New Releases for the Week of February 12, 2016


DeadpoolDEADPOOL

(20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Ed Skrein, Lesley Uggams, Greg LaSalle, Taylor Hickson. Directed by Tim Miller

This is not your daddy’s superhero movie – although it might just end up being your daddy. Wade Wilson is a mercenary with a particular set of skills…oh, not that tired old movie again. But Wade has a big problem – it’s cancer and it’s everywhere in his body. Things don’t look good for our good ol’ buddy Wade – until a mysterious man recruiting for a mysterious agency makes a proposal that Wade might not be able to turn down. One of the hotly anticipated movies of the year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (3D, IMAX 3D)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity)

Fitoor

(UTV) Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari. A Bollywood take on the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. A young street boy in Kashmir falls in love with an upper class girl but the girl’s mother conspires to keep the young lovebirds apart.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some thematic issues)

How to Be Single

(New Line/MGM) Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Damon Wayans Jr., Leslie Mann. A group of young unmarrieds in the Big Apple cope with the vagaries of the dating scene in a digital world as well as the sometimes confusing rules of behavior between the sexes.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sexual content and strong language throughout)

The Lady in the Van

(TriStar) Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam. Playwright and television presenter Alan Bennett is annoyed to discover an elderly woman living in her van in his driveway. Grudgingly, he allows her to stay, a decision that will change both their lives.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for a brief unsettling image)

Tumbledown

(Starz Digital Media) Jason Sudeikis, Rebecca Hall, Dianna Agron, Blythe Danner. The widow of an iconic folksinger finds it hard to move on and retreats to the woods of Maine. When a brash New York writer approaches her with the proposal of writing his biography, she is at first cool to the idea but the more she allows him to write his story, the more she heals.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for a sex scene)

Where to Invade Next

(Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Kirsta Kiuru. Professional gadfly and documentarian Moore turns his eye to the American dream and how it seems to be alive and well – and living in other places around the globe. He comes up with ways that dream is being pursued, and how the ideas that other countries have used can work here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity)

Zoolander 2

(Paramount) Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell. Down on his heels and irrelevant, supermodel Derek Zoolander gets back in the game in more way than one when a mysterious Interpol agent discloses that the world’s most beautiful celebrities are turning up dead – with Zoolander’s famous “blue steel” look on their faces. Lucky bastards

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language)

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Mr. Holmes


Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

Even the most beautiful garden path can be the road to Hell.

(2015) Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Roger Allam, Philip Davis, Frances de la Tour, Charles Maddox, Takako Akashi, Zak Shukor, John Sessions, Michael Culkin, David Foxxe, Oliver Devoti, Mike Burnside, Nicholas Rowe, Sam Coulson, Frances Barber. Directed by Bill Condon

The difference between reality and fiction can often be the mere stroke of a pen. Often we are presented with an image, one that in time becomes as reality. What happens to the real person then, when the fictional image becomes more powerful than the real person who inspired it?

In a sleepy seaside town on the east coast of England lives a cantankerous old man in an old cottage overlooking white chalk cliffs. He spends his days pottering around, caring for his bees and chatting with Roger (Parker), the son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Linney). It is nigh on impossible to believe that once upon a time, this old man was the most famous and honored detective in Great Britain, for he is Sherlock Holmes (McKellen), now 93 years old and living in retirement in post-war England.

It is 1947 and he has just returned from Japan on a visit with Umezaki (Sanada), with whom he has been corresponding about the nature of prickly ash, which is said to have restorative powers for those afflicted by senility. Holmes witnesses first-hand the horrors of Hiroshima only two years after it was annihilated by the Americans and their atomic bomb; for a man who has lived through two world wars, this visual representation of man’s inhumanity to man is almost more than he can take.

Holmes’ great mental facilities and his memory has become suspect and the 93-year-old man is trapped by his fading intellect. He is trying to recall his last case, one which caused him to retire to the seaside, but he can’t remember it, or what about it caused him to put down his magnifying glass for good. He feels like he needs to recall this; everyone he knows is dead save for the two living with him now who didn’t know him when these events transpired. All he knows is the case involved a distraught husband (Kennedy), a mysterious wife (Morahan) and a music teacher (de la Tour) who was also something of a spiritualist. As the case unravels, so does Holmes. Can he remember the details of the case and find peace, or will he join his colleagues in the Choir Invisible first?

This is the Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters, not the one who directed the two installments of the Twilight saga. Other reviewers have described this movie as elegiac and that’s nearly the perfect description; there is an air of melancholy, of lost lives and overwhelming regret and loneliness. Much of the movie is told through flashbacks as the elderly Holmes recalls shards of memory and starts to assemble them into a cohesive whole. There is an amazing scene where a middle-aged Holmes speaks to one of the main players in the mystery he is revisiting in his old age and describes that he has consciously made the choice to be lonely, but somewhat ironically follows up that having the great intellect is reward enough. As he nears the end of his life, Holmes no longer has the comfort of that intellect, although germs of it remain.

&We forget that McKellan is one of the great actors of our time; we tend to associate him with Gandalf and Magneto and need to remember that this man has a Shakespearean background and has some of the most honored performances in the history of the English stage,. His gruff exterior hides inner pain, as he for perhaps for the first time in his life feels fear; fear that the thing most of value to him is being slowly stripped away from him. For someone like Sherlock Holmes, dementia and senility are the absolute worst calamities that might befall him. We see the uncertainty of a man used to relying on the powers of his mind suddenly unable to trust those powers any longer. It’s a bravura performance that not only humanizes the great detective who is often seen these days as something of a caricature but also makes him relatable. In the past, Holmes always seemed above the rest of us; we could admire his skills while finding him cold and unapproachable. Befriending Sherlock Holmes would be something like befriending an iPad; it can be done but it wouldn’t be very satisfying if you did.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m going to make a point of finding it. There is a marvelous backstory as we discover that for the sake of making the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes’ career more enticing to the reading public his dear friend Dr. Watson has taken a few liberties with the truth. For example, Holmes tells us in a somewhat bemused tone, that he never wore a deerstalker cap (which was actually an invention of illustrators Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele, who assumed the deerstalker was the chapeau of choice due to Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of his headgear, although the author never expressly stated that Holmes wore a deerstalker) nor did he smoke a pipe – he tended to prefer cigars. We get the sense that Holmes is somewhat amused by Watson’s inventions regarding his life but is to a large extent also trapped by them.

Purists of the Holmes canon will probably have a bit of a meltdown regarding some of this, but I personally think (not being a Sherlock Holmes expert in any sense) that the author and filmmakers do honor the spirit of the character here. We get a sense of what a real human being would be like if possessed of the same mental acuity as Sherlock Holmes. It would be a marvelous life indeed – and a lonely one as well.

In some ways this is likely to get lost amid the bombast of the summer’s louder and more well-heeled blockbusters, but this is as entertaining as any of them – and more than most of them, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to the great detective’s final years and found it believable and enjoyable, and that is all you can really ask of a summer movie indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performance by McKellan. Terrific backstory.
REASONS TO STAY: Not for purists.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the concepts here are pretty adult; there are a couple of images that are disturbing as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Holmes in the movie that the “real” Holmes goes to see is played by Nicholas Rowe, who starred in the title role of Young Sherlock Holmes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seven Per-Cent Solution
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Little Death

New Releases for the Week of July 17, 2015


Ant-ManANT-MAN

(Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, T.I., Hayley Atwell. Directed by Peyton Reed

Hank Pym, a noted inventor and scientist has long hidden his Ant-Man suit away from the world because he doesn’t think it is ready for its awesome powers. Now he is forced to use it but he himself cannot handle the physical demands of the suit, so he recruits a master thief named Scott Lang. Scott, he believes, can be a true hero and he will need to be to overcome the villain who means to enslave the world. Scott will have to call on the powers of the Ant-Man suit – the ability to shrink down in size, to become super-strong and to control insects – as well as his own skills as a thief to pull of the ultimate heist and save the world.

See the trailer, clips, promos, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX (opens Thursday)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)

Infinitely Polar Bear

(Sony Classics) Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Keir Dullea, Imogene Wolodarsky. Set in the 1970s, a father who has made a number of mistakes in life and has lost his family as a result, tries to win back his estranged wife by showing her that he can take responsibility for his daughters. His skeptical kids though aren’t going to make that a particularly easy task. His eccentricities aren’t going to make it easy to begin with.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language)

Mr. Holmes

(Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Ian McKellan, Laura Linney, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam. The great detective Sherlock Holmes is in his waning years, living in a seaside town with his housekeeper and her son in 1947, dealing with the powers of his mind which have begun to slip away. With the aid of his housekeeper’s son, he will take on the unsolved case that forced him into retirement so that he can at last put it to rest and go to his grave with a clear conscience. From acclaimed director Bill Condon.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking)

Trainwreck

(Universal) Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn. A young woman has been trained from birth to believe that monogamy is unrealistic; now grown, she bounces from bed to bed without committing to anyone other than her BFF and her job at a men’s magazine. When she conducts an interview with a sports surgeon, though, all her tightly held beliefs begin to unravel. The latest from Judd Apatow has been getting early notices as the funniest film thus far this year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use)

The Book Thief


Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetezer to rehearse their lines with her but he's too tired.

Sophie Nelisse tries to get Ben Schnetzer to rehearse their lines with her but he’s too tired.

(2013) Drama (20th Century Fox) Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watkins, Roger Allam (voice), Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Carina Wiese, Rainier Bock, Barbara Auer, Kirsten Block, Heike Makatsch, Julian Lehmann, Hildegard Schroedter, Levin Liam, Sandra Nedeleff, Carl Heinz Choynski, Sebastian Hulk, Beata Lehmann. Directed by Brian Percival

The power of words can be transformative. The description of the day can bring someone trapped indoors into the world even for just a few moments. They can transport us to faraway places, transfer us into heroic beings and leave us like we can do anything.

In 1938 Germany, young Liesel (Nelisse) is being taken by train to meet her new foster parents by her mother (Makatsch) who is no longer able to keep her. Unfortunately before they can get there, her younger brother (Lehmann) dies suddenly and is buried by the tracks. At the graveside Liesel finds a book and even though she can neither read nor write, she impulsively takes it with her.

She is brought to a small German town where her new parents are waiting for her – kindly Hans (Rush), an out of work housepainter whose business has suffered because he hasn’t joined the Nazi party, and his harpy-esque wife Rosa (Watkins). She attracts the attention of Rudy Steiner (Liersch), the blonde young boy next door who happens to be the fastest runner in the neighborhood and who idolized Jesse Owens although that’s not exactly looked upon with favor by the Nazi regime.

Liesel’s illiteracy has caught the attention of the kids in school, particularly school bully Franz (Liam). Hans determines to teach Liesel how to read and write and turns their basement into a kind of living dictionary where Liesel writes new words she learns from various books she picks up.

Rosa takes in laundry to help make ends meet and one of her clients is the Buergmeister Hermann (Bock) and his wife Ilsa (Auer). At a book burning, Ilsa had noticed Liesel picking up a slightly charred copy of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man but tells no-one about it. Instead, she introduces Liesel to her library, a kind of homage to her son who had been killed. Laundry day becomes reading day for Ilsa and Liesel until the Buergmeister discovers what’s going on and puts a stop to it – and Rosa’s laundry.

In the meantime, following the infamous Kristallnacht of November 10, 1938 a young Jew named Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer) shows up at Hans and Rosa’s door, needing to be hidden. Max’s father had saved Hans’ life during the First World War at the cost of his own so Hans feels honor-bound to save his son. For two years, Max lives in their basement and becomes fast friends with Liesel.

However as World War II begins and things start to go badly in Germany, things go from bad to worse for Liesel’s new family. While Liesel defiantly “borrows” books from Ilsa’s library, the war begins to turn against the Nazi’s and Hans’ refusal to join the party begins to get him viewed with further suspicion. What can good people do to survive such evil and such horror in their midst?

Based on the award winning bestseller by Marcus Zusak, this is brilliantly realized by Percival, best known for his work on Downton Abbey so he is at least experienced with the period. The German village (filmed in picturesque Gorlitz in Saxony) is bucolic and lovely but the ugliness hidden within is at times shocking. Not everyone in the village is a Nazi nor are most of them heroes; they are simply trying to live their lives as peacefully as possible and turn away when things get ugly, hoping that the ugliness won’t touch them directly. This is human nature, like it or not.

Nelisse, who was impressive in Monsieur Lazhar last year positively shines here. It is not an easy thing for an actress her age to carry a motion picture but Nelisse manages without being overly cute while being completely believable. It doesn’t hurt that she has actors the caliber of Rush and Watson to play off of. Rush, who won an Oscar for Shine may actually be more memorable here. He brings incredible humanity to the role of Hans without making him too good to be true. Hans simply put has a warm heart and a poet’s soul. Watson has a more difficult role with the prickly Rosa and manages to keep Rosa’s heart well buried beneath her gruff exterior. I think she has a good shot at a Best Supporting Actress nomination when the Oscars come around.

Some critics have groused over the narration which is done by Death himself, in the guise of Roger Allam. The book was also so narrated and part of the book’s message requires Death to be involved because Death is a part of life. We are reminded of our mortality in the movie early and often and we are also reminded how precious life is and how easily we can lose it. Those who are complaining about Death’s narration may well have missed the point.

The movie is extremely moving and while there are elements of fantasy involved – not just Death’s narration but a scene in which the bodies of unfortunates caught in a bombing are lined up next to each other, beautifully untouched and looking mostly asleep (whereas if they had been in a bombing raid of the sort depicted they would have been charred and battered beyond recognition) – that’s fantasy. That’s death through a child’s eye (and perhaps through Death’s eye as well) in which death is a peaceful naptime, a transition from wakefulness to slumber.

Chances are the Academy is going to ignore this one – it simply hasn’t generated the buzz that American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave both have (haven’t seen the former and the latter is certainly justified). That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. While this is based on a young adult novel, the subject matter may be a little too much for smaller kids. Do exercise parental caution is determining whether or not your kids are ready to see this. However if you feel they can handle it, it is well worth a family movie outing and is definitely one of the best movies this year.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and occasionally beautiful. Fine performances by Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Blend of fantasy and reality doesn’t always work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes that may be too intense for the very impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer of the book this is based on, Marcus Zusak, is actually Australian.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Nebraska

Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Iron Lady


 

The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep suddenly notices that Jim Broadbent’s deoderant isn’t what it could be.

(2011) Biodrama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach, Harry Lloyd, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Farrell, Roger Allam, Anthony Head, Richard E. Grant, Susan Brown, Julian Wadham, Pip Torrens, Nick Dunning, David Westhead, Amanda Root. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

 

Few political figures of the late 20th century are as polarizing as Margaret Thatcher. Conservatives revere her for her fiscal frugality and willingness to go to war to protect British soil; liberals despise her for…well, pretty much the same things. By all accounts her personality was forceful and charismatic; she had a will of steel that bent to nothing and nobody, and when she set her sights on something, she inevitably would achieve it.

Her biopic starts with Thatcher (Streep) long retired from politics, wandering into a corner grocer for a pint of milk. She goes unrecognized by the other patrons of the shop; she grouses about the price of milk as any other consumer might. When she gets home, there is consternation; apparently she wasn’t supposed to wander off by herself and nobody knew where she was.

It turns out that Mrs. Thatcher has a touch of dementia. For one thing, she’s speaking with her husband Denis (Broadbent) – even though he’s been dead and gone for five years. Her daughter Carol (Colman) is urging her mother to clean out her father’s things from the closet. It’s long overdue for her to say goodbye. So she begins the heart-wrenching task of going through her late husband’s things, some of which send her on trips down memory lane – what we film  freaks like to call “flashbacks.”

We meet Margaret (Roach) as a young woman, a grocer’s daughter as London is enduring the Blitz. She’s plucky (some might say foolish) enough to run upstairs during a bombing to cover the butter. She idolizes her father who has some ultimately unfulfilled political aspirations. She develops some of her own, although getting into the male-dominated Tory party and winning a seat in the House of Commons proves challenging. She also meets young businessman Denis Thatcher (Lloyd) who proposes marriage which she accepts.

She eventually wins through and earns the respect of some of her peers for her strength of character and intelligence. She is mentored by Airey Neave (Fellows), a savvy politician who is later assassinated by the IRA. This is partially responsible for her lifelong hatred of terrorism and her refusal to give into it. She continues to rise in the party until she arrives as Prime Minister, a position she will be elected to for three terms and the only female to date elected to the position.

But the movie doesn’t really focus on her political career, although it is necessarily a part of her story. Nor does it take a position pro or con regarding her politics. Director Lloyd and screenwriter Abi Morgan take great pains to remain neutral; somehow I suspect that they admired the woman but not her policies.

The attraction here is Streep. She deservedly won the Oscar earlier this year for her performance which is quite frankly one of the finest of her illustrious career. She captures the nuances of Thatcher’s mannerisms, yes – but so could any mimic. What she does that makes her performance scintillating is capture the essence of her character, from the force of nature presence as a world leader to a confused and sometimes frustrated old woman who no longer commands power or respect.

It is the latter aspect that conservatives have railed against this film for. Thatcher has largely stayed out of the public eye for the past 25 years since her somewhat painful ouster which apparently angered her greatly. There has been some speculation that she, like her good friend Ronald Reagan, might be the victim of Alzheimer’s Disease – which quite frankly is just that. I personally think it takes just as much courage to take on the ravages of old age as it does a hostile Labour party.

The movie overall doesn’t match Streep’s performance, sadly. Although Broadbent does a good job in his role, most of the other performances are lost and quite frankly I had a difficult time telling the players apart. There is a lot of archival footage to help tell Thatcher’s tale but at the end of the day it is Streep who’s remarkable Oscar-winning performance elevates this movie above a Biography channel piece and gives life to Thatcher, something that the rest of the movie failed to do.

WHY RENT THIS: Streep’s justifiable Oscar-winning performance. Interesting story-telling style.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks insight into her political decisions and glosses over her more controversial policies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of violence as well as brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won both of the Oscars it was nominated for (the other being Best Make-Up), a rare feat that had previously been accomplished by Ed Wood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While mostly the standard promotional stuff, there is a pretty decent featurette on the role the real Denis Thatcher played in her life.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $114.9M on an unreported production budget; the movie was likely a box office hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nixon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Multiple Sarcasms

Speed Racer


Speed Racer

Apparently Speed Racer is out-running the Aurora Borealis.

(2008) Science Fiction Action (Warner Brothers) Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox, Hiroyuki Sanada, Richard Roundtree, Ji Hoon Jung, Benno Furmann, Roger Allam, Kick Gurry, Paulie Litt, Christian Oliver, Art La Fleur. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

When I was growing up (a preface my father used to make to what would turn out to be a long-winded lecture about why his generation was superior to my generation which sucked rocks), part of my afternoon routine after getting home from school involved turning on the television and watching an anime double feature (although I didn’t know they were called anime at the time) of “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer.” I had no conception that what they were doing were anything like groundbreaking – having seen some of those episodes again recently I can tell you with great confidence that they were anything but from an animation standpoint – but I knew they were in color, they were fun and even if they weren’t animated as well as my favorite shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Wacky Racers,” they at least had storylines that I found to be a little bit better than the very light stuff that were common for the time.

The Wachowskis (then still known as brothers) were evidently of the same mindset as I growing up. Fresh off of their world-beating success that was the Matrix trilogy, they basically could do whatever they chose and a live-action remake of the beloved Japanese cartoon series was what they chose. In hindsight it may seem a trifle…ill-advised.

Speed Racer (Hirsch) is a talented young racer in the World Racing League. He is haunted by demons – the death of his brother Rex in a gruesome crash during an unsanctioned race – and yearns to break the records his brother set. Unlike most of the racers in the League, Speed is an independent without corporate sponsorship; his father Pops (Goodman) builds the cars, Sparky (Gurry) maintains them, Mom (Sarandon) makes pancakes and his little brother Spritle (Litt) gets into mischief. Usually around is Speed’s girlfriend Trixie (Ricci) who spends so much time with Speed’s family you wonder if she has a family of her own.

Into their lives blows Arnold Royalton (Allam), chairman of Royalton Industries, one of the leaders in WRL sponsorship. He is impressed by Speed’s record-breaking pace and wants to take him to the next level – the championship of the WRL. He is urbane and charming and loves pancakes. However, Spritle snoops around and discovers that there is a dark side to Royalton and eventually Speed declines the offer. Royalton turns petty and vindictive and vows to destroy the Racer family and does everything within his power to do just that.

Then there’s the mysterious Racer X (Fox) who turns out to be working undercover for Inspector Detector (Furmann) of Interpol who enlists Speed to help find out who’s responsible for the illegal race fixing that has plagued the WRL and caused economic chaos. In order to do that he’s going to have to conquer the unsanctioned race that was responsible for his brother’s death and is the most grueling, dangerous race on the planet – the Crucible.

The Wachowskis have an amazing visual sense and this might be their most brilliant movie from a visual sense ever. The movie uses a palette of bright neon-infused colors, like someone had thrown Slurpees across the screen and then black lighted them. The world of Speed Racer is more brilliant than the cartoon it sprang from, with supercharged cars hurling at you at breathtaking speeds. Much of the movie was filmed against a green screen (a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and much of the world of the WRL is computer generated.

However, as good looking as the movie is it lacks a few things. Like, for instance, a plot that doesn’t disintegrate upon any sort of inspection. I can forgive that to a certain degree – all that technology is fine and dandy but it would have made for a better movie with a bit more attention to detail when it came to the writing. However, there are a few things that just dropped the movie from being a game changer.

The length, for one. Two hours of visual assault begins to numb the senses; there were too many car races and not enough plot development for this type of time commitment. You can only see so many cars racing around a highly stylized track before you begin to yawn unless you’re a dedicated Formula 1 or NASCAR maniac.

And for another, the presence of Spritle and Chim-Chim. Yes, I know they were integral parts of the original cartoon and they were meant to be the avatars for the kids the cartoon was aimed at but I think they outstayed their welcome. They were too much at the forefront of the film and quite frankly, the characters are annoying and they dumb down the movie way too much to be comfortable. Nothing against Litt, the young actor who plays Spritle – he didn’t write the part after all – but I’m to the point that when I see his character onscreen while watching the DVD I hit the Fast Forward button.

Hirsch was cast in this movie after an acclaimed Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild and it seemed his career was on the rise. Unfortunately I never got a sense that Hirsch was motivated to do much more than read his lines. This is an unfortunately flat and lifeless performance that harkens back to the emotionless voice acting that characterized the original cartoon and to be fair that might well be a deliberate decision on either the filmmakers or Hirsch’s part; it’s just a bad decision and if it is the case, is another reason why remakes should never try to import things that don’t work from the original just for nostalgia’s sake.

Allam makes for a fine villain and for some quirky reason channels Tim Curry who is also one of the fine villains of recent years. Here he’s both venomous and urbane; always  a lethal but delicious combination when it comes to movie villains. Fox, who was heavily in the public eye for his work in the cultish TV show “Lost,” shows off a different kind of heroism and is one of the best things about the movie. Certainly my attention perks up whenever he’s on the screen.

This is definitely the case of a movie that is innovative and lovely to look at, but falls apart upon too close an inspection. The cure for that? Don’t inspect too closely. Look at it for what it is – an eye candy sugar rush that is going to put you in a happy coma after two hours of non-stop bliss. This is entertainment, pure and simple – imperfect to be sure but entertainment nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Brilliant visuals. Allam is an over-the-top villain and Fox shows off his heroic chops as Racer X.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: About a good half-hour too long. Spritle and Chim-Chim are far, far too annoying.  Hirsch a little bit flat as Speed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of violence. Some of the car crash scenes are a little bit gruesome. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr, the English voices of Speed and Trixie in the original cartoon series, voice race announcers in the feature film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a game and a couple of extra features not found on the DVD edition which itself is nothing to write home about.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $94.0M on a $120M production budget; the movie was a major box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

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