Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

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Dean


Life is a day at the beach for Demetri Martin.

(2016) Dramedy (CBS) Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Ginger Gonzaga, Luka Jones, Briga Heelan, Levi MacDougall, Rory Scovel, Drew Tarver, Barry Rothbert, Meryl Hathaway, Nicholas Delany, Kate Berlant, Asif Ali, Florence Marcisak, Pierce Minor, Michael Oberholtzer, Victoria Vitkowski-Bennett, Reid Scott, Jamila Webb, Jessica Ruane. Directed by Demetri Martin

You never know when your life is going to change irrevocably – or how. It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a romance that will turn out to last a lifetime. When it comes right down to it, life is a roller coaster ride we take while blindfolded.

Dean (Martin) is a cartoonist (and by the way, Demetri Martin drew the New Yorker-style cartoons seen throughout the movie) who lives in New York City. He has just broken up with his fiancée (Vitkowski-Bennett) and he is having trouble finishing his second book of toons. One of the reasons for that is he is still grieving for his mother (Marcisak) who recently passed away unexpectedly.

His life is in a bit of a stall. His relationship with his father Robert (Kline) is tenuous to say the least; neither man approves of how the other is grieving. When Robert drops the bombshell that he plans to sell the family home that Dean grew up in, Dean refuses to even discuss the matter and when Robert insists that he start clearing out his room, Dean flees to Los Angeles, ostensibly to listen to a job offer (that he never really took seriously to begin with) but more to hang out with his buddy Eric (Scovel) who takes him to a party where he meets Nicky (Jacobs), an Angelino whom he falls head over heels for – literally. His first act when he makes eye contact with her is to do a face plant on the floor.

Nonetheless their relationship starts to take off. Meanwhile, back in New York City, Robert is developing feelings for his real estate agent Carol (Steenburgen) that he’s not ready to act on, or at least thinks he isn’t. They do go out but the date ends disastrously. Both men are at a crossroads and need to get on with their lives, but do they have the will to move on?

If the movie sounds like something Woody Allen might have done back in the 70s, you’re probably right. Martin’s sensibility as a writer seems to fall in line with that of the Great Neurotic. However, this isn’t straight rip-off by any means; while Martin is almost certainly influenced by Allen, he isn’t slavish about it. Dean is certainly somewhat neurotic (his cartoons since his mother passed all have to do with the Grim Reaper) but not of the “ohmygawd he needs therapy” variety, which was where Allen mined much of his best material.

Martin is definitely a multi-threat performer; not only is he a terrific stand-up but he shows that he has the ability to be a lead in a theatrical narrative. Yes, the Beatles haircut is distracting but no more than some of the crazy hair-dos of comic actors we’ve seen of late. Martin’s delivery is a little sad sack (which fits the circumstances) but he has a kind of puppy dog cuteness that will certainly win him some fans. As a director he’s still learning his craft, but this is an effort that is impressive for a first full-length feature.

While Martin has a promising future, there are some cast members who are terrific now. Casting Kline and Steenburgen – so wonderful together in My Life as a House – was inspired and the two still have tons of chemistry. Some critics have found the storyline involving the two of them more interesting than the one between Martin and Jacobs and I can’t say as I disagree. I wouldn’t mind seeing more movies with Kline and Steenburgen in them. I would also like to see Jacobs’ role a little more fleshed out. Like Martin, she also has a bunch of screen presence and could be an onscreen force someday.

While the film wasn’t as consistently funny as I might have liked, it had enough humor in it to tickle the funny bone yet didn’t sink into parody or low comedy. The humor is, like Martin’s stand-up act, intelligent and a bit off-kilter. While this isn’t a movie that is going to make big waves on the Hollywood ocean, it should get enough notice to further the careers of everyone involved, or at least I hope so. It certainly is worth indie film lovers taking the time to check out.

REASONS TO GO: Martin has a whole lot of potential. A stellar supporting cast helps power the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film comes off in places as a knockoff of Woody Allen.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs and Heelan also star together in the Netflix series Love.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleepwalk With Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Journey

Milton’s Secret


The young and the old share a moment.

The young and the old share a moment.

(2015) Drama (Momentum) Michelle Rodriguez, Mia Kirshner, Donald Sutherland, William Anscough, David Sutcliffe, Ella Ballentine, Percy Hynes White, Stephen Huszar, Hays Wellford, Jessica Greco, Jaeden Noel, Auden Larratt, Milo Larratt, Nidal Kabboul. Directed by Barnet Bain

 

As adults, we spend too much time worrying. Worrying about what the future holds; the unknown terrifies us. That can lead us to dwelling in the past, when things were simpler, brighter, better. The sunlit, dappled memories of yesterday make an easier place to live than the harsh, dark and frightening future. So few of us live in the here and now.

At least that’s what Canadian/German life coach, philosopher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle opines. He’s written bestselling books like The Power of Now and A New Earth but has also gone after the hearts and minds of children with the illustrated kids book Milton’s Secret, adapted here into a movie by Bain.

Milton Adams (Anscough) is eleven with his 12th birthday looming and the poor guy is a bundle of nerves. The economic downturn has affected both his parents; his mom (Kirshner), a real estate agent, has trouble finding qualified buyers when she can find buyers at all while his dad (Sutcliffe), a stockbroker, tries to reassure her that things are going to be okay when the market continues to provide losses month after month.

On top of it all, he’s getting bullied by Carter (White), a neighbor who himself is being bullied by his dad (Huszar) a former football player who is taking out his own frustrations on his kid. Milton’s best friend Tim (Wellford) is too scared of Carter to do anything to help and sometimes it seems that only his teacher Ms. Ferguson (Rodriguez) has any inkling of helping, but even she is locked in to a Parent’s Night presentation when all the kids will be reading speeches based on a subject of their choosing and yeah, that’s got Milton stressed as well. Plus, you know, he’s named Milton.

Into the chaos comes Grandpa Howard (Sutherland), a combat veteran who has found a kind of Zen inner peace. He’s the prototypical wacky grandpa, drinking a seaweed herbal tea that tastes like “serenity,” working on restoring the garden the Adams family has neglected, and dating his Zoomba instructor for which his daughter chides him. Grandpa has ideas about living in the present, while Milton is resorting to alchemy to try and turn base materials into gold to relieve the financial pressure. Can Grandpa help Milton escape Planet Fear?

One gets the sense that Tolle lives in a bit of a bubble. How many kids of eleven have any kind of inkling about alchemy, not to mention who are attempting to practice it? Tolle, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t seem to have a sense that he hangs out with a lot of kids. Milton, Tim and Milton’s crush Anna (Ballentine) are far too precocious; we only get one scene in which Milton is playing videogames and none of the kids in the movie seem to be engaged in any sort of play. I agree that kids are far more aware of the environment around them than Hollywood (and consequently adults) gives them credit for, but kids are also all about impulse gratification. Milton is far too serious and far too un-self-centered to really be relatable as an 11-year-old circa 2016.

Sutherland is marvelous as always; he’s a welcome presence with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile that brightens up the screen, but he’s given ponderous platitudes to offer rather than genuine wisdom. I get that every movie has something it wants to get across and Tolle’s philosophy of putting oneself completely in the now is not a bad message to send, but it seems that we’re getting battered over the head with it somewhat. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

Still, I liked the movie overall. You get a sense of the realities of financial pressures and how they affect every member of the family; the tensions between Milton’s mom and dad are handled realistically with their attempts to mute their arguments failing while their precocious son tries to hear what his parents are fighting about. You also get that sense of small town life where there isn’t a whole lot to do, which is why kids (and their parents) seem to be glued to their smart phones.

There’s a whole lot of Donovan on the soundtrack and fans of the 60s folk-rocker will be appreciative of that. For my money, his music is used effectively without being too overwhelming. Some purists may grouse that there isn’t very much contemporary music on the soundtrack, but that’s a refreshing change as I see it – or hear it, in this instance.

Certainly the movie isn’t perfect but it’s solid. It is based on a children’s book, but I’m not sure that I would call this a children’s movie although there is that Afterschool Special feel of an issue being addressed and solutions found. In some ways, the movie is a little bit too pat in that department. People under financial strain aren’t going to be happy unless that financial strain is removed and I don’t care what kinds of self-help techniques are employed. Yet I found myself liking the movie despite the flaws or maybe because of some of them. Anscough at least knows how to look and act stressed out which adds to the authenticity of the film. Maybe some of the issues depicted here may be a little too close to home for those still feeling the pressure of trying to make ends meet in a world where that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. On the other hand, life is far too short to spend it worrying about what might happen.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of small town life. There are some lessons to be had here about living in the moment.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is infected with precocious child disease with a side order of sitcom problem solving syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief foul language and some thematic issues involving bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fonda was originally cast as Grandpa Howard but was replaced by Donald Sutherland.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Morgan

Donald Cried


Donald gets in Peter's face.

Donald gets in Peter’s face.

(2016) Dramedy (Electric Chinoland) Kristopher Avedesian, Jesse Wakeman, Louisa Krause, Ted Arcidi, Kate Fitzgerald, Shawn Contois, Donny Fite, Patrick Languzzi, Jeremy Furtado, Robby Morse Levy, Peter Lewis Walsh, Tyrone Alcorn, Alexander Cook, Tom Kilgallen, Kyle Espeleta, Nick Reiss, Matthew Barletta, Allie Marshall, Ariana DeFusco. Directed by Kris Avedesian

Florida Film Festival 2016

We’ve all had that friend; the one who isn’t really a bad person but they just try too hard and end up causing all sorts of awkward moments. We roll our eyes at their approach and often these are the ones who have a really hard time growing up past a certain time in their lives.

Peter Latang (Wakeman) has returned to the Rhode Island town he grew up in and left 20 years ago to settle the affairs of his grandmother, who raised him after his parents died. Peter isn’t all that eager to be there, and true to form things start going wrong right away when he loses his wallet on the bus he took from Manhattan (where he works in the financial industry) to Rhode Island. The realtor who is putting grandma’s house on the market is comely Kristin (Krause) who seems to remember Peter fondly although he doesn’t have a clue who she is.

Without transportation and without cash, Peter is forced to suck up his pride and walk across the street to see his best friend in high school, Donald Treebeck (Avedesian). Donald is a bearded man-child who worshiped the ground Peter walked on back in the day and is absolutely thrilled that the two are reunited. Peter is clearly uncomfortable but he’s in a bind and Donald is essentially his only way out, so he reluctantly agrees to spend time with his old friend.

Thus begins a journey to old haunts, old friends and old flames as Donald, who clearly has absolutely no filter, puts Peter in one uncomfortable predicament after another. It soon becomes evident that Donald has endured bullying, distance and rejection far beyond perhaps what he deserves. Sure he’s stuck doing the same old things that he did in high school; listening to heavy metal, smoking pot, getting into mischief but when push comes to shove he’s there.

Soon it becomes evident that Donald isn’t the misfit we mistook him for at first, nor is Peter the stable, successful guy he makes himself out to be. The bonds of friendship were always tenuous on one side of this equation, but there is no doubt that both men are going to need to rise above their own limitations if they are to grow as people and the one more capable of it just might surprise you.

As I watched this at the press preview, I have to admit that at first I wasn’t terribly impressed. The movie seemed to be rife with indie cliches, The situations were so awkward as to be annoying to watch; it seemed like I as doomed to be spending an hour and a half with one of those annoying guys who I went out of my way to avoid spending time with.

Then a funny thing started happening. I started getting into it. And the more I found out about Donald and Peter, the more interested I became. I found suddenly that rather than Peter being the guy I wanted to spend time with, it was Donald. Sure, he’s a bit of a screw-up and a stoner and prone to inopportune behavior, but there was so much more to him than met the eye. He’d been given a role to play; not one he particularly wanted, but it was his and he contented himself with playing it as best he could. Most of us don’t have that sense of grace.

Peter on the other hand, becomes less of a stand-up guy the longer the movie goes on. You begin to understand that he’s a self-centered jerk and always has been. The more you watch him, the more you think back to the early part of the movie and realize that you really hadn’t noticed what a dick he was being. That’s masterful acting but it’s also masterful writing and direction.

In fact, I find that even after the movie was finished, I was getting more into it and the more I thought about it, the more I like it which likely means by Independence day I’ll likely have this in my top ten of the year. Or maybe it will plateau right around where it is now. Still, this is a fascinating study in human relationships and how we interpret them. They’re not always the way they seem to be on the surface. In fact, they rarely are.

REASONS TO GO: A lovely bittersweet vibe. Grows on you more after you’ve seen it.
REASONS TO STAY: A couple of indie cliches here and there. Takes awhile to get its footing.
FAMILY VALUES: Among other things, nudity, profanity, some drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally made as a short and was then expanded into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

Parker


Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

(2013) Thriller (FilmDistrict) Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Emma Booth, Micah Hauptman, Kirk Baltz, Kip Gilman, Sharon Landry, Charleigh Harmon. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Most of us have some sort of moral code that we live our lives by, even if we can’t always articulate. We call them “lines” and we try not to cross them (although we aren’t always successful). It’s always somewhat miraculous when someone actually accomplishes it.

A priest and two clowns walk into the Ohio State Fair main office. Sounds like a joke but it’s actually a robbery, one spearheaded by the priest – who is actually Parker (Statham), an expert thief who lives by a rather stringent moral code – never steal from those who can’t afford it, never hurt those who don’t deserve it. It’s served him well.

But when you work with clowns, well, you get what you deserve. One of them, Melander (Chiklis) has an idea for an even bigger score but needs the entire take from the State Fair job to make it happen. Parker, who is already not happy with the crew because one of them (Hauptman) had set a diversionary fire in the wrong place, decides to pass.

Unfortunately, Melander isn’t willing to take no for an answer and leaves Parker shot and nearly unconscious on the side of the road. Fortunately, a farmer and his family spies Parker on the side of the road and takes him to a local hospital. Parker regains consciousness and manages to escape before the cops arrive to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. He recovers in a stolen ambulance in a secluded patch of woods and a helping of Demerol to help him sleep it off.

When he comes to he’s in a pretty foul mood. He approaches Hurley (Nolte), his mentor and also the father of Claire (Booth) – his girlfriend – and the man who set him up with Melander. It turns out that Hurley didn’t know that Melander was extremely connected, in this case to Danzinger (Gilman) a vicious crime boss. Hurley advises him to walk away but Parker can’t do that. He needs his score and he needs justice. He knows that Danzinger will send people not only after him but after Hurley and Claire and anyone Parker knows but it’s the principle of the thing.

After a visit to the brother of the misplaced arsonist (Baltz) in New Orleans, Parker gets wind that the job is taking place in Palm Beach, Florida. From snippets of  conversation just prior to his assault, he knows they were looking for a house down there. He contacts Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), an ambitious realtor trying to get her first commission. She’s in desperate financial straits – a divorce has left her with plenty of bills and precious little cash and she is forced to live with her difficult mother (LuPone) and field calls from bill collectors and repo agencies. She is at the end of her rope.

Parker, posing as an Ecuadorian-born oil baron from Texas (yeah, she doesn’t believe it either), soon discovers where Melander is hiding out and what he’s up to. Even with his atrocious Texas accent, he soon comes up with a plan but he has to dodge a hitman that Danzinger has sent after him and Leslie’s well-meaning interference. He’ll have to beat some pretty stiff odds to get away with this job.

This is based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the Parker series by Richard Stark which is the nom de plume of the late Donald E. Westlake, one of the most respected and honored crime novelists of the 20th century. This was meant to be the ground zero of a Parker franchise, but given the anemic box office and quite frankly the lackluster quality of the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Hackford might not have been the best choice for the director’s chair. While he’s a veteran helmer, he’s better known for movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Noir-ish action flicks, which is what this was supposed to be, are outside of his comfort zone and it shows – the action sequences have almost no life to them and are filmed kind of statically. In fact, the movie is kind of oddly lacking in kinetic energy.

It’s not Statham’s fault. He actually makes a pretty good Parker given the taciturn nature of the character in the books. Parker is meant to kick ass and take names….well, he doesn’t really care about the names so much but Statham inhabits the role well. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Lopez has never really been my cup of tea although I thought she showed amazing promise in Selena back in ’97 but she actually was pretty good here. There’s a scene in which she is reading an e-mail about her car being repossessed and her mom is giving her crap about some inconsequential thing and then she looks up at her mom and you can see in her expression all the pain, the stress and the worry that has brought her to her breaking point. The look is so poignant her mother puts a hand on her shoulder, unsure what to do (inside you’re screaming Hug her you idiot!) but at last her mom walks away and Leslie hides her face in her hands. It’s some really affective acting and tells me that if Lopez could just stay away from the pop star diva thing she’s done she can be a really great serious actress.

The Palm Springs locations are actually quite nice as we see gorgeous home after gorgeous home. Yes, the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Makes me want to punch someone in a Giorgio Armani suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Or at least give them the evil eye.

I would have liked to see a movie with a little more grit, a little less glitz and a lot more spice. For a movie looking to establish a franchise beachhead there isn’t a lot of bang for your buck. It’s basically a mediocre action film with poorly written logical lapses – if you were going to buy a home in which you were going to lay low with tens of millions of stolen jewels, wouldn’t you at least consider some sort of home security system? – that with a little more care and a director more suited to this sort of film might have been the right step towards a profitable action franchise. As it is it’s back to the drawing board.

REASONS TO GO: Statham actually makes a pretty nifty Parker. Gorgeous Palm Beach location. Lopez ain’t half bad here.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything to the mix. Lacks spice.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. A surprisingly small amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the fifth film to be based on a Parker novel, it is the first in which the character’s name is actually used.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100; the reviews are mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Mr. Popper’s Penguins


Mr. Popper's Penguins

Jim Carrey gets jiggy with a bunch of flightless waterfowl.

(2011) Family (20th Century Fox) Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Philip Baker Hall, Clark Gregg, David Krumholz, Angela Lansbury, Ophelia Lovibond, Andrew Stewart-Jones, James Tupper, Madeline Carroll, Jeffrey Tambor, Dominic Chianese, Maxwell Perry Cotton. Directed by Mark Waters

 

Let’s face it, penguins are hot in Tinseltown. With March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up, Happy Feet one and too and Farce of the Penguins all out there – not to mention the penguins in Madagascar and Earth, these Antarctic flightless fowl have been regulars on multiplex screens for years.

So it seems pretty natural that this 1938 award-winning children’s novel would be the basis of a feature film. Seems like a slam dunk, right? Well, if you loved the book be prepared for a few changes here and there.

Thomas Popper Jr. (Carrey) is a divorced real estate executive who specializes in the art of the deal. He can cajole nearly anyone to part with their New York City landmark so that the greedy company he works for can make obscene profits, pleasing bosses Franklin (Hall) and Reader (Chianese) who keep finding one excuse or another to keep Popper from a full partnership.

Popper’s assistant Pippi (Lovibond), who speaks sentences peppered with Peas…that is, words that start with the letter P, is invaluable, making sure he attends society functions on time and tries to keep him on track with his kid visits.

Popper’s ex Amanda (Gugino) gets on well with him, although she is dating Kent (Krumholz), a naturalist whom the kids are kind of ambivalent towards. Their feelings towards Dad, however, are very clear – they hate him, particularly teen daughter Janie (Carroll) but son Billy (Cotton) feels let down by his dad who makes all sorts of promises that aren’t kept. In fact, Popper’s absence from his children’s lives mirrors that of his own father, an adventure-seeker who was always in exotic locations but rarely home; he mostly communicated with his son by ham radio.

Popper is well on his way to repeating his dad’s mistakes. However, his dad passes away, leaving a souvenir from his adventures in his will. This turns out to be a Gentoo penguin. NOT what he had in mind. He needs to get rid of the penguin –  his building association has a strict no pets rule. After a number of fruitless attempts to have the penguin taken away, he finally contacts the New York Zoo to take the furry friend – which has gone from being one penguin to six thanks to an error in communication (yes, another crate shows up at his door). Six penguins, I can tell you, are NOT really a good fit for an upscale Manhattan penthouse apartment and he’s forced to bribe the security guard not to tell the association that he was violating the no pet rule.

Because now, instead of wanting to get rid of them, Popper wants to keep them. It seems his kids love the penguins – Billy has mistaken them for his birthday present which his Dad had forgotten to buy despite Pippi’s reminders. Popper desperately wants to find a way to connect to his kids – to be a Dad again. The penguins might just be his bridge.

In the meantime, Popper is charged with getting Mrs. Van Gundy (Lansbury), the prickly owner of the Tavern on the Green, to sell to his rapacious bosses who are eager to put some condos on this prime Central Park property. She however is very finicky over who she wants to sell to; she wants someone with the right soul to take it. Popper of course isn’t possessed of this trait, so he tries to fake it which Mrs. Van Gundy can spot a mile away. Now Popper’s job depends on him convincing Mrs. Van Gundy to sell. The penguins have laid eggs, the zookeeper at the New York Zoo – Nat Jones (Gregg) – is trying to get those penguins by hook or by crook. And his apartment is a mess. Things just don’t look good for a realtor with Daddy issues in those circumstances.

On the plus side, the filmmakers used actual Gentoo penguins for the film, creating CGI versions of the birds when stunts were needed. This is some of the best CGI work I’ve seen recently – it’s completely seamless and very difficult to tell which scenes are with actual penguins and which ones only exist on a computer hard drive.

The movie is based on the beloved children’s book written by Richard and Florence Atwater back in 1938. In fact, I’d say loosely based in that the main character’s name is Popper and there are penguins involved (twelve in the book, six here). It’s safe to say that there are a lot of changes here to make the movie seem a bit more modern than the book which is a bit weird because I always thought that it was pretty timeless, although truth be told I haven’t read it since I was a young boy and borrowed it from the library. Yeah, we read back then. Reading was our generation’s videogames.

I’ve said in other reviews that I have never really been a big Jim Carrey fan. He’s done some movies that I have really liked, but a lot of them simply haven’t grabbed me. Here, he suffers from Eddie Murphy syndrome; his more raunchy side is submerged while he does a family movie. His mugging and occasionally over-the-top persona left me, ahem, cold. And don’t kid yourself, Mr. Popper appears in the title ahead of the penguins for a reason – this is Carrey’s movie all the way and the success that it had unfortunately indicates that we’re going to be seeing more family movies along these lines from Mr. Carrey.

It was nice, however, to see Angela Lansbury onscreen again. The veteran actress doesn’t do many roles these days but I imagine making a movie of this particular book appealed to her. Clark Gregg, the dry-witted agent Coulson from the Marvel movies, also does a villainous turn here.

But the kids are annoying, poor Carla Gugino who is normally an outstanding actress is victimized by a hideous haircut that makes her look like Fran Drescher which only looks good on Fran Drescher. There are few jokes that worked for my adult brain and there’s a reliance on penguin poo that borders on the epic. If you like poop and fart jokes this is the movie for you. If you’re like me, the best joke occurs during the end credits with the disclaimer “No penguins were harmed during the making of this film. Jim Carrey, on the other hand, was bitten mercilessly. But he had it coming.” On that, I can agree.

I might have been harsher on this movie than perhaps it warranted, but I think a book as wonderful as “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” deserved a better movie and certainly a less crass one. It is symptomatic that the Tavern on the Green, which much of the film’s dramatic content revolves around, closed two years before the movie opened, quite possibly in order not to be around when the movie opened. I remember the book with a great deal of fondness. The movie I won’t remember at all.

WHY RENT THIS: The penguins are cute. Angela Lansbury makes a rare screen appearance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Carrey overacts relentlessly. Charmless, humorless and way too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  It surprised me but there were actually a few inappropriate words in the movie, and a bit of rude humor which was less of a surprise.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carrey wears a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey during the hockey sequence. The team’s mascot, Iceburgh, attended the film’s gala premiere. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel and an animated short, “Stinky and Nimrod’s Antarctic Adventure,” are among the highlights. The first two chapters of the book are narrated in a separate feature. The Blu-Ray adds a featurette on real Gentoo penguins (the kind used in the film) and their habitat.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $187.4M on a $55M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zookeeper

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Henry’s Crime

Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies