The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate

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On the Road


Bella Swan, you're all grown up!

Bella Swan, you’re all grown up!

(2012) Drama (Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Danny Morgan, Marie-Ginette Guay, Steve Buscemi, Joe Chrest, Terrence Howard, Coati Mundi, Michael Sarrazin, Ximena Adriana, Tetchena Bellange, Kim Bubbs, Tiio Horn, Giselle Itie, Giovanna Zacarias. Directed by Walter Salles  

The classic Jack Kerouac Beat Generation novel On the Road has literally been in development for decades. Nobody really knew quite what to do with the book. It finally got made and was released in late 2012; was it worth the wait?

Young Sal Paradiso (Riley), a stand-in for the author, meets Dean Moriarty (Hedlund) – who stands in for Neal Cassady – through mutual friends. Sal, grieving for his father and a writer stuck in a horrible case of writer’s block, is instantly taken by this young man who is full of life and not especially concerned with convention, rules or…well, anything that gets in the way of him having a good time. Charming and literate, Dean and his 16-year-old wife Marylou (Stewart) serve up alcohol, sex and marijuana with equal enthusiasms. When it’s time for Dean and Marylou to head back to Denver, Sal is invited to come visit.

It takes some time for Sal to get together the gumption and funds to go – even in postwar New York there aren’t a ton of jobs – but he finally does. He rides busses and hitchhikes across the pre-Interstate America and eventually gets there, only to find that Dean is cheating on Marylou with Camille (Dunst). Sal heads back, stopping briefly to pick cotton and have an affair with Terri (Braga).

Later, after Sal has returned to New York, Sal and his mother (Guay) are visiting Sal’s sister and her husband for the holidays in North Carolina when Dean turns up with Marylou and friend Ed Dunkle (Morgan) and offer to drive Sal and his mom back up to New York in exchange for a place to stay for the night and a meal. Sal’s staid sister and family aren’t quite sure what to make of the intruders.

After getting back to New York and spending some time partying, Sal decides to accompany the three back to Denver. On the way they stop in New Orleans to pick up Ed’s wife Galatea (Moss) and to visit Old Bull Lee (Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Adams). They continue crisscrossing the country and as they do Sal noticed that women are getting left behind quite regularly both figuratively and literally not only by Dean but by all of them (the lone exception is Carlo (Sturridge) who is gay and is one of those left behind by the bisexual Dean). After a disastrous trip to Mexico in which Sal contracts dysentery, at last he will see Dean for who he truly is – and find inspiration in the process.

In all honesty I’ve been less a fan of the writing of the Beat Generation and more of…well, admirer isn’t quite the right term. The Beat writers were full of bullshit, but it’s an honest bullshit, a young man’s bullshit. This is a movie about self-fulfillment in all its forms. I have to admit I haven’t read the book; okay, I might have but it was so long ago that I don’t remember it and so it adds up to the same thing.  Therefore, I’m not really the one to evaluate whether the spirit of the book was captured so we’ll leave that as a N/A for now.

Salles, who is no stranger to road movies having directed the Che Guevara quasi-biopic The Motorcycle Diaries has a firm hand here and allows the allure of the road to shine through; the endless stripes passing by through landscapes mostly desolate but wonderful in their emptiness. However, keeping in mind that the movie runs about two hours give or take, that can only sustain a film so much.

The characters here are so incredibly self-involved that it’s difficult to find a lot of sympathy for the lot of them. Mostly they’re about indulging whatever hedonistic pleasure grabs them at the moment, and Dean is the mainstay in that regard. For Dean, friends and lovers are to be exploited, discarded when the need for them diminishes or when boredom sets in. He wants to meet people who have something to say that isn’t the usual postwar pabulum of pandering prattling polemic, empty of soul and emptier of head. That’s all well and good but what does interesting companions really do for you if you make no connection to them?

Admittedly the relationship between Dean and Sal is the centerpiece here in that there is more or less a relationship of mutual respect and debauchery but in the end Dean uses Sal just as thoroughly and just as despicably, maybe even more so than the others. Hedlund gives the performance of his career thus far in capturing Dean’s natural charisma and sensual charm that attracted both women and men to him like moths to a flame. Riley, a British actor who’s turned in some really incredible performances in his young career, is solid here as the yin to Hedlund’s yang, and to my mind it’s a generous move because by not shining quite so bright he allows Hedlund’s glow to be more noticeable and the movie benefits from it.

You can only take so much self-indulgent behavior and there’s really a whole lot of it here. There’s an amazing amount of smoking and drinking, not to mention a ton of sex and drug use. I don’t begrudge anyone who partakes in any of those things but it’s a bit more boring to watch than you’d expect.

This is a generation that is not unlike the 20-somethings that are out there right now; people trying to find their own way in a world that doesn’t really get them much, so they are forced to reinvent the world to fit their view. I can commend the ballsyness of the strategy but it doesn’t always make for good cinema unless of course these are your people too.

They aren’t really mine. There just isn’t any appeal in watching people indulge their most hedonistic and basic whims while forgetting to make any connection to other people. It’s an ultimately empty and meaningless pursuit. Life is about connections, not so much about carnality. It’s a lesson that the young learn as they get older, although some never learn it at all.

Some will look at these characters and see heroes bucking the system and living life on their own terms. I see people who screw their friends over and whose only concern is having a good time. One must grow up sooner or later (you would hope) and to be honest, watching this is like watching children acting out. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt – sorry if that means I fail the coolness test.

REASONS TO GO: Some good performances, particularly from Hedlund. Captures the allure of the road and the essence of the era.

REASONS TO STAY: Characters far too self-indulgent to connect to.

FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of sex, swearin’ and smokin’ of weed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Francis Ford Coppola originally bought the rights to the novel in 1979 and has been attempting to get the film made since then.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100; the reviews are lukewarm at best.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Neal Cassady

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Admission

Promised Land


Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

Matt Damon reflects on the changing landscape

(2012) Drama (Focus) Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, Tim Guinee, Terry Kinney, Sara Lindsey, Ken Strunk, Gerri Bumbaugh, Frank Conforti, Joanne Jeffers. Directed by Gus Van Sant

Rural America is often depicted as an idyllic place. Small towns where everyone not only knows one another but cares for one another as well. A place populated by hard-working folk who have farms that go back generations in the same family, a place untroubled by the bustle and stress of city life.

But that life is largely dying. Family farms are becoming an endangered species as agribusiness crowds them out of the marketplace. Many family farms require subsidies to get by. People in desperate situations are often vulnerable to any suggestion that might well save them from financial catastrophe.

Steve Butler (Damon) works for Global, a natural gas company, and he’s very good at what he does. What he does is go into small towns where Global wants to drill and secures contract granting drilling rights to their land. He and his partner Sue Thomasson (McDormand) are successful more than their peers by triple digits in terms of percentages. He is up for an executive position and the company has sent him to a small Pennsylvania town which Global wants to be the beachhead for their penetration into the Keystone State.

Normally, Steve is in and out of a town like this in a matter of days. He grew up on a family farm in Eldridge, Iowa and speaks the language of these people. He knows what buttons to push. But there is a science teacher, a retired engineer by the name of Frank Yates (Holbrook) who raises some questions at the town hall meeting about the natural gas drilling. He brings up fracking, the technique of breaking up shale and releasing the gas by creating cracks in the rock with huge drills and by forcing water, sand and chemicals into the shale to speed up the process. He’s read some pretty disturbing stuff on the internet and Steve, who had tied one on the night before, wasn’t in any shape to deliver answers.

To make matters worse, an idealistic environmentalist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski) blows into town to ally himself with Frank. He disseminates all sorts of information on the effects of the chemicals seeping up into the groundwater, with graphic photos of dead cows, brown land, dreams of five generations of farmers withered up and dead in a matter of months.

Things turn into a war of wills between Dustin and Steve. Dustin seems to have the upper hand – including with a teacher named Alice (DeWitt) who Steve has become sweet on. But for the battle of the hearts and minds of the town, Steve and Sue are losing the battle until a turning point comes. However, that moment of victory turns to ashes when Steve comes to a terrible realization that turns his viewpoint on what he has worked so hard to accomplish on its ear.

There are some political ramifications to the film and we might as well get those out of the way first. Detractors have proclaimed this a hatchet job on the natural gas industry, using fear tactics to unfairly portray fracking as being far more dangerous than it is, and using sensationalism and exaggerated cases to make its point. They also point to the participation of ImageNation as a producer. ImageNation is a production company based in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates which is of course an oil-producing region who would have a vested interest in creating a hatchet job on the production of U.S.-based natural gas.

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers have taken a stance of being against fracking and have used twisted the facts somewhat. While it is true that fracking has been connected with groundwater pollution and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere, it must be said that the kind of destruction depicted by the Dustin Noble character has yet to be determined to be a product of fracking exclusively (ordinary drilling for ground water well can also lead to methane gas release) and while I think it’s safe to say that there is some room for discussion as to the long-term effects of fracking on the environment and human health, it certainly isn’t the problem it is made out to be here, at least not in a way that could be proven in a court of law – at least not yet.

So keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, not a documentary and as such there are some things to recommend it. Damon is so darn likable that you end up rooting for him even though you know the company he works for are a bunch of jerks. He believes in his company with almost child-like faith; they wouldn’t lie to him and they certainly wouldn’t do anything immoral or wrong.

Damon has a strong supporting cast behind him. McDormand plays Sue with laconic strength and a sense of big sisterness that creates an appealing chemistry between the two. Sue does most of her parenting via Skype and being a city girl, has less connection to the people she’s dealing with than Steve does which makes it easier for her to separate herself. Krasinski gets Dustin’s character down note-perfect while Holbrook could do the sage/oracle role in his sleep but nonetheless does it here like a pro. Welliver does some of the best work of the veteran character actor’s  career as the proprietor of a general store who becomes sweet on Sue.

Van Sant enlists cinematographer Linus Sandgren to deliver some really pretty shots of the rural countryside. There’s often a misty quality adding to the allure. It’s all calculated to deliver to audiences the most nostalgic of visuals. In a sense, it becomes a special effect.

I will say that in an effort to show how dastardly and ruthless that corporate America will go the filmmakers go to absurd lengths. I think keeping things in the realm of reality would have been far more effective. Big corporations have been guilty of plenty of abuses to make them look villainous without having them resort to what they do here.

This is a decent enough movie as long as you go in realizing that they adhere to a specific point of view. Liberals may well embrace the doctrine here while conservatives may decry it. I’m on the fence about fracking; I certainly think there’s enough evidence warranting further study into the practice and maybe looking into ways to making it more safe. While I realize that in most instances fracking has caused zero environmental damage, there have been instances where it has not.

This is one of those movies where your political leanings may well determine how much you appreciate the movie. In all honesty the movie isn’t really stirring – at least not in the way that a great film is – nor is it so well-made that you can overlook the manipulative nature of the script. However the performances are such that you’ll forgive a lot of sins assuming you can get past your views on the environment.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic cinematography. Damon plays his natural likability to a “T.” Welliver, McDormand, DeWitt, Holbrook and Krasinski deliver solid performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Stretches believability. Takes a controversial subject and turns it banal.

FAMILY VALUES:  There was enough foul language to net this an R rating.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Damon was originally slated to direct the movie but had to pull out because of time constraints and creative differences. He did remain aboard as an actor.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty darn mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up in the Air

MINIATURE HORSE LOVERS: Hal Holbrook’s Frank Yates character raises them and they make several appearance, often puzzling Steve and Sue as they see them in the field.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Game

Magic Mike


Magic Mike

Matthew McConaughey practices pointing to the exits on the plane.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn, Matt Bomer, Riley Keough, Joe Mangianello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Camryn Grimes, Kate Easton. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

The world of the stripper is one that most of us have little understanding of. What would cause a person to want to take their clothes off publically, letting complete strangers stuff dollar bills in their g-strings? What does it take to maintain that kind of exhibitionism?

Mike (Tatum) is a busy guy. He owns a mobile detailing service and during the day installs roofs. Three nights a week, he is Magic Mike, a male exotic dancer – a stripper, if you will – for Xquisite, a male revue run by Dallas (McConaughey) who is fully aware that Mike is his star attraction. Dallas wants his show, which has to rent space in a Tampa nightclub, to have a permanent home in Miami, a much more lucrative market. He’s working on that very thing and will give Mike a percentage of ownership when it happens.

While working on a roofing job one day, Mike meets Adam (Pettyfer), a somewhat lackluster roofer and a bit of a screw-up who is accused of stealing a can of Pepsi and quits. Adam, who once had a football scholarship to a major Division I school, had gotten in a fight with his coach on the first day of practice and lost his scholarship; now he sleeps on the couch of Brooke (Horn), his sister.

Mike takes a liking to him against all odds and brings him around Xquisite to do some menial work. When Tarzan (Nash), one of the strippers, is unable to perform, Mike herds Adam – whom he bestows the stage name of The Kid on – onstage and while Adam shows a distinct lack of technique, he has a certain raw sexuality and great instincts, enough so that Dallas is impressed enough to take him on as a dancer.

Mike and Adam become close friends. As Adam becomes more proficient a dancer, his popularity grows. Mike is okay with this because he has a plan – he wants to own his own custom furniture business, and just needs a bank loan to do it in but sadly, his credit is undesirable to banks. His frustration begins to grow in that his life isn’t turning out the way he wants but he develops a kind of love-hate relationship with Brooke who recognizes that he is a decent sort but is concerned about the lifestyle of non-stop sex, partying and drugs which are beginning to take over Adam’s life. As Adam becomes more popular, he begins to change and Mike realizes that he can’t be Magic Mike forever.

I admit to being a little bit surprised by this one. A movie about male strippers starring Channing Tatum? I don’t think so. But a funny thing happened on the way back home from the theater; I found myself actually liking the movie. How unlikely was that? As unlikely as a performance of emotional depth from Channing Tatum. Wait a minute, we got that too.

Tatum has been an actor that I’ve never particularly cared for. He always seemed to be kind of flat, emotionally; he’s certainly got the good looks but he never connected with me – until now. For the first time ever, I saw something that indicated to me that he has the ability to be a big star instead of just a matinee idol for action films and romantic comedies, which is what he’s been to my mind up to now. The audience gets a sense that there is much more depth to him, as well as to Magic Mike. You see the regrets and frustrations that are boiling over in him. As the movie opens he’s easy-going, sexy and really not too deep but as it progresses we see the layers. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance by any means – but it could very well be the kind of work that lands him some more challenging roles that might get him there someday.

McConaughey who is well known for being shirtless anyway shows a lot more off than his chest (in fact most of the actors who play strippers do, as well as a number of the women that play their girlfriends/partners for the evening). Dallas is a manipulative, conniving bastard and McConaughey, an easy-going East Texan by nature, has done those types of roles and done them well throughout his career. This is some of his best work yet.

In earlier films like I Am Number Four Pettyfer showed some promise but has since stumbled. Once again, he shows a great deal of presence and raw talent; it’s not enough to catapult him into the next level quite yet but certainly shows that he could go a long way if he gets the right roles. This is the kind of thing that really stretched him from the previous work I’d seen him in and he does credibly well. Like Tatum, we might well be seeing him top-billed for years to come.

This is much more than just guys strutting themselves onstage. There is a surprising look at the cost of stripping when it comes to the lives of those who are engaged in it. It’s a great big party, yes, but in many ways ultimately an empty escapade. My understanding is that many actual strippers are gay, but we don’t see any of that in the film, possibly to keep the fantasy of the potential straight female audience intact. Still, it might have been nice if the filmmakers had given the potential gay male audience a bit more than they did as well.

I have to admit that I am not too familiar with live male exotic dancing shows or of the behavior of women who attend them but I got a glimpse at the theater I saw this in. The women in the audience (who were quite frankly the vast majority of the audience, arriving in groups of three and four, generally without boyfriends or husbands) were cheering and screaming and at times watching with rapt attention, sighing audibly when someone’s naked butt came into view. Gentlemen, if you want to rev your ladies up for a night of romance…no, might as well say it – for hardcore sex, this movie makes some pretty prime foreplay.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of bare skin and abs for the ladies. Tatum shows surprising depth.

REASONS TO STAY: Definitely geared more towards the ladies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of sexuality and plenty of nudity, both male and female. There’s all sorts of foul language and some drug use here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The current Warner Brothers opening sequence is not used here; they use instead the Saul Bass-designed sequence from the 1970s, somewhat modified.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100. The reviews are surprisingly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Showgirls

MALE EXOTIC DANCE LOVERS: While most of the actors have no game whatsoever, Tatum – who has a background in it – actually performs in a fairly spectacular manner.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Hall Pass


Hall Pass

Life's a party when you have a Hall Pass.

(2011) Sex Comedy (New Line) Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Richard Jenkins, Christina Applegate, Alexandra Daddario, Stephen Merchant, Nicky Whelan, Larry Joe Campbell, Tyler Hoechlin, Joy Behar, J.B. Smoove, Alyssa Milano, Kathy Griffin. Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly

 

Hollywood has made a good profit off of the immaturity of men who are really adolescent boys in grown-up bodies. It plays into a female stereotype of men as being more or less lost and helpless without them, not to mention oversexed and a little bit ridiculous. Not that there isn’t any truth to this, mind you – where there’s smoke there’s fire – but definitely it’s a stereotype the movies have helped perpetuate.

Rick (Wilson) and Fred (Sudeikis) are best buddies, and their wives Maggie (Fischer) and Grace (Applegate) are likewise. Rick and Fred have a lot of things in common, not the least of which is possessing the names of the “I Love Lucy” husbands, but also they both possess a case of the Wandering Eye. You know; whenever a pretty girl walks by the two of them are compelled to stare. Fred is a little bit more subtle about it than Rick is but nonetheless both are caught out by their wives who are none too pleased by their propensity to girl-watch.

Finally fed up with their spouses behavior, the two women determine to give their fellas a hall pass. They agree to leave for a week on a Cape Cod vacation and whatever happens during that week is a freebie – they can do whatever they want without repercussion. The boys accept eagerly.

Of course, these guys – who have been married 15 years or more – have absolutely no game. They are as rusty as Newt Gingrich’s exercise equipment. They flounder around trying to pick up hot chicks – at Applebee’s. Meanwhile, their wives – far better looking physical specimens – are discovering that they have a Hall Pass of their own and are far more likely to cash in with the minor league baseball team whose manager is friends with Maggie’s dad (Jenkins).

Of course each member of this foursome will have their moment of truth and they may find out just what is important to them and who they are. At least, that’s the idea.

The Farrelly Brothers had the blessing/curse to make an iconic movie early on. Everything they’ve made since has been compared to There’s Something About Mary and let’s face it folks, not many movies are going to turn out that good. Hall Pass is nowhere near that level, which is disappointing but inevitable in some ways. There are some moments that are laugh out loud funny but the movie, like many comedies, is uneven to say the least.

Owen Wilson has made a career out of playing affable young men who have a good deal of charm, and he does it very well. Still, there are occasions when he breaks out of the mold a little bit and those tend to be his best movies. This won’t be remembered as one of those, however; that doesn’t mean he is any less capable in it. He pulls off his part with charm.

Sudeikis has shown some flashes of brilliance over his career and has been impressive in a number of films as of late. He plays the everyman with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and that again serves him well here although the part is not written as well as I might have liked. I get the sense that Sudeikis didn’t really get a handle on the character, although I may be wrong on that score – I certainly didn’t and that did make the movie less successful for me.

I enjoyed the parts with the wives more and not just because Applegate and Fischer are far easier on the eyes. It just seemed more realistic to me and less of a goof. I mean, yeah make the guys a little awkward in terms of their game but don’t turn them from horndogs into eunuchs. That seemed a little stereotypical – guys talking a good game but falling short when it came time to man up.

I’ll admit the male ego is easily bruised and has a tendency to overcompensate for our insecurities. I am also willing to admit that this is a legitimate source for humor and entire movies have been made – successfully – about this fact and this one could have been successful as well. It could have used less juvenile humor and a little more wit. I have nothing against dumb jokes but maybe my fragile male ego could have used a little less smacking around. I’d rather laugh with this movie than be laughed at by this movie in other words.

WHY RENT THIS: The girls are very hot. Jenkins, Smoove and Merchant are veteran scene-stealers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dumb and dumber. Too many gags fall flat. Too much sophomoric humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Well, there’s quite a bit of crude sexual humor, a little bit of drug use, some graphic nudity and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maggie’s father is played by longtime Boston Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans. The Farrelly Brothers are both sports fans, particularly of Boston-area sports teams and often have sports personality from that region cameo in their films.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.2M on a $36M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Encounters at the End of the World

Midnight in Paris


Midnight in Paris

Ahh, the romance and magic of Paris!

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Kurt Fuller, Lea Seydoux, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Corey Stoll, Nina Arianda, Carla Bruni, Tom Cordier, Adrien de Van, Gad Elmaleh, Daniel Lundh, Marcial Di Fonzo Bo. Directed by Woody Allen

Paris is a place that embodies romance. When we think of the city, that is one of the first adjectives that springs to mind. Paris – City of Light, city of love. There is an ineffable magic to Paris; it is the city once prowled by Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Victor Hugo, Gaugin, Matisse, Luis Brunel, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington. It is the home of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs d’Elysee. It is a city made to enchant and ensnare the visitor.

Gil (Wilson) feels their presences quite keenly. He is a Hollywood hack writer, known for successful but ultimately empty screenplays that have made him rich but haven’t fed his soul. He is in Paris vacationing with his fiancée Inez (McAdams) and her Tea Party parents John (Fuller) and Helen (Kennedy). There they run into Paul (Sheen), a former beau of Inez, a know-it-all who like many of that sort generally know nothing. He precedes nearly every thought with “If I’m not mistaken…” which, as we all know invariably means they are.

The others are tourists in a place that they have no emotional connection to; Gil loves Paris, particularly the Paris of a bygone age. He pictures it after dark, a soft rain falling. He goes for midnight strolls around the streets of the city. After one, he is resting on some marble steps near the Pantheon, not quite sure where his hotel is when an antique car pulls up alongside him and a young couple gesture for him to join them. That’s where the magic and romance truly begins.

I’m being deliberately vague about the rest because I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the movie. This isn’t your typical Woody Allen movie – there are no neurotic New Yorkers to be found here. Instead, this is more akin to movies like Purple Rose of Cairo and Play It Again, Sam – movies that have an element of fantasy and romance to them.

Woody Allen, despite all his jokes to the contrary, is deeply romantic at heart. He believes in magic and destiny, points that are made in nearly every one of his movies. He also requires a certain amount of literary awareness of his audiences and the references here are many and varied; from the manliness of Hemingway, to the rough-around-the-edges kindness of Gertrude Stein to the self-promoting whimsy of Dali.

He has some comments for the cultural insensitivity of Americans, and the tendency for us to wish we lived in a Golden Age when Things Were Better. He makes the point that those who lived in that time were in all likelihood thinking that things might have been perfect at some previous era to that. Maybe cavemen thought wistfully that things were so much simpler back when they were Cro-Magnon.

 Wilson makes a nice surrogate Woody, having naturally some of the inflections and cadences of Allen at the peak of his game in the 70s. He has always been an amiable sort onscreen and that easygoing charm serves him well here. Cotillard, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses working today, plays a love interest in the movie that catches Gil’s eye. Also of note is the French first lady who plays a tour guide at the Rodin sculpture garden (where she runs afoul of know-it-all Paul) and Brody who plays a famous Spanish artist with over-the-top panache.

I’m not a big Woody Allen fan, particularly lately when his movies have been extremely uneven in quality. This is by far his best movie in decades, clearly one of the best movies he’s ever made. I don’t know if it is the change in location that has inspired him but if so, let’s see him do some movies in Tokyo, New Orleans, Montreal and Barcelona. He’s definitely an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired – until now. I will admit that my view is colored by the fact that in less than two weeks my wife and I will be taking a vacation in Paris so seeing the places we’ll soon be haunting ourselves gave us a special thrill. Nonetheless, this is wonderful filmmaking, bringing back the magic and romance that movies used to bring us in massive doses – and seems to be so rare and precious today.

REASONS TO GO: As charming a movie as you’ll ever see. Perfectly captures the romance and magic of Paris. Allen’s best in decades, maybe ever.

REASONS TO STAY: You’re a big Woody Allen fan and you think Play It Again, Sam and The Purple Rose of Cairo were his worst films.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and quite a bit of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The flea market scenes were filmed at the market on the days it was normally closed with crew members and extras dressing the stalls for filming, then restoring the market to its normal appearance when filming was done.

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen in a darkened theater with a big tub of popcorn and a soda; the magic of Paris combined with the magic of the movies.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: And Soon the Darkness

The Change-Up


The Change-Up

Jason Bateman knows that no matter how much Ryan Reynolds pleas he's not getting Leslie Mann's teddy bears.

(2011) Comedy Fantasy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Mircea Monroe, Gregory Itzin, Ned Schmidtke, Lo Ming, Sydney Rouviere, Andrea Moore, Craig Bierko, Taafe O’Connell, Ed Ackerman. Directed by David Dobkin

It is said that the grass is always greener on the other side and as with most clichés, there is a good deal of truth to it. It is human nature to want that which we don’t have. However, most times when we finally get to the other side we come to the understanding that the greener hue was just a trick of the light.

Dave (Bateman) is a family man with three children, two of them infants. He’s married to Jamie (Mann) who is beautiful and loving. He’s also a hard-working corporate lawyer who’s about to shepherd a merger that will virtually guarantee him the partnership he’s been working towards for a decade. However, Dave is working so hard juggling family and firm that his family focus has begun to suffer and Jamie is beginning to question how present he is in the relationship as husband and father (he has the breadwinner thing down cold).

Mitch (Reynolds) is Dave’s best friend, a ladies’ man and perpetually unemployed actor who spends most of his day getting stoned, playing video games and having every kind of sex with a wide variety of beautiful women. The two hang out at a local bar one night, watching a baseball game and talking about their lives. As the shots flow and the evening wears on, each professes admiration for the lifestyle of the other. As they stumble from the bar well past last call, nature calls and the two find a fountain in a public park nearby. As they urinate into the fountain, they both manage to say simultaneously “I wish I had your life.” The lights go out dramatically and the two go home to sleep it off.

Except when they wake up they are in each others’ bodies. Mitch suddenly has to cope with changing babies, attending meetings, seeing things through and the kind of intimacy in a relationship that goes beyond sex. Dave has to cope with kinky sex, loneliness and learning how to relax. However without meaning to, each one is screwing up the other’s lives. They must become the men that the other one is in order to get back to their own lives.

This may be a first for body switch movies – transference via urination. Certainly I for one am going to be much more selective into which troughs I pee into and with whom from here on out. However, pee isn’t the only bodily fluid you’ll be encountering here; in the first five minutes Dave gets a face full (and mouthful) of baby poop. That kind of sets the tone.

At least it does for the first half of the movie. From going Judd Apatow-raunchy in the first half, the second half is all Frank Capra-sentimental as the men learn the value of appreciating what they have. That almost sounds like a studio shying away from a complete raunchfest which is kind of bizarre because in addition to the scatological you’ll find sex with an EXTREMELY pregnant woman as well as with a decidedly mature woman, not to mention masturbation and extra scrotums. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of carnal delight.

Bateman is scaling comedy heights that will soon have him rubbing elbows with Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Here he shows off that he can be much more versatile in his range, playing both the irresponsible horndog as well as the conservative family man. Reynolds seems to be more involved doing action movies lately but it’s easy to forget he’s done some pretty solid comedic roles as well (Definitely Maybe, Waiting…) and is quite good at them. Bateman and Reynolds have some good chemistry together and in fact the whole ensemble fit together nicely as a whole.

Mann has some genuinely affecting moments as Dave’s long-suffering wife who isn’t quite sure if she and her children have the place in Dave’s heart that they used to. The always reliable Alan Arkin has a few scenes as Mitch’s estranged dad and Olivia Wilde looks gorgeous as a law clerk with a thing for Dave…err, Mitch…err, Dave. It’s hard to get straight.

Body switching movies are as old as the hills and have been done in as many different ways as you can think of. This one purported to be a raunchy sexy version of the genre but only really sticks to it for the first half of the movie before being roped into the schmaltz that Hollywood seems to demand of its comedies. Not every great comedy has to come with a heart-warming ending, after all.

I wish The Change-Up had the courage of its convictions and had stuck to the raunchiness throughout. That seemed to be where the movie was in its comfort zone. I had hoped with the leads that the movie had it could have ended up a lot better of a movie. It’s still not that bad but it is a bit disappointing given my expectations for it.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds and Bateman are extremely appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie veers wildly from crude to cuddly. Humor is hit or miss, usually the latter. Been there done that factor is high.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit more nudity here than is usual for most Hollywood films of the 21st century; also there’s a good deal of salty language, drug use and innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bar scenes were filmed at an Atlanta watering hole called Joe’s on Juniper.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one you can save for your Netflix queue.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Another Earth