Ghost Team


Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

(2016) Horror Comedy (The Orchard) Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz, Amy Sedaris, Paul W. Downs, Tom Schiller, Joel Marsh Garland, Doug Drucker, Rob DeRosa, Martin Barabas, Clem McIntosh, Shane Velez, Vincenzo Vaccaro, Veronika Dash. Directed by Oliver Irving

 

For the most part, we’re all fascinated by the paranormal. Who doesn’t want to see proof of life after we pass on? The existence of ghosts certainly is one of those things that have fascinated us for centuries, and yet for the most part, ghosts still remain essentially mythical figures. That doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped searching for definitive proof of their existence.

Plenty of television programs have documented the search of paranormal investigation teams. One of the most well-known is Ghost Getters which copy store clerk Louis (Heder) watches religiously. When the team puts out the call for a new member, Louis is psyched to apply, but he wants to stand out – by conducting his own investigation.

It’s hard to do when one’s day is mostly spent printing Lost Dog fliers. However when a curmudgeonly old man looking to get some laminated No Trespassing signs printed up lets slip that the barn on his property is “probably haunted,” Louis realizes this is the break he’s been waiting for. He ropes in his sad-sack best friend Stan (Krumholtz) who was left at the altar and thinks the only explanation for it was that his bride-to-be was kidnapped by aliens. They need a computer whiz and happen to know one who works at Micro World, Zak (Downs). When a late night run to “borrow” some equipment from Micro World ends up in a confrontation with gung-ho security guard Ross (Long), the team has their security chief. They enlist phony baloney TV psychic Victoria (Sedaris) and to round out the team, Ellie (Diaz) who works as a beautician in the shop next door to Louis and whose job is to….well, crap, I’m not really sure.

The intrepid erstwhile paranormal investigators who have christened themselves the Ghost Team head out to the barn to conduct their audition but when they arrive, they realize they’ve stumbled onto something that they simply weren’t prepared for. Will the Ghost Team’s first case also be their last?

The field of paranormal investigation shows has been ripe for a comedy to be based on it (although some would say that the original Ghostbusters was kind of a preemptive strike in that general direction). Certainly the movie takes aim at shows like SyFy’s venerable Ghost Hunters, which the fictional Ghost Getters is essentially based on as are many other like-minded shows all over cable television.

But sadly, the movie devolves into a kind of live action Scooby Doo minus the talking dog although it does have a van not unlike the Mystery Machine. How it does that I will not tell you, but suffice to say that those who grew up on that show will undoubtedly make that connection. I don’t have an objection per se only that the tonal shift doesn’t work here; they needed a better transition.

Heder has always been a bit too laid-back for my taste as an actor but the more he moves away from his Napoleon Dynamite past the better I like him and this is certainly a step in that direction. Like most of the characters here, Louis isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he certainly means well and that’s the kind of thing that’s right in Heder’s wheelhouse. He gets some superb support from Sedaris as the fake psychic who can’t believe that anybody buys her particular brand of B.S. and Diaz as an atypical damsel in distress. Long is terribly miscast as a security guy who seems to be suffering from Roid Rage.

Inexplicably, the movie uses Gary Wright’s 70s synthpop hit “Dream Weaver” to almost annoying extent. It was one of my favorite songs growing up but let’s face it; it’s not the kind of song you need to hear more than once on any movie soundtrack. The most genuinely scary moment in the film is when the Ghost Team sings along to the music.

And therein lies the rub; for a horror film, there aren’t any scares; for a comedy there aren’t many laughs. It tries to be both and ends up being neither. Part of the problem is that the writer doesn’t appear to be sure just what he wants this movie to be and what it ends up feeling like is a bunch of zombies wandering around aimlessly, calling pathetically for brains and this is not a movie that has (or should have) a lot of them. All the right ingredients are here for a good little film, but sadly, it ends up tasting rather bland.

REASONS TO GO: A cross between Ghost Hunters and Scooby-Doo. Heder is at his most likable here.
REASONS TO STAY: Official overuse of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. It gets overly juvenile in places. The action sequences are unconvincing. There aren’t enough laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug material as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was available for streaming free on Google Play before it’s limited theatrical run. It will continue on Google until the end of August after which it will be available on other streaming sites.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team One
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Star Trek Beyond

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The Bounty Hunter


The Bounty Hunter

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are crusing the byways of New Jersey in a big blue whale.

(Columbia) Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, Jason Sudeikis, Dorian Missick, Joel Marsh Garland, Christine Baranski, Jeff Garlin, Cathy Moriarty, Richie Coster, Carol Kane, Tracy Thorne, Adam Rose, Siobhan Fallon Hogan. Directed by Andy Tennant

Sometimes life drops a gift into our laps. It could be an inheritance from a previously unknown relative, or a long-forgotten stock gift hitting paydirt. It can even be something far more simpler but much more satisfying.

Nicole Hurly (Aniston) is a reporter whose life is her job. She is investigating the apparent suicide of a police property clerk under suspicious circumstances. When a snitch calls her to set up a meeting with important evidence on the line, she blows off a bail hearing for a traffic crime to go to the meet.

Milo Boyd (Butler) used to be a police detective but he’s made a few career missteps so now he works for his friend Sid (Garlin) as a bounty hunter for bail skip-outs. When he receives the ticket for his ex-wife – you guessed it, Nicole Hurly – over the fourth of July weekend, he is more than jazzed. He is simply ecstatic.

While searching his ex-wife’s apartment, he runs into her love-struck co-worker Stewart (Sudeikis) who believes that he is having a torrid relationship with Nicole (which was in reality a single night of drunken making out). With his intimate knowledge of the client he heads over to Atlantic City where Nicole has also blown off lunch with her cabaret entertainer mom (Baranski) to go to the track and think. He collars her at the track and its clear that she despises him and vice versa.

Milo is also in debt to some bookies for a good deal of dough and Mama Irene (Moriarty) wants it collected. A couple of thugs are on the look-out for Milo, and there are some crooked cops who are after Nicole. Now half the state of New Jersey is looking for both of them and they can’t stand each other – but they’ll have to rely on each other to make it back to New York.

In years gone by this would have been a screwball comedy with Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant in the lead roles, with lots of snappy one-liners and clever dialogue. Today, it’s a formula romantic comedy that shows little imagination in anything other than the casting of the leads with attractive, bankable stars.

Director Andy Tennant has made movies like Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama, both light entertainments that are way better than this is. This is bloodless and by the numbers. Aniston and Butler are both solid actors who have made some good movies but this isn’t one of them. Butler, who was solid in last year’s The Ugly Truth, is in a similar man-slob role but unlike that movie doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities. The sweetness that was at the core of his character in that movie is completely missing here.

There’s some talent in the supporting roles, from Baranski as Nicole’s oversexed mom to the great Carol Kane as a bed and breakfast owner. For the most part though, it’s wasted with pointless slapstick bits and one-liners that are punchless and none too funny. It’s not a complete waste of time, but it isn’t anything to write home about either.

In fact, this is a completely formulaic movie that holds no surprises whatsoever. You know where the romance is going, and you know who the bad guys are the minute they show up onscreen. It’s a no-brainer for even the non-discerning audience.  

REASONS TO GO: Aniston and Butler are attractive leads.

REASONS TO STAY: A passionless, formulaic script with no surprises whatsoever.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and a little bit of violence and foul language but for the most part perfectly harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey; notices were posted throughout the track that those who didn’t want to be filmed should leave the premises.

HOME OR THEATER: No problem waiting for this to hit the home video market.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Repo Men

Where the Wild Things Are


Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

Even a Wild Thing needs a chilldown after a wild rumpus.

(Warner Brothers) Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini (voice), Catherine O’Hara (voice), Forrest Whitaker (voice), Lauren Ambrose (voice), Chris Cooper (voice), Mark Ruffalo, Paul Dano (voice), Pepita Emmerichs. Directed by Spike Jonze

In all of us there is a wild side. It is the side that defies authority, the part of us that breaks the rules and the part of us that acts out when we don’t get what we want. It is the part in us that is closest to the child in us, so it is no surprise that children are more cognizant of their wild thing than we are.

Max (Records) is a young boy being raised by a single mother (Keener) who is too busy working to have the time for him he would like her to have. He doesn’t have many friends, and his sister (Emmerichs) is older, moving into teenager things and having even less time than his mom does.

He has a vivid imagination, turning a snowdrift into an igloo and old toilet paper dispensers into fantastic skyscrapers. However, he has had difficulty adjusting to a life without his dad and when his mom starts dating a new boyfriend (Ruffalo) he has a nuclear meltdown and runs away.

He finds a small boat and navigates it out to see. After a day and a night he arrives at a strange island with a rocky shoreline as dusk is falling. He is attracted by flickering torches and is startled to discover a group of strange, shaggy creatures, one of whom is in the process of destroying their huts. His name is Carol (Gandolfini) and he is distraught because one of their number has left the family. Max reveals himself and Carol takes to him immediately as a kindred spirit.

Not all the others are so welcoming. Judith (O’Hara) is described as a bit of a downer, and that’s accurate enough – she is suspicious of Max and wants to eat him. However, when Max reveals himself to be a king in his own country, the others (even Judith) relents and accept Max as their new king, the Wild Things being without a king at the time. Max declares a wild rumpus and the commotion attracts the attention of KW (Ambrose) who also instantly takes a liking to Max. Max, for his part, has found the family he’s always wanted.

That family also includes Ira (Whitaker), a gentle giant who is in love with Judith and is also nearly as fond of making holes in things; Douglas (Cooper), Carol’s best friend and right hand, Alexander (Dano) who is consistently ignored by the others and the Bull, who mostly communicates in grunts. Max decides to have them build a fort where only the things they want to have happen occur. He gets the idea when Carol shows him his secret spot on the island where he has built a model city out of twigs, complete with canals and figures of his family members.

At first building the fort gives them purpose but as time goes on Max begins to realize that being King of the Wild Things isn’t as easy as it first appeared and that his more aggressive nature was causing some of his new family pain.

There is no doubt that Spike Jonze has an incredible imagination, and he may well have been the perfect choice to bring the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak to life. Visually, this is very imaginative, unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. The faces of the Wild Things are amazing, CGI representations of the actors who are voicing them given a Wild Thing treatment. These CGI faces are then digitally inserted onto actors wearing oversized costumes, creating a natural movement that no computer could have replicated.

Records is a pretty decent actor as children go in a part that is not a typical kids part. For one thing, Max doesn’t have all the answers – in fact, he has far more questions than answers. He isn’t smarter than the grown-ups around him and he doesn’t save the day. Basically, he’s an unruly boy with emotional issues.

Therein lies my problem with the movie. Max is never accountable for his actions; when he bites his mother, she screams at him that he’s out of control and he screams back that it isn’t his fault. Well, whose fault is it then?

More egregiously, the movie diverges from the book on some key points. Now, while I’m usually fine about movies being different from the books they’re based on, one of the key elements of Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is that it all takes place inside Max’s room, literally inside his head. Here, the Wild Thing Island is literally an island that Max travels to.

The ending of the movie isn’t terribly realistic either. When Max arrives home after (presumably) running away for several days, his mother greets him with dinner and chocolate cake for desert. I don’t know about your mom but mine would have hugged me and then killed me had I run away like that.

This is such a visually arresting movie that it’s worth seeing just on that basis. There are some terrific performances, particularly from Gandolfini who captures the blustery Carol’s mood swings and inner pain. I do have a problem with the movie’s message, which seems to be that it is okay to give in to the Wild Thing inside and there will be no consequences, no repercussions. Lots of kids will be seeing this and get the message that acting out is ok, whether that’s the message the filmmakers (and Sendak) wanted to send or not.

We all have wild things inside of us. It is a part of us, as is the part that is responsible and caring for each other. The Wild Things tend to be the side of us that is selfish and undisciplined, necessary for our creative sides to come out but at the end of the day, merely a component of our psyches. Sendak always meant the Wild Things of his book to be elements of Max’ personality, and they are here as well; the important thing is that the Wild Things are not the Only Things. As for the movie, it’s flawed but I applaud the effort, the imagination and the visual sense. It’s certainly worth your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Jonze amazing visual sense makes this a treat for the imagination. It is, after all, the filmed version of one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie veers away from the book in some significant ways. Max is so troubled that at times it’s hard to watch him act out. There are almost no lessons in accountability and the ending is far more of a fantasy than the rest of the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of language and violence, as well as some kid-in-jeopardy scenes but all in all suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original songs in the movie were written and performed by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who was dating Jonze at the time of the production. They’ve since broken up.

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen on the big screen, no question.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness begins!

Capitalism: A Love Story


Michael Moore is sounding a call to arms but is anybody listening?

Michael Moore is sounding a call to arms but is anybody listening?

Overture) Michael Moore, Wallace Shawn, William Black, Marcy Kaptur, Elizabeth Warren, Baron Hill, Elijah Cummings, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Robert Powell, Sarah Palin, John McCain. Directed by Michael Moore

Shortly before the Presidential elections of 2008, the economy of America went through a meltdown. Greedy banks, whose regulatory agencies were hamstrung and de-clawed, had written mortgages that almost guaranteed that the homeowners would default. Even though the FBI had warned of an epidemic of fraudulent loans, nobody paid heed until it was far too late.

Filmmaker Michael Moore is often described as a gadfly, but here he is a crusader, going after the very heart of American wealth – the capitalist system. He skewers it mercilessly on the lance of logic and fact, showing indisputably how the system was set up to maximize the ability of the rich to increase their share of the wealth, and how those who should have been protecting the interests of average Americans were profiting by assisting those fat cats in pillaging our country.

20 years after Roger and Me, Moore again takes on the captains of industry but he has widened his scope. No longer confined to the misery of Flint, Michigan, he shows how the elite of our banking and political institutions have conspired to turn the entire country into Flint. He shows hardworking families being forced to leave their homes because they can no longer afford to pay mortgages at the outrageous interest rates the banks were charging in their Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM).

He shows blue chip companies taking out life insurance policies on their workers so that they might profit should they die unexpectedly – without the knowledge of the families of those workers. He talks to congressmen who were bullied and railroaded into passing the bailout of the banks three weeks before they were up for re-election without giving them time to study the ramifications of these bailouts – and without knowing that the Treasury Secretary had inserted a clause that protected those banks from any sort of oversight or court challenge. That’s your tax dollars at work – paying the bonuses of executives at A.I.G. and Bank of America, and buying luxury private planes for Goldman-Sachs.

He shows how Goldman-Sachs essentially staged a coup d’état after their executives were appointed to key positions in the White House, and then sent out hundreds of billions of tax dollars to preferred corporate recipients.

It’s enough to make you want to pick up a pitchfork and a torch and lead an angry mob to a corporate headquarters. However, Moore also shows instances of people standing up united and defying injustice masquerading as government authority. He shows the Republic Glass and Window Company’s workers refusing to leave the building after being massively laid off and not paid the money due them. They staged a sit-in there in late 2008 and refused to leave until they got the money they were owed. Although some media coverage is shown, quite frankly I don’t remember the story at all.

A few people come off as heroes; Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur from Ohio, who from the House of Representatives floor urged people not to leave their homes if evicted and demand that the evictors show them a copy of their mortgage which they would be unlikely to have. Whistle-blower Bill Black, who helped bring the Charles Keating S&L scandal to light 20 years ago, weighs in on the current crisis as well.

Moore’s sympathies are certainly with the working class, and he tends to focus in on how the crisis is affecting them. He does spend some time with a few middle class folk, but largely it is those who work blue collar jobs that get his attention. Also, as Moore is prone to doing, he grandstands an awful lot, going to various financial institutions trying to make citizens arrests of their CEO’s for fraud, placing crime scene tape around the stock exchange and so on.

Moore has a wicked sense of humor and it comes through in unexpected places. I was laughing out loud at some of his cracks, as well as the judicious editing that juxtaposes ancient Rome with modern America.

This is a serious subject that has rippled through the lives of virtually every American. Some of the material here will make you want to go and string up a few of these arrogant pricks by their genitals. It should be required viewing for every high school senior and college student in order to understand how economics work…or don’t work, to be more to the point.

Moore definitely has an agenda and a political stance, and he makes no bones about it. Right-wingers are going to absolutely hate this movie, especially since he characterizes capitalism as evil and urges that we drop it as an economic system. Capitalism is a sacred cow that we have been brought up to revere as the centerpiece of our American freedoms, and it isn’t lightly that we would consider such an act, but given the abuses that we have seen with our own eyes and are portrayed here, that kind of consideration may just be warranted.

REASONS TO GO: A marvelous indictment of the modern political and economic system in America. Well-reasoned, it explains exactly how we got into this mess and also illustrates very clearly how we can get out of it.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who disagree with Moore’s politics aren’t going to like this at all. While he doesn’t say it overtly, he tacitly advocates socialism over capitalism which might not go over well with the Christian right.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language issues and some difficult adult subjects. Should be required viewing for all high school seniors and college students.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Detroit premiere of the movie was in a theater located in the same building that houses the World Headquarters of General Motors. Moore was initially denied entrance to his own premiere until he came in without cameras or press hours later.

HOME OR THEATER: This has no epic scope other than that it is all about the issues that face every one of us. Conceptually, it should be seen on the big screen but from a sheer viewing standpoint, home video is fine.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

Couples Retreat


Malin Akerman (center) realizes her love scenes are with Vince Vaughn while her co-stars pretend not to notice her discomfort.

Malin Akerman (center) realizes her love scenes are with Vince Vaughn while her co-stars pretend not to notice her discomfort.

(Universal) Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Jean Reno, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk, Carlos Ponce, Peter Serafinowicz, Tasha Smith, Temuera Morrison, Jonna Walsh. Directed by Peter Billingsley

Relationships require a lot of work and even with that, none are ever perfect. Sometimes we have problems with our mates that we didn’t even know we had.

Dave (Vaughn) is a happily married video game salesman (specializing in Guitar Hero) who has a nice suburban Chicago home, two mostly well-behaved kids (although one has a tendency to use just about anything as his personal toilet) a stressful job that demands long hours, and a gorgeous, loving wife (Akerman) named Ronnie who is completely absorbed in remodeling their home. He is less enthusiastic about the project and this has brought some tension to the marriage.

His best buddy is Joey (Favreau), who married Lucy (Davis) just out of high school after he got her pregnant. They show a united front to the world, especially when their daughter Lacey (Walsh) attempts to leave the house in the middle of winter dressed like a hooker, but in reality they can’t stand each other and plan to divorce as soon as Lacey leaves for Stanford. In the meantime, they are cheating on each other as much as they can.

Shane (Love) is already divorced and dating Trudy (Hawk), a much younger model wannabe. He’s going through a big time midlife crisis, but is having some financial troubles after his wife Jennifer (Smith) soaked him in the divorce. He asks his buddy Dave to co-sign on a loan to buy a motorcycle, which Dave refuses at first but eventually gives in when Shane opens up and tells him how much he needs it on a personal level. Dave’s an enabler that way.

Finally there’s Jason (Bateman) and his wife Cynthia (Bell) who seem perfect for each other. So anal they make squeaking noises when they walk, they have had difficulty conceiving a child. This has caused strain so severe on their marriage they are considering a divorce, a fact they reveal to their friends in a PowerPoint presentation (squeak, squeak, squeak). They intend to give their marriage one last-ditch effort at the beautiful Eden resort in the South Pacific, where they will have the opportunity to jet ski and learn couples skill building at the same time.

The others aren’t so enthusiastic about going, although their interest is piqued when Jason and Cynthia promise them they don’t have to do any of the touchy-feely stuff. Dave’s objection is that he can’t really get away from work and that they couldn’t get anyone to watch the kids anyway, but when his kids beg him to go and even call his dad to babysit, Dave and Cynthia – who had skipped their honeymoon when Dave got a job offer – decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Once there they fall under the ministrations of the smarmy concierge Sctanley (yes, that’s how he spells it) and the new age guru Marcel (Reno) who is something of a whiz kid at rescuing marriages. Once there, they realize that all the fun stuff is located in the singles side of the island to which they are forbidden to go, and that all of them had to partake of the skill building sessions. As they go through therapy, cracks in the facades of all their relationships begin to appear until it becomes evident that none of them may leave Problem Island with their marriages intact. 

Vaughn co-wrote and co-produced this epic with his buddy Favreau, and if you like either one of their onscreen personas in previous movies like Swingers and Wedding Crashers, you’ll want to see this. Vaughn gets most of the great one-liners (the advantage of being your own producer and writer) and he delivers them seamlessly, Vince Vaughn-style.

It seems odd that the three middle aged flabby guys all have super hot wives (Akerman, Bell and Davis all look pretty spectacular in bikinis) and Love, who is a bit of a behemoth, has essentially a 20-year-old supermodel doing the nasty with him in oh-so-nasty ways. However, this is Hollywood and I suppose anything is possible.

The cast is really solid and they all are given characters that give them at least something to latch onto as actors, and they’re all good enough to take advantage of it. It’s too bad the script couldn’t have given them a better story. While the concept is solid, the way they get from beginning to end is pretty weak. I think they would have benefited from a little more realism and maybe the knowledge that not every marriage works out okay should have been introduced. The whole notion of love conquering all is mainly a Hollywood invention and nobody really believes it anymore. While I’m sure studio executives were anxious for everyone to end up happy and in love, the movie would have been better if they hadn’t.

Filmed at the St. Regis resort in Bora Bora, one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s a great-looking film. The bottom line is whether or not it’s funny. The answer is, yeah for the most part. There are some moments that fall flat, and some of the writing seems a bit forced into making a Hollywood happy ending. The underlying message is that as long as the sex is good, so is the marriage which doesn’t really ring true. Still, there are enough laughs for me to recommend this slightly. It’s not as horrible as other critics are making it out to be; it’s just slightly better than okay. Not a ringing endorsement I know, but the sandal definitely fits.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some PG sexual situations and one scene in which some self-pleasuring is implied; nothing really overt but you may want to think twice before bringing kids who are less aware of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Couples Retreat marks the fourth movie that both Vaughn and Favreau have been in together.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the lovely shots of Bora Bora look gorgeous on the big screen, it works as well on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Reader

Bright Star


Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

(Apparition) Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Samuel Barnett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin, Olly Alexander, Samuel Roukin, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Sebastian Armesto. Directed by Jane Campion

John Keats is now considered one of the greatest poets of all time, but during his lifetime he was almost universally reviled and when he died at the tender age of 25, he considered himself a failure.

Keats (Whishaw) lives with his friend Charles Brown (Schneider), a burly Scot in Brown’s home (a sort of pre-Victorian duplex) in Hampstead, which at the time was on the very edge of London (but today part of the borough of Camden). Brown is disdainful of neighbor Fanny Brawne (Cornish), whose family lives in the other part of the house. He thinks her vain and spoiled, a typical society flirt who has little understanding of poetry and little intelligence beyond what is in fashion and what is not.

For her part she considers Brown a rude misogynist of little talent who has made no money from his scribblings and has no prospects of making any. At first, she finds Keats attractive but like most poets, impractical. She sends her brother Samuel (Sangster) and sister Toots (Martin) to a local bookseller (Ashton-Griffiths) to purchase Keats’ recent publication “Endymion.” This proves to be no problem, as the bookseller had purchased 20 copies and has sold, counting the one to the Brawne children, one copy.

As she reads “Endymion”, she realizes that his poetry may be difficult to understand in places but is leaps and bounds ahead of his peers (Brown, a poet himself, also realizes this). She begins to fall for the callow young man, not so much for his looks but for his soul. This is cemented when she observes him nursing his brother Tom (Alexander) who is dying of tuberculosis. 

For his part, he slowly falls for the young woman who is more self-possessed than most women he knows. She winds up being his muse, inspiring some of the most beautiful poetry of all time. Their relationship blossoms despite the objections of Fanny’s mother (Fox) who is concerned that Keats is penniless and has no means of supporting her, and of Brown who simply doesn’t like Fanny and is highly protective of his friend, whose genius he recognizes.

When Brown rents his half of the cottage out for the summer, he and Keats head off to the Isle of Wight where Keats writes ardent letters to his ladylove. Well aware of his social status and the impossibility of a relationship between the two, he moves to London initially but is unable to stay away from the love of his life and returns to Hampstead to be with her. However, their courtship is destined to be short-lived.

Oscar-winning writer (for The Piano) and Oscar-nominated director (for the same film) Campion once again performs both functions on this film. Her task was to create a movie that was as visually beautiful as the words of Keats. She succeeds, mostly using the landscapes of Hyde and Bedfordshire. There is something magical about the English countryside, and the Australian-born Campion captures it like lightning in a bottle. Her characters take long, languid walks in meadows filled with spring flowers and wetlands with dry summer reeds. She also manages to recreate rustic 19th century country village life, as well as the harsh alleyways of London.

Whishaw has the thankless task of portraying the dying, love-struck poet and that’s not nearly as easy a job as you might think. How does one portray a sensitive genius and yet make him accessible to general audiences? If you aren’t sure, just watch Whishaw here. He does a really good job of making Keats seem like a real person instead of an icon, which biopics often do with the poets and authors of the period.

Cornish, mostly known for her Australian television appearances, is a revelation as Fanny. She plays the woman at turns forthright and self-confident, and at others completely besotted by love. She’s complex and not always likable, but always true to her convictions. It’s a career-making performance and one which potentially may generate some Oscar buzz. Schneider play Brown like a Scottish laird, witty and not without charm but fiercely possessive of his friend.

Keats himself wrote that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Bright Star certainly fits the bill. Is this the definitive biography of Keats? No, because this is more a chronicle of his relationship with Fanny, the details of which must be inferred mostly through letters later in life from Fanny to her sister – most of the letters Keats wrote her from the Isle of Wight and Italy (where he went at the end of his life in an attempt to beat the tuberculosis) were destroyed at the poet’s request. Still, I’ve always wondered what makes a romantic poet so gosh-darned romantic, and Bright Star gives us an answer worth considering. There is no overt sexuality – the two followed the morals of their day, limiting their affection to ardent hand-holding and a few chaste kisses – but nonetheless this is a sexy movie – sexy in the ways of the heart.

REASONS TO GO: Cornish’s amazing performance, as well as solid work from Whishaw and Schneider is buttressed by cinematography of extraordinary beauty. Stay for the closing credits to listen to Whishaw read the poet’s own words regarding his love affair, which are worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at a glacial pace at times which may drive modern movie audiences to distraction.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hyde House and Estate substituted for the actual Keats House in Hampstead Heath because the director deemed it “too small.”

HOME OR THEATER: A British costume romantic drama set at the turn of the 19th century? Sounds like home video to me.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Year One

The Invention of Lying


Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais toast a job well done.

(Touchstone) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Fionnula Flanagan, Jonah Hill, Stephanie March, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

Imagine a world where honesty is the only policy, where lies are unknown and advertising is completely truthful. Movies are accounts of actual events whose scripts are read on-camera since nobody can conceive of pretending to be someone they aren’t.

Mark Bellison (Gervais) lives in just such a world. People are incapable of lying in this alternate universe so when Mark goes on a blind date with Anna (Garner), she informs him at the door to her apartment that she is disappointed that he isn’t more fit and handsome and that the likelihood of them having any sex that evening is remote at best.

Things go from bad to worse for Mark. His beloved mother (Flanagan) is in a nursing home (or, as it is aptly named, “A Sad Place Where Homeless Old People Come to Die”) and he is about to be fired from his job as a screenwriter just as soon as his dithering boss (Tambor) can work up the courage to tell him, much to the bemusement of his chief rival Brad Kessler (Lowe) who hates him inexplicably, and his secretary (Fey) who looks down on him.

His landlord (Santiago-Hudson), having found out about Mark’s sudden change of employment, evicts him. Sad-sack Mark shuffles off to the bank to withdraw the $300 left to him so that he can rent a truck to load his things into. When he is informed by the teller that the system is down so she can’t look up his account to close it, Mark is struck by inspiration. He tells the teller he has $800 in his account and even though the system comes back up and says he only has $300, the teller gives him the larger amount. After all, human beings are far more reliable than machines.

Mark is ecstatic. He has discovered a game-changer, something that will completely turn around life as he knows it. He tries to tell his friends Greg (C.K.) and Phil (Hoffman) about it, but the words don’t even exist to convey telling something other than the truth. Mark experiments to see what he can accomplish; he tells a gorgeous blonde (March) that unless she has sex with him, the world will end – she believes him. He tells a cop (Norton) that his inebriated friend Greg that he has pulled over for drunk driving is in fact not drunk. He lets them off.

Things seem to be getting better for Mark. He gets his job back by writing a fictitious script he passes off as the truth, and becomes wealthy by scamming casinos after his script becomes a major hit. However, when he is overheard comforting his dying mother (Flanagan) with words about a beautiful afterlife instead of the oblivion that the people of this world have been bred to believe in, this sets off a chain reaction that will change the world in far more profound ways than even he can expect.

This is an intriguing premise that isn’t always pulled off well. It’s what Hollywood insiders call “high concept” which is what critics like to call “an idea without a plot.” The world Gervais envisions is not unlike our own, except nobody has a filter – they just blurt out whatever is on their minds, sort of like a world of six-year-olds. People are cruel to each other, sometimes intentionally.

This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to examine things in our world that depend on not telling the absolute truth, such as advertising, movies, dating and religion. The problem is they don’t really do much with the opportunity. The movie’s second half degenerates into a romantic comedy that is more about the relationship between Lowe, Garner and Gervais instead of really digging down further into the nature of religion, advertising and romance. The movie seems to be more on its game when its satire rather than romantic comedy. Yes, Mark’s words of comfort regarding an afterlife (in which everyone gets a mansion to live in) turn him into something of a prophet but that is almost an afterthought as Mark struggles to win the girl.

Gervais has made a career of playing buffoonish jerks who you love to hate but here he plays a buffoonish jerk that has a heart of gold. Once he discovers the happiness his lies bring, he walks around town whispering lies that bring smiles to the faces of the downtrodden. He knows he isn’t in Anna’s league but he is smitten by her anyway and can’t bring himself to tell her anything but the truth – mostly.

Garner has had an uneven film career since the days of “Alias” but this is one of her finer roles. She plays Anna as a woman who knows how attractive she is but not in a vain or self-centered way. Rather, she just knows she wants her children to have the best genes possible. Deep down she’s sweet and caring; like everyone in this reality, she’s merely judgmental and quite open about it.

The movie at its core is sweet-natured, just enough to leave me with the warm fuzzies leaving the theater. The scene between Mark and his mother in the hospital is highly moving. Unfortunately, the writers sabotage the movie with inane situations and the producers bring too many distracting cameos into the mix – such as Jason Bateman as a doctor and a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Guest as a script reader. The movie would have profited from a little more depth.

Although there is an implied premise that lying is the way to achieve everything you want in life, I thought the movie was more about knowing when to tell the truth and when it is better not to. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit about that particular lesson.

I enjoyed The Invention of Lying far more than Da Queen did, although I have to admit that Gervais seems incapable of reciting dialogue in anything but Gervais-speak – as in short, clipped sentence fragments. Like this. For everything. All his dialogue. Just like this. Right. In any case it makes for a pleasant diversion.

REASONS TO GO: Jennifer Garner’s best performance to date augments an intriguing premise. The movie has a good deal of heart and has at least one genuinely moving moment.

REASONS TO STAY: The romantic comedy aspect doesn’t work as well as the satire. Too many cameos spoil the broth.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and abusive language but otherwise okay.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by Gervais.

HOME OR THEATER: Very much a home video recommendation.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Bright Star