Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

Our Film Library

Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

New Releases for the Week of November 29, 2013


Frozen

FROZEN         

(Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idris Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds. Edie McClurg. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

In a kingdom of eternal winter, an optimistic and brave girl teams up with a rugged mountain man, his loyal reindeer and a bumbling snowman to take on the forces of magic that have locked it there. The trouble is that the evil witch holding the kingdom spellbound is her sister.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Black Nativity

(Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore. A streetwise teenage Baltimore boy is forced to spend the holidays with his strict and devout relatives the Rev. Cobbs and his wife. Unwilling to live by the strict rules imposed by the pastor, he decides that he will return home to his mother, opening himself up for an unexpected Christmas miracle.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama (opens Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)

The Book Thief

(20th Century Fox) Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam. During the Second World War a spirited young girl is sent to live with a new family in Nazi Germany. In a place where books are routinely burned and ideas that conflict with official state policy are dangerous, she  finds courage in the immense power of words and books.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material) 

Bullett Raja

(Fox STAR) Saif Ali Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidyut Jamwal, Jimmy Shergill. An ordinary man is pushed to the limit and turns to a life of crime. Now a powerful criminal, he declares war on Indian society in an effort to take down the corruption that forced him to the other side of the law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Good Ol’ Freda

(Magnolia) Freda Kelly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. As a shy young teen in Liverpool, Freda Kelly was asked to work for a young local band with great aspirations. She became the secretary to the Beatles as well as their friend and confidante. This documentary tells her story set to the music of the Fab Four, offering a whole new perspective on the band that changed popular music – and world culture – forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material and smoking)

Homefront

(Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth. When a DEA agent’s wife passes away, he leaves the agency to settle down in a small town community to raise his daughter quietly and get past his own grief. Unfortunately the town he chooses is far from quiet or quaint and soon he finds himself in a war that he will have to go all out to win and keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality)

Oldboy

(FilmDistrict) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley. An ad executive and family man is kidnapped and held in a locked room for 20 years. In that time he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. When he is just as suddenly and as inexplicably released he goes on a quest to discover who imprisoned him and why. The more he discovers however, the more he realizes that his torment is far from over.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)

Philomena

(Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. An elderly woman and a BBC reporter go on a journey to find her son who was conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption to an American couple. Although she had signed a waiver promising never to look into her son’s whereabouts, she still feels that connection and defies the Catholic Church and convention to reunite with the baby she gave up so many years ago.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language) 

War Horse


War Horse

Joey takes it to the trenches

(2011) War Drama (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Eddie Marsan, Liam Cunningham. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

The bond between man and horse rivals that between man and dog. For horse lovers, it is an almost mystical connection, one that exists at the very base of the soul. It is a connection that doesn’t break easily, even when divided by distance, time…and war.

Joey is a horse that is born in the bucolic countryside of Devon in England. He is more racing stock than the plough horse that the sensible farmers of Devonshire tend to prefer. But then, nobody ever accused Ted Narracott (Mullan) of being sensible. A veteran of the Boer War, he returned home a shattered man, his leg a mess and turns to alcohol for solace. When he spots Joey at an auction, for reasons even he couldn’t articulate he gets into a bidding war with his own landlord, Lyons (Thewlis) for the beast and winds up spending his monthly rent money on the horse who is clearly not suitable for farm work.

Nonetheless Ted’s son Albert (Irvine) takes to Joey like a duck to water and the two become inseparable. Albert teaches Joey to wear a harness and gets him to plough a particularly rocky and infertile patch of land for Ted to plant turnips in. Albert’s mother Rose (Watson) chides her son gently afterwards when Albert’s pride at accomplishing the impossible moves towards contempt for his own father who had put him in a position of having to save the family bacon. Rose shows Albert the medals and regimental pennant that Ted had wanted thrown out but Rose had saved.

But a new war is on the horizon, one that will bring more horrors than any that had ever preceded it – the Great War, the War to End All Wars but one which today in America is little remembered as The First World War. Today most Americans look at it as little more than a dress rehearsal for the USA’s brightest moment in the Second World War, which is revered here.

Then again, America was a latecomer to the dance when it came to the Great War. It was fought in European fields and decimated the countryside; it also decimated the population. Nearly every family in France, Germany and Great Britain has a tale about that war involving a great-grandfather or relative who went off to war and never returned, or if they did return, did so with missing limbs, respiratory problems from mustard gas, or with a shattered psyche.

Joey is sold to the British army as a cavalry horse, much to Albert’s sorrow. He promises Joey that they’ll find each other, even as the kindly captain (Hiddleston) who takes the horse as his own mount has his doubts. Joey impulsively ties his dad’s pennant to Joey’s bridle and off Joey and the captain go to war.

The movie’s focus shifts from the Narracotts to Joey as he passes from hand to hand and side to side. He becomes the means for a couple of German deserters to escape, the hope for a dying French farm girl, a means of moving gigantic guns from one place to another and a reason for a temporary truce in No Man’s Land between the British and the Germans.

Spielberg has been more visible as a studio mogul these days than as a director, but here he  once again proves why he is the greatest director of our generation. This is visual poetry, thanks largely to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (who in my opinion is the Oscar frontrunner) as well as composer John Williams who provides a score that alternates martial beats with heart-tugging strings.

In fact, this is a movie that leaves not a single dry eye in the house by its conclusion. This is based on a book by Michael Mopurgo which in turn became a stage play that is enjoying great success in London and New York City where it is running even as we speak; be warned that the movie hews closer to the book and less to the play which shifts the point of view from Joey to Albert by necessity. The play also includes a puppet horse who, while life-like, is still no match for the real horse (or horses) that is Joey in the film.

Irvine is guileless in the lead, a very typical Spielbergian hero who does the right thing motivated by love and is a stolid member of the working class. Irvine brings to life the heart that screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis provide the character and makes that heart real. His relationship with his father and his mother is occasionally rocky but there is clearly love there.

Of additional note is Arestrup as a French grandfather who is watching the war take everything from him. Arestrup who was amazing as a gangster in A Prophet is wonderful here as well, becoming a kind of archetype for how most of us view French country life and those who live it. There is an inner sorrow inside him as loss after loss piles up until he has nothing left but memories. It’s an amazing, affecting performance and is to me the one human performance you’ll remember most.

But of course this is Joey’s story and Joey is indeed a stand-in for the millions of horses that were butchered during the war, sometimes literally. Spielberg has stated that in most of the movies he’s directed, the horse was just something the lead character rode; here he has to get audiences to watch the horse and not the rider, something that he accomplishes for the most part.

Now, I have to admit that while I’m generally willing to stretch my disbelief for a movie, the final scenes in the movie really made that stretch mighty thin, almost to the breaking point. The very final scenes are poignant but over-the-top with a Western sunset worthy of John Ford but perhaps not so appropriate for Devon. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way here gentlemen.

Still, this is a movie that has gotten much praise and justifiably so – it’s certainly one of the best movies of the Holiday season and while it hasn’t gotten the box office attention of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there are those who think it has an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar; certainly it will get a great deal of nomination votes in that category.

This is a movie that is cathartic and thrilling in equal measures. Horse lovers will be appalled at the depictions of animal cruelty here (although please do keep in mind that the Humane Society was on hand closely monitoring the situation to make sure no animals were harmed in the making of the movie and from all accounts had glowing reports of how well the horses and other animals in the movie including a rather ill-tempered goose were treated). Military buffs will be impressed by the depiction of the trench warfare – a couple of scenes rivaled Saving Private Ryan as among the best depictions of war ever filmed. History buffs will appreciate that an era rarely visited by American filmmakers is finally getting its due by one of the greatest American filmmakers.

While the movie has plenty to recommend it to kids, I’d think twice about bringing the younger kids to the film as some of the wartime scenes are pretty intense with casualties among both men and horses. However for older kids and adults, this is a return to form by Spielberg and certainly one of his best works of the 21st century. Just be sure to bring plenty of hankies along with your popcorn and soda.

REASONS TO GO: The trench warfare scenes are amazing. Not a dry eye in the house by the end of the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: A little far-fetched in places. Final sunset-lit scenes are a bit too over-the-top.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some war-time violence and some graphic depictions of animal suffering.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were fourteen horses used to play Joey, each doing their own specific action but the horse used most often in close-ups is Finder’s Key, the same horse that played the title role in Seabiscuit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Black Stallion

ARTILLERY LOVERS: Very accurate portrayals of the moving of big German guns and how devastating they were once they got into position.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

New Releases for the Week of December 23, 2011


December 23, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

(Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Michelle Monaghan, Lea Seadoux, Anil Kapoor, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames. Directed by Brad Bird

Although this has been out since last week it’s only been available in the IMAX format and is just now being released to regular theaters. In the fourth installment in the franchise, the IMF is faced with its darkest crisis ever – the agency has been implicated in a global terrorist bombing plot and the entire agency has been disavowed. It is up to Ethan Hunt and his team to discover who’s really behind the threat and clear the IMF from blame, or else be captured and tried as terrorists.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, a promo and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Spy Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense action and violence)

The Adventures of Tintin

(Paramount) Jamie Bell, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis. One of the most beloved comic characters in Europe gets a motion capture film of his own directed by none other than Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson. In this, the first of a projected franchise, the intrepid boy reported Tintin chases after the mysterious cargo of the legendary shipwreck the S.S. Unicorn which may yield untold power but also hunting for the wreck is the nefarious Red Rackham (NOTE: This movie opened today and is now playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Family Adventure

Rating: PG (for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)

The Artist

(Weinstein) Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, Malcolm McDowell, John Goodman.  As the silent movie era begins to fade away with the advent of the talkies, a silent movie star sees his stardom slip away from him. Even as he does, a young ingénue he discovered sees her own star rise into the heavens. Their destinies intersect in this charming, bittersweet and ultimately triumphant love story that has earned all sorts of critical awards and may have the loudest Oscar buzz of any film out there.

See the trailer, a clip and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for a disturbing image and a crude gesture)

The Darkest Hour

(Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor. Five young people visiting Moscow find themselves trapped there when the city is attacked by aliens invisible to the human eye who destroy people using a deadly electrical current. Their situation is further compromised when they find out that Moscow isn’t the only city under attack and they must find a way to survive the superior technology of the invaders. This is the latest from Timur Bekmambetov who brought us Wanted (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Science Fiction Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence and some language)

Don 2

(Reliance Big Picture) Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Boman Irani, Lara Dutta. An Indian crime boss having taken over most of the Asian crime syndicates sets his sights on Europe. Known for his ruthlessness and cunning, he sets out to beat out his European counterparts at their own game.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Thriller

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

(Columbia) Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard. A disgraced Swedish journalist is hired to investigate a 40-year-old murder by a reclusive old industrialist whose family includes Nazis and sadists. He is assisted by a brilliant young hacker who has been the victim of sexual and physical abuse. This is the remake of a Swedish film that is based on an international best seller; many folks were concerned that the Americanization of the film might ruin the source material, but it appears those fears were needless; the movie is being touted as one of the best of the year and a likely Oscar contender (NOTE: This movie opened on Tuesday and is currently playing in theaters everywhere).

See the trailer, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language)

War Horse

(DreamWorks) Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine. The journey of a horse from bucolic English countryside to the trenches of the First World War is chronicled by master storyteller Steven Spielberg in one of two movies from the director to open this week. Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo (which was also adapted into a stage play), the movie is geared strongly towards family audiences but word has it that older audiences will appreciate it too (NOTE: This movie is opening on Sunday, December 25).

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of war violence)

We Bought a Zoo

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning. A family, reeling from a tragedy, buy a dilapidated zoo in an effort to make a fresh start. With the help of an eccentric staff, a lot of elbow grease and a willingness to make mistakes, they plough through a series of misadventures that aren’t always learning opportunities.  Their goal is to make the zoo an exciting, fresh place once again but is it possible they have bitten off way more than they can chew?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG (for language and some thematic elements)

Cold Souls


Cold Souls

David Strathairn shows an amazed Paul Giamatti what a soul looks like; being in Hollywood, he's never seen one before.

(2009) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick, Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Tucker, Armand Schultz, Boris Kievsky, Gregory Korostishevsky. Directed by Sophie Barthes

What is our soul, really? Is it just a concept, as ephemeral as a thought? Or is it something real and tangible, something that can be made physical and as such, something that can be removed if need be?

Paul Giamatti (playing himself – kind of) is an actor who has been lauded for many performances and is currently taking on the role of Uncle Vanya in a Broadway production of the Chekhov play. It’s meant to be a comedy, but Paul is having issues. He is feeling too much and his performance is suffering.

He reads an article in the New Yorker about a service in which souls may be extracted and stored. Intrigued, he meets up with the man behind it, Dr. Flintstein (Strathairn) who assures him that the procedure is painless and safe. After some reluctance on his part at first, Paul finally decides to do it.

The operation is as promised; brief, painless and safe. At first, it’s like a great weight taken off of his shoulders. Surprisingly, whereas souls took all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, Paul’s looks very much like a chick pea – or garbanzo bean if you prefer. Such a small thing, Paul muses, but such a great weight it carries with it.

At first things are swell. But as time passes, things are not swell, as things often become. Soon, Paul’s wife Claire (Watson) – whom he never informed about his procedure – notices a change in Paul’s personality. So does the director (Tucker) of the play, which is very disturbing as they are days away from opening and Paul is clearly not even close to ready. It seems that Paul’s soul was necessary after all and he returns to the clinic to have it re-installed.

Except it’s missing. As it turns out, there is a high demand for black market American souls in Russia and a mule named Nina (Korzun) has taken Paul’s soul, thinking it was Al Pacino’s, for the girlfriend (Winnick) of a Russian mobster who yearns to be a movie star. Paul must journey to Moscow to retrieve his stolen soul in the company of a sympathetic Nina, who has elements of all the soul’s she’s carried within her, including Paul’s. However he’ll have to brave the wrath of a Russian gangster and the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union if he’s to get his real soul back.

Not many would tackle souls as a subject for a movie in a Hollywood that is politically correct, for fear of offending the religious right or the non-religious left. In that sense, Barthes is an equal opportunity offender here but I don’t get that’s her actual goal.

She’s gathered a decent cast around her. Giamatti is an Oscar-nominated actor, one who has been giving consistently strong performances nearly every time out since his coming out party for Sideways back in 2004. He’s not playing himself, really – he’s playing a character here loosely based on himself – or at least looking a lot like himself – but maybe more of what he perceives others perceive him as. I know that sounds confusing but don’t think about it too much and you’ll get used to him being addressed with his real name onscreen.

Strathairn is also one of the best character actors of his generation, one who projects competence and character in every role. While his part is essentially comedic, he lends a bit of – not gravitas precisely, but legitimacy in any case. As always, even in a part that might not necessarily demand it, he gives a smart performance.

Watson, who I’ve barely mentioned in the description of the plot, manages to make the most of her brief appearance. She is understanding and devoted to the point of ferocity to her somewhat quirky husband. She comes off as a somewhat ideal wife and that in itself can make for a bland performance, but she is far from that here. As a critic, I appreciate that she took a role that lends itself to being taken for granted and makes it shine. I also liked Korzun’s performance as the sympathetic soul mule. It may have taken the souls of others for her to develop a conscience but Korzun makes Nina’s change from amoral employee to sympathetic assistant to Giamatti a fluid and organic one.

I have a thing about movies that make you think, and this one is one of those. Director Barthes, who also wrote the script, is offering up a debate about a subject not often tackled by the movies because of the religious implications. What is the soul? What makes it important? What does it look like? How can it be changed? What happens to us when it does?

Big questions deserve big answers and sadly, none are forthcoming here. The problem with the movie is that it is VERY cerebral but it really leaves the debate in the theater and not on the screen. Because it’s so very thought-provoking, it takes it’s time getting itself established and the whole Russian mobster sub-plot felt a bit misguided. Still, it’s a smart and at times very funny exploration of a subject that’s so rarely tackled in ANY medium that the filmmakers get a couple of points just for attempting it. I’m looking forward to more movies that provoke this kind of debate from Ms. Barthes.

WHY RENT THIS: A unique concept, well-executed. Fine performances from Giamatti, Strathairn and Watson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So overly cerebral that at times the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality as well as some fairly mature concepts. The language can get a little rough too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was inspired by a dream that Woody Allen had in which he discover his soul resembles a garbanzo bean.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a three-minute featurette on the design and construction of the soul extractor.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: In a Better World (Haevnen)

Miss Potter


Miss Potter

Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter inspect a proof of her first book.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber. Directed by Chris Noonan

Most of us are aware of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail – they are indelible parts of our childhood. Some of us might even be aware of Beatrix Potter, the 19th century author and creator of those wonderful characters. Most of us, however, know nearly nothing of her, which considering she is the best-selling children’s author of all time – she has sold more books than both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling – is a bit of a shame.

Zellweger means to change that. A fan of the famed author, the biopic of Beatrix Potter was something of a labor of love for the star. She plays Potter as an un-lovely but imaginative spinster, living in the home of her wealthy parents who despair of ever marrying her off as she rejects suitor after suitor, most of them brought before her because of their titles or bloodline. Beatrix, however, will have none of that. She’ll marry for love or not at all.

She also is a talented artist, a skill encouraged by her father (Paterson) who was something of an artist himself before his family forced him to take up a more respectable vocation – the law, which ironically he rarely practiced. She also has a talent at making up stories, one which kept her and her brother entertained as children. Now, she means to entertain other children with her tales, but she goes from publishing house to publishing house only to meet rejection and scorn. She finally finds one, Warne House, which is willing to publish her but only believes she’ll make a marginal profit. They fob her off on Norman (McGregor), youngest son of the family and thought to be something of a foul-up.

Norman, however, proves to be almost as enthusiastic about the project as Miss Potter herself, and the two engage in a marvelous simpatico that results in some of the classic children’s books of all times. Norman introduces Beatrix to his sister Millie (Watson) and the two become fast friends, a friendship that deepens as Beatrix falls in love with her editor. The two propose to marry, but Beatrix’s parents are aghast. Firstly, Norman is a tradesman – why, the very thing is beneath them. Secondly, by Victorian standards, they’ve barely met. The overbearing mother (Flynn) and the somewhat more sympathetic father finally arrange a truce with their distraught daughter – if she still feels the same way at the end of the summer, then the marriage will receive their blessing. Reluctantly, Beatrix agrees, expecting to hear wedding bells at the conclusion of her time at their house in the English Lake Country. Tragically, it is not wedding bells but a funeral dirge that she will hear as Norman sickens and dies in her absence.

Devastated, she moves to a home in her beloved Lake Country in a charming farm house (which still exists today, by the way). There, she finds solace in a new vocation – as an activist in preserving the Lake Country from over-development, and in the arms of a realtor (Owen) that she first met when he was a young man.

Fantasy segments bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life, and while unfortunately Zellweger’s performance is a bit bland (but to be fare, Miss Potter in reality was a bit bland), nonetheless you feel as if you’ve gotten some insight into the woman at the film’s conclusion, a very satisfactory outcome for any biopic. I enjoyed McGregor’s performance and the English supporting cast is first-rate, although not well-known.

I love the recreation of the period, which feels authentic and allows a glimpse at the daily lives of the well-to-do, not to mention the psyche of the nouveau riche of the time. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales of Beatrix Potter; watching her creations come to life in her head was revisiting beloved old friends for me. This is truly a charming movie that isn’t overwhelming, but a solid effort nonetheless.

REASONS TO RENT: Charming fantasy sequences. Solid performances by McGregor and support cast. Nice recreation of the period.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Zellweger a bit bland. Story drags a bit in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mildly naughty words but really nothing your kids haven’t already heard.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Hilltop” house that Beatrix Potter retreats to in the Lake District is actually Yew Tree Farm in the town of Coniston in the Lake District, not far from where Potter actually lived.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature on the real Beatrix Potter and the marketing of her books which was one of the first books to market the characters to children and made Potter one of the wealthiest authors of her time.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on an unreported production budget; I’d hazard a guess that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Two Lovers