The Journey


Two serious fellas take a walk in the woods.

(2016) True Life Drama (IFC) Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, John Hurt, Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack, Ian McElhinney, Ian Beattie, Barry Ward, Kristy Robinson, Mark Lambert, Stewart David Hawthorne, Frank Cannon, John Wark, Michael Hooley, Aaron Rolph. Directed by Nick Hamm

 

Younger readers probably don’t remember much about what the Irish with their typical gift for grim understatement refer to as “The Troubles.” There was a time in Northern Ireland when the Catholics, represented by the Irish Republican Army and their political arm the Sinn Fein were in open revolt against the British-backed Protestant government. The IRA was in all senses a terrorist organization, planting bombs, assassinating political leaders and ambushing British soldiers sent to keep the peace. Belfast became a war zone. Readers over the age of 30 – particularly those in the UK – will remember these times vividly.

It is not like that any longer and while there are still some hard feelings particularly among older hardcore sorts, Ireland is at last at peace and Belfast is a wonderful place for tourists to visit rather than a place for anyone who didn’t have to live there to avoid. The reason for that is that the two sides got together and decided that peace was better than pride, but in order for that to happen the leadership on both sides – represented by firebrand minister Rev. Ian Paisley (Spall) for the Unionists (the Protestant political party) and alleged former IRA coordinator turned politician Martin McGuinness (Meaney) – had to take the message to heart.

Orchestrated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Stephens), the two sides met at St. Andrew’s in Scotland to discuss a final, lasting peace but early on the curmudgeonly Paisley informed Blair that he was going to leave for a few days to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Belfast. McGuinness, realizing that once Paisley was surrounded by hardliners in his party he would be unlikely to budge on important points to making the peace happen, invokes one of the rules of the meeting and arranges to be flown on the same plane to Ireland. However, due to storms the nearest airport in Glasgow had been socked in. There would be a chance to fly out of Edinburgh instead but they’d have to drive there quickly.

Former MI-5 director Harry Patterson (Hurt) arranges for the driver Jack (Highmore), a field operative normally, to have a hidden earpiece and for the car to have microphones and cameras all over it. The hope, shared by Republican politician Gerry Adams (Beattie) and Protestant politician Bertie Ahern (Lambert), is that the two men, who have never spoken to each other and had publicly disdained one another, would get to talking if forced to by a long car ride. All of them felt like McGuinness that once the crusty Paisley, who once declared Pope John Paul II to be the Antichrist, was in Belfast the talks would essentially collapse and the bloodshed would continue.

Essentially the whole movie is two people talking to each other with periodic interjections from Jack and occasional switches to the command center where the two are being observed. There is a prologue (which unusual for a true life drama features pictures of the actual participants rather than having the actors digitally inserted) that explains the lead up to the peace talks (and to be sure, it’s very well done) and an epilogue but mainly it’s just two guys talking. That can be a good thing or a bad thing but when you have two great character actors the caliber of Spall and Meaney, it’s definitely the former.

While I wouldn’t say necessarily that the performances here are Oscar-worthy (although Spall comes pretty close), they are super strong nonetheless. Both actors are riveting and the two have tremendous chemistry. Meaney, chiefly known for his Star Trek role as Miles O’Brien, is jocular as McGuinness, the one who truly understands the horrors of the Troubles and is quite eager to end them but knows that he won’t be very popular with his own people, as Paisley won’t be popular with his if they do find a way to make peace. However, he also realizes that they’ll both be popular with history. Spall is stentorian as Paisley, a perpetually sour expression on his face although he is prone to a somewhat impish (and corny) sense of humor. We’re used to seeing Spall portray English bulldogs; here, he portrays an Irish one.

While the actors don’t really resemble their real life counterparts in the slightest, they both capture the essence of the men they’re portraying, from Paisley’s bombastic speaking style to McGuinness’ haunted thousand-yard-stare. Neither man is with us any longer which is likely just as well; neither one would have been comfortable with the liberties taken with history here.

The former child actor Highmore is solid and likable in an adult role, while the late John Hurt is as dependable as always in a fairly small role but it is enough to remind us of what a great talent he was. Most of the rest of the cast are fine but unremarkable in their parts but Spall and Meaney get the lion’s share of screen time.

Yet the filmmakers cover themselves during that prologue by boldly stating that “this story imagines that journey” which covers a lot of sins. The tale of how two sworn enemies who literally loathed what the other stood for could bury the hatchet and not only learn to work together but indeed became fast friends whose banter was so universal they became informally known as “The Chuckle Brothers” during their tenure as Ireland’s number one and number two politicians.

The cinematography is beautiful as Greg Gardiner gives us lovely vistas of the Scottish countryside (although ironically some of the scenes were filmed in Ireland) and gathering storm clouds, of quaint villages and lonely country roads. It’s a beautiful film to look at. Spall and Meaney are given a lovely sandbox to play in.

I’m conversant with the events of the actual peace talks rather than expert in them but from what I understand the actual story behind how Paisley and McGuinness came to become friends after being enemies is more interesting albeit less dramatic than what’s portrayed here. The changing of hearts and minds tends to be a gradual thing rather than something that happens during the course of a road trip. In some ways the film cheapens the life journey that Paisley and McGuinness actually took with this imagined one but I suppose one could look at it metaphorically and find some common ground with history.

This is despite its laissez faire attitude towards facts a solid and impressive film thanks largely due to the performances. It’s never a bad thing seeing great actors act well and you’ll certainly see that here. One gets a sense of the depth of hatred that each side had for the other and the desperate but slender hope that they could find some common ground for peace. One thing is for certain; it was hellaciously difficult  for both sides to get past their hatred and distrust for the other and learn to live in peace. If the Irish can do it, that gives us some hope that it can happen here too.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by Spall and Meaney who work very well together. The cinematography is top-notch.
REASONS TO STAY: History is fudged quite a bit and the story is oversimplified and “Hollywoodized” for the sake of unneeded dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult and there are some violent images as well as plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The journey depicted, sadly, never actually happened. The Rev. Paisley did not fly to Belfast for his Golden Wedding anniversary as depicted for the simple reason that his wife Eileen accompanied him to St. Andrew’s. McGuinness later recalled that the two didn’t speak directly at the St. Andrew’s Peace Talks and didn’t have their first actual conversation until about six months later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hunger
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: F(l)ag Football

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The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

The Art of Getting By


Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

(2011) Teen Romance (Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ann Dowd, Maya Ri Sanchez, Blair Underwood, Ann Harada, Rita Wilson, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Reaser, Andrew Levitas, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Angarano, Dan Leonard, Sophie Curtis, Lindsay-Elizabeth Hand. Directed by Gavin Wiesen

It seems sometimes that the world is overcrowded with movies about teens, floundering to find themselves, finding romance which inspires them to put aside whatever bullshit they were into and grow up. I’m not sure if the source of these are frustrated parents of teens, desperate for hope that their own kids are going to grow out of the phase they’re in, or by former teens who wish that their issues could have been resolved that easily.

George (Highmore) is a self-described misanthrope, although I might have added nihilist to the description. He is a budding artist who is inspired by nothing. We’re all going to die eventually, he reasons; why bother doing anything? So the homework at the elite prep school in Manhattan that he attends remains uncompleted and he spends his lunch breaks alone and reading Camus. And if you needed one more clue that George is a pretentious Morrissey-wannabe, he always always always wears a dark overcoat. Except in the picture above.

Then Harry – I mean George – meets Sally (Roberts) and impulsively takes the fall for her smoking on the school roof. Side note: has anybody actually named their daughter Sally since, say, 1947? Anyway, the two start hanging out together and George begins to develop those kind of feelings for her which are either not reciprocated or ignored. As it turns out, Sally’s got issues of her own although we don’t find out what they are until later in the film.

George also meets Austin (Angarano), an artist who starts hitting on Sally. George’s parents – his doormat mom (Wilson) and his stepdad (Robards) who turns out to be not nearly as successful as he let on – are having issues. George, now really upset, has a blowup with Sally and the two fall go their separate ways, Sally into a relationship with Austin and George into a quest to find meaning by finishing his homework which leads me to believe that the first group might be the source of this particular film.

First-time director Wiesen cast this Sundance entry well, with Highmore especially proving to be fortuitous. The young Brit has been a skilled actor for quite awhile (and has received rave notices for his work on the Psycho TV series. The George character is truly unlikable when we first meet him; pretentious and angst-ridden in the worst teen way. Like many teens who prefer to embrace the doom and gloom, they refuse to see the things right in front of them that are good – a mom that loves him, a school that wants to inspire him, a girl that could be good for him.  Instead, he prefers to mess things up for himself which is pretty true-to-life.

What isn’t is that the movie follows too many teen movie cliches in that everything is resolved by a girl leaving a guy, forcing him to make changes for the better and by the end of the movie he’s actually a likable guy with a bright future and of course the ending is as predictable as a Republican reaction to an Obama policy. Most kids are far too complex and far too smart to believe this as anything but the most optimistic fantasy. Change comes from within, and change for the better is hard work. I can’t think of many schools, particularly elite academic institutions, that would be willing to let someone who has slacked off on turning in his homework all year save his academic life. In fact, most schools would have expelled his ass long before.

Despite the cliches, this is actually a pretty decent example of the teen coming-of-age romance genre and while it’s no Say Anything it’s still competently made and has some decent performances, especially from Highmore. And, for once, the adults aren’t treated like morons; they have their own issues sure but they are well-meaning. Of course, the trend lately is to eliminate the adults from the conversation entirely, but Wiesen doesn’t do that. The Art of Getting By more than gets by, thankfully; it’s not a movie that will change anybody’s life or perception of it but it fits the bill, particularly if you’re into the niche that it fits in.

WHY RENT THIS: Highmore is engaging and turns an unlikable character into a likable one.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really add anything to the teen coming-of-age romance movie genre which is overcrowded as it is.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are aimed at more mature teens and adults. There’s also plenty of foul language, sexual content and scenes of teen partying and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the first scene, the camera passes by Tom’s Restaurant, the one made famous by Seinfeld.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of very brief interview segments on New York City and young love in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Outside the Law

Toast


Helena Bonham Carter's Mad Men audition didn't go as planned.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Mad Men audition didn’t go as planned.

(2010) Biographical Drama (W2 Media) Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham Carter, Ken Stott, Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew McNulty, Colin Prockter, Frasier Huckle, Kia Pegg, Rielly Newbold, Roger Walker, Rob Jarvis, Amy Marston, Selina Cadell, Louise Mardenborough, Corinne Wicks, Marion Bailey, Tracey Wilkinson, Claire Higgins. Directed by S.J. Clarkson

There is an old saying that says that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Personally, I don’t buy it; the way to a man’s heart is through a place lower in the anatomy, if you get my drift. Still, if you can keep a man well-fed, you have a decent shot at keeping a man once you’ve got him.

For young Nigel Slater (Kennedy), life in the late 50s/early 60s in England is blissful although flavorless. His Dad (Stott) is a factory manager with a grumpy temperament; his mom (Hamilton) sweet as can be although she has one flaw – she can’t cook to save her life. Everything she makes is boiled in a can (a pre-microwave era of making prepared foods) and when the contents of those cans came out overcooked, it would be toast for supper, something Nigel actually looked forward to.

As it turned out, his mum had another flaw – severe asthma and eventually it would take her life. Although Nigel misses her terribly, life continues on pretty much as before with dad being not much better at cooking than his late wife was.

Into their lives comes housekeeper Mrs. Potter (Bonham-Carter) who is in fact a brilliant cook – she seduces the Slaters with heavenly meringues and savory roasts. But the now-teenage Nigel (Highmore) has taken an interest in cooking himself and is jealous of the attention his father is paying Mrs. Potter – and yes, there IS a Mr. Potter. Eventually the Slaters pull up stakes and move out to the country, Mrs. Potter in tow and Nigel competes with Mrs. Potter for Mr. Slater, with Mrs. Potter having the upper hand. Nigel has also discovered his sexuality – and he is very much interested in boys, although he is too shy to approach any. What will his dad make of that?

This was originally made for British television and was a monster hit in the ratings there. Why they chose to release it in the U.S. is something of a mystery; Slater, a well-known food critic in Great Britain, is virtually unknown here across the pond.

That doesn’t mean that this isn’t worth watching. Even if you don’t know who Nigel would become, his story is still interesting and bittersweet. It’s also nice to see Britain in the ’60s, in some ways the apex of modern British culture (some might argue that the 80s were and I wouldn’t disagree) and the filmmakers capture the period beautifully here, even more so than Mad Men.

Bonham-Carter is an underrated actress who often appears in supporting roles in big movies yet almost always steals attention in a good way – see her Harry Potter appearances or Big Fish if you disagree. While I get the sense that the filmmakers aren’t quite sure what they make of the Mrs. Potter character, whether she’s an adulterous manipulative homewrecker or a woman trying her best to please a family that’s been through hell. Nigel is much more clear; he thinks she’s the former and loathes the woman although we can’t always see why. In many ways, we begin to root against the main character which is rather odd because Bonham-Carter isn’t the focus; Nigel is and the more he hates Mrs. Potter, the more we see him as a spoiled officious twit.

The movie is a bit overbearing in places and makes a lot of its points with a sledge hammer when a Q-tip would have done. I could have used some subtitles in places as some of the rural accents were a bit difficult to decipher.

There was some entertainment to be had here and there are some funny moments but by and large I found that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have the courage of their convictions. The real Mrs. Potter’s daughters (Nigel’s stepsisters) have excoriated the movie (and Slater’s autobiography which inspired it) for the portrayal both of Mr. Slater and Mrs. Potter (her name was even changed for the movie) and while they have a bit of an ulterior motive, just the way these portrayals are made in the film tell me that they are a bit skewed by Nigel’s own prejudices in the matter which is only to be expected. We all see things through our own lens of self-interest.

WHY RENT THIS: Bonham-Carter is always fascinating onscreen. Captures period nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t use Bonham-Carter’s character well. A bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, period smoking and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chef at the Savoy Hotel who appears in the final scene is the real Nigel Slater.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (unavailable), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (unavailable), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Get Hard

New Releases for the Week of June 17, 2011


June 17, 2011

GREEN LANTERN

(Warner Brothers) Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Angela Bassett, Tim Robbins, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan. Directed by Martin Campbell

A cocky test pilot (is there any other kind?) is drawn into a galactic conflict after an alien hands him a ring that has the power to convert thought into reality. He becomes a member of a corps of heroes who protect the universe from evil, but they are facing a threat more powerful than any they’ve ever seen before. Not only is the earth in peril from this enemy but there are enemies at home that are compounding the threat.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

The Art of Getting By

(Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Blair Underwood, Rita Wilson. A spoiled teen who has managed to reach his senior year of high school without doing a day’s work, faces the onset of the real world. He meets a young woman who sees past his facade and takes a liking to him, although she has issues of her own. Together they try to weather the storms of adolescence and learn the difficult art of getting by.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking and partying)

Mr. Popper’s Penguins

(20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg. A man who has become so career-driven that he has lost sight of why he is working in the first place inherits six penguins from his arctic explorer Uncle. Ready to send them to the zoo at first, he discovers that the penguins are helping him re-discover what’s important. Now if he can only keep them out of the hands of the zookeeper…

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor and language)

The Tree of Life

(Fox Searchlight) Brat Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Joanna Going. A man has to resolve his complex and often difficult relationship with his father. Adrift in the modern world, seeking answers involving faith, science and man’s place in the universe, he finds himself on the cusp of wonders, discoveries that will change everything – but not his past. This is the most recent from respected director Terrence Malick; it recently won the coveted Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and has been as controversial as it has been acclaimed.

See the trailer and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic material)

Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

A Good Year


A Good Year

Not even Russell Crowe can look cool in that jacket and Marion Cotillard knows it.

(20th Century Fox) Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Freddie Highmore, Archie Panjabi, Didier Bourdon, Isabelle Candalier, Jacques Herlin, Tom Hollander, Rafe Spall, Kenneth Cranham, Richard Coyle.  Directed by Ridley Scott

Life is what happens, according to John Lennon, when we’re making other plans. As with many other things, the Beatle had it right. Too often we’re so involved with the day to day distractions of mortgages, raising children, work, school, and the little recreations of TV and internet that we lose sight of what it is to truly live. As a species, I don’t believe we were meant to live this way, and yet we do, day after day.

For some, life is all about the pursuit of money, and for none more so than Max Skinner (Crowe), an underhanded, cold-hearted bond trader in London. He has no scruples when it comes to making profit, whether it involves bending the laws to the breaking point or screwing over friends, colleagues and God knows how many strangers. He is a human shark without pity or feeling. His is a life full of sex but lacking love. In fact, he has only truly loved one person in his entire life; his Uncle Henry (Finney).

Uncle Henry has a chateau in Provence, France where he makes a liquid that somewhat resembles wine. As a boy (Highmore), Max used to visit regularly, especially after his parents died. Henry was a bit on the eccentric side, an avowed ladies man who never married and never intended to. As time went on and Max grew into the adult he would become, he and Henry grew apart. They hadn’t spoken much in ten years when Max received word that Henry had passed on.

Since Henry had not updated his will, Max as his closest known blood relative inherited everything; the chateau, the vineyards and the possessions. Max is not interested in these things and wants to sell them as quickly as possible, preferably with as little involvement in time or trouble as possible. Unfortunately, he is forced to go to Provence to sign paperwork and so he returns to the chateau. There, he is re-introduced to Duflot (Bourdon), who takes care of the vines and makes the wine and his wife Ludivine (Candalier) who is also the chateau’s housekeeper. They are happy to see him, but are also wary; they don’t know what his intentions are and they can smell the trouble on the horizon.

Nor does he disappoint them. When Duflot discovers what Max’s intentions are, he is furious but essentially helpless. After all, the property does belong to Max, who is getting ready to leave when a chance encounter with a headstrong local waitress named Fanny Chenal (Cotillard) causes Max to miss his flight back to London. Things are now further complicated by the appearance of Christie Roberts (Cornish), a Californian who claims to be Henry’s daughter. Max decides to stay in order to protect his property.

And yet the charms of Provence and the leisurely lifestyle of the wine country of France are beginning to weave their charms on him. Moreover, he has begun to fall in love with Fanny Chenal. Reconciling his life as a high-powered bond trader and the life that is part and parcel with the chateau is nigh on impossible. Which life is Max to choose?

This is a stab at comedy, something neither Crowe nor director Scott (who previously worked together on Gladiator) is known for. In point of fact, this isn’t an all-out comedy along the lines of a Borat or Talladega Nights. There are a few moments that are genuinely funny, at Crowe gamely tries his hand at slapstick in a couple of places with some effect. What I liked was watching Crowe poke fun at his own image as a tough guy, particularly in the scene where he is reduced to a gibbering wreck by an intruding scorpion and must be saved by Ludivine. However, it must be said that some of the comic moments do fall a little flat.

Fortunately, that doesn’t cause too much damage. The movie relies on sedate charm, languid pacing and gorgeous photography to cast its spell, and it doesn’t hurt to have some nice work from the cast. Candalier is particularly effervescent in a small role, but when she’s onscreen, she lights things up. Cotillard is a luminous beauty whose strong willed nature doesn’t overwhelm the movie’s gentle spirit. Highmore does a commendable job as the young Max; he has a genuine rapport with Finney, and you get the distinct impression that the two forged a nice bond during filming. Finney is always marvelous, and he doesn’t disappoint here.

The message of living life as if you love it is one that can’t be repeated often enough, because we lose sight of the lesson far too easily. I can see tourism in the Provence region picking up after people see this movie; it looks like a marvelous place to recharge and reflect. This is a romantic movie that is relatively painless for those who are prone to distrusting romantic movies. Sometimes, the proper prescription is a movie that rather than shouting its message at you prefers to deliver it in a soft, soothing voice.

WHY RENT THIS: The charm of Provence is bound to work its magic on you. The acting here is superb, particularly the French actors.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the comedy works here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little rough language and some sexual content but nothing too out there. This is fine for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to director Ridley Scott, all of the scenes set in Provence were filmed less than an eight minute drive from his home there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Get Him to the Greek