Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


The world needs Fred Rogers more than ever.

(2017) Documentary (Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Chtista McAuliffe, Joe Negri, Francois Scarborough Clemmons, Elizabeth Seamans, Jeff Erlinger, Tom Snyder, Margy Whitmer, Kailyn Davis, David Newell, McColm Cephas Jr. John O. Pastore, Betty Aberlin, Koko. Directed by Morgan Neville

Entire generations of kids grew up with Fred Rogers, whose PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a mainstay in many households across the country. Rogers himself was an unlikely TV star; soft-spoken, a little bit corny and prone to using silence on his show to allow kids to digest things, he took the conventions of frenetic-paced kids television of the day (the same conventions that remain today) and turned them upside down and inside out. For this he became a beloved figure. Few celebrities have ever been able to relate as well to children as he.

An ordained minister, he eschewed the cloth to utilize the fairly new medium of television in order to spread his gospel of talking to children as equals rather than talking down to them, to listening to what they have to say instead of dismissing it out of hand. He wanted to teach children the virtues of kindness and generosity. He wanted them to know that every one of them are unique and special.

Of course, in later years Fox News seized on this and blamed Rogers for the entitlement of Millennials. As usual, Fox News got it wrong; what he was getting across was that every child is unique and has something different to offer. Some kids are fast runners, some great singers, others are just good at giving hugs. Everything is valid. Of course, Fox News and their ilk have succeeded in getting across that a person’s value can only be measured in dollars and cents. It’s that ridiculous and heartless idea that only people who are gainfully employed in “serious” jobs are successes in life.

The format of the documentary isn’t particularly earth-shattering; it’s essentially what most modern documentaries do; archival footage, talking head interviews and animated sequences (of Daniel Tiger in this case) mixed together. Neville, an Oscar winner for Twenty Feet from Stardom, mixes the elements together in a roughly chronological order and with a wealth of video from Rogers’ show as well as contemporary and archival interviews with Rogers, his family, his colleagues and noted celebrities like Yo-Yo Ma, bring together a picture of the man – who struggled with feelings of inadequacy his entire life – and of the impact of his show, which was clearly considerable.

Rogers helped teach children to deal with real issues, like divorce and death. His show following the assassination of Bobby Kennedy was perhaps his finest moment as kids learned from Daniel Tiger that it’s okay to be sad and to feel bad about someone being assassinated. While Rogers likely wouldn’t have voted for Kennedy (he was a lifelong Republican), he could at least cross party lines and help heal those hurting following a national tragedy. I wonder if any modern Republicans or Democrats could do that today.

In fact, given the recent news of children at the border being forcibly taken away from their parents, one wonders what Fred Rogers would have thought about that? I can only imagine but I have no doubt in my mind his soft voice would be among the loudest in demanding that the practice be discontinued immediately and that the children separated from their parents be returned to them without delay. His wife Joanne, talking about the political division that exists in this country nowadays, asserts that while Fred would have been disappointed in it, he would be at the same time on the front lines trying to heal those divisions rather than complaining about it. He certainly would not give up hope. To me, that’s why America needed Fred Rogers then and why we need him more than ever no and indeed, the world needs men like him always.

If you’re looking for a documentary that gives you a warm feeling of nostalgia, this one delivers. If you’re looking for one that gives you a sense of hope and well-being, this one delivers. If you’re looking for a film that will make you want to be a better person, this one delivers. I hope that we all continue to learn from Fred Rogers the lessons he taught so gently yet effectively. Every neighborhood would benefit.

REASONS TO GO: This is the rare documentary that makes you feel good exiting the theater. It’s a very informative film about Fred Rogers and his TV show. The life lessons taught here continue to be valid.
REASONS TO STAY: The structure of the documentary isn’t particularly remarkable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various puppets used on the show were based on people Rogers knew or in the case of Daniel Tiger, on Rogers himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Big Bird: The Carrol Spinney Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Annihilation

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Concert for George


Eric Clapton doing what he does best.

(2003) Concert Film (Abramorama) Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Tom Hanks, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Gary Brooker, Billy Preston, Olivia Harrison, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Ray Cooper, Neil Innes, Andy Fairweather-Low, Jim Capaldi, Carol Cleveland, Anoushka Shankar. Directed by David Leland

 

Most remember George Harrison as “the quiet Beatle” but the truth is that he was one of the great guitarists of his time as well as a sterling songwriter who wrote songs like “Something,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All Those Years Ago” and “Taxman.” He maintained a strong interest in Indian spiritualism and was a close friend to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who taught him to play the instrument and who considered him to be a son.

Harrison died too young at age 58 on November 29, 2001 in the home of a friend after a long battle with lung cancer. His widow Olivia and close friend Eric Clapton (whom Harrison had known since childhood) organized a tribute concert which took place a year to the day of his passing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A virtual who’s who of British rock royalty, the concert had the benefit that all of the performers were close to Harrison in some way or form either personally or as performers. The music that was performed therefore was straight from the heart and it shows.

A documentary was made of the event but was never released theatrically as far as I know; it has been available off and on over the years on home video. Now, on the occasion of Harrison’s 75th birthday (which would have been February 25, 2018) music documentary specialists Abramorama have undergone a brief limited theatrical release of the original documentary (for local Orlando residents, it will be playing at the Enzian Theater on March 19).

There are interviews with some of the participants which are very brief; mostly director David Leland is content to let the music speak for itself which it does eloquently. In the interview segments, Harrison’s death is still pretty close in mind and for some the emotion is still raw but the event was a celebration, not an elegy and the overwhelming feeling you get is joy. As for the concert segments, music director Clapton wisely kept pretty close to the original arrangements that Harrison had so the songs remained familiar. The songs themselves range from music that influenced Harrison (like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” performed by Starr) to his tenure with the Beatles and then his lengthy solo career that followed as well as his work with the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.

There was also a comedy interlude in which former Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed “Sit on My Face” from The Meaning of Life and one of their signatures “The Lumberjack Song” in which they were joined by longtime Python associate Carol Cleveland, Bonzo Dog songwriter Neil Innes, actor Tom Hanks and the Fred Tomlinson Singers. Harrison was a huge Python fan and produced their final two movies through his HandMade Films banner which also produced several other memorable films as well. The levity is a welcome moment and makes a nice break during the concert.

There were some exceptions. Harrison had a great deal of affection for the humble ukulele so McCartney performed “Something” on it, a tribute he’d been doing on his own solo tour that year. The song then opens up into a full rock number with Clapton joining McCartney on vocals. Shankar wrote an original song for the occasion which was performed with his daughter Anoushka. Finally Joe Brown, a pioneering English rocker for whom the Beatles opened for back in the early days and for whom Harrison was best man at his wedding, played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” one of the few songs not written by Harrison in the concert, on the ukulele. He was joined by nearly every musician that played in the show onstage for a touching finale.

Leland for some odd reason chose not to use onscreen graphics to identify the performers. That’s fine for widely recognized icons like McCartney, Starr and Clapton but not everyone knows who Gary Brooker is or what he looks for and the parade of rockers whose heyday was in the 60s (and in Joe Brown’s case, the 50s) are not always easy to recognize. Some are introduced verbally but mainly we never know who’s speaking in the interviews or performing onstage which is a bit irritating.

One thing that was a little-remarked grace note to the whole thing was the presence of Harrison’s son Dhani who played acoustic guitar on nearly every song. Dhani who was 24 at the time of the show is a dead ringer for his late father. Seeing him playing behind McCartney was oddly comforting, like a glimpse of the past. It is also good to see Petty, Shankar and Billy Preston playing again, all of whom have left us since this show took place as well as Sam Brown, a striking performer (and daughter of Joe Brown) whose career was sadly cut short when vocal issues forced her to retire.

In many ways this isn’t the most polished of concert films as the participants had little time to rehearse. Still, the fact that stars of this caliber made room on their schedules to be at this show is not only a testament to the respect they had for Harrison as a musician but for the love they had for Harrison as a person. That love shows up very plainly in the music they played that night and it certainly makes this worth seeing on the big screen if it plays anywhere near you; you can see where it is going to be playing here. If you can’t make it to a theater or it’s not coming to one convenient to where you live, take heart; the movie will be back on VOD and on various streaming services in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: Clapton’s star power is very much on display. The Monty Python interlude is nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used some identification for the various aging rockers.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Paul and Ringo had performed together on the same stage since the break-up of the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Concert for Bangladesh
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Commuter

Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

The Snowtown Murders (Snowtown)


What's a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

What’s a summer evening without ice cream on the curb with a serial killer?

(2011) True Life Crime Drama (IFC) Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris, David Walker, Aaron Viergever, Keiran Schwerdt, Bob Adriaens, Richard Green, Frank Cwiertniak, Matthew Howard, Marcus Howard, Anthony Groves, Beau Gosling, Aasta Brown, Craig Coyne, Kathryn Wissell, Krystie Flaherty, Andrew Mayers, Robert Deeble. Directed by Justin Kurzel

Offshoring

The United States is the world capital for serial killers, but they are not merely endemic to American shores. They appear all over the world. Australia’s most notorious as of this writing is named John Bunting.

In the suburbs of North Adelaide lives Elizabeth Harvey (Harris) and her sons Jamie (Pittaway) and Troy (Groves), both by different fathers, as well as her boyfriend Jeffrey (Cwiertniak). They live an empty, desensitized existence, shuffling around like zombies in a hopeless environment where nothing will ever get better. Elizabeth doesn’t really care about much of anything as Jeffrey molests her sons with impunity and Troy molests Jamie. Jamie seems to accept all of this as his lot in life.

New neighbor John Bunting (Henshall) shows up almost like a knight on a charging stallion. He drives Jeffrey off and brings stability and a father figure to the family. Jamie becomes very attached to John who is mentoring him in the game of life.

That is, until John turns out to be a monster hiding beneath easygoing smiles. Oh, there are signs – the aggressive ways he questions people about their thoughts, following up with those irritating questions “Do you?” and “Really?” that tend to put people off. He punctuates his own declarative statements with a “Right?” forestalling disagreement.

And John has a particular hatred for pedophiles and homosexuals which he essentially equates. He uses a lot of anti-gay slurs in a hateful manner. Suddenly the mask comes off and we get a glimpse of the true man beneath, and that man isn’t a very nice one.

The thing is, John isn’t a man content to complain about the people he despises; he means to do something about it. However, being a good father figure, he intends to drag Jamie into his murderous activities – after all, fathers and sons are meant to go hunting, right?

With other easily manipulated neighborhood boys in tow, John would go on a killing spree that would take eleven lives. The dismembered, rotting corpses of their victims would be discovered in the vault of a closed bank in Snowtown (the murders actually occurred elsewhere but the perception that they happened in Snowtown because of the gruesome discovery persists today). While not all of the murders are depicted onscreen, the ones that are definitely aren’t for the squeamish – and they are said to be much more tame than what the court documents describe.

First time feature director Kurzel shoots most of this movie almost overexposed, leaving everything looking washed out and hopeless. While on the surface a working class neighborhood, there is literal despair here; nobody expects to rise above their current station. If anything, they expect things to get worse. They spend their days drinking, talking about how crappy things are, and smoking like chimneys. I think if they saved what they were spending on cigarettes alone they’d probably be able to afford to live in a better neighborhood, but y’know, that’s just me talking.

Henshall has an engaging screen presence. He’s not matinee handsome like other Aussie exports that have become Hollywood staples but he gobbles up your attention whenever he’s onscreen. He manages to portray what seems to be a genuinely nice guy but with sinister undertones, all of which are visible at once. One gets the sense that he doesn’t think what he’s doing is wrong; that he’s taking out the trash so to speak and storing it where it will bother nobody. I don’t know if he thinks he’s genuinely doing the world a service, but he might well do.

The issues here are that there are an awful lot of speaking parts (mostly with the exception of Henshall played by local amateurs) who aren’t well-developed and are literally indistinguishable from one another, all speaking in the local dialect; we Americans don’t just need subtitles, we need a program. The action is often disjointed, as if crucial scenes were left on the cutting room floor. I do think that was done intentionally to keep the audience feeling off balance however.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch, particularly for those sensitive to blood and brutality. It does take you somewhat not so much into the mind of a serial killer but into the mind of somebody who has been mesmerized by one. While I admire some of the techniques Kurzel employs – he is impressive with some of his ingenuity – he sometimes sacrifices substance for style, never a good thing. There is a great story here; we didn’t need to be reminded that there was someone behind the camera directing it. He is definitely a talent to keep an eye out for in the future; I have no doubt we’ll be seeing much more of him not just on the indie circuit but eventually for big Hollywood films as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Henshall has a great deal of charisma. Portrays Aussie working class life with a certain amount of affection.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many interchangeable and/or extraneous characters. Takes awhile to get going and is somewhat jumbled throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, sexuality, scenes of torture, murder and animal cruelty, a ton of foul language and homophobic slurs and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henshall lived in a hotel in the Snowtown area for six weeks, chatting with locals and trying to develop his character further.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are cast interviews. Surprisingly, no feature on the real Snowtown murders.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,452 (North America) on an unknown production budget; the movie made substantially more in Australia.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Badlands
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring concludes!

About a Boy


Two English gentlemen of leisure.

Two English gentlemen of leisure.

(2002) Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult, Toni Collette, Rachel Weisz, Sharon Small, Nicholas Hutchison, Nat Gastiain Tena, Ben Ridgeway, Isabel Brook, Tessa Vale, Paulette Williams, Jonathan Franklin, John Kamal, Victoria Smurfit, Augustus Prew, Peter Roy, Alex Kew, Roger Brierley, Denise Stephenson. Directed by Chris and Paul Weitz

Our Film Library

We all grow up at different rates. Some of us mature early; others are late bloomers. Then there are those of us who never grow up at all.

Take Will Freeman (Grant) for example. 38 years old, confirmed bachelor who has never worked a day in his life. He’s lived off of the royalties of a song he didn’t even write – his father’s hit Christmas tune “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It keeps him in a comfortable flat with all the latest gadgets, able to eat out nearly every night, keep him in reasonably fashionable attire and pretty much do whatever he wants – or nothing at all. “Every man is an island,” he intones early in the film. “I happen to be Ibiza.”

He takes the same attitude towards human relationships. “I am the star of the Will Show,” he says about his life. “and the Will Show is not an ensemble drama.” He dates women, sure, and shags his fair share – Will Freeman is an incredibly handsome and charming guy. However few of his relationships last more than a few weeks, months at most. He values his solitude and the thing that terrify most of us in the night – that we’ll end up unwanted and alone – is just his cup of tea.

This kind of attitude can lead people to do unsavory things. In Will’s case, he discovers that single mums are a treasure trove for a guy like him. They have gone without sex for a long while so they are appreciative when he gives it to them and they shag like absolute fiends when he does. Then instead of Will having to break up with them, they actually break up with him. It’s an absolute dream. He discovers a support group – Single Parents Alone Together, or SPAT and goes prowling at their meetings, inventing a child – young Ned – who doesn’t exist. Ned’s mum left them both, breaking Will’s heart and of course bringing out the nurturing nature of his prey in the process.

This doesn’t fool everyone. Marcus (Hoult) is the son of SPAT member Fiona Brewer (Collette) who is the mate of the girl that Will is interested in dating…er, shagging. He figures out that Ned doesn’t exist and lacking any sort of father figure, he kind of latches on to Will. The two become somewhat connected when Marcus goes out with Will and his prospective shagmate and when they return home, find Fiona unconscious having attempted suicide. They get her to the hospital in time fortunately.

Fiona is kind of a 21st century hippie who doesn’t realize it isn’t 1972 and worse still insures her son is a laughing stock and a target for bullying. She is also bipolar (at least so it seems from an amateur’s perspective) and prone to bouts of really deep depression. Marcus is terrified that one day she’ll succeed in killing herself and with no backup, nobody else to look after him, he’ll be royally screwed. He winds up spending time with Will because at first he wouldn’t mind Will marrying his mom (which he quickly realizes will never happen) but later because he is scared of going home and dealing with his mom.

For Will’s part, young Marcus is socially awkward and a bit of a bother but there’s something about Marcus that is perpetually endearing and despite everything he grows to actually care about Marcus. In other words, Will is beginning to grow up. And when he meets Rachel (Weisz), another single mum, Will is actually beginning to want something more than a one-night stand. Maybe there’s hope for the boy after all.

This is based on the book by Nick Hornby and is one of a string of great British romantic comedies that came out during the last decade, including Love, Actually and Notting Hill both of which involved Hugh Grant. This had the thankless task of opening against the first episode of the Star Wars saga so it largely fell by the wayside yet still managed to do impressive box office business in spite of it.

Hoult, who has gone on to become a solid actor and potential star as a young man, made his debut here and pulled off a difficult role with amazing deftness for someone who was just 12 years old at the time the film was made. I do believe that most child actors would have made Marcus too sympathetic; Marcus is definitely the author of some of his own misery but is basically a good kid. He can be annoying and he can be pig-headed but he is also capable of great shining moments of sheer gold. His relationship with his crush Ellie (Tena) is also wholly believable.

While Collette gets the thankless job of making Fiona relatively sympathetic, it is Grant who pulls this off with one of the finest performances of his career. Shallow and selfish and occasionally downright mean, he is also another one who is a decent chap at heart who just needed the right boy to pull his decency out of him.

There is no doubt that the Weitz brothers who were previously best known for the first two American Pie movies make this occasionally manipulative and once in awhile a bit cliché. In their defense, we need those bellwether points of reference to let us know what to feel from time to time and there is a certain comfort in them – no shame in that at all. The movie is likable with a soundtrack (courtesy of the indie rock act Badly Drawn Boy) that is indelible as one of the best of the century’s first decade. And yes, likable is sometimes used as criticism but who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who is likable for a couple of hours? Sometimes that’s all we need to feel good about ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Hugh Grant at his best. Charming story that is rather moving in places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally manipulative and cliché.

FAMILY VALUES:  Strong language here and there as well as some fairly adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a couple of Badly Drawn Boy music videos, an “English-to-English”  dictionary and the complete lyrics to “Santa’s Super Sleigh” which should have been a holiday classic but isn’t…thank the Great Gazoo!

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $130.6M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love, Actually

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Our Film Library!

Labor Day


Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are seeing eye to eye.

(2014) Romance (Paramount) Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire, Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe, James Van Der Beek, J.K. Simmons, Brooke Smith, Brighid Fleming, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Micah Fowler, Chandra Thomas, Matthew Rauch, Doug Trapp, Dylan Minnette, Ed Moran, Dakota Shepard, Elena Kampouris, Kate Geller. Directed by Jason Reitman

Loneliness does things to the human soul. It saps our self-confidence, flogs our self-worth and turns us into desperate, quivering hopeless creatures who might well reach out for any life preserver available – even if it comes in the form of a convicted murderer.

The sleepy town of Holton Mills, New Hampshire is in those last days of the summer of 1987. the kind where the air hangs heavy and hot over town and school beckons just past the holiday weekend. Henry (Griffith) needs school supplies and his mom takes him shopping as the weekend commences. This is no easy feat for her; she is recently divorced and is suffering from a bout of pronounced depression that is manifesting as acute agoraphobia. Her hands tremble uncontrollably, especially when she is beyond the safety of the four walls of her slowly decaying home which, lacking a man to take care of such things, is slowly falling into ruin.

Henry is accosted by a stranger named Frank (Brolin) who is bleeding and limping after a fall from a second story window. He asks for a ride which Henry’s mom Adele (Winslet) is loathe to give him but subtle threats lead her to comply. She soon discovers that Frank has escaped from prison where he is serving after being convicted of the murder of his wife nearly 20 years earlier.

Frank looks threatening and hard enough but it isn’t long before he reveals a gentle side. He is almost apologetic as he ties up Adele, essentially so that if the police ask she can claim truthfully that she was bound. He does some repair projects around the home, cooks and cleans and teaches them how to bake a proper peach pie after a neighbor (Simmons) brings by some nearly overripe peaches.

Adele quickly falls for this handsome man and quite frankly who wouldn’t? Soon she and Frank are hatching a plan to make a run for the Canadian border, while Henry’s misgivings are fueled by the manipulative Chicago transplant Eleanor (Fleming) and by his dad (Gregg) who has remarried and has a new family that seems to give him what he craves. However with the law searching high and low for Frank and Adele’s issues with leaving the house, is this plan doomed before it starts?

This is based on a Joyce Maynard novel and seems to be geared at a certain audience of women who might well be classified as those who have flocked to the bookshelves to read 50 Shades of Grey. It very much plays into the female fantasy of the bad boy with a heart of gold, a man who has a dangerous element to him but is deep down utterly devoted, handy around the house and in the kitchen and in the bedroom is loving and gentle and amazingly attentive.

Adele is right in Winslet’s wheelhouse; few actresses can portray the kind of trembling arousal that she can. There is a deer in the headlights element to Adele that is attractive but there are times when she looks to be breathing so heavily you have a real concern that she’s going to pop a button on her blouse. Still, she captures Adele’s completely broken down personality and her dependence on her 13 year old son. It isn’t hard to believe that a woman like her would fall so quickly and completely for a stranger with a prison record.

Brolin is looking more and more like his father which isn’t a bad thing if you like handsome men. However as good an actor as his dad was, his son looks to exceed his talents with each passing film. While the character of Frank is really too good to be true, Brolin at least makes him memorable and you do end up rooting for Frank and Adele to make it.

Reitman is an impressive director who often adds a dose of humor to his films which has earned him a lot of critical accolades. He is definitely one of Hollywood’s up and coming prodigies in the director’s chair; films like Juno and Thank You for Smoking underscore that. This is much less cutting edge than his previous films and correspondingly comes off a bit bland. I’m not saying that Reitman is incapable of doing a romantic film – he plainly can and has – but when you set the bar on your career to a certain level, you can end up creating disappointment in your core fan base, sort of like when M. Night Shyamalan stopped doing twist endings (or more accurately, when he stopped doing good movies). It is fair to say that some critics may be coming down on him harder because he set the bar so high with his previous movies.

And therein lies the rub. This is actually a pretty solid and sweet film that accomplishes exactly what i is supposed to. It is a change of pace for Reitman and takes him straight out of the ghetto of black comedies which he has been essentially stuck in. While one can debate the subtext of a strong, magnetic man tying up the object of his desires to tame her before winning her with the aspects that appeal to essentially any woman, I think that this is a movie geared towards women who have more to them than just hitting the clubs and gossiping with their friends. This is a movie for single moms, working moms, divorced women and single women who have had their hearts broken one too many times. These ladies deserve their fantasies too.

REASONS TO GO: Laid-back pacing and strong performances from Winslet and Brolin.

REASONS TO STAY: A few lapses in logic and character.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are fairly mature. There’s also some brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially Reitman wanted this to be his follow-up to Up in the Air but due to Winslet’s unavailability he decided to film Young Adult first.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That’s What I Am

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pulp Fiction