The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

Wrestling Alligators


And bingo was his game-o.

And bingo was his game-o.

(2016) Documentary (Seventh Art) James Billie, Peter Gallagher, Jeff Testerman, Tim Cox, Bruce Rogow, Max Osceola, Dr. Patricia Wickman, David Cordish, Howard Tommie, Patsy West, Robert Butterworth, Jim Allen, Maria Lorts Sachs, Dr. Katherine Spidel. Directed by Andrew Shea

Florida Film Festival 2016

When people think of Native Americans, often we look to the stereotypes that we receive from Hollywood. We picture them on their reservations, putting on shows for tourists and living in abject poverty. To a certain extent, that has been true although that’s no longer the case for many tribes, including the Seminole tribe of Florida (where this reviewer lives currently).

The members of the Seminole tribe are well off now, receiving an impressive income and that prosperity can be traced back to their current chairman James E. Billie. Once an outcast in the tribe because of his half-Caucasian parentage, he scraped a living by wrestling alligators for tourists and got to be quite good at it. But it wasn’t enough for him.

He went to Vietnam to fight for his country and became well-respected by his fellow soldiers. He came back to Florida after his service to work construction, building chickees (traditional Seminole lodges) among other activities. The charismatic Billie took an interest in tribal politics, first serving on the tribal Council before being elected Chairman in 1979.

Under his stewardship, he opened up a bingo parlor on tribal land (an idea first proposed by the previous tribal chairman, Howard Tommie) which he eventually would convert into a full casino. Despite challenges from the State of Florida which felt that gaming regulations for the State superseded tribal rights, the Supreme Court disagreed and an industry was born.

The Seminoles were the first to open up a major casino on tribal land and their revenue by 2007 had exceeded $1 billion from not only their gaming enterprises but also cattle raising (they are the 12th largest cattle operation in the country) and other tribal ventures. Billie is largely responsible for making the tribe a major economic and political force not only in Florida but in America as well.

As such, he can be viewed as an authentic American hero. No other Native leader in the past 50 years has done more for his tribe than James Billie has for the Seminoles. That isn’t to say that he has always been popular even with his own tribe; in 2001 a financial scandal forced him out of the chairman’s position, although he was later exonerated from any wrongdoing. In 2011, he was re-elected tribal chairman and holds that position to this day; not even a 2012 stroke has slowed him down.

In addition to his business ventures, Billie is an accomplished musician, performing with a group called the Shack Daddies in a style of music he describes as swamp rock; he also has had an impressive solo career, garnering a Grammy nomination in 1999 for the song “Big Alligator” on the Alligator Tears album. He performs several songs in the film and has a pleasant, soothing voice.

This is a movie a long time coming. I hadn’t realized what a larger than life character James Billie was until I saw this movie and it only made me think “Why has nobody made a movie about this guy before now?” His charisma and energy are boundless and his passion for his tribe, their traditions and their well-being shine through. Much of the income from the casinos (the tribe in 2007 bought the Hard Rock Café chain and now owns seven different casinos along with several resorts and the restaurant chain) has been funneled back into the tribe, building schools, hospital and an infrastructure that would be the envy of any community.

The movie works whenever it concentrates on its main character; certainly there are other narrations going on here which tend to get a little bit dry and when you compare the other interviewees to Billie, it’s almost unfair because few people can really hold up to his natural force as a human being.

Billie is not really well-known to the general public outside of Florida and even within his own state; I can’t say I was really familiar with his accomplishments and I live here. The movie serves though to introduce the viewer to a man they should really get to know. I have to say that James Billie has joined an exclusive list in my own personal life for what it’s worth as a man to admire and try to emulate. I don’t know how the Seminole chairman feels about being a role model – he seems to be the sort of man that doesn’t take himself terribly seriously – but there are certainly not many out there who would be better ones.

REASONS TO GO: Billie is a larger than life character who fills up the screen.
REASONS TO STAY: A little dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is occasionally uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Andre Shea also has a law degree.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crooked Arrow
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Your Friends

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest


Making a run for it.

Making a run for it.

(2014) Documentary (Naked Edge/City Light) Mark DeFriest, Scoot McNairy (voice), Shea Whigham (voice), John Middleton, Robert Berland, Bonnie DeFriest, Brenda C., Gabriel London. Directed by Gabriel London

The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that a society can be judged by how it treats its prisoners. Here in this country, I think it is fairly evident that our prison system is in need of drastic reform.

Case in point, Mark DeFriest. He was a 19-year-old kid when his father passed away, promising him that he could have his tools. Mark went ahead and took them. The problem was that the estate was still in probate; technically he didn’t own the tools yet. His stepmother called the cops, Mark panicked and ran. He was given four years for taking tools which had been promised him too early. It kind of seems to me that he could have gotten off without doing prison time, but far be it for me to second guess the wonderful Florida justice system.

DeFriest has a real issue with authority; he doesn’t do well when told what to do, where to be, how to live. Prison is definitely not the kind of place a person like that wants to be in. So, DeFriest made a break for it. He managed to actually get away too, for several days before being caught. Of course, time was added to his sentence for that little adventure. In fact, there were thirteen little adventures in all (to date). He successfully escaped in about half of them. The media took to calling him “Houdini.”

His lawyer, John Middleton, suspected that Mark had some sort of mental illness. He told horror stories of being gang raped and of horrible beatings, most of which could be corroborated by medical personnel. But there were also other things. DeFriest is a very smart guy, able to create keys that actually worked out of paper, and created zip guns from material commonly available around the prison. He also made impressive drawings and artwork from inside his cell, using the inside foil of potato chip bags. However, there was also extreme paranoia and what Middleton thought might be some psychosis.

The courts agreed to have Mark undergo competency testing. Four of the six psychologists agreed that Mark wasn’t mentally competent enough by the definition accepted by the Florida Department of Corrections. Two, however, believed he was; one of them was Robert Berland who had the most contact with him at Florida State Hospital’s Forensic Wing. It was his recommendation that the parole board accepted.

In the meantime Mark grew darker and more driven by despair. His marriage crumbled. A new one began, with Bonnie whom he met through correspondence. Bonnie has been a rock for DeFriest as his lawyer continued to advocate for his release as the years piled up and Mark’s misbehavior and Disciplinary Referrals (DRs as they are referred to) piled up as well. His parole date was extended, extended and extended some more. It soon reached 2085 having been sentenced to four years in 1980.

Dr. Berland would have a change of heart; initially believing that Mark was faking his symptoms, he eventually came to realize that DeFriest’s difficulties were genuine. He has become one of the stauncher advocates for the release of the prisoner and has since diagnosed him as bipolar with paranoid delusions, all of which can be treated with medication.

DeFriest’s story is a nightmare made flesh. His anti-authoritarian nature is not exactly tailor-made for imprisonment. Minor infractions ranging from possession of contraband to misuse of phone privileges piled up, continuing to add to his sentence. In his 34 year incarceration, 27 of them were spent in solitary confinement in the notorious “X Wing” of Florida State Penitentiary  where he was the only non-violent offender.

The film primarily focuses on the fight of his lawyer, his wife and Dr. Berland to have the ridiculous sentence pared down and get Mark declared mentally incompetent. London uses some pretty impressive animated sequences to illustrate some of the events that occurred in DeFriest’s long incarceration; London cites Waltz With Bashir as an inspiration and in fact the animation resembles that film stylistically.

DeFriest himself is a pretty compelling character; he is a natural-born storyteller and has a pretty good sense of humor which I would imagine you would have to have in order to survive what he has survived. Judging from the horrible beatings he took (the results of which are sometimes displayed photographically) it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t at least some brain trauma that may have contributed to what might have already been there from the beginning.

One of the things this movie is most successful at and what makes it so compelling is that it raises, at least in my mind, what the penal system is for. Does it exist to rehabilitate those who have broken society’s laws and help them emerge better citizens, or is it there to punish those who have transgressed? While surely there is an element of punishment involved, is that all we want it to be? A way to warehouse those who don’t play well with others?

The movie is a little less successful in some of its storytelling elements; I never got a clear picture as to what prompted Dr. Berland’s reversal of opinion which has been crucial in the defense’s argument to get Mark out of prison and into psychiatric care. However, the issues I had were of a fairly minor nature other than the one I just mentioned; most should find the story easily followed.

Our country currently has the highest percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any non-dictatorship on Earth. That’s not a statistic we want to be number one in. Imprisoning our criminals has become a lucrative business for privatized prisons (although DeFriest isn’t in one of those) which compounds the issues we have. Prison rape is a real problem as is prison violence. When you put men already prone to lawbreaking in a closed system and don’t give them much to occupy their time, violence becomes inevitable. It’s a self-defeating circle.

This isn’t an indictment of any individual. Even the parole board is essentially doing their job given the information they’re receiving. This is an indictment of the system. Mark DeFriest is no angel, but he remains incarcerated today as of this writing. Justice has been denied him and in many ways, he’s a victim of his own mental illness.

London’s restraint in telling the story is admirable; while he clearly understands that this is a system that needs to be fixed, he doesn’t affix the blame on anyone in particular. He’s just calling for changes to be made that benefit not only the prisoners but society at large. How we treat our prisoners, going back to Dostoyevsky, is a reflection of a society’s values. How our society at this time in history will be judged will largely be reflected in that. Perhaps if we start as a society injecting more compassion into our penal systems we will actually start turning out rehabilitated felons rather than men who come out even more dangerous and disillusioned than when they went in.

While the theatrical run for this film has essentially ended although you can go to the movie’s website and contact the filmmakers for one-off screenings or theatrical runs if you own a theater, the film will be airing on the Showtime premium cable channel in the United States starting tomorrow. While there’s no word when this will be available for streaming on iTunes or Amazon or on DVD, this is a documentary worth seeking out particularly if you are interested in issues relating to justice. Certainly it’s an early contender for my 2015 Top Ten list.

REASONS TO GO: A gripping story that invites the viewer to rethink their views on the modern prison system. DeFriest an engaging character. Very much a legal thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit vague on Berland’s change of mind.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeFriest wrote a letter to his wife describing the murder of Florida State Penitentiary inmate Frank Valdes; it was eventually used as evidence against the prison guards who were accused (and later acquitted) of the crime. Because they were acquitted, DeFriest was moved to an out-of-state penitentiary for his own safety.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: West Memphis Three
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Red Army

Dolphin Tale 2


Life is a splash!

Life is a splash!

(2014) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Bethany Hamilton, Charles Martin Smith, Julia Winter, Austin Stowell, Austin Highsmith, Juliana Harkavy, Betty Landin, Denisea Wilson, Carlos Gomez, Julia Jordan, Tom Nowicki, Taylor Blackwell. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

The inspirational story of Dolphin Tale introduced us to Winter, a dolphin rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium whose tail had to be amputated after being caught in the wire from a crab trap. After being fitted with a prosthetic tail, she became an inspiration to disabled persons everywhere – and to a lot of non-disabled people as well.

Now Winter is in a different kind of trouble. Her long-time companion at the Aquarium has passed away and she has fallen into a deep depression, even lashing out and injuring her friend Sawyer (Gamble) who has been with her from the beginning. Sawyer is now a handsome high school teen whose relationship with Winter has not gone unnoticed by the marine biology community – he’s been invited on a semester at sea program normally limited to college students. It’s quite a big deal and everyone expects him to go but Sawyer is conflicted; he doesn’t want to leave with Winter in serious difficulties.

Winter has become a big attraction for the CMA which has embarked on an ambitious expansion program led by their new board head Philip Hordern (Nowicki)  who is concerned that the star attraction might be taken away. In fact, USDA inspector (Smith) has given the aquarium 30 days to pair Winter with another female dolphin or the government will force them to move her into an environment where she can be properly socialized.

It so happens that the CMA has a female dolphin that they’re taking care of, but Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) seems reluctant to pair the two. His reasons for it are correct though – the dolphin they have rescued is making a full recovery and there is no reason to keep the perfectly healthy dolphin at the aquarium whose mission has always been Rescue, Rehab, Release. Clay’s hot-headed daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) is furious at her father whom she sees as abandoning Winter, but also disrespecting her for not soliciting her input. Because she has a PhD and everything, right?

So the dolphin will be released and Winter will be moved. Sawyer mopes around and despite the advice of his mom (Judd) and curmudgeonly Dr. McCarthy (Freeman) who designed Winter’s appendage still doesn’t know if he wants to seize the day. But the thing is, where there’s life, there’s Hope.

This isn’t quite as good as the first Tale. It’s a bit more convoluted and a bit more cliche, with the kids more or less running the show and the adults generally treating them as equals. In that sense, the movie doesn’t talk down to its audience although there’s not a lot of reality here – teens and tweens aren’t generally handed the reins of an operation the size of a CMA, particularly when the welfare of animals are concerned.

Gamble has matured into a handsome young man which is sure to set a lot of hormonal tween girl hearts a-flutter. Zuehlsdorff is a bit shrill in places but manages to capture the child-parent conflict pretty solidly and allows herself to come off as illogical and overly emotional in a situation when her father is thinking of the welfare of the animal above his own personal needs. It’s a good life lesson.

In fact, the movie is filled with them. There’s a whole lot of information on the various marine animals depicted here which in addition to the dolphins includes sea turtles and Roofus, the zany pelican from the first movie who is even more present here. In fact, Roofus gets more screen time than Judd or Freeman. Take from that what you will.

The adult cast is solid and the look of the film sparkles. Yes, there are some CGI dolphin moments and occasionally those moments are obvious but for the most part this is a good looking movie giving a very alluring quality to Florida in general. Being familiar with the Clearwater area, I can tell you that it captures the area nicely.

The movie can be a little bland in places. The filmmakers wanted the movie to be wholesome and for the most part it is to the point where it’s so inoffensive that there’s nothing to really hold onto. There are no antagonists to speak of; it’s just a bad situation which is the way life generally is. There are appearances by surfer Bethany Hamilton as herself – you might know her from Soul Surfer, an inspirational movie made on her own life – and whose presence on the current season of The Amazing Race is likely to boost up the box office here a little bit.

I honestly can’t fault the movie much. It doesn’t do anything truly wrong, it just doesn’t really excel either. For the most part, I can give it a mild thumbs up for family audiences. Those without kids may find it mildly diverting particularly if they love dolphins but adults may find the movie tedious. Watching the dolphins do their thing is definitely the best part of the movie. The humans around them – not so much.

REASONS TO GO: Some moments of grace, particularly when the actual dolphins are involved. Wholesome.
REASONS TO STAY: Ham-handed kids movie cliches. Lacks realism. Bland.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some mild dolphin peril but otherwise suitable for all family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth movie in which Judd and Freeman have appeared together in.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dead Silence

Santa Popo


Santa PopoFor Nicholas

In a small town in Florida lived a little dog named Penelope. She was a delightful little thing, barely ten pounds and small enough to hold in the crook of your arm with no trouble. She lived with a family in which there were no small children but she was very loved and cared for. She was an affectionate sort, given to cuddling whenever possible, kissing her owners often and giving them hours of delight with her antics.

Not far away lived a little boy named Nicholas and he was two years old, a wonderful age to be indeed. His mommy and daddy were friends with the owners of Penelope and they saw each other often. Nicholas’ mommy even worked with Penelope’s mommy. The two families went to the park with Nicholas from time to time, or to the movies or sometimes they’d just spend an evening playing board games.

Nicholas was one of those little boys who had a smile that couldn’t be resisted. Once you saw it, your whole body would turn warm and fuzzy and that smile would penetrate straight into your heart until you were smiling yourself. Then, you’d pass that smile to others that you encountered, each smile going from heart to heart until this little Florida town was one of the happiest places on Earth.

Everyone loved Penelope but particularly Nicholas who called her by her nickname which was Popo (Penelope was a little too hard for young Nicholas to get his mouth around just yet). His smile would get even brighter and bigger whenever he went to visit Popo or she came to visit him. They would chase each other around everywhere and Nicholas would laugh and laugh and laugh. Penelope, who also had a wonderful doggie smile, would laugh too in her own doggie way. No matter how bad a day the adults were having, the sight of Nicholas and Popo together never failed to make them feel better.

That year, Christmas was a little colder than usual – for Florida, that is which is to say not very cold at all compared to everywhere else. Penelope’s mommy had been sick for some time, which made things hard on Penelope’s daddy who to begin with had health problems of his own and also on Nicholas’ mommy who was new to her job and was now having to learn her way around without her friend to guide her as much. Penelope, sensing how sick her mommy was, spent a lot of time curled up in her lap as her mommy watched television or played on her tablet. Penelope’s presence made her mommy feel better which was a good thing, but it did mean that Penelope didn’t get to spend as much time with her friend Nicholas.

It would break his mommy’s heart when he would ask for his friend Popo and his mommy would have to say she couldn’t come over. “Popo’s house,” Nicholas would say but because Penelope’s mommy was sick they couldn’t go over. Nicholas didn’t cry because he was a brave big boy, but he would still feel sad.

Nicholas’ parents invited Penelope and her family over for Christmas, knowing that because Penelopes’s mommy and daddy really couldn’t make much of a Christmas for themselves. Nicholas was looking forward to seeing his friend again and was more excited about that than for opening presents, although he loved the shiny tinsel on the tree and the beautiful twinkling lights. He would stand and look at the tree with shining eyes, a big contented grin on his face.

It was Christmas Eve and time for Nicholas to go to bed but he was so excited! He wanted to stay up all night but his mommy wouldn’t let him. “Time to sleep,” she announced and that was that. Nicholas finally went to bed in his crib and sat in the dark of his bedroom lit by a night light (he wasn’t scared of the dark but he liked the night light) and thought about having his friend Popo come to visit him.

At last his mommy and daddy finished doing what parents do on Christmas Eve and they went to bed themselves, listening to their son’s bedroom and hearing only the sound of his breathing before drifting off to sleep themselves. All was quiet.

Nicholas was thinking so hard about his friend that he could see her sitting in his room, her brown eyes wide and friendly, her tongue lolling out of her smiling mouth, her fluffy tail like a plume wagging back and forth so fast it might fly off on its own at any moment. Nicholas was a little puzzled by the silver glow that surrounded her  and at the red Santa hat with white fur trim that she wore. To him she looked like the sweetest little elf that ever was. “Popo!” he sighed softly, seeing his friend and feeling safe and happy.

Penelope spoke. “Tonight is Christmas Eve and on this special night we dogs are allowed to speak but only to very special people.” Nicholas looked at her as if seeing a dog talk was the most natural thing in the world – why, it happened every day of course! But of course dogs don’t talk and had Nicholas’ daddy been there he would have fainted dead away but Nicholas wasn’t surprised in the least. Penelope continued, “You carry the name of Santa Claus as your own. That’s a very wonderful name to have.” Nicholas nodded and giggled. He loved his name and he especially loved hearing his mommy say it.

“It’s not common knowledge, but we dogs help Santa with his important work. There are so many children in the world, he can’t watch them all the time. He uses us dogs to keep an eye on you, to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. Once in awhile, we find someone who has so much happiness in them that they can’t help spread it around to the world. You’re just like that Nicholas.” Nicholas clapped his hands and let out a loud giggle. In their bedroom his parents snored in their sleep, oblivious.

Penelope leaped into his crib and curled up with her friend. “You’re a very special little boy Nicholas. You have it in you to bring great joy and happiness to the whole world. It is my job and the job of every doggie in the world to take care of children like you. You have the same gift as Santa – and the world needs as many people like you in it as it can get.” Nicholas cooed, stroking Popo’s soft fur and as content as a little boy can be when hugging a beloved dog. Nicholas asked Popo “Stay?” She smiled and said “Just for tonight. I must also take care of my own family in the morning but I’ll keep you warm and safe tonight.” Nicholas hugged her tight. “Popo talk!”

Popo snuggled against him. “You can always hear me in your heart. I will speak to you there.” He began to feel sleepy and he curled up with Popo. She gave him a special Popo kiss on the forehead and whispered “Sleep well, Nicholas. You have so much ahead of you.” Nicholas fell asleep with his arms wrapped around his friend. She curled up with him and let the night flow over her.

In the morning Nicholas woke up and he was alone. “Popo!” he called out. His mother, already awake, came into his bedroom. “Merry Christmas!” she exclamed, picking her son up and giving him a huge Christmas morning hug (the best kind). Nicholas’ disappointment that his friend wasn’t there was forgotten as he hugged his mommy back with all the strength his two-year-old arms could muster. “Yes, Popo is coming to visit you today,” she smiled as she carried Nicholas into the kitchen to give him a little breakfast before they opened presents.

Later that afternoon, Penelope and her mommy and daddy came to visit and Nicholas was overjoyed to see his friend, laughing at the silly sweater her mommy and daddy had put on her. “Popo talk!” said Nicholas. Penelope gave him a sly wink and barked in the friendly way she did. Nicholas’ mom laughed. “Silly,” she said to her son, “Dogs can’t talk!” Penelope’s mommy and daddy exchanged a knowing glance. Only a select few get to hear dogs talk on Christmas eve but only the sweetest and most loving sorts can hear them the whole year round and most of them were children. As Nicholas hugged his friend Popo, he could plainly hear her say “Merry Christmas Nicholas!” He gave his friend a kiss which got an “awww” from both sets of parents and would send fresh sets of joy to be spread throughout the neighborhood, passed on by those who had felt it firsthand.

So don’t be surprised those of you parents with dogs to see your children talking to them. Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean they aren’t answering.

Eye of the Hurricane


 

Eye of the Hurricane

Grant Collins' Popeye impression never fails to get a laugh.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Melanie Lynskey, Brian Doyle-Murray, Nicola Peltz, Campbell Scott, Jose Zuniga, Gregory Cruz, Grant Collins, Wendi Motte, Joyce Guy, Colin Ford, Eddie Bowz, Andrew Wilson Williams, Ben Sabet, Christopher James Forrest, Julie Ann Dinneweth. Directed by Jesse Wolfe

 

What happens during a natural disaster is sometimes not nearly as devastating as what happens in its aftermath. Sometimes the worst part of picking up the pieces is realizing that the pieces will never be reassembled in quite the same way ever again.

A small town in Florida has been hit by a devastating hurricane and stands in ruins. Electricity and water are out and most of the residents live in a tent city. Amelia Kyte (Lynskey) is in a state of shock; her husband, who flies a hurricane hunter for the Air Force, hasn’t returned and she holds vigil at the local base (which itself was severely damaged in the storm) until she gets some news, which isn’t forthcoming. In fact, she isn’t even allowed on the base nor will anyone in charge talk to her about the fate of her husband, or whether he is alive or dead or even missing.

She is far too involved in her own grief to pay much attention to her children; 16-year-old Renee (Peltz) who is forced to fill out forms and watch out for her little brother, 9-year-old Homer (Collins) who lost his eye in the storm. Homer is sure that if they find the missing eye that it can be put back in his head no harm no foul. To this end he enlists Abby Nelson (Motte), his best friend and maybe the toughest girl in town.

A local fisherman, Bill Folsom (Scott), is trying to extract his boat out of the water where it is blocking the ramp, irking other fishermen who know that the ramp is needed for the crane they’ve hired to pull their own boats out of the water as well. Bill is sweet on Amelia and has been for a long time. He keeps watch on Homer as much as he can, but has a tendency to do and say the wrong thing – like telling Homer tales about the Seminole (Cruz), a local figure reputed to have magical powers. Eventually, Homer gets it into his head that the Seminole might be able to use his magic to help find Homer’s eye.

Bill is trying to work some magic of his own, spending nights and what’s left of his cash to repair Amelia’s house and making it livable again so that maybe he could move in there with her sometime down the line. In the meantime, Renee has fallen for a married relief worker (Zuniga) and is frustrated and fed off with her mom who is completely self-absorbed. By the time word finally comes through and Amelia re-joins the land of the living, it may well be too late to repair the rift that has grown between her and her daughter – or to save her son, whose own obsession has led him to attempt something incredibly dangerous.

I really wanted to like this movie; the premise is intriguing and there are some solid performers in the cast. Unfortunately, there are also a whole lot of logical lapses. For one thing, no military base – even one that’s compromised as this one was – is going to allow the wife of one of their own to sit outside their gates wondering if her husband is dead or alive. They would at least give her some information and if not, assign someone to help her family out. They wouldn’t just leave her hanging like that.

And FEMA be damned, the Red Cross wouldn’t have one or two case workers to handle a tent city like that. A place like that would be swarming with personnel and there’d be evidence of electrical workers trying to restore power. Here the town is left pretty much left forgotten and yet it’s possible to drive to Miami where there are lights, bars that are open and serving beer to minors. I’m not sure if the filmmakers knew the legal drinking age here is 21, but they depict beer being served to people clearly identified as 16 years old without being carded. No bar is going to risk their liquor license like that.

Those are just the few off the top of my head but you get the drift. Little things like that annoy me, I have to admit. What’s worse is that the juvenile actors cast in the parts of Abby and Homer don’t come off as being real kids. That might be because the parts weren’t written that way, but they act more like kids on a TV show rather than kids who have been through a major disaster and in Homer’s case, have been injured to the tune of a lost eye. While I can see Homer’s obsession with recovering that eye and of boredom and lack of supervision causing them to get into trouble, there are times that Homer just is too much like Bobby Hill in “King of the Hill;” a little bit too snarky. Same goes for Abby; she was acting like a kid out of a Tyler Perry movie.

The sad thing there’s really a movie here. Scott, Lynskey, Zuniga and Peltz all deliver solid performances and while Lynskey’s Amelia was annoying early on as you got to know the situation her motivations became pretty clear and suddenly she was a bit more sympathetic.

It’s really hard sometimes to critique efforts like this; for one thing, we’re not talking big budget Hollywood productions here and I know that the filmmakers want to tell the story the best way they can. Unfortunately, I can’t in all conscience say that I liked this movie and I can’t for the same reason recommend it without a whole lot of caveats.

REASONS TO GO: Scott, Lynskey, Peltz and Zuniga do well.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many lapses in logic. Juvenile actors too inconsistent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there and some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted on March 15 at the Omaha Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble the Water

SWAMP BOAT LOVERS: There are several different types of boats regularly used in Florida swamps and the Everglades on display here, from rowboats to skiffs to power boats.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

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