Klaus


This is not your daddy’s Santa Claus.

(2019) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzmann, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm McDonald, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Sergio Pablos, Mila Brener, Neda Margrethe Labba, Sydney Brower, Teddy Blum, Emma Shannon, Kendall Joy Hall, Julian Zane, Amanda Philipson, Finn Carr, Tucker Meek, Hailey Hermida, Jaeden Bettencourt. Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez López

 

We’ve all seen origin stories of the big guy in Red before. No, I’m not talking about Shazam! I’m talking about the real big guy. Santa. Claus, even.

This delightful animated feature has the distinction of being the first animated feature to be distributed by streaming giant Netflix (after a brief theatrical run) and it will have the added bonus of making animated feature aficionados wish that Netflix would have made it more widely available in theaters, because the animation is that gorgeous, with a hand-painted look that hasn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Disney, which is where director Sergio Pablos cut his teeth, by the by.

The film is about Jesper (Schwartzmann), the indolent scion of a politically connected and wealthy family. Jesper, the son of a Central European country’s postmaster general, is coasting his way through life, shirking work whenever possible and looking forward to using his family’s political connections to maintain his lifestyle of personal butlers, espressos on demand and silk sheets. However, his father has different ideas. He exiles his son to Smeerensburg (which is based on a Finnish town that no longer exists), a town above the Arctic circle where no letters have been mailed in years.

It turns out there’s a reason for that. The town is run by two families that have been feuding for centuries, the Krum family whose matriarch (Cusack) absolutely hates the patriarch (Sasso) of the Ellingboe family. The two family heads have recruited the children into a vicious cycle of hate and pranks which gives the film a kind of Looney Tunes feel and also a kind of warped satisfaction as the lazy Jesper is often the butt of the children’s tricks.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jesper meets Klaus (Simmons), a lonely and isolated woodsman who has deliberately isolated himself for reasons that are made clear later. He has a gift for wood carving and eventually delivers a toy to a young child whose melancholy drawing touched his heart. Jesper, recognizing a scam when he sees one, induces the kids to write letters to Klaus to get him to send them toys; he just needs six thousand of them to be released from his exile. He utilizes Alva (Jones), a teacher who came to a town where none of the kids attend school, to teach the kids to write letters. She has resorted to converting the school to a fish market in order to make ends meet and save up enough to get out of that crazy town. But as the kindness of Klaus begins to affect the children, Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe begin to plot to end this change which threatens the status quo.

The movie starts out a bit slowly and the early Looney Tunes section might pale in comparison with classic cartoons, but it picks up steam as it goes along and never fails to charm. Kids will be entranced with the lovely images and adults will find the movie heart-tugging – the ending in fact is likely to generate more than a few tears from sensitive viewers. I, myself, loved it.

As Christmas films go, this one is certainly superior to the glut of direct-to-home video projects that make up the bulk of what’s available at this time of year. Klaus is the kind of movie you and your kids will want to see again and again, year after year. That’s the kind of Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is magical. The film is charming throughout, with the ending being absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog during the first third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor as well as mild animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first hand-drawn animated film to make use of CGI lighting techniques to give it almost a 3D feel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy, The Dog and The Clown

Tag


Jeremy Renner knows he’s better than you.

(2018) Comedy (New LineEd Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Isla fisher, Lil Rel Howley, Hannibal Burress, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Nora Dunn, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Steve Berg, Indiana Sifuentes, Trayce Malachi, Jock McKissic, Thomas Middleditch, Al Mitchell, Sebastian Maniscalco, Vince Pisani, Kurt Yue, Kate Kneeland.  Directed by Jeff Tomsic

 

There’s a line in the movie that really rings true; “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” Keeping that child-like part of ourselves alive means we’re ever changing, ever growing. Play can be a part of that; it teaches us about ourselves, if nothing else.

Hoagie (Helms), Jerry (Renner), Bob (Hamm), Chili (Johnson) and Sable (Burress) have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. They’ve grown up a little bit since then; they’ve relocated all over the country from their native Spokane and have gone on to their own lives and their own families. But for one month every year – May, as it turns out – they are fair game to a no-holds-barred take-no-prisoners form of the children’s game.

It has helped keep their bonds strong even though they lead separate lives but for four of them, there’s a unifying factor – Jerry has never ever been tagged “it,” not even once, in thirty years. This will be the year, even though financier Bob has a reporter (Wallis) trailing him, even though Hoagie’s wife (Fisher) is about to lose her mind with competitive fire and even though Chili will be back in the territory where his ex-wife (Jones) dwells. For this will be the last year; Jerry is taking himself a bride (Bibb) and this will be his last year playing the game.

The filmmakers could have gone a few different routes with this and they elected to try and go down two different paths at once; the raunchy one and the heartwarming one. As fellow critic Roger Moore observed, they may have missed an opportunity by going the PG-13 route and thus attracting a larger audience pool but as it was, they didn’t do so badly.

The raunchy stuff isn’t as raunchy as other comedies that go there but it is enough to warn home viewers from letting their tweens and youngsters get hold of it. The element that gives the viewer some good warm fuzzies is well-earned without being too treacly, although there is a bit of a twist that was a little over-the-top.

As far as the comedy bits (mostly having to do with the lengths the players will go to tag Jerry and the lengths he’ll go to keep from getting tagged) while they were generally well-executed, some bent the boundaries of suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. That aside, this was a little bit better than I expected it to be although not quite as good as Game Night.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally heart-warming comedy about the bonds of friendship.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the comedy is a bit far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief nudity, some crude sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is loosely based on an ongoing game of tag played by four friends in Spokane, Washington.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover Part II
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel

New Releases for the Week of November 9, 2018


THE GRINCH

(Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury, Kenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams. Directed by Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier

Based on the beloved Christmas book by Dr. Seuss, a lonely and angry creature decides to spoil life for the Whos of Whoville by stealing Christmas, their most favorite time of the year.

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

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for brief rude humor)

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

(Columbia) Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephan Merchant. Once again, computer hacker and iconoclast Lisbeth Salander finds herself caught in a deadly game of government corruption, cybercriminals and betrayal

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

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

Rating: R (for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity)

The Last Suit

(Outsider/Strand) Miguel Angel Solá, Angela Molina, Martin Piroyanski, Natalia Verbeke. An aging Jewish tailor from Buenos Aires whose children want to put him in a nursing home decides to run away instead to Poland and find the man who saved his life from the Nazis. This is being screened as the closing film in the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Monday only)

Rating: NR

Overlord

(Paramount) Jovan Adepo, Bokeem Woodbine, Iain De Caestecker, Wyatt Russell. A pair of American soldiers find themselves way behind enemy lines on D-Day and discover a terrifying Nazi secret.

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

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, language, and brief sexual content)

Prospect

(Gunpowder and Sky) Sophie Thatcher, Pedro Pascal, Jay Duplass, Sheila Vand. In the future, a prospector and his young daughter discover a fortune in gems underneath the ground of a toxic forest. However, they aren’t the only ones interested in the find.

See the trailer and interviews here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some violence/bloody images)

Thugs of Hindostan

(Yash Raj) Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Shaikh. The story of Ameer Ali, a thug whose gang caused the British Empire fits between 1790 and 1805.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Faberge: A Life of Its Own
Here and Now
River Runs Red
Sarkar
To Love Some Buddy
Trew Calling
Welcome to Mercy
Wildlife

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

A Private War
The Breadwinner
Lez Bomb
Outlaw King
Sarkar
Wildlife

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

In a Relationship
River Runs Red

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Sarkar
Thunder Road

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Overlord

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Central Florida Jewish Film Festival, Maitland/Orlando
Miami Shorts Film Festival, Miami
Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale

Celeste and Jesse Forever


There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, Chris D’Elia, Will McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Shira Lazar, Matthias Steiner, Rebecca Dayan, Janel Parrish, Rich Sommer, Rafi Gavron, Mathew del Negro, Kris Pino, Rafi Gavron, Zoë Hall, Lauren Sanchez, Ashli Dowling. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Cinema of the Heart 2016

It is said that it usually isn’t clear when love begins, but it’s always obvious when it ends. Sometimes couples that seem to be made for each other don’t make it; staying in a relationship in the 21st century is no easy task and requires sometimes a lot more of ourselves than we’re willing to give.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) have been married for six years and they’re everybody’s favorite couple. Celeste is essentially the breadwinner, owning a trendy L.A. agency that has just landed Riley (Roberts), a brand new super-hot pop star. Jesse is an artist but doesn’t seem to have enough gumption to actually produce much in the way of art. Still, they clearly care for each other and share a great deal of love. Everything is perfect – except they’re getting divorced.

Their impending divorce is not terribly well-received by their friends, for whom they have been something of an icon; if these two can’t make it work, how can the rest of us? But most are puzzled by the way the two hang out together all the time, how Jesse lives in his artist studio shed in their back yard while Celeste sleeps in her own bed at night. Why don’t they hate each other? And why oh why are they breaking up in the first place?

However, this idyllic circumstance of two best friends begins to change as things inevitably do. Jesse, whose slacker existence was an issue for the more controlling Celeste suddenly finds himself in a situation that changes his outlook. Celeste is unable to handle the change in Jesse and suddenly finds herself adrift, not ready to move on as Jesse had not been ready to move on initially.  Now it is obvious that Celeste and Jesse aren’t forever.

Jones wrote the film with Will McCormack who has a supporting role as a pot dealing friend of the couple. The film has some smart writing, realistic dialogue (i.e. the characters say things real people actually say) and a hefty dose of heart. It also has a surfeit of indie cliches that definitely reduce my affection for a film that could easily have garnered more of it.

Jones and Samberg are at their best here; both are enormously likable actors who get roles here they can sink their teeth into. Samberg in particular comes off as a much more multi-dimensional performer than he had shown previously on SNL and the Adam Sandberg movies he had done. He has enormous star potential which he shows here and some of his Funny or Die clips. He’s one good role away from the A-list.

Jones has been one of those actresses who never seem to deliver a subpar performance. I’ve always thought her immensely talented and this is one of the first roles in which she really shows off her potential. Celeste is very complex and in some ways unlikable; one feels throughout the movie that Celeste is taking a good thing and tossing it in the waste basket but eventually we begin to see that things aren’t that simple and a lot of that has to do with Jones’ emotional performance.

The movie works when we get into Celeste’s head; Jesse seems to be mainly an instigator for the various things going on there. When the movie tries to be indie-hip, it drags – there is a mumblecore sensibility here that doesn’t quite jibe with the overall mood. When the film gets away from that sense, it works.

Some relationships are meant to be and others, not so much. It is how we handle the not-so-much that prepares us for the next ones down the line and makes us better partners. Not every relationship is forever even though we want them to be; letting go can often be the hardest thing we ever do.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones and Samberg make an engaging non-couple. Cute in a quiet sort of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times feels like there’s nothing going on. Overloaded with indie cuteness to the point of distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of bad language, plenty of sexual content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title was Jesse Loves Celeste before it was decided that the focus of the film was going to be on Celeste.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage and a Q&A from the premiere, and also footage of Chris Pine, whose tiny role was cut from this film before he went on to star as Captain Kirk.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an $840K production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Break-Up
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

The Big Year


The Big Year

Making movies is for the birds

(2011) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Rashida Jones, Rosamund Pike, Dianne Wiest, John Cleese (voice), Kevin Pollak, Joel McHale, JoBeth Williams, Paul Campbell, Cindy Busby, Anjelica Huston, Jim Parsons, Anthony Anderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Al Roker, Steven Weber, Corbin Bernsen. Directed by David Frankel

 

All of us want to leave a mark in some form or another; not necessarily as celebrities but in our own small way we want to accomplish something special, something we can be proud of. Something that says “I was here. I did this. I meant something.” It’s not always an easy thing and often we have to overcome obstacles we never could have anticipated.

In the world of bird watching, birders have a kind of Heisman Trophy that they go after – it’s called, informally, a Big Year and it means essentially spotting as many birds as possible in a calendar year. It requires an insane amount of dedication and not a little expense. The all-time champion is Kenny Bostick (Wilson) who holds the mark at 723 separate species of birds.

He has become bored and restless resting on his laurels. He’s made the decision to tackle another big year, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife (Pike) who is much more eager to start a family. Still, she recognizes he needs one last adventure and gives it to him, but not without consequence.

Brad Harris (Black) is a computer programmer who is divorced and feeling less sure of who he is. He knows he loves birding and is pretty good at it but has to save for quite a while to mount up the resources in order to tackle something like a Big Year. His parents (Wiest, Dennehy) are less than enthusiastic but mom manages to mount up some supportiveness while his cardiac patient dad is less tolerant.

Stu Preissler (Martin) is a workaholic CEO on the verge of retiring and he knows what he wants to do with the first year of his retirement – a Big Year. His wife (Williams) is a little less sanguine about it with a grandchild on the way but Stu insists that he can do both. However, his company is a bit jittery about his departure and a new merger that is going to save the day is dangling by a thread and Stu’s touch is needed.

The three run into each other in the field and none wants to tip their hand that they are going after a Big Year but soon it becomes obvious that they all are after the same thing. While Kenny will do anything and everything to safeguard his record – and allow himself to shatter it – Stu and Brad quickly realize that the only defense against Kenny is to team up. But who will be the winner at the end of the year?

I hadn’t expected much from the film, having understood that it was a critical and box office failure but I was pleasantly surprised. The three leads are all individually engaging and all of them restrain their normal onscreen personas so that none of them is overwhelming (Black particularly who can be overbearing in some of his roles). Here they all are charismatic but sweet-natured – even Wilson’s character, who can be a bastard, isn’t all bad.

Black gets to have a nice field romance with a fellow birder (Jones) which helps add a romantic element to the movie; all of the leads are at different places in their relationships with Stu’s being more centered, Kenny’s being on the edge of disaster and Brad’s just beginning. It illustrates the role of our partners in our lives quite nicely too.

The cinematography is quite nice, with enough bird shots to do a nature film proud (not all of the footage here was authentic – some was spliced in from other movies in order to bring enough different species of birds on screen). Sure, there are some bits that stretch the believability quotient a bit but none to the breaking point.

The leads aren’t the only reason to see the film. As you can see in the cast list there is a pretty impressive collection of talent, some on for only a scene or two (like Huston as a crusty boat captain) but it isn’t stunt casting so much. We aren’t playing “spot the celebrity” although it makes a nice counterpoint to the bird spotting (and a fun game to play for those watching the second time – see how many birds YOU can spot).

This was a movie that came out with a bit of fanfare, considering the star power in the leads and then exited theaters quickly. For whatever reason it didn’t connect with audiences who probably thought a movie about bird watching would be boring. The point is however that this isn’t strictly about bird watching. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and living. Getting off the couch and into something, anything, that sparks our passion. You can’t really complain about a movie that advocates that.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing heart. Some interesting bird-watching facts. Nice performances from the leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit too obsessive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are more than a few bad words and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the bird sightings from the winner of the competition are shown over the closing credits and yes, every one of them is a different species of bird, although they weren’t all spotted by the same person in this case.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing on the DVD but the Blu-Ray has a gag reel.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on a $41M production budget; there is no way to call this other than an unmitigated flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Butter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cloud Atlas