The Debt (2010)


The Debt

Sam Worthington takes aim.

(2010) Spy Thriller (Miramax/Focus) Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds, Jesper Christensen, Marton Csokas, Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren, Istvan Goz, Morris Perry, Jonathan Uziel, Iren Bordan, Katya Tompos. Directed by John Madden

The thing about the truth is that it is rarely what we think it is. Often we are told one thing and the truth is quite another. Sometimes knowing that truth doesn’t set us free however; sometimes the knowledge of truth shackles us for a lifetime.

Rachel Singer (Mirren) is a retired Mossad agent who bears the scars of her vocation both literally and figuratively. Her daughter Sarah (Aboulafia) has authored a book about her career, particularly concerning a daring raid into East Berlin that was performed by a three-person team in 1965 in order to retrieve a Nazi war criminal. Although it didn’t end up well, Rachel emerged from the raid as a national heroine.

In 1966, Rachel (Chastain) was the junior member of the team which included team leader Stephan Gold (Csokas) and David Peretz (Worthington). They are in East Berlin to extract a former Nazi War criminal – Dieter Vogel (Christensen), the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau who performed hideous experiments on Jewish concentration camp residents and bring him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

He is masquerading as an ordinary OB-GYN, so Rachel and David pose as a man and wife unable to have to date. The plan is set up meticulously with an escape route marked for them. However the plan misfires and they are forced to bring their prisoner back to their East German apartment while they try to find a way back home. Unfortunately, Vogel manages to escape his bonds and after a fierce struggle in which Rachel is scarred for life, she shoots him dead rather than let him escape.

But was that the whole truth? When Rachel’s ex-husband Stephan (Wilkinson) tells her that information has surfaced that puts everything she’s built in her life in jeopardy, she will be forced to take a journey to make things right, not only for herself but for her daughter, her team and her country.

John Madden is best known for directing Shakespeare in Love but he does pretty well in the taut spy thriller genre. There are some scenes that literally had me on the edge of my seat, cliche as that might sound. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has quite a cast to work with.

Mirren is one of the top actresses in the world at the moment and one of the finest of all time when all is said and done. She is one of the main reasons to see this – as always her performance is letter perfect. She plays Rachel as a woman haunted by that secret and embittered by the way her life has turned out. Her only saving grace is her daughter Sarah who is now getting sucked into the lie.

The rest of the cast is pretty impressive as well. Chastain, who has had a couple of exceptional performances already this summer in The Tree of Life and The Help adds a third (although this movie was shot well before the other two). Her character is as naive as Mirren’s version is worldly and jaded. She is certainly flawed, but her dedication is unquestioned.

Worthington gets a role here that plays to his strengths as an actor and runs with it. His David is cold, shut-off and haunted by the specter of the War in which is family was decimated. He is guarded and closed off, which Worthington can do well.

Wilkinson is another veteran actor who has a complex role to fill and he does it admirably. His character is crafty, devious and infectiously charming while Hinds, who plays the older David, is thoroughly haunted and destroyed, his expression one of a man who doesn’t expect anything in life but misery.

The problem with the movie is two-fold. For one thing, the 1966 and 1997 versions of the characters don’t really resemble each other and when it comes to Csokas and Worthington, it is easy to confuse them with Wilkinson and Hinds (who resembles Csokas more than Worthington). For the record, here are the correct pairings: Wilkinson (1997) and Csokas (1966) as Stephan, Hinds (1997) and Worthington (1966) as David and of course Mirren (1997) and Chastain (1966) as Rachel.

It also must be said the ending is a little bit hoary, although I must admit there was at least some tension in the scene, enough that it made it entertaining. The movie itself harkens back to the cold war thrillers of the 60s in many ways, although I have to admit it’s a pale echo of some of the better examples of the genre. Still, given the performances and the tension, I can recommend it without reservation for most audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Great cast. Some well-thought out taut moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending is unsatisfying. Not easy to match 1997 versions of 1966 characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of two movies that was distributed by Miramax whose release was delayed due to the purchase of the company by Colony Capital. The company eventually made a distribution deal with Focus.

HOME OR THEATER: Works just as well at home as it does in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Columbiana

The Switch


The Switch

Jason Bateman is a little too happy to be holding someone else's sperm.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Miramax) Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, Thomas Robinson, Todd Louiso, Caroline Dhavernas, Scott Elrod, Kelli Barrett, Bryce Robinson, Edward James Hyland.  Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon

In the 21st century, families and children are becoming more and more complex as technology whizzes ahead of our moral compasses which are spinning like a top trying to keep up. The fact of the matter is that we are going to run into all sorts of grey area situations if we’re not careful.

Kassie (Aniston) is a TV producer pushing 40 who loves her job which has interfered with her romantic life. Now seeing her biological clock ticking down to zero and no boyfriends in sight, she has made the decision to be artificially inseminated. To that end, she has chosen a donor from an Internet ad – Roland (Wilson). He’s tan with nice teeth and a gosh darn kind of attitude, but there’s one problem – he’s not Wally.

Wally Mars (Bateman) is Kassie’s best friend. He’s also got a list of neuroses that would stump the editors of Psychology Today. A shameless hypochondriac and commitment-phobe, he and Kassie hang out together and do all sorts of things together. They’re definitely best friends and you get a sense that both of them want more – they just don’t know how to get there from where they were.

So when Kassie throws a party to celebrate her impending motherhood, Wally is a little uncomfortable with the crassness of the proceedings and to be honest, with the thought of losing his friend. Drunk, he goes into the bathroom only to find the sperm sample that will be transported to the hospital later that evening. You can guess what happens next (no, you really can – it’s in the trailer).

For those who can’t guess, through a series of imbecilic drunken moves, Wally accidentally spills the other man’s seed (and wouldn’t Freud have a field day with that) and resolves to replace it with his own, using a magazine cover of Diane Sawyer as wacking material, which must make for the most uncomfortable time Diane Sawyer’s ever had at the movies.

Frustrated with her best friends inability to support her decision and with a job offer in Minnesota, Kassie slips through Wally’s fingers despite the best intentions of Wally’s friend and co-worker Leonard (Goldblum) who tries to urge Wally to pursue the woman he obviously loves; Wally’s fears won’t allow that to happen.

Years later, Kassie returns with son Sebastian (T. Robinson) in tow. However, Sebastian has many of Wally’s mannerisms – and hypochondria. Wally is torn between telling Kassie the truth – with impending nuptials to the would-be baby daddy Roland hanging overhead, or letting her find her own happiness.

Like many romantic comedies, there is a certain formula here but in defense of the directing team of Speck and Gordon, the movie derives from a short story which has a lot to do with the formulaic aspects of the film. However, the movie also keeps that framework to a bare minimum, allowing the story to go off on a few tangents which are happily received.

So we have an interesting teaming of Bateman and Aniston, chemistry that you wouldn’t think works. And for the most part, it doesn’t. However both are undoubtedly charming and it takes them both a long way in this movie. It’s another typically Aniston role with a professional woman “saving” a man in his 40s and let’s face it, no movie that relies on Aniston’s charm is going to be all bad.

Bateman has rapidly become one of the most reliable comedic leads in Hollywood. Part of his strength is his ability to stretch into a variety of roles, from genuine nice guy to unapologetic schlubb. He’s not super-handsome and he doesn’t have the natural comedic talents of Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell, but he does comedy well. He can be both straight man and punch line deliverer, and occasionally is both at once.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jeff Goldblum. Always a quirky character actor, he steals scenes with the rapacity of a Wall Street CEO. He’s developed into a fine character actor, and I hope we see him far more often onscreen than we have been.

The problem here is that this movie wants to be a sitcom at times and at others wants to be an R-rated comedy. I really really wish they’d gone for the latter; I think the movie would have worked much better in that venue. Still, it’s a solid movie that has some rather adult themes and some moments of sheer brilliance, but not enough of them to make this a classic. For one thing, it’s subverted by its need to be a PG-13 comedy. Why any studio executive wanted to make a romantic comedy about artificial insemination a PG-13 is beyond my feeble brainpower.

WHY RENT THIS: Bateman does a crackerjack job as the neurotic lead. Goldblum is a crack-up, stealing scene after scene.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sitcom-ish at times. It might have worked better as an R-rated comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are certainly mature and there is a good deal of sexuality including some nudity. There’s also a fair amount of bad language and a scene or two containing drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first movie to be released by Miramax after being sold by the Walt Disney Company.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper real along with all the usual suspects.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49.8M on a $19M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Hellboy: The Golden Army

The Queen


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip feel the love.

(2006) Drama  (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Mark Bazeley, Earl Cameron, John McGlyn, Lola Peploe, Pat Laffan. Directed by Stephen Frears

Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of the most public figures of the last half-century, but how little we know her. For most of us, she is this cold, unemotional creature more or a figure than a real person. Few have been allowed inside the inner sanctum of her heart.

One of the most emotional weeks in recent British history was the week following the untimely death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales in 1997. Tony Blair (Sheen) had just been elected Prime Minister and had met, along with his bemused wife Cherie (McCrory),  with Queen Elizabeth (Mirren) just prior for the royal family’s departure to their summer estate at Balmoral in Scotland. It was there that they were given the awful news of the car accident in Paris and anxiously watched the BBC through the night like the rest of us until the final word was received. 

Elizabeth’s first thought was to Diana’s sons, Harry and William, who were understandably devastated. She had been trained to treat the tragedy as a private matter for the family, with dignity and public stoicism befitting the monarch of the realm, a decision supported by her husband Prince Phillip (Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Syms). However, Blair, who was the first to publicly speak about the tragedy, was disturbed to find that there was increasing sentiment that the British people wanted – needed – to hear their monarch speak on the issue, whereas the Royal family were loathe to do so, resisting more the harder he pushed. Prince Charles (Jennings), the ex-husband of Diana, was somewhat weak but still understood what was happening politically. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Balmoral in seclusion until Blair had to demand that the Queen return to London to be with her subjects. There she would at last be forced to address the issue and allow her subjects to publically grieve with her, one of the most extraordinary turn of events in recent British history. 

There are some terrific performances here, particularly Mirren who once again turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Elizabeth. She’s been nominated twice for a Supporting Actress (in 1995 and again in 2002) but this would be the movie that finally got her the statuette. She portrays Elizabeth as a stoic, highly private person who is slow to realize that the world has changed and her role as monarch needed to change with it. She captures the queen’s mannerisms nicely, and breathes life into a personage that is somewhat two-dimensional, at least here in America. In the end, she adapts to her new role with admirable graciousness which seems to be in character with the woman Mirren was portraying. 

Cromwell does a terrific job as Phillip, playing him as a cantankerous and stuffy aristocrat whose belief in the rightness of his cause blinds him to the damage he is doing to his own position. In many ways his portrayal is exactly the way most Americans see the aristocracy of Europe as somewhat prissy, arrogant and bone-headed, refusing to enter the 21st century even as time has passed their sort by. Whether or not this is accurate is subject to debate; however, many Americans share this view which has been reinforced often in films and television.

Sheen is sympathetic as Blair, who is at first in awe of the Royals, then grows frustrated by them and at last comes to admire them. Blair – who would have his own fall from grace later in his career – was then the fair-haired boy of British politics (the Hugh Grant character in Love Actually was modeled on him somewhat) and his actions during the crisis of Diana’s death cemented him in the hearts of the British people for years. Sheen captures Blair’s political savvy and his somewhat awkward self-consciousness in the presence of the Royals. Much of the movie is seen through his eyes, and quite frankly it’s an effective way of acting as an audience surrogate.

Frears gives us what feels like a real glimpse into the royal household, albeit one that is largely conjecture. For example, there is a sequence involving Elizabeth’s encounter with a magnificent buck in the countryside at Balmoral which follows her most emotional scene of the movie. It is lit in almost a heavenly manner, and one gets the feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if anything of the sort ever happened, and if it did, well, the Queen isn’t talking. Then again, perhaps this movie is talking for her. Mirren’s performance elevates it from what could have been movie-of-the-week territory to something more splendid.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare glimpse into the Royal household, even if much of it is conjecture. An Oscar-winning career-defining performance by Mirren, as well as solid performances by Cromwell and Sheen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit on the slow side, pacing-wise.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of strong language and a disturbing image of a dead buck.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mirren had so inhabited the role of the Queen that by the end of the shoot, slouching crew members would often stand at attention and hold their hands respectfully behind their backs when addressing Mirren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While commentary tracks are standard with nearly every DVD and Blu-Ray these days, there is one here by monarchy expert and British historian Robert Lacey that provides a great deal of illumination not only to the traditions of the royal family but also to what happened during tht week in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $123.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Source Code

The Boys Are Back


The Boys Are Back

A man's home is his castle; Clive Owen's home is hog heaven.

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Clive Owens, Emma Booth, Laura Fraser, George MacKay, Nicholas McAnulty, Julia Blake, Chris Haywood, Erik Thomson, Natasha Little. Directed by Scott Hicks

Men, as a rule, are not the best parents in a husband-wife relationship. Women, who are nurturers by nature, tend to be more attuned to parenting in a general way; while that doesn’t mean that men can’t be good at it, they have a harder time being single parents than women do – again, a generalization but more or less true.

Joe Warr (Owens) hasn’t exactly been the best husband either. He had sex with Katy (Fraser), a beautiful equestrienne while married to another woman and eventually got her pregnant, leaving his wife and young son in England to be with Katy in Australia. Katy and Joe have a son, Artie (McAnulty), Joe has a job as a sportswriter and becomes one of the best in Australia, and they buy a home in a particularly idyllic meadow near Adelaide, South Australia. Life is good; Joe globe-hops attending tennis matches, swim meets and football games while Katy holds down the home front.

Then Katy gets a stomach ache which turns out to be cancer. Joe stays home to care for her but she doesn’t survive. Joe is left to care for a six-year-old son who has difficulty accepting that his mummy’s gone, and acts out in sometimes particularly venal ways. At first Joe fights Artie’s anger, being too filled with his own grief to sort out his son’s; eventually, he gives in and lets Artie do his own thing. Cannonball into a hotel bathtub? Sure! Ride on the hood of a Range Rover his dad is driving down the beach? Why not?

Then, Joe’s son Harry (MacKay) from his first marriage comes to Australia to spend time with his dad and the dynamic changes. At first, Harry doesn’t approve too much of Joe’s “Just Say Yes” philosophy of child-rearing but eventually comes around, particularly when Joe shows far more trust than his mum (Little) ever did.

However his methods don’t meet with the approval of everyone. Katy’s mom Barbara (Blake) is aghast and eventually takes steps to assume custody of Artie herself. In the meantime, Joe has met a fellow single parent, Laura (Booth) who babysits Artie from time to time and a romance begins to blossom. Still, Joe’s attempts to juggle his kids, his home and his job are beginning to run him ragged; something has to give, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. The movie got a round critical excoriating when it was released here in the states, which once again leaves me befuddled. Maybe I’m missing something, y’know? Most of the reviews I’ve read have tended to be about Joe’s parenting skills rather than about the movie. Sure, maybe you’re scoring brownie points with the P.T.A. to show your haughty disapproval of such a free-wheeling parenting style, but it’s not my job to review the choices that Joe makes – particularly since they’re based on the actual choices a real person made. I have no idea how I’d cope with a six year old boy if my wife died and left me with one. Fortunately for me, that scenario is never going to come to pass since my own son is essentially grown up. So that makes me quite frankly unqualified to render my opinion about how Joe relates to his children. I haven’t walked even a centimeter in Joe’s shoes, which is what someone who is passing judgment on a person is supposed to do. Maybe in some distant future, that will be a requirement to give an opinion on the subject.

Somehow, I doubt it however. Hicks, who helmed the Oscar-winning Shine, wisely keeps the movie from going too maudlin and keeps the relationship between Joe and his sons evolving, which is the way real relationships work. Owens gives a restrained performance here and it is nice to see him in a movie that doesn’t require him to shoot anybody, or shove a carrot through their eye socket.

The use of the Australian location is glorious and helps create an idyllic picture of the Warr home which may be a bit too idyllic in places; then again, once Joe gives up on housecleaning and the house stacks up with pizza boxes and dirty laundry, hog heaven turns into a pigsty. That has a tendency to burst an idyll or two.

I would have liked to see a different ending, to be truthful; the relationship between Joe and Laura is kind of left dangling and things are resolved in a way that is a bit pat and a bit sugary all at once. That aside, this is a genuinely affecting work that examines a rarely seen dynamic; an all-male household dealing with the loss of the lone woman in the home. That was the part that interested me the most about the movie.

Would I make the same choices Joe made in dealing with his sons? Probably not – my temperament isn’t nearly as easy-going as his. Still, it is a rather novel way of dealing with the situation, and if the movie gets a little testy about those who disagree with Joe’s methods, well judging on the critical reaction the movie got it might be well-earned.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Owens’ most genuine performances and Hicks resists the temptation to turn this into an out-and-out tearjerker.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit pat, while the relationship between Joe and Laura is left essentially unresolved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has its share of foul words, many of them sexually related. The theme might be a little too mature for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The nine Sigur Ros songs used in the film were originally meant to be placeholders for the score; however, Hicks felt so strongly that the songs worked better than any score that could be written that he travelled to Iceland personally to get permission to use the songs in the final film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Author Simon Carr, whose story this is based on, and his two sons, spent a day on the set. There’s a featurette that follows them around as they try to wrap their heads around the idea that a movie is being made about their life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.2M on an unreported production budget; the film was likely not profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Fired Up

Cheri


Cheri

A transcendent moment of idyllic loveliness; Ah, La Belle Epoque!

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Iben Hjejle, Stephen Frears (voice). Directed by Stephen Frears

It is not unusual for Hollywood to portray May-December romances. It’s just usually that May is the woman and December the man.

In the waning days of La Belle Epoch (the early 20th century in France), retired courtesan Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) has taken herself a lover. That lover is the son of her close friend (and fellow retired courtesan) Madame Peloux (Bates), christened as Fred but known to all as Cheri (Friend), which is the French word for “darling.”

Cheri is a bit of a project, somewhat indolent, occasionally cruel in the thoughtless way of youth, desperate for a firm, guiding hand. Perfect for the role would be Lea, 25 years his senior and someone whom he has known and adored all his life. With his mother’s tacit approval, they embark on an affair that lasts six years.

After that, Cheri announces that his mother has arranged a marriage for him with the comely but terminally naïve Edmee (Jones). Lea is devastated. The affair had been a languid one of beauty and sunlight, something that she has come to need much more than she thought she might. As for Cheri, it’s just the end of a chapter as far as he’s concerned. Like many young men, he doesn’t recognize what a rare and precious gem is in his possession until it’s already fallen down the drainpipe.

Director Frears has experience with lush period pieces in Dangerous Liaisons (which co-starred Pfeiffer) and Mrs. Henderson Presents but also more recently-set classics like The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette and my personal favorite High Fidelity. This is right in his comfort zone, with a witty script, gorgeous cinematography and a fine cast.

His best move was hiring Pfeiffer for the role. Pfeiffer is playing her age here and while she looks much younger, her eyes tell a different story. She is still regally beautiful, but from time to time you catch a hint of doubt and sadness in those eyes, a knowledge that a beautiful epoch is coming to an end, and her own beauty will soon betray her. It’s marvelous work and re-affirms that Pfeiffer is perhaps the most underrated actress of her era.

The movie is based on a novel by the iconic French author Colette which in turn is loosely based on her own affair with her stepson. The novel extolled the virtues of Lea’s strength and pointed out rather vividly Cheri’s weaknesses. Unfortunately I only managed to plough through the first third of the book – she’s not my literary cup of tea, although I can say that she is a tremendous writer, one who should be better known on these shores except that she flouted the morality of her times and was quite scandalous (she was bisexual in an age when that simply wasn’t tolerated).

My issue with the movie – and the book as well – is that Cheri is so venal, so whiny and unlikable that it is impossible to see Lea falling for him the way she does. Yes, he’s handsome in a boyish way, and has all the youthful vigor that goes with it, but in the end I kept asking myself if someone as obviously cultured, intelligent and self-possessed as Lea de Lonval would find such a strong emotional bond for someone so obviously childish and wantonly cruel? I know a lot of women who have the same qualities as Lea and I can say with great certainty that they are generally not attracted to immaturity regardless of how pretty a package it comes wrapped up in. Then again, I’ve known some very smart, capable and beautiful women to make some incredibly dumb choices when it comes to romance.

Despite its flaws, the movie is still worth seeing if for no other reason for Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance and the lovely expression of an age long gone by. Like a shaft of sunlight on a late autumn afternoon with the threat of dark winter in the wind, it is a golden moment of glorious loveliness that is there so briefly before going the way of all things so fragile.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous period photography and a clever script make this a feast for eyes and ears. Pfeiffer is magnificent as always in her role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheri is just so damned insufferable that you wonder how anyone, particularly as intelligent and cultured as Lea de Lonval, could fall for him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality and a bit of drug use; not suitable for most young family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Lea de Lonval was originally meant for Jessica Lange when this project first started development back in the 1990s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.3M on a production budget of $23M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Young Victoria

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


 

The Importance of Being Earnest
Algie and Jack try to make sense of the intricate plot.

 

 

(Miramax) Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

I find it somewhat depressing that in this day and age, a mind-bending number of Americans have never heard of the great Oscar Wilde, and only a very few have even experienced one of his plays performed on stage. There’s something about it that just seems blatantly wrong.

 

One of his best and best-known plays was The Importance of Being Earnest which was first performed back in 1895. It is the very epitome of the drawing room comedy; most of the action onstage takes place in a drawing room, and like most of Wilde’s work, nearly every line is a gem, a bon mot that stands the test of time. Yes, there are a few topical references but not enough to make a modern audience scratch their head in puzzlement, other than those rubes who would do so anyway.

Trying to describe the plot of the play is time-consuming and in the end is a lot like describing quantum mechanics to a four-year-old. The plot is intricate and full of layers and twists and turns, some of which you can see coming but many that you can’t. The basics are this; Jack Worthing (Firth) is a foundling who was adopted by a country squire; fully grown now, he acts as the guardian to his benefactor’s granddaughter Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon).

 

Jack often travels to London to rescue his ne’er-do-well brother Ernest out of a jam. The problem is that there is no brother Ernest; it’s a ruse calculated to allow Jack to come and go as he pleases. When he is in town, he takes the name of Ernest for himself so that he may remain incognito and as Ernest, he has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax (O’Connor), the lovely and practical granddaughter of Lady Augusta Bracknell (Dench).  Gwendolyn also returns his affections.

 

Jack also visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) who is actually pretty close to the scoundrel Jack makes his non-existent brother to be. He uses the excuse of visiting an ill friend named Bunbury to escape the city when creditors begin to close in on him. On one of these expeditions to the countryside, he winds up at Jack’s home where he takes on the persona of Jack’s fictitious brother Ernest, and promptly falls in love with Cecily (are you with me so far?).

 

That’s more or less the set-up; you can guess that there will be many obstacles that will be tossed in the way of the happiness of both couples, until Love Conquers All in the final act (or in this case, reel). Unlike other similar drawing room comedies of the day, Wilde threw in a lot of observations of the human condition, particularly where it regards class distinctions and sexual politics.

 

This is a lush-looking production, with the bucolic English countryside taking center stage. Parker, who in 1999 filmed the adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (and would make it a trifecta in 2009 when he filmed Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) knows how to evoke the era visually, with splendid costumes, magnificent estates and staid English manners.

 

It’s a shame he got infected with Anachronistic Music Syndrome. Those of you who’ve seen A Knight’s Tale and basically anything Baz Luhrmann ever directed will know it; it’s the occasion when a movie set in one period uses a musical score that is in the style of a different period. So when the swing music of the 1940s is the background for a Victorian drawing room comedy, it just wipes the mood right off the screen. It’s an offshoot of Look Ma I’m Directing Disease, and not a pleasant one.

 

However, when you have Oscar Wilde writing your screenplay (and Parker utilizes Wilde’s play word-for-word in many instances), you really can’t go wrong. Few writers before or since have had the wit of Wilde, and none the ability to mask social satire with urbane mannerisms.

 

It helps to have a superior cast. Firth and Everett are two dependable performers who both do quite splendidly in their role. Dench was born to play the crusty Lady Bracknell and does so with gusto. Even Witherspoon, the company’s token American, adopts an English accent rather nicely; my only complaint is that she’s so bloody gorgeous that you sometimes get so lost in her looks that you forget that she’s speaking important dialogue.

 

There are a couple of fantasy sequences that Parker (who also wrote the screenplay) inserted into the film that really didn’t need to be there, but in all honesty it’s all right. If you have never seen or read an Oscar Wilde play, this is as good a place as any to acquaint yourself with him. It’s not quite as good in many ways as the 1952 film version (which starred Michael Redgrave as Jack, Michael Denison as Algernon and Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell) that Anthony Asquith directed but it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

 

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Oscar Wilde; nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, even more than a century later.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anachronistic musical score syndrome torpedoes the audience out of the atmosphere and mood.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of drinking and smoking but as you would expect from a play written during the Victorian era, there is nothing here you should feel uncomfortable letting your entire family watch. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Finty Williams, who portrays Lady Bracknell as a young dancer, is in reality Dame Judi Dench’s daughter. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.3M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crossing Over

City of God (Cidade de Deus)


City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

Extract


Extract

Kristen Wiig finds out Dustin Milligan has all the right moves.

(Miramax) Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, David Koechner, Clifton Collins Jr., T.J. Miller, Beth Grant, Dustin Milligan, Gene Simmons. Directed by Mike Judge

In the classic 1999 film Office Space, writer/director Mike Judge looked at the life of a cubicle drone in a fairly sympathetic manner. Not only was it one of the most hilarious comedies of the ‘90s, it’s one of the funniest films ever. Despite a lackluster box office performance, it found cult status on home video afterwards.

Now a decade later, Judge is revisiting the work environment in Extract. Here, however, his sights are set on management, in the person of Joel (Bateman), the owner of an extract business (extracts are the flavor essences of various spices, fruits and vegetables used in cooking). His life could use some spice; his workers are mostly a dissatisfied, unmotivated lot. The one who had any enthusiasm at all, Step (Collins), had one of his testicles shorn off in a freak accident caused by one of the shrewish entitlement harpies who decided that she shouldn’t have to work as hard as the temporary worker they recently hired.

Now, Step has been enticed into suing the company by Cindy (Kunis), a self-serving con artist recently hired on as a temp and looking to make some easy money at the company’s expense. She’s convinced the slightly moronic Step that she has the hots for him. Yeah, right…as if. Now, the pending lawsuit is being pursued by rabid dog lawyer Joe Adler (Gene Simmons) just when General Mills is showing interest in buying the company, which would essentially set up Joel and his partner Brian (J.K. Simmons) up for life. Instead, the lawsuit would effectively shut the company down for good.

Things aren’t much better for Joel at home. His wife Suzie (Wiig) has essentially lost interest in sex; if he arrives home after 8pm (which he almost always does), the sweatpants will be cinched tightly around her waist ; once that occurs  any chance he might have at sex that evening gets vaporized. Sometimes, the dreaded sweatpants of abstinence might be on before 8pm. Joel complains about the situations to his good friend Dean (Affleck), a bartender by trade and pothead by avocation who can usually offer bad advice on any subject. This time, his stoner friend advises him to cheat on Suzie but Joel is unable to do it. So Dean recommends that he get Suzie to cheat instead; once she does, he won’t feel as bad about getting sex outside the marriage.

To do this, Joel hires a dimwitted mono-browed gigolo named Brad (Milligan) to seduce his wife, but the plan works too well; Brad falls in love with Suzie and starts to make regular visits. So too does Nathan (Koechner), quite possibly the most annoying neighbor in the history of neighborhoods. Joel’s world is crumbling around him and it isn’t really fair; after all, he’s just a nice guy who only wants to sell cooking extracts – and he’s really, really good at making them.

First of all, this isn’t Office Space. While there’s a similar style to both movies, they’re two completely different kettles of fish; comparing them is kind of a waste of time. Oh, certainly you’ll form an opinion and chances are that if you liked the first movie, you’ll probably like this one too. However, Office Space is far more satirical that this puppy and goes for a much broader kind of humor. Extract makes a lot more hay based on feeling and environment.

Of course, there’s Jason Bateman who is emerging as the kind of likable Everyman sort of guy that used to be the sole province of Greg Kinnear. Bateman’s so completely nice as Joel that you can’t help but root for him. The rest of the cast does pretty good as well, particularly Affleck sporting an al Quaeda beard as the well-intentioned friend. Affleck has really emerged as a reliable supporting actor; I’m curious to see how he does in a lead role again in The Town when it opens later this fall.

Kunis, who has recently been cast in action roles that don’t seem to suit her nearly as much (see Max Payne and The Book of Eli) seems way more comfortable in this comedic Jezebel role. J.K. Simmons and Clifton Collins are both reliable character actors who don’t disappoint here, and Wiig does her best MILF impression as you can see in the photo above.

Extract was overshadowed by comedies like The Hangover and Funny People when it was released last year, and like Office Space didn’t do gangbusters box office. It’s available now on DVD and cable, so do yourself a favor and check it out. Hopefully it’ll get a similar kind of cult following Office Space did on the home video market.

WHY RENT THIS: A return to form by Judge after his godawful Idiocracy. Bateman is becoming adept at the everyman role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Humor can be pretty scattershot in places.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places, there are some sexual and adult situations and a little bit of drug use; this probably isn’t for sensitive souls.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gary Cole, who played Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, makes a cameo in the bar scene standing between Dean and Joel.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Get Low

Adventureland


Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg is taken aback when he discovers that Kristen Stewart thinks Robert Pattinson is dreamy.

(Miramax) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Martin Starr, Paige Howard, Margarita Levieva, Wendie Malick. Directed by Greg Mottola

All of us at one time or another have a summer job that at the time we worked it sucked rocks. When we look back on that time in our lives, however, we are almost surprised when we realize our memories of it are fond indeed.

For James (Eisenberg), it’s the summer of 1987. He is getting ready to go to Columbia University, and plans on going to Europe over the summer. Unfortunately for James, his dad is downsized so the money earmarked for his trip has to go to other things. In fact, James is going to have to get himself a summer job.

Qualified to do absolutely nothing, not even fast food, James is beginning to get desperate until he lands a job working the games at Adventureland, the local amusement park. At first, it’s like a living hell; the park is falling apart, the games are rigged and the people there are rude and cruel.

Gradually, James begins to make connections; with Joel (Starr), the bespectacled literary geek who affects a pipe and may be even more picked on than James is; with Connell (Reynolds), the married but cool maintenance man who once played onstage with Lou Reed, at least according to Connell; and most importantly, with Em (Stewart), a fellow games employee who may be even more screwed up than James himself.

Em and James begin an awkward romance, the kind that is so fragile that the smallest stress could blow it away like a dandelion. In that kind of relationship, you tread carefully, each step carefully considered like you’re walking through a minefield which in essence, you are.

Mottola, who previously directed Superbad, steered clear of the raunch of his last movie and instead goes for a sweet-natured dramedy that has at its core a coming of age story but is less that than…well, I’m not sure I can describe it accurately, but suffice to say that the growth that takes place here isn’t the movie’s objective.

The studio, hoping to capitalize on Mottola’s Superbad, marketed it in a way that suggested that Adventureland was similar in tone, and it clearly is not. That may have cost the movie some box office receipts, unfortunately. That’s a shame because this is basically a pretty good film.

Eisenberg, who has been characterized (not unjustly) as a poor man’s Michael Cera, is less annoying than Cera here (which carried over to his next role in Zombieland). However, it is Kristen Stewart who is in my opinion the real reason to see this. While some might hate on her because of her Twilight connection, she is actually a pretty accomplished actress and shows it here with her portrayal of a girl who makes horrible decisions, is desperately miserable and yet remains unbelievably cool.

There are some pretty nice backing performances as well; Hader and Wiig, for example, as the managers of the park who are despised by their employees, and Levieva as the staff slut. It’s all set to a pretty nifty 80s soundtrack that owes more to the Replacements and their ilk than to the more standard Depeche Mode/Wang Chung school of new wave that most period films tend to employ.

Sadly, the movie falls through the cracks between raunchy sex comedy, bittersweet period piece and coming of age drama, with elements of all three. It’s definitely a movie worth checking out, but be warned in advanced that while there are some funny moments, it’s not a comedy per se. It’s the kind of film that can’t really be easily categorized except as high quality.

WHY RENT THIS: A bittersweet paean to summer jobs, uncertain futures and desperate romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not raunchy enough to compete with modern comedies and too raunchy to appeal to family audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug use, some sexuality and bad language. In other words, I’d probably think twice before letting the kids see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on Mottola’s real-life experiences at the Adventureland park in Long Island; the movie was shot at Kennywood outside of Pittsburgh, however since the real Adventureland has changed so much over the years.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some fake promos for the fictional Adventureland amusement park as well as an employee training video and drug policy overview.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Miracle at St. Anna

Kinky Boots


Kinky Boots

Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.

(Miramax) Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah-Jane Potts, Nick Frost, Linda Bassett, Jemima Rooper, Robert Pugh, Ewan Hooper, Stephen Marcus, Mona Hammond, Kellie Bright, Joanna Scanlon, Geoffrey Streatfield, Leo Bill. Directed by Julian Jarrold

Sometimes our biggest problem is not knowing where we fit in the grand scheme of things. We flail around, trying to find answers but really, the answers are in ourselves for the most part. However, it is also true that life can simply be a process of finding one’s own niche and dwelling within it comfortably.

Charlie Price (Edgerton) doesn’t want his own niche. His father Harold (Pugh) is the owner of Prince and Sons, a Northamptonshire shoe factory that has been in the family for generations, and expects Charlie to pick up on his passion for quality men’s footwear. Charlie, however, would much rather move to London with his sophisticated fiancée Nicola (Rooper) – in fact, the two of them are moving into a gorgeous flat that’s not too expensive, but not too far from it either. Life is going exactly the way Charlie wants it to.

Then his father dies and Charlie must return to Northampton and take over the factory. The workers, who have known Charlie ever since childhood, are leery. After all, he has essentially rejected a way of life that they have known all their lives and takes over the business without knowing all that much about it. The bullheaded, opinionated Don (Frost) expresses what the workers are feeling.

As the days go by, Charlie finds to his horror that the business that he thought was strong and stable was anything but. People don’t look for quality shoes that last a lifetime; retailers want shoes that will force customers to come back over and over again to replace them, and the population is buying things from Nike and Reebok in any case. When he is unable to get a big sale from one of their biggest clients, Charlie is forced to lay off some of his workers, including the loud and brash Lauren (Potts), who chides him for not doing anything to save her job or even finding a new niche for the company.

Depressed and not supported by his fiancée in any way whatsoever, Charlie goes to a bar to get drunk. Staggering home, he witnesses what appear to be several rough men molesting a beautiful black woman in a back alley. Charlie’s attempts at intervening, however, are ill-advised at best and he winds up unconscious and the thugs flee thinking they might have killed him. The woman, however, turns out to be a man dressed as a woman, a highly-regarded female impersonator known as Lola (Ejiofor) who has a show in London. When she remarks after breaking a heel that it’s a shame that there aren’t any sexy boots of women’s style created for a man’s weight, Charlie is struck by brilliant inspiration; there are an awful lot of transgenders, cross-dressers and drag queens out there and they are a market not being served by anyone. Price and Sons could create their own market – a new niche. He recruits Lauren for the scheme and together they pitch Lola to be their designer. After some reluctance, Lola agrees.

However, there are some obstacles. First of all, the working class of Northampton isn’t quite ready for the flamboyant Lola, who tones down her act at Charlie’s urging, but even then, she is not taken to by the workers, especially Don. The financial situation for Price and Sons is dire, and Charlie needs to have samples ready for the Milan Shoe Fair, where prospective buyers would be gathering, in just a matter of weeks. On top of that, Nicola is getting antsy and wants Charlie to walk away from what she senses is impending disaster. Charlie is getting pressured from all sides, and he begins to take it out on those around him. Can he beat the odds?

This is, incredibly enough, loosely based on actual events. The very real Kinky Boots Company served as inspiration for the movie, and quite frankly, I didn’t expect it to be as charming and as heart-warming as it was. Director Jarrold and his cinematographer Eigil Bryld have a nice eye for the dreary industrial landscapes of Northampton, the sophisticated swinging hangouts of London and the classical fashion capital of Milan.

He also cast Lola brilliantly. Ejiofor delivers the kind of performance that I would consider Oscar-worthy if it only had occurred in a movie being released in the latter part of the year. He is brassy, ballsy and charming, with just enough self-doubt to make him human. He also has a surprisingly good singing voice, which he uses to good effect during the musical numbers.

There is a clear message for tolerance, but the filmmakers aren’t preachy about it. They prefer to force the audience to come up with their own ideas of what being a man is all about, and in fact, they seem to say, there is certainly room for more than one picture of what real manhood is. You may not come out of the movie ready to march in the next Gay Pride parade, but you will come out of the movie entertained.

WHY RENT THIS: Ejiofor’s performance is brilliant. The movie is charming and unexpectedly heart-warming. Well-photographed with an eye for the dreary industrial landscapes of Northampton and the glitz and glamour of London and Milan.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Edgerton, a fine actor, is overwhelmed by the flamboyant Ejiofor.

FAMILY VALUES: The thematic material might be a little difficult for some, and there is plenty of salty language to go around.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jarrold is descended from the founders of England’s Jarrold’s Department store, which was founded in 1770.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a look at the actual factory that inspired the movie, and a short but fascinating look at all the steps that go into the making of a single shoe.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Messenger