The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

Jim Carrey is smirking because Steve Carell is signing a blank check; Steve Buscemi has his doubts that this is at all legal.

(2013) Comedy (New Line) Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, David Copperfield, Michael Bully Herbig, Mason Cook, Luke Vanek, Zachary Gordon, Fiona Hale, Joshua Chandler Erenberg, Gillian Jacobs. Directed by Don Scardino

Everyone loves a magician and why not? Their jobs are to instill wonder and mystery in our lives which are mostly lacking in both. And the modern Mecca for magicians is the glory that is the Las Vegas Strip. It is what most magicians aspire to – a long-running show at a major Casino and yet that can be a trap as well.

Burt Wonderstone (Carell) is a Vegas institution. His long-running show at the Aztec casino with partner Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) has run for a decade to packed houses and acclaim galore and to think it all started when he was a kid whose mom gave him a birthday present of a magic kit from renowned Vegas magician Rance Holloway (Arkin).

But times are changing. Burt and Anton’s “magical friendship” has degenerated into mutual loathing. Burt’s ego is bigger than all of the Strip casinos combined and Anton is tired of being treated like a flunky. Their latest assistant Jane (Wilde), whom Burt calls “Nicole” as he does every stage assistant has dreams of her own but Burt thinks of her as disposable eye candy who’s more interested in sleeping with him (which she isn’t). Most importantly, Burt and Anton are playing to half full houses, a fact not lost on casino boss Doug Munny (Gandolfini).

Also not lost on Doug is that there is a street magician named Steve Gray (Carrey) who has a TV show (“Brain Rape”) and far more credibility. He is the self-professed “future of marriage” who sleeps on hot coals, hold his urine for a week or does a card trick in which he pulls the card through a self-inflicted wound on his face. Burt and Anton try a stunt of their own which doesn’t go very well.

This turns out to be the final straw for Anton who quits the act as does Jane. Burt tries to do the act solo but this turns out to be a hideous disaster. It also nets him a pink slip. Reduced to playing big box stores to extol paper towels that make “stains disappear” and in retirement homes (where he meets a now-wizened Rance Holloway), Burt begins to discover what he lost in the big Vegas theater – the wonder and joy of magic. With Jane and Anton behind him, he begins to put together a trick so amazing, so spectacular that nobody’s even thought of it before. But can they pull it off or will their comeback be derailed before it starts?

I will admit to a certain amount of fondness for magic acts and so this was right in my comfort zone. It’s kind of ironic to see Carrey and Carell in this together; some might recall from Bruce Almighty that Carrey was the lead and Carell the scene-stealing support act. Now their roles are reversed. Carrey does some of his best work of his career as the megalomaniacal Steve Gray. Carrey is manic but not so over-the-top that it degenerates into mugging, one of Carrey’s signature sins. Here he channels Criss Angel and David Blaine in equal parts and throws in some Bugs Bunny for good measure. He is fun every moment he’s onscreen.

Carell is a solid performer who can carry a movie on his shoulders but considering the ample support he gets here he can be a little bit more laid back and less forced. He gets a little bit too laidback though and the character disappears at times (which is a neat trick in a movie about magicians). Arkin is as reliable an actor as there is right now and the recently Oscar-nominated Arkin again is amazing.

The movie is sweet to the core and you’ll leave the theater with the warm fuzzies. This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to bring you any particular insight, nor will it stick with you too long after the credits roll. But it will most likely leave you feeling better coming out than you did going in and that’s a kind of magic all of it’s own.

REASONS TO GO: Sweet natured and inoffensive. Some of Carrey’s best work in recent years.

REASONS TO STAY: Needs more wonder and less muddle. Predictable plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a bunch of dangerous stunts performed here that shouldn’t be tried at home under any circumstances (keeping in mind that most of them are accomplished here by special effects anyway). There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some drug usage and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the Burt Wonderstone character was originally Burt Dickinson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wedding Singer

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Gatekeepers

56 Up


Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

(2012) Documentary (First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker. Directed by Michael Apted and Paul Almond (archival footage)

In 1964, director Paul Almond along with a young researcher named Michael Apted who went on to a successful directing career interviewed fourteen 7-year-old children from around England (mostly the London area) from differing social circumstances. The interviews consisted of the hopes and dreams of the children; what they thought their lives would turn out to be. The television show that resulted in these interviews became a wild success in British and was made a feature film that received a great deal of acclaim here in the United States.

Every seven years since then Apted would return to chat with the fourteen subjects (Peter Davies dropped out after 28 Up in 1985 but returns in time for the newest installment, ostensibly to promote his band the Good Intentions and Charles Furneaux dropped out of the series after 21 Up in 1978 to pursue his own documentary career). Remarkably, all 14 have reached middle age with varying degrees of comfort.

The initial series was supposed to be a commentary on the British class system. What it has become is something else entirely. It has become much more of a personal study, looking at the individuals and how their lives have progressed.

Few lives have been as poignant as that of Neil Hughes. He has skirted on the edge of society, on occasions being homeless. There are certainly demons there; he is asked point blank about his sanity and reflects that he has received some sort of therapy although he doesn’t elaborate. He often seems melancholy, as if disappointed by his own experiences and in where his life has gone. None who saw the ebullient young Neil in Seven Up! and Seven plus Seven Up would have predicted this. In 56 Up he is on a town public works council in Cambria (he seems to prefer Britain’s north) and has become an Anglican canon where he gets to do just about everything a priest does. While he doesn’t seem completely satisfied with his life, he at least seems to be more sanguine than he’s been in recent years.

It is hard to ignore the incidence of divorce in the lives of these kids. While some have been blessed with long marriages (some rocky – Tony Walker dealt with his own infidelity but he and his wife managed to work things out without divorcing) five of the kids have been divorced at least once with one having never married (Neil).

Their lives have turned out quite a bit differently than they would have predicted I think. At 56 the gaze is turning more to the past than the future; ahead lies retirement and grandchildren (some of them are already enjoying the latter) and at this time of life one becomes more or less resigned if not content with one’s position in life or at the very least accepting of it.

These movies are a bit of a mixed blessing. They are fascinating on the one hand to see the progression of life from youth to middle age but these are mere snapshots. It’s like taking a Polaroid of a life and extrapolating from it. As Nick Hitchon, now teaching electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin says that this “is not an absolutely accurate picture (of me) but it’s the picture of somebody and that’s the value of it.”

It is not for me to judge a life and in some ways we are forced to do just that in viewing this. We become as voyeurs, making opinions of these lives and passing judgment on those who have lived them and while that’s inevitable, it’s also something to be resisted. Keep in mind that we are seeing these people through interviews that last approximately six hours out of seven years. We really aren’t getting to know them as people, just the surface facts. And for some of them, it is more compelling than it is for others.

This is a fairly long movie (about two hours) and it can be tedious in places. There is certainly a value to these movies – this was reality television before there was reality television – but it isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. If all you want out of a movie is to be taken out of your own life and transported to more exciting and wonderful places, this isn’t going to do much for you. But those who look to find insight into their own lives by seeing the lives of others will find much value here.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating, particularly if you’ve been following the series for 49 years.

REASONS TO STAY: Not every life is interesting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of foul language but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The series began on British television and continues there to this day; it is in the United States that a compilation has been released as a feature film for almost every installment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; the documentary got outstanding reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 49 Up

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack the Giant Slayer

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

The Infidel


The Infidel

Omed Djalili spontaneously breaks out into a rendition of "If I Were a Rich Man."

(2010) Comedy (Tribeca) Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Igal Naor, Mina Anwar, Amit Shah, Soraya Radford, Miranda Hart, Matt Lucas, James Floyd, Leah Fatania, Ravin Ganatra, Bhasker Patel, Michele Austin, Rod Silvers. Directed by Josh Appignanesi

The variety and scope of cultural diversity among humans is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it gives us so many different viewpoints about the human condition; a curse in that it divides us more than unites us, causes suspicion and violence. Nowhere is that more true than in the middle east.

In that case, it is religion that divides – Muslim and Jew. Each suspicious of the other, each determined to protect themselves in the name of their religion, meaning that if the other one dies, so be it.

Mahmud Nasir (Djalili) is a Muslim living in London. He’s not one of the fundamentalist sorts, but more of a loose, moderate sort – he doesn’t always follow the ways of the Koran to the letter in other words. His son Rashid (Shah) is in love with Uzma (Radford) whose mother has just married Arshad El-Masri (Naor), a fundamentalist fireball whose politics Mahmud doesn’t particularly agree with. He’d much rather watch old videos of the deceased ’80s pop legend Gary Page (Floyd) but since his son needs him to be an ultra-Muslim to impress his prospective father-in-law, Mahmud is willing to do it.

Then, while cleaning out his late mother’s house, he finds some disturbing news. It turns out his mother wasn’t his birth mother – he was adopted. Some digging results in further distress – it turns out that Mahmud was born to a Jewish family and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz.  I think finding out your name is Solly Shimshillewitz might be distressing to anyone.

A little bit ashamed and scared of what it would mean if his family found out, Mahmud at first hides his newfound background but curious about his heritage, he seeks a neighbor, an American Jewish cabdriver named Lenny (Schiff) to find out more about his Jewishness. Lenny teaches him a few things, like how to say “Oy vay!” and how to dance like Topol. I’m sure the JDL didn’t have any objections to any of those stereotypes.

In the meantime he gets caught up in trying to hide his new identity from his family and friends and to hide his old identity from his new friends. When he gets caught out as you know he has to, he stands to lose everything – including his identity.

This British film has gotten a fair amount of praise in both critical and film festival circles, although it got only a cursory release here in the States. One has to give the filmmakers props for tackling such a sensitive, hot-button issue in the way that they did.

However, good intentions aside, not everything works here. Some of the jokes are simply put, not that funny. The ending, which is a bit out of left field, weakens the movie overall and was a bit of a disappointment. However, the movie works a very good percentage of the time.

Djalili is best known to American audiences as the prison warden in The Mummy (who meets a pretty nasty end) but is better known in Britain as a stand-up comic (he performed for “Comic Relief” in 2004) and his act often contains bits about his life as an Anglo-Iranian, growing up in a Persian household in Britain. He is certainly well-suited for the role and is thoroughly likable in it.

It’s not a bad movie, but it isn’t as good as it might have been either. It’s got enough laughs to make it worth your while, but not enough to inspire a more than cursory search for it. It’s one of those in-between movies that has merit enough to recommend it, but not enough to really praise it. If you have the opportunity to see it, by all means do. I just wouldn’t make a lot of effort to seek it out.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting insights about cultural differences. Very funny when it works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the humor is a bit broad and the ending is a little bit false.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few F bombs but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While BBC Films helped develop the script, they withdrew from further involvement after the Andrew Sachs/Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross scandal made the Beeb somewhat sensitive to any material that might be even a little offensive.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and what the filmmakers call “bonus jokes” which are essentially deleted scenes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information unavailable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: New Year’s Eve

That Evening Sun


That Evening Sun

Despite first impressions this is NOT an outtake from Lolita

(2009) Drama (Freestyle) Hal Holbrook, Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, Mia Wasikowska, Carrie Preston, Barry Corbin, Dixie Carter, Barlow Jacobs, Anthony Reynolds, Brian Keith, Bruce McKinnon, William J. Mode, Jacob Parkhurst. Directed by Scott Teems

There isn’t always a reason why we hate other people. Developing a strong dislike might come out of having been wronged, or perceiving that we’ve been wronged. Sometimes it’s just instinctive, bad chemistry if you will. Other times, it’s because we see the worst aspects of ourselves, the ones we don’t like to face, in that other person.

Abner  Meecham (Holbrook) is a crusty 80-something old cuss who decides to check himself out of the retirement home his feckless lawyer son Paul (Goggins) has placed him in and sets off back home to his farm in rural Tennessee.

Except it isn’t his anymore. His son has rented out the farmhouse to the Choat family, whose patriarch Lonzo (R, McKinnon) is not exactly on Abner’s Christmas list. In fact, the two men have an apparent history of intense dislike. Abner isn’t about to go crawling back to the home on hands and knees and decides to occupy an old tenant farmer shack on the property.

The other Choats, long-suffering wife Ludie (Preston) and friendly daughter Pamela (Wasikowska) are welcoming but Lonzo and Abner are pretty much like oil and gasoline. When Pamela mentions that Lonzo hates barking dogs, Abner persuades neighbor and friend Thurl Chessor (Corbin) to part with his loudest and most howl-prone dog that he owns. Abner takes great satisfaction in watching the noise driving Lonzo crazy.

It doesn’t take much to set them off and when Pamela returns from a date with a boy Lonzo doesn’t approve of, he beats her with a garden hose, turning on Ludie when she attempts to defend her daughter. Abner stops the abuse by shooting his pistol off. He calls the police on Lonzo and Ludie is furious that she has to bail her husband out of jail when they clearly not afford it.

When Lonzo returns home, things take a turn for the ugly. Stubborn old man takes on stubborn young man and the stakes grow progressively higher. Where will this escalating feud end?

Some will be reminded of the works of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Certainly there are elements of Southern gothic here, although writer/director Teems doesn’t have the flair for dialogue that either of those great Southern writers possessed – of course, very few writers do.

The name of Hal Holbrook might not mean much to younger readers (although he did garner an Oscar nomination a few years back for Into the Wild) but older readers will know him for being one of America’s most authentic actors over the past 50 years. Now well over 80 himself, this is a role he is well-suited for. It isn’t his best performance ever (he is best known for his stage work in one-man shows about Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln) but it’s right up there.

Like many plays and stories set in the Deep South, there is a certain languor that comes from the sound of cicadas and hot breezes that permeates the film. That pace might be intolerable for those used to having their film action served up at warp speed. Things unfold here rather than occur; the feeling winds up being more organic than forced, but it takes a bit of patience to get from start to finish.

Sometimes I’m in a mood to let a story just wash over me, and this one certainly does the trick. Having the great Hal Holbrook in the cast is a gigantic plus and although most of the rest of the cast (including the very talented Mia Wasikowska in a Lolita-esque role) doesn’t stand up to Holbrook’s performance, nobody disgraces themselves either. I would have preferred to see a bit more on the backstory of Lonzo and a bit more of Abner’s relationship with his wife (Carter) but even so there is plenty here to interest even the casual moviegoer.

WHY RENT THIS: Holbrook is one of America’s greatest actors and any chance to see him is worth taking.  Fans of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams might get a kick out of this.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow moving and a bit on the Southern gothic side.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of bad language, a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of violence and some mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Dixie Carter’s final film appearance. Ironically she plays Holbrook’s deceased wife here; in real life, she was married to Holbrook.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $281,350 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killer Elite

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee


Keanu Reeves pretends to listen to what Robin Wright Penn is saying.

(2009) Dramedy (Screen Media) Robin Wright Penn, Keanu Reeves, Alan Arkin, Blake Lively, Maria Bello, Monica Bellucci, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Mike Binder, Zoe Kazan, Ryan McDonald. Directed by Rebecca Miller

What lies beneath the veneer of a pleasant suburban life isn’t always what you think it might be. A Martha Stewart-perfect housewife may have a sordid past; indeed, so may we all.

Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) appears to be that perfect wife and mother. She is an impressive cook, has raised two adult children and keeps her home immaculate. She is married to Herb (Arkin), a semi-retired publishing magnate who lives life with perhaps more gusto than he should; after all, he’s pushing 80. The two have moved to an upscale Connecticut retirement home even though Pippa is far from retirement age.

While friend Sam Shapiro (Binder) toasts her as an enigma in a complimentary way, Pippa doesn’t find it to be  a compliment. She’d rather be known, as she says on the voiceover. An enigma can be relegated, set aside, ignored, taken for granted. In many ways, Pippa is all of those things. In many ways, she chose those as a refuge from a life that was a little bit more wild once upon a time.

Her life has never been an easy one. She grew up (portrayed by Lively as the young Pippa) in a home dominated by her drug-addicted mom Suky (Bello) and eventually escaped her psychotic mom’s embraces to go live with her kind-hearted lesbian aunt – at least until her aunt’s girlfriend (Moore), a photographer who specializes in lesbian sadomasochistic pornography, decides to have Pippa pose for a few shots.

Pippa goes on to live on the fringes of society in the places where young women indulge in drug use and random sex. She would seem to be headed on the same self-destructive path of her mother had it not been for a chance encounter with Herb at a party, even though Herb is married to a frightfully high-strung European named Gigi (Belluci). Herb and Pippa begin an affair that leads Herb to ask for a divorce, which leads to a rather shocking denouement.

In the present, she is placed in a position that gives her far too much free time to consider what she’s given up for this comfortable life. She confides in a neighbor (Ryder) who goes on strange but amusing crying jags and begins a romantic flirtation with Chris (Reeves), the honest-to-a-fault son of another neighbor (Knight) who is going through a shiftless phase at the moment (Chris, not his mom). That seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Pippa – until her entire world is shattered.

Miller directed this from a novel that she herself wrote. She has shown in some of her previous films (Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) a keen eye for the female viewpoint and for women’s issues in general. Not that this is an issue film as such – while Pippa does have issues, they aren’t any that would get a charity fund. It’s more of a character study.

Wright Penn, who after the filming of this movie divorced Sean Penn and dropped the Penn from her name, gives one of her more compelling performances, which is saying something considering some of the roles she’s assayed over the past 20 years. I believe her to be the best actress working who’s never been nominated for an Oscar; I suspect had this movie gotten distribution from a bigger studio, she might just have given up that dubious distinction.

When you consider the impressive cast behind her (who all do a terrific job by the way) it’s a wonder that a major (or at least a midsize studio) didn’t pick this up, but perhaps they might have had some of the same qualms about the movie I did. I found that the flashbacks were a bit jarring in places, giving the movie a kind of choppy feel. The flow between Pippa’s previous lives and her present one never feels organic, making the movie feel oddly unsatisfying.

I will give Miller props for not taking the easy path with this and degenerating into schmaltz and treacle. This isn’t soap opera fare to say the least; while you may feel sorry for Pippa, you never for a moment get the impression she feels sorry for herself. I believe this is meant to be a look at the complexities of a specific woman and point out that even the most accomplished and apparently successful people didn’t get there without cost. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for the lives they lead; Miller, who is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, undoubtedly knows that better than most.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright gives a splendid performance and gets some real support from a fine cast. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is disjointed at times and the flow can be a bit rough. Some of the movie’s raw emotional scenes left me unmoved.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a decent amount of sexual situations including some brief nudity. There’s also a scene of drug use and some coarse language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Julianne Moore spent only two days filming her part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Entertainment journalists lob up some softball questions in what appears to be footage from a press junket.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.7M on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: TRON: Legacy

Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)


Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon