Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

Pick of the Litter – February 2018


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Black Panther

(Disney/Marvel) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira. T’Challa has succeeded his murdered father as King of Wakanda, an isolated but technologically advanced African nation. Factions both from within his country and without challenge his leadership and threaten to drag Wakanda into a war they do not want. T’Challa must take up the mantle of Black Panther – guardian of his nation – to keep his country from tearing itself apart. February 16

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

(Abramorama) Tony McGuinness, Jono Grant, Paavo Siljamaki. One of the world’s biggest electronic dance music bands, Above & Beyond have been able to sell out venues like Madison Square Garden and headlined festivals like Lollapalooza. Starting in 2014 they began experimenting with doing acoustic versions of their own songs, regressing back to their earlier days as musicians rather than DJs. This would lead to a watershed concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2016. This film documents that journey from the dance clubs to the acoustic stage. February 2

Bomb City

(Gravitas Ventures) Dave Davis, Glenn Morshower, Logan Huffman, Lorelei Linklater. Loosely based on the true story of Brian Deneke, this is a tale about a group of punk rockers in a conservative Texas town who have had enough of a clique of well-to-do high school football players. This leads to a confrontation that has tragic consequences.. February 9

Entanglement

(Dark Sky) Thomas Middleditch, Jess Wexler, Johannah Newmarch, Diana Bang. A young man, despairing of making any personal connections in this world, attempts suicide but fails. While recovering, he falls in love with a girl who almost became his sister. That’s when things really start to get weird. The trailer is whimsical and charming; this could be a cliché-ridden indie dud or something really unique. February 9

Double Lover

(Cohen Media Group) Marine Vacth, Jérémie Renier, Jacqueline Bisset, Myriam Boyer. A beautiful but fragile young woman falls in love with her psychotherapist. Eventually she moves in with him but soon discovers that he has been hiding a part of himself that he didn’t want her to see. This is the latest from director François Ozon who also helmed the erotic thriller Swimming Pool.  February 14

Tehran Taboo

(Kino-Lorber) Alireza Bayram, Sasan Behroozian, Zahra Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Marandi. This animated feature (which uses the technique of rotoscoping – drawing the animation over live-action film) follows the lives of four young people in Iran who are forced to break the taboos of their restrictive Islamic culture in order to find their own happiness. February 14

The Millionaires’ Unit

(Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator).They came from wealth and privilege; everything had been handed to them their whole lives. Yet when the First World War loomed on the horizon, the members of the Yale Flying Club took it upon themselves to enlist. They became the first air unit to fly for the United States in the war; one of their members would be the first American airmen to die in the war. They were dubbed by the New York Times as The Millionaires’ Unit and their story is told through amazing archival footage, thrilling air combat re-creations and the recollections of their descendants. February 15

The Housemaid

(IFC) Kate Nhung, Jean-Michel Richaud, Kim Xuan, Svitlana Kovalenko. In 1953, a Vietnamese orphan is hired to work as a housemaid on a rubber plantation in French Indochina. She hears about tales of ghosts and haunting but she is too busy falling in love with the French Captain who owns the plantation. However their feelings for each other have awakened angry ghosts – including the vengeful first wife of the Captain. The trailer looks damn scary. February 16

Hichki

(Yash Raj) Rani Mukerji, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Ivan Rodrigues, Asif Basra. A young teacher with Tourette’s syndrome takes on a position at an elite prep school in India. First she must win over her students with her positive attitude; then she must win over the administrators. February 23

Mute

(Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh. A bartender in a Berlin of the near future has been without a voice since a childhood accident. When the love of his life disappears, he goes up against the criminal underbelly of the city to find out what happened to her. This is the latest from director Duncan Jones and is said to be set in the same universe as Moon. February 23

 

 

 

 

The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Snatched (2017)


Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn get a look at the reviews.

(2017) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Wanda Sykes, Joan Cusack, Randall Park, Oscar Jaenada, Tom Bateman, Christopher Meloni, Al Madrigal, Bashir Salahuddin, Arturo Castro, Raven Goodwin, Ike Barinholtz, Kate Dippold, Moani Hara, Nicholas J. Lockwood, Pedro Haro, Tom Choi, Modesto Cordero, Linda Molina, Kim Caramele. Directed by Jonathan Levine

 

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating; comedy is a highly personal thing. Everyone’s taste is different. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s meh and vice versa. We all react differently to different stimuli and what tickles our funny bones can’t necessarily be predicted. I know there are things I find funny one day that I wonder what on earth I was thinking the next. Still, there are things that we can universally agree on are not as funny as others.

Take this Mothers Day comedy. Emily Middleton (Schumer) is failing at life. Fired from her retail job, dumped by her musician boyfriend and left holding the bag on a non-refundable vacation to Ecuador – Ecuador? – she searches desperately for someone to go with on the “trip of a lifetime” (Ecuador?) but none of her friends are particularly interested in going or more to the point, interested in going with her. Judging on the behavior we observe in the first ten minutes of the film, one can scarcely blame them.

With almost no options available, she turns to her mother Linda (Hawn), an adventure-challenged cat lady of a mom who is happiest staying at home with a glass of wine and a book. One has to wonder why, particularly since Emily’s agoraphobic and passive-aggressively spoiled younger brother Jeffrey (Barinholtz) lives with mom, whom he addresses as “Ma-mah” and complains loudly if his bread isn’t warm enough. Millennials *eyeroll*!

Emily manages to convince Linda to go but it promises to be as awkward as you can imagine. Linda bundles up like a mummy by the pool and slathers Emily with enough SPF-1000 to deflect a flamethrower. Linda also shows no interest in going out partying so Emily goes by herself and is picked up by the handsome and charming James (Bateman). One simply can’t fathom what he could possibly see in her until of course it turns out his interest is strictly financial.

He arranges for Linda and Emily to be kidnapped by a ponytailed drug lord named Morgado (Jaenada) for white slavery purposes. However, the two intrepid women escape from Morgado’s essentially brain-dead  thugs and hook up with an Indiana Jones wannabe named Roger Simmons (Meloni) whose wilderness experience is limited to being the former manager at a Best Buy. With Jeffrey trying to get the U.S. Embassy to mount a rescue and the women trying to make their way back to civilization with an enraged Morgado in hot pursuit with a personal vendetta, the jungle might not be the safest place to be.

On paper, this should have worked. A strong cast led by the redoubtable Hawn who reminds us here why she was one of the greatest comediennes of her generation and a director who has some pretty quality films on his resume with a writer who co-wrote some of Melissa McCarthy’s best movies all lead to the assumption that this should have been a high quality film. Sadly, it Is not.

Hawn is one of the bright spots here although Schumer acquits herself reasonably well in a thankless role that mainly consists of the actress going from one onscreen embarrassment to the next. Schumer is one of the most talented comedic actresses working today but this feels like the character was cobbled together from dozens of other characters Schumer has played over the years. There’s nothing really original for her to sink her teeth into.

Poor Barinholtz, generally a pretty reliable character actor, gives his all to a character who you just want to punch in the throat at nearly every opportunity but the character is so inherently unlikable that you don’t care if he improves himself or not. Likewise the Emily character starts off basically as a self-involved bitch but as she spends more time with her mom becomes softer and more humble. Schumer is likable enough that even in an unlikable role we end up rooting for her but the transformation is fairly cliché.

The major sin here is that the comic set pieces – and the movie literally one set piece after another after another – are mostly unfunny. You don’t expect everything to work but you would hope at least 50% worked. That’s not the case here. Most of the gags here left me completely flat. There are some that work – and a lot of them are in the trailer – but there are fewer that work than don’t.

Hawn is really the reason to see this movie, particularly if you’re of a certain age. She’s not the Cactus Flower at this stage of her career but she still has deft comic timing and a screen persona that is both ditzy and charming. Schumer and her have a pretty comfortable chemistry that makes one wonder/hope that there might be further collaborations for the two in the future. If there is, one hopes they get better material to work with than this.

REASONS TO GO: It is wonderful to see Hawn onscreen again who remains an engaging screen personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is dreadfully unfunny in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity, plenty of profanity and some sexual content of the crude variety.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hawn’s first movie since 2002 when she made The Banger Sisters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grandma
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (about 4 of which is Hawn)
NEXT: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Higher Ground


Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

Vera Farmiga purchases a good review.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Reagan Leonard, Lucy Owen, Nina Arianda, Dagmara Dominczyk, Molly Hawkey, Warren Haynes, Sean Mahon, Natalie Thomas, Deborah Hedwall. Directed by Vera Farmiga

Karl Marx once described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” There is some truth to this, although as with most pronouncements about faith, religion, belief and the lacks thereof, it comes off as rather simplistic. Religion is many things to many people.

Corinne Walker (V. Farmiga) got married early in life. As a teen (T. Farmiga) she got pregnant by would-be rocker Ethan Miller (Holbrook) and, as Springsteen once said, man, that was all she wrote. While traveling by bus to a gig, an accident changes all their lives and in the aftermath Corinne and Ethan find religion.

Now a grown-up Ethan (Leonard) and Corinne live in what could be characterized as a Christian commune; a community of evangelical sorts in the Midwest for whom folk singing and Bible study occupy large portions of their time. Now with two daughters, Corinne has not questioned her faith and has been a devout follower of Christ.

But doubts are beginning to rear their heads. She feels constricted by the traditional roles assigned her and when she attempts to voice an opinion she feels the disapproval of her community, particularly from the women. Her lone confidante is Annika (Dominczyk), a free spirit who talks frankly with Corinne about her sex life and her female needs. Corinne craves these talks like Robinson Crusoe craves companionship.

But when a further test besets Corinne and the religious community, her faith is tested to the breaking point. When does faith become blind obedience, and how long do you blindly obey before making your own mind up about faith?

Now these sounds like questions that an atheistic Hollywood would be using to attack Christianity but I assure you that’s not what’s happening in this movie. Rather, what Farmiga and screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs (who based her screenplay on a book based on her own experiences) are trying to do is to examine the nature of faith, when it is appropriate to question it and the powerful role it plays in all our lives.

To the credit of writer and director, the believers are not painted with the fanatic paintbrush that believers are often painted with in Hollywood; rather those of faith come by it honestly, either through tragedy or self-examination or more to the point, both. Also to the credit of writer and director, there is no judgment going on here either. Religious faith isn’t portrayed as a crutch but the fact that it can be isn’t ruled out. Instead, it is portrayed as part of the tapestry of our lives. In some ways it reminded me of the 1991 apocalyptic movie The Rapture in which a hedonistic Mimi Rogers is brought to faith by a gentle, loving man whom she later marries, then loses it when her husband is senselessly murdered. While the events her are less epochal, the examination of faith has the same honesty to it.

Farmiga, whose younger sister plays her as a teen, carries the movie. Her Corinne is never shrill but she isn’t meek either. She has questions that need answering and they require answers that aren’t “mind your place.” Corinne is not the sort of woman who can fit in to a mold and indeed most women aren’t. However, there are some that can and do, and some who believe it is their religious duty to do so. That is the part of faith that can be difficult to understand.

The odd thing here is that while these are based on someone’s actual experiences, there is kind of a contrived feeling to the plot – as in that certain characters show up at crucial times when they are needed, or events happen at exactly the right time to have maximum impact on Corinne’s faith and doubts. While the movie doesn’t stereotype the faithful here other than perhaps the disapproving pastor’s wife, it doesn’t really explore them as people as much as I would have liked and the questions of faith that are raised here don’t get more than a very surface examination. While that does leave room for finding your own answers, you don’t get a sense of what the filmmakers think of all this and I would have really liked that insight as well.

This had the potential of being an important movie and indeed I do admire it for raising questions that Hollywood – and independent film for that matter – doesn’t tackle and while it ends up being more or less a morality play without really explaining the morality, you do have to admire its gumption if not its execution.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t sink to stereotypes. Farmiga is a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Feels a bit contrived. Tackles the subject in a cursory manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual situations, as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farmiga directed the film as well as acted in it while five months pregnant.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of outtakes and a production diary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $841,733 on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes (purchase only), Vudu (purchase only),  Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rapture
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Toast

Scrooged


Tiny bubbles...

Tiny bubbles…

(1988) Comedy (Paramount) Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Mabel King, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray. Directed by Richard Donner

 The Holly and the Quill

Some Christmas tales are so timeless, so meaningful that they can survive being twisted, pulled, yanked out of shape and modified into something quite different and still be meaningful and timeless.

Frank Cross (Murray) is the programming VP at the IBS network and he’s the youngest in the industry. He’s the golden boy, the one who has the eye of network head Preston Rhinelander (Mitchum). It’s Christmastime and Cross has an ace up his sleeve for the Yule season – a live broadcast of Scrooge from various locations, with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, John Houseman narrating and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one.

The people who work around Frank could use all the blessings they can manage. Frank is a world-class a-hole with a mean streak wider than the Long Island Expressway. This live show is crucial to his career; if it succeeds he is on the fast track to Rhinelander’s job. If it fails, he’s on the fast track to unemployment, where he has already put nebbish assistant Eliot Loudermilk (Goldthwait). He tries to keep his long-suffering assistant Grace Cooley (Woodard) working late, preventing her from taking her mute son Calvin (Phillips) to a needed doctor’s appointment.

But if you think Frank is callous in his professional life, you should see his personal life. He spurns his brother Earl’s (Doyle-Murray) invitation to dinner. He is as alone as alone can be. That wasn’t always the case. He was once deeply in love with the pretty community activist Claire Phillips (Allen) but that was from a long time ago. He’s barely thought about her over the years…well, that’s what he’d have you think anyway.

Frank is on a one-way trip to the hot seat but there are those who think he has something inside him worth saving – one being his mentor Lew Hayward (Forsythe), who pays Frank a visit on Christmas eve to try and reason with him. Never mind that Lew’s been dead for years; he’s really got Frank’s best interests at heart. He sure doesn’t want his protégé to end up like him – a rotting corpse doomed to walk the earth for eternity. To help the reluctant Frank along, Lew’s sending three ghosts to show him the way – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane) and…you get the picture.

This was a much ballyhooed remake of the Dickens classic that Murray, who had last tasted success with Ghostbusters four years earlier, had his imprint all over. SNL compatriots Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glaser co-wrote it and many of Murray’s cronies from SNL and from his other movies, as well as all of his brothers, were in the film. The film is very much set around Murray and his style of humor, so if you don’t like him much you’re not going to find a lot of reasons to see the film.

Still, if you do like him, this is one of his most iconic performances, one that will live with most of his classic performances in Stripes and the aforementioned Ghostbusters. The movie didn’t resonate with the critics very much – at the movie’s conclusion, Murray delivers a speech about the true meaning of Christmas which some felt was treacly and not heartfelt (although I beg to differ).

The ghosts are all amazing and fun, particularly Kane who beats the snot out of Murray (in one scene she pulled his lip so hard that filming had to be halted for several days while he recovered). The special effects are fun and if they are a little dated by modern standards (the movie will turn 25 next year) they still hold up pretty well.

The movie remains if not a Christmas classic at least a Christmas perennial. It runs regularly on cable this time of year and is easily available on streaming or for rent. It is perhaps less serious than most other Christmas movies but it has edgier laughs and that’s certainly worth something.

WHY RENT THIS: Kane, Forsythe and Johansen make some terrific ghosts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems like an overly long SNL skit at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scary images and some bad language. A little rude humor to tide you over as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tiny Tim-like character Calvin Cooley was named for former President Calvin Coolidge who was known for being taciturn.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on an unknown production budget; in its time the movie was a big box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn tells Sandra Bullock he's old enough to take a bath by himself; she's skeptical on that score.

(2011) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Anderson, Hazelle Goodman, Adrian Martinez, Brooke Bloom, Stephanie Kutzuba. Directed by Stephen Daldry

 

Grief is an emotion we all must deal with at some point, but sometimes we must deal with it too soon. For the families who lost loved ones in 9-11, how does one explain to a child that a person flew a plane full of gasoline into a tower full of people and because of that their mommy or daddy are never coming home again? How does one cope with having to explain that while dealing with their own grief?

Oskar Schell (Horn) has a particularly close relationship with his dad Thomas (Hanks). Dad often sends Oskar on what he calls Reconnaissance Expeditions, kind of an elaborate scavenger hunt.  His dad may be a jeweler by trade but he’s a dreamer by nature – he tells his son that there once was a sixth borough of New York City that floated away years and years and years ago, never to return. His son believes him, just as he believes his Dad implicitly when he tells him that Central Park was once part of that fabled sixth borough.

Then Dad goes to a meeting one bright beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He is still in there when the towers come down, molecules in the sky floating placidly in the dust and the debris. Oskar’s mom Linda (Bullock) and he must bury an empty casket since no body could be recovered; this upsets Oskar very much, so much so that he refuses to get dressed for the funeral (he attends in PJs and bathrobe), refuses to sit graveside (he remains in the limo with his grandmother (Caldwell).

A year after Oskar is still very much in pain. He is a brilliant kid with a logical and ordered mind; he can’t wrap his head around the “why” of 9-11. Nothing makes sense. Then, while rooting around in his dad’s things, he accidentally knocks over a vase which shatters, revealing a key in a small envelope with only the name “Black” neatly written on the envelope to give a clue as to where the key fits.

And as it’s a key and there must be a lock that it belongs to. Moreover, Oskar knowing his Dad’s penchants for subtle clues, believes that this is a quest he must undertake to hold onto his dad for just a little bit longer, the final words of the father to his son. Oskar will find the lock if it takes him the rest of his life.

He begins visiting everyone in the New York City phone book with the last name Black. There are 462 of them in the five boroughs and Oskar believes one of them has the lock that the key belongs to. They must. They have to. Otherwise the universe is truly a meaningless collision of random events and there is nothing ordered, nothing logical, just random chance.

Aiding him on his quest is the mute Renter (von Sydow) who is a boarder in his grandmother’s apartment. He is an old, sage gentlemen who seems to have demons of his own, but no voice. It isn’t ever clear if he can speak and chooses not to, but he does write notes and helpfully has the words “yes” and “no” inked on the palms of his hands.

His journey will take him throughout the five boroughs  and into a series of lives, some sweet and kindly, others not so much. His quest to keep his dad with him a little longer may well be the means in which Oskar will find a way back into living his own life.

Do bring a lot of tissue paper because you’re going to need it. Some of this is really hard to watch as you see a little boy’s pain, pain that he can’t even begin to cope with and his powerless mother taking the brunt of his rage because he has no other way to deal with this enormous loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.

However if you’re planning on seeing a Hanks-Bullock star-fest, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hanks only appears in flashbacks, while Bullock is a kind of just there until the last reel when she delivers some of her best work since The Blind Side. You’re mostly going to get Horn and that’s a good and bad thing.

Horn is making his feature debut. He has some talent – he has some very emotional scenes and this role asks – no, demands – a great deal from him. In a way, I think it asks too much. He must carry the movie on his frail shoulders and for much of it he does, but there are times when it feels as if he’s acting and a role like this calls for feeling it and feeling it deep. Accomplished actors would have a hard time with that and Horn does a pretty good job all things considered. You really can’t ask more of a young actor than what Horn gives here.

Keep in mind that the role is of a child dealing with something adults generally have a hard time with. Oskar lashes out, develops quirks that may be infuriating at times – and to top it all off he’s kind of an insufferable know-it-all who isn’t very patient with people who can’t or won’t keep up with him. He isn’t always likable and that can be different to relate to for an audience.

Von Sydow, the iconic Swedish actor, acts entirely without dialogue and gives a magnificent performance, conveying his emotions with a twitch of the eyebrow here, a shrug of the shoulders there, and most of all with his eyes. It’s a masterful performance and while it hasn’t gotten much buzz for Supporting Actor consideration, it’s kind of a shame it hasn’t – he deserves it.

There are some moments that are over-the-top precious and try too hard to push our buttons. There are other moments that are incredibly moving and cathartic. Sometimes we learn to deal with our own pain by understanding the pain of others. This is one such opportunity.

REASONS TO GO:. A tremendous story of grief and love. Horn does his best with a difficult role. There are moments that are greatly affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Oskar can be a handful and at times it’s hard to root for him because of his faults. The movie is maudlin in places. Not enough Hanks and Bullock.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes have a lot to do with grieving and loss; some children may find this distressing and disturbing. Some of the images are disturbing and there are some pretty foul words, some of it used by Oskar.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas Horn won $30,000 as a champion on Jeopardy Kid’s Week.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reign Over Me

BIG APPLE LOVERS: The movie is filmed in locations all over New York City, including several that rarely make it onto the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Haywire

Little Miss Sunshine


Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family weathers yet another catastrophe but they suck it up in the end.

(2006) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Wallace Langham, Lauren Shiohama, Matt Winston. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Some families seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to live under a cloud. Thus it is with the Hoovers, a middle class family living in suburban New Mexico that on the surface seem pretty normal – a supportive mom, a self-employed dad, an irascible grandpa and two kids. However, beneath the surface, there is nothing normal about any of them. 

Into this mix comes Uncle Steve (Carrell), the brother of mom Sheryl (Collette). He has just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At the dinner table, he tries to explain why he tried to kill himself. It wasn’t because of the failed love affair with a grad student – a male grad student to the bemusement of grandpa – or the loss of his job after a meltdown, or the fact that his ex-lover has taken up with his rival, the second best Proust scholar in America. It’s just that his grant has been yanked and given instead to his ex’s new beau.

Everybody is kind of living in their own little world. Grandpa (Arkin) has been kicked out of the retirement community he loved being in because of his excessive drug use, and I’m not talking about the kind prescribed for his colon problems. Teenaged Dwayne (Dano) dreams of going to flight school and flying fighter planes for the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves that dream. Little Olive (Breslin) wants only to be the next Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant winner.

Sheryl is trying to hold everything together, but it isn’t easy. Money is tight, especially since her husband Richard (Kinnear) has quit his job in an attempt to sell a self-help system he came up with called “The Nine Steps.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – his agent Stan Grossman (Cranston) is going to a self-help convention in Scottsdale, Arizona and is supremely confident he’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. Richard is nervously…ok, agonizingly, awaiting the phone call that the deal is done.

Things change when a different kind of phone call arrives. The little girl who won the regional pageant that Olive was runner-up in has been disqualified and Olive can now go to the finals in Redondo Beach, California. She goes absolutely nuts with joy. Flying her there is out of the question – the family can’t afford it. Sheryl can’t drive her all the way there, since they won’t all fit in Sheryl’s car and the VW microbus is a stick shift and Sheryl only drives an automatic. There is no question of leaving Steve by himself, since he is still technically on suicide watch. That means everybody goes, even though Dwayne would rather be eaten alive by army ants.

They set off into the land of the surreal; driving along the southwestern highways that lead from Albuquerque to L.A. Along the way, every disaster you can possibly think of befalls the family, from financial to mechanical to personal. As the journey continues, each member of the family will have to face their own personal crisis and eventually, all of them will have to come together to support little Olive in her dream, despite enormous obstacles.

This is quite plainly the funniest movie I saw that year by far. I was laughing out loud throughout the movie, and during the climactic scene, nearly nonstop. I was laughing so hard Da Queen was beginning to wonder what species had accompanied her to the theater; judging from the hooting sounds I was making, it sure wasn’t Homo sapiens

Unlike a lot of modern comedies, this is a movie that doesn’t rely on one cast member to carry the jokes. In fact, it’s fair to say that nobody in the movie is overtly comedic. This is a comedy of situation and of character. Yeah, there are some good one-liners, but for the most part, this is a bunch of more-or-less ordinary people just trying to get by as their situation spirals out of control. They are riding in a microbus that sabotages them at every turn (they must push the bus to start it and then run like track stars to leap into the side door, and this bus also has the most persistent horn in the world – it emits the noise that you would expect of a wounded or dying roadrunner). 

A lot of people will go to see this because Steve Carrell is in it, but he isn’t the star of the movie. This is most definitely an ensemble piece and everyone continues pretty much equally. Kinnear generally appears in roles as affable but backbone-challenged guys, and he gently spoofs his own image here, a kind of nudge-and-wink job that doesn’t get in the way of the movie but adds to it. Carrell plays it very low-key, keeping the wackiness pretty much to everyone else. He isn’t the straight man per se, but the closest thing to it in this movie. Youngster Paul Dano has the toughest row to hoe, having to be completely without dialogue most of the movie, but he does a great job at getting across teen angst without saying a word.

Still, I loved Toni Collette in this. She plays a supportive mom who has to deal with a chaotic situation nearly non-stop and she loses it in a couple of places but in a manner that is not so over-the-top and perfectly believable. I think that’s really the key as to why this movie works so well – everyone in it is so believable, even the bitchy pageant official (Grant). Nobody sinks to caricature in this. Even Breslin as Olive is not annoying in the least.

As with all good comedies, there are moments of pathos and revelation. In the end, what keeps the Hoover family going is that they are a family and they lean on each other, dysfunctional as they are. There is a tender moment during the movie where Dwayne is completely shattered, sitting in a field and utterly lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore. Little Olive just walks out to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. A simple moment between a little sister and her big brother that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative at all; it’s a completely natural little gesture of comfort that works because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Dayton and Faris come from a music video background; this is only their second feature and the first to really make any impact. They took a tightly written script (by Michael Arndt) and delivered it without hamstringing it with cliché. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff; it’s simply a seriously funny movie that will be the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch a lot of times without it losing its freshness, and that’s a very difficult and rare achievement for a comedy.

WHY RENT IT: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout that isn’t dominated by one chracter or actor; the actors are believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a Steve Carrell movie will be disappointed; he is as restrained as he ever has been in a movie and is simply a cog in the machine here.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bad language, a little sex and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Abigail Breslin wore a fat suit during filming to make Olive look a little chubbier than she actually is.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a music video by DeVotchKa as well as four different alternate endings.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.5m on an $8M production budget: the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Illusionist

Montana Amazon


Montana Amazon

Haley Joel Osment and Allison Brie wonder why the film's budget didn't include dry cleaning.

(2011) Comedy (Self-Distributed) Olympia Dukakis, Haley Joel Osment, Allison Brie, Veronica Cartwright, Ellen Geer, Lew Temple, James McDonald, Liza Del Mundo, Angel Oquendo, Haley Pullos, Michelle Bonilla, Zach Lewis, Connie Cooper, Patty McCall. Directed by D.G. Brock

Not everyone is born a genius. Not everyone is even born with normal intelligence. Some people are born to march to a different drummer, and some people are just born.

The Dunderheads of Montana are the kind of family that small towns in Montana sometimes have to put up with; not super bright, not socially graceful and apt to do the wrong thing more times than not. Ira (Dukakis) is nearly mute, for whom smoking seems to be her only joy in life. She is as mean-tempered as a Missouri mule and twice as violent as a Manson family disciple.

Ella (Brie), her granddaughter, has the sexuality of Sue Lyon in Lolita and the maturity of a six-year-old. She dreams of being swept off her feet by a studly gas station attendant (she has a thing for gas station attendants) and has all the sophistication of a musk ox in heat. As beautiful as she is, there is something disturbing about her that makes most guys go running in the opposite direction; that is if they have any sense at all.

Womple (Osment) is Ira’s grandson and Ella’s brother; he dreams of finding his father, who has been missing in action most of his life. Womple believes he is a big game hunter in Africa. He is sure his dad will return any day now, a hope that his sister ridicules at every opportunity. Ira doesn’t have much to say on the subject; she doesn’t have much to say at all.

When Womple accidentally kills a friend (and believe me, Womple doesn’t have many), a paranoid Ira herds her grandkids into an ancient Ford Falcon and drives off to escape the law. She has but one word in her vocabulary: “Canada!” which she grunts with ferocity. There’s just one problem; Canada is to the North of Montana; Ira heads resolutely south.

Along the way the Dunderheads leave a trail of mayhem and chaos behind them, but Womple will also discover the truth about his father and the family skeleton that he literally comes face to face with, and we will discover that some families are dysfunctional for a reason.

Director D.G. Brock is not a name I’m familiar with but she is a name you want to keep your eye on. This is one of the best-directed comedies I’ve seen in quite awhile. The pace is absolutely frenetic, moving from scene to scene with reckless abandon. There are a lot of really big laughs here, and many of them come from the puzzled expression of Haley Joel Osment, who probably saw a few dead people when he was channeling his performance, most notably the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

Olympia Dukakis is a treasure; while she has been cast in a lot of similar roles over her career (mother and now grandmother), she carries off this offbeat role bravely, allowing herself to go outside of her comfort zone (she beats the crap out of Osment throughout the movie and smokes like a fiend) and as a result, delivers one of the best performances of her stellar career.

Allison Brie is familiar to television viewers more than movie fans, having critical roles in both “Mad Men” and “Community” but she does a great job here. While her performance isn’t quite as fearless as Dukakis’, she displays a comic touch that marks her as a comic actress who has a future on the big screen as well as the small.

Cartwright and Geer deliver strong albeit brief performances in supporting roles. In fact, the acting is uniformly strong in this movie which for the most part has flown under the national radar. I caught it at the Orlando Film Festival and while the movie isn’t scheduled for U.S. release until April 2011 (and at present has no national distribution lined up), nonetheless this is one of those movies that remind you that good movies don’t necessarily generate Internet buzz. It’s an impressive comedy that mixes the best elements of screwball comedy and road pictures but injects a modern sensibility into the mix. It’s one worth making an effort to look out for.

REASONS TO GO: This movie is as manic as they come; combines the traditions of the screwball comedy and the road comedy, only with a modern sensibility. Dukakis, Osment, Brie and Cartwright all deliver the goods here. The ending packs quite an unexpected wallop.

REASONS TO STAY: At times the Dunderheads act so dumb and revolting it’s hard to sympathize with them.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing scenes, a bit of bad language (not much) and some scenes of sexuality, as well as some sexual language; I would rate this as acceptable for most teenaged audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who bought tickets in advance from the film’s website can get a free download of the John Legend song that is played during the closing credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While it is still possible the film might be picked up for national distribution, it is more likely your best bet will be to find it on DVD/Blu-Ray either on Netflix or online.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Flushed Away