Nancy, Please


Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

(2012) Drama (Small Coup) Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn, Timothy Chastain, Ellis Cahill, Steph Holmbo, Claire Molloy, Elizabeth Ansell, Peter Coleman, Alice Kemelberg, Alex Robles, Alexis Rose, Hilary Shar, Matthew Taylor. Directed by Andrew Semans   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

It doesn’t take much to annoy most of us. Petty little cruelties can prey on our minds. Most of the time we just brush it off and simply classify the perpetrator as a jerk and move on. Once in awhile however something just captures our brains and we get obsessed by the injustice, determined to exact our measure of triumph out of a situation in which we feel wronged.

Paul (Rogers) is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working on a thesis that follows the description of the English political process described by Charles Dickens in his classic novel Little Dorrit. To that end he has his own hardcover in which he has written notes covering the subject.

Life is actually pretty good for Paul. He’s just moved in with his beautiful girlfriend Jen (Lawrence) who is supporting him while he works on his thesis, which he is finally ready to start writing. However as he’s unpacking, he discovers to his chagrin that the crucial copy of the book has been left behind at his old apartment. Therefore he calls his old roommate Nancy (Hendricks) to see if he can drop by and pick up the book.

Days go by and he hears nothing. He is beginning to get frantic. His best friend Charlie (Fontana), a fellow doctoral candidate, urges him to simply drive over to his apartment and knock on the door. s they do, Paul is certain he glimpses Nancy inside but she doesn’t answer the door. The door turns out to be unlocked but Paul feels awkward about going in so he continues to wait.

The cat and mouse game between Paul and Nancy continues, escalating. Nancy does return his call a couple of times but always when Paul is unavailable. Paul is becoming obsessed, certain that Nancy has some sort of vendetta against him. Jen is becoming irritated because Paul is neglecting to do things around their house that he’d promised to do, forcing Jen who is supporting them to have to take care of things that Paul has more time to deal with.

However Paul is too busy dealing with Nancy to really focus on anything else. His faculty advisor, Dr. Bannister (Nelson) is growing impatient; it has been two years since Paul began his doctoral work and he has shown little or no movement in getting his thesis done. She is threatening to have him removed from the program. Paul’s stress is turning to desperation; he needs that book. So finally after a good deal of prodding from both Charlie and Jen, he decides to go in using a spare key Jen had when she used to come by the apartment to visit him and just get the book himself. This plan turns out to be disastrous.

Humiliated and physically injured, Paul’s paranoia about Nancy is reaching the boiling point. Jen, seeing that things have gone far out of control, finally takes matters into her own hands and in her mind (and in any other reasonable person’s mind) resolves the situation. But in Paul’s mind things are far from over…

This isn’t an easy film to sit through. I think that this is best described as a horror film that is going on only in the lead character’s mind. The innovative thing here is that it’s not actually a horror movie to anyone but Paul. Paul sees Nancy as some sort of cruel monster and she’s a vindictive bitch to be sure but Paul is about as passive a character as you’re likely to meet. He is so aggravating that Da Queen, not normally given to such hyperbole, proclaimed him the biggest pussy in the history of movies. She may have a point.

But so many male indie film leads could be described using that pejorative and you wouldn’t be far wrong and I think that part of the filmmaker’s intent is to satirize the somewhat cliché indie  saw of a passive male lead whose life is resolved either by a strong female presence or through some sort of external motivation. As someone who has seen his life transformed by the love of a good woman, I can’t argue that a man can’t find self-confidence and an improved sense of self-worth through that process. I can say though that it is used far too often in indie films of late.

The focus of the movie is on the antagonists Nancy and Paul and somewhat refreshingly it is more vital for those two to have chemistry than for Paul and Jen to have it and in fact that is the case. Hendricks gives a strong performance in a role that is pretty thankless; Nancy really doesn’t have any reason not to give Paul the book other than to inflict punishment for some sort of transgression – I assume it’s because he had the gall to move out on her. Given her actions it’s not surprising that he’d want to.

Even more thankless is the role of Paul. He’s the nominal “hero” of the piece but he’s far from heroic. In fact, the danger here is that Rogers might be too good in the role – he certainly makes Paul an unlikable lead, to the point where Da Queen really didn’t like this movie once. While my wife and I have nearly identical taste in movies, this is one instance where we disagreed somewhat significantly. I liked the movie precisely for the reason that she didn’t – because the filmmakers have the courage to present a lot of unlikable people in a situation that could easily be resolved but isn’t. Real life is often that way.

Maybe I can see a little bit of myself in Paul. I certainly am the sort who avoids conflicts whenever possible and I tend to let life walk all over me. My ambitions tend to be overridden by my shyness and I tend to need a bit of nagging to get moving on things I know have to get done. However I’m nowhere near as bad as Paul is in that regard – I can self-motivate and even if I do procrastinate on some things they do get done in a timely manner, just not in an instantaneous manner most of the time.

Personal identification aside, I can heartily recommend this movie because it is different and the filmmakers are showing how a simple situation can get complicated in a hurry. I admit that the movie has grown more on me than it did make an immediate positive impression and that may well be the case for you, but if you want to try something outside of the usual kind of movie this is a good place to start.

REASONS TO GO: Love the juxtaposition between the paranoid fantasy going on in Paul’s mind and the mundane reality.

REASONS TO STAY: Possibly one of the most frustratingly passive lead characters ever.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some brief violence, adult situations, a bit of sexuality and a modicum of expletives.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in New Haven, it was mostly filmed in Brooklyn and other New York City locations.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Be Good and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage

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The Muppets


The Muppets

Walter, Amy Adams and Jason Segel have stars in their eyes.

(2011) Family (Disney) Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Walter, Fozzy Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Alan Arkin, Mickey Rooney, Whoopie Goldberg, Jim Parsons. Directed by James Bobin

 

Cultural icons carry their own baggage with them. Because they fill a niche in our society, we associate them with particular characteristics – be it the fanboy nerdiness of Star Wars or the catty kitsch of RuPaul. The Muppets, however, are an entirely different story.

In the ’80s and into the ’90s the Muppets were electronic babysitters to the country. Kids of that era (Da Queen among them) were glued to the set. Parents of kids growing up during that era also got to know the lovable felt and fur creations and were amazed to discover that the scripts weren’t necessarily dumbed down and made so kid-centric that parents couldn’t enjoy them. Everybody could and that was the secret to their success.

Times changed and tastes changed. Disney bought the rights to the characters and up until now have mostly used them in their theme parks (which surprisingly isn’t referenced in the movie – I would have thought it a perfect opportunity for the Mouse to pimp their parks a bit). However, Segel – a huge fan of the series – pitched a movie to Disney that would possibly resurrect the franchise and the execs there agreed – the time was ripe for a return of the Muppets.

It is fitting that Mickey Rooney turns up in a cameo during the opening musical number; there is a “let’s put on a show” vibe here that Rooney was famous for in his classic films with Judy Garland.  The plot here is fiendishly simple; Tex Richman (Cooper), a nefarious oil baron, has purchased the old Muppet Theater for the purpose of drilling for oil deposits located beneath it. Gary (Segel), and his brother Walter (voiced by Steve Linz) stumble upon the plot while vacationing in Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Adams) and touring the dilapidated Muppets studio. Walter, you see, is a Muppet-wannabe, a huge fan of the show who yearns to be a Muppet himself, even though he is a Muppet – it’s all so confusing in text but trust me, it makes sense when your butt is in the seat.

The Muppets have scattered to the four winds; Fozzy is in Reno playing in a rundown casino in a tribute act called the Moopets. Miss Piggy is in Paris as the plus-size editor of Vogue. Gonzo is a plumbing magnate and Animal is in Santa Barbara taking self-control classes with Jack Black. Kermit, the glue who always held the gang together, is living quietly in Los Angeles in the house he built for him and Piggy whose relationship has since fallen apart.

They have to raise $10 million (I can almost hear Dr. Evil intoning “ten millllllllllllion dollars” while putting pinky to lip) in order to save the theater. They decide a telethon is in order; trouble is, no network will put it on since the Muppets are no longer the stars they once were. They have gone the way of Fran Drescher, Emmanuel Lewis and ALF.

There are tons of celebrity cameos (a kind of Muppet tradition) and clever musical numbers, as well as a few gentle pop culture spoofs. Segel is properly reverent towards the Muppets (he co-wrote the script) but throws in enough “we’re has-been” references for it to start to get old. Believe me, we get it.

The movie is charming and has enough in-jokes to both the series and the movies that followed to keep rabid fans of the show, who are now in their 30s and 40s like cats in a cream factory. Those too young or too old to have been grabbed by the Muppets may find some references zinging over their heads (as I did – I’m definitely in the “too old” category) but Kermit, Piggy and company are all such major cultural figures from that era that it isn’t hard to pick up on most of the cultural references. In other words, you don’t have to be a fan to love the show.

As for the more modern kids, of course they’re going to love them. Some might grouse that Elmo doesn’t show up (the producers wanted him to, but Elmo still belongs to Sesame Street and even though the Muppets and the Sesame Street characters are related they are still legally separate) but for the most part, they’ll be satisfied with the wacky kid-friendly characters of the show that are still around. I found myself charmed by the movie and I wasn’t even the target audience.

While the late Jim Henson only appears in a couple of photographs in Kermit’s office and elsewhere, he would have approved I think (although former Muppet performer Frank Oz grumbled publically about fart jokes – I don’t recall seeing any but admittedly I might have overlooked it). I think I can safely say that this is a worthy addition to the Muppet legacy.

REASONS TO GO: There are a ton of “Muppet Show” in-jokes. Heartwarming, charming and generally goofy.

REASONS TO STAY: If you have an issue with Muppets, this isn’t going to improve your perception of them.

FAMILY VALUES: While the parental advisories warn against mild rude humor, in truth there is nothing here I would hesitate to expose a small child to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt plays Miss Piggy’s receptionist/assistant at Vogue in Paris; she played a very similar role in The Devil Wears Prada.

HOME OR THEATER: Kids will want to see this on the big screen and you will too.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Descendants

Big Momma’s House


Big Momma's House

This sight will give a kid nightmares for years to come.

(2000) Urban Crime Comedy (20th Century Fox) Martin Lawrence, Nia Long, Paul Giamatti, Jascha Washington, Terrence Dashon Howard, Anthony Anderson, Ella Mitchell, Carl Wright, Phyllis Applegate, Starletta DuPois. Directed by Raja Gosnell

One thing about Hollywood. If you like a concept, just wait around awhile. It will show up in some other movie, only with a different title.

I’m pretty fond of Martin Lawrence. He’s turning into a terrific comic actor, with impressive performances in Nothing to Lose and Bad Boys (among others) under his belt. Here, he plays Malcolm, a gung-ho FBI agent who’s watched Mission: Impossible perhaps a wee bit too often. He’s known for his latex disguises and kung fu moves, which qualifies him as a cross between Ethan Hunt, Jackie Chan and Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, the last for his smoooooooooth style with the ladies.

He’s working on a case in which a vicious bank robber (Howard) has escaped from prison (where he was doing time for murdering the bank guard in cold blood) and is going after his ex-girlfriend Sherie (Long), who worked at the bank he robbed. She’s thought to have been involved with the robbery, although nothing was ever proved. Since the money was never recovered, she is being watched as the cops think that her erstwhile beau will be paying her a visit to recover the loot.

She, of course, takes it immediately on the lam, so Malcolm and his partner John (Giamatti) stake out her estranged grandmother’s house in Georgia. The two were once close, but have since grown apart. When Big Momma (Ella Mitchell) is called out of town suddenly, Malcolm assumes her identity when her granddaughter phones to say she’s coming for a visit. Malcolm hopes she’ll confide in her grandmother, but instead winds up falling for the gal, as well as for her cute-as-a-button son Trent (Washington). Of course, we know that eventually the ex is going to make an appearance and Big Momma is gonna have to save the day.

Think Mrs. Doubtfire meets Kindergarten Cop, southern fried. There are some comic possibilities in the concept but unfortunately the execution here doesn’t work. For starters, the script is not terribly well-written, and Da Queen and I were predicting – accurately, I might add – what each next plot point would be well before it actually happened. There are no surprises  and the humor could charitably described as meant for unsophisticated minds. For a comedy, it rarely brings a smile, much less a chuckle. That’s inexcusable because Lawrence is one of the funniest comic minds working today.

Just putting a male actor in drag isn’t funny in and of itself. In Mrs. Doubtfire Robin Williams used it as a springboard to examine attitudes towards women and the aged, but then, he had a better script to work with. Lawrence is talented, but even he can’t overcome a cliche-ridden script that was as tired as a narcoleptic at an Al Gore lecture. While he has some nice byplay with Giamatti (who was at the time not terribly well-known in Hollywood) and Long is an attractive and competent actress, the sparks really fail to generate and most of the time these talented actors are just wasting their time – and ours.

If you’re going to make a comedy with Lawrence, give the man room to work his magic. Stuffing him in a fat suit and a dress is a gimmick but even that they don’t use effectively. The exception is a scene in which Lawrence as Big Momma schools some playground kids in the art of roundball. See, that’s funny.

Big Momma’s House made big box office, which is certain proof of impending apocalypse. Watching this is cinematic deja vu; you’ll get the feeling you’ve seen this one before. Unfortunately, it’ll be deja vu in a dentist’s chair … as the drill begins to whirr.

WHY RENT THIS: Martin Lawrence is one of the better comedians in Hollywood. Long is easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A script that’s as predictable as a Tea Party newsletter. Some fair talents are wasted and Lawrence’s considerable skills are largely unused.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a decent amount of foul language as well as some cruel, sexually-based humor. There’s also a smattering of violence, mostly of a comic variety.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name Big Momma came from screenwriter Darryl Quarles’ childhood; that was the name the neighborhood kids used to call his own mother.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos, a make-up test for Big Momma (during which Lawrence improvises some stuff that’s funnier than what’s in the movie) and an animated opening that was scrapped.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $174.0M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: The Help

Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Think twice before hanging out with Shia LaBeouf; there are a lot of angry film critics out there.

(2011) Science Fiction (Paramount) Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Alan Tudyk, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Tyrese Gibson, Buzz Aldrin, Elya Baskin, Peter Cullen (voice), Hugo Weaving (voice), Robert Foxworth (voice), James Remar (voice). Directed by Michael Bay

Nothing exceeds like excess, and by that criterion Transformers: Dark of the Moon exceeds all expectations.

Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has saved the world – twice – and all he’s got to show for it is a lousy Ivy League education. He longs to make a difference once again but he can’t get any sort of job and has to settle for living on the largesse of his new girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), a former British consulate employee now working as an assistant to billionaire Dylan (Dempsey).

To make matters worse, the unemployed Sam is being visited by his judgmental parents Ron (Dunn) and Judy (White). However, Sam manages to get a job in the mail room of a defense contractor run by the somewhat eccentric Bruce Brazos (Malkovich).

Sam would much rather be working with the Autobots in NEST, but the government wants him far away from Optimus Prime (Cullen) as he can be. Lennox (Duhamel) is nominally in charge of the Autobots who are helping the American government putting out small fires around the world; taking out an illegal Iranian nuclear plant and investigating a strange occurrence at Chernobyl, where Lennox discovers Autobot technology may have been responsible for the disaster there.

Optimus demands an explanation and finally supercilious CIA chief Mearing (McDormand) gives him one. Apparently, near the end of the civil war that drove the Autobots from Cybertron, an Autobot ship escaped from the planet carrying a secret weapon as well as its designer, Sentinel Prime (Nimoy), the leader of the Autobots before Optimus. That ship crash landed on our moon, prompting the space race of the 1960s.

The Autobots rocket up to the moon and retrieve both Sentinel and the remains of the weapon. As they return, Megatron (Weaving), brooding in the desert after two defeats at the hands of Optimus and Sam Witwicky, puts into motion an evil plan that involves murder, betrayal and plenty of nasty robots coming after Sam and his new girlfriend. The stakes are high as the entire human race could end up as slave labor in the New World Order as envisioned by Megatron – and the Earth itself a desiccated, dried-out husk as her resources are used in the insane rebuilding of Cybertron. Once again, Sam and Optimus must lead the allied human-Autobot forces if both races are to survive.

My son has said that the reason you go to a Transformers movie is to watch robots beating each other up, and he has a point. If that’s why you’re plunking down ten bucks plus to see the movie, you won’t be disappointed. Once the battle starts in earnest, which is about halfway through the nearly two and a half hour movie, it doesn’t let up. The robots just about level Chicago and it is done realistically and spectacularly.

In fact, it’s done so well there seems to be no reason for human participation at all. The first half of the movie is somewhat slow and talky, and the humans are no match in the slightest to the giant robots of Cybertron. It is very much like watching a movie about, say, the Battle of the Bulge from the point of view of an ant colony. All the humans really have to do is dodge falling debris and be blown up by robot plasma shots; when one of the lead characters looks like they’re about to buy it, an Autobot comes out of nowhere to save the day (usually Optimus).

In fact, once the battle starts, LaBeouf has very little to do other than look concerned for his girlfriend, and occasionally shout “OPTI-MUUUUUUUUUUS!!!!” and he does both pretty well. His twitchy persona fits right in with the Witwicky character and although he’s the focus for the first half of the movie, it does break down during the first hour or so as we watch Sam mostly feeling inadequate and sorry for himself. It gets old.

Other than that, Bay did upgrade the supporting cast some, adding McDormand and Malkovich, Oscar nominees both, to the cast and both of the veteran actors deliver, as does Turturro in the returning role of Simmons, the paranoid agent (who is now a bestselling author) as comedy relief. Alan Tudyk, who impressed so much on the “Firefly” series, gets a meaty role as a fey German assistant to Simmons with his own set of skills. He makes the best use of his limited screen time.

As far as adolescent chubby-inducement, Megan Fox is out and former Victoria’s Secret model Huntington-Whiteley is in, making her feature acting debut. Fox was never known for her acting skills but she at least has some; Huntington-Whiteley is there mainly to wear tight dresses, have the camera almost see up her skirt and be put in jeopardy so Sam can rescue her. At least Megan Fox’s character wasn’t nearly as useless.

Transformer fans can rejoice; this is easily the most spectacular movie of the series and for non-fans, this is the best of the lot. Check your brain at the door, get the extra-large tub of popcorn and soda, and bliss out in a dark theater for awhile. This is pure popcorn spectacle on a massive scale and the plot is merely window dressing to the special effects. That’s not always a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of robots battling for those who like that kind of thing. Easily the most spectacular film of the series.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning of the movie lags a bit. The human characters are stiffer than the robots. Humans no match for aliens whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of mayhem and a few bad words, but it’s the scenes of destruction and robot death that might be a bit much for tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonard Nimoy, voicing Sentinel Prime, utters the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in homage to a line spoken by Nimoy as Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

HOME OR THEATER: The spectacle demands the big movie theater screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies

The Stepfather (2009)


The Stepfather

Dylan Walsh has a point to make.

(Screen Gems) Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Amber Heard, Nancy Linehan Charles, Braeden Lemasters. Directed by Nelson McCormick

Family is at the core of our value system. Everything we do, all of our decisions are made for the benefit of our family, at least so goes the theory. Of course, there are families and then again there are families.

David Harris (Walsh) wants a family in the worst way. He seems a nice enough man and when vulnerable divorcee Susan Harding (Ward) wanders into the grocery store he’s shopping at, they strike up a conversation, which leads to romance. David is a widower whose wife and daughter died in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, something that gets Susan’s nurturing instincts going into overdrive. Everyone, from the neighbors to Susan’s kids, think David is a heck of a guy.

The only one who doesn’t is Michael (Badgley), the eldest Harding. He’s been away at military school for some unspecified troublemaking and has just returned home. Something about David just doesn’t ring true to Michael, whether it’s the fact that David can’t get his daughter’s name straight or that he seems to have a creepy unnatural fascination for Michael’s girlfriend Kelly (Heard). Either way, Michael’s got his eyes on David and it isn’t long before he figures out the terrible truth.

You see, David is actually a serial killer (not a spoiler kids – this is revealed in the movie’s opening moments) who insinuates himself into a family, then butchers them when they don’t live up to his high standards of what a family should be. He also has no problems offing anyone who gets in his way, whether it is a nosy neighbor or Susan’s boorish ex (Tenney). It isn’t long before David begins to think it’s time to take care of his new family and find himself another.

This is the remake of a 1987 movie that starred Terry O’Quinn (John Locke of “Lost”) in the title role. That movie attained cult status after a mediocre theatrical run due to word of mouth video rentals, enough to spawn two sequels (one with O’Quinn and the other without). Invariably, this is going to be compared to the original.

The makers of the remake also were responsible for the Prom Night remake, which bodes ill for this one. Part of the problem is that they’re going for an entirely different audience; rather than hitting hardcore horror aficionados, they’re going for more of a teen audience, which means that they have to go for a PG-13 rating. That makes for bloodless horror, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but this is the kind of story that becomes more effective when you are a little more visceral.

While the cast is made up of broadcast and cable TV veterans, some very good (Walsh is excellent in “Nip/Tuck” while Tenney is a standout in “The Closer”) and some less so (Badgley in “Gossip Girl,” Turco in “The Agency”), Ward excels as the mom who is blinded to her new man’s darker side. Walsh does his best, but in the end he isn’t able to carry the role of the evil stepfather as well as O’Quinn did 20 years ago; in defense of Walsh, he isn’t exactly handed a whole lot to work with.

The results here is a movie that doesn’t really have the kind of cachet to interest teens, nor does it have the scares and the gore to capture a horror film fan. It therefore becomes neither fish nor fowl, satisfying neither audience. If I had any advice to hand out to the filmmakers, I’d tell them that when handed a horror movie, don’t hide behind terms like “psychological thriller” to justify your decisions; just go for the gusto and you’ll not only make a better movie, you’ll get more butts in theater seats as a reward.

WHY RENT THIS: The young cast certainly looks good in bathing suits.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Far too bland and bloodless for its own good, it’s a psychological thriller with few thrills.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of sex, as well as a few naughty words here and there. Mostly, the problem here is thematic and the images which can be pretty rough on the sensitive or the immature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The star of the original The Stepfather Terry O’Quinn was offered a cameo in the remake, but declined. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray comes equipped with the Sony movieIQ feature that periodically puts pop ups of trivia and factoids related to the scene you’re watching or the general movie overall.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World