Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

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Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game

The Extra Man


Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

(2010) Romance (Magnolia) Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Marian Seldes, Celia Weston, Patti D’Arbanville, Dan Hedaya, Jason Butler Harner, Alex Burns, Katie Holmes, Alicia Goranson, Lynn Cohen, John Pankow, Lewis Payton, Marisa Ryan, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, Jackie Hoffman, Justis Bolding, Beth Fowler, Victoria Barabas. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

The world needs extra men, men who radiate charm and elegance. Men who are gentlemen, refined raconteurs of taste and breeding. Men who escort wealthy old ladies to the opera and to art gallery openings with aplomb. Men like Henry Harrison (Kline).

Louis Ives (Dano) is a substitute teacher who is courtly and sweet-natured but likes to cross-dress when nobody’s looking. He comes to the Big Apple looking to make something of himself but can’t afford the sky-high rents for apartments in the city. He comes across a listing that Harrison has posted subletting his apartment and Louis, lacking much in the way of choice, takes it despite Harrison’s somewhat eccentric behavior.

Like Harrison himself, the apartment has seen better days and as Louis gets work in an office where he develops a shy romance with co-worker Mary (Holmes), Harrison is training Louis in the fine art of being an extra man. He also falls into the man’s orbit where his circle of quirky friends, including the shaggy Gershon Gruen (Reilly) speaks in an ear-shattering falsetto.

Like a lot of independent movies, The Extra Man places a heavy reliance on characters who are just a little bit out there – or in some cases here, a lot out there. If you watch a lot of indie films, you might get the idea the New York is bursting at the seams with oddballs and eccentrics, kooky sorts who are tolerated with warmth and affection and make the fruits and nuts of Southern California look positively Midwestern.

This is Kline’s movie although ostensibly Dano is the lead. It is Kline whose Henry will capture your imagination and attention from the first moment he steps onscreen until well after the closing credits have run. I have always had a great deal of affection for Kline in such movies as A Fish Called Wanda and The January Man and it has not diminished over time.

Dano is one of those actors who seem better served taking outside the mainstream roles. He’s at his best when his characters are just a bit off-beat. That is certainly the case here and he pounds out a solid performance that allows his natural charm and sweetness to show through. While he doesn’t quite distract enough attention from Kline (and honestly, there are few actors today who can hold their own with him) he certainly can point to this entry on his resume with pride.

I enjoyed this enough to recommend it although not effusively; this is a movie that will occupy your imagination for a short while but probably not too long before something else gets your attention. While I find myself cringing whenever I see a New York eccentric indie film, at least once the initial knee-jerk twitch passed I found myself consumed. You can’t ask much more of any film than that.

WHY RENT THIS: Kevin Kline. Oddball charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extra-high quirkiness quotient. Sometimes seems more like a series of scenes in search of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexual content and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is an HDNet feature on the film as well as a look at the animated voiceover trials and tribulations of becoming ducks.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $457,867 on a $7M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Gigolo

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Timeline

Magical Universe


Even in black and white Al Carbee's world is full of magic.

Even in black and white Al Carbee’s world is full of magic.

(2013) Documentary (Wheelhouse) Al Carbee, Jeremy Workman, Astrid von Ussar. Directed by Jeremy Workman

Florida Film Festival 2013

Art means different things to different people. Some prefer the more traditional, others the Avant Garde. Some people will take two blocks of wood, nail them together and proclaim it art. Others will nail those same blocks of wood to their head, film it and proclaim it art. There are some who think that it isn’t art if it isn’t challenging you or pushing your boundaries.

Al Carbee thought a lot about art and the artistic process. You see, he had this thing about taking pictures using Barbie dolls as models. His late wife never really understood it and was actually kind of embarrassed about it but Al just kept things on the down-low. He created these elaborate environments for his pictures and created collages with them. They began to look more and more like art.

Jeremy Workman, a young filmmaker, was vacationing with his girlfriend Astrid von Ussar in the area around Saco, Maine when he got a call from a newspaper editor friend telling him about Carbee, so Jeremy went and shot some video of Al and his work. He made a documentary short called Carbee’s Barbies which you can Google – I believe it’s available on YouTube and if not, he shows it in its entirety during the film.

In most cases like this, that would be the end of it but Jeremy and Astrid continued to correspond with Al who’d send long, rambling letters, sometimes with pictures. Soon the idea came up for Jeremy to do a feature film on Al. Jeremy was agreeable and began to do just that. He showed some of the early footage to Astrid who to his surprise was not very happy. “You’re making him look like a crazy person,” she admonished sternly, “You need to put Al in there.” And she was right, Jeremy realized.

Frankly put, it’s pretty easy to go down that road. On the surface of things, Al is pretty much a whacko and I leaned over to Da Queen several times and said so. To her credit she said nothing and held her opinion to herself (until after the movie of course – Da Queen isn’t shy about sharing her opinions with me or anyone else for that matter). As the movie progresses you get quite a different opinion of Al than just a lonely old man playing with dolls.

Much of the film is wrapped around an exhibition of Al’s work at the local art museum, an event which really seemed to vindicate Al and bring him some satisfaction. It’s not that he needed an audience for his work – he mostly made it for himself I suspect – but to be validated as an artist, to be told his pictures have some value. That was important to him.

Throughout the time that Jeremy knew him Al was having money troubles. He was deeply in debt and had to improvise his environments using whatever he could find. Most of his Barbies were found in thrift stores and at tag sales (that’s New England for yard sale or garage sale if you’re reading this on the West Coast).

Although Al had made substantial renovations to his home, they were almost all his own handiwork and to a certain extent somewhat Winchester Mystery House-like in their layout – the house is described as something of a labyrinth by one of the few who were given access to the inner sanctum (Al had also dug a cavern in which he placed Barbies in an atmosphere that was described as “magical.” Unfortunately, Al passed away a few years ago after a brief illness and his landlord, who had waited with baited breath for Al to go, bulldozed the property and much of his art (although his nephew apparently saved quite a bit according to Workman). Mostly, this film remains as a testament to what he accomplished.

Da Queen thinks he’s an artistic genius and maybe he is. I’m really not going to make that determination; that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. What I can say is that this documentary takes you inside his world, allows you to experience his art and more importantly, allows you to experience the man as well. In my book, that makes this a crackerjack documentary that is worth seeking out and given the glut of documentaries out there that don’t even do that, that’s pretty solid praise.

REASONS TO GO: Not your standard documentary. An interesting look at the creative process.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the concept (hopefully they’ll watch the film and come to a different understanding about it however).

FAMILY VALUES:  While the concept of an old man taking pictures of Barbie dolls – some without clothes – is a bit creepy, there isn’t anything here I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a kid watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Workman has directed several documentary features and shorts, he is best known in the industry as an editor for which he has an Emmy nomination (in 2002 for the Oscar telecast).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival and will doubtlessly be hitting film festivals around the country for the foreseeable future.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Universe of Keith Haring

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 42