A Bag of Hammers


A Bag of Hammers(2011) Dramedy (MPI) Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Josh Cooke, Micah Hauptman, Barbara Rossmeisl, Devika Parikh, Greg Clark, Ricardo Chacon, Dale Waddington Horowitz, Jordan Green, Sally Kirkland, Elmarie Wendel. Directed by Brian Crano

Responsibility for a lot of people is a four-letter word. While it’s true there are few who eagerly go out looking for it, most of us are able to accept it when it comes time. However there are those who flee it at every available opportunity.

Ben (Ritter) and Alan (Sandvig) are really good friends and why shouldn’t they be? They have a great deal in common. For one thing, neither one is particularly interested in growing up. Neither of them are out to make a conventional living and for the most part, neither one cares what the rest of the world thinks one way or the other.

They make a living with a scam in which they set up a valet parking stand at funerals. Someone gives them their keys, they give the bereaved a ticket, drive off with their car…and keep going. The bereaved will have something else to mourn.

Mel (Hall), Alan’s sister, works as a waitress and nags them both to find a respectable occupation but neither one is ready to. They’re having too much fun. Then Lynette (Preston) moves into their neighborhood along with her son Kelsey (Canterbury). Kelsey takes a liking to the boys and they to him. He begins to accompany them on their scams and actually turns out to be pretty helpful.

When a sudden tragedy forces the boys to take stock, they begin to see the world as finally not revolving around their immediate gratification. In short, they grow up fast. But is it too late for them and more importantly, for Kelsey?

In many ways this is a coming-of-age indie comedy although it is also in many ways a forced-to-face-responsibility indie drama. It blends both of those chestnuts together into a kind of hybrid which, even if it isn’t exactly fresh is at least diverting.

Ritter and Sandvig play their roles like they’d been acting together since childhood. They have an easy banter that goes beyond the occasionally very witty one-liners they’re given to work with. They have that ability to anticipate each other in an organic way so it at least seems like people who are familiar with each other doing the give and take thing. You know, like real people actually conversing.

The dialogue also for the most part impresses. So often in indie films the screenwriters sacrifice authenticity for hipness, which might appeal to the horn-rim glasses-wearing PBR-drinking bearded guy crowd but few others. Here yeah there is a certain patina of smug hipness but there is also at least some reasonably genuine emotional content too.

This is more of a pleasant diversion than it is a deep-thinking exploration of The Way Things Are, but there’s much to be said for the former. It won’t challenge you overly much but it will draw you in if you’re anything like me. I liked the vibe here and it was a place I wanted to stay in after the movie ended. You can’t ask for more than that from any film.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Ritter and Sandvig. Well-written dialogue.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seen it before kind of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, adult themes and disturbing parenting techniques.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Simmons, who plays Kelsey at age 18, is the same age as Jake Sandvig who plays his adoptive father.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: To Be Takei

The Lie (2011)


Your sins will find you out.

Your sins will find you out.

(2011) Drama (Screen Media) Joshua Leonard, Jess Wexler, Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat, Kelli Garner, James Ransone, Jane Adams, Kirk Baltz, Gerry Bednob, Matthew Newton, Holly Woodlawn, Tipper Newton, Kandice Melonakos, Germaine Mozel Sims, Michael McColl, Gwyn Fawcett. Directed by Joshua Leonard

I was once told as a young man by a mentor that being young was easy; everything is simple – black or white, right or wrong, bad or good. There is no middle ground in youth, he told me, no grey areas. Accountability and responsibility are notions that don’t apply to the young. Sooner or later however, we all have to grow up whether we want to or not.

Lonnie (Leonard) is reaching a crossroads in his life. He and his wife Clover (Wexler) have just had a baby and their life of activism and living by their own rules has been turned on its ear as their idealism collides with the realities of raising a baby – particularly in regards to the expense. Clover is considering a job at a pharmaceutical company that as far as Lonnie is concerned is the anti-Christ but whose benefits will make the job of raising their new addition feasible.

But Lonnie, stuck in a job he hates, isn’t on board with this. He’s a hippie in an age of consumerism and in a different age would have found a commune to hang out in with his family. Lonnie is in a crisis and he needs a day off to clear his head, so he just tells his overbearing boss (Bednob) that his baby is sick. Lonnie, now free of any responsibility, gets hammered with his best friend Tank (Webber), smokes a lot of weed and records some really bad rock and roll in Tank’s trailer.

It turns out so well that Lonnie takes another day and another day and another – until he can’t use that fib anymore so in a fit of panic he blurts out that the baby died. Suddenly the little white lie isn’t so white and isn’t so little anymore. This is one he can’t walk away from and one that sooner or later he’ll have to face the consequences for.

Based on a short story by T.C. Boyle, the movie ostensibly debates the question of whether it is okay to compromise one’s principles in order to survive, although that really isn’t it at all. It’s a question of whether one’s responsibility to family outweighs a lifestyle choice.

Leonard, whom most will remember from The Blair Witch Project, is generally a fairly charming onscreen personality and there are elements of that here too, but one wonders about the underlying story going on with the character. Lonnie talks a good game about discovering who he is, but from his actions he appears to be a stoner and a slacker who just wants to get wasted and do whatever makes him feel good. In other words, a selfish prick.

Wexler, who was so delightful in Free Samples, is the polar opposite. She has a baby to consider and the realities of life in Southern California staring her in the face. She realizes that it is time to grow up and make sacrifices, which is why she considers a job at the Big Pharma company. Her moments to shine come towards the end of the movie when the truth inevitably comes out, but sadly, her character (who may go down in cinematic history as the most understanding woman ever) reacts in a way that is counterintuitive to who she seems to be all along.

Webber, as the stoner best friend, provides a lot of the comic relief but also a lot of the film’s center strangely enough. “Dude,” he tells Lonnie in a kind of ironic coda, “You’ve got to stop running away from shit.” Which is, of course, precisely what Lonnie does and the filmmakers seem to embrace that as a viable alternative to, you know, life.

I was once the age that Lonnie is and I will grant him that things are different now than they were then but FFS you’re a dad, you’ve got to man up and grow a pair. One of the things that disturbs me about what I see in the current generation is that there seems to be an unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good – that self-gratification is the be all and end all of existence. Now I am willing to concede that much of that is simply the flaw of youth and that it’s possible that experience and wisdom will counteract it but I don’t recall ever seeing this self-centeredness to this degree in any generation before. Wow, I sound like my own Dad, don’t I?

The point is that the movie seems to take the point of view that it is more important to be true to one’s own needs whether they are selfish or not than to be responsible for the life that one brings into this world and I simply can’t agree with that point of view – which is why I hate the ending so much because it hints that is precisely what the filmmakers think. Perhaps it is old-fashioned of me but I can’t recommend a movie that condones self-interest over responsibility. If you’re comfortable with that, you are more than welcome to seek this movie out and draw your own conclusions.

WHY RENT THIS: Examines the age old question of freedom vs. responsibility. Wexler and Webber are magnificent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t get behind a film that preaches accountability and celebrates that its lead character has none. The ending is absolutely mind-numbing.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s official website gives visitors an opportunity to confess about a lie they’ve told which has been taken up by a number of people including at least one cast member.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,000 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Be Good

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Good Heart

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax


 

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Introducing the Lorax.

(2012) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate, Nasim Perdad, Stephen Tobolowsky, Elmarie Wendel, Danny Cooksey, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

 

The world we live in is the only one we have. It is beautiful and full of life, a virtual paradise without any help from us. However, that world is also terribly fragile and if we succumb to greed and short-sightedness, we run the risk of losing it.

Thneedville upon first glance seems to be a great place to live. Everything is plastic, there are no living things anywhere save the people. Air is bottled for the most part; the mayor O’Hare (Riggle) has the air concession.

Ted (Efron) lives in this town and he doesn’t much care one way or the other. His attention is on Audrey (Swift) who he very much would like to get to know better. He contrives ways to get her attention – like crashing a radio-controlled plane into her yard. Once there, he sees that she’s painted some odd-looking things on the back of her house. She calls them “trees” and tells him that they used to be plentiful around there but nobody has seen one in years. She sighs and tells her that her fondest wish is to see a real live one – and that she would just about marry the man on the spot who could show her one.

That’s all the information that Ted needs. But where does one find a living tree in a place where there aren’t any? Ted’s granny (White) fortunately has the answer, one hastily whispered – the Once-Ler (Helms), who lies outside of town. Outside of town? Gulp! Nobody ever goes outside of town. But Ted is determined and so he goes.

The trip is perilous but at last he finds the Once-Ler’s lonely home in the wilderness of tree stumps and sunless barren desolation. The Once-Ler isn’t particularly interested in helping Ted out – he really wants to be left alone but at last he gives in and agrees to give Ted a tree – but first he must hear the story of how the trees went away.

You see, the Once-Ler is the one who is responsible for the disappearance of the trees. He had arrived in the area as an ambitious young man, looking to make his mark on the world with his own invention – the Thneed. However he needs raw materials to make his Thneeds and this place is perfect. It is filled with woodland creatures (mostly little bears and the occasional Sneetch) and smiling, singing fish – but most importantly, thousands upon thousands of beautiful truffula trees whose tut-like branches are softer than summer rain.

After chopping down a truffula tree to make his first Thneed, the Once-Ler is visited by the Lorax (DeVito), a mystical and slightly annoying (as the Once-Ler describes him) creature who is the advocate of the forest. He speaks for the trees, presumably since the trees have no mouths. And the Lorax warns of dire consequences if the Once-Ler continues on his path of destruction.

At first, the Once-Ler is spectacularly unsuccessful at selling his Thneed but pure happenstance demonstrates how useful the item is and suddenly everyone wants one. The Once-Ler promises the Lorax that he will use sustainable means of harvesting the truffula trees and the Lorax seems satisfied with that. The Once-Ler brings his family into the peaceful valley to help him ramp up his manufacturing operation. Instead, they convince him to clear-cut the forest to harvest more efficiently which he finally gives in to. The results are that the Once-Ler completely depletes the forest, he runs out of materials to make his Thneeds and his family deserts him. The Lorax takes the animals and goes, leaving behind a rock with the word “Unless” carved into it.

Can Ted stand up to the powers-that-be of Thneedville and bring back the trees and animals? Or are the inhabitants of Thneedville doomed to their plastic existence?

The Lorax has come under a lot of fire on both sides of the political fence. Conservatives decry its message which has been described as anti-capitalist and the indoctrination of children into super-liberal causes. Liberals have pointed out the hypocrisy of a film with a green message and over 70 product placements in the movie. The former is a crock; the message here is of acting responsibly and thinking globally rather than of short-term profit. There is nothing anti-capitalist about promoting responsibility. Those who think so have guilty consciences in my book.

The latter however is definitely an issue. It sends conflicting messages, to support environmental causes on the one hand and to embrace consumerism on the other. Now, I understand the economic realities of film making – these product placement help pay the bills – but couldn’t there have been other ways to get the sponsorship money?

The movie is otherwise fun and adheres to the spirit of Dr. Seuss. There are a trio of singing fish who act much as a Greek chorus, even if they aren’t always singing lyrics. They are, as the minions are in Despicable Me (whose animation studio produced the movie but the actual animation was done by the French Mac Guff Studios which Illumination recently purchased). They are sure to be big hits with both kids and adults alike.

DeVito makes an awesome Lorax, a little bit befuddled but possessed of great wisdom and love for the trees. He stands out most among the other voice actors who do their jobs pretty well, but are fairly innocuous compared to DeVito whose voice stands out anyway. We get the sense of who the Lorax is and the great pain he feels when the Once-Ler makes his wrong turn.

The animation itself is superb, keeping the distinctive Seussian style throughout. There are few straight lines (if any) in the movie and the bright colors will keep the littlest tykes happy, not to mention the cute little bears and the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in Thneedville.

There are those who complained about the message being preachy but given the state of our environment and climate, this is a message that needs to be preached because apparently the grown-ups haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps our kids will – and perhaps it won’t be too late when they get a chance to do something about it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and irreverent, holding close to the style of Dr. Seuss. Inspired vocal casting. A good message for kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Excessive product placement subverts admirable message. Lags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted and Audrey are named after Dr. Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) and his wife Audrey. This is also the first movie to feature Universal’s spiffy new 100th Anniversary logo and was released on what would have been the 108th birthday of Dr. Seuss.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away

THEME PARK LOVERS: There is a scene where the Once-Ler’s bed is put in a river and floats off and winds up running some rapids – looks like Universal’s got a new Seuss Landing attraction in mind for Islands of Adventure…

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Turning Green

Green Lantern


Green Lantern

Peter Sarsgaard discovers that a major supporting role in a franchise film can lead to a big head.

(2011) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Michael Clark Duncan, Geoffrey Rush, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, Jay O. Sanders, Temeura Morrison, Jon Tenney, Taika Waititi, Clancy Brown, Salome Jens, Warren Burton. Directed by Martin Campbell

The obvious and cheap line is that it isn’t easy being green. The Green Lantern is one of the most powerful figures in the DC comic book universe but never gets the respect or love of the heaviest hitters for the brand. In fact, none of the DC heroes other than Batman and Superman have found much success on the big screen, and this movie looked to finally get the DC brand on the same track that the Marvel brand has been on for more than a decade. Did it succeed?

Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is a cocky test pilot for Ferris Aviation. He has had an on-again, off-again (at the moment, off-again) romance with Carol Ferris (Lively), the daughter of CEO Carl Ferris (Sanders) and Not a Bad Pilot Herself. Jordan is a bit of a screw-up, one who has alienated his brothers (but not his nephew who idolizes him) and has just messed up a potentially lucrative government contract that has been ushered through by Senator Hammond (Robbins) by defeating some robotic drone aircraft that were thought to be unbeatable by violating the rules of engagement, a real no-no.

Meanwhile, out in the universe, the Guardians of Oa, a blue-skinned Yoda-like race, have created the Green Lantern Corps, a sort of cosmic Interpol. Each Green Lantern derives his power from the green light of willpower, which is channeled through their ring and allows them to convert thought to matter. They are given a sector of the universe to patrol.

One of their greatest warriors, Abin Sur (Morrison) once captured a being called ‘Parallax (Brown) who operates on the yellow power of fear. When Parallax is accidentally set free, he annihilates entire worlds in order to get at Abin Sur. The two battle and Abin Sur, mortally wounded, heads to the nearest planet – you guessed it, Earth – to pass on his ring to a worthy successor. Can you guess who the ring finds?

Jordan is summoned to Oa to train with Tomar-Re (Rush), a bird-like alien and Kilowog (Duncan) a hulking creature that looks like it eats Bigfoot for breakfast. However Sinestro (Strong) doesn’t hold out much hope that the human can overcome his own shortcomings to defeat Parallax who is on his way to wipe out Earth.

The reason Parallax – now kind of an octopus made up of brown smoke with a skull for a head – is making a bee-line for our world is that scientist Hector Hammond (Sarsgaard) has been infected with some of Parallax’s residual fear energy and has become something of a big-skulled big-brained villain who has the hots for Carol Ferris and a big time jealous rage over Hal.  

Hal on the other hand doesn’t think he’s up to the task. A Green Lantern should be fearless and Hal has a lot of fear, quite frankly – mostly of failure. As a child, he watched his dad die in a plane crash before his eyes. Ever since, he’s been trying to live up to the legacy of a father who knew no fear and was the epitome of a hero. Hal is going to have to channel that kind of inner hero if he is to save the Earth.

Director Campbell has plenty of experience with big budget franchise movies, having helmed two movies each of the James Bond and Zorro series. His job here is to introduce non-fans to the Green Lantern universe while at the same time not alienating the existing fan base of the hero.

He doesn’t quite succeed on either count. The backstory of the Green Lantern mythos is complex and doesn’t lend itself to easy summation. While he departs from comic book canon somewhat during the course of the film, it isn’t enough where he should be alienating the fans of the series much. The place where they have been kicking up a fuss is over the uniform of the Green Lantern, which is computer generated and to be quite honest, doesn’t look very realistic. This was a bit of a misfire.

Another was the casting of Reynolds, who is a very good actor with a flippant side. However, the elements that make Reynolds the near-perfect choice for Deadpool (a Marvel superhero who is due a movie of his own and appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) are the same reasons that make him wrong for Jordan, who was more of an archetypical hero in the comics – nearly fearless and somewhat more straightlaced. Most of the best stories about Jordan are the ones that put him in extreme emotional duress, such as the “Emerald Twilight” storyline. Here, he comes off as a reject from Top Gun and it feels like the wrong fit here.  

Lively can be an arresting actress but here she isn’t given much to do but be Goose to Reynolds’ Maverick. She is one of the more interesting characters in the Green Lantern universe and she’s certainly given short shrift here. If there are to be any sequels, hopefully her strength will take a front seat. Waititi, as techie Tom Kalmaku (also a character from the comics) at least makes an impression.

The planet Oa is impressively rendered, although it is terribly underlit which makes the 3D effects darker still and the movie look like it was filmed during a brown-out. Apparently it’s always the middle of the night on Oa.

This movie had insane potential and it really makes me sad to say that it doesn’t live up to it. However, don’t mistake that for a warning to stay away at all costs. Many of the mainstream reviewers who took a crack at the movie seemed to have a hard time with the backstory, deriding it as preposterous and juvenile. First of all, this is based on a comic book – not Shakespeare. There’s supposed to be an element of wonder to it. At times, Green Lantern achieves that. Unfortunately, not as much as it should have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s great to see a DC hero onscreen that isn’t Superman or Batman.

REASONS TO STAY: Reynolds is miscast. Some of the Oa sequences are too underlit, making the 3D additionally annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly intense scenes of action and violence in a sci-fi medium.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s plot is based on the comic book stories “Emerald Dawn” and “Secret Origins.” The song Hal and Carol dance to, the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me,” was released in 1959, the same year the comic book Jordan made his debut.

HOME OR THEATER: The outer space vistas of Oa need to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Just Wright