Walking Out


A father-son piggyback ride – with a twist.

(2017) Drama (IFC) Matt Bomer, Josh Higgins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Ken White, Lily Gladstone, Erik P. Resel. Directed by Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith

 

The mountains are unforgiving. They are beautiful, yes, but formidable. One false step can leave you in a terrible situation. One mistake, one moment of lapsed concentration can make the difference between getting home safely and having your carcass gnawed on by animals.

Cal (Bomer) is an avid outdoorsman living in Montana. He is divorced with a child, 14-year-old David (Higgins) who lives most of the time with his mother in a more urban or at least suburban environment. Cal is about hiking, camping, hunting and respecting nature. David is about smartphones, chatting with his friends and videogames. Cal is 19th century, David is 21st century. Cal has some fairly concrete ideas of what it takes to be a man; David’s ideas are more fluid.

On his semi-annual visit to his Dad, David is less than enthusiastic but he’s a good sport and agrees to go hunting with his Pa. He proves to be a less than adept shot to his father’s frustration – and David’s own. Cal has quite a camping trip planned; he’s been tracking a moose in the high country and wants David to bag the animal as his first kill as a hunter. David would likely much rather play a hunting simulation game if he had a choice.

But David is the kind of kid who goes along to get along and depending on how charitable your view is, either sees how important it is to his Dad and gives in or simply wants to avoid a confrontation. Either way, the two head into the mountains where Cal hopes that this trip will bring the two closer together.

Things start to go wrong nearly immediately. They go after the moose only to discover that some rank amateur has already shot it and left it to rot which is a crime in Cal’s book. Looking for some other game to at least salvage the trip, things go wrong for the two men; horribly wrong in fact, leaving them stranded in the wilderness, one of them terribly wounded and no hope for rescue. They’ll have to walk out of the mountains on their own if they are to survive.

One of the words that best describes this movie is “simple.” In other words, the Smith brothers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; they set up their shots without a lot of complication, the plot is straightforward and we are almost forced to concentrate on character interaction. This works for me particularly when the characters are interesting and the performers bring those characters to life.

The movie rests heavily on the shoulders of Bomer and Wiggins and to their credit they both do a solid job but we are given a pretty straightforward dramatic conflict; Dad = he-man outdoors type who likes to shoot things; Son = pampered Millennial with a chip on his shoulder. As winning formulas go, this is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Still, I grant you that this kind of relationship as we see here between Cal and David feels very much authentic, the kind of extreme gulf that exists between city folk and country folk. In a way the rift between Cal and David mirrors that between urban and rural in America.

The Montana scenery as lensed by Todd McMullen is as spectacular as advertised; there’s majesty, beauty and stark emptiness here. There’s a lot of snow, particularly when the movie switches from the prairies to the mountains but it’s a pristine snow of the kind you don’t find where people are. Even in all the whiteness there’s a kind of beauty that makes the audience shiver in sympathy and also feel VERY happy to be in a warmer climate at that moment.

The one Name in the cast is Pullman who plays Cal’s father in flashbacks when Cal describes his first moose hunt to his son. Pullman has hardly any lines at all and his appearances, all in a home movie-like sheen, are not enough to really make a difference here. The pacing of the film is pretty deliberate and after awhile watching the excruciating pain that one of the cast members is in gets hard to watch; as the two men make their way down the mountain, I began to wish the film would end quickly. Maybe ADD is catching.

Other than a few scenes this is a very talky affair with little action so people who might ordinarily be into this kind of survival film will likely be a lot more than a little bit put off by the film. Those into exploring relationship dynamics might see the adventure movie side to this and give it a wide berth. There is some promise here, not just the lead actors but also behind the camera as well. The Brothers Smith have a good eye, an ability to take a basic plot and make it their own. I suspect that I won’t remember much about the movie in the days to come but I’m much more positive that I’ll be remembering the directors in years to come as they craft movies that take story ideas, bring them to their essence and make a great movie around it.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery is beautiful. The father/son dynamic is unusually realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Bill Pullman is wasted in his flashback-heavy role. At times the movie is hard to watch and at other times I couldn’t wait for it to end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images of a mauling, adult thematic elements and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale considered the role of Cal but ultimately decided to pass because he didn’t want to be separated from his family on a remote location shoot so soon after the birth of his son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Woodpeckers

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Obvious Child


Life can be cold even for the very cute.

Life can be cold even for the very cute.

(2014) Comedy (A24) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gabe Liedman, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung, Stephen Singer, Cyrus McQueen, Emily Tremaine, Ramses Alexandre, Julie Zimmer, Ernest Mingione, Stacey Sargeant, Amy Novando, Crystal Lonneberg, Suzanne Lenz. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

One of the results of unprotected sex can be a pregnancy that is unplanned for and unwanted. Women have several options open to them, although not everyone wants it that way.

Donna Stern (Slate) is a budding standup comic who works in a used bookstore by day. She is a classic New York underachiever, one who has vague goals but is in no particular hurry to get to them. She’s been seeing Ryan (Briganti) for years now and is somewhat ambivalent towards marriage or at least, it’s not a subject that comes up.

Her standup routine is full of the juices of life. Lots of farting, the state of women’s panties at the end of the day, skid marks and the fluids of sex. It isn’t for the squeamish which might explain why she’s still in a somewhat rough and tumble Brooklyn bar providing free entertainment for Williamsburg hipsters who are too cheap to pay for it. When she talks about the sex life with her boyfriend as being somewhat routine and predictable while he watches her set, that’s the last straw. That and, oh, him having been sleeping with her friend Lacey (Tremaine) for several months. He dumps her in the unisex graffiti-covered bathroom that looks like something that veteran CDC doctors would run screaming into the night from which I suppose is as appropriate a place to get dumped as any – considering her act, getting dumped in a bathroom has no irony whatsoever.

She also finds out that the bookstore she has been working for has lost its lease and is going to close its doors forever in about six weeks. No job, no money, no boyfriend – things couldn’t be worse for Donna. She takes solace in her support system – her close friends Nellie (Hoffmann) and fellow comedian Joey (Liedman), as well as her Dad (Kind) who works as a Henson-like puppeteer for a successful TV show. Her cold fish Mom (Draper), divorced from her Dad and a very successful business school instructor, tries to motivate her daughter to find new work without much success.

Donna’s next standup gig is an utter train wreck as she ascends the stage completely off-her-ass drunk and proceeds to go into a drunken rant about her break-up that is as unfunny as it is awkward. The only plus of the evening is that she meets nice-guy Max (Lacy) at the bar, continues to get drunker and ends up at his apartment for a night of mindless, meaningless sex. She leaves the next morning without leaving a note.

Not long afterwards she discovers that mindless, meaningless sex can get you pregnant too, even though she was pretty sure they’d used protection in the form of a condom. She’s not really 100% sure on that point – not that it matters because a condom really isn’t 100% protection against pregnancy either. The thing is, she is preggers and the one thing she’s sure about is that she’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to be pregnant either considering her uncertain future, her lack of funds and job and without a partner to help her out. An abortion seems to be the best choice for her given the circumstances.

Once this decision is made, she’s unsure that she wants to tell her mother about it, sure that her mom will see this as yet another failure in life by her disappointment of a daughter. Also, she keeps running into Max unexpectedly and he clearly likes her. A lot and she thinks she might like him too, even though he’s as gentile as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller plaza and she’s the menorah at the top that burns the whole damn tree down.

Some will see this as a movie about abortion but as film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the better movie would be about the woman having that abortion and Robespierre wisely realizes that. The decision for Donna is a simple one from a practical standpoint but emotionally she’s unsure of what to do, how to feel and she asks Nellie, who’s had one, whether she thinks about it (she does but she doesn’t think she made the wrong choice).

Slate, who was on Saturday Night Live for a season and famously dropped an F bomb in her first episode, does a star turn here in the role of Donna. Donna uses her sense of humor as something of a shield against her own vulnerability and has no filter whatsoever. That endears her to those willing to put the effort in to get to know her. She is far from perfect although she is cute as a button. To my mind, Slate has far more upside than a lot of actresses who have come from standpoint and should easily join the ranks of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as graduates of SNL to stardom, although I think the big screen would be far more appropriate than television as a medium for her talents.

She gets some good support from Liedman (her sketch partner in real life) and Hoffmann and Lacy, who was a regular on The Office makes a fine straight man. I like that Robespierre chose not to give us the glamorized indie version of New York where people work in creative jobs, live in amazing lofts they couldn’t possibly afford and eat out and hang out at hipster clubs every night while showing up to work fresh as a daisy the next day. The places Donna and her friends can afford to hang out in are mostly pretty dingy and Donna’s apartment is tiny and far from glitzy. This is the life someone in her situation would be leading for real.

Inevitably there is going to be some politicization of the film’s subject matter but be assured there’s none in the film whatsoever. The conservative religious right tend to portray abortions as something done by sluts without any sort of care or consequence but that’s not what happens here. Donna while vulnerable and impaired has unprotected sex which might be characterized as a foolish mistake but she is not someone who seems inclined to sleep around – in fact, she has a scene with veteran comic David Cross in which she turns him down for sex.

What really makes this film worth seeing are a pair of scene near the movie’s end. The first is when Donna is having her abortion and has been given a sedative to relax her. As the procedure begins, we see a tear rolling down from her eye. Even more powerful is the scene that follows when Donna and the other women who have just undergone the procedure sitting in the recovery room and exchanging glances. No dialogue is said but the looks on their faces say it all – this was not a decision entered into lightly and the consequences are absolutely on all of their minds.

In an era when a woman’s right to choose is under concerted attack from Tea Party politicians and where choices to have abortions are becoming much more scarce in Red States, a movie like this becomes much more necessary and meaningful. While I’m not sure this will change any Right to Lifers minds on the subject, it serves as a vivid reminder that for all the hysteria and noise generated by that group, women in general are not ignorant of the consequences of their ability to make that choice – and that it is a hard choice even if the practical side is easy. From that standpoint, this is an essential film and while I found the nature of Donna’s comedy unappealing, I loved the character in a big way because of her flaws and imperfections. Donna is the kind of woman you probably know already. If you don’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to find this movie either at your local art house or soon when it comes to home video and get to know her.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the effects of unwanted pregnancies on real women and the choices they must face. Slate shows that she is ready to be the next great film comedienne.

REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessarily scatological. Too many awkward moments.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of rough language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title comes from the first track on the 1990 Paul Simon album The Rhythm of the Saints.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Playing For Keeps (2012)


Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

(2012) Romantic Comedy (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, Noah Lomax, James Tupper, Abella Wyss, Grant Goodman, Grant Collins, Aidan Potter, Marlena Lerner, Iqbal Theba, Emily Somers. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Making a connection with your own child isn’t always easy, particularly when you haven’t been around much. Connecting involves presence, and if you aren’t present, there’s nothing for your kid to connect with.

That’s been the story with George (Butler), once a soccer star in Europe who eventually played in the MLS in its early days but after an ankle injury forced him to retire, George has been struggling to keep it together. He is staying in the Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital – not just because his last team was DC United, but because that’s where his son Lewis (Lomax) lives with his mom Stacie (Biel). George and Stacie were together once but no longer; in fact, we learn early on she’s engaged to marry her new boyfriend Matt (Tupper) who seems to be a much nicer guy than George; certainly he’s more stable.

Thing aren’t going terribly for George in any other facet of his life. He’s broke, would love to be working a sportscasting job but can’t find one to save his life, He lives in the guest house of a wealthy Indian man (Theba) and drives an Alfa Romeo which sounds posh until you realize that it was probably brand new at about the same time Frankie Goes to Hollywood was.

Soccer is really the only connection George has with his son. His son’s coach spends more time on the phone than training his young players (“Kick it with your toes” is about his only advice) and soon George can’t stand it and starts showing the youngsters a few pointers. The kids take to his instruction and soon by parental proclamation George is named the team’s new coach which is just in the nick of time since they haven’t scored a goal all season.

Things start looking up. The soccer moms, cougars all, start throwing themselves at George, among them redheaded Barb (Greer), a recent divorcee who has got a case of the hornies big time, brunette Denise (Zeta-Jones), a single mom who is an ex-sportscaster herself who thinks the way to George’s heart might be through her career connections, and blonde Patti (Thurman), the wife of Carl (Quaid) who is an expansive Texas-style businessman who thinks nothing of loaning George his Ferrari nor using his fame to close a business deal with Brazilian soccer fanatics.

Best of all, Lewis and George are beginning to find some common ground and even Stacie is looking at George in an entirely different light. But this being a Hollywood rom com, that’s just the calm before the storm. George’s sexual escapades begin to catch up with him and just as he’s ready to settle down, ESPN comes a’knockin’. George may have to choose between career and kid.

Muccino made his reputation as the director of the Will Smith hit Pursuit of Happyness and truth be told that was a much better film than this one. This is more or less standard Hollywood romantic comedy fare with few (if any) surprises. What keeps this from pure direct-to-video cheesiness is Butler whose easygoing Scottish charm make the movie. While his character really lacks inertia – things pretty much just happen to him rather than him making them happen – he gets by on a smile and an accent (not to mention a body that made most of the ladies in the auditorium sigh).

His chemistry with Biel is a bit bland to be honest; while I could see his appeal to her, her appeal to him wasn’t as apparent. I would have liked to have seen more fire from Ms. Biel; she’s shown it in plenty of roles so I know she possesses it. It’s just not in evidence here. As a result the romance in the romantic comedy is sorely lacking.

The supporting cast are pretty big name and only Greer really shines among them, although Quaid makes a game try. Quaid has been one of my favorite actors for quite a few years now and this is the sort of role that he excels at. A bit stuffy and a bit unctuous and not necessarily a good guy (although Quaid does good guys pretty well), but a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately the movie has more faults than strengths. This is clearly a movie aimed at the female audience but the women in the film are mainly bedroom ornaments for George. If you’re going to appeal to women, you need an appealing woman in the cast. All of the movies in the movie seem to be defined by their relationships with men. That’s not going to make your target audience happy.

Still, Butler is going to make plenty of the target audience happy, particularly in those scenes where his shirt comes off (and there are a few). Ultimately this is pretty disposable but not real offensive, unless predictable plot points offend you. In a holiday movie season where there aren’t a lot of rom com options to choose from, it will fit the bill but it doesn’t really hold up against the better movies of the genre. In short, it ain’t no Sleepless in Seattle.

REASONS TO GO: Gerard Butler is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: No chemistry and no heat. Most of the women in the movie exist to bed Butler. A romantic comedy without romance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit o’ sexiness and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was formerly titled “Playing the Field.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 4% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100. The reviews are pretty pathetic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ugly Truth

SOCCER LOVERS: There’s quite a bit of the Youth game variety but Butler has a few nice moves that he shows off at various times of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Mr. Popper’s Penguins


Mr. Popper's Penguins

Jim Carrey gets jiggy with a bunch of flightless waterfowl.

(2011) Family (20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, David Krumholz, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Andrew Stewart-Jones, James Tupper, Madeline Carroll, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, Maxwell Perry Cotton. Directed by Mark Waters

 

Let’s face it, penguins are hot in Tinseltown. With March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, Happy Feet one and too and Farce of the Penguins all out there – not to mention the penguins in Madagascar and Earth, these Antarctic flightless fowl have been regulars on multiplex screens for years.

So it seems pretty natural that this 1938 award-winning children’s novel would be the basis of a feature film. Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, if you loved the book be prepared for a few changes here and there.

Thomas Popper Jr. (Carrey) is a divorced real estate executive who specializes in the art of the deal. He can cajole nearly anyone to part with their New York City landmark so that the greedy company he works for can make obscene profits, pleasing bosses Franklin (Hall) and Reader (Chianese) who keep finding one excuse or another to keep Popper from a full partnership.

Popper’s assistant Pippi (Lovibond), who speaks sentences peppered with Peas…that is, words that start with the letter P, is invaluable, making sure he attends society functions on time and tries to keep him on track with his kid visits.

Popper’s ex Amanda (Gugino) gets on well with him, although she is dating Kent (Krumholz), a naturalist whom the kids are kind of ambivalent towards. Their feelings towards Dad, however, are very clear – they hate him, particularly teen daughter Janie (Carroll) but son Billy (Cotton) feels let down by his dad who makes all sorts of promises that aren’t kept. In fact, Popper’s absence from his children’s lives mirrors that of his own father, an adventure-seeker who was always in exotic locations but rarely home; he mostly communicated with his son by ham radio.

Popper is well on his way to repeating his dad’s mistakes. However, his dad passes away, leaving a souvenir from his adventures in his will. This turns out to be a Gentoo penguin. NOT what he had in mind. He needs to get rid of the penguin –  his building association has a strict no pets rule. After a number of fruitless attempts to have the penguin taken away, he finally contacts the New York Zoo to take the furry friend – which has gone from being one penguin to six thanks to an error in communication (yes, another crate shows up at his door). Six penguins, I can tell you, are NOT really a good fit for an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment and he’s forced to bribe the security guard not to tell the association that he was violating the no pet rule.

Because now, instead of wanting to get rid of them, Popper wants to keep them. It seems his kids love the penguins – Billy has mistaken them for his birthday present which his Dad had forgotten to buy despite Pippi’s reminders. Popper desperately wants to find a way to connect to his kids – to be a Dad again. The penguins might just be his bridge.

In the meantime, Popper is charged with getting Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), the prickly owner of the Tavern on the Green, to sell to his rapacious bosses who are eager to put some condos on this prime Central Park property. She however is very finicky over who she wants to sell to; she wants someone with the right soul to take it. Popper of course isn’t possessed of this trait, so he tries to fake it which Mrs. Van Gundy can spot a mile away. Now Popper’s job depends on him convincing Mrs. Van Gundy to sell. The penguins have laid eggs, the zookeeper at the New York Zoo – Nat Jones (Gregg) – is trying to get those penguins by hook or by crook. And his apartment is a mess. Things just don’t look good for a realtor with Daddy issues in those circumstances.

On the plus side, the filmmakers used actual Gentoo penguins for the film, creating CGI versions of the birds when stunts were needed. This is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen recently – it’s completely seamless and very difficult to tell which scenes are with actual penguins and which ones only exist on a computer hard drive.

The movie is based on the beloved children’s book written by Richard and Florence Atwater back in 1938. In fact, I’d say loosely based in that the main character’s name is Popper and there are penguins involved (twelve in the book, six here). It’s safe to say that there are a lot of changes here to make the movie seem a bit more modern than the book which is a bit weird because I always thought that it was pretty timeless, although truth be told I haven’t read it since I was a young boy and borrowed it from the library. Yeah, we read back then. Reading was our generation’s videogames.

I’ve said in other reviews that I have never really been a big Jim Carrey fan. He’s done some movies that I have really liked, but a lot of them simply haven’t grabbed me. Here, he suffers from Eddie Murphy syndrome; his more raunchy side is submerged while he does a family movie. His mugging and occasionally over-the-top persona left me, ahem, cold. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Popper appears in the title ahead of the penguins for a reason – this is Carrey’s movie all the way and the success that it had unfortunately indicates that we’re going to be seeing more family movies along these lines from Mr. Carrey.

It was nice, however, to see Angela Lansbury onscreen again. The veteran actress doesn’t do many roles these days but I imagine making a movie of this particular book appealed to her. Clark Gregg, the dry-witted agent Coulson from the Marvel movies, also does a villainous turn here.

But the kids are annoying, poor Carla Gugino who is normally an outstanding actress is victimized by a hideous haircut that makes her look like Fran Drescher which only looks good on Fran Drescher. There are few jokes that worked for my adult brain and there’s a reliance on penguin poo that borders on the epic. If you like poop and fart jokes this is the movie for you. If you’re like me, the best joke occurs during the end credits with the disclaimer “No penguins were harmed during the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.” On that, I can agree.

I might have been harsher on this movie than perhaps it warranted, but I think a book as wonderful as “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” deserved a better movie and certainly a less crass one. It is symptomatic that the Tavern on the Green, which much of the film’s dramatic content revolves around, closed two years before the movie opened, quite possibly in order not to be around when the movie opened. I remember the book with a great deal of fondness. The movie I won’t remember at all.

WHY RENT THIS: The penguins are cute. Angela Lansbury makes a rare screen appearance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey overacts relentlessly. Charmless, humorless and way too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  It surprised me but there were actually a few inappropriate words in the movie, and a bit of rude humor which was less of a surprise.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey wears a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey during the hockey sequence. The team’s mascot, Iceburgh, attended the film’s gala premiere. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel and an animated short, “Stinky and Nimrod’s Antarctic Adventure,” are among the highlights. The first two chapters of the book are narrated in a separate feature. The Blu-Ray adds a featurette on real Gentoo penguins (the kind used in the film) and their habitat.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $187.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zookeeper

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Henry’s Crime

Youth in Revolt


Youth in Revolt

Even shades and a moustache can't make Michael Cera look dangerous.

(2009) Comedy (Dimension) Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Justin Long, Jean Smart, Ari Graynor, Fred Willard, Zach Galifianakis, Mary Kay Place, Rooney Mara, Adhir Kalyan, M. Emmet Walsh.  Directed by Miguel Arteta

Growing up is hard enough when you are marching in lock-step with the crowd. If you are marching to your very own drumbeat, chances are it’s damn near impossible.

Nick Twisp (Cera) is a teenager in Oakland with the kind of family situation that makes you want to pull every sensory organ out of your head and stomp on them. His parents are divorced; Mom (Smart) has taken up with an unpredictable druggie (Galifianakis) who has run afoul of a group of sailors whom he sold a car to. He has run so afoul that he has thought the better part of valor was packing up his girlfriend and Nick and moving them to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, California. Here he meets Sheeni (Doubleday), a young girl as quirky as he, someone who knows who Jean-Paul Belmondo is, and knows what it means to be hip in a conformist world.

His dad (Buscemi) is compensating with a much younger girlfriend (Graynor) and Nick prevails upon him to move into Sheeni’s complex, getting himself thrown out of his mom’s household for good measure. However, Sheeni doesn’t think Nick is dangerous enough. Nick invents an alter-ego (also Cera) with a wispy moustache, a smoking habit and who tends to give really bad advice that soon has Nick in trouble with the law, with his family and with Sheeni.

This is one of those coming of age stories (based on a novel, of course) that seems to have the idea that the more twisted and mixed up you are, the more interesting you become. The movie sat on the shelf for more than three years as Cera’s star grew brighter before it finally got a release. Even so, it milks the kind of character Cera has made a career out of playing; young, fey, sensitive, good-hearted and somewhat spineless. He has an easy manner of quipping and yet never seems to turn that intelligence into making his world a better place.

Doubleday makes a pretty nice romantic lead, except she doesn’t really pull off the quirkier aspects of her character well. She comes off therefore as a girl pretending to be hip rather than being actually hip, which matches up poorly with Cera’s character, who has the outer appearance of being hip without the inner self-confidence to pull it off.

Still, the movie is funny where it needs to be and quite frankly this is one of my favorite performances by Cera. It doesn’t hurt that he has a wealth of comic actors to work off of – from the established (Willard, Buscemi, Place) to the up-and-coming (Galifianakis, Graynor, Long – as Sheeni’s brother – and Kalyan, as Nick’s ethnic friend who may be even more of a dork than he is). The cast for the most part perform admirably, although some of the storyline just goes into ridiculous mode from the second half of the movie onwards.

It’s not a bad movie at all, and despite my low regard for hip indie coming of age movies about quirky teens who are hipper than thou, managed to reel me in thanks to some nice supporting performances (particularly from Buscemi, Willard and Galifianakis) and some good, solid laughs. What more can you ask from a comedy?

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written dialogue and some funny situations. A very strong supporting cast comes up aces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Michael Cera is far too one-note an actor to be playing two characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, quite a bit of sexual content and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man who sells Jerry the camper is none other than Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who was in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin got all the glory.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ghost Writer