Murder on the Cape (Murder on Cape Cod)


A romantic and picturesque image does not a great movie make.

(2017) True Crime Drama (Vision) Josh Walther, Jade Harlow, Heather Egeli, Tim Misuradze, Chris Lazzaro, Kevin Cotter, John Clayton, Sarah MacDonnell, Bragan Thomas, Bryce Egeli, Christina Egeli, Tobias Everett, Lisa Hayes, Alison Hyder. Directed by Arthur Egeli

 

This film, which has made some film festival appearances before moving on to various streaming and VOD services, is based on the real-life murder of fashion writer Christa Worthington. The crime has been the subject of a 48 Hours investigation and more recently a video podcast by the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 revisiting the crime.

As with most true crime films some of the details are changed but we’ll get to that in a moment. In Murder on the Cape fashion writer Elizabeth Baldwin (Harlow) has moved from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the quiet and picturesque New England fishing village of Denton Harbor (a fictional town standing in for the real location of Truro, Massachusetts). Mike Luna (Walther), an unemployed fisherman who is delivering firewood to help make ends meet for his family, brings some to Baldwin who takes a liking to the handsome and burly Mike.

Mike is married to Nancy (H. Egeli) who is supportive but is running out of patience. Mike insists that he’s a fisherman and that’s what he’s meant to do; when a job working for the town police department monitoring the shellfish population and making sure that people have the proper permits to harvest them. Mike considers it a humiliating job but after a dust-up with Nancy he admits that he needs the work and does what he has to.

He runs into Elizabeth when her neighbor Peter Benedict (Misuradze) inadvertently violates town policy and gets hypothermia in the process. Although Peter has ideas about developing a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, she only has eyes for Mike. Flattered by the attention, he begins an extramarital affair with the beautiful writer.

Eventually the inevitable happens and he gets her pregnant which leads to a series of complications. Then when Elizabeth turns up brutally murdered, the list of suspects is long but only the town’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Lazzaro) knows the truth about who really murdered Elizabeth Baldwin.

The cinematographer Jonathan Mariande acquits himself nicely with some beautifully shot footage mainly in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts. One gets a real sense of the charm of a New England village and of the pace of life on the Cape.

The titular murder doesn’t take place until near the very end of the film and there is no focus on the police investigation that followed – if you’re interested in that (and the story is an interesting one) it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find the footage from the various network newsmagazines that covered the murder. The Egelins and co-writer Ian Bowater focus more on the circumstances of the star-crossed lovers (the real person based on Mike Luna was a prime suspect early on in the case; one doesn’t get that sense from the movie) and on the economic upheaval that brought poverty to much of the fishing community in Denton Harbor. That’s fascinating material. However, those who are familiar with the case may be aware that there are some very significant differences between real and reel in this case.

Unfortunately they torpedo what could have been a much more interesting film by focusing on the more prurient aspects of the affair. The dialogue is a bit clunky and the actors look uncomfortable reciting it. This comes off as a made-for-TV film in a lot of ways and not in ways that I would especially be pleased about. The movie doesn’t really add a whole lot to the genre but there are enough entertaining elements to make it worth checking out if you happen upon it.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is lovely showing off Provincetown very nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels very much like a Lifetime TV movie with somewhat stiff acting and clunky dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some disturbing images and an off-camera murder.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arthur Egeli and his wife Heather who co-wrote the film knew some of the people involved in the Christa Worthington murder including the woman based on the character that Heather plays.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Foxcatcher
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Family I Had

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House


Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

(2016) Gothic Horror (Netflix) Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes. Directed by Oz Perkins

 

Haunted houses are a part of our culture, both in the West and in the East. Spirits of the departed that remain behind, sad and sometimes angry, have a delicious fascination for us. Perhaps it is a part of our morbid nature, our obsession with death – after all, we’re all going to die eventually and we are fearful of that unknown. Sometimes that fear becomes something more.

Lily Saylor (Wilson) is a hospice nurse come to a clapboard home at the end of Teacup Lane in Braintree, Massachusetts (home to founding fathers John Adams and John Hancock) to care for Iris Blum (Prentiss), an infirm woman who was once a famous writer of horror stories, a sort of distaff Stephen King (or a latter day Shirley Jackson to be more accurate). Lily takes over the care and feeding of Ms. Blum at the behest of Mr. Waxcap (Balaban), the estate executor.

Almost as soon as she settles in she gets a sense that things are a bit off in the house. Although the house looks spic and span (and she takes great pains to make sure it remains that way), there is evidence that the house is beginning to show it’s age (it was built in the 19th century if not earlier) with walls warping somewhat and soon, a bloom of black mold appears on one of the walls. Then there is the tapping sound that manifests in the night and sound like they’re coming from inside the walls. And Lily is annoyed that Ms. Blum habitually calls her Polly. Who is this Polly that her charge has confused Lily with?

Lily investigates and discovers that a brutal murder took place in the house many years before; a young bride (Boynton) was killed by her groom (Milne) on her wedding day. The bride’s name was Polly. Furthermore, Iris wrote a book about it, The Lady in the Walls. The book’s conceit was that a writer was communicating with the murdered bride but the communications mysteriously stopped. Lily attempts to read the book but is soon unable to continue; a sensitive soul, she is easily frightened. That’s not such a good thing in a house like this.

One of the most difficult subgenres of horror to do is the Gothic horror. Gothic depends heavily on atmosphere and creating that atmosphere of foreboding requires a great deal of patience. You have to have the right cinematographer and Perkins chose a doozy in Julie Kirkwood. She not only has a terrific eye but she also understands the mechanics of what makes a great atmosphere; slow camera movements that never jerk the audience around when the camera moves at all, angles that are unsettling without being overt, and a palate of white and goldenrod, making the film look not so much washed out but like an antique photograph. The result is that the movie looks like you’re looking back in time (in fact the scenes are set in what appears to be somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s) at tragic events unfolding.

That sense of foreboding is set right off the bat with Lily’s narration. “The pretty thing you’re looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” The narration is for the most part pretty flowery which at times can be eye-rolling. It is also delivered in a flat monotone, as if Wilson is reading a book aloud which adds to the creepiness.

Wilson has shown some pretty sizable acting chops, particularly in the BBC series Luther but here she’s oddly lifeless, as if she’s already become a ghost and is simply awaiting the formalities. I would have also liked to get a bit more backstory from her – we are led to understand that she’d been involved in a romantic relationship but it ended badly – and a little more emotion from Wilson. Then again, it might have been a conscious choice to play Lily as someone extremely repressed emotionally speaking.

Prentiss doesn’t have a lot to do but the former comedienne is certainly a welcome sight. She hasn’t appeared onscreen in nine years and it’s good to know that even though her part is small (but important), she is still out there working.

There are not many haunted house movie clichés here but enough to be unwelcome. Still, overall this is an extremely strong and welcome entry into a genre that is largely ignored these days. Fans seems to like their horror more visceral than subtle these days. Perkins has an impeccable pedigree and even though this is just his second feature film in the director’s chair, he’s served notice that he is a talent to keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: There are some exquisite images here. It’s always nice to see an actress the caliber of Paula Prentiss working. The atmosphere is truly haunting.
REASONS TO STAY: A few too many haunted house tropes are present here. The dialogue is pretentious in places. Wilson comes off a bit flat tonally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some unsettling images and an overall atmosphere of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins is the son of the late Anthony Perkins; the song “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” which is played several times on the soundtrack is sung by his father; the movie clip that Lily is watching on TV is from Friendly Persuasion in which Anthony Perkins starred.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting of Hill House
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Why Him?

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

The Finest Hours


Romance by storm.

Romance by storm.

(2016) True Life Drama (Disney) Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond-James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, Rachel Brosnahan, Benjamin Koldyke, Matthew Maher, Jesse Gabbard, Alexander Cook, Danny Connelly, Angela Hope Smith. Directed by Craig Gillespie

The men and women of the Coast Guard have a thankless job. In many ways they are the most overlooked of the armed forces, but they put their lives on the line every day to protect our shores from smugglers and pirates, and to rescue sea craft that are in trouble. They have been doing that since America was brand new.

In 1952 there is a Coast Guard installation in Chatham, Massachusetts. Barney Webber (Pine) is a Boatswain’s Mate First Class for the Coast Guard, a quiet and perhaps a bit socially awkward man who is liked but warily; during an attempted rescue mission years before, he had been unsuccessful in navigating the infamous Chatham Bar during a storm and a local fisherman had died because of it. People think he isn’t a bad guy, but there’s that distance between the town and Barney.

One townie who doesn’t feel that way is Miriam (Grainger), a feisty beautiful woman who meets Ray and instantly falls for him. The two begin going out and end up falling in love. But that last step is lacking and the forward Miriam finally asks Ray to marry her. At first he is very reluctant – what he does is dangerous and he doesn’t want to leave a widow behind. Eventually he relents and the two become engaged pending the approval of the Coast Guard.

On February 18, 1952, a massive Nor’easter slams into the New England coast. The S.S. Pendleton, an oil tanker, is on its way in when the old ship breaks in half. The aft section sinks almost immediately, leaving 33 survivors in the stern section with Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck) in charge.

Station chief Daniel Cluff (Bana) orders Webber to go an effect a rescue. Most of the Coast Guard’s bigger boats are in the midst of rescuing another tanker that had broken in half, the S.S. Mercer. All Barney is left with is a 36-foot motor lifeboat to go out into a squall that is producing 60 foot waves and high winds. With a small crew including Seamen Richard Livesey (Foster) and Ervin Maske (Magaro), he heads out resolutely into Chatham Bay to affect a mission that is almost surely suicide. With the compass wrecked and little or no navigation equipment, it seems like an impossible task, but little does anyone know that he is setting out into history.

Gillespie is a reliable director for Disney who has done movies based on fact before. This story because of how long ago it took place is essentially unknown today although there are those in New England who are thoroughly familiar with it. Most of the participants have since passed on (although Miriam is still alive apparently) so it is well that Disney is making this film now. While the tag lines tell us that it was one of the most daring small boat rescues in Coast Guard history tells us that because it is a rescue, we can assume that Webber is successful, we don’t know mainly how many got rescued and whether Webber himself made it home alive. We therefore have a sense of suspense as we watch the movie, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

The storm sequences are harrowing; if what the real crew went through was half as rough as this, it’s a wonder anyone made it home alive. Both the crew of the Pendleton and the rescue boat were heroic in extreme circumstances. It’s truly an inspiring story from that aspect. The CGI is impressive albeit not groundbreaking. Certainly it is enough to make that an integral part of the movie experience.

Pine is usually a lot more affable of a character than the one he plays here. Both Webber and Casey Affleck’s Sybert are a little bit socially awkward, somewhat reserved and not at all the types of characters we’re used to seeing from those actors and both do very well with them. I’ve seen it said elsewhere that Holliday Grainger already looks like she’s from that era and she does; the period dress and make-up only make her look more natural.

Because Barney is so awkward, the romance doesn’t have a lot of sparks. I don’t think it’s an issue of Pine and Grainger so much as how the characters are written. In many ways Miriam is forced to be the aggressor in the relationship which I don’t object to in and of itself but it just feels like there’s no chemistry, even though both actors are capable.

In fact in many ways that’s pretty much indicative of the film overall; it’s not anything that’s going to set the world on fire but it accomplishes what it needs to quietly and without fanfare. The story is certainly inspiring enough; however, you won’t go home thinking you’ve just seen a cinematic masterpiece.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mind-blowing storm scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Solid but not spectacular. The romance lacks fire.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of storm-related peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The boat the real Bernie Webber used in the rescue still exists and is maintained in pristine condition at the Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts – not far from Chatham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hotel Transylvania 2

Men in Black II


Johnny Knoxville's best day ever.

Johnny Knoxville’s best day ever.

(2002) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rip Torn, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Jack Kehler, Colombe Jacobsen, Peter Spellos, Michael Rivkin, Tim Blaney (voice), Lenny Venito, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Nick Cannon, Peter Graves, Doug Jones, Mary Stein  Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Sequels are by and large, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, either a continuation of the original story or a repetition of it and on that score as he was on so many others, Ebert was dead on. Sequels are at once the bane of Hollywood’s existence and the revenue machine that makes other, less sure-thing hit movies possible.

In this follow-up to a 1997 hit, things have changed a lot for the MiB since the first movie. Agent K (Jones), the agency’s best, has been neuralized – you know, had his memory erased by a device that looks something like a laser pointer – and Agent J (Smith), his former partner, is the new Top Dawg. Like K, J has been going through partners like the Kardashian girls go through husbands.

When Serleena (Boyle), the baddest bad girl in the universe comes to Earth in search of something called the Lights of Zathar and the MiB have only 24 hours to stop her from finding it or once again the Earth will be blown up, the only one who knows what or where the Lights of Zathar are is K. J is going to have to go to Massachusetts and find K, who now works in a post office (where half the workforce are aliens in one of the movie’s best jokes) and bring him back to New York to deneuralize him, which becomes problematic when Serleena takes over MiB headquarters along with her two-headed friend Scrad (Knoxville) whose smaller head may well have more control on his actions than his bigger one.

The key to everything may be the lovely Laura (Dawson), a pizza waitress who witnessed some of Serleena’s homicidal chicanery, but J is developing feelings for her – and she for him. The kind of feelings that make doing the job of protecting planet Earth from destruction a mite harder.

As important as bringing Smith, Jones and Torn (who reprises his role as the curmudgeonly Zed here) back on board, perhaps the most important return is make-up legend Rick Baker who created most of the grotesque alien looks. That retro-futuristic vibe of the first movie remains, albeit a little less obvious.

The good news is that even though five years had passed since the first film, the chemistry between Smith and Jones hasn’t decreased one iota in the intervening years. The two work together as well as any duo in the movies, now and ever. Once K’s memories are retrieved, the two resume their relationship from the first film and thankfully, Sonnenfeld doesn’t waste any time getting that relationship back on track.

He doesn’t have any time to waste quite frankly since the movie is only 88 minutes long,  almost a short by Hollywood franchise standards. Sonnenfeld does make every moment count quite frankly; a lot of modern filmmakers should take a few cues from him. Therefore the movie never feels like it’s dragging, even during lulls in the action. While the energy is different than that of the first movie, it is at least a kinetic energy here. Those that really loved the first film though may find this one somewhat flatter than the original.

The problem here is that the movie doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise. Other than a brief reversal of roles with J the mentor to the neuralized K for a brief time, it’s the same basic story as the first. Boyle is less a memorable baddie than Vincent D’Onofrio was in the first film; while she has plenty of tentacles, her performance is a bit strained, as if she isn’t sure what kind of role she’s playing. I don’t know if her late casting had anything to do with it because I’ve always found Boyle to be a capable actress but here she is strangely flat.

Also back from the first movie are Frank the Pug (voiced by Blaney) in a greatly expanded role and the Worms, all of whom provide much comic relief even though when you have Will Smith around you really don’t need much more. Still, this is a pretty decent sequel as sequels go, and while critics tended to grouse about the story overly much, the movie still stands out as top notch entertainment. Anytime you get a duo like Smith and Jones together it’s a good day.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith and Jones are a formidable team. Sonnenfeld’s trademark offbeat humor still in full force. Frank the Pug and the Worms deliver plenty of comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story seems way too similar to the first film. Boyle is a bit stiff and wooden.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and provocative humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, Famke Jansen was cast as Serleena and several scenes were shot with her, but due to a death in her family she had to drop out of the production and Boyle was added at the last minute.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The animated short The Chubb Chubbs which preceded MiB2 in some theaters, is included here. Also, there’s a blooper reel, an alternate ending, a music video starring Smith, and a plethora of featurettes. The DVD-ROM also includes an interactive game and screensaver. The DVD-ROM features, it should be noted, aren’t available on the Blu-Ray edition.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.8M on a $140M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental and streaming), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stargate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paper Towns

Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes

Goon


Rock 'em sock 'em robots.

Rock ’em sock ’em robots.

(2011) Sports Comedy (Magnet) Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Liev Schreiber, Alison Pill, Eugene Levy, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Nicholas Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Jonathan Cherry, Ricky Mabe, George Tchortov, Karl Graboshas, Larry Woo, Stephen Sim, Ellen David, David Paetkau, Dave Wheeler, Sarah Scheffer. Directed by Michael Dowse

To those who know me, it’s no secret that ice hockey is my favorite sport. The grace, the speed, the skill appeals to me. Perhaps it is my half-Canadian heritage that instills the love of this great sport into my genetic make-up. Hockey, after all, is part of the Canadian DNA.

The flip side of the sport is the fighting. Goons, the vernacular for enforcers who are there to act as nuclear deterrents essentially, are the brawn of the sport. They rarely get the ink of the goal scorers but are as respected if not more so in the locker room of those teams they toil for and let’s face it, many fans love them more than the skill players.

Doug Klatt (Scott) is a bouncer in a New England bar whose father (Levy), a doctor, is disappointed in his son’s career direction and is not shy about expressing that disappointment. Doug’s best friend, Pat (Baruchel) is a hockey nut. While Doug and Pat are at a minor league game, Doug gives a beat down to a player who ventures into the stands. This catches the notice of an opposing coach who gives Doug a try-out even though Doug can’t skate.

Doug learns to skate and becomes an enforcer. After a few weeks he becomes a star goon in the league and is eventually promoted to Halifax to protect Xavier LaFlamme (Grondin), once a highly coveted prospect in the NHL whose game has deteriorated due to drug use, ego and attitude. Well, there’s that but also LaFlamme has also lost his nerve after being badly injured in a hit by Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Schreiber). Now the phenom avoids contact at nearly any cost. That generally doesn’t lead to a long career in the NHL.

Doug is a sweet guy at heart who has never really felt like he belonged to anything in his life, but now has found a purpose. He’s even attracted a girl, Eva (Pill) who is a self-described slut willing to give up her promiscuity for Doug. Things are going well for Doug  despite his father’s continued disapproval but you know that a confrontation with Rhea – who happens to be Doug’s idol – is inevitable.

Baruchel co-wrote this with Evan Goldberg, both of whom also co-wrote Superbad. This script really isn’t up to that level, being a bit more of a niche project, but it fills that niche admirably. Much of this is due to the performances of Schreiber and Scott. Schreiber plays an enforcer reaching the end of his career with a certain amount of cynicism, knowing that he has been exploited. Schreiber gives the character not only the toughness that such a character would naturally own but also with the intelligence and thoughtfulness that is a Schreiber trademark.

Scott’s character isn’t terribly bright and is socially awkward. He’s kind of an anti-Stiffler, not very confident with women and not terribly sharp. He tends to punch first and ask questions later. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t basically a nice guy. Although there’s an enormous amount of gay slurs in the movie (reflecting a homophobic sensibility in sports in general not just hockey) Doug stands up for his gay brother Ira (Paetkau) as much as any good brother would.

This is the best hockey movie since Miracle and maybe since Slap Shot which it is more akin to and could be said to be the spiritual godfather to the film, although it is actually based on the memoirs of real-life minor hockey league goon Doug Smith. I do have issues with movies that glorify the violence in hockey – maybe I’m in the minority (and I don’t think I am) but I don’t love hockey for the fights but for the speed and grace of the game, the skills of the players and that the game hasn’t been overwhelmed by egos in the same way other major sports have.

Still, I was entertained by the movie and even though I will admit a bias towards the sport, I believe the movie will be entertaining even for those who aren’t particular fans of the game. I’m not sure it will make a lot of new fans of the sport but you never know. Game on.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best hockey movies in recent years. Scott and Schreiber deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goon-like players are becoming an endangered breed in modern hockey.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, plenty of hockey violence, some fairly strong sexual content and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former NHL players Mike Ricci and Georges Laraque make cameo appearances in the film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: In Power Play Mode the viewer can access features and commentary enhancing what’s onscreen when the Power Play icon is onscreen. There’s also an HDNet featurette, a bloopers reel and a sit-down interview with Scott and Baruchel. There’s also some video hockey cards featuring characters from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an unknown production budget; very likely made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Back to the Future