Max


Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

Max prefers kidfingers over ladyfingers.

(2015) Family Drama (Warner Brothers/MGM) Thomas Haden Church, Josh Wiggins, Luke Kleintank, Lauren Graham, Robbie Amell, Mia Xitlali, Dejon LaQuake, Jay Hernandez, Owen Harn, Joseph Julian Soria, Raymond W. Beal, Edgar Arreola, Jason Davis, Pete Burns, Miles Mussenden, Joan Q. Scott, Ian Gregg, Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by Boaz Yakin

]It is a Hollywood truism that it is never a good idea to work as an actor with children and animals, unless you like getting upstaged. Sometimes, of course, it’s unavoidable – families must have their films and they are often crawling with kids and pets.

Max is a dog working for the military. He and his handler, Kyle Wincott (Amell) are in Afghanistan, where Max faithfully sniffs out weapon caches for the Taliban and alerts the platoon when there’s trouble. However, all of Max’s training can’t save Kyle from a Taliban ambush.

Back home in Texas, Kyle’s family is living day to day; his ex-marine Dad Ray (Church) bears his wounds that he got in Desert Storm and runs a storage facility. His wife Pam (Graham) relies on her faith in God to get her eldest son back home safely and to keep the peace between Ray and their youngest son Justin (Wiggins). Justin is at an age where he is, quite frankly, a jerk – like most teenage boys. He has little or no respect for either parent (less for his demanding Dad than his Mom), plays videogames all day long and has no interest in spending his summer working for his Dad who really needs the help. He is also burning bootlegged copies of videogames that haven’t come out yet for a local hoodlum named Emilio (Soria), who is the cousin of his best friend Chuy (LaQuake).

The Wincott family is devastated by the news of Kyle’s passing. It is Max, however, who is the most inconsolable. His relationship with Kyle and devotion to him is such that he is of no use back in the field; he suffers from PTSD (and yes, dogs can be afflicted by it) and won’t let any other handler near him. The Army ships him back to Texas where he was first trained to see if anyone can deal with him. They bring the dog to Kyle’s funeral, where he breaks hearts by running up to the casket, pawing at it and with a piteous whimper lies down at the foot of it. Why don’t you go get a tissue now, I’m sure you need it.

Anyway, the only person Max responds to is the sullen Justin. As it turns out, Justin is beginning to respond to Max, too – after his mom forces him to take care of the dog on his own. It would seem an insurmountable obstacle for Justin, who doesn’t know the first thing about caring for a dog. Fortunately for him, another cousin of Chuy – this one not involved in anything illegal – named Carmen (Xitlali) – has raised pit bulls in her family for ages, so she agrees to help Justin out. The two start to take a shine to each other.

However, things get complicated when Kyle’s buddy – Tyler Harne (Kleintank) returns from duty early and gives Ray an account of Kyle’s death that puts the blame squarely on Max. Ray is all for putting a bullet in the dog’s head after that but cooler heads prevail. Max clearly doesn’t like Harne – he gets upset whenever he’s close by, barking and trying to break his chain to get at the former Marine. Justin thinks Harne is up to something. When Justin’s suspicions prove correct, Harne has Max taken away by animal control to be put down and when Ray finally figures out that his younger son has been right all along, kidnaps Ray to hand over to the drug cartel that he is selling weapons that he liberated in Afghanistan to with the express instructions to take his buddy’s dad to Mexico and make him disappear permanent-like. It’s up to Max to escape doggie death row and aid Justin in finding his dad.

I liked the first part of the premise – bringing a military dog home and helping the dog heal from his PTSD, while simultaneously helping the family heal from the grief of their loss. Had they stuck to that story this might have been an excellent family film. Unfortunately, they add the whole far-fetched junior detective angle that just turns the movie into an Afterschool Special and not a particularly good one.

What saves the movie is Max himself; the dog is absolutely wonderful, the kind of dog that epitomizes why the species is Man’s Best Friend. One can see why the military and law enforcement both rely heavily on dogs, particularly those of Max’s breed. Max will definitely tug on your heartstrings and in a movie like this one, frankly that’s his job.

I didn’t talk much about Carmen in the story summary but let me tell you, Mia Xitlali may have an unusual last name but she also has unusual talent to back it up. She’s absolutely a knockout in the looks department but she has plenty of screen presence to make her a talent to watch out for, so long as she doesn’t go down the Selena Gomez path. Latin actresses don’t often get really juicy roles but hopefully one will come this lady’s way – I know she’ll make the most of it when one does. Mark my words, this girl has a future ahead of her.

Wiggins, who was impressive in the far better Hellion, is less so here. Mostly, he’s the victim of awful writing; Justin is so sullen and so angry at the world that it is absolutely excruciating to spend time with him. Sure, this might be more typical of teenage boy behavior – and I helped raise one as well as having been one, so I know they can be real jerks – but most teen boys, even my son, had redeeming qualities. Eventually Max turns Justin around but by the time he does, you’re pretty much already over Justin. Sadly, Yakin gave Wiggins some cringe-inducing dialogue to speak and you can almost see Wiggins wincing when he says it.

I get that this isn’t meant to be a work of art but it could have been so much better. I think the story that takes up most of the first part of the movie is far more compelling than the Disney Channel detective show that makes up the second. I wish Yakin had trusted his main story to carry him through although to be fair, it’s quite possible (and even likely) that the studio may have had something to do with adding the kids save the day second half. In addition, when a filmmaker casts actors the caliber of Graham and Church and then gives them little to do but look stern or sad, that’s a bad sign. Still, those looking for family entertainment that isn’t animated in a year in which it seems like the only good option for families is Inside Out could do worse than seeing this as a break from multiple viewings of Pixar.

REASONS TO GO: Max is terrific. Some nice cinematography. Xitlali shows some legitimate talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedantic story. Church and Graham criminally underused. Justin may be a “typical” teen but far too abrasive to get much audience sympathy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and peril, disturbing war sequence and some thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Five dogs play Max, who is a Belgian Malinois (not a Belgian Shepard as is at least once remarked upon in the movie) which are a breed used often by the military and police; the primary canine actor, whose name is Carlos (great name!) also appeared in the movie Project Almanac.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bolt
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meet Me in Montenegro

The American Experience 2015


The American Experience 2015With Independence Day just around the corner, that means it is time for our annual mini-review festival that looks at what it’s like to be an American. The American Experience centers around movies that depict the American lifestyle, events in American history or famous Americans. In fact, our banner this year depicts an iconic scene from an Oscar-winning biopic about a famous American warrior. Perhaps ironically, that’s not one of the films I’m reviewing this year, although I will get around to reviewing Patton one of these days. It was one of my father’s favorites.

So hopefully those readers who are Americans will be enjoying their holiday weekend with traditional barbecues, fireworks and getting together with family and friends as we celebrate our home. And what could be more American than a motion picture, something that an American invented and has been an American art form for more than a century? Happy Fourth everybody!

Proud Citizen


What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

What could be more American than funnel cake on the Fourth of July?

(2014) Drama (Giant Dolphin) Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, Natalie E. Cummings, Leif Erickson, Ryan Case, Judy Sanders, Sami Allison, Elliott Moore Haynes, Blakeley Burger. Directed by Thom Southerland

Florida Film Festival 2015

Being alone in a city where you know nobody can be daunting. Sometimes all you can do is play tourist, particularly when you have a lot of time on your hands. While it can be liberating to be alone in a city – you make all the decisions about where to eat, what to do, when to do it and so on – it can also reinforce the loneliness in your own life at home.

Krasi (Stoykova-Klemer) is a Bulgarian poet and playwright who has just taken second place in a theater competition. First place got to see their play produced in New York City. Second place got Lexington, Kentucky. There was no third place.

So she’s left Bulgaria for the bright lights and big city of Lexington but things almost immediately begin to get strange. First of all, Debbie (Cummings), the stage manager who was supposed to meet Krasi at the airport is quite late; she seems flustered as the play is in technical rehearsals and opens just a few days hence. She dumps Krasi at her non-descript hotel and rushes back to the theater, leaving Krasi on her own.

Not knowing anything about the area, Krasi decides to explore downtown Lexington…on foot. It’s a bit of a walk from her hotel but doable, so she puts on a nice dress and heads out, all dressed up and nowhere to go from a literal standpoint. While the downtown area is pleasant enough, there aren’t a lot of people there and those that are aren’t particularly hospitable.

The name of the play that Krasi wrote is Black Coat and is autobiographical. Andy (Erickson), the actor portraying her father seems quite nice; Jeremy (Case), the director is also flustered but friendly at least; Natalie (Burger), the young actress playing Krasi as a teen is a bit withdrawn, spending time practicing on the violin when she’s not texting her friends but is more focused on schoolwork and getting into college than on picking Krasi’s brain for insights which Andy is more prone to doing. Andy takes Krasi to a beautiful urban park in Lexington which she appreciates but his invitation to dinner seem to create a distance between them.

She takes a tour of a local horse farm which is where Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen resides. She appreciates the horse and a pony that she gets to meet very much; there are statues of horses all over downtown Lexington but no actual horses. Lucy (Allison), the tour guide, befriends Krasi and invites her over for dinner where Krasi becomes enchanted with Elliot (Haynes), her 3-year-old son. Krasi eventually spends the night.

The next day is the Fourth of July and Lucy invites Krasi to go downtown and see the festivities. There’s funnel cake and parades, and eventually fireworks but while they are there Lucy meets an ex-boyfriend. She initially doesn’t want to get his attention but Krasi makes sure that he notices her and the two converse. The ex wants to take Lucy out and Krasi insists that Lucy go, promising to take Eliot home and watch over him until she returns.

She’s eventually gone overnight and Krasi goes outside after Elliot goes to sleep to play with sparklers, neglecting to lock the back door when she comes back in. After she falls asleep, Elliot wanders outside. When Lucy does eventually return, she is panicked to find that Elliot isn’t in his bed. She eventually finds him nearby but Krasi is absolutely mortified and leaves, having a lot to do as that evening is opening night for the play in any case and then she’ll be returning home the next day.

There is more but this is more of a slice of life, five days in a different country for Krasi. Southerland, a Kentucky native, shoots this in black and white which gives it a kind of timeless feel that combines Eastern Europe with a bygone era in America. The lovely black-and-white cinematography really sets the tone for the film.

Most of the cast is made up of amateurs, several of them having local stage experience in the Lexington area but that’s it. They do a pretty solid job considering their lack of film experience. Stoykova-Klemer has no acting experience; she is a poet who has a radio show in the Lexington area whose voice caught Southerland’s ear and whose story inspired the character of Stasi. In fact, Black Coats is the name of Stoykova-Klemer’s published book of poetry which in turn inspired the play that bears its name in the movie.

Loneliness is a central theme here; most of the main characters suffer from it in one form or another. Horses are also a main element which seems pretty understandable as they are a major part of the world that is Lexington. Most of the time Krasi handles the loneliness with a smile, but she has at least one moment of self-pity during the movie which is also understandable. It’s hard not to feel sorry for yourself when you’re alone as nobody is there to do it for you.

A good deal of the movie was improvised by the actors, making the conversation sound real and unforced. The story gets a little disjointed though; although it all makes sense by the end, it meanders a bit during the five day period which is I suppose the way our own stories in real life tend to be told.

This isn’t a movie for everybody. Those who are impatient, require their movies to be loud and kinetic will find this to be boring, which it most assuredly is not. This is a reflection of life and of an outsider looking at America through an outsider’s prism. We have a tendency to take things for granted over here, the kind of things that are hard to come by in lands less blessed by freedom and plenty than we are. We sometimes fail to realize how enviable our lives can be but then again, it is as human as it gets to want more than what we already have…or at least something different.

REASONS TO GO: Amateur cast comes through. Surprisingly conversational. Slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too low-key for some. A little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lucy’s 3-year-old son is her 3-year-old son in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in America
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy

Grown Ups


Grown Ups

Kevin James hangs on for dear life.

(Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Salma Hayek Pinault, Maria Bello, Maya Rudolph, Joyce van Patten, Ebony Jo-Ann, Di Quon, Colin Quinn, Steve Buscemi, Tim Meadows. Directed by Dennis Dugan

The problem with life is that we grow up, we move on. We never have the kind of friends we had as children (I learned that as a child, but was reminded of it some years ago when I first saw Stand By Me) and even when we reconnect, we find that our childhood friends aren’t the same people they were when we were young.

The coach of a championship middles school basketball team has died. A gruff, genial sort, he had a major effect on the lives of the starting five, who gather for his funeral; Eric Lamonsoff (James), a beefy guy who is married to Sally (Bello) who still breastfeeds their four-year-old; Kurt McKenzie (Rock) who is now a somewhat whipped househusband with a dismissive wife Deanne (Rudolph) and the mother-in-law from Hell, Madea…I mean, Mama Ronzoni (Jo-Ann); Rob Hilliard (Schneider) who is on his third marriage, this time to Gloria (van Patten), a woman 30 years his senior and who along with him have embraced a New Age vegan lifestyle; Marcus Higgins (Spade), a womanizer whose women are getting younger as he gets older and finally Lenny Feder (Sandler), the star of the team who has gone on to be a super-rich Hollywood agent married to a hot (in every sense of the word) fashion designer Roxanne (Hayek Pinault).

Lenny decides to rent the same lake house the five were taken to by the coach to celebrate their championship back in 1978. All of them are bringing a good deal of baggage with them, much of it residing in their relationships with their wives and children. Maybe all it takes is a weekend recapturing the magic of youth when a summer day seemed endless, the Fourth of July was a reason to celebrate and the possibilities were unlimited.

That’s basically all you need to know about the plot. The good news is that this is a pleasant movie that really isn’t offensive, despite some of its attempts to be as in Sally’s milk-spray into Deanne’s face, or Marcus taking a header into a pile of dog poo. The bad news is that the movie tends to settle into a rut of pleasantness, taking the bite out of comics who ten years ago would have made fun of efforts like this.

The movie is somewhat uneven; there were places where I was laughing out loud and others where I was rolling my eyes. The comics seem to be going for a juvenile kind of humor where calling each other fat in some imaginative way is the height of wit. Not that I have anything against that sort of thing – that’s what guys do after all – but it runs through the whole movie.

Nearly all of the movie’s best moments come at the hands of the five leads, which makes a bit of sense – after all, that’s who people are paying to see. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of lesser characters vying for screen time and making the movie feel a little bit crowded. One of the better moments was a speech that perennial TV guest star Joyce van Patten makes near the end of the movie during the obligatory confessional revelatory scene; it might well be the best moment in her distinguished career. Unfortunately, it feels like it should be in another movie.

If you like all these guys individually or collectively, you’re going to see this regardless of what I say. Fortunately, you won’t be disappointed. It’s not the best work of any one of them by any means, but it certainly won’t leave you feeling like you didn’t get your money’s worth. I saw this over the Fourth of July weekend which is the ideal time to see this; what can be more American than a bunch of friends getting together in a bucolic location to relive the glory days and fix what is broken in their lives?

 REASONS TO GO: Five of the best comedians of the 90s all together in the same film. Hayek and Bello are a couple of hotties. There are some pretty funny moments here.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wildly uneven and relies a little bit overly much on juvenile humor and pratfalls.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scatological and sexual humor as well as a few male rear ends on display; while nothing I wouldn’t flinch at, you might want to think twice about letting the younger kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dugan has a cameo as the referee in the opening basketball sequence; Sandler’s real-life wife and daughters also make an appearance as the wife and daughters of Tardio, the cannoli guy. “Amoskeag Lake” doesn’t exist, incidentally; the movie was filmed at Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts; Amoskeag refers to a dam on the Merrimack River in New Hampshire near where Adam Sandler grew up; a number of businesses in Manchester were named after it.

HOME OR THEATER: This will work just as well at home as it will in a big theater; however, this is the type of comedy meant to be enjoyed with a crowd so keep that in mind.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Igor

The Bounty Hunter


The Bounty Hunter

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are crusing the byways of New Jersey in a big blue whale.

(Columbia) Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, Jason Sudeikis, Dorian Missick, Joel Marsh Garland, Christine Baranski, Jeff Garlin, Cathy Moriarty, Richie Coster, Carol Kane, Tracy Thorne, Adam Rose, Siobhan Fallon Hogan. Directed by Andy Tennant

Sometimes life drops a gift into our laps. It could be an inheritance from a previously unknown relative, or a long-forgotten stock gift hitting paydirt. It can even be something far more simpler but much more satisfying.

Nicole Hurly (Aniston) is a reporter whose life is her job. She is investigating the apparent suicide of a police property clerk under suspicious circumstances. When a snitch calls her to set up a meeting with important evidence on the line, she blows off a bail hearing for a traffic crime to go to the meet.

Milo Boyd (Butler) used to be a police detective but he’s made a few career missteps so now he works for his friend Sid (Garlin) as a bounty hunter for bail skip-outs. When he receives the ticket for his ex-wife – you guessed it, Nicole Hurly – over the fourth of July weekend, he is more than jazzed. He is simply ecstatic.

While searching his ex-wife’s apartment, he runs into her love-struck co-worker Stewart (Sudeikis) who believes that he is having a torrid relationship with Nicole (which was in reality a single night of drunken making out). With his intimate knowledge of the client he heads over to Atlantic City where Nicole has also blown off lunch with her cabaret entertainer mom (Baranski) to go to the track and think. He collars her at the track and its clear that she despises him and vice versa.

Milo is also in debt to some bookies for a good deal of dough and Mama Irene (Moriarty) wants it collected. A couple of thugs are on the look-out for Milo, and there are some crooked cops who are after Nicole. Now half the state of New Jersey is looking for both of them and they can’t stand each other – but they’ll have to rely on each other to make it back to New York.

In years gone by this would have been a screwball comedy with Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in the lead roles, with lots of snappy one-liners and clever dialogue. Today, it’s a formula romantic comedy that shows little imagination in anything other than the casting of the leads with attractive, bankable stars.

Director Andy Tennant has made movies like Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama, both light entertainments that are way better than this is. This is bloodless and by the numbers. Aniston and Butler are both solid actors who have made some good movies but this isn’t one of them. Butler, who was solid in last year’s The Ugly Truth, is in a similar man-slob role but unlike that movie doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities. The sweetness that was at the core of his character in that movie is completely missing here.

There’s some talent in the supporting roles, from Baranski as Nicole’s oversexed mom to the great Carol Kane as a bed and breakfast owner. For the most part though, it’s wasted with pointless slapstick bits and one-liners that are punchless and none too funny. It’s not a complete waste of time, but it isn’t anything to write home about either.

In fact, this is a completely formulaic movie that holds no surprises whatsoever. You know where the romance is going, and you know who the bad guys are the minute they show up onscreen. It’s a no-brainer for even the non-discerning audience.  

REASONS TO GO: Aniston and Butler are attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: A passionless, formulaic script with no surprises whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and a little bit of violence and foul language but for the most part perfectly harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey; notices were posted throughout the track that those who didn’t want to be filmed should leave the premises.

HOME OR THEATER: No problem waiting for this to hit the home video market.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Repo Men