Black or White


Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner discussing race relations would make for an interesting film.

(2014) Drama (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Anthony Mackie, Mpho Koaho, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Jennifer Ehle, Paula Newsome, Indigo, Bertha Bindewald, Joe Chrest, Ireyon Johnson, Janeline Hayes, Lloyd Dillon, Ernest Wells, Angela Jones, David Jensen, John McConnell, Robert Larriviere, Lindsey G. Smith. Directed by Mike Binder

In many ways, race is the central issue for America not only in the 20th century but sadly into the 21st as well. It informs many of the political struggles that have been going on. After all, do you think that there would be quite the push for the strengthening of gun owner rights if there wasn’t a white fear of young black men? While some things are better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery in an effort to assert voting rights for the African-American citizens of this country, for the most part things are sadly, drearily, depressingly the same.

Elliot Anderson (Costner) is barely coping with life. His wife (Ehle) has just passed away in an auto accident. He’s lost but he can’t afford to be; he has a granddaughter to raise. Eloise (Estell) entered the world under difficult circumstances; her mom, Elliot’s daughter, died in childbirth and her dad, Reggie Davis (Holland), a raging drug addict, wasn’t fit or interested to be a father. Elliot has a lot of issues with Reggie, blaming him for a lot of things some of them deserved, some not.

Rowena (Spencer) is Reggie’s mom and she’s very sympathetic to Elliot’s plight but in some ways not. She wants to be closer to her granddaughter, understandably and especially now but Elliot is struggling with this. He respects Rowena although he doesn’t really like her much, believing she has a blind spot when it comes to her son. Rowena, frustrated by Elliot’s intransigence, consults her brother Jeremiah Jeffers (Mackie), a high-powered lawyer who sues Elliot for custody of Eloise on Rowena’s behalf.

Eloise is confused by all of this; she loves her grandfather very much but she also loves her Gramma Wee-Wee, as she calls Rowena. However left to her own devices, the seven-year-old would want to stay with the man who’s been around her all her life. Not that anyone’s asking her, of course.

But Rowena has ulterior motives. She sees Eloise as an opportunity to save her son; surely once he is given the chance to be a dad, he’ll step up to the plate. Elliot will do anything to keep this from happening; however, the case is far from open and shut. You see, Elliot has another friend; it’s the bottle and he has climbed into it hard after his wife’s untimely passing.

So with Reggie sniffing around, Elliot getting paranoid and Rowena becoming increasingly unsure that she wants to use Jeremiah’s bulldog tactics which paint Elliot as a racist alcoholic, even if it is true – which it only is half-true. What is going on is a struggle between a man who has lost everything and a desperate mother with a little girl caught in the middle.

This is the type of movie that can be incredibly powerful in the right hands and veteran Mike Binder would appear to be those hands, but frankly he doesn’t pull it off. Instead of making this a powerfully emotional film that acts as a lens on modern race relations, Binder instead goes for the easy answers with an ending that absolutely wipes out any credibility the movie might have had.

Costner was particularly motivated, financing the production himself for the most part. This is a much more layered role for him; he tends to play fairly easy-going guys who have a penchant for doing the right things although often his characters have a checkered past. His immense likability helps make this movie charming, despite the fact that his character isn’t doing a lot of charming things, showing up so blotto that he can barely stand at times and using the N-word when confronting Reggie. He also has a speech during the courtroom proceedings which while I think it gets to the heart of what the movie is trying to get across, damages Elliot’s case significantly.

Elliot sees his wife in (often) alcohol-induced flashbacks and certainly they make it clear that she was his rock, leaving him floundering in her absence. It is telling that we only get to see his wife in flashback; his daughter, with whom he was estranged and seems to be much angrier about, never appears in any sort of flashback. Clearly Elliot hasn’t forgiven her yet.

Fortunately Costner isn’t alone. Spencer has blossomed into one of the most dependable actresses in Hollywood; ever since making her splash in The Help she hasn’t delivered one performance that has been anything less than fantastic. Mackie is also a terrific actor who is terrific here as well. There are a couple of relative newcomers here however who deliver fine performances; comedian Bill Burr who as Elliot’s partner gets a couple of dramatic sequences, and young Jillian Estell who carries herself extremely well for an actress this young. Something has to be done about that hand grenade hair though; it’s distracting.

With an opportunity to make a really important film on race relations, the writers and filmmakers instead go the safe route, substituting cliche for insight. That makes this relatively easy to digest and certainly free of controversy. In this way it doesn’t offend anyone, but the movies that invite the most discussion and in some cases actually make the most difference socially speaking are the ones that are offensive to at least someone. If you’re going to have Kevin Costner utter the “N word” at a young African-American man, you might as well not squander the opportunity by being timid in all other aspects but unfortunately that’s exactly what this movie does.

REASONS TO GO: Costner at his likable best in a more layered role than he usually gets. Spencer, Mackie, Burr and (surprisingly) Estell are all strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable throughout. The ending is a whopper that really derails the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of drunkenness, intimations of drug use, a fight and some occasional strong language as well as some adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to the memory of J.J. Harris, who was Costner’s personal friend and his first manager. Harris passed away in 2013.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kramer vs. Kramer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Strange Magic

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Parental Guidance


No matter how much they stretch, they can't make the kid any taller.

No matter how much they stretch, they can’t make the kid any taller.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Gedde Watanabe, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Rhoda Griffis, Tony Hawk, Steve Levy, Christine Lakin. Directed by Andy Fickman

Spare the rod and spoil the child is how the saying went. Parenting has changed a lot since then. These days, we’re about making sure our little tykes have enough self-esteem to carry them through the painful years of growing up. Self-discipline? Courtesy for others? Those are concepts as outdated as powdered wigs.

Artie Decker (Crystal) has a good life. He’s the voice of the Fresno Grizzlies, is married to Diane (Midler) who has supported him throughout his career. Their only daughter, Alice (Tomei) lives in Atlanta with her husband Phil (Scott), a programmer who’s created software that essentially controls the home with voice commands, and their three children. Artie and Diane rarely get to see their grandkids and Artie sorta likes it that way.

However, things turn upside down in a hurray as they tend to do. Artie is fired by the Grizzlies who are looking for a less “old school” announcer. Then Phil, whose product is up for an award, wants to take Alice with him for a little vacation in Hilton Head. The other grandparents who usually babysit aren’t available. Desperate for the first vacation they’ve had in five years, Alice asks her parents to come by and take care of the kids. Diane is ecstatic. Phil, not so much.

From here it gets pretty predictable; you’ve got blossoming Harper (Madison) who is practicing the violin for a future spot in her favorite philharmonic – but first she’s got to get a spot in the Atlanta Youth Symphony which is far from a sure thing and she’s stressing about it like a Republican at a Greenpeace convention. Turner (Rush) has a stammer and this gets him picked on like nobody’s business in middle school. Finally there’s little Barker (Breitkopf) who is a five-year-old terror who doesn’t like being told what to do but can be bribed into doing it.

Phil and Alice have raised these kids in a touchy feely new age kind of parenting style in which “use your words” has replaced time outs, t-ball games have replaced outs and scores with eventual hits and ties and self-esteem has replaced responsibility and consequences. You can tell the writers tend to place more faith in old school methods.

The outcome is pretty much pre-determined; Grandma and Grandpa are going to mess up (particularly Grandpa who is pretty much an oaf) but eventually, they are going to get these poor messed-up kids from being neurotic and borderline head cases into healthy and well-adjusted in the space of a weekend. It’s wonderful how a game of kick-the-can in the rain can wash away all of a kid’s issues.

Not wanting to get involved overly much in the political correctness of it, you really aren’t going to remember what parenting lessons, if any, are passed down here. Mostly you’re going to remember Billy Crystal and you’re going to remember just how good he was at shtick. It’s been ten years since he’s done a lead role in a live-action movie (I looked it up on iMDB – his last significant role in a movie that wasn’t an animated feature was 2002’s Analyze That. To me, that’s a waste of an amazing talent; when he’s on, Crystal is one of the funniest men alive – still. He’s pushing 60 and playing a grandparent but the man still can string together a gaggle of zingers to keep audiences of any age in stitches. He doesn’t do it often enough here though.

The divine miss M is given the indignity of dancing on a stripper pole (relax, she’s teaching a class) that harkens back to her days as one of the bawdiest performers in show business, and one of the most fun. She mostly kvetches here – see how all the Yiddishisms are creeping into my review which should give you an idea of how the rhythms of this movie go – but she does get to sing a couple of songs including a duet with Crystal on the 50s standard “Book of Love” which is charming.

Tomei is one of those actresses who can be memorable at any given moment but she seems a little lost here, although she gets a father-daughter scene with Crystal which works nicely. I think the material is a little bit beneath her but hey, it’s a paycheck.

The acting here is pretty much at ham level. SO much is overplayed that you find yourself rolling your eyes in a lot of places. Also, the humor is pretty low-brow; crotch shots for Crystal who responds by vomiting on a kid, urinating at the X-Games and plenty of caca to go around. If your aiming at an audience of 5-year-olds, this is the way to go.

I wish I could have loved this movie and despite an overabundance of sentiment, I might still have loved it if it simply didn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. There are plenty of wonderful statements to make about the joys and pitfalls of parenting – and grandparenting – but the filmmakers chose to make none of them. Instead what we have is kind of an embarrassing mess that is saved only by Crystal’s riffing and if you don’t find that palatable, you are really going to hate this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Crystal does a bang-up job.

REASONS TO STAY: Schmaltzy. Relies on toilet humor far too much. Lots and lots of overacting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crystal has hosted the Oscars nine times, second only to Bob Hope who hosted the ceremony 18 times.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100. The reviews have been pretty bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Next Door

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL LOVERS: Artie is the radio announcer for the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team, the San Francisco Giants AAA affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Artie broadcasts a game from Chukchansi Park, the actual stadium the Grizzlies play in – although he talks about the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes as a potential opponent when in fact the Quakes play in the California League, not the PCL.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mystic River

This is 40


Love can make anything bearable.

Love can make anything bearable.

(2012) Dramedy (Universal) Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Melissa McCarthy, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segel, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Megan Fox, Charlyne Yi, Graham Parker, Michael Ian Black, Lena Dunham, Joanne Baron, Tatum O’Neal, Chris O’Dowd, Lisa Darr, Ava Sambora. Directed by Judd Apatow

As we get older our priorities change and in changing that aspect of our lives, we ourselves change. In a relationship, we’re constantly having to adjust not only to who we are but to who our partner is. Sometimes, those changes come at the expense of our relationships.

Pete (Rudd) owns a boutique record label that specializes in re-releases and new releases by bands from the 80s and so on. He is thrilled to have Graham Parker on his label, even though most of his friends and loved ones tell him that Parker isn’t going to sell any digital downloads. He is turning 40 although doesn’t look it. His record label is going down the toilet and he’s hinging his future on Parker; to fight the stress he retreats to the bathroom for hours on end and sneaks cupcakes that he swears he’s not eating. He also continues to lend money to his dad (Brooks) even though he can barely keep his own head above water.

His wife Debbie (Mann) is also turning 40 but she’s far less sanguine about it. She tells everyone she’s turning 38. Her trendy clothing store is being robbed blind by one of her employees; the mellow Jodi (Yi) swears it’s Desi (Fox) who drives an expensive car, wears expensive clothes and always seems to have a lot of money. Debbie fights stress by sneaking smokes when she thinks nobody is looking, even though her family thinks she’s quit. She’s completely estranged from her Dad (Lithgow) who ran out on the family when she was four, and the two of them are having trouble finding a way to bond.

Debbie and Pete snipe at each other and argue a lot which drives their kids – teenager Sadie (Maude Apatow) and her little sister Charlotte (Iris Apatow) nuts which they act out by constantly being at one another’s throats. This isn’t a happy family but it’s likely a family you’ve run into in your own neighborhood.

This is kind of a sequel to Knocked Up inasmuch as it concerns two characters who constituted the younger sister and her husband of the main female character. However don’t expect a similar tone as that movie because this is completely different. This isn’t as out-and-out funny as the previous film, for one thing. It’s listed as a comedy but there’s a whole lot of drama here with real world problems creeping into the marriage – financial stress, lack of communication, lack of desire, teenage hormones. Some viewers might find it hitting uncomfortably close to home.

Rudd and Mann come off as a real couple and while they clearly have some intimacy issues, they do have that easy familiarity when it comes to intimacy that couples that have been together awhile possess. It’s easy to picture them as a married couple, which is unsurprising as Mann is Apatow’s real life wife and Rudd has been a friend of his for a long time. The kids are also Mann’s children so her feelings for them (and theirs for her) don’t seem forced.

I was impressed by Mann’s performance particularly. There’s a moment when Debbie asks Pete if they’d have stayed together if she hadn’t have gotten pregnant (which is a bit of the flipside to Knocked Up) and when he hesitates, her look is absolutely priceless and heartbreaking. She does it all non-verbally and I was thinking in the audience “why oh why hasn’t this woman gotten better roles” because frankly she shows here that she can handle anything. I really hope she gets offered a few dramatic leads just so we can see what she’s really capable of. She, like Judy Greer, is much more than a second banana which is what both actresses seem to be cast as mostly.

I thought a few scenes ran a little too long and the pacing could have been a bit better. Universal is selling this as a comedy so I suspect it’s going to get some hating because people are walking into it expecting a laugh riot (and to be fair, with Judd Apatow’s name on it that’s not an unreasonable expectation) and will walk out disappointed. I’m sure that’s affected my rating of the film.

Being not what I expected isn’t a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for throwing a change-up every once in a while. Young people might look at this and be turned off of marriage for good. All I can say about that is this: every relationship is a struggle and takes a good deal of work. Nothing is ever easy. But making a good woman happy is one of the noblest things a man can do, as is making a good man happy one of the best things a woman can do. In order to do it, there needs to be a lot of communication, a surfeit of honesty, a great deal of humbleness and a glaring lack of ego. These qualities are not always there in quantity and certainly not at every moment. We all go through rough times and they look a lot like this. Kudos to Apatow and his cast for attempting to capture that; it just may not necessarily be what you go to the movies to watch – it maybe what you go to the movies to get away from, and that needs to be a consideration before plunking down your cash at the box office.

REASONS TO GO: Great chemistry between Rudd and Mann. Some moments that are relatable and real.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long. Lacks the real laugh-out-loud funny jokes. Might be a little too “real” for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of sexual material, lots of bad language, a little bit of drug usage and some crude jokes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While neither of the main characters from Knocked Up appear in the film a picture of Alison (Katherine Heigl) can be seen on the wall of the home and Pete mentions that he got the marijuana cookies from Ben (Seth Rogen).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

GRAHAM PARKER AND THE RUMOUR LOVERS: In the film, Parker is signed to Pete’s label and performs a couple of songs live – one solo and one with the band. In real life Parker just released a new album which has been acclaimed as one of the best albums he’s ever done.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Waiting For Forever

The Five-Year Engagement


The Five-Year Engagement

Emily Blunt thinks Jason Segel’s pointy head is cute.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Rhys Ifans, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mimi Kennedy, David Paymer, Lauren Weedman, Jacki Weaver, Jim Piddock, Dakota Johnson, Brian Posehn, Mindi Kaling, Randall Park, Kevin Hart, Molly Shannon, Tracee Chimo. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

 

Planning a wedding is a tricky thing. Making it work requires organization, patience and sometimes, a lot of time. Even small weddings can require some juggling skills, particularly when you have to find the right venue, a date that’s  available and make sure it works within everybody’s schedule, at least the main participants. A good sense of humor is a must.

Tom Solomon (Segel) is a sous chef at a fine San Francisco restaurant working for a frenetic and uptight chef Sally (Weedman).  His closest friend is Alex (Pratt), a fellow sous chef who is a cheerfully gross womanizer.

He is dating Violet Barnes (Blunt), a doctoral student in behavioral psychology. Since the moment he laid eyes on her at a New Year’s Eve costume party he knew she was The One, and she knew likewise. He also knows it’s time to propose and although the proposal doesn’t go exactly as planned (why is it that marriage proposals have had to become such production numbers, both in real life and in the movies – are men so insecure that they think that a woman who wants to marry them will change their minds if the proposal isn’t staged elaborately enough?) she still says yes.

They get to planning but Violet is awfully distracted; she’s applied for a position at UC Berkeley that would advance her career greatly but it’s fallen through. When she gets accepted at the University of Michigan for a similar position, the two arrive at a crossroads. Tom decides to give up his position in the prestigious kitchen to follow his fiancée to Ann Arbor and become a chef there. Of course, he finds out only after giving his notice that Sally was planning on making him head chef at her new restaurant. Instead, that job goes to Alex. Things are looking pretty rosy for Alex, who had sex with Violet’s sister Sue (Brie) at the engagement party, knocked her up and is now married to her.

When Tom moves up to Michigan he’s in for quite a culture shock. There’s snow everywhere; on the cars, on the streets, and hiding fire hydrants when he wants to jump into an inviting drift. There’s also no work; some restaurant chefs just laugh at him for giving up a job in San Francisco and he’s forced to get a job at a sandwich shop run by the blunt and profane Tarquin (Posehn).

In the meantime, Violet is taking to her new position like a duck to water. Her charismatic boss Dr. Winton Childs (Ifans) and his lunatic crew of the masturbation-obsessed Doug (Hart), the bitchy Vaneetha (Kaling) and the whack job Ming (Park) have become close friends and a support group. Her career is taking off and her two year contract has become five. The wedding plans are on hold because the pressure is getting to Tom, who has grown Chester Arthur mutton chops and has taken to hunting with a sweater-wearing househusband, while Alex has grown to be a great success in his new restaurant.

What I really like about this movie is that the couple in question don’t face contrived situations based entirely on mis-communication like most of Hollywood’s recent rom-coms. Things happen but because things happen in real life; frustrations that take effect because of situations that could and do happen to anyone.

The chemistry between Blunt and Segel is crucial to making this film work. Their relationship, their love is central to the movie; if you don’t believe in the relationship that is at the crux of the film, you are not going to be sucked in by the story at all. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here.

Segel is one of the most naturally likable guys in Hollywood. He’s easygoing, sweet-natured and perfect for this role. He’s not as over-the-top as say Seth Rogen but he’s still plenty funny. Here he runs the gamut of emotions; he can be giddy, sexy and frustrated. At times his character loses his temper but never in a threatening or obnoxious way. Segel makes Tom a likable guy – and frankly I’d love to have some of his tacos.

Blunt is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses. She’s done yeoman work on a number of pictures in the last couple of years, most recently Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. She’s sexy as well as funny but projects a sense of decency. Violet takes some missteps which people make; she’s not perfect but there’s no doubt that Violet loves Tom very much and Blunt makes that very apparent. It’s hard to realistically portray a deep, lasting relationship onscreen but Segel and Blunt do just that. The chemistry between them is undeniable.

They aren’t the only impressive actors here. Pratt, last seen as a relief pitcher in Moneyball, tears it up here. He steals nearly every scene that he’s in. and he has a terrific chemistry with Brie. The two of them prove themselves able in this film and I foresee big things ahead for both of them, particularly Pratt.

Yeah, there are a few moments that made me wince; unfortunately, that seems to be part and parcel with Hollywood romantic comedies. Still, while this is a Judd Apatow-produced  film and thus has its share of raunchiness it is as sweet-natured as any rom-com you’re gonna see from America. I was pleasantly surprised by it in that sense; I was expecting something rather formulaic and instead got something that felt like we were watching a real relationship. And that, my friends, is priceless.

REASONS TO GO: Really good chemistry between Segel and Blunt. Sweet to the core.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit contrived in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexual content as well as plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Segel and Blunt have appeared together in two other movies; Gulliver’s Travels and The Muppets. This is the first time they’ve appeared as romantic partners however.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The film has gotten some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

WOLVERINE LOVERS: Much of the film is set at the University of Michigan and there are plenty of U of M accoutrements and a couple of jokes at Ohio State’s expense. Michigan fans will be in heaven.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blue Valentine

Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light

Little Fockers


Little Fockers

This stunt kittie is about to find out what happens to cats who pee on Robert De Niro.

(2010) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Hart, Daisy Tahan, Colin Baiocchi, Tom McCarthy, Olga Fonda. Directed by Paul Weitz

Sometimes when a good movie comes along that makes a good deal of money, the temptation from the studio is to make a sequel which almost inevitably makes good money but is somewhat less high-quality than the first movie. The second movie often does good enough box office to warrant a third and by now the writers are running out of steam and the idea is becoming stale. Some film franchise avoid this trap, but others, particularly comedies, fall hard into it.

Gaylord “Greg” Focker (Stiller) has been married eight years now to his sweetheart Pam (Polo) and he’s risen to head of medical surgical nursing at a prestigious Chicago hospital, developing a reputation that Andi Garcia (Alba), the representative of a pharmaceutical company, has taken notice of and so she approaches him to do some pimping for an erectile dysfunction drug that is safe for heart patients. He’s initially reluctant to get involved, particularly with that sort of product which he – ahem – has no need for himself.

Greg’s father-in-law, Jack Byrnes (De Niro), the ex-CIA operative who has made Greg’s life a bit of a living hell, has been having some heart problems (can you guess who’s going to take the dick medicine for heart patients?) which he swears Greg to secrecy about. He and his wife (Danner) are coming to Chicago to visit the Fockers and celebrate the fifth birthday of their twins Beelzebub and Mephistopheles…err, Samantha (Tahan) and Henry (Baiocchi).

Jack is anxious for Greg to become the head of the Byrnes clan since his first choice, Dr. Bob (McCarthy) has cheated on their other daughter (the one whose wedding from the first movie Greg nearly ruined) and the two are in the midst of a divorce. Financial stability is what it’s all about for Jack, providing for a superior education for the kids and a safe home for the family. Since getting the kids into the prestigious Early Humans Academy presided over by the neurotic hippie-sort Prudence (Dern), as well as renovations on the house that thanks to lackadaisical contractor Randy (Keitel) that are behind schedule, are together prohibitively expensive, Greg decides to accept the extra cash working for the pharmaceutical company would provide.

Rather than doing what most normal human beings would do and say “yes, I’m making a little bit of extra cash to help fund the kids’ schooling,” Greg tries to hide it from Papa Byrnes and so a series of misunderstandings ensue that lead Dear old Dunderhead to believe that Greg is actually cheating on Pam with Andi Garcia which should make for an interesting Oceans 11 reunion.

I am of an opinion not shared by many studio executives that making money is not the best reason to make a movie. A movie should have something to say – if nothing else, “let us entertain you” – or have some reason to be made besides adding to the bottom line. I can’t see a single reason to have made this movie.

Certainly it adds nothing to the franchise. It says nothing new about the characters, and in point of fact seems to insist that they haven’t matured much in the intervening years. Oh, Greg’s a dad now but he seems unwilling or unable to act like a mature, responsible adult, preferring to skulk and posture. The movie’s idea of good parenting seems to be giving the kids frequent hugs and letting them do whatever they please pretty much the rest of the time (Samantha for example refuses to talk to her dad for which I can scarcely blame her).

That’s not to say that this movie is completely valueless. Certainly there are a few good laughs. Alba is easy on the eyes and Stiller although looking decidedly older here is still a compelling comedian. How can anyone completely dismiss a movie that contains talent like that in front of the camera for this one? De Niro, Streisand, Hoffman and Stiller along with Owen Wilson as the super rich new age surfer ex-lover of Pam’s are worth seeing in most cases and it is a treat to see Ms. Streisand who rarely makes screen appearances anymore. However, the De Niro-Stiller conflict which is at the heart of the first two movies lacks sizzle here.

I can’t say I hated this movie but I can’t say I loved it either. It’s simply not the kind of movie you’re going to want to see more than once and having seen it once you aren’t going to be awaiting the sequel Our Four Fockers (which might be a title for a prequel) or whatever it may wind up being called. When you leave a franchise film feeling that way, it’s time to pull the plug.

REASONS TO GO: There are laughs here and there. This is an impressive cast who are worth seeing just for the interaction.

REASONS TO STAY: Decidedly unfunny in stretches. Too many situations of people acting more stupid than real people act.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual humor, some naughty words and a bit of drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.

HOME OR THEATER: If you’re gonna see it you might as well see it in the comfort of your own home.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Fanboys