in the part, the most for an actor playing a single character. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

It is the near-future and mutants have been decimated; they are either dead or in hiding. Logan (Jackman), once known as Wolverine, is hiding in plain sight in a border town in Mexico. He drives a limo in the evenings; by day he drinks…a lot. His mutant healing ability has begun to fail him and the adamantium in his bones has begun to poison him; he’s dying. So too is Professor X (Stewart), the powerful telepath who is beset by encroaching dementia which sometimes leads to terrible psychic blasts that literally stop time. Logan takes care of his old mentor along with Caliban (Merchant), an albino mutant tracker with a severe allergy to sunlight.

Logan is approached by Gabriela (Rodriguez), a nurse who wants Logan to drive Laura (Keen), a little girl to a place in Canada. Logan’s heroic days are behind him though and he turns her down but events conspire to bring Laura and Logan together and put them on the run, chased by the ruthless Pierce (Holbrook) who works for the even more ruthless Dr. Rice (Grant). Logan soon discovers that Laura is a lot like him…a lot. She has his healing ability – and his claws. The secret behind who Laura is will send Logan on a last quest with Professor X and lead to a bloody climax in the woods just south of the Canadian border.

It seems almost impossible but the Fox X-Men movies of late…well, two of the last three of them – the R-rated ones – have actually been as good if not better than the MCU movies. Deadpool took comic book movies to the R rating with a thumb to the nose and a wink to the audience, whereas Logan is a much more serious affair.

Jackman looks a lot older than he actually is here; it’s not the years, Logan might say, it’s the mileage. Jackman makes Logan a bitter, battered man who has lost hope. He is still loyal to Charles Xavier, but has essentially retreated from a world that hates him. Logan has always been a cynical character but here Jackman makes it less a defense mechanism than surrender.

There aren’t a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles other than Stewart who lost more than 20 pounds to give Xavier an air of fragility. Keen acquits herself well in the very physical role of Laura, impressive for a child actress – heck, any actress for that matter. Former St. Elsewhere star LaSalle makes a rare screen appearance in a very memorable role of a farmer who befriends Logan with devastating consequences.

The tone is bleak, exceptionally so. In many ways it reminded me of a Western – other reviewers have compared it with some justification with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven although the filmmakers themselves seem to be purposely inviting comparisons to the classic Western Shane, clips of which play during the course of the film. Given the mainly Southwestern setting and the overall tone, it is justified in being classified a superhero Western.

In many ways, the movie is well-timed. The mutants of the comic books have often been used as allegories for any oppressed minority and in this case, one could argue that they are stand-ins for immigrants particularly of the Muslim variety. It is also very much outside the box; generally we see heroes at the beginning of their careers when they make it to the multiplex; here we see a hero at the end of his. I won’t say this is the best superhero movie of all time, but it certainly stands out in a crowded field these days. It’s not for everybody – this is not a movie for children or the squeamish. It is serious cinematic art and demands a whole lot from the audience, not the least of which is their grey matter. Not something, sadly, that many modern film audiences seem willing to give.

REASONS TO GO: Despite the carnage, the movie actually gives the viewer a lot to think about.  It plays a little bit like a Western.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Let’s face it; the violence here is pretty extreme and there’s a lot of it. There’s also plenty of profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie opened in 4,071 theaters in the United States, the most ever for an R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men: Days of Future Past
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Frantz

The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy

Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Nebraska


Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn't wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

Bruce Dern tries to ignore the nagging feeling that he isn’t wearing any pants despite all evidence to the contrary.

(2013) Dramedy (Paramount Vantage) Will Forte, Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Devin Ratray, Tim Driscoll, Angela McEwan, Gelndora Stitt, Elizabeth Moore, Kevin Kunkel, Dennis McCoig, Ronald Vosta, Missy Doty, John Reynolds, Jeffrey Yosten, Neal Freudenburg, Eula Freudenburg, Melinda Simonsen. Directed by Alexander Payne

As men grow older their relationships with their fathers change. Whereas young men lean on their fathers, one day we wake up and they are leaning on us. We go from being the children to being the parents in a lot of ways. Whether or not they were fathers of the year or if their parenting was something we endured and survived, deep at the core of our beings they are always our fathers and occupy that role for good or ill.

Woody Grant (Dern) is a stubborn old man. He’s got it in his craw that he’s won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and that he has to get to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim it. The trouble is that he lives in Billings, Montana. One look at the letter he received tells everyone else that the whole thing is a scam but Woody refuses to listen. It just makes him want to hit the road more and if nobody will take him, he’ll walk there.

Woody wasn’t the greatest of fathers. He had a drinking problem – one that he refuses to acknowledge even to this day. Of course, if you were married to Kate (Squibb) you might do a lot of drinking too. She’s shrill, crude and blunt to the point of cruelty. She has opinions about everybody, isn’t afraid to voice them and generally those opinions aren’t too complimentary.

Kate and Woody have two sons – Ross (Odenkirk) whose TV news career is just starting to take off, and David (Forte) who sells high end stereos and speakers. David is one of those guys that life happens to rather than life actually happening. His girlfriend of four years who he has been living with is moving out because David can’t be sure that she’s the One. And with all of his dad’s antics, he finally gets fed up. If his Dad has to go to Lincoln, best to take him there so that everyone else in the family can have peace and quiet.

Of course Kate thinks it’s a stupid idea and of course she says so but David is adamant so he sets out on the road with his father. They get waylaid when Woody stumbles during a late night drunken walk and opens a gash on his forehead, necessitating that he be kept in a hospital overnight. That means they won’t be making it to Lincoln during office hours of the sweepstakes company so David decides to visit Hawthorne, Nebraska where Woody grew up and where much of his family still lives .

There Woody begins to reconnect to figures from his past, chiefly Ed Pegram (Keach) with whom he once owned an auto repair business and whose relationship has some contentious elements. Kate decides to take the bus down there and join them for what is turning out to be a bit of a family reunion and everyone there is under the impression that Woody is a millionaire, despite David’s admonition not to tell anyone. That changes the way everyone looks at him – suddenly Woody is in the limelight, and he doesn’t mind it one bit.

Still, old girlfriends, old misdeeds and old family rivalries begin to resurface and over all of it hovers the biggest question of all – is the million dollar win legitimate or not?

Payne has become a really fine director with Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendents among others to his credit. In many ways he is the successor to the Coen Brothers; he has some similar quirks in terms of his sense of humor and a kind of Midwestern earthiness that has a lot to do with his own upbringing in Nebraska (the Coens were brought up in Minnesota). His films have a kind of prairie sensibility.

It doesn’t hurt that he has assembled a fine cast. Dern, a long-time character actor who has had flings with leading roles since the 60s delivers what may well be the finest performance of his career. Woody is a very layered character who isn’t always very nice and doesn’t always do the right thing – in fact it is a somewhat rare occurrence when he does. Still, despite the dementia, despite the drinking and despite the foolish stubbornness, he is ultimately very relatable on different levels depending on where you are in life. You can’t ask for more than that from an actor.

Squibb is also getting a good deal of Oscar buzz for her performance. It is certainly the role of a lifetime for her. Some critics have cringed at her scene in which Kate, while in a graveyard paying respects to Woody’s kin comes across the grave of an old would-be lover who never sealed the deal. With almost demonic glee she lifts up her dress to show the ghost of her paramour what he had missed. Personally I found it life-affirming and if it is a little shocking, so what? Why do seniors have to conform to a set of behavior anyway? They are quite capable of being raunchy and sexual. It’s not like they didn’t have sex when they were younger. I’m quite certain they were having plenty of it before marriage back then too.

Editorializing aside, Squibb does a marvelous job and her role is as memorable as it gets. It was extremely telling to me that in a scene late in the movie when Kate is leaving Woody’s bedside she bestows on him a surprising gentle kiss that shows that with all the caustic remarks and cruel jibes there is still deep feeling for her man. It’s one of those rare grace notes that indicate that the filmmaker gets it.

Forte has little to do besides react to his parents and their relations but he is solid here. There are plenty of supporting characters besides Keach who contribute to the occasional surreal zaniness or to the pathos of the film, like an ex-girlfriend (McEwan) of Woody’s who watches him drive by in a truck and the wistful could-have-been expression on her face is priceless.

While the movie isn’t for everyone, I think that lovers of good, independent cinema will flock to this. Payne is a legitimate talent who I think at this point has to be considered among the best filmmakers in the business. He’s a filmmaker like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and Spielberg whose films I will go see just because of the name on the back of the directors chair.

REASONS TO GO: Dry and occasionally hysterically funny. Quirky in a good way. Amazing performances by Dern and Squibb.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much elderly as eccentric crazies syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Payne has directed to be set in his home state of Nebraska; it is also the first film he’s directed for whic87+*h he didn’t also write the screenplay.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Son of the Olive Merchant

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere)


There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

There will be no Yankie on his cranky.

(2000) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Anders W. Berthelsen, Anette Stovelbaek, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen, Peter Gantzler, Lars Kaalund, Sara Indrio Jensen, Karen-Lise Mynster, Rikke Wolck, Elsebeth Steentoft, Bent Mejding, Lene Tiemroth, Claus Gerving, Jesper Christensen, Carlo Barsotti, Matteo Valese, Susanne Oldenburg, Steen Svare, Alex Nyborg Madsen. Directed by Lone Scherfig

Finding love particularly when you reach a certain age can be devastating. You are already pock-marked with the scars of failed romances and broken hearts and letting others close can be tricky. For some, confidence has been so completely lost in one’s ability to be an adequate lover that even talking to someone they have a crush on can be a monumental task.

In a small Danish town there seems to be an epidemic of that kind of thing. Andreas (Berthelsen) however isn’t really on the lookout for love; he is recently widowed. A pastor, he’s been sent to the town to temporarily minister to the flock of the disgraced former Reverend Wredmann (Mejding) who heckles him mercilessly at the pulpit.

He has moved into the hotel managed by Jorgen Mortensen (Gantzler) who has been given the task to fire his close friend Hal-Finn (Kaalund) who manages the hotel’s bar but seems clinically unable to be nice to people. Jorgen can’t really bring himself to do it. He also has fallen hard for Giulia (Jensen), the comely waitress in the bar who speaks no Danish. Hal-Finn advises Jorgen to attend the beginning Italian class at the local adult education center but when the teacher (Valese) dies suddenly, the class is left without a teacher and because attendance is nearly non-existent there really isn’t much inspiration for anyone to step in and take over.

In the class is Karen (Jorgensen) the local hairdresser who is the caretaker for an elderly mother with dementia and Olympia (Stovelbaek), a pastry chef who takes clumsy to new standards. All six of these lost and lonely people will find each other in a class where not only are they learning a new language but learning to love as well.

Scherfig was the first woman in the influential Danish cinematic movement Dogme 95. Basically advocates of stripping down film to its basics, Dogme 95 eschew camera tricks, post-production and special effects in favor of hand-held cameras, live music during filming and concentration on story and character. It is a precursor to other similar movements including mumblecore.

Most of the Danish Dogme 95 films prior to this were melancholic affairs in the Scandinavian ethos. That Scherfig went the romantic comedy route was a bit surprising and controversial (fellow Dogme 95 adherent Lars von Trier criticized her for filming a story about romance that had resolution but Scherfig replied that this was her style) but the way she approaches her movie certainly seems to fall within the parameters of the style.

These are definitely realistic people, some (in the case of the boorish Hal-Finn) less nice than others. Jorgen is shy and a bit plodding in his romance of Giulia while Andreas’ slow warming to Olympia is handled with what seems to be a great deal of affection on the part of the director. In fact, she seems to have a lot of affection for all her characters – in an interview, she has said that while most audiences want to be like the characters onscreen, her onscreen characters want to be like the audience. Here, she succeeds in that attempt.

Most of the actors are unfamiliar to American audiences at any rate but they all create characters with a good deal of depth and a good deal of realism. Likely you’d find yourself being irritated at Hal-Finn while watching a sporting event in the pub, while you might snicker at Olympia’s klutziness in the local pastry shop, or feel sympathy for Karen as she tells you about her mother’s latest and how hard it is to find good men around here.

That’s really where this film excels, in creating an atmosphere that’s familiar and heart-warming. You feel like you’re a part of the town and that these are people that even if you don’t know well are at least familiar to you in your day-to-day life. We are given a little bit of insight into who they are and how they live and in doing so we find that they are not all that unfamiliar to how we live and who we are. Inside like that is much more valuable than it appears to be on the surface of it.

WHY RENT THIS: Believable characters and story. Sweetness, heart and a touch of real people trying to find love and reinvent themselves.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some salty words here and there as well as some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To date the highest grossing Danish film in the American market.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.4M on a $1M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: O’Horten

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Underworld