Unfinished Song


Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

Terence Stamp is perturbed that Gemma Arterton refuses to kneel before Zod.

(2012) Dramedy (Weinstein) Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Vanessa Redgrave, Christopher Eccleston, Barry Martin, Taru Devani, Anne Reid, Elizabeth Counsell, Ram John Holder, Denise Rubens, Arthur Nightingale, Jumayn Hunter, Orla Hill, Bill Thomas, Willie Jonah, Calita Reinford, Federay Holmes, Alan Ruscoe, Sally Ann Matthews. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Florida Film Festival 2013

We call ’em tearjerkers. They are movies that (sometimes shamelessly) manipulate us emotionally, bringing us to a nice cathartic cry. There are critics who can’t stand those sorts of movies and excoriate them up one side and down the other. Personally I think these scribes have a real hard time getting in touch with their feelings but that’s just a generalization on my part. However, it is also true that sometimes a good cry is what we need to clean out the old emotional tank and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if we are manipulated into doing so – if it’s done artfully.

Arthur (Stamp) is an elderly retired Brit who seems to be in a perpetual state of grouchiness. He hangs out playing dominos at the pub with his friends and lives with his frail wife Marion (Redgrave) who must be some kind of saint to put up with Arthur’s behavior. She’s a dedicated member of a senior choir who calls themselves the OAPz (for Old Age Pensioners, adding the “z” to show they aren’t out of touch – although that sort of thing is about five to ten years out of date). The choir mistress is the plucky, terminally cheerful Elizabeth (Arterton) whose song choices include the B-52s “Love Shack” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

Marion has cancer and so it falls on Arthur to take her to and from choir practice. A regional competition is approaching, but Marion’s days are numbered and everyone knows it, including (and especially) Arthur who becomes more and more fiercely protective of her as time goes on. However, as it often does, time runs out before Marion gets to sing at the competition.

Arthur is devastated and his strained relationship with his son James (Eccleston) grows even more so. In fact, Arthur wants nothing to do with his boy and says as much. James is crushed, essentially losing both parents in a fell swoop but  gamely continues to try reaching out until it becomes obvious that nothing will ever come of it.

Elizabeth forms an unlikely friendship with Arthur; both are wounded souls who need someone to lean on and to both of their surprise, it turns out to be each other. Arthur is at last convinced to join the chorus but whether they can defy the odds and beat much more classically-oriented choirs in the competition remains to be seen.

Of late there have been a number of fine movies regarding aging and the elderly coming out of Britain, including (but not limited to) Quartet, How About You? and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This is indeed a worthy addition to that list and is so because of the moving performances of the leads, particularly Stamp and Redgrave. Stamp, best known for his villainous portrayals over the years, channels his inner curmudgeon and gives us a character whose inner bitterness is mitigated by the influence of his wife. When she passes, he is utterly lost and we see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.

Two of the most affecting scenes in the film take place when Marion and Arthur sing to each other about their feelings, Marion singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” while Arthur sings Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” after Marion is gone. Definitely not a dry eye in the house for that one. Between them, Stamp and Redgrave have 106 years of experience on the silver screen and it shows here.

Eccleston, better known as the ninth Doctor in the hugely popular BBC series Doctor Who shows his dramatic side as Arthur’s somewhat life-wearied son. A single parent, James has a difficult time of things that Arthur doesn’t help much with; he seems to be a decent sort but is clearly frustrated at the gulf between him and his Dad and isn’t sure how to bridge it. Arterton is also building quite the satisfying resume in her career and this might well be her best performance yet which is saying something.

The one gripe I have with the movie – and to be truthful not just with this movie but in general – is its portrayal of the elderly. Yes, I know it’s cute to have them singing rap songs and pop songs from the rock era but I get the sense that the writers of these screenplays have little if any contact with actual elderly people. You know they do sing rock songs, they do dance and they’re more active than ever. Portraying them as cute but befuddled idiots, hopelessly anachronistic, does a disservice to those old people who are a part of our community and should be more valued than they are, but in all fairness Hollywood’s bias is just symptomatic of an overall disrespecting of the elderly going on in society.

That aside, the movie is definitely maudlin in places but is rescued by the dignified and assured performances by the leads. I knew that I was being manipulated but when it is done by master thespians, it’s hard to mind because the performances are so worthwhile. This is playing in limited release but is absolutely worth seeking out if it’s anywhere near you, or catching it on VOD if not.

REASONS TO GO: Affecting performances by the leads. Heart-warming.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit patronizing to the elderly.
FAMILY VALUES:  Arthur delivers a few choice rude gestures and there’s some intimations of sensuality in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Song for Marion under which name it was released in the UK.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; the reviews aren’t scintillating but are trending towards the positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young@Heart
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
The Purge

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Red Planet


Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

(2000) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp, Jessica Morton, Caroline Bossi, Bob Neill (voice), Neil Ross (voice). Directed by Antony Hoffman

It’s 2025 and do you know where your atmosphere is? Yup…hopelessly poisoned, the soil sterilized by toxins, and our planet has less than a century of sustainable life left in it. That’s just a bad day for everybody.

All eyes turn to the Mars terraforming project; everything seems to be going well, but something odd’s been happening up there; the algae that had been sent to the planet to create a breathable atmosphere seems to be failing, and the oxygen levels on Mars are dropping fast. It looks like we’ll have to take care of this in person or else learn to hold our collective breath.

Mission commander Bowman (Moss) (Nyuck nyuck nyuck on the name, guys, open the pod bay door Hal?) leads a crew to examine the Mars problem. A habitation has already been sent to Mars and should be up and running. The mission is going smoothly, although one of the scientists (Stamp, who is wasted in a too-small role) is showing signs of wigging out, philosophically speaking. The “space janitor” — or systems engineer, (Kilmer) lacks respect from the crew, but has the eye of his commander (and apparently a bunch of other body parts).

Once in Mars orbit, things go wrong as they normally do in space movies. A severe solar flare cripples the mother ship and forces an early launch of the Lander, which promptly crashes (don’t you hate when that happens?) far away from the habitation. Commander Bowman, who had to stay behind in order to get the Lander away, is managing to repair the mother ship for the return to earth, but the mission looks junked, especially when the survivors from the Lander reach the habitation to find it completely destroyed, and only 15 minutes of oxygen left in their tanks. They wait around to die, only to discover something strange — there IS a breathable atmosphere on Mars after all. There is also a pissed-off robot who has gone military on their butts. What’s an astronaut to do?

Well, make chest-beating speeches about duty and sacrifice, for one thing. Kilmer and Stamp are terrific; Moss could have been the big action heroine that Linda Hamilton chose not to be; as it is she’s had a pretty solid career thanks to performances like these. Sizemore and Bratt are solid in support, and the effects are pretty nifty. The script, however, is pretty lame. It’s one Deus ex Machina after another, one amazing miraculous coincidence piled atop another until you’re screaming for mercy, but sadly, in Hollywood, nobody can hear you scream.

Red Planet  is fair enough eye candy, but could have used a plot that didn’t have quite so many holes in it  – the destruction of the habitation is never fully explained; when you figure out what caused it, you wonder how a station that was designed to withstand an F5 tornado could have succumbed to what destroyed it, for example. Kilmer is as laid-back as action heroes go; Sizemore makes a pretty good second banana, but it’s Moss who captured my attention here, as she will yours  and she would have without the somewhat obligatory, unnecessary nude scene.

This came out the same year as Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars which was slightly better than this although I think Mission stands up better over time, despite the Kubrickian noodling of its ending.  I’m as big a fan of sci-fi adventure movies as you’ll find but even I couldn’t find a lot of positive things here. This was one mission I could have done without.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent special effects. Carrie-Anne Moss rocks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Too much chest-beating. Kilmer too laid-back for the role.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair share of violence and foul language and a brief nude scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Many of the Mars scenes were filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan – a desolate narrow valley.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on an $80M production budget; the movie flopped big time at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Host (2013)

Thor


Thor

Thor is a bit perplexed as Odin extolls the joys of fava beans and a nice Chianti.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Part of the maturing process is realizing that, in fact, you don’t know everything. Most parents will tell you that this is a condition that afflicts most teenagers, some worse than others. Of course, if your teenager happens to be a God, that can be a bit overwhelming to deal with.

Thor (Hemsworth) is the God of Thunder and son of Odin (Hopkins), the Highfather of the Norse Gods. Thor isn’t exactly a teenager but he acts like one – reckless, arrogant and foolish. The mortal enemies of the Gods are the Frost Giants, whom Odin defeated a thousand years before and took their most fearsome weapon from them. Now, a trio of them has attempted to steal it back, unsuccessfully which cheeses off Thor big time. Not just because they dared to cross the borders of Asgard itself, which Thor sees as an act of war – but because they did it on the day that Odin named him his heir over his younger brother Loki (Hiddleston).

So Thor decides to pay the Frost Giants a little visit, taking along his good friends the Warriors Three – handsome Fandral (Dallas), taciturn Hogun (Asano) and voluminous Volstagg (Stevenson), as well as Loki  and Sif (Alexander), an intense but loyal female warrior. To get there they must cross Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge which is guarded by the grim Heimdal (Elba), who normally wouldn’t allow Thor to cross on such a fool’s errand – but he is curious as to how the Frost Giants got into Asgard without him knowing, so he allows them to pass.

Of course this turns out to be a very bad idea. The confrontation quickly turns ugly and the Asgardians must fight their way past a kind of gigantic dog-like creature as well as a horde of Frost Giants, necessitating their rescue by Odin himself. He asks Laufey (Feore), the King of the Frost Giants if the incident could be forgotten but Laufey says a brusque no. War, it seems, is coming to Asgard.

Thor continues to be petulant about the whole thing and he and his dad get into a shouting match. Odin, pissed off beyond all measure, exiles Thor to Earth, stripping him of his powers and sending his enchanted hammer Mjolnir after him. When Thor learns some patience and gains the wisdom that is worthy of the hammer, he’ll be allowed to use it once again.

Meanwhile, on earth, a trio of scientists is studying some mysterious radiation surges in the New Mexico desert. Jane Foster (Portman) is extremely dedicated and passionate to her scientific muse. She is mentored by pragmatic Scandinavian Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) and aided by flighty intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings), who is a bit science challenged (she’s majoring in Political Science but this was the only internship she could get). They are out in the desert when a giant funnel cloud opens up. Of course Jane drives right into it – and smack into a Norse God which she strikes with her car.

As she begins to analyze her scientific data she theorizes that what she encountered was one end of a wormhole, through which the “really cut for a homeless guy,” as Darcy describes him, travelled. At first, he seems a bit demented. He is courtly to near ridiculous levels, freakishly strong, socially awkward by our standards and continually spouts out insane statements about Norse mythology, asserting that he is the God of Thunder and carries an enchanted hammer. Yeah, right.

In the meantime, the government agency SHIELD, led by the somewhat brusque agent Coulson (Gregg) has taken over, throwing a cordon around the hammerfall site and taking all of Jane’s research, including her journal. Thor, finding out where his hammer is, determines to go get it and prove himself worthy to Odin.

Up in Asgard, things have gone from bad to worse. Odin has fallen into a coma, Loki has proven to be treacherous and has taken the throne, threatening to annihilate the Frost Giants once and for all. Thor’s friends Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun and Sif come to Earth in a desperate attempt to retrieve Thor and set things to rights. Loki, discovering their treachery, sends down a Destroyer robot to end the lot of them and give him the throne of Asgard free and clear.

At first glance, Branagh is an unusual choice for directing a superhero comic adaptation. After all, he is best known for his Shakespeare adaptations and somewhat classical approach to film. However, he turns out to be the perfect choice; he immediately saw the epic quality in the story that even the Bard would have appreciated and Branagh wisely approaches the story in a matter befitting Shakespeare.

The result is a visually stunning, well-acted superhero movie painted on a cosmic canvas. Hemsworth, memorable as George Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, proves to be a solid and charismatic lead. He has all the makings of a big star, which bodes well for the Marvel Universe. His Thor, although petulant and impulsive is also easy-going and good-hearted. It’s nice to see a superhero mature onscreen in front of you as opposed to the darker superhero tales which seem to be more in vogue these days.

He gets some pretty good support, particularly from Hopkins who lends every inch of gravitas possible to Odin. Portman makes for a sweet romantic interest, in a PG kind of way. Skarsgard, one of the more reliable character actors around, is flinty and stolid as Dr. Selvig; skeptical and practical but also loyal to Jane, the daughter of an old friend. Dennings provides ample comic relief, which is surprising since in previous roles she didn’t strike me as the sort. I’m pleased to see Dennings show that kind of range – I’ve always liked her as an actress, so having that sort of versatility does make career longevity more of a possibility. Rene Russo also makes a rare and welcome appearance as Thor’s mother (and Odin’s wife) Frigga.

Hiddleston makes a fine Loki – tormented, mischievous and hateful. He is not the pure evil that sometimes he is portrayed in the comics; his origin also diverges from Marvel canon somewhat but in a good way I think. He proves to be a formidable opponent for Thor.

I also liked Elba as Heimdal, lending the kind of gravitas usually associated with James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Patrick Stewart. While we’re on the subject of the guardian of the rainbow bridge, the bridge makes one of the more arresting visuals of the movie. It is a combination of magic and science that is colorful (as you’d expect) and in an odd way, sensible. The city of Asgard itself is also gorgeous; certainly a CGI creation but looking almost like a miniature in many ways. It looks very much like a city of Gods.

As you can tell from the plot description, the story is a bit ponderous in places, with lots of characters showing up from the pages of Thor and Norse mythology in general. Fleeting glimpses are made of the Infinity Gauntlet, Hawkeye (of the Avengers) and Stan Lee. Keeping track of everything and everyone can be taxing at times, particularly for those who aren’t as well-versed in the comics.

Still, this is a very good start to the franchise; not quite to the level of Iron Man but surprisingly close. Now that the Marvel moviemaking machine is in full gear, it’s good to see that the quality standards are still high. Hopefully that’s something that will turn out to be as eternal as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: Asgard is beautifully realized. There’s an epic and Shakespearean quality to the story. Hemsworth acquits himself well as a leading man, with fine supporting performances by Portman, Hiddleston, Hopkins, Skarsgard, Elba and Dennings.

REASONS TO STAY: The story can be a bit confusing in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction/fantasy/comic book violence and a couple of scary monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marks the first appearance of Rene Russo in a feature film in six years.

HOME OR THEATER: Most definitely the big screen to maintain the epic quality of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tropic Thunder

Planet 51


Planet 51

Now there's a sight that would scare anybody.

(Tri-Star) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco

When all is said and done, we’re a pretty scary species. Oh, to ourselves we seem to be okay but if you were to look at our record of genocide, warmongering, cruelty and violence, I’d be mighty scared if I were an intelligent species on another planet that humans came to visit.

Astronaut Chuck Baker (Johnson) has done just that. Planet 51, a planet in the…well, it’s just dang far away, is the destination of his interstellar voyage. However, when he arrives on this Earth-like planet, he discovers that it’s more than just a little Earth-like; it’s just like Earth. America in the 1950’s Earth, that is.

While Chuck is a little freaked by the little green men he’s discovered, the inhabitants of Planet 51 are more than a little freaked out by his presence. In fact, they’re downright terrified, as any self-respecting species would be after decades of alien invasion movies to scare the righteous you-know-what out of them.

Only Lem (Long) has the sense to put aside his irrational fears, even though he’s plenty scared at first. Of course, Lem has a bit of an advantage – he works at the local planetarium, where he tells the schoolchildren who come to watch the light show “the universe is a very, very large place – hundreds of miles wide.”

Once he and Chuck get to know one another, they discover that they aren’t that unalike after all. However, Chuck has a big problem – his lander has been confiscated by the paranoid military-industrial complex exemplified by General Grawl (Oldman) and he has a finite window of time to get back to the service module, otherwise it will leave for the return back home, leaving Chuck stranded there forever. And Lem has problems of his own, trying to impress Neera (Biel), the object of his affections who has a soft spot for the counter-culture (after all, if you’re going to have a ‘50s that means a ‘60s aren’t far behind).

Sony Animation, who gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, actually didn’t have much to do with this; Spanish animation studio Ilion is actually the entity that is responsible. It’s their first effort and as any first effort goes, has its good points and places where they didn’t do quite as well. The entire small town Pleasantville­ vibe with the sci-fi touches (cars that look like something out of the “Jetsons” for example) is done well enough, but could have been more clever and maybe a little more quirky.

There are plenty of cute characters that will keep kids occupied, like the mechanical Rover that oozes oil when it’s frightened, a dog-like creature that pays homage to the Alien movies, and the aliens themselves, a cute cross between sea monkeys and tree frogs with more than a little nod towards the Shrek franchise (green creatures with antennae sticking out of their foreheads, although they aren’t nearly as grumpy or gross as the ogres). There are plenty of bright colors to distract the very young but quite frankly, not enough real humor to keep their parents from getting bored.

Johnson’s Chuck is a bit on the smug and self-congratulatory side, a bit of a refreshing change from the insecure heroes we usually get in animated films – oh, wait, that would be Lem. In fact, most of the rest of the vocal cast is merely adequate but then again there is truly nothing offensive here; but by the same token, there’s nothing really exciting either. It’s a diversion, nothing more.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson’s overbearing hero is a nice change of pace from the usual animated hero, who as a rule tend to be more like Lem. Some cute little pop culture commentaries.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too weird for kids. The animation is just not all that impressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little inappropriate humor, but nothing that most tykes haven’t seen already on the Cartoon Network.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive movie ever produced in Spain, with a budget of roughly $70 million U.S. dollars.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An obstacle course came featuring Rover is the most kid-friendly feature here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.4M in total box office on a $70M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)