Sisters


Sisters partying like it's 1989.

Sisters partying like it’s 1989.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Bairnholz, James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Greta Lee, Madison Davenport, Rachel Dratch, Santino Fontana, Britt Lower, Samantha Bee, Matt Oberg, Kate McKinnon, Jon Glaser, Chris Parnell, Paula Pell, Emily Tarver. Directed by Jason Moore

I’m a big fan of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For one thing, they’re really, really funny and when paired up, even funnier. As a matter of fact, they might just be the best all-female comedy team of all time. Think about it; how many all-female comedy teams are you aware of? There definitely should be more of them.

So this is their second movie together after the successful Baby Mama and it has kind of a John Hughes-like scenario. Two sisters – Kate Ellis (Fey), a 40ish foul-up who is brash and sexy, and Maura (Poehler), a divorced nurse with a charitable compulsion that sometimes leads to awkwardness – are summoned home to Orlando (although only one scene was filmed here) to their ancestral family home which their parents (Brolin, Wiest) are putting on the market so that they can move into a retirement community and divest themselves of most of their possessions. The girls are meant to clean out their rooms so that the sale can be finalized the following Monday.

Much nostalgia ensues as the girls decide to throw one last blow-out party like the ones they threw in high school…when Maura would be the responsible one and Kate would party hard. With the realization that Maura never got laid in her own bedroom and the window of opportunity closing, Kate decides to snare James (Bairnholz), a hunky neighbor, to seal the deal.

Kate offers to be the designated party Mom and stay sober, which is a new role for her. She does have a teenage daughter (Davenport) but their relationship is rocky. In fact, the daughter has left the nest, exasperated by her mom’s irresponsibility and party party party attitude and she refuses to tell Kate where she is. Determined to prove herself responsible, Kate throws herself full tilt into her new role.

And that’s really it for plot. If you’ve seen one high school blowout party movie, you’ve seen them all and this is essentially a middle aged riff on that. It has that 80s John Hughes movie kind of vibe which isn’t a bad thing at all, but lacks the really laugh-out-loud consistency that Hughes was able to create for his movies. There’s more of a Farrelly Brothers consistency in which everything is thrown at the comedy wall and whatever sticks does, the more outrageous the better. There are more bra jokes in this movie than I think have been in any movie in cinematic history, and some drug humor (although nothing like a Seth Rogen film) for people who don’t do drugs. There is most definitely a been-there done-that feel to things, and while that can make for cinematic comfort food, it really isn’t what you want out of talents the likes of Poehler and Fey.

The good thing is that Fey and Poehler are one of the greatest comic teams in history – not just female, but any. Their chemistry is undeniable and the two play off of each other better than anyone working in the movies today. It’s at the center of the movie (as well it should be) and makes their roles as sisters thoroughly believable. Da Queen, who has a sister, agreed that it was a realistic portrayal of the dynamic between sisters.

There is a cornucopia of supporting roles, from SNL veterans (Fey, Poehler, Dratch, Moynihan, Rudolph) to WWE wrestlers (Cena) to Daily Show stars (Bee) and sitcom regulars (Bairnholz, Brolin). Most of the roles are essentially one-dimensional who are there to add a specific element (angry rival, studly drug dealer, drugged-out class clown, Asian pedicurist) to the proceedings, but like the leads are given very little to do that is really genuinely funny. Bairnholz shows some promise as a comic leading man though, and Rudolph manages to express every annoyed expression that it is possible for a human face to make.

Don’t get me wrong; this is entertaining enough that I can recommend it, largely due to Fey and Poehler, but this isn’t as good as it could and should have been. A pedestrian plot and lack of actual laughs turn this from what should have been a showcase for two of the most talented comedians working today into a just average comedy with too many characters and not enough character.

REASONS TO GO: The chemistry between Fey and Poehler continues. Some fine supporting performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough laugh-out-loud jokes. The plot is too been-there done-that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude sexual content, a fair amount of profanity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brolin and Wiest also play parents in last year’s indie film Life in Pieces.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Step Brothers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Won’t Back Down

The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)


What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

What could be more depressing about the state of humanity than a child with a gun?

(2008) War Drama (Sony Classics) Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver, Anneke Blok, Mees Piejnenburg, Jesse van Driel, Dan van Husen, Ad van Kempen, Tygo Gernandt, Ben Ramakers, Tibo Vandenborre, Jens Roth, Peter Eberst, Peter Post, Emile Jansen, Alja Hoeksema. Directed by Martin Koolhoven

That war is hell is a given. For youngsters however war is a special kind of hell, the kind that can render childhood terminated and sometimes life itself terminated as well.

Michiel (Lakemeier) lives in a small Dutch village in 1945 as the war is drawing to a close. His father Johan (Thiry), the mayor, is hoping that they can all ride out the German withdrawal from their village as safely as is possible. While they remain he does his best to keep the Germans happy as possible – not as a collaborator mind you but more of an appeaser.

His brother and Michiel’s uncle Ben (van Wageningen) is different. He’s a resistance fighter, combating the Nazis at every opportunity. To Michiel, his uncle Ben is a hero and his father, he increasingly suspects, is a coward.

This deteriorating situation within the family is thrown into chaos when a British RAF pilot named Jack (Bower) crashes near the village. His leg badly mangled, he is hidden by the resistance after killing a German soldier who had discovered the crash. When the resistance fighters protecting him are wiped out, it falls upon Michiel to protect the pilot. He brings in his sister Erika (Klaver) to help with Jack’s wounded leg – Erika’s a nurse. It doesn’t take long for Erika to fall in love with the dashing young pilot. Still, it is a cat and mouse game between the Nazis and Michiel whose family will be tested by Michiel’s actions. Not all of those closest to him will pass that test.

Based on a novel by Dutch writer/politician/scientist Jan Terlouw who in turn based the novel on his own experiences during the Second World War, Winter in Wartime is a bit rote when it comes to war movies. Films like Defiance, The Boy with the Striped Pajamas and Aftermath all explore the various aspects of the war explored here, from living in an occupied town to how children dealt with the experiences. The Dutch have turned to the war as a subject (or at least a backdrop) regularly in films like Soldier of Orange to Black Book.

Lakemeier does a very credible job as the 13-year-old Michiel. He is a child growing much more rapidly into a man than he should have to. By film’s end Michiel is certainly no longer a child and young Lakemeier makes that transformation believable. Van Wageningen does heroic quite well while Thiry keeps you guessing as to his character’s loyalties.

I can’t help but think that this could have used a bit less Hollywood and a bit more Amsterdam. This feels like a kind of rote studio film in many places and while the cinematography captures the beauty of snow-swept vistas and towns layered in the white powder, it still feels a bit predictable. It must also be said that Koolhoven does a fine job at maintaining the level of suspense, particularly in the latter half of the film.

This is basically a well-made movie and I can recommend it pretty much to everyone although with the caveat that you will have seen this before in many ways. Lakemeier’s performance however is something you haven’t seen and for that alone you can put this on your list of movies to check out.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performance by Lakemeier. Suspenseful when it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and a bit of wartime violence as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in Lithuania due to the absence of snow in the Netherlands during filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lore

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Elysium


Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

(2013) Science Fiction (TriStar) Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Valentino Giron, Yolanda Abbud L, Carly Pope, Michael Shanks, Ona Grauer, Christina Cox. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

When the world becomes too overpopulated and too polluted to live comfortably, where are the super-rich going to go? Why, to outer space of course.

In 2154, the same year Avatar is set in – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the Earth has become one gigantic favela – a kind of super-barrio that has appeared in Brazil and are ultra-violent. The wealthy, whose corporate interests have destroyed the Earth and enslaved the population, have fled to Elysium, an idyllic space station which looks a whole lot like Boca Raton except for the humidity. There the rich live in peace, quiet and plenty living indefinite lifespans due to an automated medical bay that cures pretty much anything short of death.

Of course, no such machines exist on Earth for the general population who overcrowd hospitals using 20th century technology for the most part. This is the world that Max (Damon) lives in. An orphan who became a legendary car thief and was imprisoned for it, he’s trying to scrape together a life on the straight and narrow building robotic police officers. Somewhat ironically, one of the robotic cops ends up breaking his arm when he gets lippy during a routine bus stop hassle. However, the silver lining here is that the nurse who cares for him is Frey (Braga), a childhood friend and fellow orphan who Max is sweet on. Frey is reluctant to get involved with an ex-con though, especially since her own daughter (Tremblay) is in the end stages of leukemia.

However, Max gets accidentally irradiated in an industrial accident caused by an uncaring and sloppy corporate bureaucrat. He has five days to live before the radiation kills him. His only chance at survival is to get to Elysium. His only chance to get to Elysium is through Spider (Moura), which Max’s good friend Julio (Luna) warns him against but nevertheless supports him for. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium but first he must do a job for Spider; to download the codes and passwords from a citizen of Elysium so that Spider’s shuttles can successfully get through the formidable defenses of the station without getting blasted into atoms. Max chooses Carlyle (Fichtner), the uncaring and callous owner of the robotics factory.

Unknown to either Spider or Max is that Carlyle is conspiring with Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup from the satellite’s somewhat milquetoast president (Tahir). Carlyle has created a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems and effectively give control of the entire satellite to Delacourt. When Max gets that information from Carlyle, he immediately becomes the most dangerous human on Earth. Delacourt sends her brutish operative Krueger (Copley) and his thugs to collect Max and download that data. Krueger doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get that information and Max doesn’t care what he has to do to get cured. The results of their struggle will shape the future of two worlds.

Blomkamp is best known for directing District 9, the surprise South African hit that was nominated for four Oscars. He showed a real flair there for fusing social commentary with an all-out action movie. He also showed a unique visual sense that is also very much in evidence here – this is one of the most stunning movie this summer visually in a summer full of great visuals.

There are a lot of modern parallels here from the Occupy Wall Street class war scenario to Obamacare. Clearly Blomkamp has some liberal sympathies; I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t compared this movie as a thinly veiled love song to Obamacare which it isn’t – it’s far more liberal than that. If anything, the filmmaker seems to be advocating a single payer system in which health care is free for all.

Matt Damon is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors both from a box office standpoint (a recent study revealed that his films make more money per every dollar he is paid than any other major Hollywood star) but also from a quality standpoint. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Matt Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, the everyman who triumphs over adversities large and small. Here even though his character has an overly-developed sense of self-preservation (so much so at times that he is willing to throw friends and loved ones under the bus for his own gain) he’s still so thoroughly likable that you end up rooting for him anyway. I doubt if any other star in Hollywood could get away with a role like this.

Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico so there is a healthy dose of Mexican talent in the film, including Diego Luna who is growing into as compelling an actor as there is in Hollywood. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, is lustrous and shows why many consider her one of the most promising actresses in the world. Copley is a bit over-the-top as Krueger, more brutish than anything. He would have been more compelling a villain had his character been fleshed out a little (no pun intended – for those who have seen the movie already you’ll know what I mean). Foster, an Oscar-winning actress and one of the finest performers of her generation, throws us an oddly lackluster performance which gives me the sense that she really didn’t understand or care about her character at all. It makes me wonder if her experience on this film may have led her to announce (in a roundabout way) her retirement from acting. If so, I hope that she reconsiders; I’d hate this movie to be her acting swan song.

I like that the movie gives us something to think about, although conservatives may find the film to be unpalatable to their viewpoints. Some of the film is a bit wild in terms of the potshots it takes, sacrificing believable story to make its political points. Liberals may be more forgiving of its sins in this area however.

In a fairly tepid and disappointing summer blockbuster season, this is one of the brighter lights. While the box office to date leads me to believe that it will have to rely on overseas revenue to make back its production costs, this is still a compelling movie that you might want to see on a big screen for some of the awesome visuals (a shuttle crash on Elysium is simply amazing). Hey, in the heat of August an air-conditioned multiplex might be just the thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful science fiction. Nice performances by Damon, Braga and Luna. Sweet special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems scattershot at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlyle’s shuttle bears the Bugatti Automotive logo.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100; more positive reviews than negative but not by much.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zardoz

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Red State

Olympus Has Fallen


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2013) Action (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd, James Ingersoll, Freddy Bosche, Lance Broadway, Malana Lee. Directed by Antoine Fuqua 

We’re pretty fat and happy here in the U.S., economic hardships notwithstanding. We’ve rarely felt the ravages of war and terrorism on our own soil. But as 9/11 proved, that can change in a heartbeat.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent with a Special Forces. He’s also a favorite of President Asher (Eckhart) and his family – First Lady Margaret (Judd) and son Colin (Jacobsen).  But a trip on a snowy road leaving Camp David would change that forever

Now Mike toils in the Treasury Department at a desk job he hates. His wife Leah (Mitchell) can’t understand why he seems so distant; she goes to her job as a nurse as he goes to work somewhat like an automaton. Meanwhile the world keeps on spinning; the North Koreans are gathering troops on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone and the Prime Minister of South Korea is coming to the White House to elicit support from the President.

Then all Hell breaks loose. A transport plane outfitted with advanced machine guns and countermeasures to keep it from getting shot down shoots up the Washington Mall, eventually getting hit by a missile from the White House. At length it crashes but not before taking out the top of the Washington Monument. But that was more or less just a diversionary tactic as the President is hustled down into a bunker below the White House itself and the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under attack from crack troops superbly trained and brandishing state of the art weapons. The Secret Service and Marine detachment are decimated and to the horror and astonishment of the World, the White House is taken.

With the President, the Vice-President (Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Leo) all in the bunker, the Speaker of the House Trumbull (Freeman) assumes de facto control of the Presidency. Not a moment too soon either because the President is betrayed from within, and now he is a hostage along with all those in the bunker with him.

Kang (Yune), leader of the terrorists, is demanding that the U.S. withdraw all its troops from the DMZ and its warships from the Sea of China. But like everything before it, this is a diversionary tactic from his real objective which is far more sinister and horrible than anyone could imagine. But now that the White House is taken by a hostile force, can the President and his family and fellow hostages be rescued before Kang can carry out his nefarious plan?

Well, duh. You see, nobody counted on Banning making his way into the White House during the chaos. And nobody counted on Banning being the badass he was. But is he enough to save the day?

Well, duh. You’d better believe it. But this is one of those action movies that even though you know deep down in your bones how it’s going to come out, you still sit on the edge of your seat throughout because it’s so skillfully set up and directed.

Butler has already earned his action hero spurs in 300. He cements his status here, showing capable fighting skills and doing some pretty impressive badassery in general. Unfortunately, the writers try to turn him into John McClane a little in the second half of the film which really doesn’t work. Butler is no Bruce Willis and frankly we don’t need another one – we’ve got the original after all. That minor complaint aside, Butler carries the movie nicely.

That the movie resembles Die Hard in DC has been commented upon pretty much by every critic who’s commented at all; I won’t go any further with it except to say that if they’re going to choose an action movie to resemble, they couldn’t have done better.

Fuqua is a capable director (see Training Day if you don’t believe me) but the writing doesn’t measure up to his skills. There are a lot of things that had Da Queen and I staring at each other in disbelief – I find it hard to believe that the government of this country would endanger millions of Korean and U.S. citizens to rescue the President, particularly if the Speaker was in charge (and I can only imagine how quickly Jim Boehner would throw President Obama under the bus if he were in the same situation – probably as quickly as Nancy Pelosi would have done so for President Bush). It is my impression that once the transfer of power has been completed, the President becomes an ordinary citizen. It’s the office of the President that is protected, not the person.

The movie is also hellaciously manipulative. I will admit I felt a pang when the White House is taken; it’s not unlike seeing your favorite pet kicked by someone from another neighborhood. You feel outrage not to mention plain old rage. I was surprised how much the scene effected me. Of course, at the end of the movie the Red Staters I live with were cheering loudly. When times are tough, it’s comforting to know that America still kicks ass in the movies, folks.

REASONS TO GO: Solid action film with a nice premise (although this is the first of two movies this year with the same basic plot). Butler is a terrific action hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Save the kid subplot bogs down the middle third. Extremely manipulative ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and pretty foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cole Hauser and Radha Mitchell previously worked together in Pitch Black. They share no screen time together here however, although Hauser is once again playing a “federal agent” (he played a Marshall in the earlier film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics can’t make up their mind about this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air Force One

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ceremony

Amour (2012)


Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

Love can be a scary, terrifying thing.

(2012) Drama (Sony Classics) Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre, Rita Blanco, Carole Franck, Dinara Drukarova, Laurent Capelluto, Jean-Michel Monroc, Suzanne Schmidt, Damien Jouillerot, Walid Akfir. Directed by Michael Haneke

For most of us, our fondest wish is to find someone to grow old with. We look at growing old as a pleasant thing, our hair turning white and our skin wrinkled, holding hands with our loved one as we are surrounded with children and grandchildren, living lives in retirement of quiet pride in a life well-lived.

Growing old though is no golden-hued trip down an autumnal lane. It’s not for the faint of heart and even though we may have the company of someone we love, it isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card.

Police break down the doors in a Paris apartment and are immediately are met by an unpleasant stench. They search the room and find a decomposing corpse. There had been a nurse but she hadn’t been seen around lately. Mail had been piling up.

We flash back and see a piano concert. More to the point, we see the audience, rapt and moved by the impassioned playing of Alexandre (Tharaud), who is a former pupil of Anne (Riva). She and her husband Georges (Trintignant), both Parisian music teachers now retired and in their 80s, attend the recital and go backstage to greet Alexandre but he is surrounded by well-wishers and so they leave gracefully and return home.

At breakfast though, Anne suddenly stops reacting. Her mind seems to go away and when it comes back she has no memory of having gone despite several long minutes having passed. Georges is concerned but Anne has a pathological fear of hospitals…but when she has a major stroke, she is forced to stay at one for awhile. When she returns home, her right side is paralyzed.

At first it’s a bloody inconvenience. Anne is still much the same forceful, strong woman she’s always been but now she must rely on Georges for more and more. Soon it becomes necessary to hire a nurse (Franck). Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Huppert) who is a touring musician herself, visits from New York with her obsequious English husband Geoff (Shimell) and is aghast but seems more concerned with the physical deterioration than with the emotional burden that both George and Anne are bearing. They both know where this is going and how it inevitably is going to end.

This is the Austrian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year although it was filmed in Paris and French is predominantly spoken (some dialogue is in English). Haneke is an Austrian and the film was produced by French, German and Austrian sources. It also is the rare movie that also netted a Best Picture nomination – every movie that previously got that double nomination has won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Riva also has a Best Actress nomination while Haneke got Best Director and Best Screenwriter nominations as well.

The story is a very personal one for Haneke who watched it happen in his own family. Nearly all the action (other than the scenes in the recital hall early in the film) takes place in the apartment and in that circumstance the movie could easily feel stage-y or claustrophobic but it never does. This has become their entire world. It gives us a good sense of how their world begins to shrink down to just the two of them.

Riva is amazing here. It’s a gutsy performance because there is no glamour whatsoever to it other than initially. The indignities of becoming infirm are well on display and Riva, best known here for her sexy turn in Hiroshima Mon Amour shows them with an unblinking eye, allowing you to share in her despair and frustration. She’s been one of France’s top actresses for half a century and here you see why.

Trintignant came out of semi-retirement to act in this movie. Also one of France’s leading thespians (with astonishing performances in A Man and a Woman, Z and Red) his performance here is central to the film. It is harder to watch the deterioration of a loved one than to be the one deteriorating in many ways, and you can see his pain and frustration in his eyes. His work here has largely been overshadowed by Riva’s and in all honesty deservedly so but that doesn’t make his performance any less important or less commendable.

The scene in the concert hall is masterful and I think a fairly defining shot for Haneke. We don’t see the performance but merely the reactions to it. We are voyeurs as it were, watching the watchers Georges and Anne among them, their faces drawing you to them even though at that point in the movie you don’t know who they are. While the scene may appear to be innocuous and non-germane to the overall story, it’s a moment that stays with you and then long after the credits role you realize that Haneke was telling you what your own role in the movie is about to be. It’s brilliant and reminds me once again why he’s perhaps the best filmmaker in the world that you’ve never heard of.

This is one of last year’s most acclaimed movies and justifiably so. There are some shocks and some moments that may be uncomfortable for you – it can be argued that we are given too much access. There are those who will find Anne’s deterioration depressing but to be truthful it is a part of life. Old age as I said earlier isn’t necessarily a Hallmark card. It’s indignity and infirmity, aches and pains, organs breaking down and senses not working right. It is a natural progression in our lives but it isn’t an easy one.

The title is well-considered. Love is easily described as never having to say you’re sorry but that’s just the Hollywood version. In truth love is not those easy moments where you have make-up sex, or a snuggly Sunday morning. Love is caring for your partner when they are incapable of caring for themselves. Love is changing the diaper on the woman you used to make love to. Love is hearing them berate you and understanding it’s the situation and the pain talking and refusing to respond in kind. Love is being there until the bitter end and sometimes, doing something so painful that your soul shrivels and dies inside you but if it takes away the pain of the one you love, it’s worth it.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking. Deals with real world issues in a relationship and in aging.

REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a bit depressing although they will be missing the point if they do.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes are very adult. There is one scene that is graphic and disturbing. There are a few bad words and a brief scene of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riva is the oldest woman to be nominated for an Oscar at 83; she received her nomination the same day that Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest nominee at age 9 for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100; the reviews are excellent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Myth of the American Sleepover

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere

Meet the Parents


Meet the Parents

Robert De Niro wants to make sure Ben Stiller isn’t lying when he says that he’s his favorite dramatic actor.

(2000) Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Robert de Niro, Teri Polo, Blythe Danner, Nicole deHuff, Owen Wilson, Phyllis George, James Rebhorn, Jon Abrahams, Thomas McCarthy, Judah Friedlander, William Severs, Kali Rocha, John Fiore. Directed by Jay Roach

 

It is true of all long-term intimate relationships that you are not only with your partner, are with your partner’s family as well (and they with yours). There is nothing more terrifying for a prospective groom than meeting the mom and dad for the first time with them eying you not as a boyfriend but as the husband for their daughter. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

Greg Focker (Stiller) is a male nurse facing this very prospect. He is head-over-heels in love with Pamela Byrnes (Polo) and is intent on marrying her, but wants to do it the right way. Before he asks her, he wants to ask her dad first. And for you guys thinking of asking daddy for her little girl’s hand, consider the nightmare it would be if daddy happened to be de Niro. As in Robert. Yup. Someone get the smelling salts please.

Focker does his best to make a good impression, but he is in a household made chaotic by the impending marriage of Pamela’s sister (deHuff), the presence of her medically-snobbish in-laws-to-be (George and Rebhorn) and Pamela’s somewhat put-upon mother (Danner). Things keep going wrong for poor Greg. And then they get worse. By the time things come to a head, your sides will be sore with laughter.

Stiller, on the strength of this film and There’s Something About Mary, has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable comedians. His likable boy-next-door style reminds me, oddly enough, of silent star Harold Lloyd, without the physicality. De Niro, who exhibited heretofore unknown comic talents in Analyze This, continues to lampoon his own image with hilarious results. Wilson, who has since made a career out of playing the laconic second banana shines here; he’s not so much a second banana as a comic foil here, the perfect ex who makes Greg look more and more like a schmuck with each incident.

My beef with the movie is that Greg, who is a plenty smart guy, turns into a raging idiot once the action begins. I can understand how the need to impress your prospective in-laws might lead you to doing some things you might not ordinarily, but Greg as a nurse didn’t strike me as particularly irresponsible – why would he be completely irresponsible in the in-law situation to the point of irrationality? That didn’t jive with me and was really the one part of the film I had trouble reconciling.

Even if you don’t like the Farrelly Brothers, whose style Meet the Parents most closely resembles, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud hysterically at some of the more inspired gags. There’s one bit involving a cat and an urn that literally turned the Da Queen and I purple from laughter. It’s very therapeutic (although those with parental remains in their home may cringe). There is definitely a more 90s comedic feel here but it never devolves into schtick which some comedies from the era did. While there is plenty of slapstick it didn’t strike me as particularly low-brow, sort of a happy medium more like.

Meet the Parents is vulgar in places (but not as much as, say, The Hangover) but it’s screwball at heart. It’s one of the funniest movies of its era, certainly far more successful in creating laughs than its two successors in the series. If life is stressing you out, an evening watching Meet the Parents could be just the tonic you need.

WHY RENT THIS: Stiller is at the top of his game. Really, really funny in places. One of the best comedies of its era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiller’s character acts unbelievably dumb in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some sexuality, a bit of bad language and some drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The name “Focker” was suggested by Jim Carrey who was at one time attatched to the property in the role Stiller eventually took. The MPAA wouldn’t allow the use of the name however until the filmmakers found at least one person with that surname, which they did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All DVD editions include a Blooper reel. The DVD Bonus and Blu-Ray editions includes a scene of DeNiro singing “Love is in the Air,” a featurette on the training of the cat that played Mr. Jinx and a featurette on polygraph testing. The DVD Collectors edition includes none of those, but does have two interactive games.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $330.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a big time blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Mary

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Looper

Attack the Block


Attack the Block

John Boyega looks uncertain but his future doesn’t.

(2011) Science Fiction (Sony Classics) John Boyega, Nick Frost, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Luke Treadaway, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Gina Antwi, Natasha Williams, Paige Meade, Maggie McCarthy, Franz Drameh, Michael Ajao, Sammy Williams, Karl Collins, Jumayn Hunter, Danielle Vitalis. Directed by Joe Cornish

 

In any invasion, people will defend their home territory with the kind of ferocity usually associated with rabid wolverines. For some odd reason, that ferocity increases the worse the neighborhood is. In fact, the kinds of places you wouldn’t want to walk alone in after dark are the places that are most fiercely defended by their inhabitants.

Walking alone after dark in a bad neighborhood though is precisely what Sam (Whittaker), a young nurse does. It’s a bad idea, even though the neighborhood is the one that Sam happens to live in and of course she’s approached by five thugs, led by the charismatic Moses (Boyega). They force her to give up her wallet and things look like they might just get worse for her when there’s an explosion – a meteorite hits a nearby car.

Normally that would attract a lot of attention, but it happens to be Guy Fawkes Day in England and there are fireworks going up like it’s the apocalypse – which it kinda is. You see it wasn’t just a meteorite; there was a creature in it. When Moses goes to investigate, the creature scratches up his face. Where Moses comes from (the block housing of South London) that’s a no-no, so Moses chases down the creature and kills it, allowing Sam to get away.

Soon there are more meteorites falling all over London and inside them are these…things, kind of like a cross between wolves and bears with glowing teeth (in fact, throughout the movie they are mistaken for big dogs) but these things can hover, as well as climb up sheer walls – and rip human flesh to shreds.

Moses and his gang have a lot more than an alien invasion to deal with; Sam called the cops on them so they are dodging the police, and they have brokered a deal with Hi-Hat (Hunter) to sell some pot grown by Ron (Frost), whose apartment contains a hothouse for growing the wacky weed that’s as secure as Fort Knox (in fact it is here where Moses leaves the body of the dead alien for safekeeping), but that deal is going south as Hi-Hat suspects that Moses is planning to start carving out his own territory in the Blocks – and where Hi-Hat comes from that’s a REALLY BIG no-no.

Moses and his crew – Pest (Esmail), Jerome (Jones), Dennis (Drameh) and Biggz (Howard) are now beset on all sides by angry cops, angry drug dealers and angry aliens, not to mention an angry nurse who now must ally with them in order to protect herself from the aliens. It’s going to be a long night…

Most alien invasion movies of late have been pretty awful, to say the least. This is one of the few bright spots. It’s fast-paced, clever, and well-written. Cornish, an English comedian who lived in this part of London, knows the rhythms of life there well and takes characters who are most often supporting cast, used to advance the plot or as designated victims. Here, we see their lives and their motivations more clearly. There’s a bit of social commentary inherent in that.

Cornish mostly cast newcomers or non-professionals, particularly in the teen roles. Most of them are about as well as can be expected with a couple rising above the rest – Esmail, as the aptly-named Pest, provides some counterpoint to the more brooding Moses and it is Boyega who seems to have the most potential. He reminds me of a young Denzel Washington; he has that kind of screen charisma and shows amply the ability to carry a film on his shoulders. He is both villainous and heroic in the same film; not in a 70s anti-hero kind of groove but more like a person growing and transitioning, doing what he has to survival-wise in an unforgiving element.

The creatures themselves are mostly practical effects, surprisingly – there is almost no CGI in this movie. They are amply intimidating and scary and they move in a lifelike manner (mostly because there are people in them thar suits). The explanation for their presence is pretty convincing; I appreciate that there were no government scientists to lead us by the nose; we’re as much in the dark as the kids on the block.

The movie starts off quickly and continues pretty much non-stop with action. The pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance and to satisfy even the most attention-deficit afflicted. This is the kind of movie Battle: Los Angeles should have been but wasn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: A fun ride. Takes marginal characters and turns them into leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat amateurish at times. Slang can be hard to make out.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language is uniformly foul, there’s a good deal of violence and gore and some fairly scary alien creatures, plus some drug content; all in all, this ain’t no E.T.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mugging scene at the beginning of the film actually happened to Joe Cornish; he noted that the five muggers looked as scared as he was and afterwards he looked into the lives of gang members in the area and began coming up with characters for the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Considering that the film wasn’t what you’d call a big financial success, the DVD got a goodly amount of features on it, including an outtakes reel of the cast attempting to rap (with varying results) and storyboards of scenes that weren’t filmed for budgetary and scheduling issues.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on a $13M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love