Copenhagen (2014)


Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

Riding off into the sunset, 21st century Europe-style.

(2014) Drama (Scorched Films) Gethin Anthony, Frederikke Dahl Hansen, Sebastian Armesto, Julie Christiansen, Olivia Grant, Mille Dinesen, Martin Hestbaek, Silja Eriksen Jensen, Gordon Kennedy, Helene Kuhn, Tamzin Merchant, Baard Owe, Asbjorn Krogh Nissen, Preven Ravn, Zaki Nobel Mehabil, Sebastian Bull Sarning, Miriam Yeager. Directed by Mark Raso

Florida Film Festival 2014

Travel allows us to see new places and gain new perspectives. It also allows us to completely be ourselves – or completely reinvent ourselves. Then again, what we do depends on what we’re travelling for.

William (Anthony) is a thoroughly unpleasant sort. 28 years old, he is only interested in getting laid, getting drunk and doing what he wants when he wants. He respects nobody and likes nobody except for maybe his friend Jeremy (Armesto) whom he’s travelling with, along with Jeremy’s girlfriend Jennifer (Grant) whom William thoroughly dislikes and quite frankly, doesn’t want her around on this trip that was just supposed to be him and Jeremy.

They’re in Copenhagen and it’s not by accident nor is it for the tourist attractions. William needs to find his grandfather to give him a letter that his late father wrote and asked William to give to him if he ever made it out there. Finding granddad will be a problem, especially when Jennifer, tired of the abuse, finally bails and takes Jeremy with her, much to William’s disgust.

Fortunately, an employee at the hotel – Effy (Hansen) – is willing to help and even though William is rude to her initially, he realizes that he needs her to translate (he doesn’t speak a word of Danish) and help him navigate the city to find his grandfather.

But all work makes William a dull boy and Effy takes him out on a number of adventures in Denmark. William is beginning to fall for the free-spirited girl and Effy clearly feels a strong attraction towards him. The brakes are put on though when William discovers that she’s just 14 years old. A mature 14 but 14 nonetheless. That’s a no-no even in Europe.

This is Canadian-born Mark Raso’s first feature and he shows a good deal of promise. This was one of those rare films that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. That’s a by-product of really good writing (also Raso) as well as confident directing. Yeah, there are parts of this that are really dark but there are some really funny moments as well.

Raso filmed this in Copenhagen with a mostly Danish crew and he does a great job of really giving us a sense of the city, not just of the tourist areas although there’s a really lovely scene filmed late at night at the iconic Little Mermaid statue in the harbor. We get a sense of the daily life of the people who live there and a sense of their values, their lifestyles and their sense of humor. I’m not sure if Raso spent much time in Copenhagen but clearly what time he did spend there he used wisely; he’s clearly a keen observer. His cinematographer, Alan Poon, clearly is as well – we get some really gorgeous and unique views of the city and environs.

Hansen is a real find. Although playing a 14-year-old, she was 19 years old at the time of filming and she captures the mindset of a 14-year-old girl nicely, albeit one wise and mature beyond her years. As the film goes on, we discover that Effy has some issues as well and we get to see the layers of her personality gradually revealed. While some of that is clever direction on Raso’s part, it is mostly just Hansen doing a bang-up job.

Anthony has a more thankless role with William, a guy that you’ll be convinced after ten minutes that this is a guy who must get punched in the face regularly. Even though he’s pretty good looking, it’s impossible to imagine that he could get laid regularly, as portrayed here. I can’t imagine that a woman would want to spend long enough with him to get her clothes off, but that’s just my take. Women do make some strange choices in bed partners sometimes and William can be charming when he needs to be, but that charm rarely lasts long. It’s to Anthony’s credit that he never tries to make William sympathetic; even when he’s starting to soften up and let Effy in, William is still a massive prick.

What makes this movie even more memorable is the dynamic between Effy and William. Quite frankly, some are going to be uncomfortable with it and even I have to admit to a couple of moments of squirming in my seat but all in all it is handled quite well and with a great deal of sensitivity. That doesn’t mean we don’t soon realize that these are two people who are really good for each other. Both of them have dysfunctional families bordering on the psychotic in places, although William does take home the prize in that department.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Raso views the city with a great deal of affection and we do at the same time get an insider’s perspective as well as an outsider’s. That’s unique and invaluable and I wound up leaving the film feeling I knew the city of Copenhagen just a little bit better, but this is no travelogue. The real reason for seeing this movie is for the compelling relationship between Effy and William and the dynamic performances of the actors who play them.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps the viewer guessing. Fine performance by Hansen who has some serious star quality.

REASONS TO STAY: Relationship between Effy and William may make some uncomfortable. William can be a truly unpleasant jerk to spend time with.

FAMILY VALUES:  Adult situations, some sensuality, drinking and smoking, plenty of foul language and a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anthony is best-known for his role as Renly Baratheon in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midnight in Paris

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Woman Power commences!

Short Term 12


Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)


Let the Right ONe In
Lina Leandersson is a bloody mess.

(2008) Horror (Magnet) Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl, Karin Berqquist, Peter Carlberg, Ika Nord, Mikael Rahm, Karl-Robert Lindgren, Anders T. Peedu, Pale Olofsson, Cayetano Ruiz, Patrick Rydmark, Rasmus Luthander. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

The dark winter sky twinkling with stars above a suburban community covered in a blanket of pristine white snow. The perfect setting for a Christmas tale? In this case, the perfect setting for a vampire story.

Oskar (Hedebrant) lives in a suburb of Stockholm in the early 1980s. His parents are going through a bitter divorce and he is getting bullied at school relentlessly by Conny (Rydmark). He has no friends, no real relationships and is as lonely as a 12-year-old boy can get. His idea of fun is taking a toy knife his father (Dahl) gave him and fantasizing about using it on his tormenters.

That is how Eli (Leandersson) finds him, in the snow-covered courtyard of the apartment complex, playing with his knife. She’s a strange little girl, unnaturally pale, walking barefoot in the snow and seemingly wise well beyond her years. She resists having a friendship with him at first but eventually gives in. She lives with Hakan (Ragnar), a middle-aged man that Oskar assumes is her father and their apartment windows are covered with cardboard. Eli is never around during the day. Spoiler alert (kind of): Eli’s a vampire who has been 12 years old for two centuries, give or take.

When Oskar shows up with a cut on his cheek, Eli prods him to discover what happened and finds out about the bullying. She urges him to stand up for himself and as a result, he signs up for weight training classes after school.

Hakan has murdered a local resident for his blood but fails to deliver the plasma to Eli. She goes out and kills Jocke (Rohm), another apartment resident who was on his way home from a bar and drinks his blood. Hakan drops the body in a nearby lake. Unfortunately, this is the same lake that Oskar’s school takes a field trip to and the body is discovered. It is also the same day Oskar stands up to Conny, beating him with a stick when Conny attempts to bully him.

By now Oskar has discovered that Eli is a vampire and far from being frightened is somewhat curious and actually a little pleased that his new friend is so unusual. Their feelings for each other are getting stronger. However, Hakan has botched another attempt at getting blood for Eli and in order to save her from being traced back to him, he pours acid over his face, severely disfiguring himself. Back at the hospital he offers his own blood for Eli to drink which she does, killing him after which he plunges through the window to his death, giving Eli an effective distraction with which to escape.

Eli attacks Ginny (Nord), the girlfriend of Jocke’s best friend Lacke (Carlberg) but is interrupted by Lacke before she can finish feeding. Ginny begins to transform into a vampire herself. Realizing what’s happening, she asks a hospital attendant to open the blinds. The sunlight streams in and she bursts into flame.

Lacke, having seen who was responsible for Ginny’s attack and putting two and two together, resolves to bring her to justice. Conny’s psychotic brother Jimmy, incensed and embarrassed that a pipsqueak like Oskar had gotten the best of his brother, has a trap in mind. Can the two unlikely friends protect each other?

This is one of the best horror movies of the 21st century, so let’s just start out with that. It is also one of the best vampire movies ever made. It was remade into an Americanized version called Let Me In that was part of last year’s Six Days of Darkness and was a solid film in its own right. However, those who have seen both will tell you that the original Swedish version is amazing.

This is visual poetry folks, with stark Swedish landscapes punctuated by odd splashes of red and orange. Even the interiors have a curiously washed-out look (which is not what Swedish homes and apartments look like). This grim, grey, colorless cinematography is perfect; it is death and it is cold.

This is a movie that rests largely on the skills of its juvenile leads and the two young actors, found after a year-long search, fit the bill. Hedebrant has a weird looking haircut that would instantly mark him as a target for getting picked upon no matter what era he lived in. He shows the socially awkward side of Oskar, as well as the admirable qualities that make him worth rooting for.

Leandersson’s Eli is preternaturally beautiful and has a sexuality that is unusual in a girl so young. In the novel that this is based on, the Eli character is actually a boy who was castrated at the age of 12 shortly before becoming a vampire. Here that distinction is less clear; the filmmakers leave that sexuality ambiguous which to readers of the book is a nice little aside.

I can’t recommend this highly enough for any fans of horror films. The violence and blood probably won’t sit well with the Twilight series fan base but I think the relationship between Eli and Oskar, which the filmmakers wisely focus in on, is what makes this movie so special.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best horror movies in years not to mention one of the best vampire movies ever. Tremendous performances by the young cast. Visual poetry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The scenes of Eli feeding are extremely graphic and might be disturbing; Eli’s sexuality might be off-putting to sensitive souls as well.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence and blood is pretty extreme. There’s also some sexuality and brief nudity as well as some pretty messed-up and disturbing images, not to mention a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the movie (and the novel on which it is based) is a reference to the Morrissey song “Let the Right One Slip In.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was very successful, box office-wise.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Margin Call

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

Fish Tank


Fish Tank

Kierston Wareing has unquiet slumbers.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Sarah Bayes, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Joanna Horton, Grant Wild. Directed by Andrea Arnold

One of the more interesting debates in modern society is nature vs. nurture. How much impact does our environment play in our personality? Is it all genetically ingrained from the beginning without a whole lot of input from our surroundings – or does our personality completely depend on the where and when of our lives?

Mia Williams (Jarvis) lives in a really tough part of Essex, in government housing – an apartment complex with large full windows along the front wall, resembling a fish tank. She’s feisty, temperamental and doesn’t take crap from anybody. There are few things in her life that bring her any sort of satisfaction – hip hop dancing (which she does kind of badly and artlessly), her younger sister Tyler (Griffiths) and whatever small amounts of alcohol she can pilfer.

Her mother Joanne (Wareing) is a boozer and a bit of a slut and as unfit a mother as it is possible to be. She has brought into their home Connor (Fassbender), a handsome man who treats Mia with unexpected kindness, despite her initial misgivings and outright hostility.

He takes the family to the country and teaches Mia to fish without a pole. She begins to develop a little bit of closeness – maybe too much. She also becomes attached to a dying horse in the camp of a group of travelers – and to Billy (Treadaway), a younger member of the group who has become sweet on her.

In the meantime all her dreams, large and small, are slowly dying – and sometimes not so slowly. She seems caught in a web of frozen inertia, one from which her young life may never be extricated from.

Director Arnold caught the imagination of the British movie press with this movie, who have fallen all over themselves in praising it – not to mention the awards the movie has garnered. I have not warmed to it as much as others, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a quality piece of filmmaking.

Part of what makes this film worth seeing is the performance by Jarvis. She had no previous acting experience and was cast after a member of the production team (some say it was Arnold herself) observed her having an argument with her boyfriend in a train station (the one that’s used in the movie in fact). Her untrained status helps make the performance. It’s raw, emotional and without guile or artifice. Mia isn’t always the most lovable or makes the best decisions, but the portrayal is absolutely realistic. She isn’t perfect which is kind of what is attractive about her.

I will have to admit that the relationship between Connor and Mia made me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize that this type of thing goes on all the time and given the personalities involved even makes a certain amount of sense. Still, it’s a bit difficult to watch.

Wareing also does an excellent job as the mom, even though she looks far too young to be the mother of a teenager. There’s a very nice scene at the very end of the movie between her and her daughters that is quite natural and if I described it to you, it would smack of old Hollywood but it feels authentic here.

This is a very well-made movie. I appreciated the performances and the craft behind the camera. While the heavy English accents made it difficult for these Yank ears to always understand what was being said, nevertheless this is a worthwhile movie to check out. It isn’t pretty – and Mia can be frustrating in her behavior, just like any teen. Still in all, for those who want to see the grittier side of the UK this makes a very good starting point.

WHY RENT THIS: Jarvis gives a raw, unvarnished performance and the movie pulls no punches looking at the working poor of England.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times. The relationship between Connor and Mia is creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film was released without a rating, there is a severe amount of foul language, some sexuality including teen sex, alcohol and drug use, and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot chronologically, and the actors not given complete scripts so they were largely unaware of what was going to happen to their characters until the week of shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This is available in a Criterion Edition which includes three short films by Andrea Arnold (including the 2003 Oscar winner Wasp) and audition footage of juvenile actresses auditioning for the role of Mia.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on a $3M production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Priest

Little Fockers


Little Fockers

This stunt kittie is about to find out what happens to cats who pee on Robert De Niro.

(2010) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Hart, Daisy Tahan, Colin Baiocchi, Tom McCarthy, Olga Fonda. Directed by Paul Weitz

Sometimes when a good movie comes along that makes a good deal of money, the temptation from the studio is to make a sequel which almost inevitably makes good money but is somewhat less high-quality than the first movie. The second movie often does good enough box office to warrant a third and by now the writers are running out of steam and the idea is becoming stale. Some film franchise avoid this trap, but others, particularly comedies, fall hard into it.

Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) has been married eight years now to his sweetheart Pam (Polo) and he’s risen to head of medical surgical nursing at a prestigious Chicago hospital, developing a reputation that Andi Garcia (Alba), the representative of a pharmaceutical company, has taken notice of and so she approaches him to do some pimping for an erectile dysfunction drug that is safe for heart patients. He’s initially reluctant to get involved, particularly with that sort of product which he – ahem – has no need for himself.

Greg’s father-in-law, Jack Byrnes (De Niro), the ex-CIA operative who has made Greg’s life a bit of a living hell, has been having some heart problems (can you guess who’s going to take the dick medicine for heart patients?) which he swears Greg to secrecy about. He and his wife (Danner) are coming to Chicago to visit the Fockers and celebrate the fifth birthday of their twins Beelzebub and Mephistopheles…err, Samantha (Tahan) and Henry (Baiocchi).

Jack is anxious for Greg to become the head of the Byrnes clan since his first choice, Dr. Bob (McCarthy) has cheated on their other daughter (the one whose wedding from the first movie Greg nearly ruined) and the two are in the midst of a divorce. Financial stability is what it’s all about for Jack, providing for a superior education for the kids and a safe home for the family. Since getting the kids into the prestigious Early Humans Academy presided over by the neurotic hippie-sort Prudence (Dern), as well as renovations on the house that thanks to lackadaisical contractor Randy (Keitel) that are behind schedule, are together prohibitively expensive, Greg decides to accept the extra cash working for the pharmaceutical company would provide.

Rather than doing what most normal human beings would do and say “yes, I’m making a little bit of extra cash to help fund the kids’ schooling,” Greg tries to hide it from Papa Byrnes and so a series of misunderstandings ensue that lead Dear old Dunderhead to believe that Greg is actually cheating on Pam with Andi Garcia which should make for an interesting Oceans 11 reunion.

I am of an opinion not shared by many studio executives that making money is not the best reason to make a movie. A movie should have something to say – if nothing else, “let us entertain you” – or have some reason to be made besides adding to the bottom line. I can’t see a single reason to have made this movie.

Certainly it adds nothing to the franchise. It says nothing new about the characters, and in point of fact seems to insist that they haven’t matured much in the intervening years. Oh, Greg’s a dad now but he seems unwilling or unable to act like a mature, responsible adult, preferring to skulk and posture. The movie’s idea of good parenting seems to be giving the kids frequent hugs and letting them do whatever they please pretty much the rest of the time (Samantha for example refuses to talk to her dad for which I can scarcely blame her).

That’s not to say that this movie is completely valueless. Certainly there are a few good laughs. Alba is easy on the eyes and Stiller although looking decidedly older here is still a compelling comedian. How can anyone completely dismiss a movie that contains talent like that in front of the camera for this one? De Niro, Streisand, Hoffman and Stiller along with Owen Wilson as the super rich new age surfer ex-lover of Pam’s are worth seeing in most cases and it is a treat to see Ms. Streisand who rarely makes screen appearances anymore. However, the De Niro-Stiller conflict which is at the heart of the first two movies lacks sizzle here.

I can’t say I hated this movie but I can’t say I loved it either. It’s simply not the kind of movie you’re going to want to see more than once and having seen it once you aren’t going to be awaiting the sequel Our Four Fockers (which might be a title for a prequel) or whatever it may wind up being called. When you leave a franchise film feeling that way, it’s time to pull the plug.

REASONS TO GO: There are laughs here and there. This is an impressive cast who are worth seeing just for the interaction.

REASONS TO STAY: Decidedly unfunny in stretches. Too many situations of people acting more stupid than real people act.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual humor, some naughty words and a bit of drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: If you’re gonna see it you might as well see it in the comfort of your own home.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Fanboys

Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

Amreeka


Amreeka

Nisreen Faour finds out about another American institution; the dinnertime sales solicitation call.

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Joseph Ziegler, Andrew Sannie. Directed by Cherien Dabis

While our economy has taken a nosedive and Americans are suffering through one of the worst recessions in history, we can at least take comfort that at least we are not an occupied nation. Palestinians don’t even have that.

Muna Farah (Faour) lives on the West Bank and, ironically enough, works in a bank. A bank on the West Bank…okay, I had to point it out. Anyway, she has to endure two military checkpoints in each direction going from her home to work and back. It is often humiliating, especially when her son Fadi (Muallem) loses patience and makes a smart remark to one of the soldiers, nearly getting detained in the process if nor for the begging and pleading of his mother.

Muna dreams of a better life in America (or Amreeka as it is pronounced in Arabic) where her sister Raghda (Abbass) escaped 15 years before. Although ostensibly Muslim, she isn’t particularly devout which makes her a bit of a pariah in her own land. However, she hits the jackpot when she gets a green card in the annual lottery for one of the coveted documents. Although she knows she will miss her family in Palestine, she looks forward to better things for her and her son in a new land, and quite frankly, Fadi is gung ho to get out of Dodge. Before they leave, Muna’s mom gives her some cookies and other food to bring to Raghda.

At O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Muna and her son are detained for three hours. It is 2002, not long after 9/11 and tensions are running high, particularly with any Arabic sorts coming into the country. While Muna is arguing with one of the immigration officials, the cookies and other foods are confiscated by the customs agents.

Unfortunately, Muna foolishly put all her life savings into the cookie tin. Broke and too proud to accept help from her sister other than the lodging in their suburban home. Raghda’s husband Nabeel (Abu-Warda) is a prosperous dentist, but he is watching his practice disintegrate before his eyes as long-time patients, distrusting any Arab, are leaving for non-Arabic doctors.

Muna is unable to find work suitable for her banking experience and takes the only job she can find – working the counter at a White Castle. Once again her pride prevents her from informing her family that she has such a menial job, so she leads them to believe she is working in a neighboring bank, scurrying over to her real workplace after Raghda drops her off at the bank.

Fadi on the other hand is having enormous difficulty fitting in at the local high school, which is truly a staggering task even under the best of circumstances, but throwing in his ethnicity and his unfamiliarity with American high school culture and he is having a rough time. His cousin Salma (Shawkat) helps guide him through the minefields that are American high schools, but even so he manages to step on a few nonetheless.

There are a few other plot elements (such as a romance for Muna with the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school, played with gentle humor by Ziegler) but that’s essentially it. This is writer/director Dabis’ first feature and is heavily based on her own experiences growing up as an immigrant from Jordan in Ohio. There are some moments that are genuinely heartwarming as well as others that are wrenching.

Part of what makes this movie so watchable is a very likable cast, starting with Faour. She is not the lithe and lean starlet that most lead actresses are, but down-to-earth, charming and possessed of a smile that lights up entire cities. In that sense, she reminds me of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-era Nia Vardalos, albeit with less brass.

Abbass is one of my favorite actresses you’ve never heard of. She is best known for a small but pivotal role in The Visitor but was completely overshadowed by Richard Jenkins there; she has also appeared in such gems as Lemon Tree and The Syrian Bride and was superb in each. She has more of a supporting role, but lends dignity and world-weariness to the part of a woman desperately homesick, and watching her situation fall apart before her very eyes, with everything she values in jeopardy including her marriage. Abbass could have easily stolen the movie but wisely – and generously – toned things down, allowing Faour to take center stage. In the end, I think that was a better move for the film overall.

Most of the other roles aren’t as richly written as the two sisters, although Shawkat is compelling as the Americanized Salma and her conflict with her mother should resonate with anyone who has been privy to mother/daughter conflict. I would have liked to see Fadi, Nabeel and the principal get a bit more to work with, but this still remains a good first effort and serves notice that Dabis could be a director to keep an eye out for.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Faour and Abbass illustrate the difficulties Palestinian Muslims face in post-911 America as well as in their occupied homeland. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting characters seem to be very artificially drawn and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some teen drug use, but otherwise I wouldn’t hesitate to let mature teens check this out.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Winnipeg where there are no White Castle restaurants; the White Castle corporate offices shipped out the supplies for one there, creating a set so realistic that locals kept trying to order from it, even though no food was ever sold there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A short film by director Cherien Dabis, “Make a Wish” is present.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.2M on an unreported production budget; judging on the way the movie looked, I’d guess it made some money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Smash His Camera

Leaves of Grass


Leaves of Grass

Two Edward Nortons for the price of one!

(Millennium) Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfus, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy deVito, Josh Pais, Steve Earle, Ken Cheeseman, Maggie Siff, Amelia Campbell, Leo Fabian, Randal Reeder, Lee Wikoff, Ty Burrell. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Family dynamics can be unpredictable. Two siblings in the same family can take wildly divergent life paths, even if they’re identical twins.

Bill Kincaid (Norton) is one of the most brilliant minds in the country. He is a professor of classical philosophy at Brown University, handsome, erudite and brilliant. He is a sought-after commodity, both by administrators at Harvard (Wikoff) who are so eager to have him on staff that they’re creating a position specifically for him, and co-eds (deVito) who write him erotic love sonnets in Latin and tear their clothes off in his office, much to the chagrin of his administrative assistance Maggie (Campbell).

Brady Kincaid (Norton, in a dual role) is one of the cleverest pot growers in Oklahoma. He and his partner Bolger (Nelson) have built, as Bolger puts it, the Taj Mahal of grow houses, a state of the art hydroponics facility in which Brady has crossbred many strains of wacky weed to make the most turbocharged product in all of Southeastern Oklahoma. His girlfriend Colleen (Lynskey) is pregnant and his mom (Sarandon) has checked into a rest home despite being 15 years younger than everyone else there because she likes being able to do whatever the hell she wants, as she describes it.

However, things aren’t all rosy in Brady’s life. The big drug distributor in Oklahoma, Pug Rothbaum (Dreyfus) from whom Brady borrowed most of the cash to set up his operation, is demanding either his money back or for Brady to expand his operation into harder drugs, something Brady is philisophically opposed to. Rothbaum is demanding an answer and Brady and Bolger are pretty sure that he won’t like the one they have for him.

Shortly thereafter, Bill gets a call that his twin brother has been murdered. Even though he’s been estranged from his family for more than a decade, he decides to fly back to Tulsa. On the plane he is seated next to a pushy orthodontist named Ken Feinman (Pais) who is relocating his practice from New York to Tulsa where insurance rates and general costs are much lower. Drowning in debt and desperate to establish a new practice, he hands the disinterested Bill his business card.

Bill is picked up at the airport by Bolger who makes a stop at a mini-market in Broken Bow to pick up some supplies. While there, Bill is mistaken for Brady by a couple of redneck business rivals who beat the living crap out of him before Bolger intercedes, but not before he is knocked out cold by a kick to his head.

When he wakes up, who should be the first face he sees but Brady. It turns out that his brother faked his death in order to get Bill to Oklahoma, which Bill admits he likely wouldn’t have done if asked like a normal person. Brady needs Bill’s help – he needs Bill to impersonate him and be seen by the local sheriff (who hangs out with the receptionist at the nursing home with whom he is smitten) while Brady attends a meeting with Rothbaum in Tulsa. Bill is at first adamant against doing anything to help his brother, but a few hits from the wonderpot persuade him to stay the weekend, and the introduction of Janet (Russell) the comely English teacher with a penchant for quoting Walt Whitman and with whom Bill takes a shine to immediately seals the deal. Unfortunately, when Brady is involved with something, the unforeseen usually occurs.

Tim Blake Nelson, best-known as an actor in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou has directed a handful of films since the late 90s, but this is by far the best work he’s done to date. He captures the rural atmosphere of Southeast Oklahoma perfectly, from the local twang to the fishing hole chic. The movie motors along at a brisk pace that keeps you involved in every little twist and turn that occurs.

Norton’s twin performances as Blake and Bill are also worth seeking this out for by themselves. The two characters couldn’t be more different but there are some core similarities that a pair of identical twins would have to have, from idiosyncratic mannerisms to the strong bond that exists between them, whether Bill wants to admit it’s there or not.

He has a great supporting cast. Russell is one of the most charming of actresses out there, and ever since her work in “Felicity” and particularly the indie comedy Waitress is rapidly becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nelson as the ultra-loyal Bolger to Dreyfus as the rabid dog of a crime boss, is very strong. Pais is particularly noteworthy as the neurotic orthodontist and Siff as a rabbi has a very moving speech near the end of the movie.

I also wanted to mention Sarandon’s role as the ex-hippie mom. She’s so perfect for this role that you end up wishing she was in the movie more (she only appears in four scenes); if there’s any footage of her on the cutting room floor, I surely hope it ends up on the DVD. I think its safe to say that all the characters in the movie are nicely fleshed out, the mark of a well-written script.

The thing I love most about the movie is that about two thirds of the way though it takes a wild left turn that comes completely by surprise, so much so that at the Florida Film Festival screening at which I caught the film the audience let out an audible and collective gasp. The movie switches gears from that point and goes into overdrive. It’s a bravura bit of screenwriting as well as a tribute to Nelson’s talents as a director.

A word of warning; this is most definitely a movie about the drug culture, and those who are uncomfortable with depictions of pot smoking and other accoutrements of growing weed will probably have problems with Leaves of Grass. However, it must be said that the sweet smoke is no more pervasive than it is in the Showtime series “Weeds” so if you’re not bothered by that show you’ll be okay here.

This is the kind of movie that grows on you, no pun intended. I suspect that if you ask me again in a week’s time I will give this a higher rating than I have to this point. At the end of the day this is a very well-crafted movie that’s worth seeking out at your local art house or on DVD if it doesn’t find its way near you.

REASONS TO GO: The movie takes an unexpected 90 degree turn about two thirds of the way through the movie that’s unexpected. Norton fills both of the roles admirably. Russell is charming as always.

REASONS TO STAY: The stoner tone might be a bit overly much for those who are uncomfortable with the culture.

FAMILY VALUES: Those who are uncomfortable with depictions of drug use (particularly the smoking of weed) will be put off by this. There is also some scenes of violence and quite a lot of usage of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norton was so eager to do this role that he accepted a pay cut of half his normal fee.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68,000 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Social Network

Note: I first saw this movie at the Florida Film Festival and published a mini-review at the time as the film hadn’t been released into theaters yet. Unfortunately, the planned release was scrapped and eventually the movie got almost no release whatsoever, which is a crying shame. Do rent this if you can find it.

The Open Road


The Open Road

Jeff Bridges wondering when his flight leaves.

(Anchor Bay) Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake, Kate Mara, Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton, Lyle Lovett, Ted Danson, Bret Saberhagen. Directed by Michael Meredith

The gulf between fathers and sons can be wider than the Gulf of Mexico and many times deeper. We can reach out to one another but in the end, sometimes there are no bridging gaps when all you have to work with is smoke and mirrors.

Carlton Garrett (Timberlake) is a minor league baseball player for the Corpus Christi Hooks. He’s fairly talented but of late he has been in a tremendous slump and his hopes for a major league career are fading by the minute.

Carlton has a lot more on his shoulders than the average minor league ballplayer though. His father is the great Kyle Garrett (Bridges), Hall of Famer for the Houston Astros, who not so coincidentally own Carlton’s contract. However, Carlton hasn’t spoken to his father in eons. Dad loves to tell stories of the good old days, especially when he’s drinking which is most of the time. While Kyle was hitting homers and getting plastered in anonymous bars all over the National League, Carlton was learning what it was like to grow up without a dad.

Carlton’s mom Katherine (Steenburgen) is also very sick and her condition is getting worse. She desperately needs surgery to fix her heart, but she is hedging a little bit. The surgery is extremely dangerous and she doesn’t want to go under the knife without seeing Carlton’s dad. Carlton is extremely reluctant to do it but he knows his mom might die if he doesn’t. He enlists the support of on-again off-again girlfriend Lucy (Mara) to come with him.

So Carlton tracks down his father at a baseball memorabilia show in Cincinnati and at first jovial dad is all for flying down to Houston, but the flight winds up being canceled and so determined to get his reluctant dad down to Houston as soon as humanly possible, Carlton rents a red SUV and proceeds to drive down there.

Along the way many unresolved grievances will be aired, not just between Carlton and Kyle but also between Carlton and Lucy. However, Carlton’s frustration is going as Kyle does everything he can – in a sort of passive-aggressive manner – to sabotage Carlton’s efforts to get him to Cincinnati. Kyle, you see, has issues of his own.

This is a movie that takes it’s time getting to where it’s going. One wag said after seeing it that he could have driven to Houston from there in the time the movie took to get to Memphis. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but I can understand the sentiment. In that sense, it’s almost a European film only in an all-American framework. The issues, however, are universal – America doesn’t own a monopoly on dysfunctional father-son relationships.

Meredith put together a pretty terrific cast which largely doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Bridges, who filmed this before his Oscar win for Crazy Heart, is terrific as he usually is in the role of the charming but ultimately shallow Kyle. This is the kind of role he could easily do in his sleep but he chooses not to, giving the role his full attention and that just about single-handedly elevates the movie above mediocre.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have any support. Steenburgen is endearing as always and Danson, Stanton and Lovett have too-brief cameos. Timberlake isn’t a bad actor, but he is nowhere near the level of Bridges and it shows. Mara is a gamer in her own right, but once again she is overwhelmed by Bridges’ performance.

This isn’t a rotten movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes a good deal of focus to stay with. Once the actual road trip begins things pick up a little bit but ultimately this is a movie about three people in a car for whom awkward silences are a bit of a blessing.

WHY RENT THIS: Bridges is delightful as always. Supporting cast does solid work, although frankly not up to the level of their best performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key that it’s almost sleepwalking.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language but probably no worse than you’ll hear in the average high school lunchroom…or even middle school gymnasium.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Michael Meredith, the son of former Dallas Cowboys great and Monday Night Football color commentator Dandy Don Meredith, is a frequent collaborator of the German director Wim Wenders.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The U.S. vs. John Lennon