Arthur Christmas


Arthur Christmas
Who knew that Santa Claus was actually a South American dictator?

(2011) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin, Robby Coltane, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Marc Wootton, Dominic West. Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook

 

One of the most common questions children have about the legend of Santa Claus is how does he deliver so many presents in a single night (I don’t remember that being much of an issue when I was growing up – we just took it for granted that he did it and moved on). These days with the world population increasing and the demand for presents soaring it has become quite an operation indeed.

In fact, Santa (Broadbent) is more of a figurehead these days. The North Pole is a subterranean base that doesn’t appear on Google Earth. His gift-delivering operation is run with military precision by his eldest son Steve (Laurie) who fully expects that dear old dad will be passing along the job to him at the successful conclusion of Christmas this year.

In fact, the job has been in the same family for many generations. Grandsanta (Nighy) delivered the presents in the old sleigh with the reindeer but Steve has modernized, utilizing an incredible jet the size of a fleet of battleships using advanced stealth technology to stay off of the radar. As befuddled as Santa is, Grandsanta is as curmudgeonly, having felt left behind.

Arthur (McAvoy) is Santa’s younger son, a gentle soul who is a bit of a screw up. He has been given the relatively harmless position of handling the Letter Response Division. He tends to have more of the Christmas spirit in his heart which Steve looks at as a liability. Actually going out into the field and delivering presents terrifies Arthur.

When it’s discovered that one child’s present remained undelivered the reaction of Steve and Santa is a colossal “Ho-hum” which is a mighty change from “Ho ho ho!” One child left behind is considered acceptable collateral damage. However, Arthur doesn’t see it that way. To him, if one child isn’t considered special, than nobody can be. Despite his trepidations, he decides to see to the delivery himself and Grandsanta decides to come along for the ride, bringing the old sleigh out of mothballs. Grandsanta’s motivation is more to show up his progeny, however.

This is the first feature to be released from Aardman Animation since Flushed Away back in 2006 (they also have the feature Pirates! Band of Misfits slated for release in early 2012) and quite frankly, this isn’t up to the standards of the folks that brought us Wallace and Gromit. There’s plenty of imagination all right and some clever, sly humor that the studio is known for but not enough of the latter to really stand out like their other films did.

The squabbling Santas are a prime example. I get the feeling that the filmmakers were lampooning the commercialization of Christmas, but making the two elder Claus statesmen out to be doddering old fools or scheming old fools kind of violates their own mythology to a certain extent. The whole portrayal makes me wonder if the Santa Claus family isn’t a little bit guilty of inbreeding.

The vocal performances are dead on; Laurie, best known for his stint on ”House” plays Steve as a supercilious British Army officer, very regimented and expecting life to run like clockwork like it does in the Army when he was in Indja don’t you know. Nighy alternates between reminiscing about the good old days and bitching about the modern days like many grandsires do.

McAvoy is a bit bland as Arthur but then again Arthur isn’t really drawn all that well as a character. He is a bit of a bumbler and is good-hearted but has little to no self-confidence. His most identifiable characteristic is his nearly obsessive love for all things Christmas. We get that he has a good heart and he is a bit of a klutz but little more beyond that. Perhaps the writers didn’t think the kids in the audience care much about that.

The North Pole base and Santa’s S-1 jet are both marvelously done, as well as the armies of elves who make things happen. The backgrounds and artwork are amazing, and keeping with Aardman tradition have a bit of the Claymation look to them (Aardman’s earliest shorts and films were done with stop-motion Claymation). One thing about Aardman; you can always instantly tell their films apart from other studios.

I may be sounding a bit harsh on the movie, but this is a studio I hold to higher standards than most. In all honesty this is a pretty decent Christmas movie, but I had hoped for something that would be more of a perennial from a studio with as much imagination as this one has had over the years. It should do well enough to keep the kids entertained and it won’t have the adults squirming in their seats, but the wit is lacking and the sense of wonder fleeting. Not quite a lump of coal but not the present I was looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Has much of the wonderfully quirky Aardman sense of humor. Some of the North Pole and Santa’s spaceship scenes are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit whiny in spots.

FAMILY VALUES: This got a PG rating for “mild rude humor” but in all actuality this is perfectly suitable for all members of the family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Peter Baynham’s last film was Arthur making this the second consecutive film he’s written that contains the word “Arthur” in the title.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING; 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Another Year


Another Year

An idyllic summer moment in Geri and Tom's backyard but Mary has forgotten the latin saying "in vino veritas" - in wine there is truth

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wright, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Martin Savage, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Stuart McQuarrie, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Mike Leigh

 

Why is it that some people seem to have all the happiness they want while others can’t get even a small portion no matter how hard they try? It’s a question people struggle with to answer, and one which rarely gets addressed in the movies.

Geri (Sheen) is a therapist who is working with a very depressed married woman (Staunton) whose life has crumbled into dust. Geri is quite the opposite, happily married to Tom (Broadbent), a geologist who consults with local governments all over the world for public works projects. The two live in a quiet suburban neighborhood in London, happily potter around in a public garden, invite friends over for dinner and dote in their son Joe (Maltman) who at 30 is still looking for Ms. Right but still adores his parents. Very convivial if you ask me.

Mary (Manville) works in the office with Geri and the two seem to get on well, but deep down Mary is a mess. She is 50 and single, her looks – once spectacular – fading away rapidly. She smokes too much, drinks too much, talks too loudly and makes people uncomfortable around her too much. She envies Geri and Tom their happiness and wants some of it of her own, either by osmosis or perhaps by establishing a romantic relationship with Joe. That leads to some genuinely awkward moments and when Joe brings home a new girlfriend Katie (Fernandez) Mary winds up making a spectacle of herself.

Ken (Wright), Tom’s friend is kind of like Mary in that he smokes too much, drinks too much and is a little bit desperate. He takes a shine to Mary but she’s having none of it, she’s all for Joe. As the year winds to a close, Mary’s single-minded pursuit of Joe may alienate her completely from Geri and Tom.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet it is a rich and full tapestry of lives that feel real and lived-in. Tom and Geri (yuk yuk yuk) are people you’d want to hang out with, people who you could see yourself being friends with (particularly if you are, like myself, middle aged or older). Their happiness is genuinely won and seems to be a byproduct of their contentment. In fact, Leigh’s message seems to be that the road to happiness leads through being content with who and where you are. The ones who are unhappiest in the movie are those who are the least sanguine over who they are and Mary, who has the least contentment of anyone, is by far the unhappiest.

The conceit of the movie is that it is told over the course of a single year, with the movie being divided by season and in each season, a gathering at the home of Tom and Geri is the focal point with one exception. One segment takes place in Hull, where Tom is from, and revolves around the funeral of his sister-in-law. Tom is there to support his taciturn brother whom he eventually brings home. Mary doesn’t really figure in this scene although she and the brother Ronnie (Bradley) do interact later in the film. The funeral scenes are awkward and almost seem like they’re from another movie until later on you realize that it’s just something that happens; as in life there are moments that take us out of phase with our natural rhythms.

Manville gets the meatiest role here and she makes the most of it. Her character is never shrill but seems to be just on the edge of it most of the time. As she imbibes more alcohol, her cadences change and her demeanor alters; most actors merely slur their speech when playing drunk but Manville gets it dead on.

Broadbent and Sheen are both veteran character actors with Broadbent being the better known and both deliver congenial performances. They both have to walk a fine line by making Tom and Geri likable without making them stereotypical; these need to be real people who aren’t perfect but are genuinely nice. They are both successful in walking that line.

There are those who are going to have a hard time with this movie because it doesn’t move at a terribly fast pace. Instead, it captures the rhythms of a life well-lived, with the occasional discordant note being sounded albeit mostly by those outside the family. That might be literal torture for those of younger generations used to quick cuts, faster pacing and non-stop action. If there is a complaint to be made, this is a movie almost entirely of exposition rather than action. That can be dull, but instead I found it fascinating getting to spend time with these people, even Mary who can be a pill. Everyone here is likable at the core and although only a few find real happiness, it’s a movie that might inspire you to appreciate the joys in your own life more.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific slice of life film that is inhabited by real people. Manville, Broadbent and Sheen all give masterful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is unhurried and there are those who might find this boring, particularly the young who may have trouble relating to the mostly-middle aged cast.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language, but not much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mike Leigh received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 2011 Academy Awards but didn’t win.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a nice feature on director Mike Leigh, his creative process and the challenges of bringing Another Year to the screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.5M on an $8M production budget; was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Young Adult

Chicken Run


Chicken Run

There's something fowl going on here.

(2000) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Jane Horrocks, Imelda Staunton, Timothy Spall, Tony Haygarth, Benjamin Whitrow, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, John Sharian, Penelope Cruz. Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park

From the studio that brought the amusing – nay, hysterically funny – “Wallace and Gromit” shorts comes this marvelously charming – and hysterically funny – modern-day retelling of The Great Escape.

Life on Tweedy’s Chicken Farm is bleak, indeed. Hens who don’t lay their daily quota of eggs end up on the chopping block, and eventually on the Tweedy’s dinner table. Ginger (Sawalha), a dare-I-say-it plucky little bird, dreams of better things; a paradise beyond the distant hills. Sadly, her escape plans always seem to go terribly awry, often due to the incompetence of her fellow fowl, and she winds up taking the rap for it and being sentenced to solitary for a few days.

Her fellow chickens are colorful and big-hearted, but don’t have a lot of material above the beak, if you get my drift. Still, they’re all behind her 100% (more or less), starting with the empty-headed, perpetually knitting Babs (Horrocks) to the stiff-upper-lip ex-RAF fryer…I mean, flyer…Fowler (Whitrow) and up to the feisty Bunty (Staunton).

Into the frying pan lands Rocky (Gibson) who flies into the pen quite unexpectedly. He is, as he puts it, the Lone Free Ranger, a true cock of the walk with a devil-may-care charm. In exchange for shelter (he’s on the lam from the circus he used to work in), he agrees to teach the cooped-up chickens how to fly ignoring the rather difficult obstacle that chickens can’t actually fly, aerodynamically speaking.

In the meantime, the bitter and mean-spirited Mrs. Tweedy (Richardson) has determined that egg production just doesn’t generate enough revenue to allow the Tweedys to do more than subsist. The solution is a monstrous chicken pie making machine. It’s simple, she tells her henpecked husband (Haygarth); “Chickens go in, pies come out.” The stalag has suddenly become a death camp.

There is a tremendous amount of wit and good-natured charm. The humor is a bit droll, and may go over the heads of kids that have been spoon-fed Rugrats, Pokémon and other truly wretched and poorly-drawn excuses for animation on the Cartoon Network. Still, the lil’ tykes will go for the panicky, somewhat silly chickens and the outlandish devices that Ginger and her penned-up mates come up with. Mel Gibson makes for a charming rogue. He’s carefree, cocky even but in the end he has a gizzard of pure gold.

Peter Lord and Nick Park, who produced, wrote, and directed Chicken Run, have a marvelous style. You get the distinct impression that these fellers both believe that their audience has at least half a brain cell in between them. They poke fun at British middle class life, while at the same time showing a genuine affection for it. This was the first animated feature from Aardman Studios and it set the bar pretty high, which they have since equaled and occasionally exceeded.

Some of the reference and the sometimes difficult to understand accents may go right over the heads of audiences (especially the tots) but most of the humor is universal. I found myself grinning maniacally throughout and Da Queen remarked at how cute she found the chickens. This is a winner, folks. Kids may find the flick’s Britishness a bit hard to fathom, but they’ll muddle through. I like this one far better than a lot of the animated features that flood the market in the second decade of the 21st century and I think that you will, too.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever and well-animated (even if you don’t like Claymation).

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be a little bit too British for American audiences, particularly for the younger set.

FAMILY MATTERS: Perfect for all audiences

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rocky and Ginger are named for the childhood chicken pets of co-director Nick Park.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a read-along version for younger viewers, as well as a fascinating featurette on the Claymation process itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $224.8M on a $45M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger

New Releases for the Week of January 28, 2011


January 28, 2011
Bless me father, for I have sinned…

THE RITE

(New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Chris Marquette. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

A skeptical seminary student is assigned to exorcism school at the Vatican in Rome despite his disbelief in the devil. He is introduced to an unorthodox priest, one who is a veteran in the war against evil who ultimately introduces him to the reality of faith; if you believe in the goodness of God, then you must understand that there is its opposite – evil personified. The young student, so well-versed in the practical, must find his faith in the spiritual or else be condemned to burn in the fires of Hell.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material, violence, frightening images and language including sexual references)

 
Another Year

(Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen. The latest from acclaimed director Mike Leigh examines the relationship of a middle-aged couple through the seasons of their life through triumphs and tragedies, as chronicled by the presence of friends who use the couple as confidantes to their own issues.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard,

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some language)

Biutiful

(Roadside Attractions) Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella. A career criminal in the Barcelona underworld discovers he has a fatal disease. Devoted to his small children, he struggles to find a way to secure their future while suffering from the effects of his illness and staving off the inherent dangers of his chosen career.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)

Blue Valentine

(Weinstein) Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Dornan. A couple whose marriage is crumbling makes one last desperate attempt to rescue their relationship in a single night. As memories of their courtship color their perceptions of one another, they find refuge in sex and violence which may ultimately be their salvation – or their destruction.

See the trailer, clips and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: R (for strong graphic sexual content, language and a beating)

Casino Jack

(ATO) Kevin Spacey, Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Jon Lovitz. The final film of the late George Hickenlooper (a much-respected filmmaker), it chronicles the doings and dealings of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who was convicted of financial misdeeds concerning Native American casinos and a cast of characters that even Hollywood couldn’t possibly dream up.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

The Company Men

(Weinstein) Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper. Three executives are laid off as a result of corporate downsizing. All of them, defined by their success and standing in the corporate world, are forced to redefine themselves, learning to take control of their own lives and adopt more lasting terms of self-definition.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief nudity)

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)

(UTV Communications) Aamir Khan, Prateik Babbar, Monica Dogra, Kriti Malhotra. An affluent investment banker taking a sabbatical strikes up a friendship with a laundry boy, which even in modern Mumbai is just not done. As the relationship deepens, a friendship with a gifted painter threatens to throw both their worlds into disarray.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

The Mechanic

(CBS) Jason Statham, Ben Foster, Donald Sutherland, Tony Goldwyn. A highly skilled assassin is employed by a “company” who then sends them on assignments. When the assassin’s mentor is killed by the company, the assassin takes on his son to teach him the skills of the trade. Together they are going to go after the corrupt elements in the company – if the bosses don’t get to them first. Loosely based on a Charles Bronson movie of the same name.

See the trailer, clips, promos and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry and Hermione share a rare tender moment in a dark and dismal place.

(2010) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman . Directed by David Yates

As someone who’s been with the Harry Potter series from the beginning, I had always thought it a young adult fantasy series but I was wrong. This has always been a series for adults; we just didn’t know it at the time.

After the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are on the run. No longer is Hogwarts a safe place – in fact, it only puts in a cursory appearance in the movie. Instead, the three are on the run, chased by Deatheaters who are looking for Harry specifically.

Lord Voldemort (Fiennes) and his cohorts, including Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs), his son Draco (Felton) and cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Carter) have taken over the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts itself and have launched a campaign to stamp out Muggles, using propaganda and fear. The overall impression is of a totalitarian Nazi-like state with Voldemort a Hitler-like figure at the top.

Harry is seeking the horcruxes, special items in which Voldemort has placed parts of his soul. Harry has found several of them but there still remain several to go. The stress and weariness are getting to Ron, who notices that Harry and Hermione are getting close. Into this mix comes the Deathly Hallows, but what exactly are they and how are they the key to victory over Voldemort?

This is movie is dark, dark, dark. If Half-Blood Prince was dark, this is pitch-black. This is serial killer-dark. This is your mom is dead-dark. You get the picture. In fact, the mood is so unrelenting in its grimness that you actually feel it weighing on your soul as you exit the theater.

I have tried to avoid reading the books before I see the movies so I can’t really say how closely this follows the book, which the studio has ultimately decided to split into two movies ostensibly at author J.K. Rowling’s request but, I suspect, also as a way of wringing out twice the revenue from the same book which will be the final installment in the series. Along the way it has become the most successful film series of all time on a per-film basis (the Bond series has brought more money in overall but has had 22 films to do it in) and more or less a license for Warner Brothers to print money. It’s not hard to see why they’re disappointed that the cash cow is coming to a close.

Part of my issue with the movie is that there is just so much information being crammed into it, and so many characters – nearly everyone from the first six books who haven’t died either in the series or in real life is here. It’s very difficult to keep everybody straight and by the time the two and a half hour movie comes to a close, you feel a very real sense of overload.

And yet there is much going for the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become fine actors and have essentially grown up with their roles. Harry is showing the heroism that his character has always threatened to be, while Hermione is not only a charming and beautiful young woman but brilliant and resourceful as well, every bit Harry’s equal. Ron is the most human of the three, filled with doubts and flaws, but yet in his own way more courageous than either of them. The three make a formidable team, three terrific friends who are stronger together than they are separately.

The special effects are jaw-dropping at times, particularly an early broomstick and motorcycle sidecar battle, as well as a wonderful animation that introduces the Deathly Hallows into the film (the animator Ben Hibon has recently been rewarded with a feature film of his own). While a dark and terrifying place, the wizarding world is no less dazzling than it has been all along.

One gets the impression that the second film of the two Deathly Hallows movies will be much better in the sense that the resolution that is approaching like a bullet train is going to be something special. Much of that has to do with Rowling, who may sometimes not get her due simply because the books appeal to children. She is simply put one of the best writers of our age, regardless of genre or audience.

This is still a movie worth seeing – it is in many ways the weakest movie in the series simply because it feels so incomplete and yet it is the equal of all of them, but that is a function of the split. It is a movie of putting aside childish things and stepping into a frightening world. It is a movie of accepting responsibility and standing up for what is good and what is right. It is a movie that while on the surface may seem to be about running away and hiding is in reality about acting in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible penalties. Bad things happen to good people in this series – not everyone comes out of the movie alive and many come out badly injured at least. It is a movie about conquering fear, and what better lesson can we give to young people than that?

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this is marvelous to look at and all the threads of the first six movies are beginning to draw together into a recognizable tapestry.

REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark – this is not your older brother’s Harry Potter. There is a good deal of information crammed into this movie which will probably all be necessary for the second but it sure does slow the pacing down quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: This is dark, dark, dark – the wee ones are going to be plenty scared by the violence, both on-screen and implied. The evil of Voldemort and his Deatheaters becomes much more realized and I would have a serious talk with any younger kid before seeing it to make sure they understand it’s just a movie. If they are prone to nightmares or particularly sensitive, I’d really think twice about taking my kids to see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After escaping the attack at the wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron end up in a London diner, where one of the posters on the wall is for the West End production of “Equus” which star Daniel Radcliffe starred in.

HOME OR THEATER: You will see this on the big screen, if you haven’t already.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last Legion

Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi

How About You


How About You

Hayley Atwell ponders how to hold her own with a quartet of aging scene-stealers.

(Strand) Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Orla Brady, Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton, Joan O’Hara, Elizabeth Moynihan, Darragh Kelly. Directed by Anthony Byrne

Some can accept the indignities of growing older with grace and dignity. Others rage against the dying of the light and in doing so, rage against life itself.

Kate Harris (Brady) runs the Woodlands, a nursing home in the quaint and charming countryside of Ireland as best she can. She is constantly on the edge of financial ruin and lives in terror of having her accreditation taken away from her, and is tormented by the unscheduled visits of a bureaucrat (Kelly) who seems hell-bent on finding an excuse to shut her down.

When family business forces her to leave over the Christmas holidays, she has no choice but to turn to her sister Ellie (Atwell) to run the joint while she is away. Ellie is a headstrong girl, one who brooks no crap from anyone which she at least has in common with Kate. However, where Kate is a by-the-book conformist, Ellie is spirited and anti-authoritarian. This deadly combination has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count and now, with nothing really to do and a fairly ambitious set of financial needs, she decides to help her sister out. After all, how hard could it be? Most of the residents had gone home with family members for the holiday, leaving only four people remaining.

Those four are about the most cantankerous, ill-tempered and difficult people you can imagine. There’s Georgia (Redgrave), a former actress who is an alcoholic with all the attitude of a diva. Donald (Ackland) is a widower who has lost his soulmate and takes out his pain on anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his orbit with a caustic wit worthy of Mort Sahl. The Nightingale sisters, Heather (Fricker) and Hazel (Staunton) moved into the home not because they needed the care but because after their mother died, they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Heather is a bit of a bully while Hazel harbors a terrible secret.

Ellie means well, but she often does the wrong thing for the right reasons, as with giving some marijuana to a dying resident (O’Hara) to ease her pain. She immediately butts heads with the four who are known, none too affectionately, as the Hard Core by the Woodlands staff. The four of them have alienated so many of the other residents that they have begun to leave in droves, which is the source of Kate’s near-ruin.

As Ellie stands up to the hi-jinx and imperious demands of the Hard Core, they begin to soften. For her part, Ellie begins to see things from a different perspective. Against all odds, they begin to bond. However a Christmas dinner and a surprise visit from the inspector may put an end to their impromptu family once and for all.

Those who loved serio-comic films like Ladies in Lavender or Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont will dig this big time. Like the other two films, the leads are elderly Brits with thick crusts that hide hearts of gold. While this is based on a short story by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy, it doesn’t break new ground in terms of films of this genre. There are a lot of cliches; naughty, crotchety elderly sorts who smoke pot, drink and curse, free-spirited mule-headed youngsters who learn to lower their defenses, mean bureaucrats who are revealed to have a reason for their anger. It’s all here, with a touch of Irish pipe music to remind us that it’s set in Ireland, and old standards to remind us that the leads are elderly.

However, the actors in the main roles are good enough that they help the movie rise above the material. Ackland, best known as the heavy in Lethal Weapon 2, delivers the kind of performance that those familiar with his stage career and some of his earlier work know that he’s capable of delivering. Redgrave exudes class and elegance, even in a role that sometimes demands its lack; she is magnificent here. Fricker and Staunton are two reliable veterans who are sadly underappreciated; they deliver solid performances here.

Any young actress would be hard-pressed to hold their own with a troupe like that, but Atwell does so, and more. Her Ellie is a bit of a screw-up, but mainly because she doesn’t have enough confidence in herself. She is hot-tempered and unpleasant at times but Atwell makes her so likable that we can’t help staying connected to her even when we want to reach out and smack her upside her head.

The title refers to a Burton Freed-Allen Lane standard that while written in 1941, had a version recorded in the early 60s by Bobby Darin which is the version that is heard here, which is appropriate since that more or less approximates the era of the main characters. The song has a vivid role in the movie which I appreciated as an old ex-rock critic – never underestimate the power of a song to change one’s life.

As I said, this isn’t really adding anything new to the genre but then again, who says it has to? It is very easy to sit back and allow yourself to be captivated by the performances and the magic of the Irish countryside. That, as far as I’m concerned, is two hours well spent.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by a cadre of veteran actors with whom Atwell more than holds her own. A bittersweet but upbeat treatise on growing old with or without dignity.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat predictable in places in terms of “eccentric oldsters changing the life of spirited young person” flicks.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extraordinarily salty language and a surprising amount of drug use so it’s probably not suitable for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Joss Ackland worked as a tea plantation manager in Africa during the 1950s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Unborn