Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Advertisements

Bad Genius (Chalat Kem Kong)


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t following you.

(2017) Thriller (GDH 559) Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Elsaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Sarinrat Thomas, Ego Mikitas, Pasin Kuansataporn, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kanjana Vinaipanid, Yuthapong Varanukrohchoke, Nopawat Likitwong, David Gray, Laluna Nitze. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

It is easy to admire smart people; it is also easy to distrust them. After all, knowledge is power and we all know what power does – it corrupts.

Lynn (Cheungcharoensukying) is a brilliant girl whose teacher father (Warakulnukroh) is trying to get her into one of Bangkok’s most exclusive private schools. It appears that her divorced dad won’t be able to afford the prestigious school’s fees and tuition but after Lynn accurately reads the headmistress’s (Thomas) greed, she uses math-based analysis to talk her way into a full ride scholarship.

Brilliant but socially awkward (the two often go hand in hand), she is befriended by Grace (Hosuwan), an aspiring actress who helps Lynn “look her best.” The two become fast friends and when Grace confesses to her much smarter companion that she’s worried about an upcoming math test, Lynn offers to tutor her for the test. However, Grace proves to be even dimmer than Lynn could account for and when she forgets everything she was supposed to have memorized for the test, Lynn writes the answers down on an eraser and ingeniously delivers them to Grace by a process that can only be called “shoe-mail.”

Grace’s wealthy boyfriend Pat (Supapunpinyo) sees a gold mine in test cheats and organizes a bit of a racket that the wealthy students of the school are only too happy to pay for if only to get their achievement-fixated parents off their backs. The fact that the school is charging her father exorbitant “maintenance fees” on what was supposed to be a free ride sways the formerly naïve Lynn and turns her cynical. She comes up with a brilliant idea utilizing codes tapped out on the desk like a piano etude. The plan works too – until another impoverished genius, Bank (Santinatornkul) blows the whistle on them. Lynn ends up getting her scholarship pulled.

Determined to right what Lynn sees as an inequity in that wealthier students who can afford it can bribe teacher for test answers in advance, she decides to go after the holy grail of test cheats – the Standardized Test for International Colleges or STIC, a fictional version of the SAT – with a bold and brilliant plan. Grace and Pat will help but she will need Bank and his photographic memory to pull it off. However, getting the test answers to students willing to pay for it isn’t going to be easy

The movie starts out as something of a social justice allegory with the hoity toity private school standing in for Thai society in general (and not far off from our own these days). It ends up as a slick heist thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on the resumes of Steven Soderburgh and Harmony Korine. Poonpiriya proves to be a director with formidable talent, melding the two disparate types of film into a singular whole that is entertaining as well as having something to say.

Cheungcharoensukying needs to carry the film and she does; considering that her background is in modeling and that this is her first feature film is absolutely astounding. The lady has plenty of screen presence and is able to handle Lynn in both her shy and socially awkward phase and in her cynical and criminal phase without making either look cliché. They are both Lynn but there are differences between the Lynn at the beginning of the film and the Lynn at the end.

The movie does take awhile to develop but once it gets going it’s like a runaway freight train. There’s also a sense of humor that is a bit sly and subversive; American audiences may not necessarily take to it but I’ve been wrong on that score before. While this is based on an actual issue that is scandalizing Asia at the moment (but not on a specific incident) it doesn’t let up on the fun either. This has a good shot at being remade by Hollywood according to the trades but I think discerning audiences would seek the original out if some distribution could be found. Certainly this is one to keep an eye out for; hopefully at the very least it will be a presence on the Festival circuit for the time being.

REASONS TO GO: Hollywood-slick, the film is as good a thriller that has come out this year. Chutimon is an actress with a future. The sense of humor here is subversive and fun.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of violence and peril, not to mention some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Lynn’s father (Warakulnukroh) also starred in Pop Aye which played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is set to be released by Kino-Lorber later this month.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: KFC

Cargo (2017)


Floating in the big blue.

(2017) Drama (Best Ever Film) Warren Brown, Gessica Geneus, Omar J. Dorsey, Persia White, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Jamie Donnelly, Sky Nicole Grey, Jason Elwood Hanna, Dana J. Ferguson. Directed by Kareem Mortimer

Film production is pretty much global these days and that’s a welcome development. Points of view vary from place to place and it is always wonderful to get the perspective of people who live in different places. Cargo is the most ambitious film to come out of the Bahamas and it made it’s world premiere right here in Florida at the Miami Film Festival.

In the movie, Kevin (Brown) is an American ex-pat living in the islands after leaving the States under somewhat dark and mysterious circumstances – and if you’re going to flee a dark past, the Bahamas are an excellent place to do that. However, no matter how far you run from your problems, you generally bring the cause of them – yourself – with you and even in this island paradise Kevin, a gambling addict, has found it difficult to make a new start.

His wife Berneice (White) has essentially given up on him. She’s tired of the promises and the excuses as to why things aren’t working out. Kevin has enrolled their son in an expensive private school which he can’t afford. Berneice has also been taking care of Kevin’s mom who has severe dementia and sometimes smears her own excrement on the walls.

Kevin needs an immediate infusion of cash and gets it as he uses his boat to smuggle desperate Haitian workers to the Bahamas who will from there be taken by another boat to Miami. At first, it works out. Kevin hires a caretaker to take the burden off of Berneice. The new hire is Celianne (Geneus) who is herself an illegal immigrant from Jamaica. Also, being who he is, he embarks on an extramarital affair with a waitress at his favorite café just as things are starting to get better with his wife. There’s a storm brewing on the horizon however and things aren’t going to remain good for very much longer.

It is good seeing a slice of Bahamian life onscreen. Usually we see the island as tourists see it – a Caribbean paradise with beautiful beaches, casinos and women in skimpy bikinis. We don’t see the life that ordinary Bahamians lead and for giving us that glimpse the filmmakers are to be commended.

In many ways this is an ambitious film as Mortimer is not only looking at the effects of human smuggling but on the effects of immigration in the Bahamas as well and in many ways that muddles up the story. I think he would have been better served to focus more on Kevin and the effects of human smuggling on the smuggler – that is a storyline not often seen in the movies and would have made for a much more riveting experience, but adding subplots and extraneous characters only serves to bloat the film unnecessarily.

The acting is not up to the standards of a Hollywood film in many ways. Brown as Kevin is occasionally a bit flat; what the character is feeling is not conveyed as effectively as it might be. Kevin is always saying “I’m going to fix this,” to the point that it becomes kind of a mantra that even he doesn’t really believe; it’s more a way of deflecting Berniece’s constant nagging and condescending, cutting remarks. It is the curse of men to believe that everything can actually be fixed.

The movie is visually beautiful. There are few places on Earth so visually congenial as the Bahamas and the filmmakers make full use of that congeniality. There is something of the timeless in the Bahamas; often you will hear the phrase “island time” in connection with the Caribbean islands. It is a declaration that nothing is so important that it must be seen to immediately. Things happen at their own pace in the islands and there is a certain style in that. You get that the film is on island time in many ways and those who are less patient will have a hard time with this film.

This is definitely the product of people who are making a first stab at things. That gives this film a bit more of a pass than I would give to a Hollywood film that carries the same issues. I hope that Mortimer makes more films and that they improve with each one. I hope that he and others like him kickstarts a vibrant Bahamian film industry. As far as I’m concerned, the world can use that.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful images. Nice to see a slice of Bahamian life onscreen.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and too much story; some of the plotlines should have been eliminated. The acting is on the wooden side. The movie feels like it’s going on too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer’s interest in human smuggling came when he was a boy and news footage of Haitian migrants trying to make it to Florida whose bodies washed up on shore in the Bahamas stayed with him. He recreated the scene for the opening of the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Sleepless

Wish I Was Here


The kids both know who farted.

The kids both know who farted.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Alexander Chaplin, Allan Rich, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston, Cody Sullivan, Donald Faison, Bruce Nozick, Matt Winston, Taylor Bagley, Jennifer Terry, Jackie Johnson, Bob Clendenin, Silvia Curiel, Nicole Galicia, Kevin Ho, Ross Ingram, Meli Alexander. Directed by Zach Braff

Growing up is a messy business. As we ride the crest of the wave that washes us from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, our lives have taken on a different cast. No longer are we carefree, without much responsibility. For most of us, that it the time of life where we find life partners, get married, have kids. Our focus changes from following our own dreams to becoming responsible for the dreams of our kids and sharing dreams with our spouses. It can be a scary, soul-churning thing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is in that spot. An aspiring actor whose aspirations have not yet been rewarded with actual success, his two kids Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King) attend a Jewish private school run by their local synagogue. Given the uncertain nature of his profession, normally he could never afford that kind of schooling for his kids but his dad Gabe (Patinkin) pays for their tuition. His wife Sarah (Hudson) works in a crappy cubicle job opposite a man (Weston) whose inappropriate behavior forces her to go to her superior (Winston) who basically tells her to suck it up. She hates her job – although given the wariness that most businesses have for anything that would leave them potentially vulnerable to a sexual harassment lawsuit, the way her boss reacts doesn’t ring true.

However, Aidan is forced to make some changes when his dad announces that he can no longer pay for the kids’ schooling. Gabe’s cancer which had been in remission had returned with a vengeance and the only thing that might save Gabe’s life is an expensive experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance. Aidan and Sarah decide that the only alternative is for Aidan to home school the kids.

At first that looks on the surface like an utter disaster. Aidan isn’t the most reliable and responsible of men although his brother Noah (Gad), a disappointment to his dad from whom he had been estranged for some time, makes Aidan look rock solid by comparison. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the rest of his life – Aidan uses the opportunity to experience life with his kids, reconnecting with them in a meaningful way. In many ways, Aidan has grown beyond his father in ways neither man could ever expect.

 

Eight years ago, Braff – then the star of the hit sitcom Scrubs – directed Garden State which was essentially the state of the union for Zach at 20-something. This in many ways fulfills the same function for him at this point in his life. Not that Aidan is Zach or vice versa, but one gets the feeling that many of the challenges that face Aidan aren’t unknown to Mr. Braff in real life; the dilemma of pitting one’s dreams against the realities of responsibility and life. Of how to put your kids ahead of yourself when it wasn’t long ago that you were a kid too. It is a time of life when the tomorrow you were putting things off for has finally arrived.

In many ways this is a very Jewish movie and this may resonate more with those of that faith than with others. However it must be said that Grace’s struggle to integrate her very strong faith with a more modern lifestyle is something plenty of young people of all faiths are grappling with and that particular subtext is done with a good deal of sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment. Sometimes Hollywood tends to take sides in that particular struggle.

Hudson, playing the patient wife Sarah, is at her most lustrous best. She has certainly become her own actress, separate from her mother over the years and this may well be her best role ever. Sarah has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have regrets or frustrations. She hates her job but she endures it for the sake of her husband and her children. She never pushes him to give up on his dreams of being an actor but you get the sense that she isn’t far from her limits on that score. She has a scene with Patinkin – call it the matriarch scene – that is absolutely terrific.

 

Speaking of Patinkin, he is as low-key as ever and plays the role of a dad who is certain he is right about most things, including how to relate to his sons. He doesn’t realize how alienated his eldest son is, or how deeply his actions hurt him. Gad plays that son with a certain amount of humor and a goodly amount of pathos. Braff’s former Scrubs mate Faison makes a memorable appearance as a used car salesman.

The movie bogs down in cuteness upon occasion. Aidan and his brother had played as children, pretending they were heroes of fantasy who were the only ones who could save the world and this feeling that he needs to be the savior is played out in Aidan’s head as a kind of space knight, followed by a cutesy 70s-style robotic orb and opposed by a dark, menacing cloaked figure whose identity is eventually revealed. These tend to be distractions that appear to be there to sate the Comic Con geeks (a scene was filmed there) and at the very least are unnecessary. The children, who most of the time are played fairly realistically, sometimes descend into forcing their quirks as opposed to making their characters real. It’s a mistake many young actors make but it can be annoying nonetheless.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a deeply heartfelt project for Braff and I applaud him for getting it made in his own way rather than having a studio finance it and exert control in an effort to make the movie more marketable. Some have criticized Braff for going the Kickstarter route, questioning whether it was a good thing to fork over cash to a millionaire because he asked for it but I think that this kind of controversy is all Internet bovine crap. At the end of the day, Braff got the film made the best way he knew how and who really gives a rats tush how it gets financed as long as the film is of good quality?

In fact, this is a good quality film although the critics have been surprisingly ambivalent towards it. I think there is a good deal of insight to be had here if you don’t get hung up on the character’s hang-ups – Aidan and his dad are both fairly neurotic and there are some moments that you wonder if you can really get invested in either one of them, but at the end of the day if you are willing to hang in there you may find yourself really liking this, perhaps more than you anticipated.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that my son Jacob was one of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.

 

REASONS TO GO: Some tender and touching moments. Hudson has never been better.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the issues with faith may not necessarily resonate with everyone.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language (but not a ton) and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Braff was inspired by the success Veronica Mars had with their Kickstarter campaign; ultimately over 46 thousand donors raised over $2 million, some of which were given “thank you” shout outs in the end credits.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: A Most Wanted Man

Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger


Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger

The world has a sunnier outlook when seen from under a straw boater.

(2008) Dramedy (Monterey Media) Danielle Catanzariti, Toni Collette, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Leticia Monaghan, Christian Byers, Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra, Jonny Pasvolsky, Caitlin McDougall, Edwin Hodgeman, Cassandra Jinman. Directed by Cathy Randall

Growing up is hard enough as it is. Growing up different  and longing to be normal – well, that’s pretty much how all of us perceive our adolescence. We all aim to be accepted and to fit in, but what is normal really? And how many of us fit the description?

Esther Blueburger (Catanzariti) is a 13-year-old girl in an exclusive Australian private school who yearns for that normalcy. Her twin brother Jacob (Byers) is a complete nerd and a social horror show but at least the two get along. Esther, with her glasses and her pet duckling (a foundling she calls Normal, after what she longs to be) is a bit of an odd duck herself, awkward with her classmates. Oh and did I mention that Esther’s Jewish?

Her bat mitzvah is approaching and with reluctant pluck Esther invites her classmates to the event. Of course, none of them show and Esther is mortified. Surrounded with well-meaning but overbearing aunties and relatives, she finds refuge in a nearby alley where she finds Sunni (Castle-Hughes) having a smoke. Sunni attends a public school that has caught Esther’s eye – the students there seem far more accepting.

Esther drags Sunni to her party where she passes her off as a classmate, which reassures her emotionally distant self-centered parents (Davis, Dykstra) who haven’t a clue about the hell their daughter is going through. Sunni, however, gets it much better than they do and the girls hatch a plan. Sunni forges the signature of Esther’s parents on paperwork excusing Esther from the school for a year on an exchange program to Sweden. She then enrolls Esther in the public school, passing her off as an exchange student from Sweden. This makes Esther instantly popular.

The plan works a little too well. Soon Sunni’s friends begin to flock to Esther and ignore Sunni. Esther develops a deeper and closer relationship with Sunni’s exotic dancer mum (Collette). The relationship becomes extremely strained – and a tragedy threatens to dissolve it completely.

This coming-of-age tale arrives to us courtesy of Randall, a soap opera veteran making her feature film writing and directing debut. There are quite a few things to admire about her first movie – among them, Esther herself who has an offbeat appeal. Part of that has to do with her never-say-die attitude; part of it has to do with Catanzariti who has a natural charisma that is readily apparent. If she chooses to pursue the acting thing, she has a bright future.

Castle-Hughes who was so impressive in Whale Rider has a nice role here which is very different. She’s a bit of a tough gal with a heart of gold who at the core is much more fragile than anybody realizes. In many ways I thought her part was a bit more realistic than that of Esther; Castle-Hughes does a fine job bringing it to life.

Teen coming of age movies tend to have an overabundance of quirkiness to them, but this one tones it down to levels where it is actually a bit more realistic. Female leads in these types of movies are exceedingly rare and often have a bimbo aspect to them; this movie is refreshingly sex-free but that doesn’t mean Esther and Sunni don’t have an interest in boys. Okay, more like an obsession. Just like almost every other 13-year-old girl.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a goofy charm that gets under your skin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tragic element seems a little forced and at odds with the movie’s otherwise sunny tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements that might be inappropriate for youngsters, a few foul words here and there, some teen smoking and a teensy bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Castle-Hughes was pregnant during the filming of the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video and a more interesting than usual featurette about the casting of Danielle Catanzariti as Esther and how she transformed into the role.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Joneses

I Don’t Know How She Does It


I Don't Know How She Does It

It just doesn't get any more romantic than a loving embrace in snowfall.

(2011) Comedy (Weinstein) Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Kelsey Grammer, Olivia Munn, Seth Meyers, Christine Hendricks, Jane Curtin, Mark Blum, Busy Philipps, Sarah Shahi, Jessica Szohr, James Murtaugh. Directed by Douglas McGrath

There are few people I have more respect for than the working mother. It is very much like juggling alligators; if you mess up even on one gator, you can find your whole world crashing down around you.

Kate Reddy (Parker) is just such a creature. She works as an executive at an investment bank’s regional office in Boston; she has a crusty boss (Grammer), an overqualified assistant named Momo (Munn) who disdains Kate’s commitment to her job, and a backstabbing co-worker (Meyers).

Outside of work she’s got a bitchy mother-in-law (Curtin) and a devoted friend (Hendricks) who thinks Kate has it all together but like most moms, does a lot with smoke and mirrors. She also has a saintly husband named Richard (Kinnear) who is an architect who is just getting a major promotion at his job. She too is working on a big promotion – by coming up with a brand new retirement fund that will appeal to both investors and the bank’s brass as well. She is given a hunky partner to work with – Jack Abelhammer (Brosnan). It also means that she’s going to be traveling to New York a whole lot.

That means guilt for missing her kids life and further guilt for neglecting her husband. It means being made to feel less of a mom by the stay-at-home supermom (Philipps) that works out while her kids are at school and takes advantage of party planners for her kid’s birthdays. Does anybody remember when getting pizza and a cake was enough for a child’s birthday party?

Of course, we all know that sooner or later the gators are going to come crashing down and take a bite (or several) from Kate whose two children are precocious and adorable and well-adjusted which doesn’t sound like any kids I know. We also know that her work career will take off and promise even more travel, putting more strain on her marriage. Isn’t that how it works for all working moms?

This is a movie that has been taking enough lashings from critics to make a Roman galley slave blush. I would venture to guess that most of the critics taking shots at it are not working moms. I was with one when I caught it in the theater and she was quite affected. She thought that the issues that Kate faced were very relatable. That’s a big plus in my book.

I’ve never really warmed to Sarah Jessica Parker as an actress. She’s always seemed shrill and a bit too neurotic for my tastes. She still is here, but the role really calls for it. Kate has a great deal of stress on her and sometimes stress makes us do desperate things, like buying a pie at a deli and trying to disguise it as homemade.

Greg Kinnear is one of the more likable actors out there right now, and he does saintly husband as well as anybody. Despite Kate consistently leaving him holding the bag at home and seemingly dismissing his career as less important as his own, he continues to support her in every way imaginable.

Pierce Brosnan is another solid pro who pretty much always delivers. Here he’s a sweet and respectful colleague who rather than taking credit for her work gives her props. Yeah, sounds like a lot of investment bankers I know – not that I know many. Still, the moral and kindly businessman is not one we see in the movies much these days.

The movie is purportedly a comedy although there is a lack of laughs here (although to be fair, Da Queen found many things funny that were well out of my experience range). It also lacks the gravitas and depth to be a decent drama, which kind of leaves the movie in this limbo of neither one nor the other and not be satisfactory overall.

This definitely has limited appeal which is just fine. If you’re a mom and you work, you’re going to find a lot to love in this movie. If you love a working mom, you might see a bit of insight in there. If you don’t have a working mom in your life, you might want to pass this by – there’s not a lot here for you. That’s all good, but just a word to the wise – be aware that this movie is definitely skewed to a specific demographic and if you don’t fall within it, you might wind up wondering if the local multiplex still gives refunds.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear and Brosnan are awesome. This is definitely a role well-suited for Parker. The issues that come up for Kate are very relatable for working moms.

REASONS TO STAY: Not funny enough to be a comedy nor does it really have enough depth to be a good drama either.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and a bit of innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director McGrath also writes a political commentary column, “The New Flapjack,” for The New Republic.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly this will do just as well at home as it will in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Drive

Beastly


Beastly

Alex Pettyfer is in need of a career makeover after this one.

(2011) Fantasy (CBS) Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Hudgens, Neil Patrick Harris, Mary-Kate Olsen, Peter Krause, Dakota Johnson, Eric Knudsen, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Roc LaFortune, Gio Perez, David Francis, Miguel Mendoza, Steve Godin, Julie Dretzin. Directed by Daniel Barnz

People can be incredibly shallow; we make value judgments based on what we see alone. The way a person looks really does influence how they are treated in life which is often inversely true to how they deserve to be treated. Beauty is often skin deep, although not always.

Kyle (Pettyfer) seems to have it all. The son of a well-known local news anchor (Krause), he attends an exclusive Manhattan private school – an academy, don’t you know. He is running for the Green Committee chairman on a platform that beautiful is better. He doesn’t really care a whit about the environment – he just wants the position for his transcripts so that colleges will think better of him.

He wins but not by as great a margin as he would like to; that’s because the local Goth, Kendra (Olsen) has defaced his posters and badmouthed him. He concocts a plan to humiliate her at a party but that’s a bad idea; you never know when a Goth is a real, live witch who can afflict you with a curse. In Kyle’s case, the curse is to be ugly for a year; if he can find someone to say “I love you” by the year’s end, he’ll revert back to his handsome self. If not, he will be doomed to live that way forever.

So Kyle becomes afflicted with tattoos that seem irremovable; gashes with metallic staples in them, as well as boils and bubbly flesh as well as a bald head; all his sexy hair falls away. His dad is horrified; he takes him to doctors who basically tell him nothing can be done. Rather than take his son home, he banishes him to a townhouse on the Hudson where he claims he will visit from time to time, but never does. Apparently, the rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the blighted tree.

Kyle, now going by the name of Hunter, is not alone in his exile; his housekeeper Zola (Hamilton) is sent along to see to his needs and a private tutor, the blind Will (Harris) is hired to take care of his schooling. None of this helps Kyle, who is brooding and angst-ridden. You can tell this because of the many montages set to moody emo songs.

However, there is hope; the lovely Lindy (Hudgens), a scholarship student who is not wealthy (although she is beautiful) who is forced to stay with Hunter and his crew when her drug-addicted dad (LaFortune) falls afoul of a drug dealer (Perez) – it’s a long story. As she begins to see the inner Hunter (who builds her a greenhouse on the roof of the brownstone to give her an idea of how sensitive he’s become), she begins to fall for the young man but the year is running out and before long, Kyle may remain Hunter…forever.

I have always had a problem with the whole Beauty and the Beast story, upon which this is based (it’s actually based on a young adult novel that was based in turn on the story). It doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. We all know that the point of it is supposed to be that beauty is only skin deep, but how does that compute when the happily ever after has the beast returning to his handsome outer self?

The movie plays to all the teenage arrogances that piss off most adults. There is a hipper-than-thou vibe which is mildly irritating that comes from having characters who are mostly too rich and too pretty to give a crap about anything else other than their own selves and that never really changes much in the movie.

Pettyfer has a good deal of charisma, although his acting abilities haven’t yet caught up to it quite yet. Then again, that may be due to how the part is written. I really liked him in I Am Number Four; but not so much here. He has the looks and the screen presence to go far, but he frankly needs better performances than this one to get there.

Hudgens, a veteran of the Disney channel’s High School Musical movies, is dreadfully miscast here. She has a certain amount of charm, but has zero chemistry with Pettyfer. Her character is also badly underwritten; you never really get much look at the inside of Lindy who works with the homeless to show us how sensitive and caring she is, but otherwise is just like all the other students who are getting dissed for their insensitivity here. She certainly has a good deal of baggage in the film – a dead mom, an addicted dad – but we only get glimpses of the anger and pain this must be costing her.

The supporting cast is all right. Harris is always delightful, whether in his television show or his movie appearances. The trouble was we don’t get to see enough of him here. Olsen, yes of the Olsen twins fame, is actually revelatory here, making her character at least a little bit three-dimensional despite the white powder and Stevie Nicks wardrobe. She might be however *sob* a bit old for the role.

We all know where the movie is heading and the shallowness that the movie is wagging its finger at self-righteously in the end is celebrated. The movie is all about appearances and that is what bugged me the most. If you’re going to make a morality tale, at least have the courage to stick to your principles. I expected better from the director of Phoebe in Wonderland, a promising indie director who I still believe has some great films in him. This sure ain’t one of them.

I get the feeling this would have made an episode of “Gossip Girl” or “Glee” better than a motion picture. I don’t have a problem aiming a movie for the CW network audience, but I would hope that even movies aimed at that demographic would at least have something in it for parents dragged along to watch. No such luck here.

REASONS TO GO: There are some charming moments. Pettyfer is a star on the rise. Neil Patrick Harris is always a pleasure to see.

REASONS TO STAY: The message the movie sends is disturbing. Almost no chemistry between Hudgens and Pettyfer. The movie is a little too full of itself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few choice bad words and some drug references and even a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert Pattinson and Zac Effron were rumored to be casting choices before the producers settled on Pettyfer.

HOME OR THEATER: Probably better on a home screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Brooklyn’s Finest