Lucky


The late great Harry Dean Stanton gives us one last hurrah.

(2017) Dramedy (Magnolia) Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong, Bertila Damas, Ana Mercedes, Sarah Cook, Amy Claire, Ulysses Olmedo, Mikey Kampmann, Otti Feder, Pam Sparks, Alan Corvaia, Rhandy Torres, K.C. Page, Bonnie Williams. Directed by John Carroll Lynch

 

Hollywood lost one of it’s all time greatest character actors in Harry Dean Stanton on September 15 last year. Fittingly, he had one film left in the pipeline that turned out to be an appropriate farewell for the late actor.

Lucky (Stanton) is a curmudgeonly World War II vet and nonagenarian living in a small desert town in the Southwest. He has an unvarying routine; yoga in the morning, breakfast at the local diner while he does the crossword puzzle, a stop by the local corner grocery to pick up milk and cigarettes, then back to his house to watch the afternoon game shows and water the cacti. Finally, over to Elaine’s, a local watering hole where he drinks down an adult beverage in the company of friends, most especially Howard (Lynch) who is grieving the loss of a tortoise. The tortoise didn’t die, mind you, he just wandered off.

Stanton rarely played lead roles but on the occasions that he did he always shined. This is a Seinfeld-esque film all about nothing really; there’s some lank attempts at deciding who’s figured out life better but in reality this is simply an excuse to watch Stanton do his thing and that in itself is all you really need. There are some fine character actors backing him up (James Darren, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley) and one behind the camera – John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David), best known as Drew Carey’s brother on his sitcom some years ago, who does a pretty decent job of setting the tone and allowing his lead enough space to shine.

This isn’t really a eulogy as such but it is a nice way to say farewell. Stanton was always more of a cult figure than anything else but he still had some moments in films like Alien, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Repo Man and particularly Paris, Texas. This probably doesn’t hold up with any of them except the second but still in all not every actor gets a sendoff like this one and it’s nice that someone who didn’t get the acclaim he deserved generally got one.

REASONS TO GO: Stanton’s final performance is a strong one. The soundtrack is righteous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points feel a bit contrived. The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a healthy amount of profanity, some sexual material, a bit of violence and a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton passed away at the age of 91, two weeks before the September 29, 2017 release date for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Low
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Wind Traces

The Founder


Ray Kroc worshiping at the Golden Arches.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, Linda Cardellini, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke, Kate Kneeland, Griff Furst, Wilbur Fitzgerald, David de Vries, Andrew Benator, Cara Mantella, Randall Taylor, Lacey King, Jeremy Madden, Rebecca Ray, Adam Rosenberg, Jacinte Blankenship. Directed by John Lee Hancock

 

Most of us are more than familiar with McDonald’s. It is Main Street, America on a global scale; on a typical day the fast food chain will feed something like 8% of the world’s population. They are convenient and in a fast-paced world where meals can be afterthoughts, a necessity. But how did they get to be that way?

Salesman Ray Kroc (Keaton) is having a spectacular lack of success selling his five spindle milkshake mixer to diners and drive-ins in the Midwest. When he gets an order for five of the machines from a burger joint in San Bernadino, California, he is gratified – gratified but amazed. The operation he visits is staggering; lines snake through the parking lot. Counter service only, he makes his order for a cheeseburger, fries and a coke and gets it delivered to the window in less than a minute. Dumbfounded, he sits down to eat his meal – and it’s actually pretty darn good. The restaurant, named McDonald’s for the McDonald brothers who own it, looks promising as visions of a franchise operation begin to dance in his head.

At first the brothers – Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch) aren’t too interested. They’d tried something like it before and ended up with franchise owners adding their own flair – fried chicken, barbecue, straying from the formula of keeping the menu simple and the quality high. Kroc thought he could make that happen by being a hands-on boss. As it turned out, that didn’t quite work out the way he expected.

At home, his wife Ethel (Dern) lives a life of loneliness and boredom, living for those precious times when they go to dinner at the local club. He uses those occasions to snare investors and Ethel tries to help in her own way. Soon though Ray’s dreams are fast outstripping those of his partners as well as those of his wife. The wife (Cardellini) of a potential investor (Wilson) catches his eye. As for the McDonald brothers, they are content with having a quality restaurant and what Ray is looking to build is more than they intended to take on and their reluctance to change or to compromise quality becomes a major frustration for Ray. He becomes aware that the biggest hurdle in making McDonald’s a household name are the McDonald brothers themselves.

I’m not too sure what the executives at the McDonald’s corporation think of this movie; they are in a very real sense the descendants of Ray Kroc and they owe their position to his vision and his drive to achieve it. I think they appreciate the free advertising but Ray doesn’t come off terribly well here in many ways although he did do a lot of the less savory things that are depicted here, including taking credit for some of the aspects of the image that the McDonald brothers introduced (like the golden arches) and effectively excising the brothers from the history of the company (he labeled an Illinois franchise McDonald’s #1 when in fact it was the ninth store to open). Keaton imbues Ray with a surfeit of charm without ignoring the man’s more vicious traits; he also gives Ray enough energy and charisma that when he does some pretty bad things, one still roots for him. Maybe there’s something in that secret sauce that compels us to but I think that Keaton’s performance has a lot to do with it too.

The film only covers a short period in the history of the fast food Goliath and doesn’t really get into the globalization of the brand or examine the effect of their product on the obesity epidemic in this country which has disappointed some critics but not this one. There are plenty of things one can get into concerning the pros and cons of McDonald’s from their catchy advertisements, their shrewd marketing to children with the play areas and Ronald McDonald and their recent move to adding more nutritional selections on their menu and offering a wider variety of food in general. I think the movie accomplished what it set out to do and examine how McDonald’s went from being a small roadside burger joint in California to the global giant it is today and that’s plenty of story for one movie.

There’s plenty of dramatic conflict that goes on but this simply isn’t going to appeal to those who are easily bored. Although there might be a niche group interest for those who are interested in how corporate entrepreneurs achieved their success, I’m not sure if America (or anywhere else) is waiting for movies about Col. Sanders, Sam Walton (founder of Wal*Mart) or Bill Gates. I did find Keaton’s performance fascinating and that kept enough of my interest to give this a mild recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Keaton delivers a solid performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit boring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the McDonald’s restaurants depicted in the film were built from scratch in parking lots and vacant lots because producers couldn’t find suitable locations that matched the look of the film that they were aiming for.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Social Network
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: It’s Not My Fault (And I Don’t Care Anyway)

New Releases for the Week of January 20, 2017


xXx: The Return of Xander CageXXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

(Paramount) Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Ice Cube. Directed by D.J. Caruso

An elite team led by the enigmatic Xiang is pursuing a powerful weapon named Pandora’s Box. This team is so deadly as to be nearly unstoppable, prompting the government to try and persuade Xander Cage, the legendary “Triple X,” to come out of “retirement.” He assembles an elite team of his own to take on Xiang but discovers that not everything that is happening is the way it seems.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language)

20th Century Women

(A24) Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup. As the 70s come to an end, a 50ish single mom in Santa Barbara finds raising her son a challenge and enlists the help of two younger women to help raise him to be the man she hopes he can become. Bening got a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and has a good shot to see some Oscar love as well.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Enzian Theater, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for sexual material, language, nudity and some drug use)

The Founder

(Weinstein) Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini. The story of Ray Kroc, a milkshake machine salesman who one day stopped off at a popular burger joint in San Bernardino and discovered their method of producing burgers could revolutionize the way America eats. He determined to hitch his wagon to that restaurant and in doing so made it one of the biggest businesses in history. Today there’s a McDonald’s on every corner – and you have Ray Kroc to thank for it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Paterson

(Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Barry Shabaka Henley. Paterson, a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey (yes, they have the same name) spends his days watching the world go by his windshield. Snippets of conversations and his own observations make it into a book of poetry he has written but allows nobody to read. He likes his life and is content to let it remain as is. His wife, an artist, however is changing as new dreams inspire new creations. They love each other very much but are they drifting apart? This is the latest from director Jim Jarmusch.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language)

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

(BH Tilt/High Top) Brett Dalton, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Shawn Michaels, D.B. Sweeney. A former child star, fallen on hard times gets arrested and sentenced to community service at a local megachurch. In order to land the role of Jesus in the annual Passion Play, he pretends to be a devout Christian. Soon enough he discovers that the role requires more than just lip service.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG (for thematic elements including a crucifixion image)

Split

(Universal/Blumhouse) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley. A gifted young man with 23 distinct personalities fighting for dominance within him kidnaps three young women. His psychiatrist realizes that a 24th is set to emerge, one that is vicious, evil and set to dominate the others. Can the three kidnap victims find a way to escape their captor before the world is introduced to The Beast? This is the newest film from M. Night Shyamalan.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

Ted 2


Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, John Carroll Lynch, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, Bill Smitrovich, John Slattery, Cocoa Brown, Ron Canada, Liam Neeson, Dennis Haysbert, Patrick Stewart (voice), Tom Brady, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Kate MacKinnon. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

When you get a movie that’s as popular as Ted was, a sequel is inevitable. Just because a movie was popular though, doesn’t necessarily mean a sequel is advisable.

Ted (MacFarlane) is marrying his sweetheart Tammi-Lynn (Barth), the two having met at the grocery store where they’re both employed. Performing the ceremony is their hero Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself. Things are looking up for Ted. Celebrating, albeit with more restraint is his best friend and thunder buddy John Bennett (Wahlberg) who is still stinging from a divorce from long-time girl Lori.

Still, John has always been there for Ted and vice versa so he supports his friend all the way and Ted settles into married life. Nobody ever explained to the magically animated teddy bear however that marriage isn’t easy. Ted and Tammi-Lynn begin to fight and it looks like the two might be headed for Divorceville. However, Ted gets the idea from a co-worker that the best way to fix up a broken marriage is to have a baby and at first, it seems that it’s just what the doctor ordered; Tammi-Lynn is ecstatic at the thought of being a mommy.

However, there are some hurdles to overcome. Ted isn’t, how can we put this, anatomically correct so they’ll have to go the artificial insemination route. Of course, Ted wants only the best and after trying to get a few well-known sperm donors (including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) and failing, Ted “settles” for his buddy John’s…umm, seed.

When it turns out that Tammi-Lynn can’t carry a baby to term, adoption seems the only way left. However, Ted’s attempts to adopt a baby turn back on him unexpectedly when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have never weighed in on Ted’s legal status in the 30 years or so he’s been around, suddenly now declare that an animated teddy bear does not have the rights that a regular human being has. At least, a straight one (until recently).

Stung that he is now considered property, Ted fights back in the courts, utilizing pretty but inexperienced lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Seyfried). Unbeknownst to them however, Ted’s nemesis Donny (Ribisi) is plotting with Hasbro’s amoral CEO (Lynch) to get Ted back, dissect him, find out what makes him tick and manufacture millions of animated teddy bears just like him. Can Ted win his freedom and have the life he truly wants?

MacFarlane is something of a renaissance man, being a crooner, an actor, a writer and director, sometimes all at once. He’s really the Quentin Tarantino of comedy, very aware of pop culture and excessively cool about it. While his first movie, Ted, was a huge hit, the follow-up, last year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West was a bomb and surprisingly not very funny. MacFarlane is the kind of comic writer who tends to throw a ton of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you can come up with comedy gems that way but you also leave a lot of foul-smelling garbage that didn’t stick at the base of the wall.

Wahlberg is getting a touch long in the tooth to play the immature drunk/stoner in many ways although I suspect that’s part of the joke. He still has the ability to be boyishly charming and pulls it off, although not as well as he did in the first film. In fact, the bond between Ted and John is at the center of what works about the movie.

Most of the rest of the cast is essentially window dressing for the two leads, although Seyfried is game enough to be a lawyer with a taste for good weed as well as the love interest for Wahlberg. Freeman has a brief cameo as a civil rights lawyer and Neeson a briefer one as a suspicious shopper who worries that as an adult eating Trix – which are clearly for kids – he might end up being prosecuted.

While the heart is here, the comedy isn’t. Too much of the comedy doesn’t work and one gets a feel that MacFarlane is more or less going through the motions here. Not being a brilliant writer and pop culture commentator as MacFarlane is (his Family Guy continues to offer fresh commentary on 21st century America), I might be way off here but I don’t get the sense that there really was anywhere for MacFarlane to go with the characters other than to make them more foul-mouthed, more disgusting and more stoned. There’s nothing fun – or funny – about seeing other people get high. This is better seen while seriously baked in the privacy of your own home I’m thinking. I suspect a lot of people who have seen the movie straight will agree with me.

REASONS TO GO: The movie still retains the sweetness of the first.
REASONS TO STAY: Not nearly as funny as the first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Much of the humor is crude and of a sexual nature. There’s also a whole lot of nasty language and some drug use. Okay, much drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mila Kunis was approached to reprise her role as Lori, John’s girlfriend, but was unable to due to her pregnancy. Her part was written out of the movie and a new love interest was found for John.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Million Ways to Die in the West
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Slow West

New Releases for the Week of May 8, 2015


Hot PursuitHOT PURSUIT

(New Line) Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew del Negro, John Carroll Lynch, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Mosley. Directed by Anne Fletcher

After the death of a drug kingpin, the Texas underground is turned upside down as it appears his widow may be telling the secrets of her late husband to the authorities. With murderous gunmen and crooked cops gunning for her, it is up to a serious, by-the-book Texas Ranger to keep her alive and deliver her to the courts to make her testimony. That is, if the Ranger doesn’t kill the outrageous, outgoing, sexy and impulsive widow first.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, violence, language and some drug material)

The D-Train

(IFC) Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor. Dan Landsman aspired to be the cool guy in high school but could never quite rise above the strata of nebbish that he had been assigned to. Now years later planning the big reunion, he finally gets his chance if he can bring to the party the coolest guy in school – who happens to be the face of a national tanning lotion ad campaign.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Selected Theaters
Rating: R (for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

(Music Box) Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Shmil Ben Ari, Gabi Amrani. In Israeli society, there are no civil marriages; every marriage takes place within the Jewish faith and can only be dissolved if both parties give permission and a tribunal of rabbis agree, Viviane Amsalem has been trapped in a loveless marriage and has been attempting to secure a divorce for three years, but her devout husband refuses to give her one despite the fact that he has been as miserable in the marriage as she has. This Oscar-nominated film points out the absurdity of the system as everything, no matter how minute, is brought up for scrutiny by the rabbis.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

Ride

(Screen Media) Helen Hunt, Brenton Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas. When her son drops out of college to surf and find himself, a New York mom flies to Southern California, ostensibly to talk him out of this course of action. Unable to sway him, she decides instead to try and understand him and takes up surfing herself with the unexpected effect of finding herself.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: R (for some language and drug use)

Welcome to Me

(Alchemy) Kirsten Wiig, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Tim Robbins. A slightly mentally unstable woman wins the lottery and puts the money to good use – by buying herself a talk show in which the daily subject is…herself. This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language and brief drug use)

Hesher


Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has sure let himself go.

(2010) Drama (Wrekin Hill) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Brendan Hill, John Carroll Lynch, Monica Staggs, Mary Elizabeth Barrett, Audrey Wasilewski, Lyle Kanouse, Frank Collison, Allan Graf, Rafael J. Noble. Directed by Spencer Susser

People come in and out of our lives like there’s a revolving door. Some stay for just moments; others are there for life. The effect that people have on our lives however doesn’t always have anything to do with how long they are in them.

TJ (Brochu) is a 12-year-old kid who’s life has been devastated. He mourns his mom who passed away recently but he gets no help with it – if TJ is devastated, his dad (Wilson) is catatonic. He mopes around the house, unable to go back to work. His own mother – TJ’s grandmother (Laurie) – is seriously ill, her body racked with cancer.

TJ is bullied brutally at school by Dustin (Hill) who in one memorable scene forces him to eat a used urinal cake. He is alone and losing his way but into his life comes two people; Nicole (Portman), a part-time grocery clerk whose life is teetering on the edge of financial disaster (a parking ticket is enough to make her panic) who takes pity on the young boy who is getting the crap kicked out of him by life.

Then there’s Hesher (Gordon-Levitt). TJ meets him when, consumed by frustration and rage, he throws rocks into the windows of a house under construction which turns out to be where Hesher is squatting. TJ’s act gets Hesher discovered and with that avenue of shelter closed to him, he decides that since TJ lost him his residence that he’d just go and crash with TJ.

TJ’s dad doesn’t like the idea but he’s really too shell-shocked to do anything about it. He’s checked out of life for all intents and purposes. Grandma is much more excited about the idea – for whatever reason she finds Hesher to be exciting and alive – mainly because he’s willing to pay attention to her.

And so Hesher interjects himself into TJ’s life and not always in a good way. He’s sort of like a forest fire; sometimes it’s a good thing to get rid of the unwanted shrubbery but more often than not the trees get killed with the shrubs. There’s no predicting how the fire is going to act.

This is the kind of movie that leaves one scratching one’s head. On the one hand, you have some pretty good actors who are putting on some pretty impressive shows, including Brochu who wasn’t well-known to me before I’d seen him in this film. Gordon-Levitt clearly takes this movie over – after all, it’s called Hesher and not A Bunch of Things That Happen to a Family in Mourning. He is not a Bill and Ted metalhead – he is the real deal, and if he sometimes seems clueless, well maybe he is. But he’s definitely an enigma.

On the other hand, people don’t act here like they logically would. Hesher is allowed to get away with all sorts of mayhem and people get pissed at him but they go right back to letting him do whatever he wants. I think at the very least he’d get a pretty good sock on the nose, or at least a few nights in jail. There are no consequences here and life doesn’t operate that way unless you’re a billionaire, a politician or Lindsay Lohan.

Even though the action takes place at various times of the day, it felt like the entire movie was shot in late afternoon or early evening. I don’t know if it was the lighting, the ambience or just me but even if it was a happy accident, that gives the movie an air of melancholy that fits in nicely. Grief often feels like perpetual dusk.

The message of Hesher seems to be that one must live life, even if one’s life sucks and even if the life one chooses to lead is a selfish fest. Any sort of life is better than no life at all. Hesher kind of fits into that paradigm nicely – watching Hesher is better than watching no movie at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Really well acted across the board.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little Hesher goes a long way. Sails off the edge of indie preciousness.

FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s lots of bad language and worse behavior, drug use, disturbing images, violence and sexual content – much of it in the presence of a minor. Not role model stuff in the slightest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the Japanese release, the film was re-titled Metalhead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a viral YouTube clip, as well as not just one but two outtake reels, including one devoted entirely to takes ruined by airplane engines roaring overhead.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $382,946 on a $7M production budget; not a box office success by any stretch of the imagination.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pineapple Express

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Open Range

Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

(2010) Drama (Maya International) Christopher Thornton, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom, Noah Emmerich, James Karen, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Wisdom, Dov Tiefenbach, Niko Nicotera, Deantoni Parks, Stephen Mendillo, Sandra Seacat. Directed by Mark Ruffalo

Miracles can be tricky things. There’s no guidebook in how to deal with them. If you got the power to heal people with the touch of your hand, what would you do with it?

“Delicious” Dean O’Dwyer (Thornton) was once one of the hotter scratchers – although some would prefer the term DJ – on the underground music scene until a car accident left him confined to a wheelchair. It’s also left him broke and bitter, living in his car on Skid Row. He has a grudging relationship with Father Joe (Ruffalo), a do-gooding Catholic priest who thinks Delicious has it better than most (i.e. his car) which he should be willing to share with others.

Delicious basically just wants to be left alone and says so. But that’s not going to happen when he discovers that he has the miraculous power to heal with his touch – but sadly, not himself. If anything, this leaves Delicious more bitter and angry than before. He takes up with Ariel (Lewis), bassist for an unremarkable metal band whose singer who calls himself The Stain (Bloom) – quite aptly, I believe – sneers at everything and everybody who isn’t The Stain, while their harried manager (Linney) tries to get a record deal that simply isn’t forthcoming.

Father Joe sets Delicious in a hotel and pays him a meager amount – all he can afford – to heal and as word spreads the notoriety of Joe’s mission grows. Delicious though sees all the benefit going elsewhere and none to him, so he sets himself up with the band so that his healing can be part of the show. However, things don’t go quite as planned and Delicious learns that there are down sides to miracles.

This is Ruffalo’s first directing effort and all in all it isn’t bad, but it isn’t distinguished either. He and Thornton, a close personal friend of his, have been trying to get this made for more than a decade. I don’t know that it was worth the wait, but it does have its moments.

Thornton, best known for playing Cliff Cobb on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” does a pretty good job as the bitter and churlish title character. He also wrote the script, so there’s perhaps some familiarity with the emotional landscape he must traverse. There are times he’s completely unlikable but there’s never a moment when the character seems false.

Ruffalo got a fairly fine cast for a micro-budgeted indie, including his own participation. I’ve always liked Ruffalo as an actor and his laid-back likability has carried him through a number of films. Here his character is still likable, but there is definitely a hidden agenda behind the facade. It’s a bit of a change for him.

Linney is as dependable as ever as the sultry manager, not above using a little sex appeal to sell her band. The cast is in fact pretty solid top to bottom. The story is pretty authentic in how people would react to a genuine miracle, particularly in that specific place and time. Organized religion gets a pretty harsh grade (which I would tend to agree with) in terms of how the miraculous would be used to their advantage. However, the secular world doesn’t escape unscathed either as spectacle and rock and roll get skewered as well.

The problem lies in that the movie is a bit overwritten. The focus between the secular side (symbolized by the band) and the religious side (Father Joe) should have been tighter.  The battle for Delicious’ soul is really the central core of the story and at times it feels like an afterthought. It could have used someone to stop and say “What are you trying to do with all this other stuff?” I would have liked to have found out more about Delicious and where he’s coming from, more about Joe and what he’s about. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t given much depth. They’re given a part to play and there’s nothing really behind them. They have no past and no future, only the present.

I like Mark Ruffalo and I like what Thornton did with his role, but at the end of the day this is merely adequate; it’s not something I can give a ringing endorsement to but neither is it without merit. For those who are picky about what they watch, there are many more worthy ways to spend their time. For those who are movie gourmands who watch a lot of movies, there are worse ways to spend their time. What you get out of this movie depends on which camp you fall in.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting digs at the nature of miracles and religion as well as the failings of men. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwritten. Could have used more focus on the central characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is bad language throughout, some depictions of drug use and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thornton is actually paralyzed; he was injured in a climbing accident when he was 25.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,826 on an unreported production budget; sorry folks but this one lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond  (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money