Uncle John


Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

Uncle John spies Axel Foley coming down his driveway.

(2015) Suspense/Romance (Self-Released) John Ashton, Alex Moffatt, Jenna Lyng, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Cynthia Baker, Don Forston, Laurent Soucie, Gary Houston, Tim Decker, Mark Piebenga, Janet Glimme, Michael Sassone, Matt Kozlowski, Eli Rix, Carol Sekorky, Charles Stransky, Andy Cameron, Ian Pfaff (voice), Donna Steele, Tammy Newsome, Adria Dawn, Ashleigh LaThrop. Directed by Steven Piet

Florida Film Festival 2015

Most of us have some sort of secret or another; few people are completely transparent. Maybe it’s a secret crush we harbor for someone we work with or maybe it’s a dark deed done in the heat of passion. Maybe it’s just how we feel about the man who raised us.

John (Ashton) is an aging man who lives on a Wisconsin farm he inherited from his dad but is no longer a working farm. He has managed to keep the land but has turned his skills to carpentry, where he installs and repairs cabinets or builds furniture in the small town near his farm. Generally his social life involves hanging out in a diner with his friends, men he’s known and hung out with likely since childhood. They’re all old men now, chattering about gossip like you’d expect from old women. The main source of gossip is the disappearance of Dutch (Soucie), a former roustabout who had found Jesus and was trying to make amends to everyone he’d wronged which was a fairly sizable list.

Ben (Moffatt) is a young man working for a digital animation studio in Chicago that handles a lot of advertising accounts. He works long hours and doesn’t have much time for a social life. His latest project has a new producer, Kate (Lyng) who is a very attractive young woman. Ben is instantly attracted, and it soon becomes clear that the feelings are mutual but both are aware that office romances can be career killing things, so they keep things cordial but the fire is clearly smoldering. The two are forced to spend a lot of hours working together and naturally begin hanging out after work, a post-work cocktail here, a late dinner of Thai food there. Even though Kate is trying to get Ben laid with hook-ups at their local bar, Ben bicycles home late at night with Kate on his mind.

When the client for the project that Ben and Kate are working for demand some late changes, a weekend work session begins to take its toll. Ben suggests some pastries at the best bakery he knows – in the small Wisconsin town he grew up in. Kate is all in and they take a road trip to visit Ben’s Uncle John, the man who raised him after his parents passed away.

In the meantime Dutch’s brother Danny (Blevins) is certain that his brother is dead despite the fact that no corpse has been found. He is also certain that his brother has been murdered, even though signs point to a fishing accident. His suspicions land on John, whose behavior arouses Danny’s instincts and while the genial John denies it, Danny is certain he knows a lot more about the situation than John is letting on. With Ben and Kate arriving for a visit, both stories begin to swirl towards the inevitable; will Kate and Ben give in to their feelings for each other and will Danny confront John with the violence that is clearly bubbling beneath his surface?

Piet is attempting the rather ambitious task of filming two different stories in two disparate genres and then entwining them together in a single movie. The effect is not unlike switching channels on broadcast television between two different movies whenever a commercial interruption occurs. It’s an intriguing notion on paper.

For the most part, Piet does achieve what he seems to be aiming for – the two stories make their way through the course he lays out for them. It’s like they’re both swirling down a drain as they reach a denouement, moving faster and faster towards their conclusions before joining and merging at the bottom of the drain. Some of the best moments in the movie occur when all four of the main characters are together.

Oddly, Piet then chooses to separate the stories again with Ben and Kate in the house and John and Danny out in John’s workshop across the yard in a converted barn. The sex/death metaphor is a bit hoary for the most part but effective as the two stories reach their conclusions and the questions outlined earlier are answered. We end up very much full circle in a lot of ways.

Ashton, who most know as the by-the-book Sgt. Taggert in Beverly Hills Cop, does some of the best work of his long career here. John is a pillar of the community sort who seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He’s a widower and lives alone, even though there’s at least one woman in the community who wouldn’t mind a little canoodling with him. However, his affection for his nephew seems very genuine and the chemistry between Ashton and Moffatt is really the adhesive that binds the film together.

How well the movie works for you is going to depend first of all on how patient you are as the two stories move closer and closer together. As I sat through the film, I found myself wondering if there was going to be some sort of destination but the swirling around the drain metaphor is apt; the further into the movie we go, the faster the two stories seem to get towards merging into a single story. The two stories are pretty compelling with a slight edge towards the suspense story of John and Danny – there are too many awkward courtship moments in the Ben-Kate romance for my liking. Still, if you stick with it, the reward here is worth the effort. I admire the audacity of the filmmakers to purposely make two stories that seem as different as can be and then attempt to join them seamlessly together; it’s not 100% successful in that venture but it is close enough to it that I think this is worth keeping an eye out for on your local film festival circuit. Hopefully the movie will get some distribution and also bring back Ashton’s career as he has been absent from the screen for far too long.

REASONS TO GO: Ballsy move, incorporating two disparate stories. Ashton delivers a fine performance and has good chemistry with Moffatt.
REASONS TO STAY: Two stories merge and yet stay separate. Takes maybe too long in delivering payoff.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some sexuality and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moffatt is a past member of Chicago’s esteemed Second City troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rope
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Advertisements

Albert Nobbs


Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

Glenn Close shows off her dapper side.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Glenn Close, Mia Wasikowska, Aaron Johnson, Brendan Gleeson, Janet McTeer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Pauline Collins, Brenda Fricker, James Greene, Antonia Campbell Hughes, Phyllida Law, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Bronagh Gallagher, Rhys Burke, Laura Kinsella, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Mark Williams, Kenneth Collard, Judy Donovan. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

Woman Power

It is never easy being a woman (or so I surmise) but it was much harder in the 19th century than it is now. Opportunities for women back then were essentially limited to the husbands they could catch; if you happened to live in Ireland those opportunities were fewer still.

Albert Nobbs (Close) works as a waiter at a Dublin hotel just before the turn of the 20th century. Quietly efficient, he is appreciated for his efficiency, his unobtrusive service and of course his discretion. Even the hotel’s hypocritical owner, Mrs. Baker (Collins) feels kindly disposed towards him.

Albert hides a secret; beneath the starched high collar no Adam’s apple can be found; beneath the starched white shirt are a pair of womanly breasts rightly bound; beneath his perfectly pressed trousers no male member resides. He is a woman masquerading as a man, and successfully. Albert lives in quiet solitude in his small mean room in the employee quarters of the hotel. Beneath a board he hoards all the tips he’s received over a 15 year career. He is very close to his goal of 600 pounds; enough to buy a tobacconist’s shop where he’ll find the true independence he’s been longing for and when he makes enough money, selling the business and retiring to a seaside community.

His life is well-ordered and impeccably run; he knows what each guest needs before his guest knows it is needed. Albert rarely smiles because that would be out of place. That’s not to say that he has no friends although acquaintances would be the better word; the boisterous Dr. Holloran (Gleeson) and the tart-y chambermaid Helen (Wasikowska) socialize with him but don’t really know him. Nobody really does and Albert prefers it that way. Easier to keep his secret.

The hotel is a bit of faded glory and needs some sprucing up. The penurious Mrs. Baker realizes that in order to keep her customers she’ll need to do some maintenance and she hires Mr. Hubert Page (McTeer) to paint the hotel. It will be a fairly long job and so Mr. Page is made to bunk with Mr. Nobbs which doesn’t make Albert very happy. To his shock however, he discovers that he and Mr. Page have something in common – their gender.

Hubert has even gone so far as to marry Catherine (Gallagher), a truly winsome woman who not only knows Hubert’s secret but approves. Catherine is a dressmaker who keeps the two of them afloat when Hubert’s work dries up (in a manner of speaking). They make a fine team.

After Hubert’s job is completed, a new handyman is hired, Joe Mackin (Johnson). There’s not much good to say about Joe; he’s a drunk who can get violent when in his cups, he’s abusive particularly towards women and while devilishly handsome he isn’t particularly a go-getter. Of course Helen falls for him immediately.

Shortly after that a typhoid epidemic sweeps through Dublin, drying up business for the hotel and necessitating some changes. Hubert’s situation has convinced Albert that a good woman will be needed to help run his shop and he decides Helen would be perfect for that position. Not knowing that she is with someone, Albert tries courting her in a stiff and fumbling way. Joe finds out about it and encourages Helen to lead him on so that he might supply her with expensive gifts that he can sell and book passage for them both to America. The naive Albert doesn’t realize what’s going on. In such conditions, can he find his dream and even if he does, is that a sure way to happiness?

The undercurrents here are of sexual politics. The story began life as a novella by Irish author George Moore called The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs which may be found in his collection Celibate Lives if you’re interested in reading it. I get the sense that Nobbs makes a better man than most men which could well be a droll commentary on the state of manhood by Moore although I couldn’t swear to that explanation. I find it kind of comforting to think so however.

Close, who has championed this film for more than a decade, is one of the few actresses who can pull off the role without making a burlesque of it. She has the lower register vocally to make the illusion seem real and so complete is it that during a scene when she and McTeer dress up as women for a stroll along the beach, you almost could believe that they are a couple of men in drag, so awkward are they in the clothing of their own gender.

McTeer, who like Close was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 (making it the first time in Oscar history that two women pretending to be men were nominated for the same film), also makes the illusion seem real and while less time is spent on Hubert than on Albert, McTeer makes the role memorable and the relationships between Hubert and Catherine as well as Hubert and Albert believable.

There has been grumbling from some quarters that the film is a snide rip on the sexual politics of lesbians but I can only conclude that those making such claims haven’t seen the film. Neither Hubert nor Albert (whose real name we never discover) are sexually attracted to women and despite Albert’s pursuit Helen for matrimony, it’s more of a business arrangement for him. In fact, the whole masquerading as men thing is much more of an economic necessity for both of them rather than a conscious lifestyle choice. They’re just doing what they need to in order to survive.

While the pacing is a bit slow and the stiff dialogue and demeanor of the period may be excruciating for the impatient Generation Right Freaking Now, it’s still a movie well worth seeking out.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-worthy performance by Close. Wasikowska is lustrous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit stilted and slow.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, brief nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Close originated the role in a stage play based on the Moore novella. She won an Obie for her stage portrayal and lobbied for more than a decade to make a film out of it, which she eventually co-produced, co-wrote and received an Oscar nomination for her starring role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: While commentary tracks are generally de rigueur on most major home video releases, the one here by Close and Garcia is extraordinary, with Close going into enough detail into the source material and how it differs from the film, casting and character backgrounds and into great detail in the making of the film. It’s one of the best I’ve heard yet.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.6M on a $7.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Served the King of England

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Million Dollar Arm

The Family Tree


It's always the quiet ones...

It’s always the quiet ones…

(2011) Dramedy (EntertainmentOne) Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Chi McBride, Max Thieriot, Britt Robertson, Selma Blair, Keith Carradine, Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, Gabrielle Anwar, Rachel Leigh Cook, Jane Seymour, Christina Hendricks, John Patrick Amedori, Evan Ross, Madeline Zima, Evan Handler, Pamela Shaw, Hannah Hodson, Ally Maki. Directed by Vivi Friedman

When you look at your neighbors, what do you see? Upstanding church-going citizens? Kinky fetishists? Hard-charging workaholics? Bratty snot-nosed teens? Or all of the above?

In the world of Serenity, Ohio, the last answer would be appropriate. Bunnie Burnett (Davis) is an offensive shrew who rules her family through her sharp tongue and sadistic sensibilities. Her husband Jack (Mulroney) seems meek and inoffensive on the outside but years of being browbeaten has worn him down, turning him into a quaking philanderer after years of being refused sex by his wife. She would no doubt emasculate him if she knew but the truth is she’s far too busy engaging in role-playing games with their neighbor Simon Krebs (McBride) to do much investigating.

Her children aren’t much better. 17-year-old daughter Kelly (Robertson) is promiscuous and foul-tempered – she is well along the road of becoming her own mother although if you pointed it out to her you’d probably get kicked in a very sensitive portion of your anatomy. Kelly’s twin brother Eric (Thieriot) has fallen under the sway of pot-smoking gun-toting preacher Reverend Diggs (Carradine) who talks tough on the outside but on the inside…well he’s just an idiot.

During a particularly rough game of home invasion/rape fantasy with Simon, Bunnie is accidentally dealt a particularly severe whack on the head (Simon flees, leaving Bunnie to be discovered by her family) which leaves her with an unusual amnesia in which all her memories after the first year of her marriage have disappeared. Once again, Bunnie is the woman that Jack fell in love with. It’s an opportunity for the whole family to start fresh. The trouble is, the other lunatics in Serenity may not necessarily let them.

This is supposed to be a black comedy. Now, I understand that in such enterprises that a certain amount of cynicism should be expected and even appreciated. HOWEVER, the fact that every…single…character has some sort of dark side or sexual secret gets old really fast. You find yourself having nobody to really hang your hat on – everybody here is basically a douche, although some find at least a measure of redemption by the closing credits. For the most part even Jack who’s perhaps the closest thing to a truly nice character still cheats on his wife – deservedly or not. Not that I’m a prude nor do I need my lead characters to be too good to be true (in fact, some comedies go too far the other way). I just need my characters to act like PEOPLE and not CHARACTERS. How many characters do you run into every day when you walk out the door of your house (and I’m not talking about the ones at the multiplex) – I’m betting none. I can’t find too funny a comedy in which I identify with nobody.

Which is a shame because there are a lot of really talented actors involved as you can read from the cast list. Mulroney, who some might remember from My Best Friend’s Wedding has some decent screen presence and Davis is one of those actresses who has tons of talent but doesn’t get the roles these days that she is worthy of. Most of the rest of the cast – particularly Blair, Seymour, McBride, Carradine and Hendricks are either wasted in scarcely developed roles or appear in little more than a glorified cameo.

I like the concept here of a dysfunctional family given an unexpected second chance to be a family. I just wish they’d tried for a simpler approach and eliminated a lot of the extraneous characters who are just that – characters – that detract from the film overall and turn it from the satirical comedy it could have been into a wooden, leaden blunt instrument without the finesse to really capture my attention – or my laughter.

WHY RENT THIS: A somewhat satirical look at family and community dynamics. Nice opportunity to play “spot the character actor.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Muddled and scattered. A little bit too mean-spirited for my taste.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s sex, violence, bad language (a whole lot of it) and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film received its world premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set home movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,035 on an unreported production budget; no way in Hell this made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Family Time

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Monsters University

The Lightkeepers


The Lightkeepers

RIchard Dreyfuss has some shark stories he’d like to share.

(2009) Period Romantic Comedy (New Films International) Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Tom Wisdom, Mamie Gummer, Bruce Dern, Julie Harris, Jason Alan Smith, Stephen Russell, Ben Dreyfuss, Theodora Greece, Ellen Becker-Gray. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

When romance turns to heartache often enough, men sometimes are known to swear off of women. This is all well and good but mostly is an empty gesture; we need love at least as much as we need food and air. To deny any of the three is to kill the body and the soul.

And yet cantankerous old sea captain Seth Atkins (R. Dreyfuss) has done just that. He has retired from the sea and taken up being the lighthouse keeper near Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is getting on in years however and this being 1912 is in need of an assistant to help him run the lighthouse, which is still very necessary to help ships who are not yet relying on satellite navigation.

His deliverance is literally washed ashore into his lap in the form of John Brown (Wisdom), a young British subject who claims he fell off a tramp steamer. He is not particularly forthcoming about his past but seems eager to get away from the fairer sex; this looks like  perfect match for Seth who is precisely looking for a man who won’t be “sparkin’ on the premises” consarn it! And yes, this is pretty much how the characters (especially Seth) talk.

Their bachelor’s paradise is shattered when two women move into the adjoining cottage for the summer. Ruth (Gummer) is an heiress, chaperoned by Emaline Bascom (Danner), who has more to her than she seems. Of course at first the boy’s club is outright hostile to their new neighbors. But as you can imagine soon they are sneaking behind each other’s backs, Seth to see Emaline, John to see Ruth. And when the two boys find out that their roommates have been cheating on their agreement, sparks are going to fly.

Adams does a good job of creating the turn of the last century Cape Cod environment. He also does a good job of creating a story that’s not going to be offensive to anybody. The trouble is that there isn’t enough friction to really hold your interest. The story – which is kind of predictable to begin with – moves along at a majestic pace and I don’t mean royal. It’s slow. It’s ponderous. And while that’s not always a bad thing, it doesn’t give you the payoff here that makes it worth waiting for; the ending simply can be seen coming a good nautical mile away.

Dreyfuss has been one of my favorite actors since Jaws. I’ve always appreciated his work, even when he was in a turkey. This isn’t the worst movie he’s ever appeared in but it is far from the best; nevertheless he elevates it with his leonine performance. Danner, who has always been able to convey grace and class, ups that exponentially here. Her Emaline is a bit of a firecracker but never loses her inner elegance.

There are times when the scenes look a bit awkwardly staged, as if setting up for an avant garde stage play rather than a period family-oriented film. Despite the lush settings and the beautiful period costumes, the actors often look uncomfortable or directionless. On top of that the pacing is so slow and the story so predictable that left to its own devices the film would be a complete yawner. The presence of Dreyfuss and Danner alone give it a marginal reason to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Inoffensive and wholesome. Dreyfuss and Danner are welcome additions to any cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks inertia. Ending doesn’t resonate. Often seems stagey.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and some of the themes might be a bit much for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Dreyfuss is Richard’s son by his first wife Jeramie Rain; Gummer is the daughter of Meryl Streep.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golden Boys

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dredd

The City of Your Destination


The City of Your Final Destination

Sir Anthony Hopkins is tired of being stalked by man-shaped rainclouds.

(2009) Drama (Screen Media) Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Omar Metwally, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ambar Mallman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Norma Argentina, Norma Aleandro, Luciano Suardi. Directed by James Ivory

Our heroes may seem to be one thing on the surface. However when we dig deeper, we may find our first impressions to be much mistaken; in fact, often that status as a hero might not bear close inspection. Then again, whose life can?

Omar Razaghi (Metwally) is a literature professor who wants to write an authorized biography of reclusive but obscure author Jules Gund but the trustees of his estate prove to be polite but firm in their refusal of permission. Omar’s overbearing girlfriend Diedre (Lara) convinces him to trek down to Uruguay to see if he can persuade them in person. Although surprised by his appearance, they put him up at the author’s estate nonetheless.

The trustees consist of Adam (Hopkins), Gund’s ambitious brother; Arden Langdon (Gainsbourg), Gund’s meek mistress and Caroline (Linney), Gund’s acerbic wife who is the one putting up the most resistance to Omar’s request. Factor in Adam’s quiet partner and the arrival of Deirdre and you have a quagmire of emotion and secrets waiting to explode.

I know the plot here is somewhat vague and that isn’t entirely by design – I’m still trying to figure out what this movie is about and haven’t up until now. This is based on a novel by Peter Cameron but curiously has more of a drawing room theatrical atmosphere to it.

This is the first movie directed by James Ivory that his production partner Ismael Merchant hasn’t been involved in (Merchant passed away in 2005 and Ivory filmed it in 2007; legal battles held it out of theaters until 2009) and while longtime Merchant-Ivory writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala did contribute the script, there’s a sense that this may be the final curtain for the production company that brought some of the most memorable movies of the last 20 years to the screen, including Howard’s End and Remains of the Day. Ivory is 83 as of this writing and given that this movie wasn’t a financial success (and the production company hasn’t had one in quite awhile), it may be a bit difficult for him to secure financing for another production. There are those in Hollywood who think his kind of movie is out of vogue; smart is certainly not in at the moment, assuming that it ever was.

There is definitely some high-mindedness to the script and this is most definitely written for those who have more than mindless fun on their itinerary at the theater but smarts don’t a great movie make. For one thing, the critical role of Omar is terribly miscast. Omar is supposed to be a smoldering, sensual presence but Metwally doesn’t have that kind of personality. In fact, one gets the idea that he is a bit overwhelmed by the script and his fellow cast.

After all, Hopkins is one of the greatest actors of this generation and any opportunity to see him work is worth taking. Linney has shown flashes of brilliance at times and even when she isn’t at the top of her game she usually puts on a performance worth seeing.

Part of my issue is that the movie moves along at a snail’s pace. A motion picture implies that there is some sort of movement but this one seems to have paralysis of the pacing. Merchant-Ivory movies always take their time to unfold, but this one never really does, instead plodding along at a majestic pace like a dowager grandly taking her time to descend the stairs to the dinner table, the essence of dignity.

I wish this movie had shown a bit more character, a bit more zing and a bit less intellect. Some movies are all balls and no brain while others are all brains and nothing below the belt (as this one is). There is a happy medium between the two, and it would have made for a much more interesting cinematic experience.

WHY RENT THIS: Hopkins is always worth seeing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There doesn’t seem to be much of a point. Pacing so languid as to be comatose. Metwally seems out of his depth.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality with implied nudity (but you really can’t see anything naughty).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original novel, the character of Caroline is French but when Linney expressed interest in playing the part, it was re-written as American.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an $8.3M production budget; this was a commercial failure.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Missing Pieces

Jane Eyre (2011)


Jane Eyre

One thing you won't find much of in adaptations of Jane Eyre is smiles.

(2011) Mystery (Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Romy Settbon Moore, Harry Lloyd. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Some stories withstand the test of time, striking a chord with readers over different eras with startling similarity. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is like that; as a mash-up of Gothic castles, bleak windswept moors, barely restrained eroticism and a Victorian-era morality tale that is surprisingly subversive it has spoken to feminine sensibilities in ways we men cannot comprehend fully. Let’s put it this way – it’s no accident that the brooding angst-y vampire of the Twilight series is named Edward.

There have been 28 different screen versions of the tale, dating back to silent movies and including broad stroked television mini-series to a classic version with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine. The question then becomes why make a new version at all.

Director Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre was an acclaimed hit a couple of years ago, wanted to emphasize the Gothic elements of the novel and thus he does, making this less of a Harlequin Romance as some versions have been and much more of a character study. He even chooses to tell the story non-sequentially (the novel was chronologically told), beginning with Jane (Wasikowska) fleeing across the moors only to collapse, exhausted and suffering from exposure, and the door of St. John Rivers (Bell), a kindly pastor with two bubbly sisters (Grainger, Merchant).

From there we see Jane’s story; the cruelty suffered as a child at the hands of her aunt (Hawkins) after her parents pass away, leaving her orphaned. The hardships suffered at a school for girls, particularly at the hands of a sadistic and cruel vicar (McBurney) who runs the establishment. The placing of Jane as a governess of a naïve French child (Moore) at Thornhill, a gloomy mansion on the moors of England, whose household is run by the gossip-mongering Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and presided by its master, Edward Rochester (Fassbender) whose shadow pervades the castle even in his absence. There Jane, described as a plain and simple girl, falls in love with Rochester and he with her, but dark secrets in Rochester’s past threaten to destroy them both.

I haven’t read the novel in probably thirty years, but it stays with me still. Some guys pooh-pooh it as a “girl’s book” but it is much more than that. Many of the elements that inspire and drive girls into womanhood can be found there. While strong female characters such as Jane might dissuade some boys from paying attention to the book, there is a great deal of insight into the female psyche to be found there. Don’t understand women? Read “Jane Eyre.”

The performances here are solid if unspectacular. Wasikowska, who has shown herself to be a capable actress in such movies as Alice in Wonderland (also playing a strong Victorian heroine from literature) and The Kids Are All Right, has the movie resting squarely on her shoulders and she carries it with surprising strength. I thought her a bit too pretty to play plain Jane, but she manages to look the part with the severe hairstyle of the era and plain clothing.

Fassbender, one of the best actors who you’ve never heard of (see his performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds if you don’t believe me), has a difficult role to fill in the enigmatic and brooding Edgar. The part has already had its ultimate portrayal by Welles, but to Fassbender’s credit he doesn’t try to mimic a previous performance and rather goes to accent elements of the character that haven’t been done often (to my knowledge anyway).

The art direction and the cinematography are two of the reasons to see this movie. It is well photographed, particularly the lonely vistas of the storm-swept moors. The interiors are well-appointed in the style of the period and you get a genuine idea of how the people of the time lived. The costumes are spot on, and when the action takes place at night, flickering candlelight appears to be the only illumination.

The movie does move slowly and modern audiences might have difficulty adjusting to the pace. Those who are used to the quick cut no-attention-span theater that is what most teens are used to will really have a lot of problems with losing focus during the movie. However, it is for certain worth checking out, if only for no other reason to acquaint yourself with one of the most brilliant novels of all time and to check out a story that resonates throughout history, influencing so much of literature all the way up to the “Twilight” series.

REASONS TO GO: Lushly photographed and well-acted. It is one of the most iconic novels of all-time and as close as many are ever going to get to reading it.

REASONS TO STAY: As befits a novel of that era, the pacing is majestic, sweeping and slightly overbearing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is the examination of a painting which depicts nudity and there’s also a very teensy bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Charlotte Bronte book was initially published in 1847 under the pen name “Currer Bell.”

HOME OR THEATER: While the bleak vistas of the moors look gorgeous on the big screen, the intimacy of the main story is well-received on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint Ralph

Four Christmases


Four Christmases
Merry Christmas times four.

(2008) Holiday Comedy (New Line) Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek, Katy Mixon, Patrick van Horn. Directed by Seth Gordon

Christmas is an incredibly stressful time of year for families that are even in the best of circumstances. When you take two sets of divorced parents, and a couple that are resisting the urge to get married because of it, you can get some interesting situations.

Brad (Vaughn) and Kate (Witherspoon) have what seems to be a really good relationship. They’re both successful people, well-organized and care deeply about each other. They do have a quirk however; they don’t like spending Christmas with their families. They make up elaborate lies every year to avoid spending any time with their four sets of families (both Brad and Kate are the products of divorced parents, several of whom have since remarried). They then take a well-deserved vacation in some tropical paradise – in this case, Fiji.

However, this is the year when most of their plans are going to go awry. Fog at San Francisco’s airport kills their flight; when they are put on television to comment on the situation, the jig is up. There’s nothing for it but to spend some time with each of their four parents.

First up is Brad’s dad, the irascible Howard (Duvall) who would live in a double wide if he was just a little bit less well-heeled. His other sons Denver (Favreau) and Dallas (McGraw), each of them named for the city they were conceived in (Brad’s birth name is Orlando), are a little bit shall we say steroid-enhanced. Would-be wrestlers, they take every opportunity to beat the crap out of Brad in a semi-playful manner that doesn’t hide so well their underlying rage. Dallas’ wife Susan (Mixon) is the queen of seven-layer cuisine. An attempt to hook up satellite TV for Howard ends in complete disaster.

Next up is Kate’s mom (Steenburgen), a man-hungry cougar who has set her sights on Pastor Phil (Yoakam). She is surrounded by fellow cougars and children with kids, her sister Courtney (Chenoweth) in particular with a baby that is a living, breathing, projectile vomiting machine. Kate and Brad are recruited to star in the church Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, which affords Brad an opportunity to access his inner Vince Vaughn.

Brad’s mom (Spacek) is next on the list, and Brad has a real problem with her. You see, she’s married Brad’s childhood friend (van Horn). Can we say awkward? I knew we could. All along Kate and Brad are finding out more about each other than they’ve ever known – when one reinvents oneself, one sometimes leaves past indiscretions behind one.

Finally, we end up with Kate’s Dad (Voight) where things come to a head. Kate and Brad will have to decide if they are really ready to step up and make it official or else let the things between them remain between them.

I get the distinct impression that the filmmakers were tasked with making an outrageous comedy with a holiday theme, and then studio execs kept asking them to tone it down. The movie is replete with screenwriting 101 clichés, characters who are artificially outrageous for no other reason than to provide something for Vaughn and Witherspoon to work off of.

Actually, what I really mean here is Vaughn. While he pretty much sticks to his regular shtick, his comedic persona is so well-developed that he can do it in his sleep. Much of the movie is improvised which is right up Vaughn’s alley and when Vaughn is riffing, there are very few who can keep up with them. Witherspoon is a capable comic actress, but she’s dealing with a force of nature and wisely keeps herself to the background.

The parents are all Oscar winners and you would think with this kind of cast that there would be some depth to the movie. Nope, that’s a big negatory. This is really meant to be mindless entertainment and for the most part, the impressive cast just show up, collect their paychecks and move on to bigger and better things. Only Voight has a really magic moment, a one-on-one conversation with Witherspoon that injects some of the badly needed holiday spirit into the movie.

The movie got the equivalent of a thermonuclear blasting from critics upon release back in 2008, which still makes me scratch my head. No, this isn’t the greatest Christmas movie ever but it is mostly inoffensive and pretty mindless entertainment. While the tiny Witherspoon and tall Vaughn present a framing challenge, they have enough chemistry together to make the movie work. If you need something to put you in a holiday frame of mine, you could do worse.

WHY RENT THIS: An astonishing cast, with four Oscar winners (playing each of the parents) as well as two country stars. Vaughn is at the top of his game here, and Witherspoon is always charming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie tends to get a bit unfocused in places and the reliance on improvisation gives the movie a choppy feel.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is on the sexy side, and there is a little bit of foul language but not enough to get steamed up over.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Wiebe makes a cameo playing Donkey Kong in the movie. Wiebe was the subject of Gordon’s excellent documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While there is nothing on the DVD version (grrrrr!) there is an hysterical gag reel on the Blu-Ray version as well as a well-intentioned but poorly executed comedy cooking show with Mixon and celebrity chef Paula Deen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.