David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands

The Little Prince (2015)


On top of the world.

On top of the world.

(2016) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Mackenzie Foy, Jacquie Barnbrook, Jeffy Branion, Marcel Bridges. Directed by Mark Osborne

 

In 1943, French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the novella The Little Prince which while ostensibly a children’s book has become one of the most beloved books of all time. Poetic, bittersweet in places, joyful in others, it examines the difficulties of growing up, the importance of love and the journey of life. It not only appeals to the young and the young at heart, but also reams of material have been written on the underlying themes. A 1974 live action film was until now the best-known adaptation of the book.

This, the first animated version of the film, pads out the original story with a framing story. A stressed out Little Girl (Foy) is pushed by her overbearing mother (McAdams) to ace an interview into the prestigious Werth Academy, which would guarantee her a productive future. Her mother, who wears business suits with ties in the style of men, is gravely disappointed when the Little Girl blows her interview when a question she didn’t study for is asked.

Discouraged but not defeated, her mother moves the Little Girl to an area where she has a repeat chance of getting into Werth. There her mother outlines a Life Plan for her daughter that she expects the young girl to stick to, but fate has other plans. It turns out they’ve moved next door to an Aviator (Bridges) whose attempts to start his airplane ends up in disaster. In a neighborhood of block house conformists, he is the odd man out. Naturally he and the Little Girl bond and he tells her the tale of a strange thing that happened to him when he crashed in the Sahara desert years earlier.

There he’d met a Little Prince (R. Osborne) who had was visiting our planet from Asteroid B612, a tiny place which was always threatened to be overrun by insidious baobab trees. One day, he discovered a beautiful rose was growing on his tiny world. The Rose (Cotillard) implored him to protect her with a glass cover, which the adoring Prince did. He and the Rose were deeply in love, but he was disturbed by her vanity. At last, feeling abused by the Rose, he decides to leave his asteroid and see what else was out there. He discovered several other asteroids, each inhabited by an adult with a failing; such as the Conceited Man (Gervais) who took bows whenever he felt the need, or the Businessman (Brooks) who endlessly counted the stars so that he could own them all. Finally he had come back to Earth only to discover thousands of Roses and realized that his own Rose was nothing special.

=However, a Fox (Franco) that he’d tamed informed him that his Rose was special because he loved her and urged him to see things with his heart, which would allow him to see much more clearly. Desperately lonely and wanting to see his Rose again, he travels home to the stars the only way he knows how – to allow the Snake (Del Toro) to bite him and allow him to leave his cumbersome body behind. The Aviator grieves for the loss of his friend but is mystified when his body disappears.

The Aviator, now an old man, succumbs to illness and has to be hospitalized. Disillusioned and wanting to escape her life, the Little Girl goes in search of the Little Prince along with a fox stuffed toy which has magically come to life. Using the Aviator’s plane, she flies to the asteroids and eventually finds the Prince (Rudd) who is no longer little and has forgotten everything. Can she help him remember?

Mark Osborne is best known for directing Kung Fu Panda which had to its advantage some cultural exploration. This is a much tougher sell; for one thing, while kids today are fairly familiar with The Little Prince it doesn’t really translate well to the screen. It is also a short book; the 1974 live action version padded itself out with musical numbers and dancing. In some ways this is way more ambitious; not only does it add to the story with the Little Girl and the old man Aviator but it mixes techniques; the Little Girl’s story is told in CGI, the Little Prince with stop-motion animation. The Little Prince section also takes as its inspiration the original illustrations Saint-Exupéry hand-drew for the book. It’s not quite uncanny, but the stop-motion is enough like those original drawings to make one feel quite at home, especially if you grew up with them.

One of the chief complaints I have with the movie is one I have with the book; with the exception of the Aviator, all the adults in the book are pretty much jerks. They are way self-involved, uncaring of the needs of a child to be a child, they put far too much emphasis on achievement and material things and worst of all, they are soulless. The Little Girl’s mom is completely unsympathetic and the Aviator is at best eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic. Even the grown-up Little Prince is frightened and spineless. Granted, some adults are some of these things but what the movie is in essence telling children is not to trust adults AT ALL. Not even their parents.

The animation is quite stylized and while the CGI looks pretty standard (even sub-standard in places), the stop motion is beautiful and wondrous, capturing the wide-eyed amazement of childhood. While some of the details of the original story are changed and some characters eliminated (for example, the drunkard is cut out of the movie), the essence of the story and more importantly the spirit of the story are both intact.
The movie enjoyed a successful theatrical run globally and Netflix gave it a fairly limited theatrical release and I have to say it’s a bit of a shame. I’d love to have seen this on the big screen. Perhaps an enterprising art house near you will book it even if it is on Netflix. I suspect seeing this in a theater will make this an even more riveting experience for young and old alike.

REASONS TO GO: Much of the spirit of the beloved book is captured here. The mix of stop-motion animation and CGI is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: The animation can be a bit primitive looking at times. Few of the adults in the film have any value to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril and violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the highest-grossing animated film to be made in France to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lights Out

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb


Even Ben Stiller's flashlight isn't enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

Even Ben Stiller’s flashlight isn’t enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

(2014) Family Adventure (Paramount) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Dan Stevens, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rami Malek, Skyler Gisondo, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Andrea Martin, Rachael Harris, Brad Garrett (voice), Anjali Jay, Regina Taufen (voice). Directed by Shawn Levy

Some movies can be extremely poignant and bring a tear even to the most heartless of people. Sometimes movies are lent extra poignancy by real life circumstances.

Things at the Museum of Natural History in New York City couldn’t be going better. They’ve added a brand new planetarium and opening night is a dazzling affair. Larry Daley (Stiller) has set up quite the soiree with President Theodore Roosevelt (Williams), Attila the Hun (Gallagher) and Sacajawea (Peck) leading the way, along with some animated constellations and Trixie the T-Rex. However, things go terribly wrong; Attila and the Huns (sounds like a great name for a garage band) attack indiscriminately, Teddy reads lines from his nephew Franklin and the exhibits who have come to life basically aren’t acting like themselves.

Ahkmenrah (Malek) whose tablet possesses the magic to keep his son living, discovers that the tablet is corroding somehow but it seems to be tied in to the issues that the exhibits are having. He isn’t quite sure why it is corroding now nor how to stop it; the one who really knows about the tablet is his dad Merenkahre (Kingsley) who happens to be in the British Museum.

So it is that Larry heads to London, taking with him Akhmenrah and Teddy – as well as Sacajawea, Attila and the tiny cowboy Jebediah (Wilson) and Roman legionnaire Octavius (Coogan) and Dexter, the mischievous Capuchin monkey. They seek out dear old dad who tells them that the tablet needs moonlight in order to recharge; like a battery, the tablet is corroding. Seems a simple enough fix.

Of course not. The vainglorious Sir Lancelot (Stevens) has seen the magic properties of the tablet and figures out that this is the Holy Grail he was sent to find and he can thus bring it back to Camelot and claim Guinevere to be his very own. The rest of them need the tablet to continue being reanimated at night; without it they’ll be permanent wax figures and thus the chase is on with the stakes being incredibly high.

I haven’t had a real love affair with this series but neither have I particularly hated it either. All three of the movies in the franchise I have found to be competently done entertainment. Many critics have lamented the waste of talent and I can’t say as I don’t disagree but for what the film is intended to be, it is successful.

There are moments that are the highlights of the series, as the penultimate scene that takes place on the roof when Dexter is stricken. There is some real tenderness in that moment and when Dexter whimpers it was a real shot to the heart and some of the more tender-hearted kids in the audience reacted so you might want to be sure your kids can handle an animal in distress, or the grieving that comes with impending loss. Other moments of grace include bringing back the trio of security guards (Van Dyke, Cobb and Rooney) who initiated the events of the movie originally.

There are also moments that remind me why I never warmed to the series in the first place, like Larry having a conversation about parenting with Laa (also Stiller), a caveman who seems to understand what Larry is saying but through a much simpler filter. Also Dexter saves Octavius and Jebediah from a lava flow in Pompeii by relieving himself on the lava – and on the figures. Nice.

While the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan is genuine, the same is not true for the rest of the cast. Mostly it seems very much like a paycheck rather than a passion project and for good reason. As much as the highbrow aim is to educate as well as entertain, they really don’t do very much of the former whenever they have a chance for the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the humor is as unmemorable as the humor is here, there’s a problem. Rebel Wilson, for example, who plays an oversexed and dimwitted British security guard, is utilized poorly.

There is a vibe of finality to the film which isn’t entirely due to the movie itself; the passing of Williams and Rooney adds to that feeling. We are in essence saying good-bye to both of them which adds to the poignancy of the final scenes. While I was entertained in places and touched in others however, the movie isn’t cohesive enough to really keep my interest for the full length of the movie. Like an under-powered train chugging into the engine with its fuel exhausted, the franchise barely has enough in it to make it through the shortest running time of any of its films. Worth seeing? More or less but more to say goodbye to two of the greatest to ever walk onto a sound stage than for anything onscreen.

REASONS TO GO: Very touching in some places, especially on the British Museum rooftop. A nice way to say farewell to Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty generic and bland. Humor is of the lowest common denominator sort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly foul language, a bit of peril and some humor of the pee-pee doo-doo kind.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Nick (Larry’s son) was played by Jake Cherry in the first two films; Gisondo plays him here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mannequin
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Force Majeure

New Releases for the Week of March 21, 2014


DivergentDIVERGENT

(Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer. Directed by Neil Burger

In a future society in which humans are grouped by virtues that they are supposed to exemplify, a young woman discovers she doesn’t fit into any single group but is a combination of many. This makes her dangerous to the government who hunt her down ruthlessly. She joins a mysterious underground group of Divergents who must discover why the government thinks they are so dangerous before they are all eliminated for good.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality)

Bad Words

(Focus) Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Phillip Baker Hall. When a 40-year-old loser who never graduated from the eighth grade enters the National Spelling Bee through a loophole, parents and educators alike are outraged. However, as he develops an unexpected friendship with a 10-year-old competitor, his motivations for doing this soon turn out to be not what anyone expected. While this is only opening at the AMC Downtown Disney this week, it is expected to expand to other theaters in the region on the 28th.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and videos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity)

God’s Not Dead

(Pure|Flix) Willie Robertson, Kevin Sorbo, Shane Harper, Dean Cain. A devout Christian who is in his freshman year at college is challenged by his philosophy professor to prove the existence of God – or face failing the class. With most of his classmates against him, he finds that he’ll need all of his faith to see him through this challenge. You can bet that there’ll be plenty of church groups seeing this one.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Faith

Rating: PG (for thematic material, brief violence and an accident scene)

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton. Europe between World Wars was both an elegant place and a dangerous place. A concierge at one of the most opulent hotels of the time takes a lobby boy under his wing, only to become embroiled in the theft of a priceless Renaissance-era painting, the inheritance of an enormous family future and a scandalous murder. While this is only opening at the Regal Winter Park Village this week, it is expected to expand to other theaters in the region on the 28th.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and footage from the premiere here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

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

The Muppets Most Wanted

(Disney) Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Stanley Tucci. Kermit the Frog is mistaken for Constantine, the world’s most notorious thief and imprisoned. In the meantime, the nefarious Constantine has taken Kermit’s place and is planning his greatest heist ever. Only the Muppets can stop him – but not all of them are convinced that Constantine isn’t the real Kermit.

See the trailer. clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for some mild action)

New Releases for the Week of December 10, 2010


December 10, 2010
She’s Queen of the World with no sign of James Cameron or icebergs.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER

(Fox Walden) Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Bruce Spence, Liam Neeson (voice), Ricky Gervais (voice), Gary Sweet. Directed by Michael Apted

As the beloved C.S. Lewis fantasy series franchise shifts to a new studio, two of the four Pevensie children – Lucy and Edward – return to Narnia, this time dragging along terrified cousin Eustace as they re-team with Prince Caspian and Reepicheep on a voyage to the Lone Islands to find the Seven Lost Lords.

See the trailer, clips and a music video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy violence)

Heartbreaker

(IFC) Romain Duris, Vanessa Paradis, Julie Ferrier, Francois Damiens. Alex breaks up relationships professionally. This Parisian hunk has only one rule; the woman must be unhappy in the relationship otherwise it’s no go. However, he can’t resist the fee that a wealthy businessman is offering to break up his daughter’s impending wedding and Alex needs some financial relief from his creditors. Seeing as this is a French romantic comedy, you can guess who is about to fall in love.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

No Problem

(Eros International) Anil Kapoor, Sonjay Dutt, Kangana Ranaut, Akshaye Khanna. A pair of small time crooks goes from robbing the bank of a manager who is falsely accused of the crime to being accused of murdering a minister. On the run from a ruthless criminal and a bumbling police detective, the two try to prove their innocence, turn over a new leaf and find love. Sound like too much? No problem!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

The Nutcracker in 3D

(Freestyle Releasing) Elle Fanning, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Charlie Rowe. The classic Christmas tale is given a new vision by acclaimed Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. This beautifully filmed depiction of a young 9-year-old girl’s magical Christmas in 19th century Vienna is presented in 3D for the first time ever.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Family Fantasy

Rating: PG (for thematic material, scary images, action and brief smoking)

Tamara Drewe

(Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans. The return of a beautiful, sexy girl to a small English village throws it into an uproar. This is based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Posy Simmonds which in turn was originally a collection of comic strips published in a daily newspaper in Manchester, which in turn was loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” That’s a whole lot of turns.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality)

The Tourist

 (Columbia) Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton. An American on vacation in Europe after his heart is broken meets up with a mysterious beautiful woman and before long (as usually happens when mysterious beautiful women are involved) gets swept up in a tangled web of intrigue, mistaken identity and crime. Something tells me that being pursued by Russian mobsters and Interpol don’t usually come with the tour.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Crime Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language)

Ghost Town


Ghost Town

If you can't see them, they can't hurt you.

(DreamWorks) Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Kristen Wiig, Billy Campbell, .Aasif Mandvi, Alan Ruck, Dana Ivey, Aaron Tveit. Directed by David Koepp

People can be a damned nuisance. It’s difficult enough dealing with the living; how much more irritating would it be to have to deal with the dead as well.

Dr. Bertram Pincus (Gervais) has two things working against him; he’s a dentist and he’s a snooty New Yorker. Normally, that’s enough to make anyone want to punch him. However, he happens to be an insufferable bastard as well, the combination with the other two factors enough to make anyone wish him to die. Which is, somewhat ironically, precisely what he does.

Fortunately for the good doc, it’s only for seven minutes while on the operating table to have some gastro-intestinal work done by a doctor (Wiig) more interested in getting a really nice tan. When Pincus wakes up, he can see dead people. He can also communicate with them.

As fast as you can say “M. Night Shyamalan” Pincus is surrounded by the dearly departed, all demanding some sort of favor from him so they can reach closure on their lives. Their ex-lives, anyway. Pincus doesn’t even like the living – he surely can’t stand the dead. They’re so demanding. However, he does want his life of solitude and peace back. A fast-talking businessman/con artist named Frank (Kinnear) guesses this and makes a deal with Pincus; if he will do a small favor for Frank, Frank will in return keep the other ghosts off his back.

Sounds like a deal, no? Not when the little favor is to keep Frank’s widow Gwen (Leoni) from marrying Richard (Campbell) who Frank thinks is absolutely bad news for Gwen. The problem is that Gwen and Pincus have had run-ins before, none of them pleasant. I’m sure she would rather take relationship advice from Jack the Ripper but Pincus perseveres with a kind of offbeat charm. Now, he has a shot at maybe finding something he has always lacked among the living.

Director Koepp is better-known as a writer of big budget genre films like Spider-Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Jurassic Park so it was a little bit of a surprise that his first directorial effort would be a romantic comedy, but here you are. The smartest decision he makes is casting Gervais. This is the kind of role that’s right in his wheelhouse, and he hits it out of the park. Nobody can do unpleasant like Gervais, and he’s in prime form here.

He has some nice support as well. Kinnear does a great job as the wheeler dealer and his interaction with Gervais works nicely. Leoni can be bland in some of her lead roles, but she gives this part a nice bit of spunk. Mandvi as Gervais’ partner in the dental practice and Wiig have some scene-stealing time, and Dana Ivey and Ruck as desperate ghosts add some poignancy.

This is clearly inspired by movies like Topper and the supernatural screwball comedies of the ‘30s, and the low-tech special effects actually make this a refreshing change from more recent movies that are CGI-heavy. This leaves Koepp free to concentrate on the performances, which he does nicely. It also allows the audience to do the same, which serves the film nicely; we’re not so distracted by high-tech trickery.

This isn’t going to redefine the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a pleasant surprise. Truly, this is the kind of movie to put in the DVD player on a dark night when you just want to feel good. What better eulogy can you have than that?

WHY RENT THIS: Ricky Gervais and Kristen Wiig – say no more. Naw, I’ll say more – a fun premise and some nice interactions between the living, the dead and Gervais.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly routine romantic comedy with a supernatural edge may or may not appeal to your sensibilities.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references here and there as well as a few bad words and drug references but this is pretty harmless for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The good doctor is named after Dr. Charles Pincus, inventor of the dental veneer. You’re welcome.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cyrus

Stardust


Stardust

Danes and Cox are bemused by DeNiro's assertion that Martin Scorsese taught him how to waltz.

(Paramount) Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, Ian McKellan (voice), Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.

This arrives to us from the mind of Neil Gaiman, one of the most respected names in the Graphic Novel field today. The man who gave us such works as Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living and Coraline also gave us this, his version of high fantasy.

The village of Wall in England is so-named because of a long wall running along the edge of the town. It seems like an ordinary wall, with a breach in it where the stones have collapsed over the year – it’s a very old wall, after all – with the town on one side and pleasant fields on the other. However, persistent town legend has it that crossing through the wall takes you to a place not known to man. The legend is so widespread that the town actually has a guard posted 24-7 at the breach, although few in Wall are so addled as to wish to see what lies on the other side.

One night, a young man does so and meets a girl, a beautiful girl who says she is a princess being held captive by a witch. The young man and the girl do what comes naturally to young men and girls and nine months later, the young man has a special delivery from the wall guard – a baby, who the young man is charged with raising.

Years later – 18 of them, to be exact – the baby has grown into a young man himself, a shop boy named Tristan (Cox). He is deeply besotted by Victoria (Miller), a town beauty who is very rich and being wooed by equally rich (and equally shallow) Humphrey (Cavill). However, she finds a soft spot for the lovestruck Tristan and agrees to go on a late night picnic with him. Tristan is devastated by the news that Humphrey has gone to Ipswich to buy an engagement ring which he intends to present to Victoria at her birthday party a week hence. She intends to say yes to Humphrey.

Just then they are interrupted by the descent of a falling star. In a moment of romantic passion, Tristan promises to retrieve the star for Victoria. She agrees if Tristan can do this, she will be his. In the meantime, the star has landed and it’s not a piece of rock or a chunk of metal. It is, in fact, a beautiful girl (Danes) who goes by the name of Yvaine. Her arrival has signaled a time of great changes in the land – not England, for the Wall is in fact a magic dividing point that separates the land of reason (England) from the land of magic (Stormhold). The King of Stormhold (O’Toole) is dying, and as is customary in that autocratic land, the crown princes are murdering one other in order to be the last prince standing in line for the throne.  It turns out that since four…er,  three princes remain and the King doesn’t have time to wait for the others to go about finishing the others off, he sets a challenge – the prince who can retrieve an amulet and restore the color to the ruby within it will be King. The trouble is that the ruby is around the neck of Yvaine.

There is also a wicked witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who knows that the heart of the star bestows youth and beauty on those who know how to use it. For her and her sisters, it is absolutely vital that they retrieve this star since their last one is almost gone and the old girls are beginning to show their age.

Everybody is after the star, but it is Tristan who finds her first. He promises to help her return home to the heavens once he’s presented her to his true love, so Yvaine – who doesn’t like this overly earnest and awkward young man – begrudgingly agrees. This sets in motion a series of perils, pirates (led by the able Captain Shakespeare, played with panache by De Niro) and all manner of really bad people.

This is a movie of charm and wit. There are some great moments and a few real good laughs, but there are some moments of poignancy and real insight as well. Director Vaughn, best-known for Layer Cake, balances all of the elements very nicely. Yes, it’s definitely a fantasy but there isn’t an over-reliance on special effects. Sure, there are some breathtaking moments like the Sky Pirate Ship landing on the water, or a duel between Tristan and Lamia, but the appeal here is in a lovely simple story and some solid acting.

Cox is very likable in his role, and De Niro is obviously having a good time in his role as the pirate captain with a reputation to uphold, but it is Pfeiffer who in all ways is the real reason to go see this movie. She makes a really terrific villain (as those who’ve seen her in Hairspray can attest) and isn’t afraid to have a ton of make-up and prosthetics applied to artificially age her, despite being one of the most beautiful women in the world (still). She plays the part with supreme self-confidence and unleashes one of her best performances in years. It’s a surprisingly demanding role and one critical to the movie’s success, but Pfeiffer pulls it off admirably. This may not be necessarily Oscar material, but it’s the kind of work that gets the kind of work that a good actress wants to do for her.

I was enchanted with Stardust from the very first moment when McKellan’s stentorian narration begins. The world here is richly detailed, which is I think one of the great selling points to most fantasy readers, in the same way that Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is, or Lewis’ Narnia. Stormhold is a world that is lived in and watching this you naturally want to live in it too. I highly recommend Stardust for anyone who loves fantasy movies, fairy tales, adventure stories or romances – and especially for those who love all of the above.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming and witty. Lovely performances, particularly from Pfeiffer. A fully realized fantasy world that you want to live in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle. Some of the plot points are a bit worn thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor violence and sexuality but nothing not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Captain Shakespeare’s vessel, the Caspartine, is named after director Matthew Vaughn’s two children, Caspar and Clementine.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Ben Stiller and Amy Adams learn that seven bobbleheads are better than one.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Alain Chabat, Jonah Hill, Ricky Gervais, Jon Bernthal, Mizuo Peck, Jake Cherry, Rami Malek, Jay Baruchel. Directed by Shawn Levy.

Anyone can tell you that there is a little bit of magic in a museum. Not only are they repositories of human knowledge and culture, they are also objects of awe and inspiration. There’s quite a lot of juju in those things.

It is two years after the events of Night at the Museum in which an Egyptian tablet brings the statues and inhabitants of the New York Museum of Natural History to life once the sun goes down. Night security guard Larry Daley (Stiller) has moved on from his gig as a night watchman at the museum, becoming the CEO of his own company which markets his own inventions including the latest, the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. He has become a busy man, meeting with Wal-Mart executives and filming infomercials with George Foreman. However, he tries to make time to see his friends in the museum, including Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), Jedediah (Wilson) and Octavius (Coogan).

This night he is informed by unctuous museum director Dr. McPhee (Gervais) that the board of trustees has elected to go a more high-tech route, with holographic exhibits that are much more cost-effective. The mannequins, stuffed animals and statuary have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and will reside in their archives as American treasures. Only a few items – the canine T-Rex skeleton, the Easter Island statues and Roosevelt – will remain in New York.

Unfortunately Dexter, the high-strung Capuchin monkey that tormented Larry in the first movie has managed to snag that magic tablet. The night after the move takes place, Larry gets an alarming phone call from Jedediah (how he got access to a phone is anybody’s guess) indicating there is a pharaoh who is after the tablet and the outnumbered refugees from New York are under siege.

Larry gets on a plane immediately and heads to the nation’s capital. From there he heads into the bowels of the Smithsonian using a pilfered card from Brendan (Hill) – pronounced “Brun-dun” – a somewhat inexperienced Smithsonian guard, and meets up with Amelia Earhart (Adams), who becomes an instant ally.

The pharaoh in question, Kahmunrah (Azaria), is the brother of Ahkmenrah (Malek) from the first movie, and he has a chip on his shoulder. He also plans on using the tablet to summon an army of demons to initiate his rule on earth. There is nobody but Larry, Amelia and his friends from the New York museum who stand in the way of Kahmunrah and his nefarious plan.

Those who loved the first movie won’t be disappointed here. Generally, the things that made the movie delightful are here, only amplified. Unfortunately, the first movie’s flaws are also here, only amplified. Let’s start with the good stuff. Stiller’s Larry, to the credit of the filmmakers, is no longer the milquetoast that made him so annoying in the first movie. He’s matured, grown some self-confidence and found success. He makes a better hero in this movie and is given a great foil in Adams. She’s probably my favorite actress working today – I can’t think of another actress besides Julia Roberts whose mere presence in a movie is reason enough for me to see it. Ever since she first attracted notice in Junebug she hasn’t given a poor performance yet, and has proven she can carry a movie in Enchanted. While she’s not required to do that here, she essentially does it anyway. She’s the focus of every scene she’s in, at least from my point of view.

The supporting cast is pretty awesome as well. Azaria makes a superb comic villain, whose lisping delivery is a bit of homage to Boris Karloff in The Mummy. He’s completely believable and menacing enough without being too over-the-top, comic enough without being a buffoon. Coogan and Wilson make a good team and Hill’s uncredited cameo is one of the movie’s highlights. Williams is far less visible in the movie, but makes an impact whenever he’s around.

One of my big peeves with the movie is that it isn’t true to its own canon. In the first film, items brought to life that were left outside the museum after dawn turned to dust but that doesn’t happen here. Also, while the Smithsonian is crawling with security guards and riddled with surveillance cameras during the day, it seems devoid of any kind of security once darkness falls. Considering the value of the artifacts stored in their museums, you’d think that there’d be a guard or two on duty once the doors close.

Still, gripes aside, this is a fairly good family adventure movie. There’s the comedy you’d expect given the cast as well as action a-plenty. The young ‘uns in our audience seemed well-pleased with the movie and I have no reason to suspect that most family audiences won’t find it otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: A likable cast and premise make this movie all kinds of fun. The things that made the first movie work are still here, only amplified. Amy Adams is always worth seeing no matter what the role; she nearly steals the film here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some lazy script choices give the movie a few unnecessary plot holes which admittedly the movie’s target audience will be young enough to overlook.

FAMILY VALUES: Kahmunrah’s demon army might be a bit frightening for the younger set but they aren’t really all that menacing. Otherwise, this is suitable for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lemmon make cameos as the Wright Brothers.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several featurettes and a DVD game centered around the Capuchin monkeys.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Blind Side

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

New Releases for the Week of October 2, 2009


Ricky Gervais is bummed because his cardboard box clashes with his suit.

Ricky Gervais is bummed because his cardboard box clashes with his suit.

THE INVENTION OF LYING

(Warner Brother) Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Fionnula Flanagan. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matt Robinson

In an alternate universe, it hasn’t occurred to anybody to lie. People just let loose with the truth whenever they speak. For Mark, the truth is pretty painful; he’s unattractive to women, not popular in his job where he is about to be canned and generally unhappy with his reality. When he discovers that he can say something that isn’t the truth and have it be believed, his reality changes. However, as lies are wont to do, they begin to spiral out of control until he discovers that he has everything he ever dreamed of, but not what he wants the most.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for language including some sexual material and a drug reference)

Amreeka

(National Geographic) Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat. A Palestinian woman living in the occupied West Bank wins a lottery for a U.S. Green Card and decides to take her teenage son with her to “Amreeka,” as they pronounce America, leaving her mother and brother behind. Once there, she encounters prejudice and economic instability, trying to make ends meet in a world just as harsh in many ways as the one she left behind.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for brief drug use involving teens, and some language)

The Other Man

(Image Entertainment) Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Amanda Drew. When Peter’s wife disappears, he is devastated. When he finds out she was receiving e-mails and text messages from another man that indicate she was having an affair, his emotion turns to hurt and anger. Against the advice of his daughter, he goes to Milan to confront the other man and, hopefully, find his wife.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language)

Toy Story/Toy Story 2

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Tim Allen, Tom Hanks, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn. The two movies that essentially created the CGI Animated Feature industry (which today rakes in billions of box office dollars) are being re-released as a double feature, together for the first time. On top of that, see Woody, Buzz, Rex and all your favorites in 3D, adding a whole new dimension to what has become a family favorite for more than one generation now. Also, get a special glimpse at next year’s Toy Story 3 which is one of the most anticipated movies in 2010. This will be playing for a limited engagement of only two weeks, so don’t wait too long to get to the multiplex!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: G

Whip It

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig. When a Texas girl gives up beauty pageants for the siren call of roller derby, folks are going to raise a Texas-sized eyebrow at the very least. The directorial debut of Barrymore has a young girl pursuing her dream, despite the disapproval of those closest to her and the derision of the skaters who think of her as a bit of a pansy. Now, if they could have only gotten a cameo from Raquel Welch in her Kansas City Bomber jersey…

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including crude dialogue, language and drug material)

Zombieland

(Columbia) Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone. The world has been overrun by zombies. Don’t you just hate when that happens? So do the survivors; Tallahassee, a kicker of zombie tush and Columbus, who much prefers running away and hiding, preferably with a girlish scream. With the living in short supply, these two misfits will have to fight off armies of the rampaging undead – and each other – in order to survive.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for zombie horror violence/gore and language)