The Most Unknown


Jennifer Macalady explores a new world.

(2018) Documentary (Motherboard/Abramorama) Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo, Axel Cleermans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye, Anil Smith, Laurie R. Santos, Emelie Caspar, Brian Hedlund, Joseph Garguglia, Erik Cordes Chris Gates, Warrick Roseboom. Directed by Ian Cheney

 

These days, science isn’t the sexiest career choice as it was in the glory days of NASA or at the beginning of the computer revolution. Scientists are looked upon with suspicion and even disdain by much of the general American public, which says less about science and scientists than it does about America and the political landscape of the country at present.

But even though there are fewer college students going into science majors and careers in the sciences, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement in the varied fields. This is something of a scientific experiment courtesy of the science journalism arm of Vice News, taking nine scientists, all of them working on some of the most basic and important questions ranging from what would life on other planets look like, how does the brain create consciousness, how are stars and planets created and what is the nature of time. Each scientist journeys to a different place in the world to meet up with a scientist in a different field; the resulting conversations are lively, and more importantly, accessible to the layman.

We are introduced to microbiologist Jennifer Macalady who journeys to Italy to meet physicist Davide D’Angelo who in turn heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleermans. He heads to Nevada to meet up with astrobiologist Luke McKay. McKay’s assignment is to go to Hawaii to meet astrophysicist Rachel L. Smith. She gets to go on a deep dive off of Costa Rica with Cal Tech geobiologist Victoria Orphan to explore the life forms in a methane seepage. She in turn meets physicist Jun Ye in California to see the world’s most accurate atomic clock. He heads to the UK to meet neuroscientist Anil Smith who then heads to the office of cognitive psychologist Laurie R. Santos who eventually goes full circle to the Italian caves where Macalady is working.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring; their passion is undeniable but these are not movie scientists rocketing in all directions willy nilly without restraint; these are dedicated professionals who are absolutely obsessive about doing this right. They are methodical and patient, knowing that these questions won’t have easy answers and therefore will require time and determination in order to find te right direction. Some of them, like D’Angelo who is exploring the mystery of dark matter, isn’t sure that he’ll find answers in his own lifetime but he’s confident that answers will one day be found and that he will help find either by steering future researchers onto the right path or at least away from the wrong one.

Some of the images here are mind-blowing, including marine life that consumes methane and helps keep our planet’s atmosphere from becoming toxic or the glowing isotope that powers the atomic clock. The filmmakers go to all sorts of locations from the black rock desert of Nevada, the jungles of Costa Rica, the Atomium in Brussels and gleaming laboratories all over the world.

If there is a fault here, it is that there might be too many conversations plugged into an hour and a half. In some ways this might have worked better as an episodic series with a half hour to an hour devoted to each of the nine segments. However, if the only fault you can find in a documentary is that there isn’t enough of it, the filmmakers are doing something right.

This is a documentary that just might inspire you to take science more seriously, or at least appreciate the process more. Certainly these scientists are anything but arrogant, idiosyncratic or hidebound, nor are they loose cannons. They are fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate about their work and brilliant. They never talk down to each other nor the audience; the result is that you get caught up in their enthusiasm. Maybe I as a layman will never understand the importance of dark matter or be as passionate about cave slime but I can be very happy that somebody is.

The film is currently playing the Quad Theater in New York and will be making a limited run in various theaters and festivals around the country. In August, it will be heading to Netflix. There will also be additional material made available at that time. Keep an eye out for it – this is worth seeing both as an educational aid for young people and for adults who want to feel inspired by science.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most effective advertising for a career in science since Cosmos. Some of the footage is truly remarkable. The film looks into some really basic but important questions. The science is explained in a relatable manner.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t get as in-depth into the conversations as you might like.
FAMILY VALUES: Although there is brief mild profanity, this is truly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Macalady was also featured in the 2012 science documentary The Search for the Origin of Life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Grace Jones: Bloodfight + Bami

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Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


Huddle up.

Huddle up.

(2016) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Devine, Stephen Root, Stephanie Faracy, Sugar Lyn Beard, Sam Richardson, Alice Wetterlund, Lavell Crawford, Mary Holland, Kumail Nanjiani, Jake Johnson, Marc Maron, Erik Griffin, Jake Szymanski, Eugene Cordero, Wendy Williams, Kyle Smigielski, Andrea Micelli, Nancy Micelli, Christina Souza, Olga Kalashnikova. Directed by Jake Szymanski

 

In this modern age, relationships can be a bitch to establish. We’re more likely to meet someone on the Internet than in real life. In many ways, it’s much harder to find someone now than it was just ten years ago.

Mike (Devine) and Dave (Efron) Stangle are two brothers who like to have a good time. However, sometimes their desire to be the life of the party overwhelms what little common sense the brothers possess. There have been so many occasions at family gatherings that their plans have caused havoc and chaos to the point where their Dad (Root) doesn’t want them near any family events.

But he really can’t keep them away from their little sister Jeanie’s (Beard) Hawaiian wedding, so he gives them an ultimatum; they are to bring nice girls to the wedding as dates, or they can’t go at all. The problem is that the boys don’t really know any nice girls.

So Mike, the liquor salesman who employs his younger brother, gets the bright idea of putting an ad on Craigslist. The responses are many and varied and it lands them on the Wendy Williams show. This brings them to the attention of Tatiana (Plaza) and Alice (Kendrick), a couple of party chicks who may be even wilder than the Stangle brothers, but they don’t know that. The two girls want a Hawaiian vacation and Tatiana knows instinctively this is the best way to get one. So she schemes her way into meeting the boys and voila! Instant wedding dates.

Of course, while the girls masquerade as a hedge fund manager (Alice) and a teacher (Tatiana), they have as little common sense as their dates. This leads to an ATV accident, an X-rated massage for the bride and to the boys getting into a huge fight. The problem is that Alice and Dave might have genuine feelings for each other, but when Alice tries to calm Jeanie down with a little ecstasy, it leads to something that may bring the entire marriage to a screeching halt even before it’s begun.

Fans of the comedy that Judd Apatow and those inspired by him have been promulgating for the last decade or so will probably eat this up. It is vulgar, outrageous and occasionally downright mean. That pretty much seems to be the state of comedy 2016 when it comes to the multiplex and there’s something to be said for that kind of humor, but to be frank I’m getting kind of tired of it. I’d like to see some variation in the types of comedies we’ve been seeing; everything seems to be so over-the-top, from the spoofs to the romantic comedies that we’ve lost the art of subtlety when it comes to comedy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some really funny moments; the sensual massage that Jeanie gets from a very limber masseuse (Nanjiani) is hysterical and some of the more slapstick bits are also bound to get more than a polite chuckle. Kendrick and Plaza are two of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood and they both have some truly memorable comic performances in their pockets, but while they do their best here, it’s not enough.

Efron, who isn’t one of my favorite actors, actually comes off extremely likable here and shows that when he relaxes a bit he has all the screen presence he needs to be a star. However Devine simply tries too hard to be funny and ends up looking the buffoon. He’s a bull in a china shop and while that can be useful from time to time, it just ends up being distracting here.

I guess my biggest problem with Mike and Dave is that it all seems recycled to me. As I watch it doesn’t feel original or exciting; in fact, it made me feel tired, like I’ve seen this movie before. And I have, in several other movies. It’s disappointing; I like the cast a lot, particularly the lady leads but there wasn’t enough creativity in the writing to make this worth recommending.

REASONS TO GO: Some genuinely funny bits from a talented cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a kind of “you’ve seen it all” vibe here. It may have been dumbed down a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of crude sexual content as well as some graphic nudity, a whole lot of language and some drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual Craigslist ad placed by two real-life brothers named Mike and Dave Stangle. In reality, the ad received more than six thousand responses and netted the boys not only a movie deal but also an appearance on the Today show. The real life Stangle boys cameo here as a pair of guests at the wedding whom cousin Terry offers to be the center of a sandwich for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Front Cover

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