Literally, Right Before Aaron


Love makes grinning idiots of us all.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Screen Media) Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, Ryan Hansen, John Cho, Kristen Schaal, Lea Thompson, Dana Delaney, Peter Gallagher, Luis Guzmán, Charlyne Yi, Vella Lovell, Ginger Gonzaga, Malcolm Barrett, Manu Intiraymi, Ivy George, Rick Overton, Adam Rose, Sam Hennings, Parvesh Cheena, Dov Tiefenbach, Ashley Platz. Directed by Ryan Eggold

 

When we are of a certain age, we have an idea of what The One is going to look like; you know, The One who is your partner for life, your dream man/woman, your other half. Not so much in the physical make-up but the kind of person he/she is. When we think we’ve found that person, the idea is to hold onto them with both hands. It never occurs to us that The One may turn out to be just The One We Thought Was The One.

Adam (Long) is getting over the break-up of an eight-year relationship with Allison (Smulders) when out of the blue, he gets a phone call from her inviting him to her wedding. She puts pressure on him to attend; “I’m going to be at yours so you HAVE to be at mine!” she wheedles. Despite the misgivings and urging to the contrary by friends/co-workers Mark (Cho) and Claire (Yi), he decides to head north to San Francisco and attend.

He meets Aaron (Hansen), the new man in Allison’s life whom she began dating immediately after the break-up and takes an immediate dislike to him. Adam is determined to win Allison back and will do just about anything to do it including lie to his own mother (Thompson) and do his best to remind Allison of what a good thing they had. As Allison herself said during one of (many) flashbacks to how they met, “I can’t decide if you’re charming or if you’re an asshole.”

Believe me, Allison, it’s the latter. This is a dreadfully unfunny romantic comedy in which cruelty and obsessive behavior substitutes for laughs. If someone were to do the things that Adam does in the movie, there’d be a restraining order in his immediate future, not an invitation to a wedding. There would also likely be the beatdown of a lifetime but I digress.

Long has made a career of being the sad sack romantic and he’s as good at it as John Cusack, whose mantle Long inherited, once was. He tries his best here to be likable and charming – and he’s capable of being both – but one is defined by their actions and Adam’s actions are self-centered to the point of narcissism, perhaps even to the point of being mentally unbalanced. I could see Adam going completely berserk, brandishing a gun and screaming at Allison “Love me! Or I’ll kill you!” And perhaps that would have been a more interesting movie. Still, it must also be said that Long is getting a bit long in the tooth for roles like this. I would like to see him take on some roles that have a bit more maturity to them. Hollywood casting being what it is, that might not happen anytime soon.

The movie is riddled with genre clichés and the plot is powered by characters doing things that no rational human being would ever do. I get that love can make you do crazy things, but Jeez Louise; I can’t imagine a psychologist witnessing this behavior without seriously pulling the committal papers out. This is lazy writing of the highest order.

Director Eggold, who is best known as the sinister Tom Keen on the hit TV show The Blacklist shows some of his rookie greenery with the choices he makes – he’ll get a 10-yard penalty for overuse of faded-out flashbacks that are meant to look like old home movies – but he also makes some good ones. Rarely have I seen San Francisco used as well as it is used here to really bring the tone of the city to life. Having lived in the Bay Area as long as I have, I felt a certain amount of nostalgia watching the movie and listening to Tony Bennett croon his signature “I Left My Heart (in San Francisco).” Kudos for that.

Kudos must also be given for assembling an impressive cast, although several of them – particularly Guzmán, Delaney and Thompson – are in the film for only a scene or two. I could have used a little more of these actors and a little less of Long who is in nearly every minute of the film. Not that Long can’t carry a film on his own, mind you – he just needed some better material to carry it with.

REASONS TO GO: Utilizes San Francisco to its fullest. The cast is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: People acting like blithering idiots does not a comedy make. The film suffers from far too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sexual references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie references the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men and goes on to spoil the ending of the book.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Best Friend’s Wedding
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Walking Out

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Columbus (2017)


Art and architecture don’t always mix necessarily.

(2017) Drama (Superlative) John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes, Rosalyn R. Ross, Erin Allegretti, Jim Dougherty, Lindsey Shope, Shani Salyers Stiles, William Willet, Reen Vogel, Wynn Reichert, Alphaeus Green Jr., Caitlin Ewald. Directed by Kogonada

 

There are times in our lives when we are in a place that we don’t want to be; we are there because we are obligated to be there. Upon reflection however it generally turns out that where we are is exactly where we are supposed to be. Realizing it at the time is pretty much always another matter.

Jin (Cho) finds himself in Columbus, Indiana. Not because he has any great desire to be there but because his father, a scholar on architecture, was to deliver a lecture there but collapsed and went into a coma. Jin and his father have barely spoken for a long time but Jin is the only blood relative his father has, so he goes at the behest of his dad’s protégé Eleanor (Posey) whom not uncoincidentally he had a crush on as a teen.

Casey (Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. She’s whip-smart and has a passion for architecture, so living in Columbus is a great thing for her – the town is known for its striking modernist architecture designed by some of the greatest architects in history – I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and John Carl Warnecke among them – and while volunteering at the local library also gives tours of the city’s landmarks. She has had offers to go to college (she just graduated high school) but has quietly turned them down, preferring to stay at home and take care of her recovering drug addict mother (Forbes) who is in a fragile emotional state and probably wouldn’t be able to care for herself without Casey.

Jin and Casey meet and one would think initially that they wouldn’t hit it off much; Jin doesn’t care much for architecture, a field which essentially took his workaholic father away from him and Casey is nuts about it but hit it off they do. At first Casey seems content to give her tour guide opinions of the buildings that catch Jin’s eye but as Jin gently digs she begins to open up to him. Pretty sure, he’s opening up to her right back.

That’s really all the plot there is to this movie. Normally I don’t mind a movie that is all middle without a beginning or an end; I love movies that grasp the ebb and flow of life. That’s not really the case here. First time director Kogonada has a brilliant visual sense and a real eye for shot composition, but utilizes it to excess here. I do appreciate his use of water and rain as a motif and his use of geometric shapes amid natural environments but after awhile one becomes dulled to the images. We are made aware at nearly every moment that each scene is an artificial setting, not an organic function of the scene. For example, there’s a scene in a hotel room where Jin and Eleanor are talking about his feelings for her growing up; the entire scene is shot viewing the reflection of two mirrors which act almost as television screens. Don’t get me wrong – It’s a clever shot – but in a highly charged emotional scene we don’t get to see the emotions of the actors. This is the very epitome of a director’s creativity undermining his own film.

And that really is one of the major faults of the film – we never get connected to the characters because we’re constantly aware of the director behind them. He frames them in corridors in which, we can’t fail to notice, the columns on one side are square and on the other side round. We see oblique shots in which forced perspective puts two characters sitting on the steps close together but we also notice that the dialogue is done with one character’s back to the other the entire time. That’s not a natural conversation; people tend to want to turn and face their partner when they are conversing.

One of the other fundamental flaws is that we never really care about any of the characters. Kogonada seems to keep them at arm’s length and even though they are talking about some fairly in depth background, it is all couched in self-absorbed and pretentious terms and after awhile we begin to tune out.

Maybe if the dialogue were scintillating enough I might forgive the film a bit more but it’s comparable to a couple of self-absorbed college students who are a lot less insightful than they think they are having a conversation about something esoteric without really understanding the subject completely. I get that Casey is a college-age character who fits that description (as is the Rory Culkin character whom I’ll get to in a moment) but there are also older characters who have more maturity at least but they still sound like 19-year-olds. Not that there’s anything wrong with 19-year-olds nor is it impossible for a college student to show insight but it is also possible for college students to be arrogant and condescending as well, and one feels talked down to throughout.

There is also a lot of material here that is unnecessary, brief throwaway moments that add nothing to the story or to your understanding of the characters – Casey has a conversation with her mother about not having eggs and needing to go to the grocery store to get some, for example. A good storyteller will use that as a springboard to get Casey to the grocery store so that something germane could occur but she never goes to the store nor is the egg shortage anything more than throwaway conversation – and the movie is full of these sorts of moments. I mentioned Rory Culkin’s character a moment ago and you might notice that he doesn’t appear in the plot synopsis. That’s because he doesn’t need to. His character is completely unnecessary and were his scenes to end up on the cutting room floor it wouldn’t affect the movie in any significant way. Much of this movie appears to be about how much our lives are consumed with things that don’t matter in the long run.

That isn’t to say that the movie is completely devoid of merit – although Da Queen might argue that point. Afterwards she told me she would rather have sucked her own eyeballs out with a straw than watch this movie again. I can understand that – the movie commits the cardinal sin of being boring, although those who love shot composition will look at this movie and be fascinated, but a movie is more than a series of shots or at least it should be. A movie needs momentum, a sense of movement from one place or tone to another and this movie has all the inertia of Mount Rushmore. Columbus requires a great deal of patience to appreciate and these days that’s in very short supply. It’s a movie that I would actually encourage viewers to text and talk during which is completely anathema to the movie experience I expect but then again this isn’t a movie that maybe a traditional environment isn’t suitable for.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the shots here are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a movie that is self-absorbed and pretentious. None of the characters are worth caring about. There’s too much extraneous business and too many unnecessary characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual situations and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vice-President Mike Pence grew up in Columbus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Literally, Right Before Aaron

Star Trek Beyond


"Someone's sitting in my chair."

“Someone’s sitting in my chair.”

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Melissa Roxburgh, Anita Brown, Doug Jung, Danny Pudi, Kim Kold, Fraser Aitcheson, Matthew MacCaull, Emy Aneke, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Greg Grunberg, Fiona Vroom. Directed by Justin Lin

 

The Star Trek franchise turns 50 this year as next month marks the anniversary of the first appearance of Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise on the NBC network way back in 1966. The franchise has gone through six different television series including one animated version and a seventh set to debut in January, thirteen movies, dozens of fan-made videos and innumerable novels and fan-fic entries.

The latest film (and the first of the rebooted “alternate universe” Trek without J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair) finds the Enterprise in the middle of its five year mission and a bit of a malaise has set in among the crew, not the least of which is Captain Kirk (Pine) who is contemplating taking a promotion and a desk job. After a botched diplomatic mission left an ancient yet apparently unimportant artifact in the possession of the Federation starship, Kirk and crew pull into the gigantic Starbase Yorktown for some desperately needed R&R.

While the Enterprise is docked at the impressive space station, an unidentified ship comes from a nearby largely unexplored nebula. Its lone occupant, Kalara (Wilson) pleads for assistance, saying that her crew has been marooned on a planet inside the nebula after the ship was damaged. Kirk takes his ship into the Nebula, only to meet a foe that the pride of the Federation fleet has absolutely no defense again.

Separated on a hostile planet with much of the crew captured, the officers of the Enterprise have to figure out a way to warn the Starbase that Krall (Elba) a maniac with a serious mad on for the Federation is coming and has the might to bring the Yorktown to its knees. With the help of Jaylah (Boutella), an alien whose family was murdered by Krall, Chief Engineer Scott (Pegg), a badly wounded Spock (Quinto), his ex-girlfriend Uhura (Saldana), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Urban), plucky navigator Chekhov (Yelchin) and reliable Sulu (Cho) must utilize an ancient, outdated vessel and find a way to take down Krall before he takes down the Federation.

Justin Lin, who has directed several films in the Fast and Furious franchise, brings an action pedigree to the science fiction franchise and as you might expect, the emphasis here is more on the action. Surprisingly, however, there is a great deal of focus put on the various interpersonal relationships of the crew, particularly on the Spock-McCoy bromance which was a centerpiece of the original series but got little play in the reboot until now. Some of the best moments in the film involve the bickering between the two of them.

This is a fine-looking film and great care has been put into the sets and special effects. The Yorktown is particularly amazing, a space station that has a bit of an Escher vibe to it with amazing maglev trains and soaring skyscrapers. It’s what you’d expect from a cityscape four centuries from now. The question becomes why would something like that be built in space when there’s a perfectly good planet below it? It looks nifty as a space dock but would an entire city the size of Chicago be needed to support starships docking for repairs and resupplies?

But of course, the future is whatever you make of it and conventional logic can disappear in a flash of new technology. Speaking of technology, it’s put to good use here as the special effects are state of the art. There’s no doubt that you’ll dig that aspect of the film even if you enjoy nothing else. Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to enjoy too; the cast here is strong and getting Idris Elba as your lead villain is absolutely a coup. Elba is climbing up the ladder to what no doubt will be eventual A-list status and a slew of awards. Even unrecognizable under prosthetics and make-up, he still has the ability to command the screen in almost a Shakespearean turn here.

This isn’t the best movie in the Star Trek canon but it’s right up there. It’s good to see that someone besides J.J. Abrams and Nicholas Meyer can make a great Trek movie. Some blue blood Trekkers may grouse at the surfeit of action sequences (which has been true throughout the reboot) and even that it isn’t true Trek. I disagree. Much of the movie revolves around the concept of working together for a common goal versus waging war for the betterment of the species. It is a question we continue to struggle with even now. While this isn’t as thought-provoking as hardcore Trekkers may like, it is an extremely entertaining summer entertainment. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into box office dollars so it is likely that the franchise – with the next installment already greenlit and featuring the return of Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk – will take a different turn. And perhaps that’s for the best.

REASONS TO GO: The film emphasizes the interpersonal relationships of the crew. Some very cool special effects here. Idris Elba even under layers of make-up is one of the best actors today.
REASONS TO STAY: A couple of holes in logic appear here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and action, some a little bit gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Star Trek film or television show to be shot primarily outside of Hollywood. It was mainly shot in Vancouver and all of the interior sets were built from scratch.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Little Prince

New Releases for the Week of July 22, 2016


Star Trek BeyondSTAR TREK BEYOND

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by Justin Lin

While exploring a previously uncharted section of the quadrant, the U.S.S. Enterprise meets up with a powerful foe. Stranded on a strange planet without ship or crew, Captain James T. Kirk will need to use all his wiles and bravado to rescue his crew and escape the clutches of their captor, who means to put the values of the Federation to the test.

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

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

(Fox Searchlight) Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Jane Horrocks, June Whitfield. One of the more beloved British sitcoms of the 90s makes a leap to the big screen as Edina and Patsy, two ladies who love the posh life, find themselves embroiled in a scandal. Stalked by the paparazzi, they are forced to flee to the French Riviera without a sou to their name. True to their nature, they hatch a scheme that will allow their vacation to be permanent – if they can but pull it off!

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Captain Fantastic

(Bleecker Street) Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, Frank Langella. A counterculture sort of fellow tries to raise his kids off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, and instill in them everything they need to become extraordinary adults. However, when tragedy strikes the family, he must bring them into the world the rest of us live in and finds that not only are they shocked by what they discover, but that everything he has taught them has been called into question.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language and brief graphic nudity)

Equals

(A24) Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver. In the future, humanity will have, like the Vulcans of Star Trek eschewed emotion, preferring to lead logical, orderly lives devoid of conflict – and devoid of love. Two young people discover a means to bypass their conditioning and feel something, soon discovering what they are feeling is love for one another and begin a dangerous secret romance.

See the trailer, clips and view the full movie on Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic content, sensuality, partial nudity and disturbing images)

Fight Valley

(Breaking Glass) Susie Celek, Miesha Tate, Erin O’Brien, Kari J. Kramer. A young woman is found dead after entering the dangerous world of underground fighting. Her sister, vowing to find her killer and bring them to justice, begins training under a respected ex-fighter so she can enter the world that led to her sister’s death.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Ice Age: Collision Course

(20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah. In his quest for the elusive acorn, Skrat accidentally sets off a chain of events that may end the ice age forever and wipe out the creatures living in it. In order to escape the coming devastation, Manny, Diego and their friends must journey to exotic new lands and hope they find safety.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for mild rude humor and some action/peril)

Lights Out

(New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Maria Bello. A young woman escapes the nightmares of her childhood and her fear of what lurks in the dark. When she discovers her little brother is displaying the same symptoms, she returns home to confront her mother and the mysterious entity that has made her life a living hell, except now that entity wants to end all their lives once and for all.

See the trailer, clips, interviews 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 terror throughout, violence including disturbing images, some thematic material and brief drug content)

Grandma


Something new and a couple of classics.

Something new and a couple of classics.

(2015) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peňa, Nat Wolff, Sarah Burns, John Cho, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Don McManus, Missy Doty, Willem Miller, Meg Crosbie, Skya Chanadet, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof, Carlos Miranda, Amir Talai, Marlene Martinez, Kelsey Scott. Directed by Paul Weitz

The thing about families is that there is often baggage. Even the most seemingly loving family has a few skeletons lurking in the most inaccessible of closets. When a family appears to be dysfunctional, it is often with good reason.

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once respected poet who has fallen into irrelevance. She has spent the morning breaking up with her much younger lover Olivia (Greer). On the surface, Elle seems to be hard-hearted, even cruel, dismissing Olivia with a “You’re a footnote,” referring to her own partnership of 38 years which ended a year and a half ago when her partner passed away.

It is an inopportune time for a visitor but one arrives; her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who is desperate and scared. You see, she’s pregnant, wants an abortion and her somewhat irresponsible boyfriend (Wolff), who was supposed to come up with half the money but failed. Now Olivia needs $600 and has just nine hours to get it.

So Elle pulls off the dust cover off of her 1955 Dodge Royale (which is actually Tomlin’s car by the way) and heads out to find the money for her granddaughter. You see, Elle is broke for the moment; she does have money coming in from a speaking engagement but it won’t arrive for a couple of weeks and the $40 that she has is not nearly enough so it’s off to see some of Elle’s friends, most of whom turn out to be as broke as she is or as unreliable.

As the money proves to be more elusive than Elle imagined, she is forced to turn to people in her life that she would rather not have to owe, like Carla (Peňa), the bookstore owner who once expressed interest in some of Elle’s first edition feminist literature, like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. It goes from bad to worse, as she is forced to go hat in hand to her ex-husband (Elliott) whom she unceremoniously dumped when she came out as a lesbian but more terrifying still, the prospect of asking help of the one person she actually is intimidated by – her own daughter Judy (Harden), Sage’s mom who is not only a lawyer but a force of nature.

Elle is an acerbic curmudgeon who isn’t easy to get along with, but as we see the layers peeled away we see that like many of that nature there’s a good deal of vulnerability just below the surface. While I’m not sure if the role of Elle was specifically written for Tomlin it may as well have and she comes through, big time. This is a performance that is going to be remembered and I don’t just mean during awards season; she is almost assuredly going to get an Oscar nomination for this but even more importantly this is going to be one of the performances that defines her career (Nashville is the other and yes, this is at that level).

Although the focus is primarily on Tomlin as Elle, this is by no means a one woman show. Elliott turns in one of the finest performances of his distinguished career as the tough guy veneer he has worn like a comfortable old Stetson falls away and we see his pain in his one extended scene with Tomlin. Harden, one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood and a former Oscar nominee herself, does some fine work as well.

Garner must have looked at this cast with wide eyes, but the young actress holds her own. In fact, she thrives. It really is nice to see three actresses of differing generations given such meaty parts to work with in the same film and to have all three hit it out of the park is icing on the cake. Anyone who likes to see terrific acting performances will no doubt be drawn to this movie. This is definitely a film aimed at women although it isn’t exclusively a woman’s film. It does present the point of view of a lifelong feminist however, and that’s a POV that is sadly lacking in Hollywood these days, comparatively speaking. It’s also good to see that in a modern movie as well.

Then there’s the abortion. It is treated very matter-of-factly without much fanfare. It is simply a part of what is happening. Certainly those who are strongly pro-life will likely take issue; as the movie gathers steam in the Oscar sweepstakes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some cries of outrage on the right about “Liberal Hollywood” (cue eye rolling here). I found the movie to be somewhat low-key in its treatment of the subject; the fact is that abortions are legal and young Sage is doing nothing illegal here. This isn’t a movie about abortion, but the subject plays an important role here, and not just Sage’s procedure. I’ll be counting the days until this becomes a cause célèbre but until the protesters show up at the theaters I would strongly urge you check this out, particularly for Tomlin’s performance which is one of the best you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lily Effin’ Tomlin. Great cast. Short but bittersweet. Realistic relationships and characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally quirky for quirk’s sake. Pro-life sorts may find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of cussing and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the late Elizabeth Peňa’s final film appearance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Thing About My Folks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Transporter Refueled

To Be Takei


It's always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

It’s always a great day to be OK to be Takei!

(2014) Documentary (Starz Digital Media) George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Norman Mineta, Lea Salonga, Dan Savage, Howard Stern, Jay Kuo, Tom Ammiano, Eddie Paskey, Lorenzo Thorne, Telly Leung, Jimi Yamaichi. Directed by Jennifer R. Kroot

From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that it must be great to be George Takei. Beloved Star Trek actor, Facebook sensation, activist and advocate for Japanese-Americans and the gay community, he has been described as America’s gay uncle and that might not be far from the truth.

But when you consider the things he’s been through – being imprisoned in two different internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the no less damaging prison that came from being a closeted actor throughout most of his career (he didn’t come out until 2005 and then in response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of the gay marriage bill.

He has overcome some difficult, dark days but he has emerged on the other end with a disingenuous smile and a live and let live attitude that might lead some to underestimate how forceful and passionate he is for the causes he believes in. Even his feud with William Shatner doesn’t seem to be something he takes all that seriously; I get the sense he doesn’t feel any ill will towards the actor. Shatner, interviewed for the film, comes off as somewhat befuddled about the fuss and a bit standoffish – “I really don’t know the man,” he protests on several occasions.

Still, I don’t know if I could be as cheerful as Takei given his circumstances. What keeps him sane, I think, is his relationship with his husband Brad. Brad is kind of the sensible, detail-oriented one in the relationship. He takes George’s crazy schedule and makes it work. Sometimes he can be a bit of a nag, other times he can be a bit startled at George’s occasional penchant for oversharing, sometimes he can be a bit of a nit-picker. Still, the love that is there is obvious and deep.

In fact, watching the interaction between George and Brad made me think “That’s me and my wife!” There is really no difference in their relationship than my relationship with my wife other than that my relationship is with a woman and George Takei’s is with a man. They both drive each other crazy upon occasion but they both lean on and rely on each other – and there’s no doubt either man would take a bullet for the other, literally and figuratively. That’s how most good marriages work. People who are fuzzy about whether gay people should be married should watch these two gay people together. They are indeed, the prototypical gay married couple.

I did find that aspect of the documentary inspiring; I also found that the scenes of George’s activism with both Japanese-American causes as well as gay causes to be among the most interesting in the film which is something since I’m a proud Trekker and love the little insights that come in from the surviving members of the crew of the Enterprise. As a Trekker I might have wanted more on his era in Star Trek but the film critic in me acknowledges that would only appeal to a certain segment, myself included.

However, the film critic in me frowns on the way that Kroot bounces around in subject matter, from the internment to George’s early Hollywood years to his discovering he was gay in high school to his Facebook stardom to his relationship with his parents. I would have preferred something a little more linear in terms of telling Takei’s story, although something tells me that George himself isn’t the most linear of men.

A project close to Takei’s heart these days is Allegiance, a musical about the Japanese-American experience in the internment camps that Takei starred in (along with Salonga). The show is largely informed by Takei’s own experiences and shows a depth in his acting that he rarely gets a chance to display. The musical set records at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and is expected to debut on Broadway during the upcoming season.

Takei himself makes a fascinating subject for a documentary and it’s high time that there was one made about him. There are some great archival photographs and such but I think the focus here is rightly on the relationship between George and Brad – which is clearly the central focus in George’s life – and on his activism. It is impressive that in his 70s George Takei has become much more of a cultural phenomenon than he was as a younger man, and continues to work an impressive schedule not only as an actor but with personal appearances as well as speaking engagements for his various causes. Takei is a national treasure and we should appreciate him as such.

REASONS TO GO: Takei is as interesting a person as you think he is and probably more so. Does a lot to further the cause of gay marriage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps around from subject to subject in kind of a willy-nilly fashion. May not have enough Star Trek material for some Trekkers.
FAMILY VALUES:  Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Takei was born with the first name of Hosato, but was called George by his father, an Anglophile (as his son later became) after the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skeleton Twins

American Reunion


Stifler's mom and Jim's dd - now why didn't I think of that?

Stifler’s mom and Jim’s dd – now why didn’t I think of that?

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Seann William Scott, Eugene Levy, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jennifer Coolidge, Natasha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth, John Cho, Dania Ramirez, Katrina Bowden, Jay Harrington, Ali Cobrin, Chris Owen, Neil Patrick Harris, Charlene Amoia. Directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg

When we’re in high school, we are different people than we are as adults. We lack the life experiences that we gain as adults so we look back at ourselves back then and cringe, generally speaking, at how awkward and naive we were. Still, most of us tend to look back at our time back then with some nostalgia – in our ignorance we are kings of the world with everything we could possibly desire still stretched out before us. Perhaps this is why reunions are such big business.

The gang at East Great Falls High are getting together for their 13th reunion – apparently they’re a bit fuzzy on the concept – and some of the boys are getting a head start on the festivities. Jim (Biggs) and Michelle (Hannigan) are married with a two-year-old son who takes up all of their time, leaving none for romance and (especially) sex. Jim’s dad (Levy) is a widower and hasn’t quite gotten over the passing of his wife.

Oz (Klein) is a sportscaster on a 24-hour sports network who famously had a meltdown on a Dancing With the Stars-like show. His relationship with his girlfriend is strained and he is suddenly brought face to face with just how hot Vicky (Reid) still is and that the torch he has held for her still burns brightly.

Kevin (Nichols) is a somewhat emasculated house-husband whose wife Ellie (Amoia) has essentially turned him into a shell of his former self – which isn’t exactly what she had in mind. Finch (Thomas) has managed to get out of East Great Falls and gone on a series of adventures in South America which makes his mates just a little bit jealous of the freedom that he still has in his life.

The one person not invited to their mini-reunion is Stifler (Scott) who has a crap job at a securities firm for a douchebag he can’t stand, but in all other ways he is still the same Stifler they all know and love – which is precisely why he wasn’t invited. His penchant for getting them into trouble is exactly what they don’t need as adults with their responsibilities spelled out.

In a bit of an uncomfortable twist, Jim’s next door neighbor Kara (Cobrin) whom he used to babysit for has just turned 18 and filled out rather nicely. She’s always had a thing for her babysitter (who hasn’t) and has decided that his return to town affords her the excellent opportunity to fulfill her own bucket list dream – to have Jim be the one to take her virginity.

None of them are the same people they were in high school and yet all of them have those people buried deep inside them. As the weekend goes on, they are forced to deal with the changes that growing up has wrought in their lives and struggle to find the bonds that tied them together in the first place. Still, those bond are strong and perhaps nothing can’t be solved when you have a dish of American Pie for desert.

Hurwitz and Schlossberg, who co-wrote and helmed the Harold and Kumar trilogy (and perform the same duties here) manage to capture much of the essential elements that made the first American Pie films work – the genuine bonds between the characters that have been made even more unbreakable by the passage of time.

While the first films were raunchy comedies about teens feeling their way through the minefield of sexuality with often varying results, this is a different kind of rite of passage. Having had the privilege of attending my own high school reunion earlier this summer, I’m perhaps in a more sanguine frame of mind when it comes to reviewing a movie about the subject – I get the nostalgia and the warm glow that comes from it. We tend to look back with rose colored glasses to a certain extent, glossing over the monotony of homework, the agony of broken hearts (and nothing is quite so unbearable as unrequited teenage love or worse, a broken teen romance) and the chafing against parental authority. Instead, we tend to focus on the friendships, the good times, the epic failures that were nevertheless noble for their audacity, and what it all meant.

Seeing this is a bit like a reunion for those who had a fondness for the first movie or its two sequels (there were four direct-to-video sequels but they featured essentially completely different casts). Most of the actors in it have gone on to careers with varying degrees of success but we can recall the characters pretty clearly particularly as introduced here. The actors seem to have developed bonds of their own for each other – the chemistry between them is the kind that comes from genuine affection rather than from the script. You can’t fake that kind of thing and it shows here that they don’t.

This is clearly an ensemble film and all of the characters are given their moments to shine; if you had favorites from the original films you won’t be disappointed with the amount of screen time they get. There are a number of references to the earlier films, enough that those who are unfamiliar with them might get a little lost.

Also, like the first films, there is some heavy raunchiness going on here and if that isn’t your thing chances are you aren’t going to be reading this review anyway since chances also are that you have no intention of seeing this or any of the other films in the series. Ever.

If you liked the other movies in the series, you’ll more than likely like this one too. If you didn’t, you won’t like this one either. The same elements are all here that made up those films – the sometimes uncomfortable wisdom passed on to Jim by his dad, the outrageous attitude of the Stifmeister, the sometimes awkward antics of Finch and Kevin and of course the gorgeous girls who have grown up to become gorgeous women.

I liked this a lot more than I expected to but looking back, I’m not sure why my expectations were so low to begin with. This isn’t rocket science, after all – this is life and the common experiences most of us share. Sure, we don’t necessarily have our sexual failures broadcast on YouTube or sleep with the moms of one of our best friends – at least I didn’t – but all of us have had some awkward moments dealing with sex and attraction as teenagers, and experienced the disappointment of our lives not turning out how we expected them to. Hopefully, you’ll be granted the wisdom to accept that however our lives turned out that they are what we make of them and that good friends and loving family will make them bearable no matter what.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly warm and fuzzy. Nice to see “the gang” after so long.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies on crude humor like all the films in the series. Cliché-heavy. Too many references to previous films in the series for newcomers to jump comfortably in.

FAMILY VALUES:  Well, it’s crude. And obnoxious. There’s nudity, foul language and all sorts of sexual humor of varying degrees of grossness. There’s also some teen drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy is the only actor to appear in all eight American Pie films including the direct-to-video ones.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a look at how the producers were able to re-assemble nearly all of the original cast, a mini-featurette focusing on the cast’s predilection for punching each other in the balls (I couldn’t make that up if I wanted to) and finally, an interactive yearbook in which you can click on various characters, find out information about them and see interviews with the actor who played them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $235.0M on a $50M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grosse Point Blank

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The 13th Warrior