How It Ends


Theo James gets a glimpse of how it ends.

(2018) Action (Netflix) Theo James, Forest Whitaker, Grace Dove, Kat Graham, Nicole Ari Parker, Mark O’Brien, Kerry Bishé, Aaron Hughes, Lanie McAuley, Josh Cruddas, Aidan Ritchie, Eric Keenleyside, RJ Fetherstonhaugh, Nancy Sorel, Storm Greyeyes, Haig Sutherland, Cory Chetrybok, David Lewis, Charis Ann Wiens, Juliette Hitchcock, Anett Rumanoczky. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

How will the world end? Will it go out with a bang or a thud? What will become of those who survive? These are questions that people have wondered about since…well, since there have been people. The movies wonder about it too, offering generally special effects-heavy looks at nuclear holocaust, approaching meteors, deadly plagues and so on and so forth. Sometimes the end of the world is the sound of the power being switched off.

Will (James) is a lawyer in Seattle whose girlfriend Samantha (Graham) is pregnant. They want to get married; she wants him to, in the best traditional sense, ask her father for her hand in marriage. That’s not something Will is especially looking forward to as Sam’s dad Tom (Whitaker) is a very conservative ex-Marine who doesn’t look with much favor upon Will who moved his baby girl all the way to Seattle and worse yet crashed his boat.

The meeting between potential father-in-law and son-in-law goes awkwardly and then falls apart. Will is about to head back home to Seattle and calls Sam to let her know he’s on his way when the phone call is abruptly cut off with Sam uttering a disturbing “Something’s wrong! I’m scared…” before the connection goes dead. Then the power goes off in Chicago and pretty much everywhere.

Tom, being a man of action, determines to drive to Seattle since air traffic is grounded. He gets Will to go with him, reluctantly at first. What they encounter in America’s heartland is nothing short of disturbing, with civilization falling apart, roaming bandits murdering and stealing with impunity and signs that the military has attempted to regain control unsuccessfully. The two manage to get Native American auto mechanic Ricki (Dove) to accompany them West in hopes that she can make it to California. Seattle’s in that general direction after all.

While this movie is beautifully shot (thank you cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg!) it feels like you’ve seen this movie before in a dozen disaster end of civilization films that have come before it. I don’t mind a movie borrowing ideas from other movies – after all, as Shakespeare once said, there is nothing new under the sun – but a movie needs to add something, something that at least reflects a point of view. At first, I thought that would be the relationship between Will and Tom which seems to be at the center of the film. And yes, Whitaker and James both put forth some fine performances which you would expect from Whitaker but James delivers what I think is his best performance so far. The problem is that the chemistry between the two is often cold; there should be more heat between them. After all, Tom neither likes nor trusts Will but grudgingly realizes he needs him if he is to save his baby girl – assuming she’s still around to be saved

There’s just too much typical post-apocalyptic cliché here, with people turning into selfish monsters willing to kill for anything that would allow them to survive for one day longer. There are signs that it didn’t all totally go tumbling down the drain – a small town which has essentially cut itself off from the chaos around it but one gets the sense they probably won’t be able to stand too long intact.

And I have to talk about the ending. I won’t reveal too much about it, only that it’s godawful and abrupt  You are left looking at whomever you are watching the movie with and wondering aloud “Why did I just watch this if that’s all there is?” Of course, you might ask the same question if viewing alone but the answer is likely to be you throwing your TV (or laptop) across the room in frustration. The moral is, don’t watch this alone.

That’s not to say that this is all bad; there are some poignant moments and Dove’s character Ricki actually has some memorable scenes but it gets lost a bit in the march to lawlessness. I think we all get that civilization is a terrifyingly thin veneer and that it won’t take much to strip it completely away. It just gets tiresome to see that concept being demonstrated over and over again with the characters refusing to learn that lesson along the way.

REASONS TO GO: Whitaker is as mesmerizing as always and James delivers his best performance to date.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is a bit slow and the ending a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Max Rose


September of his years.

September of his years.

(2015) Drama (Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Claire Bloom, Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dean Stockwell, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Stephanie Katherine Grant, Mort Sahl, Valerie Hurt, Jodie Mann, Joe Frank, Oliver Max, Jonathan Downs, Sarah Waisman. Directed by Daniel Noah

 

From the moment we are born, we begin our (hopefully) long journey down the road to old age and mortality. For those who are closer to the end of that road, the perspective can change and often with it comes bitterness, regret and remorse.

Max Rose (Lewis) is in mourning. His wife of 65 years, Eva (Bloom) has passed away, leaving him lost and empty. However, there is also a rage in him; shortly before her death, Max glanced inside her compact only to find a romantic inscription to his wife, written on November 5, 1959 when the former jazz pianist was in New York recording his one and only record while she remained in Los Angeles. It was a bitter revelation for Max, who now wonders if the only thing in his life he can be proud of – his marriage – was a complete failure like so much else in his life.

His bitterness seems mainly directed at his son Chris (Pollak) whom Max considers to have wasted his life, having gone through one divorce and is beginning a second. The only person Max seems to have any regard for is his granddaughter Annie (Bishé) and who has a relationship with her grandfather that is almost fatherly. Annie’s boyfriend Scott is in Chicago playing with the Philharmonic but Annie is reluctant to join him and Max counsels her to go. Annie for her part finds excuses not to – her job, her father’s health and so on.

After Max has a heart issue, Chris and Annie realize that they need to put him somewhere he can get the medical care he needs and the house is put up on the market much to Max’s contempt. It proves the excuse for Max and Chris to have one confrontation, but there are no fireworks; just surrender. Even Annie thinks Max is being harsh.

But the thing sticking in Max’s craw is the identity of the man who may have been having an affair with his wife. Was it a one-time occurrence or a long-term relationship? Was Max the love of Eva’s life, or the ball and chain that kept her from her one true love? And how was Max going to carry on without the love of his life?

I was looking forward to this film to see Lewis in a rare dramatic role, and the nonagenarian delivers with a frail but forceful performance that shows that the man who has been in show biz for 70 years has the ability to show his teeth once in awhile. There are times that Lewis literally looks lost in the role, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also times where he just seems lost, which is a bad thing. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a capable cast that performs admirably here.

Sadly, the script isn’t worthy of its cast. The dialogue sounds written rather than spoken and overly dramatic more often than not. There is a kind of flat tone to the film that gives me the sense that the filmmakers thought they would attract a much older demographic and is talking down to them like they all have ear horns sticking out of their skulls and have not a square inch of unwrinkled skin. It is painful to see a film so obviously aimed at a specific demographic that is so contemptuous of it.

What the film does get right is the dynamics between Chris, Max and Annie. This feels like real relationship issues and not just a bunch of people reading from a script. The filmmakers understand very well that the dynamics of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within. They don’t explain what the source of the conflict is between Max and his son, and they don’t even try to; the important thing is that the dynamic of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within it.

The ending features a confrontation between Max and his wife’s potential lover (Stockwell) but what should have been an emotionally charged scene comes off bland and proceeds directly into an ending that will leave you shaking your head if not your fist. I will admit that seeing Lewis onscreen was worth it for me specifically, and that Bishé and Pollak both deliver strong performances, as does Bloom in flashbacks where she injects some needed life into the film. Too bad she couldn’t resurrect as a zombie; even a zombie would have more life than most of this disappointing film.

REASONS TO GO: The family dynamics feel authentic. Some fine acting from the leads in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A schmaltzy ending that sabotages any good will the movie had to begin with. Noah tries too hard to make the movie feel heartwarming.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (oh, those French sure love Jerry Lewis) but it wasn’t until this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of Lewis on the occasion of his 90th birthday that the movie was first seen in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

New Releases for the Week of September 23, 2016


The Magnificent SevenTHE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

(MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

A desperate border town overrun by a savage businessman and his army of mercenaries reaches out to a bounty hunter for help. He recruits a group of seven outsiders who are willing to take the job. The odds are overwhelmingly against them but this small group finds that they are fighting for a lot more than a paycheck. This is a remake of a classic which in turn was a remake of a classic.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for extended and intense sequences of Western violence, and for historical smoking, some language and suggestive material)

End of a Gun

(Grindstone/Lionsgate) Steven Seagal, Florin Piersic Jr., Jade Ewen, Jacob Grodnik. A former federal agent, now working as a mall security guard, rescues a woman from the wrath of a drug lord’s enforcer. Now he’s going to have to call upon all his skills to keep the two of them alive. However, seeing as it’s Steven Seagal, I think we can safely say the enforcer’s days are numbered.

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

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

Rating: R (for violence, language and brief sexuality)

The Hollars

(Sony Classics) Margo Martindale, Sharlto Copley, Richard Perkins, John Krasinski. A struggling New York artist returns home to the small town he’d fled years before when he receives word of his mother’s illness. Staying in the house he grew up in, he is forced to deal with his family’s dysfunctional drama, the machinations of a high school rival and the seductions of a former girlfriend even as he prepares for fatherhood himself, a job he feels woefully unsuited for.

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, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for brief language and some thematic material)

I.T.

(RLJ) Pierce Brosnan, James Frecheville, Anna Friel, Stefanie Scott. The CEO of an aerospace company would have every right to feel on top of the world. After all, his company is about to revolutionize what airplanes are all about, he has an adoring family and lives in a state-of-the-art smart house where everything is computer-controlled. When a glitch shows up in his system, he calls an I.T. guy out to take a look at it and gets a lot more than he bargained for – a psychotic stalker.

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

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

Rating: NR

Max Rose

(Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollack, Claire Bloom. Days before his wife of 65 years passes away, jazz pianist Max Rose makes a discovery that shakes his world to its foundation; his marriage and consequently his entire life may not be what he thought it was. Dogged and determined, even as his own health requires his children to put him into a nursing facility, he determines to find out who may have been his wife’s lover.

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

Storks

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Andy Samberg, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty BurrellWe all know how babies are delivered, right? Yup…via stork. But that business has long been unprofitable and the storks have wisely gone into the more lucrative package delivery biz. However, the baby making machine has unaccountably produced an unaccounted for baby. Needing to find the rightful parents before the powers that be discover the snafu, the best courier in the stork fleet and a couple of friends try to right what could be a monumental error.

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 action and some thematic elements)

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

Meskada


It's the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

It’s the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

(2010) Mystery (Red Flag) Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Tucker, Grace Gummer, Laura Benanti, James McCaffrey, Michael Cerveris, David Aaron Baker, Michael Sirow, Kerry Bishe, Rebecca Henderson, Kathy Searle, Charlie Tahan, Max Antisell, J.D. Rosen, Johnny Hopkins, Rachel Heller. Directed by Josh Sternfeld

In 21st century America, the difference between haves and have-nots is like night and day. In rural Meskada county in the Appalachians, the difference is even greater.

Noah Cordin (Stahl) is a cop in upscale Hilliard. The people who live there are the well-to-do of the county. Noah himself hails from Caswell, the proverbial other side of the tracks. Blue collar and proud of it, Caswell has been hard hit by the recession; work is hard to come by although trouble is not.

During a home burglary in Hilliard, a young boy is killed. The boy’s mother, Alison Connor (Benanti), sits on the county planning commission and she is putting a whole load of pressure on Noah and his partner Leslie Spencer (Nichols) to crack the case quickly and bring her son’s killer to justice. The school of thought is that the killer must hail from Caswell and signs are definitely pointing in that direction.

In truth, the killer does hail from Caswell – a couple of low-life losers named Eddie (Lutz) and Shane (Tucker) did the robbery. They didn’t intend to kill the boy, it was just a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing. The case soon pits town against town and Noah is forced to call into question his own loyalties – to the place he came from, or the place he’s making a life in.

This is a movie that had enormous potential – a nice socio-economic premise wrapped in a murder mystery (although it’s not much of a mystery – for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to let us in on the identity of the killers from the get-go so any tension was blown right out of the water). Given the current political climate that has our country increasingly turning into class warfare, there is a certain amount of resonance in the idea.

Unfortunately it isn’t executed as well as it might be. Sternfeld has assembled a pretty impressive cast, many of them unknowns or barely-knowns when it was filmed but were shortly to gain prominence in their craft. Stahl is probably the best-known in the cast at the time of filming although Reedus, who played Noah’s roommate who briefly comes under suspicion for the crime and knows a lot more than he lets on, has probably surpassed him due to his involvement in Walking Dead – and not undeservedly so as Reedus is a big reason for that show’s popularity.

The cast does a fine job but the framework they’re in is almost damaged. The editing is almost choppy, as if someone had gouged out great hunks of celluloid with an Exacto knife. It feels like there are some important expository scenes missing and some of that exposition is done rather clumsily with one character basically saying “tell me about so and so” and another dutifully doing so. There is a certain artlessness here that can be charming in certain films but here it feels like I’m watching a rough cut rather than a finished product.

However, it must be said that the rough cut I watched was better than a lot of finished products. Stahl is one of those actors who seems to never fail to give an outstanding performance but never seems to get a role that will really get him the notice he deserves. Noah’s anguish is palpable as he knows what desperation can drive people to but observes the ugly side of privilege as well. Along with Stahl and Reedus, Gummer as Eddie’s barmaid/girlfriend, Nichols and Kerry Bishe as Noah’s wife all do some fine work.

I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the filmmakers wanted deliberately to create a movie in which the audience was put off-balance but it’s also possible that budget constraints reared their ugly head. Sternfeld’s only other directing job thus far was Winter Solstice, a very strong and moving film.  He can and has done better than this.

I’m all for leaving an audience to fill in the blanks off a basic framework, but that framework needs to at least support some meat on its bones. I shouldn’t leave a movie wondering what I missed, at least in terms of the information I’m being given to reach whatever conclusions that might be had. I liked some of the things that Meskada did and I liked a lot of the things that it attempted to do – I just wish I’d liked the movie overall just a bit more.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty good cast, many of whom were largely unknown at the time of filming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and choppy, as if large scenes were cut or went unfilmed.

FAMILY VALUES: Bad language and violence and plenty of both, with a scene of sexuality thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sternfeld teaches filmmaking at the NYU Film School and Tisch School of the Arts.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lantana

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Much Ado About Nothing

Nice Guy Johnny


Tastes great? Less filling!

Tastes great? Less filling!

(2010) Coming of Age Drama (Marlboro Road Gang) Matt Bush, Kerry Bishé, Edward Burns, Max Baker, Anna Wood, Brian Delate, Marsha Dietlein, Jay Patterson, Harper Dill, Michele Harris, Vanessa Ray, Callie Thorne, Anna Wood. Directed by Edward Burns

What do you want to be when you grow up? We get asked that question a lot when we’re a child. Usually we have some really cool idea of what we want to do – an astronaut, a cowboy, a teacher – but as we get older, we find something else that occupies our imagination. But still, the question persists throughout our lives, which begs the question whether we ever really grow up at all.

Johnny Rizzo (Bush) is living the dream. He works as a call-in radio host for a sports talk show in a small town in Northern California. He loves what he does. He also loves Claire (Wood), his fiancée who has bigger plans for Johnny. She’d made him promise that if he wasn’t making $50K by the time he was 25. Well, he’s just turned a quarter century and it’s time to pay the piper. Even though he’s doing his dream job and is happy and content, Johnny is also a man of his word so it’s off to New York to interview with his prospective father-in-law for a position as a warehouse manager at a cardboard box factory which is nobody’s dream job.

Once there he hooks up with his Uncle Terry (Burns) who is a hedonistic ladies man. Like Claire, he thinks that Johnny needs to make some changes – he thinks Johnny needs to get laid. So he takes his nephew in hand to Long Island to “get some strange,” as he puts it. So Johnny goes, knowing that he isn’t going to cheat on his fiancée but unwilling to disappoint his uncle, who is probably more about finding a married woman to have an affair with.

While there he meets Brooke, a free spirit who he connects with from the get-go. She’s a tennis instructor who thinks he’s an idiot to give up on his dream for a bigger salary job. Of course the two fall for each other in a big way, bringing up a moral dilemma for Johnny – he’s committed to Claire who he’s plainly not suited for but can he break that commitment and still be a nice guy?

Edward Burns is what I think of as a niche director which sounds a lot worse than it is. What I mean by that is that he consistently does movies that approach life and love from the viewpoint of working class mokes from the burbs of New York (generally Long Island where Burns grew up). As an actor I’ve always considered him a bit of a poor man’s Ben Affleck which again, sounds a lot worse than it is.

This isn’t one of Burns’ best in either role. His Uncle Terry really is a bit of a stretch for him. Not that he isn’t capable of this kind of role but he really isn’t convincing here. He’s a bit of a lynchpin too which makes it worse; what he needed here was someone who could have been more outrageous. As a director, he didn’t really cast this part very well but budgetary constraints and all. You know what I’m saying. Still, he’s entertaining enough in the part to be memorable which helps. He just needed more here.

Bishé really steals the show here. She takes what is essentially a typical indie free spirit role and runs with it. I like what she does here; she’s down to earth and never makes this a caricature. She’s sexy as hell and, unlike a lot of indie roles here, without shame or apology. It’s part of who she is and she doesn’t feel compelled to obscure it with self-conscious cuteness.

Bush doesn’t fare quite as well. He’s a good-looking guy with an aw-shucks demeanor but he’s kind of bland here. I know he’s supposed to be a nice guy (hey it’s the title of the freakin’ movie and all) but that doesn’t mean he has to be vanilla. I think he’s following the lead of his romantic interest and trying to avoid the quirky indie leading man cliché but he takes it a bit too far which leaves the audience with a character without character. By the middle of the movie I was less interested in him than in the female lead which, when you’re the title character in a movie, bodes a bit ill.

I think they would have benefitted from making Claire less of a materialistic harpy. There really isn’t any competition between Johnny’s two love interests and that takes the tension out of the film. If Claire was really loving and supportive it would have made for a more compelling decision. What we’re left with is a case where the audience is wondering why he stayed around as long as he did. There really is nothing to recommend Claire as a romantic partner to anyone other than that she’s pretty and quite frankly Johnny isn’t that shallow a character, or shouldn’t be. Maybe he is and I’m missing something.

Anyway with a few tweaks this could have been a really interesting romantic comedy. As it is, it’s pretty good entertainment and worth checking out for the performance of Bishé alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably romantic without being sentimental. Burns is always entertaining.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Writers needed to work a little harder.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and some salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in ten days by a crew of three who worked for free, although they would share in any profits the micro-budgeted ($25,000) movie would make.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some choppy, grainy audition footage. There is also a special edition (???) that also includes an interview with director Edward Burns. Why?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Texas Killing Field

Argo


Argo

I just wish Ben Affleck had shed this much light upon his character.

(2012) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kerry Bishe, Kyle Chandler, Rory Cochrane, Tate Donovan, Scoot McNairy, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Zeljko Ivanek, Richard Kind, Bob Gunton, Titus Welliver. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

In late 1979, a group of Iranian “students,” angered over the United States giving shelter to the dying former Shah (with some justification – the despotic Shah had many, many atrocities committed in his name) had taken over the U.S. Embassy (without justification – this was a violation of International law and was almost universally condemned) and held some 52 Americans for what would turn out to be a total of 444 days, accusing them of being spies rather than diplomats. Depending on your perspective, they had some justification for thinking that as the coup d’état that had placed the Shah in power in the first place had been organized by the British and American espionage agencies and had used the U.S. Embassy as something of a headquarters.

Six Americans escaped the embassy takeover – a fact that I’d forgotten and I consider myself a student of history – and hid in the residences of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor and immigration officer John Shearsdown (although Shearsdown’s part in the affair is left out completely in the movie). Their ordeal is captured here.

The six Americans – Robert Anders (Donovan), Joe Stafford (McNairy), his wife Kathy (Bishe), Mark Lijek (Denham), his wife Cora (DuVall) and Lee Schatz (Cochrane) see the writing on the wall as the angry mob chants for blood outside the doors of the Embassy. Because they are in a side office with direct access to the street and lacking any sort of directive, they make a run for it. They wind up at Taylor’s (Garber) home after being refused safe harbor at the British and New Zealand embassies which in fact was untrue – that was a bit of license taken by the filmmakers to give a sense that the Americans had nowhere else to go to.

Back in the United States, the State Department is in an uproar over the hostage crisis. They feel, correctly, that the 52 hostages in the embassy are reasonably safe as they are in the public eye but the six who have been separated are in far more danger, and their presence is putting Canada in an awkward diplomatic position. CIA supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) has brought in exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) into a meeting in which the State Department is exploring ways to get the six out safely but the ideas they come up with are ludicrous to say the least.

While watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television, he hits upon the idea of giving the six cover stories as being part of a Canadian film crew doing a cheesy Star Wars rip-off movie using Iran as an exotic location. In order to add plausibility to the story, he enlists Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) to help create a production company. To lend credibility, producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) is also brought aboard. They stage a publicity event in which actors perform a reading of the script which gets enough press coverage that give credence to this being a “real” film.

Mendez enters Iran posing as a producer for the film and makes contact with the refugees. At first, there is some skepticism that this idea will even work – and Joe Stafford in particular has some trust issues for Mendez. Still, all of them realize that it is only a matter of time before the Iranian authorities realize that there are Americans missing from the embassy and once that happens, only a matter of time before they are found and that once they are found, their deaths will be extraordinarily bad.

As I said earlier, I’d let this incident – known as the Canadian Caper – fall into the recesses of my mind and I suspect most people my age are going to find the same effect. Younger audiences may not have any recollection of the incident at all and may know the hostage crisis as something they read about in modern American history or saw on the Discovery channel.

Affleck has really come into his own as a director; while The Town served notice of his skills both as a lead actor and director, Argo is likely to net him some serious Oscar consideration in the latter category. This is a movie that has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and even if you remember the incident in question, you’ll still be right there. He also captures not only the look of the United States and Iran circa 1980 but also the feel of both; it is an era when disco still reigns and America is beginning to grow bloated and ineffectual. Still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and a moribund economy, there is a feeling that our country had lost its relevance and in fact, its cojones.

There are some strong performances here. Garber always carries himself with a certain grace and as the courageous Canadian ambassador that’s in evidence a ‘plenty here. The Emmy-winning Cranston continues to make his presence felt in supporting roles in films; now that his “Breaking Bad” run is over he no doubt will be getting lots of feature roles thrown at him and here he has some really good moments. On the Hollywood side, Arkin and Goodman are pros that can be relied upon to deliver solid at worst and spectacular at best performances and both are more towards their best here.

Strangely, the one performance I found less than compelling was Affleck’s. There is a little distance in him; Mendez clearly cares very much about the fate of the six and this spurs him to actions he might ordinarily not have taken. Still, Affleck doesn’t show us very much about the man Tony Mendez is/was and that’s puzzling since the real Mendez was available for him to study from; it’s possible that Mendez himself is this hard to know as well.

Still, this is likely to wind up on some end of the year lists and quite deservedly so. This is one of the Fall’s must-see films and if you haven’t already caught it, you really should before it gets pushed out by all the Thanksgiving blockbusters that are already making their way into the multiplex. Even if you’re not old enough to remember the hostage crisis, you’ll appreciate one of the great thrillers of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly. Puts you on the edge of the seat even if you know how the affair concluded.

REASONS TO STAY: Affleck’s performance is a bit distant; I left the movie wondering who Tony Mendez was. Plays fast and loose with the facts.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is pretty rough in places and there are some disturbing images, as well as some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, and Kyle Chandler who played him in the movie were both graduates of the University of Georgia.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely strong.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana

JIMMY CARTER LOVERS: The former President makes several appearances in the movie via archival footage.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Imposter