Darling Companion


Woman's best friend isn't necessarily a diamond.

Woman’s best friend isn’t necessarily a diamond.

(2012) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Lindsay Sloane, Jay Ali, Robert Bear, Casey, Paul Kiernan, Jericho Watson, Yolanda Wood, D.L. Walker, Dina Goldman, Ruben Barboza, Mark Robinette, Craig Miner, Anne Cullimore Decker, Aline Andrade. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Dog lovers are, if you’ll forgive me, a unique breed. Being one myself, I know whereof I speak. Da Queen will tell you that I’m borderline obsessive and if you pressed, she’d probably even admit that I left the rational border behind years ago. That’s okay. Guilty as charged. From time to time in movies I have to witness bad things happening to dogs. Da Queen will also tell you that there’s no surer way to turn this rational, logical critic into a slobbering mess than seeing harm come to a dog. It’s not just my dogs I love but all dogs.

I tell you this because I was a bit concerned when I heard what the premise for this movie was. When Beth (Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Moss) find an abandoned dog at the side of a Colorado highway, Beth immediately takes to her four-legged friend. Naming the dog Freeway, she adopts the critter when nobody steps in to claim it.

Her husband Joseph (Kline), a back surgeon who invests much more into his career than he does into his marriage although he is to his own mind completely devoted to his family, is a bit annoyed by the presence of the dog but when his wife insists, he capitulates grudgingly. What he doesn’t get is that he spends a lot of time away from the home while she raised her daughters. With Grace getting married at their Rocky Mountain vacation home in the fall, her nest will be officially empty. She needs something to fill it and a dog is an excellent choice.

Beth grows very fond of Freeway and the two are virtually inseparable but things get kind of crazy as the wedding approaches and of course Joseph is of little help. As Beth is helping Grace with the final details at the vacation house, Joseph – about as useful as a cell phone on top of Mt. Everest – is given the task of walking the dog. He does so, forgetting to put Freeway on a leash and so busy talking into his cell phone he barely notices when Freeway runs off after a deer.

When Joseph returns home sans dog, Beth is understandably distraught and unleashes her wrath on Joseph who doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s not like it’s a person,” he complains, “it’s just a dog” to which Beth retorts “Love is love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a dog.” She has a point but then again I am somewhat unreliable  when it comes to objectivity in this regard.

Of course, Joseph is in the literal dog house but he searches for the dog without success. Beth, frantic, enlists Joseph’s sister Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Jenkins) as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Duplass). Neither Joseph nor Bryan trust Russell whom they think has ulterior motives when it comes to Penny but Penny appears happy enough.

For Bryan’s part, he takes a shine to Carmen (Zurer), the housemaid who claims to have psychic powers who is certain that Freeway is still alive. This only furthers Beth’s determination and as the adults travel the beautiful countryside of the Rockies in the fall, they are forced to deal with each other one on one – for the first time in a very long time in some cases.

Some may recall Kasdan as the director of Silverado and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote this with his wife Meg so we do get both sides of the equation in most of the relationships without being overly committed to one point of view or the other. Kasdan has the wisdom to know that there are always more than one in any relationship and the case is generally that no one person is always right or always wrong.

However, you can never be wrong when you cast Kevin Kline and nobody knows that better than Kasdan who gave the actor his big break in The Big Chill. Kline is an everyman who can play just about any role and make it believable. He’s also so damn likable that even when he’s playing a character who is a bit of a dick we still end up relating to him which is quite the gift. I think that likability is why we so rarely see Kline in a villain’s role, although he can play those with aplomb as well (see A Fish Called Wanda).

His chemistry with Keaton is genuine and unforced. Keaton who sometimes can overdo the neurotic thing at least doesn’t make her character a complete ditz. She does have some legitimate grievances and while the way things work out is a bit contrived (but what Hollywood film is not?) the character itself isn’t. The acting in fact is terrific all around – the movie in fact suffers from an embarrassment of riches with so many great actors in the movie that you wish some of them got a little more screen time and you tend to leave that kind of film feeling a little cheated – and yet if they’d made the film longer it would have been too long. Catch-22 lives.

While the movie ends up using the dog as a uniting force and the search for him/her as a metaphor as our own search for love and acceptance, it gets to its destination after a few too many convenient coincidences. Other than that though this is a beautifully shot movie – you also can’t go wrong setting a movie in the Rockies in the autumn, although it is Utah subbing for Colorado here. It leaves one with the warm fuzzies which isn’t a bad thing and although a lot of critics grouse about it, this isn’t a dog movie in the same sense as Marley and Me nor is it a dog of a movie in the sense of a whole lot of forgettable exercises in cinema but it is a movie that might just stick with you like a loyal, loving dog and who doesn’t love that?

WHY RENT THIS: Because, you know, dogs. I’ll see Kline in anything, even when he plays a bit of a jerk.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many contrivances. Too many great actors, not enough time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual content as well as a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Kasdan’s first time in the director chair since 2003’s Dreamcatcher.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with footage of the New York premiere there’s also a featurette on the casting of the dog Freeway.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $793,815 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Red Baron

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!

(2014) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer, Jon Eyez, Enrique Murciano, Doc Shaw, Lee Ross, Keir O’Donnell, Kevin Rankin, Jocko Sims, Mustafa Harris, Deneen Tyler. Directed by Matt Reeves

As we can see by the events taking place on the Gaza Strip, two separate cultures in the same place have a difficult time coexisting. Each suspicious of the other, neither truly listening or trying to live in peace, there are always elements within that push for the complete annihilation of the other. Can you imagine how much worse it would be if the two cultures weren’t even the same species? Add into the mix that one of those cultures has been decimated by plague and war and blames the other for it and you have a powderkeg waiting to explode.

But that’s just the situation in Northern California. A ragtag human colony has gained a foothold in the ruined city of San Francisco. Led by Dreyfus (Oldman), his right hand man Malcolm (Clarke) sets into the Muir Woods of Marin County to see if they can reroute the power lines leading from a hydroelectric dam to go South instead of North and thus keep the power on in the human colony whose own generators are beginning to fail. However, his lone hydroelectric engineer Carver (Acevedo) runs into a pair of apes in the woods and shoots one of them, wounding him.

What Carver doesn’t know is that this is the colony of apes led by Caesar (Serkis), the genetically enhanced ape who has used the same drug that caused the end of mankind to enhance the intelligence of several of his fellow apes. They are beginning to learn to talk and have created a peaceful arboreal society in the woods. Caesar is none to pleased about it and orders the humans to go which they do posthaste.

Licking their wounds back at the colony, Dreyfus and Malcolm discuss the situation. They need that power. There are no other options. The apes however have followed the humans back home and Caesar, on horseback, informs the humans that they aren’t welcome in ape territory. They then return the backpack of Malcolm’s son Alexander (Smit-McPhee) who had dropped it in the chaos following their unexpected encounter.

Knowing that the survival of their colony depends on that power, Malcolm heads back to the woods accompanied by Carver, Malcolm’s girlfriend Ellie (Russell) who is a nurse, Alexander, Foster (Eyez) and Kemp (Murciano). Malcolm asks to speak to Caesar and plead the case of the humans. When Caesar agrees to let the humans do their human work, it arouses the ire of Koba (Kebbell), an ape who had spent much of the first part of his life in labs being experimented upon by human researchers. His hatred for humans is pathological and he means to wipe them out and remove their menace from the apes lives forever.

For his part, Carver hates the apes and blames them for the Simian flu (although the flu was created by human scientists) that wiped out the majority of the human race. He doesn’t trust the apes as far as he can throw them and as it turns out. Koba feels the same way about the humans  and as it turns out, they’re both right – Koba decides to see what the humans are up to in the city and discovers they have a large cache of guns and are testing them out. He thinks they’re planning an assault on the apes camp. Koba decides to enact a plan which is basically a “get them before they can get you” kind of thing and the fragile peace between the apes and humans are put in jeopardy and conflict between the two colonies becomes inevitable. Can either race survive a war?

This can be considered something of a parable, particularly in light of what’s going on between the Israelis and Palestinians although something tells me that it wasn’t initially meant that way. However, whether you choose to view the film that way or not, this is rip-roaring entertainment with maybe the best CGI for any film ever.

Let me explain that last sentence. The apes are motion capture with human actors supplying movement and voices. There are also other CGI animals including bears and horses. Every last one of these animals looks real and natural. Each of the characters have scars and faces that are recognizable. If you thought the make-up for the original Planet of the Apes franchise was groundbreaking, so too is the motion capture here. It’s bloody amazing.

Clarke, an Australian actor who has mostly done supporting roles in films like White House Down and Rabbit-Proof Fence, is likely best-known in the States for his work in the Showtime series Brotherhood. He proves himself a fairly able lead although whether or not that will translate into high profile roles in the future is somewhat ambiguous. He takes a backseat to Serkis whose powerful portrayal of Caesar reminds us that there is nobody better at motion capture in the business.

The eventual outcome of the story is pretty much a foregone conclusion which does make the movie a bit predictable. Some have groused that the Apes during the battle sequence seem to take to the guns a bit too easily but I disagree. They are far from expert marksmen and mostly shoot wildly when they shoot at all. When the clips are empty, they don’t know how to reload. Mostly, it is their sheer numbers and superior physical strength that makes them formidable.

At the end of the day, while the movie may not be perfect it is certainly one of the more entertaining summer movies of a disappointing season. It is likely to take its place as one of the biggest box office winners of the year, although it’s too early to tell if the numbers it got in its first week will be sustained until the beginning of August when Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to make a solid run. But until then, I can wholeheartedly recommend this as a good choice for a movie night out for just about anyone.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe some of the best CGI effects ever. Compelling story. Serkis does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly intense and occasionally brutal violence. A couple of instances of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reeves gave Keri Russell her first big break by casting her in the lead role of his TV show Felicity.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Kong

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Snowpiercer

Fish Tank


Fish Tank

Kierston Wareing has unquiet slumbers.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Sarah Bayes, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Joanna Horton, Grant Wild. Directed by Andrea Arnold

One of the more interesting debates in modern society is nature vs. nurture. How much impact does our environment play in our personality? Is it all genetically ingrained from the beginning without a whole lot of input from our surroundings – or does our personality completely depend on the where and when of our lives?

Mia Williams (Jarvis) lives in a really tough part of Essex, in government housing – an apartment complex with large full windows along the front wall, resembling a fish tank. She’s feisty, temperamental and doesn’t take crap from anybody. There are few things in her life that bring her any sort of satisfaction – hip hop dancing (which she does kind of badly and artlessly), her younger sister Tyler (Griffiths) and whatever small amounts of alcohol she can pilfer.

Her mother Joanne (Wareing) is a boozer and a bit of a slut and as unfit a mother as it is possible to be. She has brought into their home Connor (Fassbender), a handsome man who treats Mia with unexpected kindness, despite her initial misgivings and outright hostility.

He takes the family to the country and teaches Mia to fish without a pole. She begins to develop a little bit of closeness – maybe too much. She also becomes attached to a dying horse in the camp of a group of travelers – and to Billy (Treadaway), a younger member of the group who has become sweet on her.

In the meantime all her dreams, large and small, are slowly dying – and sometimes not so slowly. She seems caught in a web of frozen inertia, one from which her young life may never be extricated from.

Director Arnold caught the imagination of the British movie press with this movie, who have fallen all over themselves in praising it – not to mention the awards the movie has garnered. I have not warmed to it as much as others, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a quality piece of filmmaking.

Part of what makes this film worth seeing is the performance by Jarvis. She had no previous acting experience and was cast after a member of the production team (some say it was Arnold herself) observed her having an argument with her boyfriend in a train station (the one that’s used in the movie in fact). Her untrained status helps make the performance. It’s raw, emotional and without guile or artifice. Mia isn’t always the most lovable or makes the best decisions, but the portrayal is absolutely realistic. She isn’t perfect which is kind of what is attractive about her.

I will have to admit that the relationship between Connor and Mia made me a little bit uncomfortable. I realize that this type of thing goes on all the time and given the personalities involved even makes a certain amount of sense. Still, it’s a bit difficult to watch.

Wareing also does an excellent job as the mom, even though she looks far too young to be the mother of a teenager. There’s a very nice scene at the very end of the movie between her and her daughters that is quite natural and if I described it to you, it would smack of old Hollywood but it feels authentic here.

This is a very well-made movie. I appreciated the performances and the craft behind the camera. While the heavy English accents made it difficult for these Yank ears to always understand what was being said, nevertheless this is a worthwhile movie to check out. It isn’t pretty – and Mia can be frustrating in her behavior, just like any teen. Still in all, for those who want to see the grittier side of the UK this makes a very good starting point.

WHY RENT THIS: Jarvis gives a raw, unvarnished performance and the movie pulls no punches looking at the working poor of England.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The accents make the dialogue difficult to follow at times. The relationship between Connor and Mia is creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film was released without a rating, there is a severe amount of foul language, some sexuality including teen sex, alcohol and drug use, and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot chronologically, and the actors not given complete scripts so they were largely unaware of what was going to happen to their characters until the week of shooting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This is available in a Criterion Edition which includes three short films by Andrea Arnold (including the 2003 Oscar winner Wasp) and audition footage of juvenile actresses auditioning for the role of Mia.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on a $3M production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Priest

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs