Paper Man


Paper Man

Jeff Daniels is tired of seeing Ryan Reynolds demonstrate his superpower – imitating a bunny.

(2009) Comedy (MPI Media) Jeff Daniels, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Lisa Kudrow, Kieran Culkin, Hunter Parrish, Chris Parnell, Arabella Field, Brian Finney, Eric Gilliland, Violet O’Neill, Jill Shackner, Brian Russell, Conrad Wolfe, Louis Rosario. Directed by Kieran and Michelle Maloney

 

Writing can be a tricky road to navigate. Sometimes, the words are a flood and you can barely get them out on paper (or laptop) fast enough, the torrent is so overwhelming. Other times it’s a trickle and it seems like every word is a struggle.

Richard Dunn (Daniels) knows that better than most. It’s hard to call him a successful novelist – he has at least published something – but not many people have bought it. He’s having trouble getting his second novel out. Fortunately for him, his wife Claire (Kudrow) is a successful vascular surgeon in New York which means he really doesn’t have the pressure of making a living, but that doesn’t help the creative juices to flow in this case. He is getting on and childless and knows that there won’t be any kids. He is the last of his line and wants to leave something behind that people will remember him for.

The thing that he might be remembered for is that he has an invisible friend and has had one since he was a boy. His invisible friend is a superhero named Captain Excellent (Reynolds) who follows him around and urges him to get off of his ass. Claire is fully aware of the Captain’s existence and while she tolerates it – in fact, there is much about her marriage that she can merely tolerate – she doesn’t like it much.

Richard needs a change of venue and Claire frankly needs some time away from her husband – call it a trial separation and Claire might wince but she won’t disagree. She packs him off to their summer cottage in Montauk on Long Island where perhaps, in the off-season when it is less crowded, he might be motivated to put pen to paper or in his case, fingers to typewriter keys.

Richard, while riding to town on a young girl’s bike (the only vehicle he owns) spies Abby (Stone), a young girl somewhat lackadaisically committing arson. Fascinated by her boredom, he hires her to babysit, the fact that he is childless notwithstanding. When Abby finds out about this little deception, rather than run away she merely shrugs and accepts. At least it’s something to do.

The two form a friendship that is somewhere between that and a surrogate father-daughter relationship. Things get a little dicey when Abby mistakes that friendship for lust, or when Abby’s thuggish boyfriend (Parrish) objects – nobody gets to abuse Abby but him – and finally when Claire finds Abby and Richard asleep on the sofa after Richard throws a kegger for her friends. Richard has reached a crossroads; his marriage is in jeopardy, his career as a writer is in the toilet and his friendship with Abby is perhaps not the healthiest thing. Can even Captain Excellent save him from himself?

This is the kind of movie that is full of indie angst. Co-directors (and co-writers) Kieran and Michelle Mulroney (the brother and sister-in-law respectively of actor Dermot Mulroney) have concocted a tale that takes a quirky character, sticks him in a kind of a quirky place (off-season Long Island) and throws a few quirky incidents into the mix.

The result is a bit on the precious side. There are times you want to throttle Richard, he’s simply so without direction and without clue. Daniels can do these kinds of characters very well; in fact, he’s noted for them (check out Dumb and Dumber and The Squid and the Whale for further evidence).

Fortunately, he’s paired with Emma Stone whose career was just starting to take off as this was made (The Help hadn’t been released when this was filmed). This might well wind up being most remembered for affording the opportunity to see a huge star in the process of becoming one. She takes a role that could easily have been overbearing and made her relatable and more than that, sympathetic. While the focus is ostensibly on Richard, I found myself wanting to spend more time with Abby and it isn’t because Stone is stealing the movie; our focus just naturally gravitates to her. That’s the mark of a great actress.

While I’m okay with the Captain Excellent conceit (and the bleach-blonde Reynolds is now as adept at playing superheroes as anyone), it was just one of the many quirks in this movie that has too many of them, from Christopher (Culkin), the suicide-obsessed friend of Abby to the incessant talk of soup, there comes a point where it simply overdoes the indie charm. I personally wish more indie movies would rely more on story and less on eccentricity. I get that quirky people are interesting but in the long run people who are relatable to thee and me are of more lasting value – and keep my attention. There was a better film to be had here but that doesn’t mean that it should be avoided – Stone’s performance alone is certainly compelling enough to be worth the rental.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted (particularly by Stone) and clever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lays on the indie quirkiness on a bit thick.

FAMILY VALUES: Mostly a lot of bad language but there’s a bit of sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received its world premiere at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,514 on an unreported production budget; it is extremely unlikely that the movie made any money whatsoever.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Play It Again, Sam

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Safe

Submarine


Submarine

Oliver Tate, like many teens, is a bit fuzzy on bathing.

(2010) Dramedy (Weinstein) Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Darren Evans, Osian Cai Dulais, Lily McCann, Otis Lloyd, Elinor Crawley, Steffan Rhodri, Gemma Chan, Melanie Walters, Sion Tudor Owen . Directed by Richard Ayoade

We are for the most part the stars of our own ongoing movie, and often we see ourselves in a different light than how we are actually perceived. The younger we are, often the more pronounced this divide is.

Oliver Tate (Roberts) lives in the Southern Welsh coastal town of Swansea (an amusing note from Oliver preceding the credits on the American release reinforces this) as a 15-year-old boy convinced of his own intelligence and popularity. He imagines a national mourning at his untimely death, and a resurrection to delighted teenage girls, prompting a miasma of hormonal bliss.

When confronted with actual female attraction, in the form of the much cooler and cynical Jordana (Paige) who also has a thing for lighting fires, he adopts a deer in the headlights expression, leading to a kiss which he learns later is meant to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. It backfires and the two are badly bullied with Oliver getting beat up when he gallantly refuses to say publically that his erstwhile lady is a slut. She walks him home and kisses him for real, leading Oliver to determine that she is now, officially, his Girlfriend (capitalized on purpose here).

But all is not sunshine and mince pies. Oliver’s parents are slowly drifting apart, a malaise that has led to a lack of sex (which the ever-spying Oliver determines by the level of the dimmer switch in their bedroom). That malaise is exacerbated by the arrival of new next door neighbor Graham (Considine, in a role that might have gone to Colin Farrell in a bigger budget production) as a would-be new age guru, who also used to be his mom’s Boyfriend. Oliver’s mum Jill (Hawkins) seems disposed towards re-fanning those flames, attending Graham’s lectures slavishly while her husband Lloyd (Taylor) diffidently drowns in depression, a marine biologist sinking into an ocean of emotional dissonance.

Thus Oliver decides he must reverse this trend because a divorce would essentially inconvenience him. However, Jordana is undergoing a crisis of her own – her mum (Walters) is desperately ill and may not survive the surgery she is about to undergo. Oliver decides that Jordana would benefit by his absence (and Oliver is more wrapped up in his own drama in any case) and deserts her at her most crucial moment. Can Oliver reconcile all the relationships around him that are crumbling?

This isn’t your typical teen coming of age movie, at least not by Hollywood standards. Despite being mid-80s set (and with all the pretension that implies), there is an intelligence here that is sorely lacking in the big studio teen movies. The kids here, while they operate essentially independently of their families (as kids that age often do), are still connected with them and are certainly not smarter than their parents although they fancy themselves to be.

Oliver is genuinely fond of his parents and they of him, which is refreshing – the relationship between Oliver and his folks is a complicated one as parent-teen relationships usually are. None of  the protagonists are perfect; they all are flawed in believable ways, from Lloyd’s inertia-challenged existence to Jill’s indecisive neediness to Oliver’s own search for his own niche and his teen-fueled arrogance.

Oliver himself is so prone to doing unintentionally cruel things that at times you get right angry at him until you think “he’s only a boy.” That is the underlying truth about Oliver. His inexperience and his lack of empathy often motivate those cruelties but if you look deep enough, he’s a decent young lad with the potential to be a good man someday. Roberts, whose narration has all the crack-voiced earnestness of a teen trying to fill an adult’s shoes before he is truly ready, is brilliant here.

Hawkins and Taylor, both veterans of English film and television, make a perfect couple. Both on the mousy side, both intellectual and both somewhat permissive in their parental techniques, they seem on the surface to be enabling their spouse’s behaviors but they are in fact well-suited to one another and there is certainly some hope that they’ll work things out (but as the film makes clear, their relationship is on far from stable ground and could go either way). Considine provides comic relief as the libidinous guru who may be self-absorbed but also has a good deal of pain and compassion deep down.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; there are no pat answers and the ending only hints at an uneasy peace; both relationships are fragile and have much work needed to survive, and there are no guarantees that either one will. Still, Oliver for all his posturing is a character you won’t soon forget and perhaps he has enough will to carry both relationships forward. You wind up kind of hoping that he does.

REASONS TO GO: A smart teenage coming-of-age movie blows most of Hollywood’s entries into the subject, not to mention all the smug Disney Channel characters. Directed with an eye towards innovative storytelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Oliver’s incompetency in social situations can be grating at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality involved.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Stiller, who co-produced the movie (and has championed it throughout its run) cameos as an actor in an American soap opera that Oliver watches early on in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: This is mostly available in Art Houses in selected locations such as our own beloved Enzian Theater and should be seen there if possible, but at home is certainly ok if it’s not playing anywhere near you.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Resident Evil: Afterlife

John Carpenter’s The Ward


Amber Heard prays that someone will take her seriously.

(2010) Horror (ARC Entertainment) Amber Heard, Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Laura-Leigh, Lindsy Fonseca, Jared Harris, Sydney Sweeney, Mika Boorem, D.A. Anderson, Susanna Burney, Sean Cook, Milos Milicevic, Jillian Kramer, Sali Sayler. Directed by John Carpenter

When looking back at the annals of horror movies, some directors stand out; James Whale, Todd Browning and in later years George Romero and David Cronenberg. Into that company, one has to add John Carpenter. The auteur of horror and science fiction classics such as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Starman (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live! (1988), it has been ten years since he has directed a feature film. Is this the movie to launch the comeback of one of horror’s masters?

A young woman sets a somewhat isolated farmhouse on fire. She is caught there by the police, who bring the struggling, screaming woman to the North Bend Mental Institution. We discover her name is Kristen (Heard) and she has no memory of how she got to the farmhouse or why she burned it down.

She is assigned to Dr. Stringer (Harris), the urbane Brit who seems to be the only doctor in the Asylum. There’s not much staff there either – Roy (Anderson), a somewhat menacing orderly, Nurse Lundt (Burney) who likely took her education at the Nurse Ratched school of Nursing (note the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reference), and Jimmy (Cook), a kindlier orderly.

Then again, there aren’t many patients. There’s Sara (Panabaker), a somewhat self-centered and looks-oriented young woman who never met a mirror she didn’t like. Zoey (Laura-Leigh) has some pretty serious emotional traumas and deals with them by reverting to childhood. Iris (Fonseca), the friendly bespectacled one who has a sketchbook and draws the things that disturbs her. Finally there’s Emily (Gummer), the strong sort who appears to be the leader of this merry band.

There’s also Alice Hudson (Boorem). Who’s she? Well, apparently she’s a former resident of North Bend who took her leave of this mortal coil in a sudden and not very nice manner. Now her ghost (Kramer) is roaming the halls of North Bend, bumping off the remaining girls in also sudden and not very nice manners. Kristen must figure out a way to escape before she winds up on the grisly list of victims. But who is she really? Why can’t she remember any of her past? And why did she burn down that farmhouse. That is the key to the supernatural goings on at North Bend and a secret she must unlock if she is to survive.

Carpenter has mostly been working in television the past decade and in some ways that absence show. This is a very old school kind of movie in the way the shots are set up; it looks in many ways like an 80s horror film which is unsurprising given Carpenter’s pedigree. This is his first movie with a nearly all-female cast.

He gets some good performances, the most outstanding of which is by Gummer as the erstwhile leader of the group Emily. Gummer looks very much like a young Meryl Streep which makes some sense because she’s her daughter. She has as much as any of the female characters has to work with but in the end she does more with it.

Panabaker and Fonseca also acquit themselves well, Panabaker as the resident flirt, Fonseca as the sensitive girl. They’re essentially disposable cannon fodder for the monster who stalks them. Both of them are attractive women, which helps and both of them are solid professional actresses, which helps them even more. While you could have plugged in the cast of Jersey Shore to these sorts of roles, Fonseca and Panabaker give it the old college try.

Heard is usually a very capable actress but here she seems a little forced. There isn’t a lot of real emotion coming from her, mostly taking us from point A to point B with little examination into the process of getting there. She’s at her best in the opening shots, frightened and not really knowing what she’s doing or why she’s doing it, merely following her instincts. That scene piqued my interest.

Too bad what followed was awfully derivative, even of movies that were filmed concurrently (say hello, Sucker Punch) but for sure of asylum horror movies like Gothika and The House on Haunted Hill. A creature stalks the actors, lurks in shadows, shows signs of being a decrepit corpse and winds up being part of a twist.

That’s what this movie is and to be honest, it doesn’t disgrace itself. It just isn’t the comeback you’d hope for a master of the genre. Romero managed to re-invent himself without losing sight of what got him to the dance – Carpenter hasn’t quite mastered that trick yet. This is very much like the movies he would have made back in 1981. The unfortunate thing is that it’s 2011 and we expected something better.

REASONS TO GO: Well directed by a master craftsman. Some good performances, particularly by Fonseca, Panabaker and Gummer.

REASONS TO STAY: We’ve seen this all before, and better. Heard picks a bad time to give a sub-par performance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images as well as some violence and the very important obligatory extraneous nude shower scene (although much more nudity is implied than scene).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Carpenter not to have been shot in Panavision since his first one, Dark Star.

HOME OR THEATER: Essentially a haunted house horror movie which takes nearly entirely within a mental institution, this will be fine as a home video offering.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Easy A