Inherent Vice


Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.

(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon).  Life is pretty sweet.

Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.

I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).

In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.

Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.

The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.

Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.

We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.

I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.

I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.

REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip

The Judge


The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

Mission: Impossible II


Mission: Impossible II

Tom Cruise knows how to define cool instead of being defined by it.

(2000) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, Ving Rhames, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendan Gleeson, Rade Serbedzija, William Mapother, Dominic Purcell, Matthew Wilkinson, Alison Araya. Directed by John Woo

 

It sounds like an unbeatable combo: Tom Cruise, whose revival of the revered television franchise was a big hit; terrific gadgets; and John Woo, who with apologies to Jan de Bont, Michael Bay and John McTiernan, is the best action director on the planet. Should you decide to accept it? Heck, yeah!

The plot is a bit of a lulu. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who is evidently back in the IMF after the recent unpleasantness is called upon to recruit Nyah (Newton), a beautiful thief to go after Chimera,a creation of an ex-Soviet molecular biologist which has been ripped off by a renegade IMF agent (Scott) who, as it happens, has a previous relationship with the thief and a grudge against Hunt.

Sounds simple enough but let’s face it, this isn’t Mission Simple it’s Mission Impossible right?. Ambrose, the renegade agent, is at least nearly as competent as Hunt and he has no compunction about using deadly force as does Hunt in this iteration. Nyah is the wild card whose allegiance is clearly to herself and whose motivations are murky at best.

Few directors are able to capture the poetry of movement as well as Woo, and the action scenes reflect that aesthetic. Woo stages some incredible action scenes, beginning with a mountain-climbing scene and building to a climactic motorcycle chase and fight. They are marvelously staged and worth every penny that you paid to rent or buy whichever version of it you have in your grubby little hands.

Now, the down side. Much less energy is put into the non-action scenes, and therefore some of the expository scenes drag. Hunt falls in love with the thief too quickly and for no apparent reason other than to make a plot complication the audience could do without. The writers also rely too much on the hoary plot device of disguising the actors as other actors. It seems like every ten minutes, someone is pulling off latex to reveal Hunt’s face or Ambrose’s face. Yes, we get that not everything is as it seems, guys. This is just pure laziness on the writers’ part, a device meant to move the plot along without really putting too much thought into it.

Cruise is surrounded by a capable cast, which is a good thing because he spends most of the movie trying to be emotionless (which translates onscreen as “wooden”). Scott makes a first-rate villain and for my money at the time seemed poised for stardom which to this point has never arrived. Newton is lustrous as the bad girl gone good (more or less) but does little more than point smoldering looks in Cruise’s general direction. Rhames returns from the first movie, but outside of one scene is given little to do beyond monitoring the computer and warning Hunt to be careful. Hopkins has a cameo as the acerbic head of the IMF; we could have done with more of him and less of the latex.

Still, given all the faults of the movie, it’s still a satisfying summer action thriller, full of great stunts, terrific gadgets and things that go boom. Even if you’re at home on a cold winter’s night, there’s nothing better than a big summer movie to take your mind off of things for two hours. This isn’t the best movie in the franchise and it’s a bit disappointing that Woo couldn’t make a better film, but the action sequences alone are worth checking this bad boy out.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific action sequences. Hopkins is a treasure and Scott not a bad villain at all.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise surprisingly wooden here. Too much latex. Newton not the ideal leading lady.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sexuality and a whole lot of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie Metallica ever agreed to write a song for.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video of the aforementioned Metallica song, a couple of tributes to Cruise which seem oddly out of place here and an interesting look at the stunts with the film’s stunt co-ordinator.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $546.4M on a $125M prodution budget; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Quantum of Solace

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Big Year

Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

The Fog (2005)


The Fog

Driving Miss Daisy, this ain't!

(2005) Supernatural Horror (Columbia) Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, DeRay Davis, Rade Serbedzjia, Kenneth Welsh, Adrian Hough, Sara Botsford, Matthew Currie Holmes. Directed by Rupert Wainwright

One of the most underrated of John Carpenter’s movies was his follow-up to Halloween, 1980’s The Fog. Although there were cheesy elements to it (heck, that wasn’t uncommon for any horror film of the era), it still was a genuine creepfest and still gives me the chills whenever I watch it even now, a quarter of a century later.

When they announced the remake of it, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. I’ve found most of the horror movie remakes of classic ’70s and ’80s scare flicks to be uneven at best – few have really done little more than to update the stories for a more modern audience. I didn’t hold out hope for much better from this.

Antonio Island is celebrating the centennial of their founding, but there is a terrible secret harbored by the remote Northern California seaport and it is born on the fog. Nick Castle (Welling), a charter fishing boat operator, has to put up with a ne’er do well first mate named Spooner (Davis) and a boat that has seen better days. Still, they manage to make ends meet, but while on a charter their anchor dredges something up from the bottom – artifacts of a bygone age that have been at rest for a hundred years.

Back on shore, Nick is surprised to encounter an old flame, Elizabeth Williams (Grace) walking to town from the pier. She had left suddenly five years ago without really resolving things between them, and he had been hurt by it. He was just now beginning to get involved with the pretty single mom DJ Stevie Wayne (Blair) but now he is torn.

In the meantime, Spooner has taken out Nick’s boat to party with a couple of bikini clad girls and Nick’s cousin Sean (Holmes). But a heavy fogbank is headed their way unbeknownst to them, and moving against the wind. Before you can say “bad things are going to happen,” bad things happen.

Spooner survives the mayhem, but is considered primo suspect number one for the murder of the other three. His story is completely whacko about ghost ships and fog banks, so his friend Nick goes out to find out what’s going on. He and Elizabeth discover a startling truth – that the town was founded on blood money stolen from a colony of lepers who were then burned alive on the ship that they thought was going to take them to a new home. That kind of thing can piss a ghost off.

The effects are much more sophisticated than in the original fog, but then again they don’t use nearly as many effects as you would think they might, director Wainwright wisely allowing the natural setting of the fog-shrouded town to create an atmosphere of creepiness that carries the film. The problem is that the characters are a bit faceless. Welling is a good-looking lead, but he doesn’t really carry the film like you think he might. He does better in his role as Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but here he seems a little bit passionless.

Grace and Blair are both lovely to look at, but Grace is given not a lot of character by the script; she exists mainly to move the plot along. Blair has a bit more to chew on as a character, and takes advantage of it. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more of her in the movies – she was certainly marvelous in Hellboy.

There are a lot of plot holes in the script – for example, they clearly state that they are celebrating the hundred year anniversary of the town’s founding, and they clearly link the founding of the town to the nefarious acts with the lepers, but they also clearly state that those events took place in 1871 and it is even more clear that the movie is set in contemporary times, not in 1971 which would be accurate. Whoops.

Still, despite all that, I liked the movie, I liked the atmosphere that was created, I liked Blair and I really liked the climax of the movie. It’s certainly far from perfect, but it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, particularly if it’s a dark and stormy evening. 

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric to the max. Blair is a particularly good performer and easy on the eyes, as is Grace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weilling is unaccountably bland. Cheese factor a little high for modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a little sensuality and enough bad language to be…bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debra Hill, the co-writer of the original movie and given a producer’s credit here, died shortly before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a nice feature on the special effects which show how good-looking effects can be accomplished on a tight budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.2M on an $18M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Country Strong

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

Funny People


Funny People

Jason Schwartzmann, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are all funny people.

(Universal) Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzmann, RZA, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari. Directed by Judd Apatow

We love to laugh. Those who can make us laugh with amazing regularity own a special place in our hearts. However, the cost of that laughter can often be unbearable.

George Simmons (Sandler) is one of the planet’s top comedians. His movies have grossed hundreds of millions, and his stand-up act is legendary. He is also undeniably alone; his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mann) left him because George cheated on her. Now, George has just received some devastating news – he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctors want to try an experimental treatment, but the prognosis is grim.

Ira Wright (Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up who, as his co-worker Chuck (RZA) at the deli he works at opines, isn’t very funny. Ira sleeps on the couch in an apartment shared by Ira’s friend Leo (Hill) who is also a stand-up comedian (only much better and more successful) and Mark (Schwartzmann) who has hit the jackpot – he’s the lead on an NBC sitcom that, while not very good, at least pays Mark exceedingly well.

George decides to excise his demons through standup and goes to an open-mike competition at his old stomping grounds where Ira and Leo are also performing, along with Randy (Ansari), a rival comic with a biting sense of humor. George is somewhat impressed with Ira and Leo and offers them jobs as writers but Ira, in an uncharacteristic move, cuts Leo out of the equation.

The two form an odd relationship as George hires Ira to be his assistant but there’s definitely a bond between them. Ira is one of the few people…okay the only person…that George can confide in. Otherwise, George is somewhat insufferable, often treating Ira like dirt, so isolated by his own celebrity that he can’t reach out in his hour of need.

Despite the title, this isn’t a movie about comedy or even really about comedians, and despite the plot it’s not a movie about dealing with mortality either. That’s more or less a side issue. What the movie is about is isolation and what it does to us. This is a movie about human beings who happen to work as comedians, but it isn’t about being a comedian.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t be. It works as a matter of fact, particularly the first two-thirds of the movie. Where it falls flat is in the last third wherein George tries to win Laura back from her obnoxiously macho Aussie husband (Bana). Even though Mann gives a thoroughly satisfying performance in her role as George’s muse, the sad fact of the matter is that the situation here is painful in many ways and when Ira pleads “Can’t we just go now” I can empathize.

On the plus side, Sandler and Rogen both give their best performances ever. Sandler shows the kind of depth he displayed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me and takes it to new levels. This is far from the lovable kinds of characters he’s played in movies like Happy Gilmore or Bedtime Stories; in fact, George Simmons is a bit of a prick. It takes some courage to go as far out of his comfort zone as Sandler appears to here.

Rogen has mostly played lovable stoners throughout his career. Here, he is a bit more driven, a bit more ambitious and a little less lovable. He’s basically a decent guy and yet he screws over a friend. He is kind of sweet on fellow comedian Daisy (Plaza) but can’t bring himself to ask her out on a date and gets furious with her when she sleeps with Mark. Yes, he’s a bit of a loser but one senses he isn’t going to remain that way for long.

I liked the movie enough to overlook that final reel which doesn’t work as well. The crux of the movie seems to belong more in the relationship between George and Ira than it does to George and Laura; certainly that whole sequence could and should have been cut down significantly.

What works here works really well. The standup sequences are incredible in places, and I did laugh a lot throughout. While there is a good deal of emphasis on penis humor, it isn’t enough to be off-putting. Sadly, the movie was mis-marketed by Universal who portrayed the movie as a straight comedy and it really isn’t that, so the film didn’t do the box office it probably deserved. However, it is worth taking a peek, particularly if you like your movies to run the gamut of emotions.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely funny moments as well as some genuine pathos. Sandler and Rogen are at the top of their games.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole winning back of his wife thing is often awkward and uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a tremendous amount of blue language and some crude sexual references; it’s R-rated stand-up comedy for sure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George and Ira are named after the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the famous composer and lyricist who among other things, composed Rhapsody in Blue.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a lot going on, both on the 2-disc Collectors DVD edition and the Blu-Ray.  There is a video diary from Apatow that gives extensive insight into the making of the movie. Archival footage shows Sandler and Apatow appearances on Letterman, Dennis Miller’s talk show and “The Midnight Hour with Bill Maher.” There’s also a faux documentary on Randy, the Ansari character who will be getting a feature film of his own shortly and a “highlight reel” of George’s film career. There are also the full versions of the songs James Taylor performs at the MySpace Party, as well as full jams between Sandler and Jon Brion, and some rapping by RZA. The Blu-Ray version also contains an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show by Sandler and Apatow promoting the film. All in all one of the more impressive packages for any recent release.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Eat, Pray, Love