Knocked Up


The odd couple.

The odd couple.

(2007) Romantic Comedy (Universal) Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Martin Starr, Charlyne Yi, Iris Apatow, Maude Apatow, Joanna Kerns, Harold Ramis, Alan Tudyk, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ken Jeong, Craig Robinson, Tim Bagley, Loudon Wainwright, Adam Scott, Mo Collins. Directed by Judd Apatow

Cinema of the Heart 2016

What says I love you more than having a baby together? Well, that isn’t always the case – sometimes babies are made of bad choices, accidents of chance and/or alcohol. Or sometimes all of the above. Nonetheless, the baby doesn’t know the difference and getting someone knocked up is only the beginning.

Ben Stone (Rogen) is a Canadian slacker living in L.A. whose idea of entrepreneurship is setting up a website that collates all the nude scenes for every actress in every major Hollywood film. An idea whose time has come? No, it’s an idea whose time has been but don’t tell Ben and his stoner roommates that. Ben is slovenly, jovial and pot-addled but basically a nice guy.

Alison Scott (Heigl) is beautiful, poised and talented; she has just hit a career jackpot by getting an anchor job on a major cable network. She goes out to celebrate but meets up with Ben and somehow the two hit it off and end up in her bedroom. The morning after is awkward but cordial; Alison can’t wait for her over-the-two-drink-minimum mistake to go home while Ben knows he has managed to tap way beyond his league and kind of wants to see where it goes. Alison makes it clear it’s going nowhere.

But that’s not going to happen. In the festivities of carnal relations, Ben rang her bell and she’s pregnant. Although she is advised to get an abortion, Alison doesn’t want to do that. She decides to bring the baby to term and so she tells Ben what’s happening.

 

At first Ben is a little bit terrified, then he throws himself into impending fatherhood with as much enthusiasm as he can muster, which is considerable. Perpetually broke, he leans on Alison for expenses which doesn’t sit too well with her. As they get to know each other, they realize how wrong for each other they truly are but Ben perseveres out of a sense of responsibility.

Alison, who lives with her married sister Debbie (Mann) and Debbie’s affable husband Pete (Rudd) whose own marriage has its ups and downs, is scared of what’s going to happen to her and her baby, and frightened at the prospect of raising a child alone. However, when Ben gets to be too much for her, she realizes she may have to do just that.

This in many ways was Apatow’s break-out movie; sure The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a hit but this was a HIT and kind of set up the Apatow brand which would rule cinematic comedy for the last half of the decade and on into this one. It has a cast that includes some of the funniest people in the business, from SNL to Second City to stand-up stars to TV comedy stars and even a few straight non-comic actors.

What really impresses me about this comedy is that when you separate the laughs, the drug jokes, the dick jokes and the crude humor, there really is some intelligence here. Gender roles are looked at with a fairly unflinching microscope and the way men and women tend to interact also merits examination. So often the sexes tend to talk at cross-purposes, neither understanding the meaning of what we each have to say. Knocked Up finds the humor in the disconnect, but there’s a serious message behind the laughter.

What doesn’t impress is that the movie tends to take the low road at nearly every turn. I don’t mind raunchy humor or low comedy at all but sometimes it feels like the intent here is to shock rather than amuse. How funny is it really to be taking a dump on your roommate’s bed to give them pink eye? That’s when it starts to veer off in little boy humor and that wears damn thin quickly. Also the last third is a tad cliché and the ending more than a tad pat.

Thankfully, there are some major talents in the cast and for the most part the players take their roles seriously and give some pretty decent performances. For Rogen and Heigl, this established them as legitimate movie stars and launched their careers, while Rudd, Hader, Segel, Hill and Mann also garnered plenty of notice on the way to making their careers much more viable. It’s hard to imagine what the modern comedy landscape circa 2016 would look like without Apatow’s films.

This is in many ways a landmark film and in many ways it is an ordinary film. There are those who say it is too raunchy to be romantic, but what is romance without a little raunch? There is actually a surprising amount of true romance here, more so than in other films that are much more serious about the romance in their comedy. This may occasionally go into the gutter for its humor, but it is a much smarter film than most give it credit for.

WHY RENT THIS: Takes a surprisingly mature look at sexual expectations and gender roles. Fine performances by a standout cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdoes the raunch. Runs a smidgen too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of drug use, some sexuality and quite a bit of foul language and innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally footage from a live birth was going to be used, but that plan was scrapped when it turned out a work permit would have to be obtained for the unborn child.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The traditional Apatow extra Line-o-Rama is here, as well as a gag reel. There is also outtake footage of the children on the set, as well as scenes of Rogen that he did for some inexplicable reason without a shirt. The Blu-Ray has additional comic features including a fake casting doc on the part of Ben Stone, as well as the “sixth” roommate who decided to bail on this movie to do the latest Woody Allen film. Not exactly priceless, but certainly different than what you usually find on the average home video release. Also please note that this is available in most places in both the theatrical version and uncut version.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $219.1M on a $30M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon (unrated), iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is 40
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Synchronicity

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Miss You Already


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Jacqueline Bisset, Tyson Ritter, Mem Ferda, Noah Huntley, Janice Acquah, Charlotte Ubben, Shola Adewusi, Honor Kneafsey, Anjli Mohindra, Ryan Lennon Baker, Joanna Bobin, Eileen Davies, Sophie Holland, Charlotte Hope, Frances de la Tour, Lucy Morton. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Often Hollywood puts out buddy flicks to explore the relationship between two people. More often than not it is of a pair of male friends, generally in stressful situations. Women tend to be more in romantic situations when filmmakers capture their friendships with other women.

Lily (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore) have been friends for, well, like, forever. Jess, an American girl whose Dad had been transferred to London, has grown up to be an environmental activist. She lives on a houseboat on the Thames with her boyfriend Jago (Considine) who is busy trying to get her pregnant, which turns out to be a daunting task (who knew it would be so hard getting Barrymore pregnant?) while Lily is a rock and roll publicist who has married Kip (Cooper), a one-time rocker himself who has settled down to create a successful business. Lily has two kids, a boy and a girl.

But while their lives have been great to this point, life (as it often does) is about to throw a wicked curveball at them; Lily has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lily, who has quite a bit of vanity inherited from her TV actress mother (Bisset), stresses her way through chemo, hair loss, and wig selection. By her side through all of it is Jess, there to babysit her kids, make them healthy meals they don’t want to eat and offer emotional support for her best friend.

But things aren’t rosy. Lily is unraveling at the seams as the disease runs its course. She lashes out, especially after enduring a double mastectomy which her husband is unable to deal with. Intimacy goes out the window and maybe their marriage with it. Their friendship is sorely tested and with revelations during an impromptu trip to the Moors (in an effort to recapture their wild impetuous youth), perhaps destroyed beyond repair – just when they need each other most.

Hardwicke is best known for directing the original Twilight film. One of the things I really liked about the film is that she cast Barrymore, who generally plays flighty impulsive characters, as essentially the stable, sober one while Collette, who often plays the reasonable character, as the free-spirited one. There is also real chemistry between the two women, making their friendship believable which is at the center of why the film works.

Barrymore is sometimes a little too cloying for my taste but she is much more centered here in giving one of her best performances in years. Barrymore excels when she has a character who is not just a flighty little minx with a heart of gold; she’s a smart actress who can be deceptively intelligent which I quite suspect is very much what she’s like in person – not that I’m ever going to know. She does rock Jess this time out.

However, it is Collette who has the meatier role and the veteran actress runs with it. It would be easy to make Lily a melodramatic martyr, a collection of cancer-related tics and Collette chooses not to. Lily is terrified of dying, even more so of losing her hair and her breasts and occasionally acts out. More than occasionally, actually, but totally understandable.

The progression of the cancer is handled matter-of-factly as we see the ravaging of the body that the disease commits. One of the things the movie addresses is how breasts are often tied in with a woman’s self-image; when Lily’s breasts are taken, her self-image is severely shaken. This is definitely a movie that should win the commendations of breast cancer awareness groups worldwide.

Personally, I think that a case of tissues should be handed out at the ticket office. The movie is cathartic to the max, and anyone who likes a good cry at the movies will come away more than satisfied. While the movie drifts into occasional rom-com cliches, and some of the action feels a bit forced, this is one of those movies that is delightful and touching, funny and sad, and at the core is a very real relationship between two women you might long to hang out with yourself.

Sure, some of this is awfully contrived and some of this is awfully manipulative, but it is well-acted enough and serious enough to make it worth your while. This is one of those movies that upon first examination doesn’t seem to be much more than typical, but once you plop your butt down in the seat it becomes much, much more. Don’t let the subject matter scare you off; this is one of the better movies about women and their relationships that you’re likely to see.

REASONS TO GO: Authentic chemistry between Barrymore and Collette. Cathartic. Excellent performance by Collette. Sober treatment of breasts and how they relate to female self-image.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally cliché.  Forces when it doesn’t need to.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexual content and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jennifer Aniston and Rachel Weisz were both at one time cast as Jess but both dropped out, leading to the casting of Barrymore.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian’s Song
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Office

The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

People Places Things


A meaningful look shared.

A meaningful look shared.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (The Film Arcade) Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams, Stephanie Allynne, Michael Chernus, Aundrea Gadsby, Gia Gadsby, Derrick Arthur, Celia Au, Paul Castro Jr., Jason DarkChocolate Dyer, Catherine Cain, Charles Cain, Brandon O’Neill, Alexa Magioncalda, Gavin Haag, Jordan Edmondson, Kiowa Smothergill. Directed by Jim Strouse

Sometimes life deals us a bum hand out of left field. We’re just thinking we’ve got things figured out and Blammo!, we discover we haven’t had a clue all along.

Will Henry (Clement) is a successful graphic artist who is deliriously in love with his twin daughters (played by the real life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby) who are throwing a party in honor of their fifth birthday. He goes off into the house looking for his wife Charlie (Allynne) for some party business or another. He finds her all right; in their bedroom having sex with sad sack Gary (Chernus). Will is of course upset, but Charlie turns things around and makes herself out to be the aggrieved party. She wants a divorce and custody of the kids.

A year later Will is still suffering from depression over the whole sordid affair. He has begun teaching graphic arts at a New York-area college, having moved to Astoria in Queens which is a long train ride into the City. He sees his girls on weekends and leads a fairly lonely existence. At this point, Charlie announces she is marrying Gary – because she is pregnant with his kid. She also wants to take an improv class, so she needs someone to watch the kids and as Gary is too busy doing his monologues off-off-off-Broadway, Will is the next best choice. Will likes this idea very much; he needs to be around his kids more often than just the occasional weekend.

In the meantime, Kat (Williams), one of the students in his class, takes a romantic interest in him – not for herself but for her 45-year-old mom Diane (Hall), a lit professor at Columbia. Against all odds, they hit it off, despite Diane’s disdain for the graphic novel format in general. The two begin dating.

Then things start to go sideways for Charlie. She’s getting cold feet, and she explains to Will that she doesn’t want to make the same mistake as she did the first time – which leads Will to believe that she regards their marriage as a mistake. But she still has strong feelings for Will and he for her – so where does that leave Diane? Or Will, for that matter?

Strouse has a bit of a checkered resume, with movies that are close but no cigar on it (like Grace is Gone) but here he finally makes the checkered flag. While the story does not exactly break new ground in the busted relationships genre, it is told well and given much life thanks to some strongly written character and some fine performances.

Chief among them is Clement, who is quickly developing into one of the strongest comic actors in the world. His dry, deadpan delivery is hysterical all by itself but where Clement excels as he did in HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. One of his strongest traits is that he can take an everyday guy, put him in an everyday situation and find something funny to mine out of it. He’s not the guy who makes us laugh hysterically; he’s the guy that makes us quietly chuckle to ourselves because we can find so much common ground.

Williams is a comedy star on the rise, and although her role here is fairly brief, she makes it entirely memorable. Williams is as hip a performer as there is and she looks as good on the big screen as she does on the small; only bigger, if you catch my drift. It wouldn’t surprise me if she becomes as big a star as I believe Clement is going to be, which is one of considerable size if you ask me.

]There is kind of a mopey hipster vibe here that I found myself not liking so much at first. It took me awhile to decide that I like the movie, but it is worth the effort to stay with it. Yeah, it’s got that New York indie ‘tude that I sometimes find stupefying but there is heart at the center of the movie and most of it belongs to Clement who continues to impress after the earlier this year What We Do in the Shadows.

Again, not entertainment that is going to rock your world or change your views on life. Quietly though, it gets under your skin and stays there, maybe the perfect indie romantic comedy in that regard. And we all know how vapid indie romantic comedies can be. This one is anything but that; it is surely smart, quietly funny and undeniably well-written. Those sorts of films tend to be few and far between while the mercury is still hitting the high notes during the last dregs of summer.

REASONS TO GO: Clement’s dry delivery is intoxicating. Some nice New York images.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too indie hipster douche in places, particularly early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, some sexual references and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Williams is a regular correspondent on The Daily Show during the Jon Stewart era and continuing into the Trevor Noah era.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Motherhood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mateo

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Our Film Library

On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

The Past (Le passé)


Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

(2013) Drama (Sony Classics) Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Buret, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli, Aleksandra Klebanska, Jean-Michel Simonet, Pierre Guerder, Anne-Marion de Cayeux, Eleonora Marino, Jonathan Devred, Sylviane Fraval, Yvonne Gradelet. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Any relationship but particularly a marriage is built on trust. Without it, the relationship withers and dies much as a rose in a glass vase without any water. That trust, once broken, can turn back savagely on the offending party without warning. The things we do in life don’t occur in a vacuum – they affect those around us in addition to ourselves.

Marie (Bejo) waits in de Gaulle airport in Paris for her ex-husband Ahmad (Mosaffa) to arrive from Teheran. Four years previously, he had walked out on her, leaving her with two daughters from an earlier relationship. Now, at last, he’s going to sign their divorce papers leaving her free to marry her current boyfriend.

That boyfriend, Samir (Rahim), comes with baggage of his own. He has a young son Fouad (Aguis) who is working out his own issues and a wife, Celine (Klebanska) who has been in a coma for eight months. Marie insists Ahmad stay with her and the three kids (Samir will stay in his old apartment above his dry cleaning business) and hopefully, have a heart-to-heart with her older daughter Lucie (Burlet) who has been at odds with her essentially since Samir came into her life. She hates Samir with a venom that only a teenage girl watching her mother remarry can possess.

It turns out that the adult Lucie is closest to in the entire world is Ahmad and it’s no wonder; Ahmad is gentle, kindly and compassionate. At first glance it’s hard to reconcile this man with one who would give up on a woman and her two daughters and walk away, but that’s exactly what he did. Clearly there’s more than meets the eye going on here.

Ahmad finds himself in a household that is far more fragile than it appears and it will only take the slightest of touches to knock the whole thing down and of course his presence is the catalyst for that to happen. He tries to reconnect with his family and friends from the Parisian Iranian community but finds himself being sucked into the fall-out of the war between Marie and Lucie. As it turns out, the events that occurred eight months previously have left a pall hanging over the house and those who live in it, one that will have devastating consequences for all of them.

This isn’t always a movie that’s easy to watch. Farhadi excels at portraying people in everyday situations that are turned on their ear by extraordinary mistakes – the sort we are all capable of making in a moment of pique or in a fit of anger. Wisely, Farhadi utilizes very basic storytelling techniques – there are no flashbacks, no flash forwards and curiously, no music on the soundtrack. What you see and hear is unembellished by trickery or point of view – this is the events as they happen as they are perceived by those they happen to.

Bejo, an Oscar nominee for The Artist, is sensational here. Marie is hanging on by her fingernails and although she isn’t a particularly nice person most of the time – she is manipulative and has an explosive temper – she is capable of great tenderness when the mood takes her. Bejo makes Marie complex and in many ways, unknowable but not nearly to the same degree as Ahmad. Ahmad is quite the enigma, rarely betraying his feelings (other than acute annoyance or distinct joy) and we know as much about him when the movie ends as we do when it began. That’s not an easy role to carry, but Mosaffa makes him likable enough that we maintain our identification with him.

The movie at 130 minutes is probably a good half hour too long. The younger daughter is extraneous to the story as is to a great degree Fouad, although he serves as something of a canary in a coalmine letting us know that All Is Not Well In This House. The performances here are raw and at times breath-taking, even from the juveniles.

It’s not the kind of movie that hits you over the head with grand revelations but instead kicks you in the shin with insights that will cause some reflection and eventually take your breath away once you’ve given it some thought. While I can’t really recommend this to everybody – some of it is really intense and for those who have been in a relationship issue similar to the one here it might bring back some really unpleasant feelings. However, this is a solid, well-made film on a subject that is often treated with more titillation than with any consideration to the real life consequences that those kinds of choices often leave behind for those caught in the crossfire.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and gripping. Captures the effects of infidelity on the lives of those not directly involved.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a bit too long. Youngest daughter was superfluous.  

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty mature and at times can be fairly intense. There is also some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi doesn’t speak French and directed the movie through a translator.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Loosies