The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

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Primeval


Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

Orlando Jones and Brooke Langton were hoping this would be a lot more like Chariots of Fire than it turned out to be.

(2007) Horror (Hollywood) Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton, Jurgen Prochnow, Gideon Emery, Gabriel Malema, Dumisani Mbebe, Ernest Ndhlovu, Erica Wessels, Patrick Lyster, Eddy Bekombo, Vivian Moodley, Lika Van Den Bergh, Linda Mpondo, Lehiohonolo Makoko, Chris April, Andrew Whaley, Jacqui Pickering. Directed by Michael Katleman

Man is capable of committing absolute horrors to his fellow man. However, man is also part of a larger natural order of things – survival of the fittest where the strong prey on the weak. And upon occasion, Man isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.

The African nation of Burundi is caught up in a terrible civil war that has been ongoing for twelve years. When a mass grave is located in the Northern portion of the country, a United Nations team is sent to investigate the find, led by one of the foremost forensic pathologists (Wessels) in the world. In a shocking turn of events, the woman is attacked and dragged into the waters of the river by a gigantic crocodile known to the locals as “Gustave.”

Tim Manfrey (Purcell), a television news network producer, is riding out a scandal in which he apparently ran a story without adequately checking the facts. The network chief (Lyster) wants to send him to Burundi not only to get the story of the gigantic crocodile, more than 20 feet long, but to capture the beast. He’ll be sent with wildlife reporter Aviva Masters (Langton), Manfrey’s regular cameraman Steven Johnson (Jones) and naturalist Matthew Collins (Emery), who is confident that he has built a contraption capable of capturing the massive reptile.

They are met in Burundi by a political functionary known as Harry (Mbebe) who warns them about a warlord in the bush known as “Little Gustave.” He introduces them to Jakob Krieg (Prochnow), their local guide and an expert on the crocodile whom he has been hunting for years. Krieg wants to kill the creature whereas Collins wants to capture it alive, which leads to some tension between the two.

Once in the village nearest the most recent attack, the news crew is struck by the friendliness of the people as well as by the horrible poverty of the village. They are required to receive a blessing by the local shaman (Ndhlovu) who predicts that they will find what they seek but they will also find death. Meanwhile, Johnson captures on film the brutal execution of a family from the village by a murderous lieutenant (Bekombo) of Little Gustave. Now they are being chased by the warlord’s men and being stalked by the croc. Great, you can end of being dinner or part of a mass grave for some other UN forensic pathologist to examine.

Purcell (TV’s Prison Break) is the lead here and he does a credible albeit colorless job. Unfortunately, his character is written without much for Purcell to work with, leaving him to cling to action hero clichés in order to move things along. Jones provides adequate comic relief in a role in which he is sadly underused, and Prochnow (who deserves better fare than this) handles the Robert Shaw role with as much dignity as he can muster.

The giant croc looks fairly realistic as CGI creations go. Some of the scenes in which the croc is seen below the surface of the water look hastily slapped together by someone with a Commodore VIC-20, but otherwise the monster was scary enough. The cinematographer utilizes the African vistas nicely.

This is based on true events – a naturalist in Burundi did attempt to capture Gustave (who is an actual beast that has been credited with killing more than 300 people along the Ruzizi River and also along the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika. They raise some good points about the situation in Africa; it takes the death of a white UN official to bring an American news crew to Burundi to cover a crocodile who has killed more than 300 Africans. The writing is taut and crisp, and they don’t waste too much time getting to the meat of the story – the stalking of the news crew by Gustave.

The film slyly alludes to Jaws which is a bit of a mistake; there are a lot of similarities to that film, and the comparison isn’t particularly flattering. Too many clichés clog up the writing, and the subplot about the Little Gustave warlord is unnecessary. Had they decided to focus on the hunt for the crocodile, they would have had a much better movie…but then again, it would have been Lake Placid.

The filmmakers were going for a cross between Lake Placid and Hotel Rwanda and instead got a four-legged Jaws. This isn’t a total waste of time – Jones is entertaining and the African vistas are worth seeing. However, it’s probably a bit too graphic for those who would be drawn in by the civil war story, and a bit too preachy for those who are more interested in the horror element. Yet another instance of a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be and so it ends up being nothing.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous African vistas. Jones provides much-needed comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lackluster acting. Cliches abound. Some of the CGI is laughable.
FAMILY MATTERS: Kids and dogs are eaten, and people are stalked by a terrifying crocodile. There are also some graphic executions and a boatload of corpses, some half-eaten and others murdered by the two-legged monsters in the movie, as well as some foul language if that bothers you at this point.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: A similar team in reality attempted to capture Gustave, using much the same methods but were unsuccessful due to equipment failure, inclement weather and deteriorating political conditions which eventually forced them to leave the country.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The “Crocumentary” featurette focuses on the actual Gustave who inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $15.3M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Robot Overlords

Bedazzled (2000)


Bedazzled

This devil will make you do just about anything.

(2000) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O’Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Toby Huss, Gabriel Casseus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jeff Doucette, Aaron Lustig. Directed by Harold Ramis

Making a deal with the devil has become almost commonplace these days. I mean, how else can you explain Justin Bieber?

Elliot Richards (Fraser) is the guy at work that causes you to reverse direction, exclaiming “Oh my God! It’s HIM!!!” every time you see him. Socially awkward doesn’t even begin to describe him; if there’s a way of rubbing you the wrong way, Elliot is probably already doing it, perfectly unaware that he’s driving you crazy. In short, he’s a real nebbish.

His co-workers at the high-tech company in San Francisco where he works include the lovely but unattainable Allison (Frances O’Connor), for whom Elliot pines. However his every attempt (few and far between though they are) to talk to his dream girl ends in defeat every single time.

Enter the devil (Hurley), who in this case is a luscious, lurid wench played with more than a bit of a twinkle in her soulful eye. She promises him seven wishes, whatever he wants — including Allison — in exchange for his soul. Elliot readily agrees. As those who have ever made a deal with the devil can tell you, not a wise move on Elliot’s part.

Of course, the devil being what she is, the father of lies – oops, the mother of lies, the wishes go terribly wrong, one at a time. For example, Elliot wishes to be rich, powerful and married to Allison. He gets all that as a Columbian druglord whose wife is cheating on him and whose underlings are plotting to kill him. You get the picture.

This movie was made once before, in 1967 (and in turn was based on the legend of Dr. Faust), with Dudley Moore in the title role, and writer/director Peter Cook playing the devil. That version has a lot more wit and charm than this one, although Fraser has plenty of both, making the movie way more recommendable. Hurley is absolutely delicious as Beelzebub, not only easy on the eyes but veritably defining the word “naughty.” I was surprised I enjoyed her performance as much as I did; I thought she was OK in the first Austin Powers movie, but she certainly has the makings of a fine comedienne, which sadly she chose not to pursue.

Director Harold Ramis doesn’t have the deft touch that Cook does; he tends to use a bludgeon when a silk scarf will do. He has a formidable task, making essentially seven mini-movies with a linking device. Fraser pulls off seven completely different characterizations of the same man (with accompanying make-up and wardrobe changes) and that helps make this more palatable.

 As comedies go, Bedazzled isn’t bad – there are several good laughs to be found here. It isn’t as consistent as it could be, but the performances of Fraser and Hurley make up for it. G’head and rent it; if you don’t like it, well, the devil made you do it.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances by Hurley and Fraser. Some genuinely funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Vignettes are wildly uneven. Tends to use a cudgel when a rapier would be more suitable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual innuendo and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the beach scene, the Devil’s dogs are named Peter and Dudley, a nod to the stars of the original Bedazzled.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed, although there is an Easter Egg leading to a deleted scene which was more “R” rated due to drug use, foul language and sexual content. You may find it on the DVD by going to the second features page, highlighting the first item on the list, then clicking on your “go right” button. A devil should illuminate on Hurley’s shoulder; click on it and voila.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.4M on a $48M production budget; the movie more or less broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant


Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

John C. Reilly can't really explain why the film bombed.

(Universal) John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek, Michael Cerveris. Directed by Paul Weitz

After the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, the studios are searching for the next young adult cash cow that will fill their coffers and up their bonuses. The results have been a mixed bag, mostly of failures – some of them spectacularly so. The Saga of Darren Shan, a 12-book teen vampire series, gets it’s turn at the plate.

Darren Shan (Massoglia) is a good kid; he loves spiders, gets good grades and never gets in trouble. That is, unless he’s in the company of Steve (Hutcherson) who’s the poster boy for “bad influence.” Steve has a cruel streak in him, prone to fits of vandalism and rage and pushes Darren to do things he would never ordinarily do.

One of those things is to attend a freak show that has taken up residence in a decrepit old theater in town (which appears to be New Orleans, where the movie was filmed – transplanted from the UK where the books are set). They pay their money, get bitten by a small furry creature in the ticket booth (now that spells enticement) and are met by gigantic doorman Mr. Tall (Watanabe) who ushers them inside in a sort of teenage fantasy sequence (no ID needed).

The show is hosted by Larten Crepsley (Reilly), with flaming red hair and a wardrobe that he got at the estate sale of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. The show has some fairly freaky characters, including the truly deformed Alexander Ribs (Jones) and a snake boy (Fugit). However, when Steve convinces Darren to steal a fist-sized spider that looks like a bad LSD trip, complete with garish colors, they discover that Crepsley is actually a vampire. Steve wants very badly to become one, but Crepsley doesn’t think he qualifies; he’s a bit too cruel and vampires, contrary to common belief, are actually quite gentle.

Through a series of misadventures, Steve is driven to death’s door largely due to Darren, who feels much guilt over this. Enough guilt in fact that it leads Darren to Mr. Crepsley’s door, who in exchange for saving Steve’s life turns Darren into a half-vampire, someone who can run Crepsley’s errands during the day (while sunlight doesn’t turn vampires into a plume of smoke, fire and ash , extended exposure can be fatal) as his assistant.

Unfortunately, this isn’t particularly a good time to be a vampire because they are at war with the Vampaneze who are led by the creepy but jovial Mr. Tiny (Cerveris) and the creepy but creepy Murlaugh (Stevenson). Darren is caught in the middle between the two as is the Cirque, much to the dismay of Mr. Tall. Perhaps Darren’s extended lifespan will be a lot briefer than he anticipated.

The movie is based on the first three books of the 12-book saga, which in my opinion is never a good idea. There is so much going on that sometimes you get a feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been on a runaway roller coaster in the dark. The filmmakers might have been better served to take one book and embellish it some, or even combine the first two books. The three-book thing is like trying to cram a 52” waist into 30” jeans.

Director Paul Weitz has some very good films on his resume (including About a Boy and In Good Company) and this one isn’t as bad as I was led to believe it was. Sure, the plot is a bit of a mess and Dafoe’s Gavner Purl character serves to drop in from time to time, snarl out some exposition, and then disappear until further exposition is needed. That’s a criminal waste of talent as far as I’m concerned.

There’s plenty of talent in front of the camera though, starting with Reilly who gives Crepsley a kind of monotonic vocal intonation that seems nearly like a stoner until he goes into kick-ass mode. It’s an outstanding performance, worth a full point all by itself. There is also a good deal of special effects, most of which are pretty fun. I found that the whole movie had a Tim Burton-esque air to it that pays homage to such things as Beetle Juice and The Nightmare Before Christmas and especially The Corpse Bride without seeming derivative.

Unfortunately, the good-hearted Darren is just way too bland to sustain any interest, which I think is more a function of the way the character was written than an indictment of young Chris Massoglia’s acting skills. For my money, most lead characters need a hint of something a little bit dark in order to hold the audience’s interest. Characters that are too good are also not believable, and the audience begins to actually resent them. That may be just me talking, now.

So it’s another swing and a miss for a potential film franchise. It’s a shame too – I’m all for big franchises like Harry Potter. This might have made a good one too if they didn’t try so hard to turn it into a franchise, even giving it a bit of a cliffhanger ending that obviously sets up the next film which, judging on the anemic box office receipts and DVD sales, is never going to be made. It will be relegated to the Island of Failed Franchises where it will be greeted by The Golden Compass which was coincidentally directed by Paul’s brother Chris, and other films like Eragon, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief among many, many others. There is a lesson to be learned here; if you want to establish a profitable franchise, start by making an extraordinary movie that will excite the imagination of not just the target audience but of every audience. That’s what makes Harry Potter so commercially viable. On the other hand the Twilight series taps into a large predominantly female audience that is absolutely rabid; but that’s the exception, not the rule.

WHY RENT THIS: Reilly is a hoot as Crepsley. The effects are pretty nifty. A good deal of Tim Burton-like quirkiness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Yet another attempt at young adult fantasy fiction franchise that falls flat. While not an epic fail, is still a fail – the filmmakers should have stuck to one or maybe two books for source material instead of taking on three; they tried to cram too much in.

FAMILY VALUES: Due to the violence and thematic issues, I’d think twice before letting younger children see this. Otherwise, it should be okay for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Stephen Trask, better known as the composer/lyricist behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M in total box office on a $40M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Planet 51