Walking Out


A father-son piggyback ride – with a twist.

(2017) Drama (IFC) Matt Bomer, Josh Higgins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Ken White, Lily Gladstone, Erik P. Resel. Directed by Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith

 

The mountains are unforgiving. They are beautiful, yes, but formidable. One false step can leave you in a terrible situation. One mistake, one moment of lapsed concentration can make the difference between getting home safely and having your carcass gnawed on by animals.

Cal (Bomer) is an avid outdoorsman living in Montana. He is divorced with a child, 14-year-old David (Higgins) who lives most of the time with his mother in a more urban or at least suburban environment. Cal is about hiking, camping, hunting and respecting nature. David is about smartphones, chatting with his friends and videogames. Cal is 19th century, David is 21st century. Cal has some fairly concrete ideas of what it takes to be a man; David’s ideas are more fluid.

On his semi-annual visit to his Dad, David is less than enthusiastic but he’s a good sport and agrees to go hunting with his Pa. He proves to be a less than adept shot to his father’s frustration – and David’s own. Cal has quite a camping trip planned; he’s been tracking a moose in the high country and wants David to bag the animal as his first kill as a hunter. David would likely much rather play a hunting simulation game if he had a choice.

But David is the kind of kid who goes along to get along and depending on how charitable your view is, either sees how important it is to his Dad and gives in or simply wants to avoid a confrontation. Either way, the two head into the mountains where Cal hopes that this trip will bring the two closer together.

Things start to go wrong nearly immediately. They go after the moose only to discover that some rank amateur has already shot it and left it to rot which is a crime in Cal’s book. Looking for some other game to at least salvage the trip, things go wrong for the two men; horribly wrong in fact, leaving them stranded in the wilderness, one of them terribly wounded and no hope for rescue. They’ll have to walk out of the mountains on their own if they are to survive.

One of the words that best describes this movie is “simple.” In other words, the Smith brothers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; they set up their shots without a lot of complication, the plot is straightforward and we are almost forced to concentrate on character interaction. This works for me particularly when the characters are interesting and the performers bring those characters to life.

The movie rests heavily on the shoulders of Bomer and Wiggins and to their credit they both do a solid job but we are given a pretty straightforward dramatic conflict; Dad = he-man outdoors type who likes to shoot things; Son = pampered Millennial with a chip on his shoulder. As winning formulas go, this is probably somewhere in the middle of the pack. Still, I grant you that this kind of relationship as we see here between Cal and David feels very much authentic, the kind of extreme gulf that exists between city folk and country folk. In a way the rift between Cal and David mirrors that between urban and rural in America.

The Montana scenery as lensed by Todd McMullen is as spectacular as advertised; there’s majesty, beauty and stark emptiness here. There’s a lot of snow, particularly when the movie switches from the prairies to the mountains but it’s a pristine snow of the kind you don’t find where people are. Even in all the whiteness there’s a kind of beauty that makes the audience shiver in sympathy and also feel VERY happy to be in a warmer climate at that moment.

The one Name in the cast is Pullman who plays Cal’s father in flashbacks when Cal describes his first moose hunt to his son. Pullman has hardly any lines at all and his appearances, all in a home movie-like sheen, are not enough to really make a difference here. The pacing of the film is pretty deliberate and after awhile watching the excruciating pain that one of the cast members is in gets hard to watch; as the two men make their way down the mountain, I began to wish the film would end quickly. Maybe ADD is catching.

Other than a few scenes this is a very talky affair with little action so people who might ordinarily be into this kind of survival film will likely be a lot more than a little bit put off by the film. Those into exploring relationship dynamics might see the adventure movie side to this and give it a wide berth. There is some promise here, not just the lead actors but also behind the camera as well. The Brothers Smith have a good eye, an ability to take a basic plot and make it their own. I suspect that I won’t remember much about the movie in the days to come but I’m much more positive that I’ll be remembering the directors in years to come as they craft movies that take story ideas, bring them to their essence and make a great movie around it.

REASONS TO GO: The scenery is beautiful. The father/son dynamic is unusually realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Bill Pullman is wasted in his flashback-heavy role. At times the movie is hard to watch and at other times I couldn’t wait for it to end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images of a mauling, adult thematic elements and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale considered the role of Cal but ultimately decided to pass because he didn’t want to be separated from his family on a remote location shoot so soon after the birth of his son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Woodpeckers

My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini

The LEGO Movie


You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it's black.

You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it’s black.

(2014) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Shaquille O’Neal, Keegan-Michael Key, Jadon Sand, Melissa Sturm. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Okay, when you’re wrong you’re wrong and I was wrong. I thought that a movie about LEGOs, the plastic brick building set for kids, would be as cold and as soulless as the bricks they were essentially pimping – a 100 minute LEGO ad. Far from it, as it turns out.

Emmet (Pratt) is an ordinary construction guy, as innocuous as they come. He lives in Bricksburg, a dynamic town which is constantly building and demolishing then building again so it pays to be a construction worker. People don’t really notice Emmet and he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Did I mention that Bricksburg was built entirely out of LEGO bricks?

People conform in Bricksburg. Everyone’s favorite TV show is Where Are My Pants? and everyone’s favorite song is “Everything is Awesome!” (which I have to admit is awfully catchy). Everyone knows their place and what they’re supposed to do.

But then Emmet stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, a mysterious item the likes of which he’s never seen before. This gets the attention of Wyldstyle (Banks), a pretty ninja-like minifigure who also happens to be the girlfriend of Batman (Arnett). She takes Emmet to Vitruvius (Freeman), a blind seer who informs Emmet that he is The Special, the subject of a prophecy that states that The Special will save everybody.

You see, the ruthless and megalomaniacal President Business (Ferrell) intends to unleash a fearsome weapon, the Kragle, on the unsuspecting people of the various LEGO worlds – Bricksburg among them but including places like Middle Zealand (a suspiciously Tolkein-esque fantasy world), the Wild West and Cloudcuckooland which is kind of a disco rainbows and unicorns kind of place.  Only the Piece of Resistance can stop the Kragle and only the Special can wield it. Help will be given in the forms of Metalbeard (Offerman), a pirate who had to reassemble himself from scratch after an encounter with President Business, Superman (Tatum) and his clingy sidekick Green Lantern (Hill), the 80s spaceship-obsessed Benny (Day), the too-cute Unikitty (Brie) and Wonder Woman (Smulders). Chasing them is President Business’ evil henchman Bad Cop (Neeson) whose head swivels into a Good Cop mode, and an army of Micro Managers.

The question is whether Emmet is too ordinary and unimaginative to face down the bad guy. The answer is that Emmet has his own kind of imagination and surprisingly, it comes in handy when they need it.

Lord and Miller who surprised with better than I would have thought they would have been adaptations of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street show again that it is not smart to underestimate them. They are an imaginative pair of filmmakers with a terrific visual sense and a quirky sense of humor. They aren’t household names but after this one they may be the most sought-after animation directors in Hollywood. They certainly deserve to be.

The visual flair here is near-perfect; everything and by that I mean everything looks to be made of LEGO other than in a live action sequence that I don’t want to spoil. They are so creative with the bricks that even the ocean looks like moving bricks. Lord and Miller go for an almost stop-motion feel in the on-screen movements so at time you almost believe that rather than this being all animated on the computer (which it is) that someone went to the trouble and time of assembling everything out of LEGOs.

I will admit that I’m of a generation whose LEGO experience is pretty basic compared to what you see here. We didn’t have many of the special brick types and we had a limited color palate – red, black, white, yellow and grey. We certainly didn’t have the mini-figures – that came later. People of my age will probably find a good deal of the LEGO in-jokes flying over their heads.

But most parents and most kids will find this right in their sweet spot. Everyone, even those my age, will appreciate Arnett’s spot-on performance as Batman (who is a little bit of a prick) as well as Ferrell who gets a surprising scene at the end of the film that helps truly elevate the film. Pratt, best known for his work in Parks and Recreation, is appropriately upbeat as Emmet, also adding some unexpected depth by the end of the movie.

This is the kind of work that made Pixar great and given that Pixar themselves have been less-than-stellar of great, it is a bit of a relief to know that quality kids movies are still being made. Hopefully this movie – which is making some truly impressive box office hay in the first two weekends of release – will inspire Pixar to raise their bar, which they are fully capable of. I know it certainly is inspiring me to want to go out and build something with LEGOs which I imagine is exactly what the makers of LEGO wanted all along so I suppose it turns out to be a 100-minute advertisement after all.

REASONS TO GO: Appealing to both kids and adults. Terrific animation and creativity. Some nice vocal performances by Arnett, Pratt and Ferrell.

REASONS TO STAY: Those unfamiliar with the various LEGO building sets and animations may miss a good deal of the humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some innocuous violence and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Vitruvius was named after a 1st century BC author and architect who wrote important volumes on the science of architecture. The word “architect” can roughly be translated as “master builder.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Monuments Men

After Earth


Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry  film critics.

Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry film critics.

(2013) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Jaden Martin, Sincere L. Bobb, Monika Jolly, Demetrice Jackson, Joe Farina, Albert Valladares, Jim Gunter, Tiffany E. Green. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A friend of mine – who happens to be a big movie buff – posted on his Facebook page that he overheard during a trailer for After Earth at a different movie some people re-christen the movie Afterbirth. I chastised him at the time, saying something about judging a movie before you’d seen it (which seems to be an Internet hobby for many these days). We went back and forth over all the red flags he’d seen in the trailer that were making him uneasy about the movie. We left it with that he has no plans to see it unless he hears from friends he trusts that the movie is worth checking out. I think it’s safe to say that he’ll probably not be coming to the multiplex for this one.

The movie takes place over 1,000 years in the future. The human race has abandoned Earth after polluting it into essentially an uninhabitable wasteland. We eventually made our way to a planet called Nova Prime which sadly already had their own inhabitants who didn’t take kindly to our incursion. They genetically engineered a creature called an Ursa which was all razor sharp pincers and teeth which hunted based on smell. It literally was attracted to its prey by fear.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) found a way to mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa, allowing him and other Rangers (the military force of the human race) to essentially end the threat of the creatures. However it came at a high cost – while Cypher was away on duty, an Ursa invaded his home killing his daughter Senshi (Kravitz) in front of his young son Kitai (Martin).

Five years after that tragedy, a 14-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying out for the Rangers. While great in the classroom, he has a tendency to fall apart in the field, haunted by the death of his sister. Commander Velan (Morshower) tells him as gently as possible that he has failed his application into the Rangers. Kitai is mortified; his father is due home that evening and will not be pleased at all.

His mother Faia (Okonedo) urges Cypher to bond with his son who is desperate to please him. Cypher, knowing that he hasn’t been the presence in his son’s life that he needs to be, takes him along on an off-world mission transporting an Ursa to a research station on a distant moon. Instead, the ship runs into a freak meteor storm and is forced to crash land where it all started – on Earth. As the ship goes down it breaks in two.

Cypher breaks both his legs seriously in the crash and he and Kitai are the only survivors in the front section of the ship. The distress beacon is also damaged beyond repair but there is another one in the tail section. The trouble is it’s 100 km (about 62 miles) away through hostile territory. The planet you see isn’t so thrilled about what the humans did to it and all life has evolved to kill humans. We are no longer used to the atmosphere so a liquid must be consumed every 24 hours to help us breathe. The planet is prone to violent temperature swings. And the captive Ursa has gotten loose and is sure to be after the creature it was bred to kill – a fearful human an there’s nobody more fearful than Kitai. Still, Kitai must overcome his fear and reach the beacon or both he and his dad will be toast.

The studio was very cagey about marketing the film. Director Shyamalan, whose name has appeared in the title of his last few films, was absent from all marketing materials – even the trailers. I can kind of understand why. Shyamalan, who had become an acclaimed director based on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had fallen on a series of bombs that have turned his name into box office poison which is kind of a shame – he’s a very talented director with a great visual sense who had for whatever reason become something of an Internet Kryptonite when it came to movies. The fanboys loathe him  and so the studio felt that the movie would be unfairly judged if Shyamalan’s name was attached to it (a fear that I think was justified). By emphasizing the presence of the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith the studio thought they’d attract an audience.

Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t very good. The story is interesting, and there’s a compelling message of mastering your fear and learning to balance your emotions. There are also some pretty amazing visuals that will keep your eyes happy.

There are also some questionable decisions, like the odd accent that the people of the future affect (was that really necessary to anything?) to some of the lapses in logic that dot the film (why would a planet evolve to kill a species that has been gone for a millennium, and why would a race that could develop a hand-held beacon not make it go off automatically in a crash, or at least allow the crew to deploy it manually before the crash). Those are kind of bothersome.

Will Smith, the loving dad, really sets this movie up to be Jaden’s film. I can’t really blame the proud papa; his son has shown some promise in his brief acting career but I think he expected a little too much from him here. Quite frankly, his son’s performance is disappointing. Part of it is that odd accent that makes him sound a bit goofy, and the script also calls upon Kitai to freak out with great regularity which makes the character generally unlikable, which doesn’t do Jaden any favors. The fact is however that the emotional outbursts that Kitai has are never very believable; Jaden just ratchets up the volume and that’s supposed to convince us of his rage and frustration. His brow is crinkled up through much of the film, making him look like he’s about to cry which also sends a subliminal message to the audience that this boy isn’t ready for this.

I feel bad having to say these things because as a critic, you really don’t want to rank on a young actor who may not have the coping skills necessary to deal with criticism but I think that at the end of the day my readers deserve to know what to expect when they see the film. Frankly, had Cypher been alone and had to make the journey himself it might have been a more riveting film but of course that would have upended much of the film’s message – but it would have made for a better movie

REASONS TO GO: Some amazing visuals.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled. Logical lapses. Jayden Smith’s performance is excruciating.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of the sci-fi variety as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in 20 years that Shyamalan has accepted a project based on a screenplay that was written by someone else.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oblivion

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Spy Next Door

Silver Linings Playbook


Bradley Cooper's fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

Bradley Cooper’s fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

(2012) Romance (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, John Ortiz, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Brea Bee, Regency Boles. Directed by David O. Russell

What normal is for the most part is highly subject to debate. We look at people who have mental issues with wary eyes as if their condition is not only contagious but also subject to a sudden outbreak of violence without any warning whatsoever. And yes, there are some people who are just like that.

Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper) has been institutionalized for eight months. There’s been some sort of “incident” and here he is. However, his mom Dolores (Weaver) is checking him out, apparently against medical advice but with the blessing of the courts since he’d done his time. While his cheerful friend Danny (Tucker) tries to tag along (unsuccessfully), Dolores takes Pat home to his dad Pat Sr. (De Niro) who has some issues of his own.

Pat is determined to get back together with his wife Nikki (Bee) who it turns out was kind of the source of his predicament; Pat, a substitute teacher at the same school Nikki teaches at in Philadelphia, came home early one day to find her naked in the shower with the history teacher. And there was nothing clean going on in the shower either. So Pat snapped and wound up being diagnosed as bi-polar.

Now he’s trying to get his life back together again. He’s running and exercising, losing weight and getting into shape. He refuses to take his meds because they make him feel foggy and bloated. He runs by Nikki’s house and old school, only to find that she’s moved out and started teaching elsewhere. There’s a restraining order against Pat and going by the house is a violation, causing Officer Keogh (Mihok) to drop by and remind him that he has to stop this kind of behavior.

Then his good friend Ronnie (Ortiz) and his bitchy wife Veronica (Stiles) invite him over to dinner along with her sister Tiffany (Lawrence) whose husband had recently passed away. Tiffany also has some issues of her own, not the least of which is that she’s having sex with anyone and anybody regardless of sex or even if she’s attracted to them or not. There’s obviously tension between the sisters and Tiffany, who like Pat lacks an inner filter, finally decides to leave.

When Pat discovers that Tiffany still has contact with Nikki, he knows she could be the means to his salvation. She could get a letter to his wife explaining his situation, where he is and what’s going on with him – start the process of reconciliation. However Tiffany needs a partner for a ballroom dance contest and isn’t above using her position as leverage. Pat is willing to do anything to get his wife back…even humiliate himself. But finding a silver lining isn’t easy, especially when your dad is just as OCD as you are and nobody seems to understand how in love you and your wife truly are. Yeah, you really need a playbook, one better than even the mighty Philadelphia Eagles possess.

This was a bit of a dark horse when awards season commenced last year. Although Russell had Oscar pedigree established, this particular movie wasn’t expected to contend but it wound up with eight nominations and one win. Part of that is due to the outstanding performances Mr. Russell coaxed out of his actors.

Lawrence has blossomed into one of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood. After establishing herself with Winter’s Bone a couple of years ago she has become a lynchpin in a couple of major film franchises and now has won herself a Best Actress Oscar with this performance here, a bit of a surprise considering how worthy Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty was. I will say that this certainly was a wonderful job of acting by Lawrence, one which is hard-edged and vulnerable all at once with an underlying sexuality that isn’t like anything she’s ever done before. You could say that this was her debutante ball, going from girl to woman in one fell swoop. While I still think her Oscar win was an upset, I certainly can’t complain with Oscar’s choice. She was as good as anyone last year.

Cooper was a bit of a surprise as well. He’s shown some signs of having a serious actor in him but he mostly has played comedic leads and has done so with some success. This was a nuanced performance that caught every bit of his characters compulsions and anguish. Pat’s disorder is clearly in charge and finding the way to reality isn’t an easy path when all around is dark and there are no road signs to go by. It’s a marvelous performance and serves notice that Bradley Cooper isn’t just a leading man, he’s a skilled actor who can take on just any role he chooses. This just might be what makes both Cooper and Lawrence Hollywood A-list.

Depression and bipolar disorder are no laughing matters and while the writer and director treat them pretty much with respect (although there are some humorous situations that arise out of Pat and Tiffany’s condition, there are no more so than what arises in real life) there are those who have a difficult time watching the movie because it hits close to home. That’s something to consider before heading out to the multiplex or reasonably soon, rental source.

The first two thirds of the film is as good as anything you’ll see from 2012 although in the final act it breaks down somewhat and the ending is terribly predictable and unfortunate. Clever endings are hard to come by these days however and if Russell goes with tried and true, well I suppose he can be forgiven and the studio I’m sure was pretty happy with that decision.

I will say that this is a movie that you are aware of from the beginning is going to be thoughtful and award-worthy and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Some movies will sneak up on you and build and by the movie’s end you know you watched something special. I think that Russell was all too aware of the movie’s potential and you become aware of it as well. Great performances (including from tried and true veterans De Niro, Weaver and Stiles) elevate this from a solid movie to a very good movie. It missed greatness by about twenty minutes though.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite  a bit of foul language and some scenes involving sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be produced by Anthony Minghella and directed by Sydney Pollack before they both passed away in 2008; as it turned out the movie would be the first to get nominations in all five of the “Big 5” categories of the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) since Million Dollar Baby in 2004.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100; the film received rave reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Quartet

A Thousand Words


A Thousand Words

Eddie Murphy takes out his frustration after Cliff Curtis reads him some of the reviews of his latest film.

(2012) Fantasy Comedy (DreamWorks) Eddie Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Clark Duke, Allison Janney, Ruby Dee, Jack McBrayer, Alain Chabat, Lennie Loftin, David Burke, Emmanuel Ragsdale, Eshaya Draper, Sarah Scott Davis, Brian Gallivan, Steven M. Gagnon. Directed by Brian Robbins

 

Words are paramount. We communicate everything with them; civilization would be impossible without them and yet we use them to obfuscate, to twist the truth, to spin lies. Some of us use words as tools; others as weapons. However, words are meaningless without the underlying concepts and emotions behind them. Without truth, words are as empty as the space they fill.

Jack McGill (Murphy) knows all about words. He is a literary agent, one who makes a living selling words. The irony is that Jack isn’t much of a reader. A good book, he tells his youthful assistant Aaron Wiseburger (Duke), is good in the first five pages and the last five pages – everything else in between is just filler.

Jack has his sights set on Dr. Sinja (Curtis), a new age slash kinda Buddhist philosopher who has been gaining an amazing worldwide following. Rumor has it he’s written a book and Jack can see dollar signs all over the puppy. He goes to Sinja’s temple, posing as a follower and wrangles his way into a personal audience with the good Doctor.

Jack makes his pitch and manages to convince Sinja that he has his best interests at heart, that he believes in his message and wants to spread it. The only message that Jack believes in however is the message that money delivers. And that message often gets in the way of his life.

His wife  (or is it girlfriend? this isn’t made clear) Caroline (Washington) wants to live in a house that is more suitable for a family; they are living in what is essentially Jack’s old bachelor pad and Jack who loves the amenities and the view is loathe to give it up for a suburban split-level. Caroline wants Jack to spend more time with their son Tyler (Ragsdale) but Jack’s manic career precludes that. However, he makes time to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mom (Dee) in the home on her birthday; she confuses him with his father, who passed away when Jack was a little boy and for that Jack has been unable to forgive him.

One night a Bodhi tree appears in their yard, fully formed with a thousand leaves on it. Jack is puzzled at first but he quickly figures out that for each word that he speaks or writes, a leaf falls. Dr. Sinja explains that once the Bodhi tree loses all its leaves, the tree will die and since Jack is somehow linked to the tree, he will die as well.

The rest of the movie is about Jack’s attempts to communicate non-verbally in a world where he is expected to speak. There is some hilarity because whatever happens to the tree happens to Jack as well; if it’s watered Jack gets wet; if fungicide is sprayed on it, Jack coughs. If squirrels run around its trunk playfully, Jack is tickled. You get my drift.

It also gives Eddie Murphy the opportunity to mug outrageously with twisted lips, eyes as wide as saucers and arched eyebrows. This gives him the look of a black constipated  Don Ameche from Cocoon doing an impression of Bette Davis while auditioning for “Project: Runway.” It’s unsettling to say the least.

This was actually filmed in 2008 (pre-Tower Heist) and is one in a long line of Murphy mis-fires (i.e. Meet Dave, Imagine That, The Adventures of Pluto Nash ad nauseam). This isn’t strictly a family movie but it isn’t very funny either. The sad part is most of the best humor comes from Duke, who made an indelible impression in Hot Tub Time Machine. Murphy has always been one of the better verbal comics and robbing him of his most effective weapon is a ballsy move but one that ultimately doesn’t pay off here.

Hopefully his work on Heist will have generated some better scripts for Murphy, although clearly his Oscar-winning turn in Dreamgirls didn’t. There is plenty of concept here, but the execution is tired and lame. Nothing unexpected happens, there are no laugh-out-loud moments and the comedy is pretty low-brow generally speaking. Movies like this one, which are mediocre at best, make me wonder how long it will be before Murphy’s films start going direct-to-home-video.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few mildly amusing moments. Duke gets most of the laughs.

REASONS TO STAY: Another family-oriented Murphy comedy that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. All concept and no execution.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there, some sexual dialogue and a bit of drug humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third movie that Murphy has been directed by Robbins in, the first two being Norbit and Meet Dave. It is also the first one of the three not to have the lead character’s name in the title.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100. The reviews are bad, bad, bad!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Liar, Liar

TREE LOVERS: While the Bodhi tree is a real tree (remarkable for its heart-shaped leaves) the one in the film is not.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Maiden Heist

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

"If you're gonna make it in this world, you gotta look stylish my son"

(2010) Musical Biography (Tribeca) Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Noel Clarke, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner, Arthur Darvill, James Jagger, Tom Hughes, Shakraj Soornack, Joe Kennedy. Directed by Mat Whitecross

 

Ian Dury was a New Wave/punk-era singer/songwriter who while well-known in his native England remains unappreciated here in the States. In an era when musicians were thumbing their nose at traditional rock music idioms, Dury was happily wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, from funk to jazz to British Music Hall.

He had been afflicted with polio as a child and walked with a cane most of his life; however while his disability certainly got in his way once in awhile, he tended to use it more as a statement; he thought that the attitudes of most governments and international organizations towards those with disabilities to be condescending and arrogant. He flaunted his limp and incorporated it into his act.

He was a force of nature, one that sometimes rained down rage on those who cared about him but there was no doubt that as pop stars go, he had more personality and charisma in one finger than a thousand “American Idol” winners would ever have put together. It’s a shame he didn’t make it on this side of the Atlantic (he was way too English for us to really get him) but songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,””What a Waste” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” got into my head early on and have stayed there ever since.

He is played here by Andy Serkis with the subtlety of a rampaging bull. Serkis perfectly captures the essence of Dury, at least how I imagined him to be. Serkis’ malleable face is a mirror for Dury’s who often used his facial expressions as a kind of language of its own. He wasn’t always an easy man to get along with – Chaz Jankel (Hughes), co-writer of many of Dury’s best songs and one of the original Blockheads (Dury’s backing band) was constantly leaving Dury’s band and then returning  – and Dury was sometimes guilty of subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties in his relationships. He is depicted here as conducting a rehearsal with his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in his downstairs living room while his first wife Betty (Williams) is giving birth upstairs (which is apparently a myth), and he leaves Betty shortly to move in with a teenaged fan (Harris).

Dury’s relationship to his son Baxter (Milner) is shown as being bittersweet. Baxter has a bit of a case of hero-worship when it comes to his dad (what young boy doesn’t?) and Dury tries very hard to be a good father to his boy as flashbacks show us that Dury’s own father (Winstone) was not the best father in the world either. The Baxter-Dury relationship is really the central heart of the movie, and the scenes with the two of them are mostly when the film is at its best.

I think Whitecross is trying to tell the story the way Ian Dury himself might have told it, with a good deal of flash and sass and not a little bit of sleight o’ hand. At times it becomes confusing with dream sequences, flashbacks and timeline-jumping, which left me a bit mystified at times. Still, one has to give props to the film that had the balls to let Serkis sing with the original Blockheads providing musical accompaniment. That must have been very strange for them. Kudos also for the opening titles being done by Peter Taylor, who did some of Dury’s album covers and was his teacher and mentor when Dury was at art school

The manic energy of Dury is captured and reflected by the film which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. American audiences, who showed little interest in Dury while he was alive (he died of cancer in 2000 at age 53) showed little in his movie and for that reason perhaps the movie isn’t really made for Americans – many of the references are firmly on the side of the UK. Still, this is a well-made film and Serkis’ performance as Dury is well worth watching. He proves that he is much more than Gollum – and much more than the motion capture king.

WHY RENT THIS: Dury was a fascinating character and Serkis captures his manic energy perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the references sail far over the heads of American audiences. A bit hard to follow at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of sex, it’s fair share of drugs and a crapload of rock and roll, and just a bit of the violence to keep matters in hand.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” for which the movie is named, is Dury’s signature track but never charted (while many of his other songs did). It was banned by the BBC after its release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on director Mat Whitecross’ experiences at the Tribeca film festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $530,392 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was likely a bit of a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casanova

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
You’d better watch out…

(2010) Horror Comedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Per Christian Ellefsen, Jonathan Hutchings, Peeter Jakobi, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Rauno Juvonen, Risto Salvi, Jens Sivertsen. Directed by Jalmari Helander

 

Good old Saint Nick! Everyone knows the jolly old elf makes his big appearance every 25th of December, spreading joy around the world and delivering toys to kids who appear on the nice list and coal to those on the naughty list. There are places, however, who don’t have as high an opinion of Santa – they’re downright terrified of him.

In Northern Finland, a team of American scientists are blasting into a large hill in a remote part of the country above the Arctic Circle. The residents of the town nearby have no clue what the Americans are up to – and they could care less. It is the day before Christmas and their concerns are larger; it is time to harvest the reindeer that provides not only their livelihood but their store of food for the winter.

The trouble is that the reindeer are all dead; massacred by something, their carcasses littering the ground outside the fence surrounding the American blast zone. Rauno (Jorma Tommila), a taciturn widower, thinks it might be wolves which are a pest in that part of Finland – he even has dug a wolf trap (which are illegal in Finland). His son Pietari (Onni Tommila) isn’t so sure.

You see, Pietari and his buddy Juuso (Jarvenpaa) made a hole in the fence and snuck in to the blast site and heard a few things they shouldn’t have – as in that the hill that is outside their town is in fact a gigantic burial mound and that the Americans have found something there that was supposed to stay buried…and what they found is very much alive.

The bookish Pietari does some research and discovers that the Santa Clause we all know and love was not always regarded that way in Lapland. In fact, he was used as a kind of boogeyman, kidnapping naughty children and leaving straw dolls in their place. The naughty kids he would boil alive and otherwise torture and kill in inventive ways. Pietari realizes that this demonic child stealer is exactly what the Americans found, but he’s the only one who knows it.

Pietari’s dad doesn’t have time for foolishness. He and some of the town’s men go to confront the Americans but the installation is eerily deserted. And his wolf trap has captured something unexpected. Santa Claus is coming to town boys and girls and you’d better pray you aren’t on his naughty list.

There is a lot going for this film. The northern setting is starkly beautiful and the hardscrabble life of the villagers quite realistic. There is enough comedy here to keep you off-balance – as when Rauno growls at his son to stay back from the wolf trap but as he turns his back, Pietari continues to move forward, almost without thinking in the way that children do when their curiosity outweighs everything else, including sense. It’s not rebellion, it’s just compulsion.

There isn’t a lot of gore here so those who might consider that a horror necessity will be disappointed. Da Queen, who is normally quite squeamish about horror movies found this one palatable and non-nightmare inducing although there are some scenes that might give the sensitive pause.

On the negative side, while the actor who plays Pietari is good, this is another case of a kid who has to save the day from adults who won’t listen to his sage advice. I don’t know about you, but I would consider any advice from a kid wearing cardboard armor and who drags a bedraggled stuffed animal around with him a bit suspect.

Still, the ending was nifty, unexpected and left room for a potential sequel only not in an obvious way. I appreciated the filmmaker’s imagination as well as their willingness to take chances. Not all of them work but most do and make for a very entertaining holiday horror film which is a much better alternative to things like Black Christmas, Santa’s Slay and Silent Night, Deadly Night.

WHY RENT THIS: A wry sense of humor and an inventive take on the Santa legend.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Suffers from the “smart kid saves the day from bumbling adults” syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of nudity and a bit more foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Pietari and his father are father and son in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing the original animatics with the finished computer-generated effects as well as a look at the pre-production art which is pretty nifty. There are a couple of short films that Helander directed that takes place in the Rare Exports universe and includes much of the same cast; they should be seen after you’ve watched the main movie. The Blu-Ray also includes the complete feature Santa Claus vs. the Martians which is quite frankly one of the worst movies ever made and whose inclusion here is rather bizarre. Watch it if you dare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4M on an unreported production budget; there’s a good chance this made money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Real Steel


Real Steel

Rocky Sock'em Robots

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Anthony Mackie, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, Kevin Durand, Marco Ruggeri, Olga Fonda, Karl Yune, John Gatins, Gregory Sims, Torey Adkins. Directed by Shawn Levy

There are family films that are palatable; the kids in them aren’t cutesy, or unrealistically savvy or anything other than what kids really are (if you’ve had the chance to talk to one or two of them recently). Others are not – they pander to the kids hoping that they’ll drag their parents to the multiplex again and again forgetting one immutable law – the parents control the cash and if they hate a movie, they aren’t going to take their kid to it more than once.

Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a down on his luck ex-fighter who now bottom feeds on the robot boxing circuit, taking his beat-up robots into backwater county fairs and skeezy underground joints and putting them into impossible odds, betting money he doesn’t have and skipping town when he inevitably loses, his robots reduced to scrap metal.

To make matters worse, Charlie’s ex-girlfriend has passed away abruptly, leaving Charlie with legal rights to his son Max (Goyo) whom he has had minimal contact with after walking out on both him and his mom when he was born. Max’s Aunt Debra (Davis) is keen to get custody and Charlie is disposed in that direction – for a price, which Debra’s rich husband (Rebhorn) is willing to pay.

Max turns out to be quite the Robot Boxing fan and quite vocal in his opinions. Charlie’s kinda-girlfriend Bailey (Lilly) whose dad trained Charlie back in the day (and in whose gym Charlie essentially lives when he’s not on the road) finds Max to be charming, Charlie not so much. After Charlie’s last chance robot Noisy Boy gets torn into pieces, Charlie needs to find a robot quickly. They find an old-fashioned sparring robot of an obsolete generation. Charlie isn’t terribly optimistic but Max sees something in the machine, which is named Atom.

Atom turns out to have a pretty good memory for moves after Charlie teaches him a few. Atom, boxing more like a human than a machine, begins to compile a winning streak and for the first time it looks like Charlie Kenton has a chance to be somebody. However, some of Charlie’s old sins are about to catch up to him. Can Charlie get his last chance at the brass ring – and more importantly, make something of his last chance to be a father?

Levy is best known for Night at the Museum and its sequel. Yes, this is very much a kids movie and has ready-made marketing tools in the robots. Yes, the robots are pretty impressive and cool. Their inevitable action figures will make great stocking stuffers. Kids are going to go absolutely bananas over them, particularly young boys.

Jackman tries hard but he probably should have tried harder when deciding whether or not to do this movie. It’s the kind of kids movie that I absolutely hate; it turns the adults into buffoons to be disregarded and kids into wise, worldly sorts who instinctively know the right thing to do because, as we all know, kids make such great life decisions when they’re eleven.

Lilly, who nabbed a cult following on “Lost,” doesn’t show signs of having big screen charisma although to be fair, she is given a part that is largely ornamental. There isn’t anything here really for her to work with; Bailey is a long-suffering girlfriend who patiently hopes for her man to turn things around. Kate (her character on the TV show) would never have put up with Charlie this long – she’d have moved on to Sawyer or Jack long ago.

Da Queen thought at first that Max was played by the same actor who played Anakin in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. That, by the way, is not an encouraging sign. While Jake Lloyd isn’t Dakota Goyo, they seem cut from the same cloth – trying so hard not to be a kid that they turn out  to be not really relatable at all. He’s stiff and insufferable, the kind of character you are rooting to get written out of the film.

In fact, I suspect this would have been a much better movie without the kid factor; had the writers and filmmakers just stuck with the redemption of Charlie through his robots, this might have been a way more interesting movie. However in making a movie in which the most important element was the toy tie-in the filmmakers have created a film that please nobody, cribs its plot shamelessly from Rocky and wont remain in memory in the time it takes to walk from the theater seat to your car.

REASONS TO GO: The robots are pretty nifty and their boxing matches are well-choreographed.

REASONS TO STAY: The kid is smarter than the adults and the plot is predictable and lacks credibility. Just awful family movie pablum.

FAMILY VALUES: While there is some violence, it is mostly of the robotic boxing sort and the bad language just isn’t that bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The girls who ask to pose with Ambush early on in the movie are director Shawn Levy’s daughters.

HOME OR THEATER: Toss-up; some of the arena scenes look nice on the big screen but the rest…your call.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: City of Your Final Destination

The Boys Are Back


The Boys Are Back

A man's home is his castle; Clive Owen's home is hog heaven.

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Clive Owens, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty, Julia Blake, Chris Haywood, Erik Thomson, Natasha Little. Directed by Scott Hicks

Men, as a rule, are not the best parents in a husband-wife relationship. Women, who are nurturers by nature, tend to be more attuned to parenting in a general way; while that doesn’t mean that men can’t be good at it, they have a harder time being single parents than women do – again, a generalization but more or less true.

Joe Warr (Owens) hasn’t exactly been the best husband either. He had sex with Katy (Fraser), a beautiful equestrienne while married to another woman and eventually got her pregnant, leaving his wife and young son in England to be with Katy in Australia. Katy and Joe have a son, Artie (McAnulty), Joe has a job as a sportswriter and becomes one of the best in Australia, and they buy a home in a particularly idyllic meadow near Adelaide, South Australia. Life is good; Joe globe-hops attending tennis matches, swim meets and football games while Katy holds down the home front.

Then Katy gets a stomach ache which turns out to be cancer. Joe stays home to care for her but she doesn’t survive. Joe is left to care for a six-year-old son who has difficulty accepting that his mummy’s gone, and acts out in sometimes particularly venal ways. At first Joe fights Artie’s anger, being too filled with his own grief to sort out his son’s; eventually, he gives in and lets Artie do his own thing. Cannonball into a hotel bathtub? Sure! Ride on the hood of a Range Rover his dad is driving down the beach? Why not?

Then, Joe’s son Harry (MacKay) from his first marriage comes to Australia to spend time with his dad and the dynamic changes. At first, Harry doesn’t approve too much of Joe’s “Just Say Yes” philosophy of child-rearing but eventually comes around, particularly when Joe shows far more trust than his mum (Little) ever did.

However his methods don’t meet with the approval of everyone. Katy’s mom Barbara (Blake) is aghast and eventually takes steps to assume custody of Artie herself. In the meantime, Joe has met a fellow single parent, Laura (Booth) who babysits Artie from time to time and a romance begins to blossom. Still, Joe’s attempts to juggle his kids, his home and his job are beginning to run him ragged; something has to give, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. The movie got a round critical excoriating when it was released here in the states, which once again leaves me befuddled. Maybe I’m missing something, y’know? Most of the reviews I’ve read have tended to be about Joe’s parenting skills rather than about the movie. Sure, maybe you’re scoring brownie points with the P.T.A. to show your haughty disapproval of such a free-wheeling parenting style, but it’s not my job to review the choices that Joe makes – particularly since they’re based on the actual choices a real person made. I have no idea how I’d cope with a six year old boy if my wife died and left me with one. Fortunately for me, that scenario is never going to come to pass since my own son is essentially grown up. So that makes me quite frankly unqualified to render my opinion about how Joe relates to his children. I haven’t walked even a centimeter in Joe’s shoes, which is what someone who is passing judgment on a person is supposed to do. Maybe in some distant future, that will be a requirement to give an opinion on the subject.

Somehow, I doubt it however. Hicks, who helmed the Oscar-winning Shine, wisely keeps the movie from going too maudlin and keeps the relationship between Joe and his sons evolving, which is the way real relationships work. Owens gives a restrained performance here and it is nice to see him in a movie that doesn’t require him to shoot anybody, or shove a carrot through their eye socket.

The use of the Australian location is glorious and helps create an idyllic picture of the Warr home which may be a bit too idyllic in places; then again, once Joe gives up on housecleaning and the house stacks up with pizza boxes and dirty laundry, hog heaven turns into a pigsty. That has a tendency to burst an idyll or two.

I would have liked to see a different ending, to be truthful; the relationship between Joe and Laura is kind of left dangling and things are resolved in a way that is a bit pat and a bit sugary all at once. That aside, this is a genuinely affecting work that examines a rarely seen dynamic; an all-male household dealing with the loss of the lone woman in the home. That was the part that interested me the most about the movie.

Would I make the same choices Joe made in dealing with his sons? Probably not – my temperament isn’t nearly as easy-going as his. Still, it is a rather novel way of dealing with the situation, and if the movie gets a little testy about those who disagree with Joe’s methods, well judging on the critical reaction the movie got it might be well-earned.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Owens’ most genuine performances and Hicks resists the temptation to turn this into an out-and-out tearjerker.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit pat, while the relationship between Joe and Laura is left essentially unresolved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has its share of foul words, many of them sexually related. The theme might be a little too mature for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The nine Sigur Ros songs used in the film were originally meant to be placeholders for the score; however, Hicks felt so strongly that the songs worked better than any score that could be written that he travelled to Iceland personally to get permission to use the songs in the final film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Author Simon Carr, whose story this is based on, and his two sons, spent a day on the set. There’s a featurette that follows them around as they try to wrap their heads around the idea that a movie is being made about their life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.2M on an unreported production budget; the film was likely not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fired Up