New Releases for the Week of October 18, 2013


Carrie

CARRIE

(Screen Gems) Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kimberly Pierce

A young picked-upon girl, the daughter of an obsessively devout mother, develops telekinetic powers among other things. Some bitchy cheerleader sorts decide to play a prank on her at the prom – not a very good idea. A remake of the classic 1976 film with Sissy Spacek and itself based on one of Stephen King’s earliest novels.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content)

A.C.O.D.

(The Film Arcade) Adam Scott, Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Lynch. The adult son of a divorced couple whose acrimonious divorce scarred him to the point of needing therapy needs to get his bickering parents to make peace so that they can attend his brother’s wedding. He also discovers the therapy he underwent to get through the pain of the divorce was actually a project by a writer to chronicle the effects of divorce on children which led to a bestseller on her part but exposing all of
his most painful secrets. When he finally gets his parents together, his life goes spinning off into directions he couldn’t have imagined. This played the Sundance Across America series at the Enzian earlier this year and my review can be found here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language and brief sexual content)

Boss

(Viacom 18) Akshay Kumar, Shiv Pandit, Mithun Chakraborty, Ronit Roy. A petty criminal takes the fall for his father when he accidentally and unknowingly kills a teenager. After serving his time, he relocates to another city, only to discover that his younger brother has gotten into a conflict with the bullying son of a home minister. He will have to return home to defend his family – a home that doesn’t want him back.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Escape Plan

(Summit) Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Vincent D’Onofrio. An expert on structural security who makes a lucrative living exposing the defects in prisons and other correctional institutions takes on a brand new high-tech state-of-the-art Supermax prison. Unbeknownst to him, someone wants him to disappear from the grid – permanently. To survive he is going to have to make an alliance with a brutal inmate and assuming he survives long enough to put his plan into action, find out who put him there…and make whoever it is pay!

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for violence and language throughout)

The Fifth Estate

(Touchstone/DreamWorks) Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney. Idealists Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-berg, disgusted and disillusioned by all the chicanery going on in secret, decide to found a website where whistle-blowers can expose the corruption and crime going on in the political and corporate worlds. However their idealism will be put to the test when a cache of top secret documents from the U.S. Military is leaked and leads to a fundamental dilemma – is the freedom of accessible information more important than the potential loss of human life?

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some violence) 

The Hunt

(Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrom. A substitute teacher in a small Danish town in the midst of a bitter divorce and custody battle is unexpectedly accused of molesting the daughter of his best friend. Despite his protestations of innocence and a lack of any evidence, nobody believes him and he is ostracized from nearly everyone in the town. As events escalate and grow uglier, he will have to find a way to convince the town – and his friend – that he is an innocent man. One of the best films to come out of this year’s Florida Film Festival, you can read my review here.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language)

I’m in Love with a Church Girl

(High Top) Ja Rule, Adrienne Bailon, Stephen Baldwin, Michael Madsen. A young man who has made his fortune as a drug trafficker attempts to get out of the business and go straight although the DEA is skeptical of his intentions. When he meets a beautiful but devout woman, he falls for her despite the difference in their lifestyles. Both of them will be sorely tested in their faith if their love is to overcome the long odds that it faces.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith Drama (opens Thursday)

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, a scene of violence, some suggestive content and brief language) 

Paradise

(Image/RLJ) Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, Holly Hunter. A young woman who has led a sheltered life in a small Montana town is nearly killed in an accident, causing her to take stock of her situation and her mainly unlived life. Deciding to see for herself what the other side has to offer, she takes her insurance settlement to Las Vegas and falls in with some fellow wounded souls and finds something a little more lasting than sin.

See the trailer, clips and a link to stream the full move at Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, substance abuse, some language and thematic elements)

The Snitch Cartel

(BN) Manolo Cardona, Tom Sizemore, Juana Acosta, Kuno Becker. Based on the life of Andreas Lopez-Lopez, a young boy from a poor background tries to win the heart of the girl he’s had a crush on since he was very young but doesn’t have the money to catch her eye. He joins one of the more vicious drug cartels in Colombia and works his way up the ladder but in doing so catches the eye of the DEA as well.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Drama

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, drug content and sexuality/nudity)

Mystic River


Sean Penn finds out there's a paparazzi convention in town.

Sean Penn finds out there’s a paparazzi convention in town.

(2003) Drama (Warner Brothers) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Adam Nelson, Tori Davis, Ari Graynor. Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Al Green’s R&B masterpiece “Take Me to the River,” he uses the river as a metaphor for redemption, for forgetfulness. In Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, it is a place where sins are buried forever in the eternal non-judgmental current that washes them to sea.

Three young boys growing up in a blue-collar Irish neighborhood in Boston are marked for life when one of them is abducted by a pedophile posing as a police officer and held for four days before escaping. The victim is scarred, having invented a different personality for himself in order to survive the ordeal. The other two are guilt-ridden, each wondering what their lives would have been like if they had gotten into the pedophile’s car instead of their cohort.

Years later, they have drifted apart, although not far. Jimmy Markum (Penn) is an ex-con who has reformed, and runs the corner store. Katie (Rossum), his daughter from his first marriage, is the apple of his eye, an eye trained steadily on her and a neighborhood friend Brendan (Guiry), whom he mistrusts. Sean Devine (Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife abruptly left him six months earlier and who periodically calls him and says nothing, waiting for Sean to speak, but Sean doesn’t know what to say. Finally Dave Boyle (Robbins), the pedophile’s victim, shuffles around like he’s in one of the vampire movies he loves to watch, and tries to make sense of the skewed perceptions his damaged mind takes in.

The three men see each other periodically, but are not friends the same way they were as children, although they remain drawn to their neighborhood and in fact the events that so marked them those years ago.

When Katie is brutally murdered, the three are drawn back together again, particularly as Sean is assigned the case. Dave reconnects with Jimmy, especially since Dave’s wife Celeste (Harden) is cousin to Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth (Linney). But as the men are drawn together, it becomes clear they are heading for an explosion. Dave arrives home the night Katie is killed covered in blood and with an implausible story. Celeste suspects that he is not telling her everything, but fears to connect the dots. Jimmy is a raging inferno, trying to reconcile his turbulent emotions but keeping it together externally; you literally expect him to have some of his internal organs pop out of his skin several times during the course of the movie. And while Sean’s partner Whitey (Fishburne in a most un-Morpheus-like role) trains his suspicions on Dave, Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend, who endured so much; the psychology is wrong, and Sean’s survivor guilt is becoming an impediment.

When Celeste finally breaks down and tells Jimmy her suspicions, the chain of events becomes inevitable. You get the sense that Katie’s tomb is actually a vortex, sucking the three men into a unavoidable collision. When it comes, you half-expect the film’s very celluloid to combust.

Eastwood knows how to let a story tell itself at its own pace. At times, Mystic River is languid and slow-moving, but that is only because the characters must have their chance to develop; without that, the movie would collapse. At other times, the movie feels like it is rushing viewers along in a riptide. Eastwood also is a master of establishing mood; at no point do you ever doubt the reality of the neighborhood and the people.

There are some great performances here. Penn is masterful as the tortured father of a murdered 19-year-old daughter. It resonates from the moment he realizes that she’s been murdered to the end of the movie and obviously resonated with the Academy – he garnered his first Best Actor Oscar for the role. He is a violent man, although that violence is kept below the surface; you spend every moment wondering when he will erupt; yet he never goes over the top. His actions all are consistent with the character, and Penn’s emotional performance makes Jimmy Markum real. Penn was so underrated as an actor at the time this was made; in time, he has become considered with the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman in the elite cinematic pantheon. His performance here is the chief reason you should see this movie.

Bacon and Robbins are solid in their roles; Robbins has a more difficult task in trying to humanize and make relatable a man who has been through something most of us cannot imagine. He is successful most of the time, but such an effort is made to make him appear guilty (when the majority of the audience will probably realize that he is not) that it robs him of his credibility. However, his portrayal of a damaged, tortured soul was enough to win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bacon is more restrained in his performance, but doesn’t really convey as much emotionally as the incendiary Penn, and thus his work pales next to his co-star.

The supporting cast is for the most part solid, although Harden as the weak, emotionally dependent Celeste is at times cloying but what do I know – she was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Much has been made of the ending, which is (I think) deliberately ambiguous, especially regarding how the survivors react. The ending badly disrupts the flow of the movie. Mystic River is a good movie that could have been better, had the ending not been so badly botched.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-winning performances and a compelling story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending completely ruins the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of violence, some of it implied of a sexual nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In a scene set in the morgue where Jimmy is alone with Katie’s body and emotionally promising revenge, the corpse burst into tears because actress Emmy Rossum was so moved by Penn’s performance.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some interviews from “The Charlie Rose Show” of Bacon, Robbins and Eastwood. The 3-Disc Deluxe DVD edition includes the soundtrack from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

DENNIS LAHANE LOVERS: The author of the book the movie was based on makes a cameo appearance during the parade sequence in which he can be spotted waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Hyde Park on Hudson


Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Flowers

UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack Reacher

New Releases for the Week of December 21, 2012


This Is 40

THIS IS 40

(Universal) Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Megan Fox, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Melissa McCarthy, Charlyne Yi, Graham Parker, Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow. Directed by Judd Apatow

In a sort-of sequel to Knocked Up, Judd Apatow revisits the lives of big sister Debbie and her husband Pete as Debbie gets set to hit the big four-oh. They realize that they are in danger of letting life pass them by and try to figure out the important things before they are too old to appreciate them.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material)

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D

(Paramount) Erica Linz, Dallas Barnett, Lutz Halbhubner, John Clarke. A young woman finds that a strange and exciting circus is actually a portal to amazing worlds. Featuring the acrobats of various Cirque du Soleil shows from across the country, the film was directed by Andrew Adamson of the Narnia series and produced by James Cameron, who is testing out new 3D technology for his upcoming Avatar sequels.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for dramatic images and some sensuality)

Dabangg 2

(Arbaaz Khan) Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Malaika Arora. A police officer battles a corrupt politician while attempting to romance his wife, shore up his ties with his brother and father who are still mourning the murder of his mother in the first film and occasionally break into song without warning.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Guilt Trip

(Paramount) Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Kathy Najimy, Adam Scott. An inventor, about to embark on a road trip to sell the most important product of his life, becomes concerned with his mom’s chronic loneliness and impulsively invites her along. A road trip with Mom…what could go wrong?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

Hyde Park on Hudson

(Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Eleanor Bron. In 1939 the King and Queen of England became the first reigning monarchs of that country to visit the United States. Their mission was to plead for American assistance in the coming war, a war that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t eager to join. Visiting at Roosevelt’s upstate New York retreat Hyde Park, the fate of the world hung in the balance and the whole thing was witnessed by Roosevelt’s cousin Daisy.

See the trailer and featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: R (for brief sexuality)

Jack Reacher

(Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall. A former military cop now wandering the country without possessions or roots, content to explore with complete freedom. He will have to put his skills of his former profession back to work when a former Army sniper is accused of a heinous crime that Reacher doesn’t think he committed, plunging him into a maelstrom of secrets that men would kill to keep that way. From the bestselling book series by Lee Child.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some drug material)

Monsters, Inc. 3D

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn. The mouse mavens pull out yet another Pixar classic to be dusted off and given the 3D conversion treatment. Very nice. Unnecessary.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Sympathy for Delicious


 

Sympathy for Delicious

Prince is looking a little worse for wear these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resurrection

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Arthur Christmas


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASONS TO STAY: A bit whiny in spots.

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

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

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING; 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

The City of Your Destination


The City of Your Final Destination

Sir Anthony Hopkins is tired of being stalked by man-shaped rainclouds.

(2009) Drama (Screen Media) Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Omar Metwally, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ambar Mallman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Norma Argentina, Norma Aleandro, Luciano Suardi. Directed by James Ivory

Our heroes may seem to be one thing on the surface. However when we dig deeper, we may find our first impressions to be much mistaken; in fact, often that status as a hero might not bear close inspection. Then again, whose life can?

Omar Razaghi (Metwally) is a literature professor who wants to write an authorized biography of reclusive but obscure author Jules Gund but the trustees of his estate prove to be polite but firm in their refusal of permission. Omar’s overbearing girlfriend Diedre (Lara) convinces him to trek down to Uruguay to see if he can persuade them in person. Although surprised by his appearance, they put him up at the author’s estate nonetheless.

The trustees consist of Adam (Hopkins), Gund’s ambitious brother; Arden Langdon (Gainsbourg), Gund’s meek mistress and Caroline (Linney), Gund’s acerbic wife who is the one putting up the most resistance to Omar’s request. Factor in Adam’s quiet partner and the arrival of Deirdre and you have a quagmire of emotion and secrets waiting to explode.

I know the plot here is somewhat vague and that isn’t entirely by design – I’m still trying to figure out what this movie is about and haven’t up until now. This is based on a novel by Peter Cameron but curiously has more of a drawing room theatrical atmosphere to it.

This is the first movie directed by James Ivory that his production partner Ismael Merchant hasn’t been involved in (Merchant passed away in 2005 and Ivory filmed it in 2007; legal battles held it out of theaters until 2009) and while longtime Merchant-Ivory writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did contribute the script, there’s a sense that this may be the final curtain for the production company that brought some of the most memorable movies of the last 20 years to the screen, including Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. Ivory is 83 as of this writing and given that this movie wasn’t a financial success (and the production company hasn’t had one in quite awhile), it may be a bit difficult for him to secure financing for another production. There are those in Hollywood who think his kind of movie is out of vogue; smart is certainly not in at the moment, assuming that it ever was.

There is definitely some high-mindedness to the script and this is most definitely written for those who have more than mindless fun on their itinerary at the theater but smarts don’t a great movie make. For one thing, the critical role of Omar is terribly miscast. Omar is supposed to be a smoldering, sensual presence but Metwally doesn’t have that kind of personality. In fact, one gets the idea that he is a bit overwhelmed by the script and his fellow cast.

After all, Hopkins is one of the greatest actors of this generation and any opportunity to see him work is worth taking. Linney has shown flashes of brilliance at times and even when she isn’t at the top of her game she usually puts on a performance worth seeing.

Part of my issue is that the movie moves along at a snail’s pace. A motion picture implies that there is some sort of movement but this one seems to have paralysis of the pacing. Merchant-Ivory movies always take their time to unfold, but this one never really does, instead plodding along at a majestic pace like a dowager grandly taking her time to descend the stairs to the dinner table, the essence of dignity.

I wish this movie had shown a bit more character, a bit more zing and a bit less intellect. Some movies are all balls and no brain while others are all brains and nothing below the belt (as this one is). There is a happy medium between the two, and it would have made for a much more interesting cinematic experience.

WHY RENT THIS: Hopkins is always worth seeing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There doesn’t seem to be much of a point. Pacing so languid as to be comatose. Metwally seems out of his depth.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality with implied nudity (but you really can’t see anything naughty).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original novel, the character of Caroline is French but when Linney expressed interest in playing the part, it was re-written as American.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an $8.3M production budget; this was a commercial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Missing Pieces

The Other Man


The Other Man

Ah, the game's afoot...or, in this case, a pawn.

(2008) Drama (Image) Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Romola Garai, Pam Ferris, Craig Parkinson, Sophie Wu, Lola Peploe, Richard Graham, Emma Fielding, Priyanga Burford. Directed by Richard Eyre

Even in a marriage we often don’t know everything about our partner that we think we do. Sometimes we discover a secret life that is completely unknown to us. When our world comes crashing about our ears, how do we rebuild it without destroying what’s left?

Peter (Neeson) is a successful computer software designer. He is married to Lisa (Linney), a successful shoe designer. They live in Cambridge (the English one) and have a pretty good life. That is, until Lisa disappears.

Peter is frantic, understandably and tries to find a clue, any sort of clue as to where she is. He hacks into her computer and discovers pictures – pictures that indicate she was having an affair with another man. In an instant, he goes from grieving husband to jealous, angry husband.

Using his sleuthing skills, he determines that the nameless Other Man lives in Milan. Peter goes there to find him and, quite possibly, murder him. His daughter Abigail (Garai) is concerned; her father seems obsessive and enraged. She wonders what he intends to do and he refuses to tell her.

Eventually, Peter tracks down Ralph (Banderas), a gentleman living in Milan. Without telling him who he is Peter meets Ralph in a chess café and has a game with him. Soon, Peter realizes that something is fishy about Ralph and that everything is not as it should be. The question soon becomes, where is Laura? The answer might surprise you…

Director Eyre has made some real good movies, including Notes on a Scandal which was far superior to this. Here he crafts a thriller without tension, a drama that isn’t terribly dramatic. The script seems to exist to send you sideways with different plot twists; unfortunately, it spends far too much time on unnecessary plot twists, as when Peter’s suspicions fall on someone working in the office with Lisa.

There is some real quality in the casting too. Liam Neeson is one of the most interesting actors alive; he has a rough exterior but a very soft interior and he is extremely skilled at using both. Some of his scenes as a grieving husband are extremely wrenching, and well worth watching on their own. Banderas is, I think, underrated as an actor, always cast as the Latin lothario but here he takes a part which is a bit different than what we see him in normally. The part appears to be that way, a Spanish gentleman in Gucci loafers, as Peter disparagingly refers to them, in Milan, the center of designer shoes. That should tell you a little bit about who Ralph is.

Garai also does surprisingly well as the daughter. I wasn’t familiar with her previous work, but the girl’s got skills. She infuses Abigail with both compassion and concern. She isn’t weak at all though; she stands up to her dad and gets in his face about things. Yup, just like an actual daughter. I appreciated that element of the storyline.

Unfortunately, not that much else in the film is compelling. Some of the big “twists” are hopelessly telegraphed and some of the action lacks fire. While having Peter and Ralph confront each other over a game of chess, it lacks the emotional charge that the confrontation should have had. There’s no dramatic tension, and that torpedoes the film overall.

However, a movie with these actors in it and a generally skilled director isn’t going to be all bad. This is going to go down as one of their more forgettable efforts but that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely without merit. I would say that it is a movie that isn’t impressive, but has some moments worth savoring.

WHY RENT THIS: Neeson is always compelling, and Banderas takes on a role that’s new for him. Garai does an impressive job. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is kind of bland and not well thought out. Certainly all the obfuscation about who the “other man” is was unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Not rated, but there’s some bad language and adult situations regarding marital infidelity, as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juliette Binoche was originally supposed to play the part of Lisa but had to leave the cast before filming started. She was replaced by Linney.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; chances are the movie didn’t make back its budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Promise

Love Actually


Love Actually

Is it love actually or lust actually?

(2003) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Keira Knightley, Martine McCutcheon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kris Marshall, Martin Freeman, Joanna Page, Rodrigo Santoro, Gregor Fisher, Thomas Sangster, Lucia Moniz, Andrew Lincoln. Directed by Richard Curtis

Our world can be a hard, cruel place. We are buffeted on all sides by cruelty and meanness. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us sane in this world is the love of another, but that seems to be in short supply in these hard times. However, if you look carefully enough, you may find that love, actually, is all around us.

Billy Mack (Nighy), a fading rock and roll legend, tries to kickstart a comeback with a Christmas version of one of his hits as shepherded by his long-suffering manager Joe (Fisher). The new Prime Minister (Grant) falls for Natalie (McCutcheon), a plucky member of his staff. Jamie Bennett (Firth), a writer, mends his broken heart in France while cared for by a Portugese housekeeper named Aurelia (Moniz); the two begin to develop a deep fondness for one another despite the language barrier.

Daniel (Neeson) grieves for his late wife while his son Sam (Sangster) pines for a schoolmate. His friend Karen (Thompson) – who is also the Prime Minister’s sister – prepares for a school Christmas pageant. Her husband Henry (Rickman) runs a graphic design business, where Sarah (Linney), an American employee, yearns for Karl (Santoro), an enigmatic designer while Henry struggles with infidelity with an aggressive receptionist.

Colin (Marshall), an upbeat courier, gives up on finding the right woman in the UK and prepares to immigrate to the United States. Newlyweds Peter (Ejiofor) and Juliet (Knightley) have their lives complicated somewhat by Peter’s best friend John (Lincoln) who has a deep crush on Juliet, one that he would never act on. All of these stories intertwine an  intersect in London at Christmastime, perhaps one of the most magical places on Earth.

First of all, let me get this out of the way – this is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s an astonishing piece of work, considering this is Richard Curtis’ first feature as a director (he had previously written a number of terrific movies, including Four Weddings and a Funeral). Here, he skillfully interweaves the stories among one another, linking some together directly and others indirectly, creating a viable whole giving none of them short shrift; it’s quite the tightrope walking act, and it is so rarely done well that when it is it must be applauded just on that basis alone.

I wrestled with using this as part of my Holly and the Quill series of Christmas movies, but eventually decided this isn’t a Christmas movie so much as a movie set at Christmastime. It is about love and could easily be set any time of the year. However I admit the Christmas setting adds to the overall warmth of the film.

One of the things I love about this movie is that not all of the relationships work out in the end. Like love itself, things can be pretty tangled and end up unfinished. Of course, some of the relationships also pan out. Will those relationships succeed? Who knows! All that I know is that love is wonderful while you’re in it, especially when you’re in it with the right person long term. All of these relationships – showing love at various stages of the relationship – have a sense of realism to them. The movie is well cast and all the couples have legitimate chemistry and an organic feel to their relationships.

This is a movie I watch often, usually with Da Queen and we always enjoy it, even after many viewings. We own the soundtrack, which is one of the better ones in any movie in the last ten years. In fact, this is one of my favorite movies of all time – but I’ve said that already. If you’re looking for a movie to snuggle up with your honey to this Valentine’s Day, this should be at the top of your list.

WHY RENT THIS: All of the vignettes work; there aren’t any weak moments or characters. The movie is sexy and funny and nearly everyone gets enough screen time to sufficiently develop their characters.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Maybe it’s too English for you or you just don’t like romantic comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexuality, a little bit of nudity and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The parts of the dads were initially offered to – and rejected by – Samuel L. Jackson and George Lopez who discussed the matter on Lopez’ talk show. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of music videos here, as well as a featurette in which Curtis discusses the movie’s music.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $246.9M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Sanctum

Driving Lessons


Driving Lessons

The Weasleys do some muggle slumming.

(Sony Classics) Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, Julia Walters, Nicholas Farrell, Oliver Milburn, Michelle Duncan, Tamsin Eggerton. Directed by Jeremy Brock

Growing up is a painful, nasty business that is best left to professionals. Unfortunately, even amateurs like the rest of us have to figure it out eventually.

Ben Marshall (Grint) is a shy, bookish 17-year-old who is subject to the dictatorial whims of his evangelical Christian mother (Linney) who has her boy bring food to the elderly, participate in the church play and accept whatever charity case his mother brings to live with them, most recently a wild-eyed cross-dressing old man (Norton). She also has her eyes set on a handsome new pastor. His father, the henpecked reverend (Farrell) puts up with all of this with the patience of Job, but Ben’s veneer of British schoolboy civility is beginning to crack.

He is moved to write a poem for the object of his affections (Eggerton) but is met with only a scornful “you’re just too weird.” He also has begun to suspect that his driving lessons with his mother are a front for her to canoodle with the handsome New Age reverend she respects far more than her husband.

Ben responds to all of this by getting rather grumpy, but he winds up getting a job as a…well, I’m not really sure what. I guess a general assistant sort for a loopy actress named Evie Walton (Walters) who has bestowed upon herself the title of “Dame” and refers to her many Shakespearean roles. As Ben eventually discovers, her main claim to fame was as an actress on the equivalent of an evening soap and Dame Evie is perilously close to being dismissed as irrelevant or worse still, forgotten altogether.

Evie and Ben’s mother Laura are polar opposites; Evie high-spirited and anti-authoritarian, Laura rigid and positive that her parental authority stems directly from God. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there will be a clash between the two cultures extolled by these two very strong women and Ben’s heart – his very future – depends on which way he leans now.

Jeremy Brock, who has written some mighty fine screenplays in his day (including Mrs. Brown and The Last King of Scotland) makes his feature directing debut here and it is a solid one. There were some interesting casting decisions made; some worked wonderfully, others are a little questionable. Linney is a fine actress, but her accent is not one of her finest hours. Perhaps Brock might have been better served to allow her to keep her American accent and merely make her the Reverend Marshall’s American wife.

Putting Grint and Walters together on the other hand was inspired. Walters plays Grint’s mother in the Harry Potter series and it comes as no surprise that Grint’s best scenes are the ones he shares with her. Grint essentially plays Ron Weasley without the wand, so he does all right here but he lacks the energy I know he possesses (some of his Potter scenes bear this out). He needed a sure hand from his director I think, or at least a different direction.

Walters, on the other hand needed no such thing. This is the kind of role she excels in, the dotty English eccentric and she plays it to the hilt. It isn’t so much over-acting – which in a way is the hallmark of her character – as simply inhabiting a larger-than-life role. She’s what you’ll remember most about this movie.

Brock based this movie on his own experiences as the son of a vicar spending one summer working for Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the movie does have an anecdotal feeling to it. The summer in which a young person grows from a child into an adult is a bittersweet season, and Brock captures that aspect of it here. While there are some missteps and things I know I would have done differently, that doesn’t take away from what is a solid, entertaining coming-of-age movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Walters is a much underrated actress who shines when she gets the opportunity to as she does here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is somewhat bland and could have used a little more color from Grint.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexual situations, probably all right for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grint was 16 when this was filmed and under the legal age to drive in England, so all the scenes involving Grint at the wheel were filmed on private roads.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tyson