Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America


Saying goodbye doesn’t have to wait until you die.

(2019) Documentary (HBOLeila Johnson, Linda Johnson, Steve Berkoff, Guadalupe Cuevas, Guadalupe Cuevas Jr., Amalia Cuevas, Alicia Cuevas Gonzalez, Barbara Jean, TJ, Sarah Singer Green, Lisa Bransine, Dick Shannon, Will Corbett, Ryan Matthews, Emelie Matthews. Directed by Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz

 

Death is a taboo subject. We tend to shove it to the back of our minds; we don’t like to think about it and we certainly don’t like to talk about it. Our mortality makes us uncomfortable, regardless that all of us are eventually going to die. Most of us have little clue as to how we want our endgame to play.

The Baby Boomers who are of an age now where they are beginning to get visits from the Grim Reaper with regularity are changing the way we think of death and dying. While some still opt for coffins that cost as much as cars, a ceremony in a place of worship and a viewing at the local funeral home, there are other ways to say goodbye now.

This new HBO documentary revisits the way we look at the end of the road. A visit to the National Funeral Directors Association convention in Boston reveals holographic final messages from the deceased to their loved ones, elaborate urns – don’t call them urns, they’re memorial art – and boxes of good Irish soil so that the deceased may get buried at home, even if their casket is thousands of miles away.

Others may prefer having their cremated remains shot into outer space as one teacher’s family did in New Mexico. His family was one of 45 whose loved ones became part of the final frontier. Although I would imagine that would be fairly pricy, so those cost-conscious about final send-offs may want to be aware of that.

There are also things called “green burials” which Texan Barbara Jean has selected. She wants instead of a coffin to be wrapped in biodegradable material and have her decomposing remains nurture the life of a new tree. I admit there is some appeal in having your corpse be put to good use.

One of the hardest segments to watch was that involving a celebration of life. 5-year-old Garrett Matthews was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told his mommy and daddy (Emilie and Ryan) that he didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a party complete with fireworks, bouncy houses, snow cones and an appearance by the Caped Crusader himself, Batman so after their child passed on, his parents did exactly what little Garrett wanted. Yes, it was a celebration of life but I don’t know if I could have had the emotional ability to approach it with the kind of joy they did and to be honest, one imagines there was a whole lot of tears and grief that didn’t appear on-camera.

Silicon Valley engineer Dick Shannon had terminal lung cancer and decided he wanted to decide for himself how and when to die. California’s “Death with dignity” laws enabled him to do that so Dick had a cocktail of drugs that would ease him off into the void peacefully and painlessly. Before he goes, Dick helps design (and build) his own coffin and also throws a farewell bash with a hefty amount of gallows humor.

We are shown Dick drinking his hemlock and sharing his final moments with his wife and family and that was a little uncomfortable, like we were invading the privacy of the family at a particularly painful time. I suppose we are conditioned to think that way.

The option that I’d go for was the first one presented; having your ashes mixed with concrete and made part of a Memorial Coral Reef. Considering the harm we’ve done to the ocean, it feels like the least we can do. Again, though, that one might be pricier than some of the other options presented here.

Some of this might seem a little new age-y to you (certainly the green burial had some elements of that) which might detract from the merits of the various options here, so try to keep an open mind. As Dick Shannon accurately says, the dying in America have no part of their own process of dying. They are removed from it to a large degree. Obviously those who die suddenly may not have time to consider what they want for their end of life choices, but it behooves most of us no matter how young we are to have at least some idea of how we want our families to handle our final arrangements. And death doesn’t necessarily have to be more about those left behind; I must admit I take some comfort in that.

REASONS TO SEE: Presents different viewpoints on death and how to deal with it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find this a little too new age-y.
FAMILY VALUES: The matter-of-fact approach to death and dying may be too intense for the sensitive and the immature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2018, more people opted for cremation than for traditional funerals in America for the first time ever.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Xenophobia

Choosing Signs


An American tree-hugger teaches an Irish lad the joys of natural energy.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Random) Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremy Ocanas, Stephen Wyley, Cora Fenton, Alan Riordan, Claire Bermingham. Directed by Owen Dara

 

The universe is a great big place. Some folks believe that our lives are guided by it if you just notice the signs that the universe is sending you. Personally I think the universe has way too much to do to bother with individuals but that’s just me and I’m a heathen.

Jennifer (Lancaster) believes it though. When she has tried to make decisions on her own, they’ve been utter catastrophe. She figures that allowing the universe through flipped coins, throwing dice – i.e. random chance – probably couldn’t end up worse. This has brought Jennifer from the shores of the United States to Cork, Ireland along with her mentally ill brother Matty (Ocanas) whose institutionalization has been paid for by Marc (Wyley), with whom Jennifer is living. Matty is obsessed with cars and building one out of found items. Marc has an obsession of his own – building low cost housing for immigrants during an Irish economic boom known as the Irish Tiger – and Jennifer is kind of drifting through the world that has been laid out for her through the signs.

Eamon is the nurse for Matty at the institution. Matty likes him; the easy-going Eamon treats him like he’s not crazy. Matty is also fully aware that Eamon has it bad for his sister and seems to be okay with the idea. Jennifer is a bit of a new age nut – she’s a big believer in things like shakras, auras and the like – so at first the match with the down-to-earth Eamon looks doomed. The charming Irishman is persistent though and not even the knowledge that she’s living with another fella dampens his spirits much but when the inevitable happens, Jennifer finds herself left with a decision that she simply can’t leave to chance.

This is a movie with a ton of heart which can excuse a lot of sins. It is also an ultra-low budget affair (Dara made the movie for about $25K) which can excuse a lot of other sins. However, there are some issues here that one should bear in mind when choosing to watch this or not. The soundtrack, composed by Dara as well as all his other duties, is mainly made up of acoustic folk songs written by Dara and sung by Dara and Virginia Williams. Dara has a pleasant voice as does Williams but the songs are noticeably too similar and after awhile it really gets on one’s nerves. It should be said that getting the rights to songs to be included on a soundtrack can be prohibitively expensive even for performers who aren’t well-known so unless you happen to have friends in the local music community who are willing to contribute songs for nothing which is actually a loss if you count recording costs, then chances are the music will have to be DIY.

Dara is an engaging performer, using his Irish charm to full advantage. He seems to be a very strange mix for the flighty Jennifer but then, Lancaster and Dara are a couple in real life so assuming this isn’t autobiographical (which I’m told it isn’t) there’s probably much more in common between the two in real life than there is in reel life.

One thing you can say about the movie – it isn’t a typical rom-com. All four of the main characters have some sort of burden or mental issue and Marc’s Ukrainian housekeeper Svetlana (Douds) whose blunt tell-it-like-it-is style forces all of them sooner or later to take a good hard look at themselves. Even Matty gets a dose of Svetlana’s forthright tongue. In many ways, Svetlana is the most compelling character and despite being a supporting character who gets little screen time eventually becomes the one you’d want to spend time with in real life.

Not everyone will latch onto this. It is by-the-seat-of-the-pants filmmaking and at times the low budget is very evident. What remains with me after having seen this yesterday is that charm, heart and conviction can go a long way in indie filmmaking and Choosing Signs has plenty of all three. If you’re willing to overlook the fact that there are no stars, no Hollywood glitz and the fact that all of the characters are damaged in some way – even Eamon as we discover late in the film – then you might just fall under the sway of this charming Irish production.

REASONS TO GO: Dara gives the film a great deal of charm.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack has too many similar-sounding folk songs and needs way more variety.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to producing, writing, directing and starring in the movie, Dara also composed all the songs for the soundtrack and edited the film as well. He may also have swept the floor of the theater after the show.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Public Image is Rotten

An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

Babies (Bebes)


Babies

Laughing all the way to the bank.

(2010) Documentary (Focus) Bayar, Hattie, Mari, Ponijao. Directed by Thomas Balmes

 

As a species, we have a thing about babies. Now, that doesn’t differentiate us much from any other species – procreation is, after all, a survival imperative. However, what does is that we obsess about the babies of other people, not just our own. While other species will protect the babies of those within their own family or group, they don’t particularly show much interest beyond that. You don’t see a lion cooing over another lion’s cub.

Of course, lion’s don’t coo either. However, humans can and do and will. Here we have plenty of opportunity to coo. This is a French documentary about four babies born in four different parts of the world – Hattie in San Francisco, Ponijao in tribal Africa (Namibia to be exact) Bayar on the frozen steppes of Mongolia and Mari in bustling Tokyo. The film covers roughly the first year of their life, from shortly after birth.

What differentiates this movie is that there are no cute graphics, no narration and no attempt of some Hollywood star to read a script from a writer who purports to know what the babies are thinking. This is not a Disney nature film in other words. There are no statistics, nothing particularly depressing, just 78 minutes of watching babies do their thing, be it nursing, snoozing, smacking other babies about the head, playing with toys, crawling, crying and being cuddled.

While it is a fresh approach (and welcome to most), therein lies the issue for me. It really is completely observational of the babies themselves and while that can be fascinating for a short time by the end of the movie (and it’s a short movie folks) I found myself fidgeting. It’s really akin to watching someone else’s home movies, albeit with better production values. Most of us don’t have HD film cameras and high-end film stock; we mostly have to settle for digital cams and cheap home video recorders, even cell phone video cameras.

That said, there are a lot of people who are going to ooh and ahh over this and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you love babies in general, you will find your nirvana here. All of the kids have definable personalities and indulge in all manners of cuteness, whether they are in a yurt or a pricy Tokyo apartment. There is also a lot of nudity, both from the babies and their moms (and in the case of Namibia, most of the rest of the tribe as well although the men are rarely seen).

The cinematography can be quite beautiful, ranging from the gorgeous Bay Area shots to the majestic but desolate Mongolian steppes, the hyper-kinetic Tokyo cityscape to the dry and dusty African plains. You will certainly get a sense of the environment each baby is growing up in and no value judgments are made either – the ones growing up in abject poverty are no less happy than the ones growing up in the West.

I’m not really a baby person. They’re cute, sure, but I don’t need to spend a whole lot of time around them. I’ve kinda done my time. So take this with a grain of salt – I admire the technical end of the film, the filmmaker’s dedication to giving an unfettered, unvarnished look at babies around the world. I know that there are plenty of people who are going to love this movie.

I’m just not one of them. It was a little like watching paint dry from my aspect, and having a repetitive musical score didn’t help matters. Maybe I’m a little too MTV but I need a bit more than a static camera focused on a bunch of proto-humans who left to their own devices would eat dirt. Not my cup of tea – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be yours, nor are you any worse a person if it isn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Cuteness personified. Reaffirms that we are more alike than not.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is like a 78 minute home movie; if watching someone else’s baby isn’t your thing, you’re going to get restless.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is nudity here of the maternal sort; some nursing and such. If that offends you, this might not be the film for you..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ponijao belongs to the Himba tribe who live near Opuwo, Namibia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an update on how the children are doing three years after they were filmed. There is also the winners of a studio-sponsored contest in which parents were urged to submit baby videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie was almost certainly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: This Means War

Our Idiot Brother


Our Idiot Brother

Elizabeth Banks is amused as Paul Rudd tries the Bertie Botts Every Flavor Frozen Yogurt

(2011) Comedy (Weinstein) Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, Rashida Jones, Hugh Dancy, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley Knight, Janet Montgomery, Steve Coogan, Bob Stephenson, Peter Hermann, Adam Scott, T.J. Miller, Lydia Haug. Directed by Jesse Peretz

We all are suspicious of things that are too good to be true, whether they be products or people. When people come along who seem to be too nice by half, we wonder if they are manipulating us – or are just plain idiots.

Ned Rochlin (Rudd) is an amiable biodynamic farmer selling his organic wares at a local market when he is approached by a uniformed police officer (Stephenson) who wants to buy some weed. The good-natured Ned, not understanding what was happening, sells it to him and is promptly arrested and sent to jail (although he gets out early for good behavior).

When he does get released, things have changed. His bitchy ex-girlfriend Janet (Hahn) kicks him out, having taken up with Billy (Miller) and refusing to let him claim his dog Willie Nelson. Ned is forced to move back in with his mom (Knight) who’s a bit of an alcoholic and whose style doesn’t exactly conform to Ned’s.

Ned’s three sisters aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to spend time with him. Miranda (Banks) is a self-absorbed career woman trying to make it as a reporter at Vanity Fair and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. She isn’t seeing anyone, although Jeremy (Scott), a neighbor, would certainly like to have some of her undivided attention.

Then there’s Natalie (Deschanel), a barista and aspiring stand-up comic who lives with Cindy (Jones), a lawyer. Natalie is oversexed and has a one-night stand in a taxicab that ends up with her getting pregnant, which she doesn’t want to tell Cindy about. Finally, Liz (Mortimer) lives in a sexless marriage with Dylan (Coogan), a documentary filmmaker who also regards Ned as something of a moron.

Ned goes to stay with each sister in turn, finding out some dirt on each of them and letting it slip out at inopportune moments. He is good-natured and sweet but he doesn’t know when to keep things to himself. He is utterly honest and guileless and can’t conceive of a world that isn’t, so he wreaks havoc in each of his sisters lives like a hippie tornado.

There is a lot of charm to Our Idiot Brother and it largely comes from Rudd. He is genial, even if he is wearing one of the worst cinematic beards ever. He is so sweet and lovable you can’t help him even if he is dumb as a rock. He’s like that big lovable goofy dog we’ve all had; you kind of love him because he’s a numbskull.

The ladies are all veterans of the indie movie scene and they don’t quite fare as well, sadly. Deschanel is one of the most talented actresses around (not to mention one of the most beautiful) but she is given little to work with other than a libido. Mortimer is forced to drop her robe in front of a disinterested Coogan and mostly look constipated. Banks comes off as an evil love child between Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep’s satanic editor from The Devil Wears Prada) and J. Pierrepont Finch (the ambitious office nebbish in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

All three are mostly given character flaws along with an abiding feeling of superiority over their brother, who they all look upon as a complete moron. Of course, all are redeemed by their brother’s honesty and kindness – I’m not giving away anything you couldn’t figure out before walking into the theater. Sadly, they aren’t memorable characters and their conversion comes without any effort or sacrifice. You never get the sense that they suffered in order to come out the other side smelling like a rose.

There are some very funny moments (a party scene where naive Ned falls into a threesome for example) but not enough to sustain the movie which seems to meander aimlessly from scene to scene. There doesn’t seem to be much point here other than to make a sweet, charming comedy which is quite all right by me, but at times this seems more of a collection of scenes than anything else and that’s a bit disconcerting.

It’s worth seeing for Rudd alone – he can be as charming as they come. This isn’t the vehicle that is going to lift him into another strata of stardom however; that will have to come another day.

REASONS TO GO: Rudd is terribly likable and charming. The cast is exceptionally talented.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s little inertia and the movie runs on too long. There are not enough funny moments to sustain it.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and sexual content, as well as a few F bombs and other crude words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie came together unusually quickly, taking about four months from the time producer Peter Saraf read the script to the day shooting wrapped.

HOME OR THEATER: It won’t be around in theaters much longer given the box office numbers, but that’s okay – this will work perfectly well on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Debt

The Celestine Prophecy


The Celestine Prophecy

Coincidentally, they've walked out to a vista of where they're supposed to go.

(RAM Entertainment) Matthew Settle, Thomas Kretschmann, Annabeth Gish, Sarah Wayne Callies, Hector Elizondo, Joaquim de Almeida, Jurgen Prochnow, John Aylward. Directed by Armand Mastroianni

Sometimes a work of literature can become a phenomenon; not because it is especially well-written but because people are searching for answers and they tend to go a little gaga when they think they’ve found a few.

John (Settle) is a high school history teacher whose services are no longer required. Adrift and somewhat at a crossroads in his life, he meets up with an old flame who conveniently flits into town (you’ll notice a lot of these conveniences in the film) to tell him about an exciting discovery in Peru of eight scrolls that have been dated 500 years before Christ, and each containing a singular insight that when taken as a whole will open a pathway to a new spiritual revelation. On something of a whim, John books passage on a flight to Peru after seeing a brochure for Peru arrive in the mail. Out flits his old flame, not to return.

In flits a historian, Dobson (Aylward) who sits alongside John on board the flight. Not only is he aware of the scrolls, he has been assisting with their translation and interpretation. It is he who dated the scrolls (although he did have them home before curfew). He also warns John that not everyone is eager to see the contents of the scrolls revealed to the world.

Before he can even say “See what I mean?” John witnesses the abduction of a priest whom he had been sent to connect with in order to see the scrolls. Strangely, it appears to be the police doing the abducting and when Dobson shows up, he gets taken too. Out flits Dobson from the movie.

John is saved by Wil (Kretschmann) who conveniently enough is one of the acolytes working on the scrolls and had arrived too late to help Father Jose or Dobson but he manages to bring John to their commune/resort/enclave/whatever. There he meets Marjorie (Callies) who at first recoils from John’s controlling energy (John has no game when it comes to the ladies) but eventually teaches him to share energy which is apparently better than sex.

However, the government forces marshaled by Cardinal Sebastian (Elizondo) and the mercenary Jensen (Prochnow) decide to take on the Celestines head-on and raid the ranch/commune/resort/enclave/center/whatever. Things look bad for the Celestines but they are rescued by the timely appearance of local rebels who could care less about them but who keep the government troops busy enough for them to get away and get on with their real business of finding the ninth scroll, which is the key and which apparently John is the key to acquiring. Ain’t that a coincidence? In ny case, out flit the rebels and in flits a headache.

Back in the 90s this was a huge bestselling novel for James Redfield. Several studio offers were made to convert the  property into a major motion picture, but Redfield turned down all of them, wanting to maintain intellectual and artistic control. Perhaps he should have taken one of them.

This is a mess from beginning to end. It’s really hard to know where to start, whether it is the new age hokum that is continually being spouted until you want to shove a bowl of granola up someone’s rectum or the wooden acting that keeps the energy of the film muted,. No, I think it was the overreliance on coincidence as a plot device and the way the characters keep commenting that these “coincidences” prove that something is meant to be. Actually, it’s just bad writing.

I tried plowing through the novel back in the day but finally gave up when I realized that for my admittedly dull sensibilities was neither entertaining nor enlightening and I feel the same way about the movie. Nothing in it really works, although if you’re a fan of the book you’ll appreciate how faithful the movie is to the novel, which is apparently what Redfield was after. He got his wish, but unfortunately what he didn’t get was a good movie and that’s no coincidence.

WHY RENT THIS: A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiff and clumsily directed which is appropriate considering the stiff and wooden acting in the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence but not enough to make me hesitate to allow most kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redfield had initially self-published the book and sold 100,000 copies out of the back of his truck before Warner Books agreed to publish it; the book went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time. The author decided to take a similar approach to the film and self-financed it as well as writing the screenplay himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $903,680 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Broken Embraces