Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

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Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral

The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

John Dies at the End


You don't want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

You don’t want to use the soy sauce at THIS Chinese joint.

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman, Doug Jones, Daniel Roebuck, Fabianne Therese, Jonny Weston, Jimmy Wong, Tai Bennett, Allison Weissman, Angus Scrimm, Prandihi Varshney, Riley Rose Critchlow, Helena Mehalis, Maria Mehalis. Directed by Don Coscarelli

FFF Banner 2012

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those who get John Dies at the End and those who don’t. Those who do appreciate fun for its own sake, and don’t mind a good genre mash-up. They don’t need a conventional narrative structure and are willing to sacrifice plot coherency for a good laugh…or a fiendishly fun gross-out. They are the sorts who read webcomics religiously, are students of pop culture, think Arrested Development just might be the best television show ever made, don’t mind staying up 36 straight hours playing a good videogame or occasionally partake of a little recreational drug use. Or perhaps all of the above.

David Wong (Williamson) – who isn’t Chinese; he just changed his name to make it harder to find him – meets with reporter Arnie Blondestone (Giamatti) – who isn’t blonde – in a Chinese restaurant. David and his partner John (Mayes) are a kind of demonic Ghostbusters if you will. They’re nearly as well known in the community as Dr. Albert Marconi (Brown) and Arnie wants to get their story.

But David’s story is not the usual kind. David and John have been using a drug with the street name of soy sauce because of its appearance. However this is one of those drugs that you don’t choose, it chooses you. Some people ingest it and become…altered. For David and John however, they develop some rudimentary psychic powers like the ability to read minds, see the future, communicate with the dead and more importantly see demonic presences that the ordinary living can’t detect.

Basically, what’s going on is that there is a biological supercomputer in an alternate universe that wants to break into our universe and take over since it already reigns supreme where it lives. I guess even near-omnipotent biological supercomputers get bored too. Anyway it, and the people that it controls, have been trying to break into our dimension for decades without success but now that David and John have actually done it, the computer wants to know how they did it and is willing to do whatever it takes to get that knowledge. For David and John’s part they’d much rather be sleeping.

That’s a very rudimentary outline of the plot and doesn’t really give you too much of a sense of the real lunacy going on. Based on the book by the same name by David Wong (who is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin), the movie has all the genre-bending fun from the novel coupled with the visual sense of Coscarelli who some might remember as the man who gave us the Phantasm movies as well as the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep. As you can tell from his resume, this kind of thing is right in his wheelhouse.

Some will find a bit of glee in trying to determine which other movies this most resembles. For example, it has the philosophical sci-fi ramblings of a Donnie Darko but also the hip quotient of a Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. There’s the roller coaster gore quotient of Army of Darkness and the trans-dimensional goof of Big Trouble in Little China. I could go on but you get the picture.

Williamson and Mayes make a good team. The chemistry is right there between them, two longtime friends who often speak in their own code (brought to ridiculous levels) but are nonetheless insanely loyal to each other. Their banter is realistic and makes the relationship and bond between them seem more natural and organic.

They get some decent support as well. Turman is good as a philosophical police detective who knows a lot more than he wants to know, while Brown plays a kind of Eurotrash self-help book author who has a beautiful entourage but doesn’t just talk the talk. I was also kind of fond of Weston as a hip-hop talking gangsta who is lily-white and looks and sounds ridiculous but doesn’t know it; you see a lot of those sorts on TV and in real life and it’s nice to see someone acknowledge that it’s moronic even though it’s probably not politically correct to do so. Le sigh.

The effects are mostly practical and a bit old school but they still work. Some of them are pretty nifty, like the police officer’s moustache that abruptly comes to life and starts fluttering about the room like a butterfly, or a freezer full of meat that assembles to become a meat monster (okay, that one was a bit cheesy I’ll grant you).

This one’s a roller coaster ride through current slacker culture and if there’s a complaint to be had, it’s that this is probably not a movie that’s going to age well and will be likely viewed as a product of its time as movies that cater to youth culture inevitably do. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it is in the here and now, nor does it mean that it doesn’t excel at what it is aiming for. This isn’t exactly fun for the whole family – some people are simply not going to get it and truthfully they’re probably never going to get it – but that doesn’t mean that those who do shouldn’t get the pleasure of knowing they’re one of the club.

REASONS TO GO: One hell of a mindf*ck. Psychedelic horror that refuses to take itself seriously. Imaginative visuals and fun throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: May freak one’s freak a little too much. Some may find the story confusing and convoluted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of bad language,  a scene or two of nudity and plenty of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the FedEx package that John sends himself at the mall, his full name is John Cheese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100; the reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Olympus Has Fallen

The Santa Clause


The Santa Clause
You’d better not cry…

(1994) Family (Disney) Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, Eric Lloyd, David Krumholtz, Larry Brandenburg, Mary Gross, Paige Tamada, Peter Boyle, Judith Scott, Jayne Eastwood, Melissa King, Bradley Wentworth, Steve Vinovich. Directed by John Pasquin

 

Belief is a powerful thing. There are those among us who must have the evidence of the senses to believe in something – seeing is believing, after all. It also must be said that one of the most lovely thing about children is their ability to believe whole-heartedly in something without evidence – their innocence augments their faith.

Scott Calvin (Allen) is an executive at a toy company. He is divorced and a bit estranged from his son Charlie (Lloyd). His ex-wife Laura (Crewson) has since re-married to a psychiatrist named Dr. Neil Miler (Reinhold) who is a pretty decent fellow.

Charlie is staying over at Scott’s house for Christmas Eve, with the intention of sending him back to his mom’s for the big day itself. Charlie is beginning to have doubts about the existence of Santa Clause whom Scott tries to re-assure him is real but Scott really doesn’t believe himself so the attempt falls flat. Later that night, they are awakened by a commotion on the roof. When they go out to investigate, Scott startles a man dressed in red on his roof, who then falls to the ground and apparently breaks his neck. The man disappears mysteriously, but when Scott investigates he finds a business card in the pocket of the suit which says that someone needs to put on the suit and that the reindeer would then know what to do.

In order to please Charlie, Scott puts on the suit and ascends to the roof where to his astonishment find eight reindeer and a sleigh. The two of them get into the sleigh and start delivering toys from house to house, with Scott making a rather poor Santa although he is able to magically fit down chimneys or for homes without fireplaces, dryer vents and radiator vents.

The last stop is the North Pole where Scott is greeted by a rather officious elf named Bernard (Krumholtz) who informs Scott that by donning the suit he has activated the Santa Clause which requires him to become Santa. He has until Thanksgiving of the following year to wrap up his affairs, after which he’ll become Santa full time. Charlie is given a snow globe as a gift. The two go to sleep in the North Pole but wake up back at Scott’s house. Scott assumes it was just a crazy dream.

Strange things begin to happen to Scott. He begins to develop an insatiable desire for cookies and hot chocolate and begins to put on an embarrassing amount of weight. He starts growing a long beard which no matter how he tries to shave it off re-appears instantly. His hair turns white. He has an uncanny knack of knowing who is naughty and nice. Kids, unconsciously knowing he’s Santa begin giving him lists of gifts they want.

Neil and Laura, seeing the extent of Scott’s Santa obsession and of Charlie’s increasing insistence that his father is the Santa Claus, become concerned with Charlie’s well-being and seek to terminate Scott’s visitation rights. The petition turns out to be successful and Scott, now determined to be a better father, is devastated.

The events create doubt in Scott that he is the true Santa Clause but while visiting Charlie on Thanksgiving, Charlie’s pleas and faith reawaken the magic and Bernard with Charlie’s help whisk Scott away to the North Pole. Charlie, wanting to be with his father, goes along. Laura and Neil are certain that Charlie has been kidnapped against his will and a police investigation is launched, led by Detective Nunzio (Brandenburg). When Scott tries to deliver presents to Neil’s house on Christmas Eve, Scott is arrested. Can Christmas be saved?

At the time this film was made, Allen was best known for his “Home Improvement” hit series which was then in its third year. The movie increased his star power and led to his casting as Buzz Lightyear shortly thereafter. Two additional Santa Clause movies were also made in the succeeding years.

The movie is inventive and charming and a bit sticky sweet in places. It harkens back to the heyday of Disney live action family movies such as The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Three Lives of Tomasina. The blend of magic and physics makes this entertaining for adults as well as kids and the movie never forgets that while its target audience is children that their parents are going to have to be entertained as well.

Allen is at his best here and would have a solid career in family films for the Mouse House following this. He brings the right mix of cynicism and warm-heartedness to the role and the transformation of Scott as a career-oriented man to a devoted father is believable. The chemistry between him and Lloyd as his son Charlie seems genuine.

While the North Pole operation isn’t as impressive as shown in later films like The Polar Express and Fred Claus it was nifty at the time it was released and still is grand enough to get oohs and aahs from the younger set.

There are no villains in this movie – Neil and Laura act out of genuine concern for Charlie and that’s kind of refreshing. Some Scrooge-like critics grumbled about the custody issues bogging down the plot but quite frankly I disagree. The movie is about the difficulties created by Scott becoming Santa and in that sense the reaction of other adults to Scott’s transformation seems logical and believable to me. Even though there is a certain magic in the North Pole scenes, Scott’s coping with his physical transformation are for me the best scenes in the movie.

This is certainly not the best Christmas movie ever made but it has become a minor holiday classic. It is clever, good fun and essentially harmless. It could have used a little more edge and Santa breaking his neck early on might scar the more sensitive kids for life but other than that this is charming holiday viewing and definitely a movie I don’t mind seeing again and again.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and heartwarming in places, a worthy addition to Disney’s live action family film tradition. Allen proves he has big screen star power here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little sticky-sweet in places. Somewhat dated at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few moments of crude humor but not so crude that you wouldn’t want your kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally written with Bill Murray in mind, but he passed. Fellow SNL alumni Chevy Chase was also offered the part but had to decline due to scheduling conflicts. Disney had a strict policy of not hiring ex-cons, but an exception was made in his case for the “Home Improvement” television show which was produced by Disney’s Touchstone arm and Allen went on to make movies not only in the Santa Clause franchise but several other family films as well the Toy Story series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition DVD includes a feature hosted by Wolfgang Puck as he shows you how to make some of Santa’s favorite snacks, and there’s is also an interactive game called “Santa’s Helper.”

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $189.8M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a franchise-establishing blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill concludes!

Bad Teacher


Bad Teacher

Who's haughty? Cameron Diaz and Lucy Punch engage in a pose-off.

(2011) Comedy (Columbia) Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Dave “Gruber” Allen, Jillian Armenante, Matthew J. Evans, Thomas Lennon, Molly Shannon, Rick Overton, Kaitlyn Dever, Kathryn Newton. Directed by Jake Kasdan

Most of us owe at least a part of who we are to our teachers. Some remain engrained in our memory, teachers who make a positive difference, who inspire and guide. Others are less significant in our lives but have some sort of impact. Once in awhile we have a teacher who impacts our lives in a negative way.

Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) has only been at John Adams Middle School for a year but she has already made an impression – and not the good kind. Not liked by her colleagues, ignored by her students, she’s just killing time until she marries her rich fiancée. When she is given a bon voyage at the end of the year, her fellow teachers can only muster up a $37 Boston Market gift card as a going away present.

Unfortunately, the engagement falls through and Elizabeth must return for another school term. This doesn’t sit well for her and her new mission is to find a new husband who will take care of her for the rest of her life in the kind of comfort she aspires to. A candidate comes along in substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Timberlake) who has just ended a long-term relationship with a large-breasted girlfriend and whose family runs a high-end watch company.

Elizabeth zeroes in on the big-breasted aspect of the former girlfriend and decides that her ticket to the easy life is a boob job. She means to get that operation by hook or by crook but on a teacher’s salary, that kind of money just isn’t there. So she goes about using her feminine wiles and her manipulative nature to get the cash. When she finds out from her friend Lynn Davies (Smith) that a bonus is paid to the teacher whose class gets the highest score on the state test, she decides that she must actually teach her class to pass the test. Of course, she takes a short cut here as well; she obtains a copy of the test from administrator Carl Halabi (Lennon) by pretending to be a reporter, seducing him and drugging him. Nice girl, no?

In the meantime, she finds that she has a rival for Scott’s affections in uber-cheerful teacher Amy Squirrel (Punch), who despite her outwardly sweet and perky nature hides suspicions and a dark side. The two women go to war, while nice guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Segel) tries to romance an uninterested Elizabeth.

Diaz has never been one of my favorite actresses; she always seems a bit high-strung to me. However, this is a role that is from my point of view, perfect for her. Elizabeth is shallow, self-centered and without any sense of morality whatsoever. She smokes pot in the parking lot, throws rubber dodge balls at her students’ heads when they get an answer wrong, shows up to work hung over and simply shows a movie with a classroom theme to her students, and dresses provocatively at every turn.

Segel has a certain sweetness to him that we’ve seen in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall that serves him well here. He also has a bit of a bite which also serves him well here. He is by far the most likable character in the film. Punch, last seen in Dinner With Schmucks, is delightful in the antagonist role. Watching her unravel onscreen is one of the movie’s better accomplishments.

Kasdan, who also directed the musical bio spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, doesn’t pull any punches here. This is mean-spirited, over-the-top and without any redeeming moral qualities whatsoever. Now, I’m not the blue-nosed sort who thinks every movie needs to have a strong moral compass and I can occasionally find a laugh in mean things happening to people who don’t deserve it. However, I require that if you’re going to do a comedy this mean-spirited, there needs to be at least a few laughs.

This is not a movie that pretends to have an uplifting message, and in that sense, the movie is exactly what it appears to be. To that end, it really boils down to your own personal preference; do you prefer laughing at people, or laughing with them. For my own personal taste, this isn’t my kind of humor so the rating for the movie reflects that to a certain extent. However, even people who like this sort of thing may have a hard time finding more than a few chuckles for the full feature.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is at least true to its convictions. Diaz moves out of her comfort zone and Segel is at least pleasant.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the movie’s funniest moments can be seen in the trailer. Offensive on nearly every level.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as raunchy jokes, sexuality, nudity and a bit of drug use make this not fit for family viewing.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky both worked extensively on “The Office” where Smith is a cast member.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “see this in a theater.”

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Larry Crowne