New Releases for the Week of September 4, 2015


Best of EnemiesBEST OF ENEMIES

(Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr. Gore Vidal, Kelsey Grammer (voice), John Lithgow (voice), Dick Cavett, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky. Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville

In 1968, the Vietnam War was raging and LBJ had announced that he would not run for President. The counterculture was beginning to make its presence felt and there was a great deal of anger directed towards the American government for the first time. Richard Nixon, who would eventually win the presidency, was running against Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with Alabama governor George Wallace running on an independent ticket, and the election was as vitriolic as it had ever been. Trying to make sense of everything, a series of televised debates was set up – not between the candidates, but between conservative commentator/essayist William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal author Gore Vidal. Both men were urbane, charming and literate and both absolutely loathed one  another with a passion. These debates would change the way television covers politics.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some sexual content/nudity and language)

Chloe and Theo

(ARC Entertainment) Dakota Johnson, Theo Ikummaq, Mira Sorvino, Andre De Shields. Elders of the Inuit Eskimos, disturbed by the effects of climate change on the polar ice cap, send Theo to New York City to speak to the United Nations. He meets and befriends a young homeless woman who becomes inspired by his gentle wisdom. With the help of a kind lawyer, they will get the opportunity to present their message to the world; change our destructive ways before we are destroyed by them.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

Mistress America

(Fox Searchlight) Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Michael Chernus, Rebecca Henderson. A lonely college freshman in New York City is compelled by her mother to look up the daughter of the man mom is about to marry, a kind of soon-to-be stepsister. The two hit it off and the freshman begins to accept her proto-sister as a role model. However, as she is seduced by the energy and madcap schemes of her friend, things take an abrupt change. An early review for the film can be found here.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Tangerine

(Magnolia) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Clu Gulager. Christmas Eve in El Lay is like nowhere else, and even on Christmas Eve there can be prodigious drama. Sin-Dee, just released from jail after doing 28 days for soliciting and when the volatile working girl finds out that her pimp slash boyfriend has been cheating on her while she was cooling her heels, the proverbial ca-ca is going to hit the fan.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug use)

The Transporter Refueled

(EuropaCorp) Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright. The franchise is rebooted with Ed Skrein taking over for Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a dapper, fastidious sort who has a complicated set of rules for his vocation of transporting sensitive cargo for questionable people. A father-son bonding weekend is interrupted when he takes a job for a client, a quartet of lovely femme fatales who orchestrate a daring bank robbery. Unfortunately, they have stolen from the Russian mob and Frank is caught reluctantly but squarely in the middle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release (opens Thursday)
Rating: PG-13 (for scenes of violence and action, sexual material, some language, a drug reference and thematic elements)

Un gallo con muchos huevos

(Pantelion)  Starring the voices of Bruno Bechir, Carlos Espejel, Angelica Vale, Omar Chaparro. Amongst Mexican children, Huevo Cartoon is king and the animated television series makes it to the big screen and for the first time, to El Norte. A small, timid young chicken must find his inner rooster if he and his friends are going to save his family and his home from an evil rancher.

See the trailer, interviews and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal The Loop
Rating: NR

A Walk in the Woods

(Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen. A travel writer rather than retiring to his beautiful wife and large family, decides to push himself one last time and hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. He can only find one friend to accompany him however; the irascible and womanizing Katz, who is more interested in sneaking out of town to avoid paying a debt. The peace and tranquility that the writer longs for goes right out the window with that decision.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

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Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT:

Back to the Future Part III


Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

Christopher Lloyd shows Michael J. Fox how he did the Judge Doom pop-eyes effect.

(1990) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson, Richard Dysart, Matt Clark, James Tolkan, Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Jeffrey Weissman, Flea, J.J. Cohen, ZZ Top, Donovan Scott. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

If you’re going to end a trilogy, there should be a definite ending, one which brings the franchise to a close in case no further films are made, but leaves the possibility for further films if they are warranted. That, in Hollywood terms, is the definition of success of a final entry in a film franchise.

Following the events of Back to the Future Part II (NOTE: If you haven’t seen the first two films there are spoilers in the synopsis of the third. Skip ahead or don’t read if you’d rather not know what happened) Marty McFly (Fox) is stranded back in 1955 and the Doc Brown (Lloyd) of his time has been stranded back in 1885. Marty has to enlist the aid of the 1955 Doc Brown to get Marty home – except they discover that Doc will be murdered in 1885 not long after he arrives.

Marty instead returns back to 1885 a few days before the date on Doc’s tombstone but in the process the gas tank of the Delorean is punctured and all of the gas leaks out, leaving the car essentially an inert hunk of metal. However Doc and Marty figure out a way to get the car moving to 88 MPH and return to the future using a souped-up steam train.

But as always there are complications. Doc and Marty have angered an outlaw named Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Wilson) and Doc has fallen in love with pretty schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Steenburgen). Doc is torn between his love for Clara and the need to get Marty home; will Marty be able to make it back to the future?

My main complaint about the second film was that it didn’t possess the heart of the original. This one more than makes up for it, particularly in the relationship between Doc and Clara. Marty in some ways takes a back seat to Doc in this movie, which is a bit of a refreshing change.

The movie was the least successful at the box office of the three having as much to do with its Western setting as anything else. Westerns were very much out of favor at the time this was made (and continue to be fairly low on the cinematic totem pole, no pun intended, even today) and might have kept away a segment of the audience who preferred the more sci-fi elements of the first two films.

The train scene that is the film’s climax is one of the most impressive of the trilogy and will keep even the most jaded movie buff on the edge of their seats. The camaraderie between Doc and Marty is as always the heart of the film and never is it more in evidence here. In many ways we watch Marty grow from a teenager into a man during the course of the film and for no small reason because Fox went through so much during the back-to-back filming of the last two films in the trilogy; his father passed away while this film was being shot (and filming was suspended for two weeks so he could grieve) and his first child was born as well. Those are the kind of life events that can make even the most immature of men grow up quickly (and no, I’m not trying to imply that Fox was immature back then – hater!) and Fox certainly did that.

This is a fitting end of the trilogy, with a believable romance, great action sequences and is just plain fun to watch. I would put up the Back to the Future trilogy with any film series in Hollywood in terms of sheer entertainment value. Even though I’ve seen all three of the films a dozen times apiece, they still never fail to bring a warm feeling into my heart every time I see them. What more can you ask from a movie?

WHY RENT THIS: Big on thrills. Steenburgen makes an excellent addition to the cast. Reclaims the heart of the first film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates a bit from formula.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of violence and some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only actors who appear in all three films are Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, Wilson, Tolkan and Cohen (McClure appeared in a single scene in Part II but the scene was cut).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also a music video of ZZ Top’s “Doubleback.”. A Back to the Future FAQ text feature illustrates the obstacles of time travel and is an entertaining read if you’re so inclined. There are also animated factoid pop-ups which can be set to appear periodically throughout the film. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $244.5M on a $40M production budget; while it still is considered a blockbuster it was strangely the least financially successful of the three films.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Turbo

Step Brothers


Step Brothers

Cannonballllllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(2008) Comedy (Columbia) Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Andrea Savage, Lurie Poston, Elizabeth Yozamp, Logan Manus, Seth Rogen, Rob Riggle, Ken Jeong, Travis Flory. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Blended families are no longer very unusual. The days of the Brady Bunch and Yours, Mine and Ours are pretty much behind us. However, it is pretty unusual to see blended families with middle-aged children living at home.

Brennnan Huff (Ferrell) is the self-centered son of Nancy Huff (Steenburgen), living at home, unemployed and screaming at his mother when his snack food isn’t exactly right. Dale Doback (Reilly) is the peevish son of Dr. Robert Doback (Jenkins) and is also unemployed; he berates his father for not leaving him enough money to order pizza AND soda while he’s away at a convention.

It is at that convention that Nancy and Robert meet, fall in love and eventually get married. It is decided that Brennan will move in with Nancy, Robert and Dale. Initially, Dale and Brennan take to each other pretty much like Texans to Oklahomans. The two try to make each other as miserable as possible, much to their parents anguish. An escalating series of pranks finally comes to a head when Robert orders the two grown men to find work, leading to a series of job interviews that are best left uncommented upon.

After awhile, Dale and Brennan find some common ground – quite a lot, frankly – and begin to change their tunes. However, this could be too little too late and with Brennan’s conniving and status-obsessed little brother Derek (Scott) trying to sabotage their efforts (and Derek’s lusty wife Alice (Hahn) putting the moves on Dale) things are taking a turn for the worse for the two slackers.

Judd Apatow is once again at the producer’s reins here and longtime Ferrell collaborator McKay in the director’s chair, which should mean good things, Unfortunately the comedy magic that has resulted in movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is largely absent here. There are some good moments to be sure, but the story is pretty weak – it’s kind of a bad episode of the Brady Bunch.

Ferrell and Reilly aren’t the problem here. They make a tremendous team and play off of each other well. The best sequences in the film are those in which Ferrell and Reilly are front and center. Fortunately, most of the time that’s exactly where they are and at their quirky best. I’m not saying the rest of the cast s awful, they simply don’t get much to work with.

The language is pretty darn foul, and at times I think the movie relies too much on profanity which is usually a bad thing – it’s the sign of a lazy writer who doesn’t have particularly much to say – but there are those who think that kind of thing is hilarious, so they’ll like all of this.

Some critics get huffy about this kind of comedy, but let’s face it; even men with the mentalities of adolescent boys deserve a laugh too. That the movie was somewhat disappointing at the box office is indicative that the general moviegoing public may be getting tired of this kind of humor.

WHY RENT THIS: Ferrell and Reilly are among the best comedy teams there are. Quirky in a good way.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is weak and the cast never really lives up to expectations. Some of the gags fall flat.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a lot of bad language and a fair amount of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steenburgen, who plays Ferrell’s mom, played his step-mother in Elf.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video, as well as a gag reel and the regular Judd Apatow “Line-o-Rama” feature. There is also a segment in which Apatow gives actress Charlyne Yi permission to live on the set, which causes some problems. There’s also a bit in which Jenkins pursues Steenburgen amorously, incurring the ire of real-life husband Ted Danson (and there’s a fabulous mystery cameo here). There are a series of job interview segments that were cut from the film and some additional therapy scenes as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $128.1M on a $65M production budget; the movie essentially broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Virginity Hit

The Dead Girl


The Dead Girl

The late Brittany Murphy is about to become The Dead Girl.

(2006) Mystery (First Look) Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington. Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Every so often we experience something profound; it changes our point of view and might well change our lives completely. Not all of these experiences are pleasant. Some, in fact can be grisly and ugly. That is simply the nature of life; not all of it is pretty.

Arden (Collette) discovers a badly beaten and mutilated body of a young woman while out jogging. She calls the police and becomes a bit of a local celebrity which gets the notice of Rudy (Ribisi), a bagboy at her local grocery who asks her out. Arden lives with her mom (Laurie) who is a bit of a sadistic monster, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot and generally degrading and belittling her.

Leah (Byrne), a graduate forensics student, finds out about the body on the news and thinks it might be her long-missing sister. Her mother (Steenburgen) urges Leah to let go and move on but Leah is convinced it’s the missing girl. However, after a close medical examination it turns out that Leah is mistaken.

In the meantime Ruth (Hurt), a devout Christian, suspects that her husband Carl (Searcy) is sleeping with another woman. She sets about finding proof of his infidelity and discovers instead evidence that her husband might be a serial rapist and murderer. She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and telling the police what she’s found.

The dead girl is identified as Krista Kutcher (Murphy) and her devastated mom (Harden), from whom Krista had run away from years back, tries to pick up the pieces, visiting her roommate (Washington) to find out more about the daughter she never knew – and to meet the granddaughter she never knew she had.

Finally, we see the last day of Krista, her relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Brolin) and the love she has for her daughter and the determination that she doesn’t repeat her past mistakes. We also discover what led her to the fateful encounter with the man who would leave her in that field for Arden to discover.

The story is told in a series of five vignettes, each concerned with a specific woman and how she is affected by the discovery of the dead body, even indirectly (as with Ruth). Moncrieff who attracted some critic love with her feature debut Blue Car resists the temptation to interweave the vignettes and instead tells them consecutively, back to back to back to back to back, letting each story play out to its conclusion and leaving us to wonder about the dead girl until the final tale.

She cast some very strong actresses here starting with the late Murphy, who would die tragically young only three years after making this. She makes Krista a strong woman but one who has allowed her emotions to override her sense time after time. She’s a little unstable and that has led to her girl being raised by others. Although we know in advance what fate is to befall her, she is not portrayed so much as a victim here as much as someone who refuses to be one any longer.

Harden also gets kudos as the mom who alienated her daughter to the point where she ran away, now realizing too late she can never make things right between them. It’s a powerful portrayal and while there is much pathos to it, Harden is never manipulative in the role, preferring to make her character try to understand her daughter rather than grieve nonstop over her.

Some of the vignettes work better than others (the first two are less effective than the last three) but all of them work as a whole. There is a certain squalor here – this isn’t a pretty picture as mentioned earlier – and a dark undertone that is relentless throughout. This isn’t a happy tale, although there are moments where characters experience some kind of enlightenment.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch. It hits hard on an emotional level, aided and abetted by strong performances throughout (including the ones highlighted). It is definitely a woman’s movie, about how women are affected by the death of a sister, a daughter, a stranger. It also illustrates how vulnerable women are in a world where men will absolutely take what they want regardless of consequence, both to themselves and to the woman involved.

WHY RENT THIS: Very well-acted and the stories resolve together nicely. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like all of these sorts of anthology films, not every vignette works.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language, some nudity and sexuality and some images that are a bit grisly and disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Dead Girl’s last name is Kutcher. Actress Brittany Murphy dated Ashton Kutcher for a time after both starred in the movie Just Married.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $905,291 on an unreported production budget; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the movie lost money during its brief theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hatchet II

The Help


The Help

Viola Davis is tired of Emma Stone asking what it's like to be nominated for an Oscar.

(2011) Period Drama (DreamWorks/Disney) Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Ahna O’Reilly, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Cicely Tyson, Mike Vogel, Anna Camp, Brian Kerwin, Mary Steenburgen, David Oyelowo, Aunjanue Ellis, Nelsan Ellis. Directed by Tate Taylor

Often those who work as domestic servants are relegated to being background characters, even in real life. They clean the houses of their employers, cook their food and even raise their children, but their stories are rarely told. That’s especially true of the African-American domestics of Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s as America stood on the cusp of the civil rights movement.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Stone) has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss with her head stuffed with the dreams of being a writer. Her mother Charlotte (Janney) has different dreams for her daughter; mainly of getting married, something Skeeter isn’t eager to do. Her friends mostly already have and can’t figure out why on earth a good looking girl like Skeeter remains unhitched.

Skeeter is surprised that her longtime nanny and maid Constantine (Tyson) is gone. According to her parents, Constantine has gone to Chicago to be with her family there but Skeeter senses that there is something she’s not being told. She holds her tongue however, considering her mother is battling cancer. Skeeter is also far too busy starting a new job as the columnist for the (fictional) Jackson Journal dispensing housecleaning tips.

Her friend Hilly Holbrook (Howard) has become something of a community leader, head of the local Junior League and writer and proponent of a bill that specifies that the hired help in Jackson homes must have separate toilet facilities. This doesn’t sit well with her maid Millie (Spencer), who doesn’t appreciate being sent out in a hurricane to use an outdoor commode. When she pretends to use the family restroom, she is shown the door much to the chagrin of Hilly’s mom (Spacek) who was Millie’s actual employer.

Millie is the best cook in Jackson so it won’t take her long to get another position, this time with Celia Foote (Chastain), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks blonde who is married to an ex-boyfriend of Hilly’s and has thus earned social shunning. Celia knows nothing of cleaning house or cooking, and she desperately needs someone who can train her in both, or at least convince her husband Johnny (Vogel) that she knows something.

Also in Skeeter’s circle is Elizabeth Leefolt (O’Reilly) whose young daughter Mae is being raised by Aibileen (Davis), who has raised seventeen white babies while her own son died recently. She keeps her grief to herself, pouring herself into taking care of the family she works for. She notices that Elizabeth doesn’t really interact with her daughter much, rarely picking her up and Mae has become as a result way more attached to Aibileen.

Skeeter is aware of Aibileen’s reputation as a housekeeper and asks Elizabeth permission to talk to Aibileen so she can get help writing her column. Elizabeth is reluctant and puts a stop to the conversations after a single session but Skeeter becomes fascinated by Aibileen and has the brilliant idea to write the stories of the domestics of Jackson and make a book out of them. Her publishing contact in New York (Steenburgen) agrees but is skeptical that given the climate in Jackson that Skeeter will see much co-operation.

It initially appears that the publisher is right when Aibileen refuses Skeeter but after a particularly impassioned sermon by the local pastor (Oyelowo) inspires Aibileen to change her mind. Aibileen also recruits her friend Millie and soon Skeeter is getting some pretty subversive stuff, things that are going to shake up Jackson to the core.

This is based by the 2009 bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett whose childhood friend Taylor adapted the work for the screen and directed. Taylor does a fair job with it, framing the story in the turbulent times; we see clips of Medgar Evers (and see the devastating effects of his murder on the community) as well as JFK and Martin Luther King. The archival footage dos help set the time and place.

It is the acting that is the real reason to see this movie. Davis in particular becomes the center of the movie and Stone, who is the erstwhile lead, seems to realize that and generously allows Davis to shine at her own expense. That turns out to be a good move for the film; Davis carries it. Her quiet dignity and expressive eyes are at the center of the movie. For my money, it’s an Oscar-caliber performance and I sure hope the Academy remembers her work come nomination time.

That isn’t to say that the rest of the cast isn’t impressive as well. Stone takes Skeeter and gives her sass and character. At times the character is written as kind of the “white person saving the black person” cliche, but Stone elevates it above stock character status. Speaking of sass, Spencer just about defines the term in her portrayal of Minnie who comes off as very spunky but there are moments when she reveals her inner pain, suffering in an abusive relationship and unsure of herself.

Howard has the juiciest role here, that of the hysterical racist Hilly. Howard has had some decent performances in a variety of movies, but this might be her finest. She captures the pettiness and vitriol of the part and her expression when Millie’s “terrible awful” is revealed is priceless.

Veterans Steenburgen, Janney and Spacek lend further credibility to the film which is well acted from top to bottom. There are moments of genuine comedy (the terrible awful) as well as some heartstring tuggers (when Aibileen reveals to Skeeter what happened to her son). Mostly, you get a sense of the attitudes towards African-Americans of the era. We’ve come a long way since then, but we still have a very long way to go (as evidenced in the treatment of our President and the continued use of racial profiling). The Help isn’t the best movie of the year but it is on a very, very short list.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and compelling source material. Drama, comedy, pathos; this movie has something for everybody.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be emotionally manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material is on the mature side; younger kids may not understand the historical context but for teens who might be learning about the civil rights movement this makes for some fine viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book the movie is based on was rejected 60 times before finally being published, a testament to persistence by author Kathryn Stockett.

HOME OR THEATER: As studio films go this one’s pretty intimate but the shared experience factor tends to make me lean towards theater for this one.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: GasLand

Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.