Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

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New Releases for the Week of June 15, 2018


THE INCREDIBLES 2

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophia Bush, Catherine Keener, Sarah Vowell, Bob Odenkirk, Huck Milner. Directed by Brad Bird

After having had to hide their powers for years, the world is ready for superheroes  to return. But it is Elasti-girl who will be saving the day, not her powerful husband Mr. Incredible. He’ll be home taking care of baby Jack-Jack who may turn out to be more powerful than anyone in the family. However, a new and greater threat has risen and it may take the entire family – including Jack-Jack – and the help of a few friends to save the world yet again.

See the trailer, interviews, video featurettes, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats :Standard, 3D, D-BOX, D-BOX 3D, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, RPX 3D, XD
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for action sequences and some brief mild language)

Gotti

(Vertical) John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Stacy Keach, Pruitt Taylor Vince. The story of notorious mobster “Gentleman” John Gotti, his rise to power and his fall from grace as seen through the eyes of his son. This has found a new distributor after a previous distributor dropped the film literally within weeks of its original scheduled release date.

See the trailer, video featurettes and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and pervasive language)

Race 3

(Yash Raj) Anil Kapoor, Salman Khan, Jacqueline Fernandez, Bobby Deol. The third installment of the popular Indian franchise that follows a crime family whose brutality, vindictiveness and ruthlessness make them a force to be reckoned with.

See the trailer and a music video here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Superfly

(Columbia) Trevor Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jennifer Morrison. A remake of the 1973 Blaxploitation classic that follows a successful young drug dealer who wants to finish off one last deal so he can retire a wealthy man. Remakes are cool and all but no way will they be able to outdo Curtis Mayfield on the titular theme song.

See the trailer and a video featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Wednesday)

Rating: R (for violence and language throughout, strong sexuality, nudity and drug content)

Tag

(New Line) Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher. A group of men who have been friends since childhood organize an annual game of tag, some of whom have to travel across the country to get there. This year they are out to get the one member of the group who has never – ever – been tagged.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, crude sexual content, drug use and brief nudity)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

(Focus) Fred Rogers, Joanne Rogers, Robert F. Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma. Generations of kids have grown up with Mister Fred Rogers, in whose neighborhood we learned to be neighbors and to love each other. While some look at his teachings to be pure schmaltz, they are lessons nonetheless we need more than ever today.

See the trailer and video featurettes here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and language)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

A Kid Like Jake
Naa Nuvve
Sammohanam
The Year of Spectacular Men
The Yellow Birds

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

49 Pulses
The Doctor from India
The Guardians
Hearts Beat Loud
The Misandrists
Naa Nuvve
Sammohanam
Summer 1993
The Yellow Birds

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Affairs of State
Naa Nuvve
Sammohanam

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Naa Nuvve
Sammohanam

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Hearts Beat Loud
The Incredibles 2
Superfly
Tag
Would You Like to Be My Neighbor?

Homefront (2013)


When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn't what he was expecting.

When they told Jason Statham he was getting a Mustang for this movie, this wasn’t what he was expecting.

(2013) Action (Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder, Frank Grillo, Izabela Vidovic, Clancy Brown, Marcus Hester, Omar Benson Miller, Rachelle Lefevre, Chuck Zito, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Linda Edwards, Austin Craig, Owen Harn, Stuart Greer, Joe Chrest, Christa Campbell, Billy Slaughter, Nicole Andrews. Directed by Gary Fleder

Small towns have a habit of being different things to different people. For some, they are an escape from city life. For others they are cherished reminders of how life used to be. For still others, they are a place where they can conduct their affairs in relative anonymity.

Phil Broker (Statham) used to be a DEA agent. He specialized in undercover operations and in his last one which was counted successful by the agency, he took down a powerful biker gang leader named Danny T (Zito) but in the process the biker’s psychotic son went down in a hail of bullets. Phil walked away from the Agency and not long afterwards, his wife passed away from an undisclosed illness. He took his precocious daughter Maddy (Vidovic) to Rayville, a small town in the Louisiana bayous not far from where Phil’s wife grew up.

At first things couldn’t be going better. Phil has found a beautiful property on the river and while the house itself is a bit of a fixer upper, there’s enough land to own horses and it’s far enough off the beaten path that he can live his life in relative peace.

Then a bully (Craig) in Maddy’s school picks a fight with her and true to her dad’s training she stands up for herself, bloodying the bully’s nose. This doesn’t sit well with the bully’s mom, the excitable meth-head Cassie (Bosworth) and she screeches at her husband Jimmy (Hester) to do something about it, so he picks a fight with Phil. Bad idea. Phil kicks Jimmy’s butt in front of Cassie and his son, putting the already irritable Cassie in a rage. Seeking revenge, she goes to her brother Gator (Franco).

Gator is the local meth dealer who has a mean streak a country mile wide. He wants to throw a scare into Phil but the plan goes awry once he breaks into Phil’s house and finds, in a kind of basement, boxes and boxes of case files from Phil’s DEA days. Now that just don’t sit right with good ol’ Gator who doesn’t want a retired DEA agent in his neighborhood – why, that will just screw up the property values something wicked but it might put a bit of a kink in his illegal drug manufacturing gig.

However, Gator discovers a way out of the situation that could wind up being enormously lucrative as well. He sees that Phil was the undercover agent on the Danny T case and lo and behold, his girlfriend Sheryl (Ryder) happens to know Danny’s lawyer. Sheryl, herself a drug addict, a prostitute and a cocktail waitress (in this economy one has to have multiple jobs) sets up a meeting with Cyrus (Grillo), Danny’s psychotic right-hand man. You just know things are going to get ugly from that point forward.

Written by Sylvester Stallone and based on a novel by Chuck Logan, Statham’s new action film follows a tried and true formula that fans of the genre will find comforting and familiar. The problem is that there isn’t much here that pushes the boundaries any from the lone highly-trained specialist trying to protect his family to the evil drug-dealing biker gang. For the record most biker gangs don’t engage in any criminal activity although if you watched Hollywood’s versions of them you probably feel uncomfortable every time you see one on the highway next to you.

Statham may well be the most consistent action star in the world. It is truly rare for him to turn in a poor performance. This is essentially his show and his fans won’t be disappointed by this effort and he may add a few more to the growing list. While there is a romantic subplot (with the comely Rachelle Lefevre), very little screen time is devoted to it and you get the sense that Statham’s Phil Broker is pretty awkward with the ladies. It also makes sense that a recent widower may not necessarily be looking for someone to fill his late wife’s pumps. In any case, Statham does well with the child actress who plays his daughter which is not always as easy as it sounds.

Franco is an Oscar nominated actor whom you might think is slumming in a role like this, a Southern-fried drug dealer with a gator tattooed on his arm but like any good actor playing a villain you get a sense he’s having a real good time with it. He also adds several layers to the role; at one point in the final reel in a conversation with Cyrus when he’s told that Cyrus must do something particularly despicable while Ryder’s Sheryl looks shocked and disgusted, Franco affects a blank expression with very haunted eyes – he knows the act is necessary but he doesn’t particularly like doing it. It’s just a little detail that takes about three seconds of screen time but it’s the kind of thing a great actor does to add depth to a part. Franco is becoming just that – a great actor.

Ryder and Bosworth are both playing drug addicted women and in their own ways add some flavors to roles that are badly under-written. Bosworth’s Cassie has to make an about-face from screeching harpy to concerned parent in a way that doesn’t make sense but whatever – she does the best she can with it. Ryder, normally a beautiful woman, allows herself to be skanky in a role that most actresses of her caliber turn their noses up at. It’s interesting to see what she does with it.

There are more than a few plot holes and contrivances here, the worst being that Gator discovers Phil’s DEA identity through finding boxes and boxes of case files  in the cellar of his home. First of all, case files for any law enforcement agency never leave the offices of said agencies and certainly not in the possession of a retired agent. He would have no reason for having them – except to reveal his identity to a drug dealer who will then in turn inform those whom he sent to jail and would like to see him and his daughter dead, preferably with brutal painful torture in the mix. That’s just lazy writing, Sly.

Still, if you can put up with a precocious kid and plot holes, this is a pretty decent action movie and Statham elevates it as he does with most of his action films. This may not be the kind of thing you want to go and see when all these blockbusters and Oscar contenders are in the theaters but if you prefer action to drama and long lines, this isn’t a bad alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Statham is solid and Ryder and Bosworth do some fine supporting work. Some nice action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too predictable. Too much precocious kid-ism. Lapses in simple logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence, some drug use, sensuality and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although based on an unrelated novel, Stallone originally envisioned this as the final Rambo movie and wrote it with John Rambo as the retired dad. However he couldn’t get the movie made and eventually it was rewritten to be closer to the original story and with Statham in mind for the lead role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Delivery Man

Flypaper (2011)


Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

Patrick Dempsey auditions for a TV cop show role.

(2011) Comedy (IFC) Patrick Dempsey, Ashley Judd, Tim Blake Nelson, Mekhi Phifer, Matt Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor, John Ventimiglia, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Curtis Armstrong, Rob Huebel, Adrian Martinez, Natalia Safran, Octavia Spencer, Eddie Matthews, Rob Boltin, James DuMont, Judy Durning, Joseph Nemmers, Monica Acosta, Kasey Emas. Directed by Rob Minkoff

Greed is a big motivator. It attracts us like a magpie to shiny things. We want more, we want it all. Well, that’s true for some of us anyway.

It’s closing time at a bank which is about to receive a major security software update. Once the doors are closed the bank will be locked down for the night, its security systems offline. The employees are getting ready to go home when a trio of armed bandits come in through the back. They’re well-armed and professional.

As if things weren’t bad enough, a couple more robbers come in through the front door – two bumblers named Peanut Butter (Nelson) and Jelly (Vince). They aren’t affiliated with the other gang – they’re just there to take down the ATMs. Still, you can’t have two gangs in the same bank without a gunfight and that’s precisely what happens. An innocent bystander gets shot and killed in the crossfire, further raising the stakes.

Locked in the bank now, the last customer of the bank, a compulsive man named Tripp (Dempsey) suggests that both gangs can have what they want. An uneasy truce is negotiated between PB&J and their rivals (Phifer, Ventimiglia, Ryan). Tripp and the remaining bank employees – obsequious manager Blythe (Tambor), the creepy security guard (Martinez) and tellers Kaitlin (Judd) and her sassy colleague Madge (Spencer) are herded upstairs and told to wait in a conference room.

But Tripp, the obsessive sort that he is, can’t let go of the nagging thought that there’s someone else pulling the strings. Too many coincidences. So he decides to investigate. That can be a very dangerous thing when amidst trigger-happy thugs who take their place on the FBI’s most wanted list quite seriously.

Minkoff is best-known for directing The Lion King and Stuart Little. He hasn’t done a lot of non-family films and he went after a script penned by the co-writers of The Hangover. This isn’t on par with any of those films except for maybe Stuart Little.

It’s not for lack of effort. Dempsey is one of the most engaging actors today. It’s incomprehensible that he isn’t an A-list star by this point but most of his romantic comedies have done solid but not spectacular business. Here he shows some real skill. His character is full of tics that could easily have overwhelmed the film but Dempsey wisely plays them down and let’s his character serve the story rather than the other way around.

Judd is a usually reliable actress who has been flying under the radar of late. She does a credible job here but she really doesn’t have much to work with. She does have a bit of a romantic subplot with Dempsey’s character but it really doesn’t burn up the screen nor prove to be anything more than a brief distraction.

Nelson and Vince make a good team as Peanut Butter and Jelly, with a kind of earthy bumpkin charm to the both of them. They make an ideal counterpoint to the other three who are straight men with an edge. Phifer deserves better.

There are some real funny moments but not enough of them for my taste. The twists and turns are pretty predictable to the moviegoer with even below average intelligence and the characters other than Tripp aren’t particularly well-drawn. Still, it has its own innate charm and that can’t be discounted. You can seek this out if you’d like to but I wouldn’t spend a lot of time looking for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Dempsey should be a bigger star than he is. Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough funny moments. The twists are pretty predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a fair amount of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tripp’s medication, Depakene, is a mood stabilizer normally prescribed for Bipolar disorder patients, implying that is what Tripp is suffering from.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some one-on-one interviews with members of the cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather

Brake


Stephen Dorff is having a very bad day.

Stephen Dorff is having a very bad day.

(2012) Suspense (IFC) Stephen Dorff, Chyler Leigh, Tom Berenger, JR Bourne, Kali Rocha, Bobby Tomberlin, King Orba, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Sammy Sheik (voice), Kent Shocknek, Jaylen Moore, Stephen J. Bridgewater, Matthew Pollino, Jason Raphael, Jamie Fishback, Michael Franklin, Marisol James. Directed by Gabe Torres

You just know that when you wake up and you have no idea where you are that you’re in for a crappy day. However, when you discover that you are held prisoner in a Plexiglas cube in the trunk of a car, it just might be something else entirely, as in. Worst. Day. Ever.

Jeremy Reins (Dorff) is having that kind of day. To make things even more ominous, there’s a digital clock that seems to be counting down to something. A voice on a radio accuses him of being a government agent, and a man named Henry (Bourne) is also on that same radio, telling Jeremy he’s in the very same predicament – except that he works for the State Department and they have his family hostage on top of it.

Why are his captors doing this? Because they want the location of something called Roulette, that’s why. As it turns out, that is the code name of the bunker where the President retreats to in time of national emergency. And as it also turns out, Jeremy is in fact a Government agent and one of a select few who knows where Roulette is. And as is turns out yet again, his captors are willing to do just about anything to get that information – be it to torture Jeremy with swarms of bees (which Jeremy is allergic to), to kill innocent people and even to kidnap Jeremy’s wife Molly (Leigh) while Jeremy listens in on the radio.

As he is driven around in the trunk of the car, he hears radio reports that Washington is in chaos as multiple targets are hit by terrorist bombs. Jeremy realizes that he is not in the hands of just any terrorist group; they are after the complete and utter destruction of our government and nothing less than a coup d’état will do.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks to this movie is that we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Fortunately, while the spin here is nothing remarkable, the people who are both in front of and behind the cameras are extremely competent at what they do. Torres, who to this point had mainly television credits on his resume, is adept at keeping the tension at high levels. The audience is literally squirming in their easy chairs, popcorn and soda forgotten as they grow mesmerized with the events unfolding.

Dorff is more often cast as the villain and those are roles he does very well but on this occasion he gets to not only be the leading man but he is literally the only face we see for about two thirds of the movie. It’s a rigorous, demanding task for the actor but one sometimes forgets that Dorff is really good at what he does. He is more than up to the challenge.

The ending unfortunately doesn’t live up to the rest of the film. There are a couple of twists – one you may or may not see coming, one you probably will. Also, there are only so many things you can do with a guy locked in the trunk of the car. We don’t see any other characters for the most part – for good reason as it turns out – and while I like the idea of feeling Jeremy’s isolation and helplessness, it can get frustrating for the audience in the latter stages of the film.

I actually found this to be a solid, entertaining thriller, one which I suspect was meant to go direct-to-video but was given an excuse-me theatrical release for reasons I can’t even fathom; it probably cost the distributor more to do that than just go right to the home video/VOD route. Still, don’t let that keep you from giving this one a shot. As thrillers go, it’s as good as most of the stuff that got full theatrical runs with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. This one deserved both.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly well done, with a good eye towards keeping the tension high. Dorff rarely gets to play a heroic character and does pretty well at it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Starts to feel stale towards the end and the ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of bad words (you’d swear too if you were locked in a trunk) and scenes of torture both mental and physical.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was primarily filmed in North Hollywood, subbing for Washington DC.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4,876 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Toy Story 2

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard

Butter


Butter

Jennifer Garner’s limo isn’t what it used to be.

(2012) Comedy (Radius) Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Phyllis Smith, Dodie Brown, Joe Chrest, Shelli Fox. Directed by Jim Field Smith

We are all of us good at something. Some of us are good writers, others good at sports. Still others are trivia whizzes while others can sing like an angel. However, it is only a select few who excel at butter carving.

Of course the first question is how do you find out that you’re good at that, but apparently Bob Pickler (Burrell) did, and he is so good that he has won the championship of Butter sculpting at the Iowa State Fair 15 years running. He is so good that those who run the competition have asked him to retire so as to let other people win, which seems pretty un-American to me – did David Stern ask Michael Jordan to retire so that other guys could be the best basketball player in the world?

This does not fit into the plans of his wife Laura (Garner) who was looking to use her husband’s fame and…well, not fortune but fame anyway – to catapult him into a political career and now is left scrambling to figure out some other way to do it.

She determines to enter the contest herself. Bob himself is a bit put out over the turn of events. He finds himself at a strip club where he propositions Brooke (Wilde), a somewhat volatile stripper, for sex in his van. This ends abruptly when Laura t-bones his van with her SUV.

This doesn’t sit well with Brooke, especially since Bob ran out on her without paying. Now she wants the $600 he owes her – yes, apparently that’s one thing that’s really expensive in Iowa. She decides to enter the contest to spite Laura, and to further cement her contempt she has sex with Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Greene).

Destiny (Shahidi) is an 11-year-old African-American girl who has been shuttled in and out of foster homes most of her life. She is starting out anew with Ethan Emmett (Corddry) and his wife Julie (Silverstone)  They are decent people who become caught up in Destiny’s little hobby – butter carving. She caught the bug when she’d gone to the State Fair the previous year and been taken by Bob’s carving of Michelangelo’s Last Supper (which the Des Moines Register proclaimed as “better than the original” – BWAHAHAHAHAW!) Now she wants to try her hand at it, which her new foster parents enthusiastically encourage.

Destiny and Laura both have real talent. Both want to win for different reasons. Laura, on the one hand, will do anything to win – including seducing an ex-boyfriend (Jackman) into doing her dirty work for her. Still, when Destiny discovers the truth about her birth mother, she is moved into creating a carving that threatens everything Laura is trying to build. Laura will be left with the prospect that she may not be good enough to beat the 11-year-old girl.

There is a very dry, Midwestern sense of humor here, more like the love child of the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor. That appeals to me, although not everyone might get it. There were parts I might have laughed out loud more had I been in a theater (we saw this on VOD) but there were a few I did anyway. That’s always a good day for a comedy.

The cast is impressive. Not everyone in it is a household name but all are terrific comic actors. Burrell here continues his impressive work as seen on TV’s “Modern Family.” He’s not exactly the same guy but he is a very flawed but basically good man who makes one gigantic mistake and winds up paying for it. Wilde has done a number of different roles, like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), medical dramas (“House M.D.”) and horror (Turistas). She has done some comedic roles before but none as memorable as this one. I’m beginning to become a big fan of her versatility as an actress.

The biggest surprise is Shahidi. She’s a new talent and if her performance here is any indication she’s got a bright future ahead of her. She is compelling and holds the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen. It’s a shame her part was written to be a little too perfect – no 11-year-old is that poised, that sweet and that talented all in one package, at least not so many that any of us would know one. A tantrum or two might have been more realistic.

There are definite political overtones here. While some have compared Laura to Sarah Palin (and she does copy some of the former governor’s mannerisms and speech patterns), I thought of her more as a Hillary Clinton type – a super-ambitious wife cuckolded and frustrated. I could be wrong though.

Like a lot of films that have hitherto played only in limited release, the studio has seen fit to put it on VOD to allow viewers who don’t live near the handful of theaters that will be playing it theatrically to get a chance to see it without having to wait a year for it to come out on home video and cable. Most of you can take the opportunity to see it there or, if you want to spend less money, wait for it to make its home video release. Either way, this is a solid comedy that is smartly written and quirky enough to be different but not so quirky that it becomes just another indie comedy.

REASONS TO GO: Dry Midwestern humor that is laugh out loud funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters in one place. Destiny is a little TOO perfect.

FAMILY VALUES: Well, the language is bad in places; there is some sexuality and a moment in which drug use is depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Iowa, it was mostly filmed in Louisiana for tax purposes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews have been weak.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cedar Rapids

JFK ASSASSINATION LOVERS: Laura’s run-off entry into the butter carving contest is a depiction of the open limo at the moment of the killing, complete with the President’s head exploding.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frankenweenie