All is Bright (Almost Christmas)


Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles "I Am the Walrus" too much to heart.

Paul Giamatti has taken the Beatles “I Am the Walrus” too much to heart.

(2013) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Paul Giamatti, Phil Rudd, Sally Hawkins, Peter Hermann, Hailey Feiffer, Michael Drayer, Amy Landecker, Curtiss Cook, Colman Domingo, Tatyana Richaud, Adam Phillips, Nikki M. James, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Darren Goldstein, Rob Munk, Morgan Spector, Marcia Haufrecht, Gracie Lopez, Liza Colon-Zayas. Directed by Phil Morrison

hollynquill-2013

It is part of the human condition that we all need love. Not just to love something but to be loved back in return. I guess it has something with the urge to perpetuate the species but it has become much more complicated than that over time.

Dennis (Giamatti) is a criminal in rural Quebec who has spent four years in prison for a robbery. His partner, Rene (Rudd) didn’t show up when he was supposed to, leaving Dennis to hold the bag and do the time. While Dennis was in the slam, Rene was stealing away Dennis’ wife Therese (Landecker) who has told their daughter Michi (Richaud) that her dad died of cancer. Nice.

Dennis goes to see Rene and you would think it would be to open up a can of whoop ass but Dennis has other needs. He desires to go straight but he is out of cash, can’t get a job and is one step shy of being homeless. Rene has a job – he is delivering and selling Christmas Trees in New York. Dennis persuades Rene that he owes Dennis a job and Rene reluctantly agrees. Of course, Dennis is on parole and isn’t supposed to leave town but Dennis has another motive – he promised to buy Michi a piano and he means to keep his promise, even though Michi won’t know her dad is alive.

Easier said than done though. Dennis and Rene aren’t exactly experienced salesmen and they choose a rat-infested vacant lot to sell their trees. Moreover a slick operation from Vermont sets up shop across the street and before long the two criminals from Quebec are staring at a holiday season with no trees sold in the face. Dennis is befriended by Olga (Hawkins), a Russian dental assistant house sitting her employers’ home for the holidays after he sells her a tree and installs it for her but it takes some old fashioned intimidation to get their spot to themselves.

Dennis and Rene bicker but it looks like things are turning the corner. However, guys like this never can get a break and something occurs that threatens to send them home empty-handed and for Dennis that idea is absolutely intolerable as it is for Rene – who means to marry Therese. At least, just as soon as his own divorce is final.

Morrison last directed a feature eight years ago but that was the acclaimed Junebug which started Amy Adams’ career with an Oscar nominated performance. Like that film, the characters here are quirky and complex and not in an indie-cute kind of way but more in a depth of field kind of way. These are characters with a topography.

Giamatti despite a very unfortunate facial hair situation commands attention here. Dennis is temperamental and prone to flying off into rages at a moment’s notice. He still loves his wife despite her betrayal and his daughter beyond measure. He even has a soft spot for Rene, although that is sorely tested. Dennis tries very hard but occasionally can’t help his criminal behavior which has been engrained in him. Giamatti gives Dennis all that and a soul too.

Rudd is a very likable actor but he translates that likability to blandness here. Rene is a compulsive talker who quickly gets on Dennis’ nerves (and ours) and always seems to do the wrong thing with the best of intentions. He isn’t terribly bright but he is likable. Granted, this is kind of a hard role to play but Rudd doesn’t give it a lot of life.

I blow hot and cold about Sally Hawkins. She can be very irritating (Happy-Go-Lucky) and very compelling (Made in Dagenham). Here she has an over-the-top Russian accent and a kind of Natasha Fatale attitude. I actually kind of liked her here but I think the part would have been better served to keep her English background and let her be a little bit more natural. That’s just me though.

The Christmas vibe here isn’t as overwhelming as other movies we review this time of year. It isn’t a Christmas movie per se in that the film isn’t about the holiday – it just takes place during the holiday a la Home Alone. The good news is that the themes of friendship, needing to be love, forgiveness and sacrifice all have a place in the holiday spirit and so this kind of squeaks by.

I liked that the movie lets the audience mull those themes over without being overt about them – that Dennis finds a way to co-exist with someone he was so thoroughly wronged by is nothing short of miraculous (and unlikely) but I think that at the end of the day he does so not only for his own ends but so he can deliver on a promise made to his child. You can’t get any more Christmas-y than that.

REASONS TO GO: Paul Giamatti. Quirky in a good way. Thought-provoking.

REASONS TO STAY: Paul Giamatti’s facial hair. A bit aimless.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of bad language and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie played the Tribeca Film Festival under the title Almost Christmas but changed names for its theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa

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The Promotion


The Promotion

Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly have a competition to see which one can look the stiffest.

(2008) Comedy (Dimension) John C Reilly, Seann William Scott, Jenna Fischer, Lily Taylor, Fred Armisen, Gil Bellows, Bobby Cannavale, Rick Gonzalez, Chris Conrad, Nathan Geist, Adrian Martinez, Masi Oka, Angel Guzman, Joshua Eber, Mario Larraza. Directed by Steve Conrad

 

Ambition is a fine thing sometimes. We all want to improve our circumstances, to provide better for ourselves and our families. Generally speaking we do this through getting new jobs or promotions through the companies we work for. Getting these, however, is much easier said than done.

Doug Stauber (Scott) is a mild-mannered assistant manager at a Chicago-area grocery store. He’s extremely good at it, although he isn’t what you’d call a forceful personality. When the chain he works for announces that they’ll soon be opening a new store in the area, he figures he’s a shoo-in for the job to the point where he sinks all of the savings of himself and his wife Jen (Fischer) into a down payment for a house that they can only afford if he gets the job which he’s sure he will.

But not so fast there Sparky. Also in the running is Richard Wehlner (Reilly), who has just moved his family to Chicago from Quebec. He is a recovering alcoholic and at one time ran with a biker gang who has turned his life around.  Getting this position would really help solidify his standing and help he and his wife Lori (Taylor), a hot-headed Scot, finally get over the hump.

Now if this sounds like we’re going to see 90 minutes of two men trying to sabotage one another, think again. Mostly the two guys sabotage themselves. This is not a Judd Apatow comedy by any stretch of the imagination, although the key elements for it might be there. Had Apatow gotten hold of this, it would have been a very different movie.

The thing is that both Doug and Richard are essentially nice guys. You’re not really sure who to root for (although Doug, who also does the voice-over narration, seems to be the surrogate for the audience) since there’s no real bad guy, although occasionally the two both make weak attempts to undercut the other.

Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies (and upcoming American Reunion) usually plays characters that are much more over-the-top than this one. Really, I found this to be the kind of character usually played by Paul Rudd – nice, mostly mellow with just a hint of wild man in him. Reilly, on the other hand, has that wild man in his past big time. Still he’s much more of a hangdog now, like a dog who’s been to obedience school and been neutered in the process. Few do that kind of role better than Reilly and he does it well here.

Taylor is a very talented actress more known for her indie films but she shines in her brief on-screen appearances here, stealing scenes effortlessly with her charm and comic timing. Fischer is sometimes underrated because of her beauty and sexuality but she does a fine job as the unsuspecting wife of Doug, unaware that the job he said was in the bag really isn’t.

There are some nice bits here (like an apology to community leaders after the company determines was a racially-motivated incident that turns horribly, horribly wrong) and director Conrad, one of the finest writers in Hollywood who you’ve probably never heard of tackles his first feature directing job with a surprisingly sure hand.

The whole movie is pretty low key which can be a double edged sword. A lot of comedies will “tell” viewers when to laugh, either using visual cues, sound effects or cues from the score. You don’t really get that here; Conrad trusts in the intelligence of his audience to know what’s funny. Of course, that generally means they don’t always do.

I give the film big props for trying something new but there isn’t enough tension here to keep the viewer’s interest, nor are there enough laughs to overcome that. This goes down as a good idea with good intentions that didn’t quite translate to a good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: A competitive comedy where both the leads are actually decent guys – a very innovative set-up.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So low-key in places that you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of foul language, a good deal of it sexual. There’s also a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally scheduled for release in May 2007 but was delayed for a full year, mainly to add the cameo appearance of Oka who at the time was starring in “Heroes.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel but other than that the usual suspects. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $424,030 on an unreported production budget; I think it likely that the movie lost money, probably quite a bit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Handsome Harry

Pontypool


Pontypool

Georgina Reilly has an eating problem.

(IFC) Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts (voice), Daniel Fathers (voice), Beatriz Yuste, Tony Burgess. Directed by Bruce McDonald

We use language as a tool to communicate; as a matter of fact it is a necessity. Without language we can’t communicate and without communication society tends to descend into chaos. Language is a prerequisite for civilization. In recent years, we have added enough jargon, slang and nonsense to stretch the English language to the breaking point. What would happen if our language began to fight back?

Grant Mazzy (McHattie) is a shock jock who has seen better days. Fired from his job at a big city station for saying things over the air that his station manager didn’t want him to say, he has landed as the morning drive time jock at the sole radio station in Pontypool, a flea speck of a town in northern Ontario, and I’m thinking it wasn’t the one Neil Young had in mind when he wrote “Helpless.”

Once a voice in the Canadian consciousness, Mazzy is reduced to reporting about lost cats, drinking enough coffee (heavily spiked of course) to drown said cats, and bickering with his producer, Sydney Briar (Houle). His engineer, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Reilly) just returned from a tour of Afghanistan and tends to want Mazzy to speak his mind whereas Sydney wants no repetition of the incident that got him fired and makes it clear he’s on a short leash. All in all not the most dazzling first day on the job.

Then, strange reports begin to come in. The “Sunshine Traffic Copter” (that is in reality a guy parked in a truck on top of a hill overlooking the town) reports a crowd gathering outside the office of the local physician, Dr. Mendez (Alianak). Soon, the increasingly agitated Ken Loney (Roberts) – the guy parked in the truck – makes it clear that the mob is getting violent, ugly. And as the morning wears on, it becomes even clearer that there is something wrong with the people of Pontypool – they’ve developed a taste for human flesh.

As authority breaks down, the three slowly realize that they are under siege in their basement studio. Eventually, Dr. Mendez arrives at the station and informs them that there is a virus going around, but no ordinary one – it is carried through certain words in the English language. In fact, the only way to maintain safety is to speak French, which will certainly have the French separatists in Quebec giving the citizens of Canada a great big “I told you so.”

All kidding aside, this no-budget Canadian horror film is actually rather effective. McDonald, whose last film was the less-than-stellar The Tracey Fragments does a good job of utilizing the claustrophobic nature of the basement sound studio, maintaining the frustration of the staff as they struggle to discover what is going on outside their doors. McHattie, Reilly and Houle all do credible jobs as people who don’t particularly like each other suddenly forced to depend on each other.

It takes a little while for the tension to get amped up but once it gets there, McDonald and writer Tony Burgess sustain it nicely. The ending is also nicely ambiguous, not only leaving room for further sequels (apparently one is in the works) but also leaving viewers wanting a sequel.

The budget is virtually non-existent, forcing a bit of creativity for the moviemakers. Almost all of the action takes place in the sound booth where Mazzy does his thing; while that gives a nice feeling of claustrophobia, it also makes for a very static film, almost as if it were the filmed version of a play. While Orson Welles’ version of The War of the Worlds was effective in its day, radio reports of horror don’t really move the modern horror film audience as profoundly.

However, props and kudos to the filmmakers for taking an unusual concept and sticking to it; many filmmakers don’t have that kind of courage of conviction. Pontypool won’t rewrite the horror genre, but it does provide a thoughtful, insightful thriller with horrific elements that should keep fans who like their horror less visceral and more cerebral quite satisfied.

WHY RENT THIS: A taut thriller with horror elements that utilizes the claustrophobic nature of its main setting nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags in places and with the action mainly limited to a single room, lacks a bit of scope that might have served the story better.

FAMILY VALUES: Unrated; there isn’t a lot of gore although there is some. There’s also a bit of foul language and a good deal of tension; definitely not for the squeamish or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tony Burgess, who plays Tony/Lawrence in the movie, also wrote the screenplay as well as the novel it’s based upon.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Actually, there’s a fair amount of extras here, including a trio of short films unrelated to the main feature, as well as the audio-only CBC radio version of the play the movie is based on.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Predators