Mother, I Love You (Mammu, es Tevi milu)


A kid running from his troubles.

(2013) Drama (108 Media) Kristofers Konovalovs, Vita Varpina, Matiss Livcans, Indra Brike, Haralds Barzdins. Directed by Janis Nords

 

I’ve said it before and I’m not the first to say it: it’s not easy being a single mom. We’ve seen plenty of movies that back up that very thing. However, it is not often we see the story from the child of a single mom’s viewpoint. What must that be like?

Raimonds (Konovalovs) – whose name is pronounced “Raymond” – lives in the Latvian capital city of Riga. He’s a bright boy who goes to school, plays saxophone in the school orchestra, plays Wii at night when his mother allows and rides his push scooter around town getting from the apartment he shares with his mom to school mostly with occasional side trips to visit his best friend Peteris (Livcans).

Raimonds’ mom (Varpina) is an obstetrician who works brutal hours; often she has late night shifts at the clinic she works at and is from time to time called in for an emergency. Some of these late night shifts though are less work and more play; she has been developing a romantic relationship with a colleague. Raimonds is no fool; he is aware his mother is lying to him.

Peteris’ mom (Brike) is a housecleaner and often the two boys accompany her to one home or another. One that catches the boy’s eye is one that the owner is rarely home at. The man has a motor scooter parked in one of the rooms of his apartment which of course to young 12-year-old boys is absolutely irresistible. Raimonds manages to snatch the key to the apartment so the boys can come back and rev up the scooter.

Raimonds has, like most 12-year-old boys a streak of devilish behavior. When tall girls are mean to him, he is not above fighting back and when he uses a bra that one of his mates has stuffed down his shirt to plug up the horn of a particularly snooty girl, he gets written up. This is a disaster; he is required to tell his mother and get her signature on a form which would undoubtedly get a beating for him. His mother believes in corporal punishment which seems a bit alien to American audiences these days. In any event, he endeavors to conceal his malfeasance from his mom which leads to a spiraling series of events that grow progressively more serious. Extricating himself from the web he has woven for himself may be more than he can handle.

An awful lot of this is going to resonate with those who have grown up with a single parent and those who have been single parents. The very real issues of balancing work and quality time with one’s child as well as keeping control over children when they grow unruly are addressed here without sentimentality. The mom is no saint but she’s no worse than most mothers either. She’s doing the best she can and often she is operating in the dark as to what her child is truly up to. This is the part that parents will nod in sympathy with.

Konovalovs is a very natural actor who never over-emotes; his fear of his mother is very real and very natural. Like most kids, he operates on the philosophy that what his mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her (and won’t get him hurt) and while there is no doubt that Raimonds loves his mother very much and wants her respect and love back, he often plays her for a fool simply because he can.

I think it is more reasonable to say that Raimonds isn’t so much a bad child as he is a bored child. He has so much unsupervised time on his hands that it seems fairly natural that he would find ways to get into trouble. Each bad decision Raimonds makes from his own point of view makes sense and Nords who also wrote the film makes sure the audience is seeing that point of view clearly. At times audiences who may have less experience with child-raising may shake their heads at some of the things Raimonds does but at every turn it feels exactly what an unsupervised 12-year-old boy whose whole philosophy of life is avoiding punishment would do or decide.

Raimonds spends much of his time wandering the streets of Riga at night and it doesn’t feel as if he is unsafe at any time although he sometimes ventures into what appear to be rough neighborhoods. By day Riga looks grey and drab as if in a perpetual overcast; I have never been to Riga although I’m told it is a beautiful city but this film isn’t going to inspire anyone to visit it anytime soon.

Although it is essentially a film about kids this isn’t a kids film. The deeper Raimonds gets into his lies the grimmer things get. There are real-world repercussions for Raimonds and it isn’t pretty. While the ending of the film is a bit ambiguous it is more hopeful than the rest of the movie is so it isn’t completely a downer but it does take a while to get there. I haven’t seen a lot of Latvian films but if this movie is any indication there is some real quality filmmaking going on there.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematographer uses a fairly grim and grey palate. The movie is an accurate portrayal of a troubled boy.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not what you would call the most uplifting of films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sensuality but mostly the themes here are adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a major prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was the official submission of Latvia for the 2014 Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bicycle Thief
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Agnelli

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Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials


Maze Runner The Scorch Trials

You’ve got to learn how to crawl before you learn how to run mazes.

(2015) Young Adult Sci-Fi (20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Aidan Gillen, Terry Dale Parks, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Lili Taylor, Barry Pepper, J. Nathan Simmons, Alan Tudyk, Lora Martinez-Cunningham. Directed by Wes Ball

It seems that whenever you’re in the middle segment of a cinematic trilogy, there’s always a bit of a letdown; there’s usually more exposition that action and it lacks the kind of energy that marks the first installment, nor the emotional punch of the third. Would that happen to this sequel to the successful young adult science fiction adaptation The Maze Runner?

Following the conclusion of that film, the survivors of the Glade are brought into an underground facility, a way station before being taken to their final destination. No, that doesn’t sound sinister at all, right? In any case, Thomas (O’Brien) hooks up with Aris (Lofland), a survivor of a different Maze (there are apparently many of them) and discovers the truth about the facility – it is wholly owned by WCKD (pronounced “wicked,” possibly the most unsubtle acronym ever), the corporate blackhearts who created the Mazes and they’re conducting medical experiments on the kids who have made it this far.

Naturally, this doesn’t appeal much to Thomas and he takes the rest of his crew – Teresa (Scodelario), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Minho (Lee), Frypan (Darden) and Winston (Flores) out of the frying pan and into the Scorch. The Scorch is the world above ground, an arid desert with unpredictable weather patterns, terrifying storms and creatures that roam the wasteland by night. A trip to the local mall leads to the discovery that they are victims of the Flare, a virus that turns the victims homicidal and utterly insane.

Thomas and the gang are looking for The Right Arm, an underground resistance group who may be able to shelter them from WCKD who clearly want them back badly; the chief scientist for WCKD, Dr. Ava Paige (Clarkson) has sent her assassin Janson (Gillen) to go fetch Thomas and his tank engine…er, crew.

After being captured by Jorge (Esposito) and his daughter Brenda (Salazar), they get away from WCKD and head out to find Marques, the man who might be able to find the Right Arm. Once again, it’s back into the fire as a happening party turns into a 90s rave and turns into a real bad trip. Once the kids find the Right Arm, however, they are going to find out that there are worse beasts in the wasteland than madmen, and that courage may not be enough to get them all through. Making it out alive may not be in the cards for all of them, but there may be worse things ahead for all of them.

No need to keep you in suspense; this isn’t as good as the first movie. That movie had a kinetic energy that is severely lacking here. Not that there aren’t some superior action scenes; there are, but while Maze Runner felt like a sprint, this is more of a distance run. Most of the same folks that didn’t get snuffed in the first film are back with a passel of new characters as well as the bulk of the same talent behind the camera. The problem with middle films in trilogies is that they are often connectors, linking point A and point B. The middle of a story is never as interesting as the beginning or the end.

O’Brien is a little bit more animated here but the same problem that plagued the first movie plagues this one; Thomas isn’t a very interesting lead character. They try to make him that way with references to his unremembered past but the real issue is that Thomas acts like every teen hero in every cinematic adaptation of a young adult novel ever, and it really is kind of tiresome. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its competition and even given that the audience this is playing too is a lot less discriminating, they aren’t dummies; they know lazy writing when they see it.

Most of the rest of the cast is adequate to decent; the most promising performer in the first film doesn’t appear here. It’s just that they’re not given a lot to work with; the characters are mostly bland, recycled from other stories and films. None of them really grab your attention much. That’s the problem with having characters who can’t remember their past; there isn’t a lot for the audience to hold onto other than their actions and when you’re talking about actions that are pretty much standard young adult fantasy fare that’s only worse. Even the zombie-like Flare victims don’t measure up to the monsters of The Walking Dead and the special effects here are pretty much standard.

This is bargain basement sci-fi that doesn’t really generate enough enthusiasm in me to really give it much of a recommendation which is a shame because I thought the first film had some potential. Maybe we’ll have to wait until the final installation in the trilogy to see that potential fulfilled but at this point I’m not especially waiting on the edge of my seat for February 17, 2017 to come around – the date that Maze Runner: The Death Cure is set to wrap up the series. Sad to say, I’d be just fine with them wrapping it up here unless they can do a whole lot better next time.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly well-done action sequences. Attractive leads.
REASONS TO STAY: Really been there-done that. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence, some thematic elements, a scene of substance use and some mild language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio greenlit the sequel two weeks before the first film opened after early reviews and audience scores proved to be overwhelmingly positive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Intern

True Story


Jonah Hill takes James Franco's order in the studio commissary.

Jonah Hill takes James Franco’s order in the studio commissary.

(2015) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Maria Dizzia, Ethan Suplee, Conor Kikot, Charlotte Driscoll, Stella Rae Payne, Robert John Burke, Byron Jennings, Gretchen Mol, Betty Gilpin, Seth Barrish, Robert Stanton, Michael Countryman, Steve Routman, Genevieve Angelson, Adam Mucci, Auden Thornton. Directed by Rupert Goold

It is the journalist’s calling – or at least their job – to seek the truth, or at least the truth that can be proved by facts. It isn’t always easy to do, particularly when you’re dealing with clever liars and master manipulators.

Mike Finkel (Hill) was a respected reporter for the New York Times – he’d written eight cover stories for the coveted Sunday magazine. It was the eighth that got him into trouble; feeling the pressure to make the story readable, he’d consolidated events and characters into a single kid while doing a piece on abuses at a West African cocoa plantation (in reality, the real Finkel got in trouble for a piece on the continued slave trade coming out of Africa). His career in tatters, he runs home to his wife Jill (Jones) in Montana. It appears that he will have to find something else to do with his life.

Then he gets a call from Pat Frato (Suplee), a journalist at the Portland Oregonian who delivers some startling news. Apparently Christian Longo (Franco), a man accused of brutally murdering his entire family, had been apprehended and apparently had been masquerading as a former reporter for the Times  – three guesses which one and the first two don’t count.

Curious as to why Longo would choose his identity to steal, Finkel arranges to get some interview time with Longo. Finkel becomes fascinated – Jill might say obsessed – with the charismatic and handsome Longo, who seems to have everyone around him wrapped around his little finger. He seems to be genuinely and deeply grieving for his murdered family. He also is taking an interest in learning how to write, the more to be like Mike.

The more time Finkel spends with Longo, the less certain he is of his guilt. Finkel begins to dig into things and discovers eventually that not everything – nor everyone – is as it seems around these parts. Soon Mike must make the choice as to whether he thinks that Longo is a master manipulator who is playing the tune that everyone around him dances to, or if he is truly innocent and bereaved.

This is based on the real Mike Finkel’s memoirs about the case and his experiences with Christian Longo. In all honesty, there are a lot of fact fudges in here which is a bit ironic because the whole theme of the movie is trust and lies. First time filmmaker Goold has extensive experience directing stage plays and in most of the interior pieces it shows with literally just a succession of one and two shots that shows little understanding of the depth of the big screen compared to the stage.

What is more disturbing is the lack of energy displayed here. Yes, the setting is the Pacific Northwest and there is a constant shroud of rain and fog on the exteriors, and we don’t see the sun in virtually any of this film other than flashbacks or New York City. But it seems like the cast is in the fog as well; not quite zombies but like everyone pulled an all-nighter and is falling asleep where they’re standing.

Hill and Franco are more or less the exceptions, and the chemistry they have together is undeniable but long story short it isn’t enough to elevate this film which is actually adequate enough in terms of entertainment value mainly because of the two leads and the compelling story. Unfortunately the attempts to make it a morality play kind of fall a bit flat.

REASONS TO GO: Hill and Franco make a good team. Nice Pacific Northwest vistas.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy and inertia. Doesn’t really inspire passion in the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some disturbing images and unsettling thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fingerprint pattern on the movie’s poster is actually made up of the word “LIES” printed over and over again.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Murder in the First
FINAL RATING:
6/10
NEXT:
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

The Hunt (Jagten)


The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

The consequences of gossip and lies can be devastating.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkoop, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont, Rikke Bergmann, Allan Wilbor Christensen, Josefine Grabol, Daniel Engstrup, Katrine Brygmann, Hana Shuan, Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, Nicolai Dahl Hamilton. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg   

Offshoring

Florida Film Festival 2013

Western culture has this tendency to idealize children. In our eyes they are truthful little angels, incapable of lying. Well, any parent will tell you that they do lie, through their teeth at times. Sometimes, well-meaning adults  can push children into saying what they think those adults want to hear. We are defenseless against the word of a child.

Lucas (Mikkelsen) is working as a kindergarten assistant in a small town in Denmark (the school he previously taught at has been shut down). Divorced and regularly denied visitation rights with his son, he is nonetheless well-liked and well-regarded in his community in which he has deep long-standing ties. His best friend, Theo (Larsen) has been known to drink himself insensible in Lucas’ company, always relying on Lucas to get him home to his wryly understanding wife Agnes (Hassing).

Theo’s daughter Klara (Wedderkoop), an angelic blonde little girl, adores Lucas…maybe too much. One afternoon when Lucas is rough housing with some of the boys, Klara rushes in and plants a rather adult kiss on his open mouth. Taken aback, Lucas admonishes her never to do that, and promptly forgets about the incident.

Klara doesn’t however. Humiliated, she sulks. Principal Grethe (Wold) finds her and quickly realizes that something’s wrong but she misinterprets and assumes that the reason she’s upset with Lucas is because he touched her inappropriately. She calls in a child services advocate (Dupont) who questions Klara. Klara, eager to be on the playground with her friends and tired of the incessant questioning, finally agrees that is what happened to her.

Lucas finds himself in the middle of a storm that he didn’t see coming. His denials are met with anger – Klara is a child not known for lying, why would she lie about this? He is quickly ostracized by the community, by people he knows well who suddenly see him as a child molester and a pervert. Theo is torn – he can’t believe that Lucas would do such a thing but Agnes has no such qualms. Of course he did – her angel said so and when Klara, seeing the rift developing between her parents and Lucas exclaims that he never did anything wrong, Agnes is sure that she is blocking out an unpleasant memory and tells her daughter so firmly that Klara believes her. And now other kids are coming forward, claiming Lucas took them into his basement and fondled them.

Even Lucas’ girlfriend Nadja (Rapaport) has some doubts about his innocence which causes the enraged Lucas to dump her. Worse still, his visitation rights to his son Marcus (Fogelstrom) are suspended. Rocks are thrown through his window. Klara however doesn’t see the enormity of what’s happened – she shows up at Lucas’ door to walk his dog, something he would normally allow her to do but he gently shoos her back home.

Lucas is shown the uglier side of those he has known all his life as despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing other than the word of Klara (the other stories are discredited when it is discovered by the police that Lucas’ house has no basement). As Christmas comes, Lucas is completely alone, ostracized and subject to being assaulted when he shows his face in a local grocery store.

Vinterberg, known as one of the founders of the Dogme95 movement of minimalist filmmaking with his masterpiece (to this point) Feste has crafted a movie that surpasses even that fine film. I can’t remember a movie in which I felt so emotionally drained after having sat through – some might consider the act of watching it a bit of an ordeal.

But it’s a good kind of ordeal, the kind that reminds us how ephemeral those ties that bind can be and how quickly our whole life can be turned inside out. Part of what draws us into this story is Mikkelsen’s outstanding performance. If this were a studio film (and I defy you to find a Hollywood studio with the guts to release a movie this harrowing) he’d be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January. Because this is being distributed by Magnolia – a fine distributor of indie and foreign films, mind you – chances are it won’t get the notice and the push needed to get him the votes needed to get him on the ballot. Rest assured however that Mikkelsen’s work is as good as anything  you’ll see on the final ballot. It’s searing; Lucas is basically a quiet, good man trying to pull his life back together after a rough patch who is suddenly thrust into a situation that makes everything he went through previously look like a walk in the park. When things go South, Lucas reacts at first with incredulity then with denial and then with rage before finally going into a kind of shock.

The photography is simply exquisite as the bucolic Danish town, covered in snow or shining in the late summer/early autumn sun looks idyllic on the surface but like often happens, the rot is just below the surface. There is a scene near the end of the movie where Lucas stumbles into a Christmas Eve service where he is clearly not wanted. His face bruised and bloodied from a beating earlier that day, he sits in a pew, receiving disapproving glares from those around him. Nearby sits Theo and his family and Theo and he lock eyes several times. Theo gradually realizes that his friend is innocent – because he knows his friend and he sees the truth in his eyes. It’s a powerful scene and one that resonated with me long after the movie ended. I would recommend seeing the movie just for that scene alone.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more going for it than just that scene. Frankly, this is a movie that is as good as anything you’ll see this year. If there’s one flaw, it’s that the intensity might be too much for some. Still, if you are not emotionally fragile, this is the kind of movie that will lift you by the scruff of the neck and force you to see something of yourself whether you want to face it or not. To me, that’s a movie that’s worth its weight in gold.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally wrenching. Amazing performance by Mikkelsen who should get Oscar consideration for it (but won’t).

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the themes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Very, very, very adult themes. Some violence, some bad language and some sexuality. Definitely not for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his role here

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100; it’s still early yet but the critics appear to be embracing this film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scarlet Letter

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Offshoring Part 2

Just Go With It


Just Go With It

Venus, arising from the waves.

(2011) Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston, Brooklyn Decker, Nicole Kidman, Nick Swardson, Bailee Madison, Griffin Gluck, Dave Matthews, Kevin Nealon, Rachel Dratch, Allen Covert, Dan Patrick, Minka Kelly, Heidi Montag, Andy Roddick. Directed by Dennis Dugan

My wife was fond of telling our son that the truth will find you out, and it inevitably does. Sooner or later, whatever transgressions you think you might be getting away with will see the light of day.

Danny Maccabee (Sandler) inherited the prominent bulbous nose of his parents but managed to get a woman to agree to marry him. She’s mostly interested in the fact that he’s about to graduate from medical school and can give her a life into which she’s been accustomed, or would like to be. That hasn’t stopped her from fooling around on Danny nor will it after they get married. Unfortunately, Danny overhears all this and calls things off.

Despondent, he goes to a bar to drown his sorrows and finds there a gorgeous woman who seeing his wedding ring, assumes he’s married. Because she seems willing to talk to him, he plays along and winds up having a wedding night after all – only without no wedding, no commitment, no honeymoon.

Flash forward 20 years. Danny has amputated his nose (all right, made it normal looking) and continues to use his old wedding band to cruise for chicks in bars. It seems to work on an amazingly consistent basis, much to the bemusement of his assistant Katherine (Aniston), who is Danny’s best female friend who is a single mother of two kids and who is constantly putting up with the advances of Eddie (Swardson), Danny’s best friend from days gone by.

Of course, inevitably, Danny finally meets someone who he thinks he would like to be with permanently – beautiful Palmer (Decker), who is apparently a bikini model turned schoolteacher. She and Danny hit it off, complete with romantic sex on the beach. Love is apparently in bloom – until she finds the ring in his pocket.

Danny is desperate to explain the situation to her and at pal Katherine’s urging, tells Palmer that he’s in the process of a divorce from a bitter, mean hag – a divorce that was in the process before she met Danny. Being a suspicious sort (and justifiably so, it seems) she demands to meet the ex. Danny enlists Katherine’s help and she does it for a makeover and wardrobe enhancement on Rodeo Drive. She shows up looking hot and sexy and things are going marvelously – until Katherine takes a call from her kids, leading Palmer to believe that their marriage had issue. Now Palmer wants to meet them too and Danny is forced to recruit Maggie (Madison), an aspiring actress who loves to deliver horrible Liza Doolittle accents and Michael (Gluck), a budding con artist who will be governor of Wisconsin someday.

The trip to a Chuck E. Cheese-like pizza parlor is parlayed by the ambitious Michael into a trip to Hawaii (all on Danny’s dime) which Eddie, masquerading as Katherine’s “fiancée” Dolph Lundgren (not that one, the Austrian sheep trader) tags along. While there, they run into Devlin (Kidman), Katherine’s nemesis from college who is married to the inventor of the iPod (Matthews) and in order to appear better in Devlin’s eyes, professes to being married to Danny although why she wants to impress someone whose name has become a personal euphemism for doo-doo I can’t really explain.

In fact, there are a lot of things I can’t explain about the movie so let’s start with the things I can. It’s loosely based on the French play which became a Broadway play which became the 1969 Oscar winning comedy Cactus Flower. I don’t recall there being as many bikinis going on as there are here, although to be fair the Jennifer Aniston role was played by Ingrid Bergman in 1969, so draw your own conclusions.

Sandler is one of those comedians who seem to have created a brand name for himself by doing the same type of movie on a regular basis. He’s likable enough, but he seems to do better when he stretches himself a little – as in Funny People. Here, he’s not stretching much. There are some nice bits of physical comedy having to do with his profession as a plastic surgeon (such as the woman with the eyebrow that’s halfway up her forehead, or the woman with the mismatched breasts) but by and large the humor is mostly of the lowest common denominator variety.

Decker, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, acquits herself pretty nicely as the love interest. It doesn’t hurt that she looks absolutely spectacular in a bathing suit (as does Aniston, who gets into a hot bod-off with Decker during one segment which was enough to have one fellow in the front of the theater sitting with his legs splayed wide open making sounds best left to your imagination). She has a pretty sweet nature and you get the feeling out of everyone in the movie, she’s the one who winds up getting screwed. Kidman, in a very brief role, goes over the top in a way that is both appropriate and appreciated. She’s memorable, even though she’s reduced to having a hula contest with Aniston.

Now, I don’t have a problem with kids in movies if there’s A), a reason for them to be there and B), the kids can act. The kids serve to be more of a distraction than anything and while Madison has done some good work on Bridge to Terabithia but here she’s just too much of a kid actor. The performance is stilted and unnatural, like a kid pretending to be a kid instead of just being a kid – and the same holds true for Gluck here as well. That’s the pitfall with child actors and the best ones are the ones who simply are themselves. Too-cute child actor syndrome often turns a movie from decent to annoying.

Speaking of annoying, what’s up with Nick Swardson here? He’s usually a pretty funny guy but when he morphs into Dolph Lundgren (the sheep trader not the actor) the movie grinds to a halt – Swardson is spectacularly unfunny. Even the bit of him giving a sheep the Heimlich maneuver doesn’t work, partially because the sheep is so patently made of rubber.

To the good, Aniston and Sandler actually work pretty well together and it makes you wonder why they haven’t paired up before now. They have a natural chemistry that makes the movie worth seeing, but only slightly. There are enough moments that torpedo their best intentions, however, that audiences should be cautioned to go in with low expectations.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very funny moments. Sandler and Aniston work nicely together and Aniston, Decker and Kidman are awfully easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: Too-cute kid syndrome cuts into the overall enjoyment of the film. Swardson’s “Dolph” character stops the movie dead in its tracks.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, a little bit of crude language and some drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is their first film together, Sandler and Aniston have been off-screen friends for more than 20 years (before either of them became famous). In fact, as a tribute to his friend, Sandler had the movie released on her birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Unless you really need to have girls in bikinis take up your entire field of vision, home is just dandy for this one.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Gnomeo and Juliet

Gulliver’s Travels (2010)


Gulliver's Travels

You think YOUR day is going badly - Jack Black is getting a wedgie from a Transformer.

(2010) Comic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Jack Black, Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Chris O’Dowd, T.J. Miller, James Corden, Catherine Tate, Emmanuel Quatra, Olly Alexander, Richard Laing. Directed by Rob Letterman

The dreaded updating of a classic usually spells utter disaster. When moving Jonathan Swift’s iconic novel into the 21st century, will the filmmakers retain its essence or go for the cheap laughs?

Score one for the cheap laughs. Lemuel Gulliver (Black) – and I find it unbelievable that not a single joke was made about someone with the unfortunate first name of “Lemuel” – has been working in the mail room of the New York Tribune for ten years; for nearly that long he’s had a crush on the comely travel editor Darcy Silverman (Peet). He’s been content to worship from afar and play Guitar Hero on the job. When he trains a new young buck in the mail room (Miller), he is mortified to discover that his trainee has been promoted to the Mail Room manager, which sucks big time.

Then again, Lemuel is too afraid to even talk to other employees at the paper, let alone approach them about career advice. On the spur of the moment, he picks up an application for the position of travel writer and Darcy urges him to submit some samples. Lemuel spends the entire night trying to write some scintillating prose – only to discover that he has no game. Desperate, he plagiarizes sections from Frommer’s Guide and other travel icons and gets the job. Darcy sends him out to Bermuda to check out a tour into the legendary Bermuda Triangle.

He falls asleep at the wheel of the boat (apparently this tour comes sans guides) and is steered directly into a gigantic waterspout. When he awakens, the boat is wrecked and he has been tied up by lots of tiny little people, led by a tiny little General Edward (O’Dowd) who takes him to the King of Lilliput (Connolly) and his MILF queen (Tate). The giant Lemuel is chained in a cave along with Lilliput’s only other offender, Horatio (Segel) who had the effrontery to glance soulfully at Princess Mary (Blunt) who happens to be Edward’s betrothed.

When the sworn enemies of Lilliput, Blefuscia, attack, it is Gulliver who comes to the rescue. The grateful king pardons Gulliver and makes him “vice-general” of the army which doesn’t sit well with the pompous Edward.  He plots to allow the entire fleet of Blefuscia attack but Gulliver inexplicably saves the day again. Edward defects in disgrace and guilds a giant robot which he defeats Gulliver with. Gulliver reveals himself to be a lowly coward and a liar (having told the Lilliputians outrageous tales of his life) and is exiled to the Island They Dare Not Travel To, which turns out to be inhabited by giants (by Gulliver’s standards – to the Lilliputians everyone’s a giant). However, Darcy has washed up on the shores of Lilliput having set out after Gulliver. Can the disgraced protector find his inner giant?

If you loved the Jonathan Swift novel, keep walking when you get to the box office; other than having a Lemuel Gulliver wash up on the shores of Lilliput and be tied up by its army, there is almost no relationship between the book and the movie. What this is mostly is a Jack Black vehicle, designed to showcase his talents as a comedian and his usual shtick. The jokes are mainly unfunny; playing foosball with Lilliputians, having Lilliputians re-enact scenes from Star Wars and Titanic and claiming that these are moments from his own life; hardy har har har.

While I was a big fan of Black in High Fidelity, I have to admit that he was a bit tiresome here. When you look at comedians who inhabit a certain persona (like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams), they become like one-trick ponies, constantly reprising the same role in movie after movie. It works for the first few films of their career but eventually the audience gets tired of it. Sometimes, as in the case of Williams, they broaden their range and make movies that are more mature but when they don’t, they tend to fall by the wayside much faster.

I have to admit the visuals here are pretty good. Lilliput has a quasi-Victorian feel. In some ways, it’s almost steampunk and that’s not a bad thing – I kind of wish they had pushed in that direction a little bit further.  However, and I must emphasize this, what they have works just fine as it is.

Besides Black, you have the very likable Segel as the second banana and the lovely Blunt and Peet both make fine romantic foils, but this is clearly Black’s show. Even Connolly, one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the past decade, is curiously humorless in his role.

As comedies go this is pretty mediocre stuff. I can’t really recommend it with too much enthusiasm, although I can’t really say “avoid it at all costs” either. It’s just kind of there as an alternative when you want something light and brainless and seeing Tangled for the umpteenth time is not in the cards.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a nice-looking movie and there are some funny moments as well as some heart-warming moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Jumps the shark with the musical number at the end. Too much mugging from Jack Black and not enough real human emotion. The film felt more like a product.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of crude humor (Jack Black is not going to get any points from firefighters) and some mildly bad words but otherwise, pretty much suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Blunt was originally cast as the Black Widow in Iron Man 2 but backed out to do this movie.

HOME OR THEATER: I imagine the scale of the visuals looks better on a big screen than a small one, but hey, they’re little people – on a smaller TV screen they still look little.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: RocknRolla