Paul Dano is all wrapped up in Zooey Deschanel.

(First Independent) Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, John Goodman, Jane Alexander, Zach Galifianakis, Ian Roberts, Brian Avers, Robert Stanton. Directed by Matt Aselton

We all have our own set of aspirations. Some of them border on obsessions, which is fine. Some of them are a bit out there, which is also fine. Some of us give up on them, which is not so fine. And still others do not deviate from their plan on achieving those goals.

Brian Weathersby (Dano) is a mattress salesman in New York with seemingly low career goals, but that’s only on the surface. What’s really on his mind is the adoption of a Chinese baby, which he has wanted to do all his life and which he is now so close to he can just about taste it.

While his personality is rather bland, his life is somewhat complicated. He is repeatedly and without explanation attacked by a homeless man (Galifianakis) who might well be a figure of his imagination other than the facial wounds he leaves. He, his brothers and his father (Asner) bond over hallucinogenic mushrooms. Indeed, a Norman Rockwell family at its finest. Remember his famous Saturday Evening Post painting “Daddy gets high on mescaline”?

Brian sells a high-end mattress to Al Lolly (Goodman), an oversized man with severe back troubles. The mattress costs north of $14K so it’s not a slam dunk procedure. Al decides to send his daughter Harriet (Deschanel) over to test it out for herself before arranging the payment.

Harriet turns out to be one of those New York waifs with an independent spirit and who acts as if every moment needs to register on the quirk-meter in order to be meaningful. She falls asleep on the mattress, well past closing time. Brian somewhat sweetly places a blanket over her, more to make sure nobody looks up her skirt while she’s asleep.

They converse in murmurs. She asks if he is interested in having sex with her, and he confides that he might be. He tells a friend he’s not sure if he likes her. Brian’s whole life is about getting that baby; the presence of Harriet might jeopardize that in some odd way.

There’s no denying he feels something for her though. He brings her to meet his family which is a bit risky; only his mother (Alexander) is even halfway sane. Still, he’s not sure he can bring himself to love her when loving her might mean that he has to change the plans he has for his life.

This is the kind of movie that a lot of folks characterize as “fiercely indie” and that’s not in a good way. Not long ago these types of movies were all the rage at Sundance and Toronto, but these days more traditional storytelling seems to be more in vogue. That’s not to say that Gigantic is without merit. It’s perfectly cast and that cast is impressive, with all of them delivering solid performances at the very least.

Deschanel is one of those actresses who can make even an uninteresting role interesting and a too-quirky role seem more down-to-earth. She makes Harriet real and believable; in lesser hands the character would have been so annoying that Ellen DeGeneres might have been moved to punch her in the face. Dano has made a niche for himself as a somewhat deadpan character who displays little in the way of emotion except for occasional tiny cracks. It served him well in Little Miss Sunshine and it serves him well here. The romance between the two becomes believable.

This movie might have well made higher marks with me had they not tried so hard to be funny and quirky. Scenes like the one in the massage parlor are unnecessary and serve to jar you out of the overall mood of the movie; it’s like driving a car whose transmission is on its last legs. If they had just tried to tell the story of Brian and Harriet straight it might have worked out better.

Still in all, this is a solid film with several moments that are worth cherishing. It may not be the kind of indie film that breaks the mold but at least it gets points for doing what it does do very well.

WHY RENT THIS: Any movie with Zooey Deschanel is worth seeing. Great cast who all have their moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film loses steam in the last half. At times it feels like they’re trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, a whole lot of foul language and some scenes of sudden violence make this a bit rough for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Galifianakis’ role although listed as “Homeless Man” on IMDB, does not in fact appear on the film’s credits.



TOMORROW: Easy Virtue

A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel)

A Christmas Tale

Even now, most red-blooded men wouldn't mind having Catherine Deneuve under their tree.

(IFC) Catherine Deneuve, Matthieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Emile Berling, Laurent Capelluto. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Christmas is a time for families to gather, no matter the distance. Sometimes the distance isn’t just physical and geographical, it’s emotional as well.

Junon (Deneuve) and Abel (Roussillon) Vuillard are the parents of three adult children: Elizabeth (Consigny), a neurotic playwright, Henri (Amalric) the charming but destructive black sheep and Ivan (Poupaud), the peacemaker between the children. After a disastrous business venture five years prior, Henri who had misappropriated funds from the theater he co-owned was bailed out by Elizabeth on the condition that she never have anything to do with him again and that he be banished from any family event that she was also attending.

Junon and Abel also had a fourth child, Joseph, who would have been the eldest but had died in childhood of leukemia. Now, Junon has developed it and the children and grandchildren (including Paul (Berling), son of Elizabeth who has mental problems) are being tested for compatibility to donate bone marrow for a transfusion.

Because it is Christmas, the decision is for the children to come to the Paris home they grew up in and so they do, families in tow; Henri’s flamboyant girlfriend Faunia (Devos), Ivan’s beautiful wife Sylvia (Mastroianni), Elizabeth’s mathematician husband Claude (Girardot) and cousin Simon (Capelluto), a lovesick tortured artist (sounds like the name of a band to me).

Spending time in closed quarters begins to force the family to deal with the tensions and feelings that have been dormant due to distance. The family dynamics begin to distend, change and convulse under the weight of Junon’s illness, the always-present specter of Joseph hovering sorrowfully above the family table and the family politics that create enemies out of brother and sister.

I’m deliberately trying to reveal as little of the plot as I can. One of the things that works about the film is the little subplots and interrelationships that are only seen as threads of the tapestry, but in the final couple of scenes it’s as if the camera pulls back and the tapestry is finally seen as a whole.

None of these characters are perfect and few of them are even likable. Junon is not the best of mothers, playing favorites with her children but loving none of them as much as she loves herself. Deneuve is still radiantly beautiful at age 66 and as elegant as she has ever been. Her Junon seems an improbable match with the more gnome-like Abel, but there is a certain amount of affection between them.

Amalric is one of my favorite French actors today, and anyone who saw him in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is likely to agree (he also played the villain in Quantum of Solace and was one of the best things about it). His Henri is fully aware of his familial role as an absolute jerk and has embraced it, but not without cost. Few actors in France can hold their own with Deneuve but Amalric is one of them and he does here.

One of the more interesting asides of the movie is the casting of Mastroianni as Sylvia. If the name sounds familiar, it should be; she’s the daughter of Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and…Catherine Deneuve. The facial resemblance to her mother is marked; I think the casting is meant to imply that Ivan married a girl who not only was much like his mother emotionally but also facially as well which is a little bit creepy but there is a certain delicious irony to it.

At times the squabbling and some of the family skeletons seem a little bit too forced and that takes away from the film’s realism. What I like about the movie is that the characters are very human and far from perfect; this is a family that has issues, a whole lot of them as a matter of fact. As I said earlier, some of the main characters aren’t even that likable but every last one of them is compelling. Other critics have said that they have uncovered further subtleties upon repeated viewing of the movie; I haven’t had a chance to do that yet but I suspect I’ll have the same reaction.

If you’re expecting a Hollywood feel-good family Christmas movie, you’re going to open up a big box of disappointment. If you want to feel good without being manipulated, this is going to be more your speed. I wound up with a warm, Christmas feeling that was so genuine that I didn’t let go of it for days. Christmas isn’t about the perfect family; it’s about the family we actually do have, warts and all. The Vuillards aren’t always lovable but there is love and it is real. That’s the Christmas we may not generally wish for but it’s the one we usually get and to be honest, the one we usually remember with the most fondness.

WHY RENT THIS: The themes of redemption and forgiveness are particularly heartwarming given the seasonal tale. Deneuve is captivating and still absolutely gorgeous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The squabbling and family dynamics sometimes seem a little bit more over the top than real.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, foul language and lots and lots of smoking – hey, they’re French.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Desplechin has been nominated for eight Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and four Golden Palms (a prestigious award handed out at the Cannes Film Festival) but has yet to win either.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray are available as a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. They contain a copy of Desplechin’s one hour documentary L’Aimee which is about the selling of his childhood home and directly prefaces the tone of A Christmas Tale. There is also a booklet containing an essay from critic Phillip Lopate about the film and its impact.


TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

When Did You Last See Your Father?

Jim Broadbent takes a dim view of blogs.

Jim Broadbent takes a dim view of blogs.

(Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Colin Firth, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Claire Skinner, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Beard. Directed by Anand Tucker

The bond between a father and a son can be a complicated thing. Too often sons are burdened throughout their lives by the expectations of their father, particularly when they don’t live up to them – and especially when they don’t want to.

Arthur Morrison (Broadbent) and his wife Kim (Stevenson) are doctors with a general practice in the Yorkshire Dales. They have two children, Gillian (Skinner) and Blake (Firth), from whose perspective the story is told. When Blake is in his 40s, Arthur becomes terminally ill. Blake, who by this time has become an established and acclaimed author, is forced to deal with his somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his father. The story is told in a series of flashbacks to events that capture the dynamics of that relationship, and of the full force of Arthur’s boisterous personality.

Arthur delights in getting something for nothing. He is a bit of a con artist and a bon vivant. He certainly has an eye for the ladies, particularly for family friend Beaty (Lancashire) for whom his flirtations, Blake suspects, have gone much farther than just flirting. For one thing, her daughter Josie (Naomi Allistone) bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to him and his sister.

The introverted Blake is constantly crushed by his father’s need for attention. This need is so pronounced it’s to the point where he habitually diverts the spotlight from his own son. Those moments of torment are interspersed with moments of tenderness and Blake becomes conflicted in his feelings for his father. As an adult, he returns to his father’s side to assist his mother in Arthur’s last days, putting strain on Blake’s marriage to Kathy (McKee). Is there a way for father and son to get past the anger and all the missed opportunities for one last reconciliation?

This is based on Blake Morrison’s memoirs, and that is both the movie’s strength and weakness. The movie spans about 30 years, from the late 50s to the 90s, but we don’t get a sense of how the relationship evolved due to the non-linear nature of the storytelling. There is also a genuineness to the relationship between Arthur and Blake, an authenticity. Like real-life relationships, things aren’t wrapped up neatly the way we would like it to, so we don’t get the catharsis that the story forces us to long for.

Broadbent is at his best here, full of bonhomie and joie de vivre. He is charming and simultaneously cruel. He is everyone’s friend, but he is a nightmare to his son, whom he addresses as “fathead” and interrupts his sexual liaisons while carrying on with his own. He is not an easy man to like, but Broadbent makes him likable. Firth is the perfect foil and there are times where you can’t believe the two aren’t related. Firth carries his recriminations around like a wristwatch, referring to them whenever he feels the need. He obsesses about the relationship between Arthur and Beaty, and when he finally gets the information he wants, you feel curiously unfulfilled, much as Blake must have been.

Stevenson is criminally underrated as an actress; she plays a woman here resigned to the failings of her husband but able to somehow find a way to love him despite those failings. She is overshadowed by his personality and sometimes comes off as being wrapped in a blanket of grief, but she carries herself with a particular dignity that makes her role all the more poignant.

This isn’t an easy movie to love. Basically, all the characters are more or less at war with each other and unable to let go of their disappointments. That imbues the movie with a certain amount of reality that makes it a bit more compelling. I found the relationship between Arthur and Blake to be fascinating; I also found it to be depressing. Sometimes, our human frailties demand that our relationships with loved ones be both.

WHY RENT THIS: Broadbent gives a terrific performance, and Stevenson and Firth are nearly as good. The relationship between Arthur and Blake is genuine and believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is much emotional turmoil without catharsis; as in real life, the movie doesn’t end necessarily the way we would like it to.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and brief nudity, along with some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Beard, who plays Blake as a teenager, wore brown-colored contact lenses in order to more closely resemble Colin Firth.





Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

Tara’s (Anna-Sophia Robb) glasses are anything but rose-colored.

(Overture) Charlize Theron, Dennis Hopper, Anna-Sophia Robb, Nick Stahl, Woody Harrelson, Callum Keith Rennie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Matthew St. Patrick. Directed by Bill Maher

We are all, in a sense, damaged goods. None of us makes it through our lives unscathed by trauma and tragedy alike. Some of us emerge stronger for it, but far more of us bear deep, open wounds hidden away by the veneer of civility. Press too hard on the scab and our true nature emerges, oozing from the sore like pus.

Jolene (Theron) has horrible taste in men. When her boyfriend is arrested, she is forced out of her apartment along with Tara (Robb), her 11-year-old daughter. With nowhere left to turn, she shows up at the door of her brother James (Stahl), a soft-spoken, weak-willed young man who is an endless doormat for his family and his friends, like his stoner co-worker Randall (Harrelson).

It doesn’t take Jolene long to find another loser to hitch her wagon to, and after a night of passion she impulsively runs away with her new beau, leaving James holding the bag. Completely ill-equipped to handle the needs of a young girl, he soon loses his job trying to be a ketchup father (coz he’s playing catch-up in the role…get it?) and is evicted himself. He goes to lick his wounds over at Randall’s, while Tara is put into the foster care system.

Predictably, Tara is put in one of the least hospitable foster homes on record and is soon begging for James to take her away, anywhere but there. In true desperation, he runs away with his niece, the two of them taking assumed names. They eventually make their way to the ranch of James and Jolene’s father (Hopper), a rattlesnake of a man who’s mental and physical abuse tormented his two progeny into lives of abject inability to deal with life. While James has defense mechanisms that help him deal with the old man’s cruelty, the spirited Tara is slowly being broken by dear old Dad. James must soon figure out a way to get away from their place of temporary refuge before Tara winds up crushed the way he and Jolene were.

This is not the most upbeat movie you’ll ever run into. Not only are the main characters constantly doing the wrong thing, they are dealt incredibly bad hands to begin with. They are poster children for the aphorism “if it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck a’tall.” Director Maher compliments the grim mood with bleak landscapes; harsh winters, dry, dusty and lacking in color. Only Tara has any color to her, which is more or less a metaphor as far as I can tell.

Robb, so good in Bridge to Terabithia, proves herself a capable actress who could well wind up in the same stratum as Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin. Stahl, who has mostly played supporting roles throughout his career, is put in a position to carry this movie and for the most part, he handles it well, given that his character is a bit of a milksop as written.

What really drew me into the movie was the relationship between Tara and James. It defines the movie to a certain extent and is the best thing in it, the only aspect that generates any hope that their miserable lives will improve at all. Robb and Stahl make it believable and moving, two wounded creatures gravitating towards each other at first out of necessity and eventually out of true affection. The evolution of their relationship is the crux of Sleepwalking.

While the ending is a bit of Hollywood hokum, the truth is that there are lives that don’t get happy endings. Some people struggle and labor their entire lives only to get nowhere. Sometimes they are responsible for their own plight, other times it is just godawful luck. Observing a slice of their lives doesn’t necessarily make us feel superior; rather it makes us feel fortunate that we have what we do and reminds us that everything good in life comes with a price tag.

WHY RENT THIS: Robb and Stahl make a believable pair; their relationship is at the crux of the movie and provides all the rooting interest.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly bleak, and in a lot of ways, most of these characters are hard to relate to because of their many and varied faults.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language, a bit of sexuality and a scene where a child is emotionally and physically abused make this not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original working title for the movie was “Ferris Wheel.”



TOMORROW: Grace Is Gone