Finding Bliss


"What do you mean there's going to be a quiz?"

“What do you mean there’s going to be a quiz?”

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Phase 4) Leelee Sobieski, Matthew Davis, Denise Richards, Donnamarie Recco, Jamie Kennedy, Kristen Johnston, Mircea Monroe, P.J. Byrne, Caroline Aaron, Tim Bagley, Christa Campbell, Marcus J. Spencer, Sammi Hanratty, Stormy Daniels, Garry Marshall, Ron Jeremy, Zach Cumer, Mario Cassem, Maggy Bashaw, Kimbre Lancaster, Julie Davis. Directed by Julie Davis

Mainstream filmmakers and film fans tend to look down their noses at the porn industry. Even though it has become a multi-billion dollar business, the general feeling is that the writing is godawful, the acting is worse and the production values are almost non-existent. The popular conception of the porn business is that it is made up of predators, the desperate and the drug-addicted. Rarely are those who work in the business given any sort of, I don’t know, humanity.

Jody Balaban (Sobieski), has graduated from NYU film school and heads to Los Angeles armed with a student film she’s inordinately proud of, despite the inconvenient truth that nobody has yet been able to sit through it from start to finish. Still, she’s ready to make her splash in the industry which is sadly uninterested in her potential.

She gets a job as a film editor for Grind Productions, which is at least a foot in the door. When she opens the door, she is horrified to discover that it is a porn studio. Jody, you see, is a bit uptight about sex, being still a virgin at 25 and quite content to remain so for the foreseeable future. However, she’s surprised to discover that the star director for Grind is Jeff Drake (M. Davis) whose art film from the beginning of his own career is an inspiration to Jody, one she considers to be a masterpiece.

Deciding to make the best of things, she tries to make it through the hardcore sex she witnesses daily, using the studio facilities and sets at night to make her own non-pornographic film with the actors and actresses from the sex productions; they are eager enough to help not just out of the goodness of their hearts but also because they hope it might be a ticket into the mainstream. The leads, Bliss (Richards) and Dick Harder (Kennedy) turn out to be real sweethearts.

And for her own part, Jody is slowly falling in love with Jeff despite the odds being stacked against them – they really don’t appear to have a whole lot in common, particularly since Jeff is a hardened cynic and Jody a card-carrying optimist. Still, stranger couples have worked out.

While Boogie Nights looked at both the dark side and the less so, Finding Bliss plays it strictly upbeat. Everyone in the movie more or less has a heart of gold; even the a-holes turn out to be not so bad once you get to know them. Sobieski as Jody is a little bit naive, a little bit plucky and a little bit arrogant but soon comes around to discover that porn Isn’t So Bad. The last half of the movie kinds of descend into a typical rom-com purgatory with all the cliches therein, burning away any goodwill the audience might have accrued during the first half.

Sobieski has always been to my mind an actress with the kind of charm and screen presence to have been a Helen Hunt-sort of actress, which never really developed for her. It’s a shame too; she is certainly the best thing about this movie, deftly handling both the unpleasant parts of Jody’s nature (she’s a bit judgmental about sexuality) and the overly pleasant parts of her personality without becoming cloying or unlikable. We root for Jody even when she isn’t at her best. However, I have to admit that I’m mystified about the romance between Jody and Jeff. Jody doesn’t seem to be the kind of woman that would be attracted to Jeff and it feels more like the two are given a romance because the story requires one. After all, what’s a romantic comedy without a romance?

The rest of the cast is pretty solid as well, with Kennedy showing that he can have a winning screen personality when the right role comes along, and 3rd Rock From the Sun stalwart Johnston showing her underused comedic form as the wise boss of Grind.

While they tend to overuse Jody’s distaste for all things sexual, the movie has some genuinely funny moments although nothing earth-shaking. Overall, if I had to do a one-word review for the film it would be “pleasant” which would be meant in the most empty-headed sense. I would have preferred that the porn industry be portrayed with a little more edge; while I appreciate the attempt at humanization of the people who work in the industry, I would have liked actual humans rather than these overly nice people who remind me unnervingly of Stepford Wives and Husbands.

WHY RENT THIS: Sobieski is charming. Everyone is generally likable.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Devolves into standard rom-com cliches. Romance isn’t believable. Lacks the kind of edge that would draw the viewer in to the story.
FAMILY VALUES: Very strong sexual content, graphic nudity, explicit dialogue and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several actual porn actors appear in one or both of the movies depicted in the movie.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,783 on a $1.2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boogie Nights
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Man With the Iron Fist

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Pretty Woman


Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

(1990) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Alex Hyde-White, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Amy Yasbeck, Elinor Donahue, Judith Baldwin, Jason Randall, Bill Applebaum, Tracy Bjork, Gary Greene, William Gallo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Hank Azaria, Larry Hankin, Jacqueline Woolsey. Directed by Garry Marshall

Cinema of the Heart 2015

In my day, most little girls dreamed of being princesses swept away by a handsome prince and taken to a life of wealth and pampering. Little girls still have those dreams but sometimes the definition of “princess” and “prince” change a little.

Vivian Ward (Roberts) is a lady of the evening. Not her first choice in professions, but a necessity that will help her earn the cash she needs. Her best friend and roommate Kit De Luca (San Giacomo) is also a hooker. The two work the red light district of Hollywood.

Edward Lewis (Gere) is a ruthless corporate raider from New York, in Los Angeles for meetings to purchase a shipping company from James Morse (Bellamy). Lewis, not familiar with Los Angeles, gets hopelessly lost on his way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ends up on Vivian’s corner. He asks her for directions; she asks for money. Edward, having trouble driving the stick shift on the Lotus Esprit, agrees to pay her to drive him to the hotel.

Once there, intrigued by her wit and her intelligence, he decides to hire her for the profession she has chosen for $300. They have strawberries and champagne (when she flosses the seeds out of her teeth he is amused) and watch reruns of I Love Lucy until they end up having sex.

Edward needs a date to several social events during the week and having hit it off with her, hires her to be with him for the entire week for $3,000. He also gives her a credit card and tells her to purchase some elegant dresses to wear. She goes to a shop on Rodeo Drive and is humiliated by snooty salesgirls who make fun at her overtly sexual appearance and her apparent non-sophistication.

She returns to the hotel completely devastated and snooty manager Barney Thompson (Elizondo) who at first felt disdain at the prostitute, sees her as a human being and a young girl. He helps her purchase a dress, then coaches her on etiquette. Edward returns from work and is amazed at the transformation. However, the business dinner he takes Vivian to with Morse and his son David (Hyde-White) doesn’t end well when Edward admits his intention is to break up the company and sell the land which is worth far more on the open market than it is with the shipping company on it. The Morses leave the table in disgust.

As the week continues, Edward begins to fall for the lively Vivian and she finds herself falling for Edward who is more vulnerable than he admits to being. His lawyer and business partner Philip Stuckey (Alexander) doesn’t approve of the changes he sees in Edward and blames Vivian for it which leads to a heated confrontation among the three of them.

In the meantime, Vivian is swept up in Edward’s world, flying up to San Francisco to see La Traviata at the San Francisco opera which transports her (it doesn’t hurt that the opera is about a wealthy man falling for a prostitute). He, on the other hand, is beginning to see just how empty his life has been without Vivian. Can their two worlds truly be compatible? Will she stay with him beyond the week he paid for?

This movie, along with When Harry Met Sally is credited with the resurgence of romantic comedies which popular in the 50s and 60s had declined to the point where not a single one was produced by a major studio during the 70s. The film is a frothy mix that benefits from Roberts’ bubbly personality and of course that amazing smile which lights up the screen. This would be her second Oscar nomination (she’d already received one for supporting actress in Mystic Pizza) and first for leading actress. It would also make her a genuine star and one of the biggest female box office attractions to this day.

There are those who look at this as anti-feminist and degrading to women, as Vivian seems to need to be “rescued” by a man from a life of exploitation by other men. I don’t agree with that assessment. Vivian is strong and yes, she’s being exploited but she wants more and is on the road to achieve it without Edward’s help (she even refuses it). That she ends up with her knight in shining armor is because she changed him, not because she needed him to save her.

That aside, this is one of those movies that is a Valentine’s Day go-to. For many women, this is a favorite and for a lot of men as well – not just as a romantic comedy but as a movie. There’s something about it that appeals to people, the idea of being plucked out of your mundane existence and into a life of wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?

Roberts, who is amazing here, isn’t alone. Elizondo has always been one of my favorite character actors and this is the performance that made him that for me. Bellamy and Hyde-White are sympathetic, and San Giacomo, who I had a bit of a movie crush on at the time, is gorgeous and feisty, a perfect foil for Roberts. Even Alexander, who would go on to play more bumbling comedic roles, does a terrific job as the truly nasty Philip.

There is a warmth here that is quite frankly a hallmark of Garry Marshall films. In many ways, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for (although there are those that insist that the TV show Happy Days will be his artistic nadir) and if so, not a bad legacy to leave behind. It’s a modernization of the Cinderella fable that resonates with all of us as to the trasnformative power of love, something that is so powerful it changes our lives for the better. There’s no doubt that for most couples, this is a Valentine’s Day movie that you can’t go wrong with.

WHY RENT THIS: Roberts at her very best. One of the most romantic movies of all time. Nice supporting performances by Elizondo, Bellamy and San Giacomo.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some are uncomfortable with Vivian’s performance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and adult themes to go with a smattering of foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Bellamy’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 15th Anniversary DVD edition is loaded with ’em; a Natalie Cole music video, footage from the wrap party (in which we get to see Gere, Roberts and Marshall warble “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to an appreciative audience, a tour of the locations that the production filmed at in 1990 with Marshall as your tour guide and a blooper reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.4M on a $14M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Still Alice

Life After Beth


Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

Dane DeHaan explains to a hungry Aubrey Plaza that he is contractually entitled to first crack at the craft services table.

(2014) Horror Comedy (A24) Dane DeHaan, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Matthew Gray Gubler, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser, Anna Kendrick, Eva La Dare, Alia Shawkat, Thomas McDonell, Allan McLeod, Paul Weitz, Michelle Azar, Jim O’Heir, Rob Delaney, Adam Pally, Elizabeth Jayne, Jenna Nye, Garry Marshall, Bechir Sylvain, Bonnie Burroughs. Directed by Jeff Baena

“Til death do us part” is an intense statement. The vow signifies that we will remain with that other person until one of us is called to the Choir Invisible. What happens though, if death doesn’t part us exactly?

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is mourning the unexpected death of his girlfriend. Both are in high school although summer vacation was in full flower. She’d gone hiking in the Southern California hills by herself and had been bitten by a snake. The poison did her in.

A young romance tragically curtailed is hard enough to endure but Zach had the extra added bonus that the two of them had been having problems. Zach was the kind of guy who didn’t do things he didn’t want to do particularly and while Beth (Plaza) – the said late girlfriend – wanted to go hiking with him, and learn how to dance the flamenco, Zach wasn’t interested in either, or a thousand other things the young and vivacious brunette wanted to try out. So she had brought up the concept of splitting up, which Zach definitely didn’t want to do. While they were in this state of flux, she had decided to go hiking by herself since nobody would go with her and…well, you know the rest.

So Zach was dealing not only with the death of his beautiful young girlfriend but also with his own inadequacies as a boyfriend and it was proving very difficult for him to accept. His parents (Reiser, Hines) weren’t particularly helpful, being a little bit too distracted with whatever it was successful L.A. types are distracted with to give a thought to their brooding son. His older brother Kyle (Gubler) had plenty of time to devote to Zach, considering that he had the high exalted position of security guard for the gated community Beth’s parents Maury (Reilly) and Geenie (Shannon) lived in. Kyle seized the opportunity to make life miserable for his younger brother – after all, what else are older brothers for?

So Zach had taken to spending more time with Maury and Geenie, the three of them united by their numbing, overwhelming grief. They all understood what the others were going through and Zach found it somewhat therapeutic to go through Beth’s things, wearing a ski scarf of hers even though, as I mentioned, it was the dead of summer.

Then one day he goes over and rings the doorbell but there’s no answer. It’s weird because he can hear people inside. He checks the window – and sees a fleeting glimpse of Beth walking around the house. He pounds on the door and tries to get in but just in time his brother turns up and escorts him out of the development. There’s another thing older brothers are for.

Of course, nobody believes what he saw but Zach knows what he saw. He’s so sure that he breaks into their house and comes upon Beth, big as life and still breathing. At first he’s furious, convinced that Maury and Geenie were pulling a fast one, but no, they’re just as mystified as he. She had just shown up at the door and had no clue that she’d died. And Maury, quite frankly, wants it to stay that way.

Zach is determined to do all the things with Beth he’d never done – including sex, which is at the top of the list and Beth is quite frankly horny as all get out. She has no memory of the break-up – as far as she’s concerned everything has always been hunky dory. Except something’s not quite right. She’s prone to these rages and tantrums that were completely unlike her. And then again, she’s stronger than you’d expect for a slip of a girl. And gets sunburned really easily. Zach is sure she’s a zombie – Maury doesn’t want to entertain the concept. But yeah, she is and Zach is totally cool with it. At first.

Equal parts zombie apocalypse and romantic comedy, Life After Beth could be accurately deemed a Zom-com (catchy, no?) and given the popularity of the living dead these days I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a whole lot of them shuffling down the pike, arms outstretched and grunting.

There are a lot of things to like. DeHaan and Plaza make an odd couple but just the sort you’d find in your local high school, the sort who get drawn together in history class and make it official in drama club. DeHaan gives the character equal doses of gravitas, confusion and hormonal overwrought drama. If some teenage boy from your neighborhood had the same circumstances in his life, my guess is he’d act pretty much the same way as Zach does. As for DeHaan, his career has been taking off in the last few years, may not be available to do these smaller films much longer.

The same goes for Plaza. She’s been attracting a lot of notice in Parks and Recreation over the past few years and has quietly done some really strong work in roles large and small in offbeat films. I wouldn’t be surprised if she became the next big comedic actress a la Tina Fey and Kirsten Wiig, but I would be even less surprised if she became far more versatile than that. She captures Beth’s somewhat demanding nature and is able to convey fear, tenderness, sexuality and rage often turning on a dime to do so. She gives an assertive and assured performance, the kind that commands attention. It’s a safe bet that her work here is going to get her noticed for higher profiled roles.

The humor here is scattershot as it is for most comedies and occasionally swings and misses. There are some nice quirky touches – the only thing that calms Beth down is smooth jazz, a type of music that in her first life she used to despise. It becomes kind of a running joke throughout.

While the supporting cast is good, the last half hour of the movie turns into a kind of kitschy episode of The Walking Dead or more to the point, George Romero on an acid trip. Fun and funky is one thing but it doesn’t mesh as nicely the comedy and horror aspects do in the first hour. Still, this is some fine entertainment and Chris Hardwick and his Talking Dead nation are going to enjoy this one as much as I did.

REASONS TO GO: Will crack you up in places. Captures teen angst perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy and horror aspects stop working together well in the last third of the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language and some gore and comedic violence, some nudity and sexuality as well – and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Dane DeHaan’s first comedic role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Drop

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love

Valentine’s Day


Valentine's Day

Jennifer Garner finds out what Demi Moore already knows - Ashton Kutcher delivers.

(New Line) Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, Bryce Robinson, Larry Miller. Directed by Garry Marshall

There are many who consider Valentine’s Day to be a “Hallmark holiday,” an artificial occasion that prompts the sale of chocolate, jewelry and flowers, as well as dinner reservations. It is a day for those who are single and not seeing anyone to be reminded painfully of that fact, and for the unromantic to give their best shot at actual wooing.

It is a sunny day in Los Angeles on February 14, which means that the florists of the Southland are going to be hella busy. For Reed Bennett (Kutcher) who inherited his flower shop from his grandparents, it’s going to be a little different; this morning he has proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and she’s said yes. His best friend Alphonso (Lopez) is happy but seems surprised she accepted his proposal.

Schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Garner) is awakened by her boyfriend, handsome cardiologist Dr. Harrison Copeland (Dempsey) who is unfortunately flying up to San Francisco to perform surgery there and will have to miss his Valentine’s Day rendezvous with his deliriously happy girlfriend. Still, he leaves her with a cute little memento.

Liz (Hathaway) and Alex (Grace) have had a night of incredible sex; they’ve only been going together for a couple of weeks but things look very promising. He is a bit of a nebbish from Indiana and she is a sophisticated L.A. woman who has kept from him that in order to help pay off her student loans, she is also working as a phone sex operator while she works as an assistant to bitchy high-powered sports agent Paula Thomas (Latifah) whose star client, quarterback Sean Jackson (Dane) has just been let go by his ballclub. Sean’s publicist Kara Monahan (Biel) is working on spin control at the same time she is planning her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party. Terminally single, she commiserates with buddy Kelvin Moore (Foxx), the second sportscaster at a local television station whose station manager (Bates) is relaying instructions from on high that more fluff pieces are wanted and Moore, who doesn’t believe in romance, finds himself doing a piece on romance in L.A.

For romance, he could have looked no farther than one of Julia’s students, Edison (Robinson) who has a big crush on someone at his school and hires Reed to send some flowers there. He is staying with his grandparents (MacLaine, Elizondo) because his mother is away. The grandmother has just revealed something to the grandfather that is a game-changer in their relationship. Edison’s babysitter (Emma Roberts) is contemplating having sex with her boyfriend and her best friend (Swift) is head over heels over track star Willy (Lautner). In the meantime, a businessman (Cooper) and an army captain (Roberts) are sitting next to each other on a flight home.

Just another day in L.A., no? No. It’s a day on which romance will bloom for some, wither for others and make unexpected turns for all of them. Some of these relationships will not survive the stress and pressure of Valentine’s Day.

Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate have crafted a sort of American version of Love, Actually and quite frankly, it doesn’t measure up. For one thing, there are far too many threads going on here and quite frankly about half of them are unnecessary. That forces many of these relationships to be given short shrift in terms of screen time so we don’t get the opportunity to become invested in them. We didn’t really need two high school romances, nor did we need multiple anti-Valentines Day cynics in the mix. One gets the feeling that there were stars who called Marshall and said “I want in” and Marshall had his writer add another vignette to accommodate them.

Surprisingly, Kutcher proves to be the most winning actor on this fairly distinguished list. He is at heart a really nice guy, and he is the real glue that holds this entire handmade Valentine together. His relationships with Garner, Lopez, Robinson and Alba are all well-thought through and work nicely. Lopez is also impressive as the somewhat clumsy but lovable sidekick. Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world, shows why as the captain coming home to the love of her life. She is alternately warm and sweet as well as cold and sandpapery. Not Oscar-winning material mind you but compelling nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for a good romantic movie, as Da Queen can attest – Love, Actually and About a Boy are two of my favorites, and I watch them regularly on DVD. Although this movie has it’s share of sweetness, it won’t bear the same repeated viewings on home video for me. There’s just too much going on and despite the talented actors who do their best in roles that are just not that well-developed, not a lot here to love.

REASONS TO GO: A star-studded cast and a lot of awww moments. Kutcher does a nice job of being the glue that holds this movie together.

REASONS TO STAY: While some of the pairings work from a chemistry standpoint, not all of them do. It seemed to me there are too many vignettes going on for the movie’s own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality, as well as some partial nudity but nothing very naughty. Indeed, this movie is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ last name in the movie, Hazeltine, is a combination of her daughter’s names; Hazel and Valentine. Also, on Alex’s phone the date “Monday, February 14” is plainly seen. Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, we have to assume that the movie takes place in 2011, the next year that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie to be seen cuddling on the couch with someone you love.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Starting Out in the Evening

Race to Witch Mountain


Race to Witch Mountain

AnnaSophia Robb tries to keep a straight face after convincing the others that Triple H was about to land a flying elbow out of the trees.

(Disney) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall. Directed by Andy Fickman

It is said that everything old will become new again at some point. In Hollywood, that translates to everything old will be remade again.

A decidedly modern update of the 1975 Disney kidflick Escape to Witch Mountain finds a Las Vegas cab driver by the name of Jack Bruno (Johnson) trying to make a living ferrying whackos at a UFO convention up and down the strip. Jack used to be a driver for the mob but has tried to make a go of it on the straight and narrow. That isn’t easy with a couple of goons stopping by to remind him that once in the mob, always in the mob.

In the meantime, scientists are monitoring a spacecraft crash landing in the desert outside of Vegas. They send for Henry Burke (Hinds), a high muckety muck in the military whom everybody seems to be terrified of. He visits the crash site and is notified that the craft had been occupied but was no longer. He realizes that there are aliens running around and puts his team on high alert.

When a couple of kids materialize in the back seat of Jack’s car, he seems to take it in stride. When they apparently have a pretty good pile of money for kids their age, he gets a little bit suspicious. When they tell him to head in a general direction – “that way,” says little Sara (Robb), pointing – he is skeptical. When he finds out they have superhuman powers (Sara can control things with her mind, Seth (Ludwig) can alter the molecular density of his body which would make corporal punishment a bit problematic on both their parts), he is amazed. And when they are chased by Burke and his government goons in a fleet of sinister-looking SUVs with sinister-looking tinted windows, he gets annoyed.

Not nearly as annoyed, however, as he gets later when he takes on a sinister-looking alien assassin in a sinister-looking black spacesuit with a sinister-looking black helmet. If Vince McMahon had yanked off the helmet and exclaimed “I am your father, Rock” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It turns out that the kids are the aliens everyone is looking for (ya think?) and that they need to retrieve a device that looks not unlike an iPhone that they need to activate in order to avert a full-scale invasion of the Earth by the military sorts who want to take Earth’s precious resources by force. The iPhone apparently can allow the aliens to re-create those resources (which have been irretrievably poisoned on their world) and allow them to save their planet without wiping out the puny humans. Now, that’s what I call an app!!

Still, they have to avoid the government goons who want to dissect them, the mob who wants to lay a beating on Jack and the alien assassin who wants to microwave them. They enlist the help of a legitimate scientist (Gugino) and a whacko alien abduction sort (Marshall) and must penetrate deep into the super-secret Witch Mountain base (so secret it doesn’t even appear on Google – which surely has the brass at Google running to their lawyers crying “NOT POSSIBLE”) and retrieve their spaceship before Earth becomes a smoking cinder swinging around the sun.

The original Escape to Witch Mountain had an air of mystery and intrigue to it (the kids in that version weren’t aware that they were aliens until near the end of the movie) while this is pretty much sheer action and adventure. Nothing wrong with that, I say – it’s certainly an easier sell to a newer generation of kids who prefer a much more direct approach than kids from my generation who didn’t mind figuring out things for ourselves (end of smug patting on the back segment).

The Rock (Dwayne Johnson is his given name but for me, as with millions – and millions – of others, he will always be the Rock) has the kind of effortless charm that makes him extremely likable, even when he’s laying the smack down on government goons. He needs to carry this movie and he does so very nicely. Gugino, a criminally underused actress who always seems to turn in a strong performance even in poorly written roles, has a nice chemistry with him that while not romantic makes their banter very believable.

I have to say that I didn’t appreciate that the movie seems dumbed down in places. Now, I’m not sure whether the filmmakers of today have a lower opinion of the ability of kids to follow a story, or whether the kids of today have difficulty following a story, but a lot more is essentially spelled out for the audience, whereas in the original we were given the clues to figure things out on our own which most of us did. I think filmmakers need to give the younger audiences more credit, although I will admit that it’s possible I’m giving them too much.

Robb, who was spectacular in Bridge to Terabithia, continues her development as one of the stronger juvenile actresses today. Unfortunately, Ludwig, who was a bit stiff and wooden in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, exhibits those same tendencies here.

Of course, if you go looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a Disney kidflick, you’re going to wind up disappointed every time. For the most part, this is a competently assembled adventure/action movie that is strongly skewed to Disney’s target audience. Those parents who are made to watch the movie will be able at least to enjoy it on that level. I’d be interested in renting it side by side with the original, just for comparison purposes. If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know what I think.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s easy charm carries the movie effortlessly and Gugino plays off of him nicely. Some pretty nifty special effects sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely dumbed down in places. While Robb is solid, Ludwig seems uncomfortable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the action sequences and the unmasking of the baddie might be too intense for the tiniest of tots, but otherwise suitable for most family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who played the two children in the original, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, both put in cameos here. The character names given them reference their original character names; Tina for Richards (who was Tia in the original) and Anthony for Eisenmann (Tony in the original).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a mighty enjoyable little featurette that details the differences between the original and the new version, and how this version pays homage to the original.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Extraordinary Measures