Almost Christmas


Danny Glover is never too old for this sh...stuff.

Danny Glover is never too old for this sh…stuff.

(2016) Holiday Comedy (Universal) Kimberly Elise, Danny Glover, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Jessie T. Usher, John Michael Higgins, Gabrielle Union, Nadej Bailey, Alkoya Brunson, Marley Taylor, D.C. Young Fly, Keri Hilson, Gladys Knight, Chloe Spencer, Gregory Alan Williams, Tara Batesole, Jeff Rose, Tara Jones, Rachel Kylian. Directed by David E. Talbert

 

Christmas is a time for family. When a family member is taken from us, it can leave an awfully big hole. Sometimes trying to fill that hole can only make it deeper.

Walter Meyers (Glover) is the patriarch of the family and he is gathering his family together for Christmas, but it will be the first one without his wife Grace (Kylian), who passed away recently. She was the one who did most of the cooking and her box of recipes was filled with absolutely magical dishes, in particular the sweet potato pie that Walter adores. Sadly, nobody can find the box and so Walter is left to try to recreate the pie recipe with unfortunate results.

Still, the family does gather – divorced Rachel (Union) who is trying to put herself through law school but the financial means just aren’t there. She and her more successful sister Cheryl (Elise) can barely speak a civil word to one another, but Cheryl’s husband (Smoove) isn’t exactly a catch. Christian (Malco) is mounting a political campaign which keeps his cell phone twittering but also may require him to make compromises that will put him at odds with his father. Finally, there’s the youngest – Evan (Usher) – who’s a college football star. He’s just recovered from an injury in time to play in a holiday bowl game, but continues to take the pain meds he’s addicted to, partially to numb the pain of his mother’s loss.

Also present is Aunt May (Mo’Nique) who has made a career as a backup singer to some of the biggest stars in music but which has kept her on the road for too many Christmases. Now she’s trying to help Walter adjust by providing some exotic meals which the family isn’t quite prepared for, and by keeping the alcohol flowing.

Add to the mix Rachel’s old flame and next door neighbor Malachi (Epps) and a houseful of kids and you have a recipe for chaos. However, the rivalry between Rachel and Cheryl threatens to upend what good feelings there are there and tear the family apart. It would take a Christmas miracle to repair the damage.

In the 70s, we were treated to sitcoms about African-American families like Good Times and The Jeffersons and in a lot of ways this movie owes its pedigree to those pioneering shows; the former in vibe, the latter in layout. The family economic circumstance is (with the exception of Rachel) in the comfortable middle class.  The family is used to a heart-warming Christmas of lots of food, nice presents and a comfortably big home. It’s the kind of Christmas we all dream about.

Most of us want a heavy dose of heartwarming with our Christmas movies and Almost Christmas delivers on that front, thanks largely to Glover whose personality fits this role like a (‘scuse the pun) glove. It is also nice to see Mo’Nique onscreen. The Oscar winning actress is onscreen far less than I would like; she’s an amazingly gifted actress who elevates roles that could be campy and gives them heart, as she does here. While to my mind it is Danny Glover who makes the most of his role, the entire cast is top notch and takes each of their roles and run with them, even though there is an element of cliché to the film. Yes there are family squabbles and crises, but you just know it will end with the family pulling together. Nobody wants to see a Christmas film in which the family implodes.

I would have liked to have seen a little more background context, particularly to the Rachel/Cheryl feud which is never explained, for the most part we get fully fleshed-out characters which is something of a Christmas miracle given the size of the cast. Quite frankly, I expected this to be a rote Christmas movie with really no meat on the bones but I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong on that score. No, this isn’t reinventing the genre to be sure but it does confirm the best aspects of it. For a lot of people this is going to be a perennial Christmas movie. Count me among those people.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of Glover’s best performances in years. This will definitely give you a case of the warm fuzzies.
REASONS TO STAY: Very much a been-there done-that kind of movie. Some of the family dynamics shown here don’t really have any rhyme or reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third time Usher has played a football player onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gathering
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Office Christmas Party

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?


In their own way, they're both sticking to their guns.

In their own way, they’re both sticking to their guns.

(2016) Comedy (Area23s) Andrea Anders, Matt Passmore, Cloris Leachman, Katherine McNamara, John Michael Higgins, Garren Stitt, Horatio Sanz, Lauren Bowles, John Heard, Christine Estabrook, Kevin Conway, David Denman, Fernanda Romero, Max Lloyd-Jones, Marshall Bell, Terrence Beasor, Ray Auxias, Julie Brister, Gina Gallego, Eileen Grubba, Victoria Moroles. Directed by Matt Cooper

 

In Texas, there is power and then there is power. For the men, the power resides behind the barrel of a gun. For the women, the power can be found between their legs. At least, that is what this comedy would have you believe.

In the oh-so-very Texas town of Rockford, the town motto is “Live free, shoot straight.” The men work at the fruit packing plant all week long, the one owned by the reclusive billionaire Cyrus Rockford who hasn’t been seen in decades (the prevailing rumor is that he’s been dead for years) and on weekends, go out hunting. The womenfolk take care of the kids, the house and occasionally get together in their book clubs. Things are going the way they’ve always gone there for generations.

Glenn Keely (Passmore) is one of the plant’s managers and, rumor has it, a prime candidate for a vice-president’s position. His life is pretty dang sweet; his wife Jenna (Anders) is smart, gorgeous and sexy; his daughter Sandy (McNamara) is the same. His son Lance (Stitt) is growing up to be a fine young man, even if he’s a bit impatient to get satellite TV.

Glenn is a bit of a gun nut; he collects the handguns, some of which are pretty sweet. When Lance decides to show off his dad’s latest purchase to his friends at school, it leads to an accidental discharge of the weapon that results in nothing more wounded than the crossing guard’s pride (and tush) but the thought of what could have happened is enough to give Jenna night terrors. What makes it worse is that none of the men seem to think much of the incident; the school gave his son a slap on the wrist, the sheriff (Heard) looks the other way and Glenn seems more concerned that Lance took the gun without permission than the fact that it went off in a crowded courtyard.

After airing her frustrations to her book club pals, she hits upon a plan; the men in town must give up their guns. Until they do, the women of town will withhold sex from the men. At first the ladies are reticent; will this even work? Getting the other women in town to come on board will be an uphill battle. Nevertheless they do it, the prime ringleaders being the foul-mouthed grandma (Leachman), the sexy Latina next door trying to have a baby (Romero) and the sheriff’s matronly wife (Estabrook).

To Glenn’s chagrin, Jenna’s leadership and determination galvanizes the ladies into an organized group to be reckoned with. At first the men dismiss the women’s stand, figuring it would blow over as soon as they began to miss their husbands embrace but as time goes by, it soon becomes apparent that the ladies aren’t going to give up the fight anytime soon. The spineless mayor (Higgins, channeling Fred Willard) is unable to rally the troops to get control of their women so it falls to an NRA-like organization called the National Gun Organization led by a dour Charlton Heston-worshipper (Bell) to send in the cavalry to rescue the men and their God-given rights to have as many guns as they want. The ladies are in all sorts of trouble until help comes from an unlikely source.

This is the second movie in a year to be based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes about a group of women who refused to make love until their men ceased making war. Quite frankly, associating that ancient play with the modern issue of gun rights vs. gun control is a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really hold up to the concept; there is a TV movie of the week quality to the film that is quite disappointing.

Anders is a very attractive lead and with the right material could become a solid big screen leading lady. This isn’t the right material; it is riddled with cliches and stereotypes and nearly entirely white faces in the cast. Yes, even Texas has some diversity and more than a token Hispanic couple lapsing into Spanish whenever they get angry. Sorry Hollywood; those of us who are second generation or later view English as a first language and we don’t express our frustrations in Spanish. Just sayin’.

I also find it disconcerting that the filmmakers will throw some sobering facts out there in one breath (such as the number of mass school shootings after Newtown or that the Second Amendment only referred to arming state militias until the Supreme Court decreed that it referred to individual gun ownership in 2008) and then deliver a boner joke with the next. It does a disservice to the material and honestly if I were the parent of a child slain in a school shooting I would find it highly offensive.

This is an equal opportunity offender. Lefties will object to the cultural stereotypes, while conservatives will grouse about the Hollywood liberal gun control bent that the movie obviously has. Others will find the humor crude and vulgar. What it boils down to however is that anyone who loves a good movie will be greatly offended that this movie is far from even being mediocre; this is pure and simple a poorly made, poorly executed film that could have been so much better with sharper satire and fewer trouser tent gags.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, mostly involving erections.
REASONS TO STAY: A film riddled with cliches and stereotypes. The tone is flat and dull. The filmmakers dumb down an important and controversial subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and sensuality, some brief violence, crude humor and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is at least the fifth movie version of Lysistrata to be filmed, none using the original name or material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 6/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Mechanic: Resurrection

Big Miracle


Big Miracle

Drew Barrymore is not so sure about her big kissing scene with her latest co-star.

(2012) Family (Universal) Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins, Gregory Jbara, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Sarah Palin. Directed by Ken Kwapis

 

Americans sometimes overly admire self-reliance. There’s nothing we love more than a lone wolf taking care of business on his/her own. Situations arise in life however where help is needed. Generally we as a nation despise asking for assistance although there are instances where reaching out is the only way.

Adam Carlson (Krasinski) is a reporter for an Anchorage television station whose current assignment in the winter of 1988 is to go to small towns on the fringes of the 49th State and file reports about life on the last frontier. He has amassed quite a following in the small town of Port Barrow, Alaska where he is finishing up his most recent assignment, particularly from Nathan (Sweeney), a young Inuit lad who is a bit star-struck and looks to be fleeing tiny Barrow for bigger and better things.

Filing one last story, Adam notices something rather peculiar – water spouts coming from a small hole in the ice five miles from the nearest ocean. Upon further investigation, it is discovered that three California Gray Whales are trapped there, cut off from the ocean where their fellows have begun their Southerly migration. In a short time, the hole will freeze over and the whales will drown, having no means of getting air.

The filing of this story causes quite a ripple effect. Greenpeace activist (and Adam’s ex-girlfriend) Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) charges in, guns blazing, in an effort to rescue the whales and alienate the humans who might not necessarily agree with her points of view. One of those is oilman J.W. McGraw (Danson) who has a towable ice hover barge that is only a few miles away; it can break up the ice and carve a path to the ocean for the whales but Rachel and J.W. have had run-ins before over oil drilling rights in Wilderness Preserves.

The national guard has to be mobilized in order to get the helicopters to tow the barge to Barrow, which requires the co-operation of the Governor (Root) who isn’t giving it, until Kelly Meyers (Shaw), one of Reagan’s press coordinators in the White House recognizes an opportunity to improve her boss’s environmental record and give a boost to the Bush campaign (the first George, not the second) and puts pressure on the Governor to co-operate.

Colonel Scott Boyer (Mulroney) is assigned to lead the helicopter team to move the huge barges but it is a dicey proposition at best. Meanwhile, the media is descending on tiny little Barrow to cover what has become an international sensation, including L.A. reporter Jill Jerard (Bell) who like Adam yearns for the big time.

In the meantime, the situation for the whales – dubbed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam – is getting more desperate by the hour and it doesn’t appear as if help is going to arrive in time. There is something closer that may well be the only chance for the whales. The trouble is, that it’s a Soviet icebreaker and to allow them to save the day might not be possible in that political climate.

These are based on actual events (Kwapis skillfully intercuts actual footage from the incident) although the plot has been condensed and made Hollywood-friendly. On paper it seems like it could be one of those treacly family movies that just reeks of cliché – dumbed down to kid levels. There is a kid here but unlike most family movies he doesn’t save the day – instead Nathan is taught the beauty of his heritage and learns to value his ethnic background. Otherwise, this is a movie that the whole family can appreciate.

The cast is well-assembled. Krasinski in particular is one of the most likable leads working in Hollywood today and the more movie work he gets, the more likely it is that the small screen is not going to be able to afford him shortly. Personally I think he’s one or two roles from being a huge star.

Barrymore is likewise a reliable lead, albeit further up the wattage ladder than Krasinski. She usually plays ditzy – and there’s a hint of that in Rachel – but she takes the committed environmentalist with tunnel vision cliché (she won’t wear make-up because so much of it is animal tested for example) and rather than make the character a caricature gives her flesh and blood instead. It’s a nice portrayal and illustrates why she’s one of Hollywood’s finest.

Danson, Nelson (as a state wildlife expert) and Baker are all fine actors who never disappoint; Danson is as close to a villain as the movie gets but he’s just so dang likable you wind up kind of wanting him to do the right thing – and not to be much of a spoiler but he does.

In fact, nearly everybody does the right thing here. It’s one of those movies where there are no real villains other than the elements and the conviction and commitment of the people of Barrow and those whom the story touches becomes the real focal point. That’s where the warmth is in the story, despite the chilly setting (which was filmed in British Columbia rather than Alaska).

The whales are portrayed both animatronically (well done) and by CGI (not so well done) and remain more or less on the periphery. Yes, everyone loves them and wants to save them but the people are the focus of the story. It becomes a family film that actually doesn’t pander to the kids at the expense of the adults, but rather treats kids intelligently and expects them to understand what’s happening without drawing in crayon.

I found myself liking this more than I expected to. Originally sentenced to the doldrums of the first release week in January, Universal moved it up into February, perhaps because the movie turned out better than they expected it to. This is good solid family entertainment that doesn’t disappoint the kids or the adults and hopefully, not the studio accountants either. Movies like this are to be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: An engaging story. Krasinski is rapidly becoming one of the most compelling leads in Hollywood. Doesn’t talk down to its family audience, at least not much.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI whales aren’t always authentic looking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stephen Root’s Governor Haskell is a fictional character; the governor of Alaska t the time this actually took place was Steve Cowper who was fairly supportive of the rescue efforts.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dolphin Tale

INUIT LOVERS: Offers a rare and intimate look at Inuit culture in modern society, specifically in regard to their view about whales and how they use them for food and as a spiritual touchstone as well.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Journey 2: Mysterious Island

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo

Matt Damon doesn't realize that tigers hate staring contests and so this will end very badly.

(2011) Family True Story (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, J.B. Smoove, Stephanie Szostak, Peter Riegert, Desi Lydic. Directed by Cameron Crowe

 

The thing about grief is that there isn’t a manual that tells you how to deal with it. That’s because everyone deals with it differently. Some push it aside and try to live life as normally as possible; others wear sackcloth and ashes and make it plain to the entire world that they are GRIEVING dammit. There is no right way and no wrong way to deal with grief; there’s just your way.

Benjamin Mee (Damon) is dealing with it, right now. He and his two kids teenaged Dylan (Ford) and youngster Rosie (Jones) are facing the loss of Mee’s wife Katherine (Szostak) to cancer. Mee, a photojournalist for an actual newspaper – a dying breed in and of itself – he decides that he’s had enough of being pitied and quits his job (a rather interesting way to deal with that problem) and since the acting-out Dylan has gotten himself expelled, figures it’s a perfect time to pull up stakes and find a new place to live somewhere that he isn’t constantly reminded of Katherine.

An enthusiastic realtor brings Benjamin to a dilapidated zoo. The state of California picked up ownership when the previous owners ran out of money. A skeleton crew cares for the animals there and there is a charming house on the property. Benjamin’s accountant brother Duncan (Church) advises him not to do it but Benjamin sees this as the kind of adventure that will heal his broken-hearted family.

Not everyone sees it that way. Dylan is angry he has been uprooted and separated from all his friends; his father is much harder on him than he is on the ultra-precious Rosie and Dylan resents that as well. In fact, Dylan resents just about everything and spends much of his time drawing dark and disturbing pictures that would be raising alarm bells in any reasonable child psychologist.

If Dylan has doubts about this venture, so does the zoo crew. Zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) is a no-nonsense sort who realizes that running a zoo isn’t just putting a bunch of animals in cages – excuse me, enclosures as she points out midway through the film. It takes dedication and above all, money. Bookkeeper Rhonda (Gallo) is skeptical that Benjamin will see the project through. Hard-drinking Peter MacCready (Macfadyen) is angry that his innovative enclosure designs were stolen by the very man who is in a position to grant the zoo it’s license, Walter Farris (Higgins) who will be making an inspection a week before opening day to see if the zoo meets California standards. About the only person who is happy that the Mees are there is Kelly’s cousin Lily (Fanning) who has a big-time crush on Dylan (God knows why).

This is based on a true story, although it has been transplanted to the San Diego area from England where it actually occurred (if you want to see the zoo where it actually happened, click here or better still donate to them so they can keep their gates open – I wasn’t kidding when I said it takes money to run a zoo). While a bit of Hollywood gloss has been added to make the story a bit more family-friendly, the basic facts are there but there are a few differences – it took the Mee family two years to actually buy the zoo, for example. Their initial offer was rejected due to their lack of zoological experience. Also, the real Mee children are much closer in age than they are in the film – the daughter was four when these events took place, her brother six. Also, the real Katherine Mee passed away while they were living at the zoo and after it had actually been purchased – in the film, her death is part of the reason they buy it to begin with.

Damon, who has met with success as the grifter in the Oceans films and as an action hero in the Bourne movies once again shows his versatility here. It’s been said – by me among others – that Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation and I don’t think this movie will dissuade anyone of that notion. He plays a family man here but moreover a grieving husband – one of the movie’s most heartrending scenes is when Benjamin Mee looks at a photo slideshow on his laptop and sees a picture of his wife and kids dancing in the sun on an idyllic picnic and then suddenly the three of them are whirling around him in his kitchen. It is a bittersweet magic.

You would expect that the movie would create a romance between Benjamin and Kelly and while there’s attraction there, it’s also realistically tempered with the fact that Benjamin is not yet over his grief. There is near the end some indication that things might go there in the future but I think that Crowe makes a wise choice not to emphasize it.

Instead, the big romance is between Dylan and Lily. I get that Dylan is dealing with his own grief, but he comes off as really unlikable in a lot of ways and I don’t see how Lily would be attracted to him other than that he’s the only adolescent boy for miles. Fanning is also much taller than Ford which further makes the relationship awkward, despite the filmmakers obvious attempts to mitigate that by putting Ford on uneven planes with Fanning, or having them sitting down.

Still, Fanning’s cheer and ethereal beauty as well as her natural screen charisma make it clear that she’s destined for success. Like her sister Dakota, Elle is a fine actress (as we saw in Super 8) and she has some very nice moments here. Church is a  wonderful actor as we’ve seen in films like Sideways and he makes the most of a role that’s right in his wheelhouse.

It’s very clear that this movie is not so much about running a zoo as it is about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. That each of the main characters in the film deals with that grief in their own way is to be expected. While I felt that the movie sometimes got so saccharine sweet that it could induce a diabetic coma, there was at least an attempt to deal with the subject in a gentle yet realistic way. I won’t say that the movie didn’t pull any punches because it plainly does, but I do give it credit for tackling a subject that Hollywood tends to back away from.

A note about the soundtrack; it is written by Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros (one of my favorite bands) and as is typical with that band’s music is very atmospheric and makes a lovely background for the movie. The cinematography is uniformly excellent as well, so this is a good-looking as well as good-sounding film.

As family entertainment goes, the holiday season has been responsible for some truly special family films this year and this movie is certainly one of the movies that stands out in that regard. While the execrable Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked might be garnering better box office numbers, this is actually a family movie that will appeal to both adults and kids and won’t have to be “endured” by either of them. Common ground is a pretty big deal when it comes to family films as it is in families.

REASONS TO GO: Heartfelt and heartwarming. Damon does a surprisingly fine job as a family man here. Fanning and Church do well in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids can be overly annoying and/or precocious at times. Too much eccentricity among zoo personnel.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements a little too rough for the sensitive (children dealing with the loss of a parent) and a few mildly bad words here and there but kids will love the animals.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Benjamin Mee and his children appear in the scene where Matt Damon climbs over the fallen tree on opening day; they are the first family in line.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are solid but not spectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hotel New Hampshire

ANIMAL LOVERS: Definitely something you’re going to enjoy, with capuchin monkeys, tigers, lions, ostriches, hedgehogs, peacocks, snakes and grizzly bears among others on display.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: War Horse

Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Bad Teacher


Bad Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Larry Crowne

Fired Up!


Fired Up!

This is where a funny caption would go if I could think of any.

(2009) Teen Sex Comedy (Screen Gems) Nicholas D’Agosto, Eric Christian Olsen, Sarah Roemer, Molly Sims, Danneel Harris, Philip Baker Hall, Adhir Kalyan, Annalynne McCord, John Michael Higgins, David Walton, Edie McClurg. Directed by Will Gluck

Ahh, to be young and horny; the arrogance that comes with it and the sad realization that we were all young and horny once. Hopefully, we weren’t all this stupid.

Shawn Colfax (D’Agosto) and Nick Brady (Olsen) are star football players on the Gerald R. Ford High School Tigers and they are entering their senior year. Good looking, popular and with Texas-sized libidos, they’ve been sowing a trail of broken hearts and soiled panties all through their school. Now they are faced with going to football camp with a bunch of sweaty guys and a mealy-mouthed coach (Hall) in the middle of the Texas desert in August. No, I wouldn’t want to do it either.

Instead they concoct a brilliant scheme; they decide to help out the cheerleaders at their camp in idyllic Illinois. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I’d much rather spend the month of August with 300 nubile teenage girls who are limber, horny and have few options to choose from romantically as nearly all the other guys are either gay or old (like 25 years old…grody!). They convince the powers-that-be that going to cheer camp was really what the two guys wanted. Astonishingly, the powers that be agree with them and send them on their way.

Of course, the head cheerleader Carly (Roemer) sees right through them and of course Nick falls hard for her. Shawn, on the other hand, gets the hots for Diora (Sims) who happens to be married to the head cheerleading coach Keith (Higgins). There’s also a group of rival cheerleaders, the Panthers, who like finish first all the time and it’s so unfair. Like, OMG. Their head cheerleader, Gwynneth (McCord) is such a bitch; she, like, always dresses in black and that’s sooooooooo Goth.

But of course, everything turns out okay, despite the machinations of Carly’s boyfriend Dr. Rick (Walton) who’s actually a first year medical student but he wants to get used to the sound of it. And why wouldn’t things turn out okay? It’s cheerleading, man!

Now, the natural inclination is to compare this to Bring It On! and not just because both films have exclamation points in their titles. No, they’re both cheerleading movies and have two groups of rival teams vying for the top spot in a competition, with one team being a perennial champ and the other a perennial doormat. There are a lot of differences however; for one thing, this is much raunchier.

The writing team (operating under the nom de plume of Freedom Jones) tries to liven things up with snappy dialogue that sounds like an unholy crossbreeding of Diablo Cody and Garson Kanin. There are plenty of pop culture references and at times there are some very funny one-liners. Part of my issue is that the dialogue as spoken by these (ahem) teenagers mostly sounds arrogant. I guess it might be hip, but when you dis the message of John Lennon because most of the people who listened to him as contemporaries are in their 50s now then you just sound ignorant.

One other bone I have to pick is that most of the girls in this movie are depicted as bubble-headed idiots waiting for some acne-faced slimeball to charm their way into their pants. I’m not saying teenage girls are the most level-headed strata of our society, but they aren’t all dimwits either.

You don’t see a teen sex comedy for the acting and that holds true here. The performances are okay I guess, just not memorable. When the movie works as it occasionally does, it works really well. However it falls flat in too many places for me to give it anything more than a mediocre rating. It’s not the kind of entertainment you’ll probably care much for fifteen minutes after you’ve seen it. And that, my friends, isn’t necessarily a criticism – sometimes we all need a little disposable comedy to occupy our time.

WHY RENT THIS: The dialogue is clever in places. As teen sex comedies go, this one isn’t too bad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much smug, “look at me I’m young and hipper than you ever were” bullcrap. Too many of the girls are too empty-headed.

FAMILY VALUES: Seeing that this is a teen sex comedy, there’s an awful lot of, well, sex. And talking about sex, sometimes in the crudest terms possible. And nudity, not a lot of it but a little. And other bad words which I won’t repeat here. Anyway, you’ve been warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Eric Christian Olsen was playing a high school senior, he was actually 31 years old at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a kinda sorta funny interview from the press junket which goes viciously, horribly wrong but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.6M on a $20M budget; the movie flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: War