Big Eyes


Amy Adams doesn't want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

Amy Adams doesn’t want to part with this prop, although Christoph Waltz reassures her.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Elizabeth Fantone, James Saito, Guido Furlani, Delaney Raye, Madeline Arthur, Emily Bruhn, Alan MacFarlane, Tony Alcantar, Jaden Alexander, Andrew Airlie, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Stephanie Bennett, Andrea Bucko. Directed by Tim Burton

Art is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. The big-eyed waifs painted by Keane were, in the 1950s and 1960s, highly sought-after. Prints and posters hung in many homes and the originals were highly sought-after by collectors. Walter Keane was one of the first to commercialize art in many ways, leading the way for guys like Andy Warhol and Robert Wyland. There are those who would sniff that Keane’s vision was more kitsch than art and doesn’t hold up over the years. But Keane held a secret much deeper than that.

Margaret Ulbrich (Adams) has fled an abusive marriage, taking her daughter Jane (Raye) to San Francisco where her friend DeeAnn (Ritter) is overjoyed to see her out on her own. Margaret loves to paint but she’s forced to take a mundane job to support her daughter, but still continues to paint and sells her art in the park on weekends. There she meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a charming and outgoing man who claims he once studied to paint in Paris. He’s a born salesman and at the moment he’s selling himself. Margaret, who knows that a divorcee with a daughter isn’t going to be attracting a lot of romantic attention, marries Walter despite DeeAnn’s misgivings.

Soon Margaret starts painting a series of sad children with oversized eyes. Walter is painting his landscapes and both are not really selling much of anything. Walter manages to wrangle Enrico Banducci (Polito), the owner of one of the city’s iconic jazz clubs, to hang some of the artwork in the club where Walter can ostensibly sell it, but the place the art gets hung – a corridor leading to the bathrooms – isn’t exactly the place where people look for artwork. However after a staged row gets more customers into the club to see the fireworks between Banducci and Walter some attention gets paid to the art.

But not Walter’s art – Margaret’s. Soon her artwork begins selling like hotcakes and in a moment of perhaps panic but more likely pride, Walter claims that he is the artist that painted the waifs. Soon, there is huge demand for these paintings and Walter opens up a gallery. When people start stealing posters and postcards, he begins charging for them. Before long, the waifs are an international phenomenon.

For Margaret, success is bittersweet. The money is nice and the recognition is terrific, but nobody is recognizing her. It’s Walter reaping the success, Walter getting the recognition. Even a now-grown Jane (Arthur) recognizes that her mother is being screwed. Walter’s increasingly bizarre behavior, brought on by drinking, becomes too much. Margaret leaves and takes Jane with her to Hawaii, but Walter needs her paintings to fuel his income. The arrangement seems to work but it becomes clear that keeping the secret is a terrible burden for Margaret. When the truth comes out, where will the chips end up?

Burton has always been the kind of director whose films you can tell instantly are his, even if you don’t know what you’re seeing. He outdoes himself here – not so much with the semi-Gothic look of some of his movies, not even in his fascination with kitsch which is certainly present here, but in his use of color. Every shot is like a painting, with the colors melding together in not only the set design and the costumes but even down to the lighting. Burton’s eye is exquisite.

The story is based on Margaret’s memoirs and thus Walter is given short shrift in many ways. The point of view is strictly Margaret’s and while some of Walter’s family have complained that the film portrayed him as a talentless hack and even that he taught Margaret how to draw the waifs (which he was unable to reproduce in court during the libel trial that is depicted at the end of this film), all I can say is that you don’t go to the movies to seek the truth, merely an aspect of it, a perspective on it. And who’s to say what the truth is? There’s Margaret’s story, Walter’s story and somewhere in between is the reality of what actually happened.

Adams is one of my favorite actresses and she gives a solid though unspectacular performance as Margaret. Margaret is the mousy submissive 50s housewife through much of the movie and that can impede a performance if one is constantly looking down at the floor miserably, but Adams does eventually give Margaret some spunk which shows through in different often unsettling ways. Waltz, who I almost always enjoy, is a bit miscast here; while he has the charisma and charm to pull that aspect of Walter off, sometimes he’s so overpowering that the movie tilts a bit in the wrong direction. Less would have been more in this case. Also, both have trouble maintaining their accents as Waltz’ Austrian accent sometimes slips out and Adams’ Tennessee accent sometimes slips away. A bit more consistency would have been nice.

Like Ed Wood (whose writers co-wrote this film), Burton shows an unusual sympathy for those outside the system, those relegated to freak show status. The Keanes operated outside the normal boundaries of the art world back then, as represented by a snooty art critic (Stamp) and a snobby gallery owner (Schwartzman) and more or less clawed their way to the top. There is no doubt that Walter was an excellent promoter and while his actions may have been reprehensible, once in awhile you get a glimpse of the insecurities within that may well have fueled his behavior and Big Eyes succeeds very well there. This isn’t Burton’s best work, but it is his best in quite awhile.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously shot. Champions the outsider once again. Captures the kitsch of the era nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally an accent drops. Waltz is unusually out-of-step.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of harsh language and the themes can be pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Margaret Keane can be seen reading a book on a park bench in the scene when Walter and Margaret are painting in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Forgetting Sarah Marshall


Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what "umbrage" meant.

Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow would take umbrage at being labeled shallow if only they knew what “umbrage” meant.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Bill Hader, Russell Brand, Liz Cackowski, Maria Thayer, Jack McBrayer, Taylor Wily, Steve Landesberg, Da’Vone McDonald, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, William Baldwin, Jason Bateman, Kala Alexander, Kalani Robb, Francesca DelBanco, Branscombe Richmond, Billy Bush, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Nick Stoller

Neil Sedaka once opined in song that “breaking up is hard to do” and truer words were never spoken. It’s never easy to accept the end of a romantic relationship. It is a rejection of everything you are by the person you cared about the most. Some have said that the end of a relationship is kind of a death and should be mourned as such. Some relationships require more mourning than others of course, but there are those who are hit harder by rejection than others. Life has been good to those who can handle it with more grace.

If life has been good to anyone, it has been good to Peter Bretter (Segel). He’s a songwriter and film composer who has steady work on a hit television show. Not only that, he’s dating the totally hot lead; Sarah Marshall (Bell). That all ends one day when she ambushes him as he leaves the shower to announce that she wants to break up with him. At first, he’s devastated, but on the advice of his step-brother Brian (Hader), he has sex with a lot of women. After awhile, he realizes he’s really messed up and again, acting on the advice of others, decides to take a nice vacation to Hawaii.

He goes to check into the Turtle Bay resort, assisted by a beautiful, helpful check-in clerk named Rachel (Kunis) when who should walk by but his ex! To make matters worse, she’s there with her new boyfriend, only a few weeks after the breakup – well-known womanizing rock star Aldous Snow (Brand). Determined not to appear weak, he checks into a tremendous suite he can’t afford, whose nearby neighbors are bothered by the sound of a woman weeping. In fact, it sounds a lot like Peter.

Peter is beset by the images of people in love – couples on their honeymoon, men proposing to their girlfriends, even a Hawaiian wedding or two, all of which serve to remind him how lonely he is. Gradually, his lost teddy bear demeanor strikes a chord in Rachel and she takes him out. Before long, the two of them are beginning to feel a bond, but at the same time, Sarah is beginning to realize that she may have made the wrong move. Is there any moving on after forgetting Sarah Marshall?

Segel is a huge find. He absolutely rips it up here, although in many ways he’s almost a straight man to his own joke. His delivery is spot-on and his puppy-dog looks are not too good-looking, making him more of an everyman for all of us to relate to. He could have quite a future in romantic comedy as well as straight-up comedy if he chooses. Hill, so good in Superbad, nearly steals every scene he’s in here as an obsessive waiter, while Hader and Rudd continue to cement their reputations as among the best comic actors in the business. Kunis, formerly of That ‘70’s Show, hadn’t had the feature success as her former cohorts Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher to this point, but this put her over the top and has led to a career that has been the most successful of the graduates of that show.

Gorgeous Hawaiian locations are shown off to their best effect. The pacing is not so fast that you feel like you’re out-of-breath after watching the movie, but is fast enough that you’re not given a whole lot of time to think about things.

Nearly everything works here. Segel and Kunis have excellent chemistry and the story, while far-fetched in some of its coincidences, achieves what The Heartbreak Kid was trying to do in 2007. The jokes are laugh-out-loud funny and the characters are all people you want to get to know, even the self-centered Snow – who would get a movie of his own in Get Him to the Greek in 2010.

There are a few too many similarities to Knocked Up and other Judd Apatow comedies, but not enough to make this too crass a rip-off. This may be the first movie I’ve ever seen in which there is more male frontal nudity than female – in fact, the only female nudity can be found in a scene where Polaroid pictures of flashing women are pinned to a bathroom wall. However, you do wind up seeing plenty of Segel’s penis.

While some of this might seem at least thematically similar to recent blockbuster comedies, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is at least funny enough to hold its own. Actually, in many ways, this is perhaps the best of the Apatow comedies that dominated the comedy landscape in the first decade f this century. This is a case where execution trumps innovation.

WHY RENT THIS: Absolutely hysterical; one of if not the best Apatow comedy ever. Star-making performances by Kunis, Segel and Brand. Gorgeous Hawaiian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not a whole lot of original stuff going on here. Feels at times like you’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of nudity, particularly of the male persuasion. Also a fair amount of foul language and some sexual situations and content.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The naked breakup and the Dracula puppet show are both taken from Segel’s real-life experiences.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Both the 2 disc DVD Collector’s Edition and the Blu-Ray edition include the traditional Apatow extra “Line-o-Rama” as well as a few additional “Sex-o-Rama” and “Drunk-o-Rama” and there is an Aldous Snow music video as well as footage from Sarah Marshall’s TV show. There is line read footage, the video chat between Hader and Segel in its entirety as well as video diaries and a gag reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.2M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Hitchcock

The Rundown


The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

(2003) Action (Universal) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Walken, William Lucking, Ewen Bremner, Jon Gries, Ernie Reyes Jr., Stuart F. Wilson, Dennis Keiffer, Garrett Warren, Toby Holguin, Paul Power, Stephen Bishop. Directed by Peter Berg

Hollywood is in short supply of action stars these days, with the usual suspects getting long in the tooth, short at the box office or departed to other careers. But the search for new blood netted a real find in The Rock. Wrestling star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a success in The Mummy Returns and its spin-off, The Scorpion King. Now he’s cast in a more mainstream action flick, and the Hollywood powers-that-be were anxious to see if The Rock could open a movie that doesn’t have a built-in audience.

With material this good, he sure can. Here he plays Beck, a beleaguered bounty hunter who really wants to be a chef. He does the bounty hunting gig to pay off a debt to Walker (Lucking), a shady character who arranges to clear Beck of all obligation and supply him with enough stake to open his dream restaurant if he can retrieve one last item: the gangster’s son Travis (Scott) from the Amazon. Beck agrees to the deal.

With an incomprehensible Irish pilot named Declan (Bremmer), Beck arrives in a pimple of an Amazon town that’s run by the nefarious Hatcher (Walken) as his own personal kingdom, brutally forcing imprisoned laborers to mine gold. Beck wants no part of this; he’s just there for his man. However, Travis has actually found the location of a priceless treasure called El Gato. The local rebels want it to finance their fight against Hatcher; Hatcher wants it because he’s greedy. Travis wants it to make his reputation.

The pair go into the jungle to find the item, accompanied by the beautiful bartender Mariana (Dawson). Along the way, they run into a pack of libidinous monkeys, combative men of tiny stature with a predilection for vines and kicking the Rock around like a bitch, and an interesting fruit that gives the consumer a unique viewpoint.

It’s hard to classify this; it could be a comedy with action, or an action film with comedy. Both sides of the equation work marvelously. The Rock is able to lampoon his own persona while enhancing it, and has plenty of acting chops. The time is not far off where he will be tackling roles that we wouldn’t ever have associated with a pro wrestler.

Walken is, as always, worth the price of admission all by himself. A scene where he tries to explain the Tooth Fairy to a group of tribesmen is a classic. Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies, is satisfactory as a second banana. He’s smarmy and self-centered, but audiences can still empathize with him. Dawson has become a terrific leading lady; previous to this she had appeared in Men in Black 2 and had been intriguing there.

Director Peter Berg also did a wonderful black comedy called Very Bad Things which was in fact a very good thing. As with that film he deftly weaves the action and comedy elements into a cohesive whole, a very much more difficult task than it sounds. While best-known to the public as an actor on the Chicago Hope series, he’s also directed some fairly decent films since this one including Friday Night Lights and Hancock. However, in the interest of full disclosure he also directed the alien invasion film Battleship as well.

Had this been released during the summer, The Rundown would have been a massive hit. As it stands, it came in under the radar to a very large extent; it didn’t make my list of must-see fall films that year and as a matter of fact, a lot of critics wrote it off until they actually saw it. What it did turn out to be was the movie that was the bridge the summer blockbusters with the fall and winter hits in 2003. It’s safe to say we can all smell what The Rock is cooking: stardom and this was a very key ingredient in that dish.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s charisma and charm is in full flower. Well-written, poking fun at the Rock’s image while enhancing it. Nice action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Rock wasn’t as good an actor as he would later come to be and some of the scenes are a bit awkward. A bit cliché in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of violence (although nothing too over-the-top) and some crude dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a cameo by legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a patron in the bar scene. He happened on the set while filming an appearance as The Terminator for the Super Bowl. He was approached to do the shot and was agreeable. Fans have pointed to him saying “Have fun” to Johnson as a passing of the torch from one action legend to another.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on actor Christopher Walken and a parody feature on an E!-style channel about the monkeys.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $80.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was unsuccessful on its theatrical run although I understand it has since become profitable on home video.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Tamara Drewe

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere

Battleship


Battleship

The actors are overshadowed by the special effects.

(2012) Science Fiction (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Liam Neeson, Asano Tadanobu, Hamish Linklater, Peter MacNicol, John Tui, Jesse Plemmons, Gregory D. Gadson, Jerry Ferrara, Joe Chrest, Rami Malek. Directed by Peter Berg

 

Most of us as kids probably had occasion to play the Battleship board game. It’s the one with a screen in the middle to prevent you from seeing where your opponent placed his fleet; you place your aircraft carrier, a couple of destroyers, a few PT boats and a battleship and choose co-ordinates to launch “missiles” to sink your opponent’s fleet. Those much older than I might remember when that game was played with pencils and graph paper.

Alex Hopper (Kitsch) – whose last name brings to mind an unfortunately timed DirecTV commercial – is a Hawaiian beach bum celebrating a birthday on a beachside bar with few prospects for the future. His brother Stone (Skarsgard), an officer in the U.S. Navy, is tolerant but nags Alex that he needs to find a path and suggests the Navy as a possibility. When Alex spots a comely lass who wants a chicken burrito, he decides to play the gallant and run across the street to a convenience store. He just misses closing time despite his desperate but drunken pleas to the owner. So, in a fit of grandiose stupidity, he decides to break inside, steal a burrito (leaving behind some cash – he’s not a thief after all) and fall through the ceiling tiles not just once…but twice. Oddly enough, this behavior impresses the babe who turns out to be Samantha Shane (Decker), who also happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Neeson) who’s Stone’s boss. After this mis-adventure, Stone insists that Alex join the Navy who no doubt would be absolutely thrilled to have a newly minted felon in their ranks.

Flash-forward a few years. Not only is the chicken burrito vandal in the Navy but he’s an officer which surely is the most science fiction you’ll find in this movie. Roughly about the same time Alex did the chicken burrito stunt, a group of scientists including the ubernerdy Cal Zapata (Linklater) have sent a radio telescope transmission to the mysterious Goldilocks planet which is the most earthlike yet discovered. In the intervening time, Alex hasn’t changed much and while he and Samantha are an item, his naval career is rapidly being flushed down the toilet and after a stunt where he arrived to a ceremony declaring a naval war games maneuver open (one in which warships from Japan and other countries will be participating) Admiral Shane has informed Alex not to make any long-range Naval career plans once the war games are over.

Of course, in that intervening time the aliens haven’t changed much from other movie aliens and they’ve sent five ships as an advance guard to take over the Earth (although what anybody would want with our planet is beyond me). Their ships land in the ocean and just as the warships arrive nearby the aliens rise up out of the ocean and start raising holy pluperfect hell, wiping out most of the fleet including the ship Stone is in command of, and inconveniently, all of the officers on Alex’s ships that are above Alex, leaving him in command of his ship which he promptly orders to turn around and find the nearest convenience store that might have a chicken burrito. When informed there aren’t any nearby, in a fit of pique he sends his ship on a collision course with the alien mothership. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail and Alex grumpily agrees to go rescue drowning sailors in the water after the Japanese warship gets trashed, including Captain Nagata (Asano) who has a beef with Alex over a soccer game and a fistfight afterwards.

Because the aliens have enacted a forcefield around the Hawaiian islands, the remainder of the fleet can’t get to them leaving Hawaii and the rest of the fleet virtually defenseless. However, there are still a few things left to save humanity; Alex’ tactical genius, a legless war veteran (Gadson) that physical therapist Samantha conveniently has on a hike near the mountaintop headquarters for the signal senders that ubernerd Cal Zapata is part of and an old veteran taken out of mothballs for one last stab at glory.

There are more holes in this than Casey Anthony’s testimony. Of course, one shouldn’t expect logic from a movie based on a board game but then again, why shouldn’t we? I get the distinct impression that the suits at Hasbro brought director Peter Berg into a screening room, showed him all three of the Transformers films and said “Like that, only more.”

He does deliver on the action sequences and special effects – there are plenty of exploding warships and overly complex alien weapons enough to keep the eye candy nice and sweet. In fact, the best sequence in the film is oddly the one most like the game, in which the navy uses seismic buoys that measure water displacement to locate alien vessels. Of course, nobody mentions why an alien race with the technology to put up a barrier hundreds of miles long that is impervious to weapons can’t put one up around their own ships. Guess they didn’t watch Independence Day. Also unfortunately, Berg neglected to cast any actors with enough screen presence to pull it off. Well, they cast Neeson but they could only afford him for three scenes once the special effects budget got approved.

Kitsch, after this year’s John Carter debacle is now at a career crossroads after having been the lead in two of this year’s biggest bombs. As in that film, Kitsch doesn’t display enough screen presence to really pull off what the producers intended. He’s certainly good-looking enough – and his stint in ”Friday Night Lights” have proven that the man can act – but to be a hero for a franchise movie like this one you really need to own the screen and that Kitsch fails to do.

Oddly, the people who acquit themselves best here are the non-actors. Gadson, a genuine Iraqi war veteran, knows a thing or two about heroism and that shows. He has more screen presence than most of the leads and while Hollywood doesn’t show itself to have a whole lot of roles open for a man with two prosthetic legs, certainly those that are Gadson could fill ably.

Rihanna also surprised me. The pop chanteuse shows a few acting chops here, her trademark blonde locks shorn and died black. She channels Michelle Rodriguez a bit here as a kick-ass Latina military woman and shows that she might well have a future in acting if she chooses to pursue it.

At the end of the day, this is entertaining enough to recommend somewhat although there are plenty of movies that are entertaining and with more substance behind them out there at the moment and more coming into the theaters every week. I can’t say you’ll leave the theater feeling like your money was wasted but on the other hand you won’t feel like you got the most for your buck either.

REASONS TO GO: Great special effects. Wonderful sequence that echoes the board game.

REASONS TO STAY: Storyline a bit of a jumble. Acting is mostly atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a tribute to the board game, the alien artillery is shaped much like the pegs used in the original game.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

U.S.S. MISSOURI LOVERS: The decommissioned “Mighty Mo” is used as a set during the final reel and some filming actually took place there.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Brothers

Lucky


Lucky

The happy couple - how lucky!

(2011) Comedy (Phase 4) Colin Hanks, Ari Graynor, Ann-Margaret, Jeffrey Tambor, Mimi Rogers, Adam J. Harrington, Allison Mackie, Tom Amandes, Michelle Davidson, Olivia Sather, Heather Marie Marsden, Sean Modica, Jill Carr, Elizabeth Uhl. Directed by Gil Cates Jr.

 

Love and marriage can be a killer. Compromise and understanding are keys to any relationship, but especially in any marriage, particularly in new ones. Getting to understand your partner in any relationship is the key to making it work.

Ben Keller (Hanks) is a bit of a noodle. He is a quiet, shy sort who works as an accountant. He seems generally nice although a bit socially awkward. He has a crush on the receptionist, Lucy St. Martin (Graynor) and has had since school but has never acted on it, not really. She’s aware of his affections but she is much more pragmatic; she has her eye casting about for men in a different economic strata. Ben is beneath her notice, frankly.

That is, until Ben wins the Iowa State Lotto and over $38 million. Overnight he’s a millionaire and Lucy suddenly sees him as husband material. Soon they are dating and before long, they are married, much to the satisfaction of Pauline (Ann-Margaret), Ben’s mom who had despaired of her shy son ever finding a match.

Lucy may be all about the money and Ben doesn’t seem to be too shy about spending it on her – from building her a dream home to an expensive Hawaiian honeymoon. It is in fact while in Hawaii that Lucy discovers that Ben has been keeping a secret from her and it’s a doozy – mild-mannered Ben is a serial killer and as Lucy looks a little more deeply into this, she discovers that his victims bear a more than passing resemblance to herself.

The director is the son of a Hollywood producer (best known for producing the Oscar telecasts) who is directing the son of an acting legend (Hanks, son of Tom). That really is neither here nor there but it is some interesting trivia. The premise here sounds tailor made for a black comedy directed by the likes of the Coen brothers but Cates comes off as a bit inexperienced here.

This kind of material needs a deft touch, one that is light where it needs to be but unfortunately the direction is mostly heavy-handed. We are hit in the face with an anvil rather than tickled gently with a feather. While the former gets our attention initially, it gets old quickly and eventually leaves us numb. The latter may not necessarily be as attention-getting at first but it stays with us longer for far more pleasant reasons.

Hanks is rapidly getting a reputation for playing nice guys with a dark side (as he does in “Mad Men”) and this might be his quintessential role. He resembles his father in many ways but he is much more of a sad sack than Daddy ever was. He isn’t quite the indelible lead man his father is but he has the DNA for it, not to mention that he adds his own stamp.

Graynor is kind of a cut-rate Renee Zellweger in a lot of ways, particularly in her delivery. She’s kind of a skinny Bridget Jones without the accent here. I get the sense she’s emulating the screwball comedies of the ’30s in the way she makes her character sassy and plucky. It’s not really original in any way but she at least captures the essence of the character nicely.

Veteran character actor Tambor plays a detective who is investigating the disappearance of several young girls. Tambor’s laconic delivery is perfect for the role and he always seems to deliver the goods no matter how small the role (and this one is small but memorable indeed). Ann-Margaret is also a welcome addition. In fact, the cast is pretty solid.

The filmmakers seem to be caught between making a screwball comedy and a black comedy and wind up with neither. There are some great moments (as when Lucy has a frank conversation with Ben’s victims) as well as some that could have been. Unfortunately, this is a movie where it felt like each turn it could have made could have gone better if they’d taken a different direction. Chalk it up to inexperience and hope the next one is better.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances from Graynor and Tambor. Competent black comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language, a bit of violence, some sexuality and a couple of gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hawaii-themed restaurant scene was actually filmed at a zoo exhibit in Omaha.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video by David Choi singing “I Choose Happiness” from the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8,564 on an unreported production budget; no way this made any money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Thin Ice

Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan