Stella’s Last Weekend


Ollie is certainly no angel.

(2018) Dramedy (Paladin/The Orchard) Nat Wolff, Alex Wolff, Polly Draper, Paulina Singer, Nick Sandow, Julia Macchio, Julia Abueva, Leo Heller, Lisa Darden, Patricia Squire, Will Cooper, Norm Golden, Simon Maxwell, Joseph Satine, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Kelly Swint, Adam Enright, Christopher Halliday, Alex DiMattia, Kareem Williams, Courtney Leigh Goodwin, Harriet Weaver. Directed by Polly Draper

 

Personally, I’ve never had a brother. I grew up with a sister who was less than a year younger than I (my parents believed in getting the childbearing phase out of the way quickly). I know from experience with my sibling though that we talk in our own peculiar shorthand. In-jokes that mean nothing to the world at large never fail to elicit smiles from one or both of us. There are still jokes that I can reduce my sister to helpless tears of laughter with while outsiders look on in puzzlement. It’s that way between siblings.

Ollie (A. Wolff) and Jack (N. Wolff) are that way as well. Jack is returning home from college where he is studying Marine Biology to witness the last days of the beloved family dog, Stella. Their mother Sally (Draper) has decided to throw a farewell party for the dog, much to the bemusement of her sons and the confusion of her boyfriend Ron (Sandow) whom the boys mercilessly rib and whom they appear to despise. He seems like a high-strung traditionalist who can’t understand why kids of today don’t respect their elders the way his generation used to. Believe me, Ron, I hear you.

Ollie is also picking this weekend to introduce his family to his new girlfriend Violet (Singer), an aspiring ballerina: “Violet, this is everyone I love. And Ron.” Ollie is head over heels in love with Violet and confesses to his brother that she sent him some racy pictures on Snapchat of her underboob. Jack realizes that he’s met Violet before and that the two of them had a mini-fling which ended with her not returning his calls. He’s been obsessing with her ever since and now she’s apparently in love with his brother. He’s trying to step aside in favor of his brother but his feelings for her are too strong and as it turns out, she still has feelings for him.

Ollie is blissfully unaware of the drama going on alongside him. He’s too busy needling the mean girls in her ballet class, skewering poor Ron and doting on Stella who is gamely trying to live out her last days with as much dignity as she can muster, but the pain is beginning to get to be too much, which Sally acknowledges in a truly poignant moment. However, when the secrets the boys have been hiding from their mom and each other comes out, it tears a big hole in what was a close-knit family. Can they recover?

Ollie is an expert in put-downs and his potty mouth sometimes drives Ron to pulling out what little hair he has left; Ollie has no compunction at nailing Ron to the wall over his comb-over. Alex plays Ollie as a high-strung, energetic kid with a terrific brain – he’s already outdoing Jack in the courses that are leading Jack into a career in Marine Biology. Ollie is witty and quick-witted; the punch lines come rapid fire between the two boys. He is also capable of being a first-class asshole. Jack, on the other hand, is quieter, less acerbic and no less quick witted; he can hold his own with his brother but is generally less talkative with others. I can’t vouch for how the two interact off-camera but their banter sometimes sounds overly scripted; it’s hard to come up with the perfect comeback at every opportunity and Ollie seems to do so effortlessly. It’s possible he’s that quick but not likely and so the heart of the film, the byplay between the brothers starts to sound forced and unnatural.

Despite the clever dialogue, the chemistry between Nat and Alex is genuine as you would expect between siblings. The affection between the two is genuine and even when things break down between the two, everything that happens in their relationship feels authentic; at times though the audience clearly feels like outsiders witnessing a conversation they weren’t meant to hear.

There are some genuinely poignant moments as I alluded to above; there are also some really funny one-liners, mostly courtesy of Ollie. There is definitely chemistry between the brothers; after all, this isn’t the first time they’ve acted together before (some might remember them from the Naked Brothers Band show they did about a decade ago) and the affection is obvious. Still, at times the dialogue seems to be a bit forced and the events a little too contrived.

Stella’s Last Weekend turns out to be a bittersweet relationship movie that to its credit doesn’t coast too often. The film earns most of its emotional responses which is to be envied in a day and age when most movies are lazy about their emotional manipulation. The movie isn’t always successful but when it is, it is. Unfortunately, when it’s not it’s not.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, crude gestures, some sexual content and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wolff brothers are Draper’s sons in real life; the dog that played Stella is also the family dog (who is alive and well as of this writing).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Only Living Boy in New York
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
London Fields

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Game Night


Some games are riskier than others.

(2018) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Jesse Plemmons, Sharon Horgan, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Camille Chen, Zerrick Deion Williams, Joshua Mikel, R.F. Daley, John Francis Daley, Michael Cyril Creighton, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Jonathan Goldstein, Charlotte Hazzard. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein

 

Everyone knows someone whose competitive urges are on a scale of one to ten about a 35. Max (Bateman) and his wife Annie (McAdams) are just like that. They host a regular game night at their home in which friends are invited (or in the case of creepy cop Gary (Plemmons), not) to play a variety of party games. When Max’s mega-successful big brother Brooks (Chandler), a venture capitalist who Max has competed with unsuccessfully comes to town, Max is put off his game a little bit. When Brooks offers to host game night at his lavish home, Max is further intimidated.

Brooks dispenses with the traditional board games and instead does a kidnap mystery event, offering his cherry red Stingray (Max’s dream car as it turns out) as a prize for the first to solve the mystery, Max looks at it as an opportunity to finally get redemption with his brother. But when it turns out that the kidnapping is real and so are the guns, things take a turn for the wacky.

I honestly didn’t expect too much from the movie going in. I thought it would be another mildly funny and occasionally laugh-out-loud comedy that seem to dominate the comedy landscape these days but I was pleasantly surprised. This is one of the funniest movies of the year, hands down. Not only is the script funny but it’s generous – nearly everyone in the ensemble cast has their moment to deliver an amazing punch line or even a moment of sublime physical comedy. Bateman shines the brightest, still as likable as ever.

If the movie has a drawback it’s that it sometimes overthinks things. The story works best when things are kept simple. This is a rare film that is funny without being gimmicky, allowing the characters to develop nicely without being overly silly. Da Queen liked it even more than I did, which is saying something. If you’re looking for a movie that is bound to make you laugh, this is the one to select, at least as far as 2018 is concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is unexpectedly funny in places. Bateman remains one of the most charming actors in Hollywood.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally gets over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some sexual references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bateman and McAdams previously appeared together in State of Play.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tag
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

White Sun (Seto Surya)


You know you’re in trouble when your ex-wife brings soldiers to the party.

(2016) Drama (Kimstim) Dayahang Rai, Asha Maya Magrati, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Sumi Malla, Amrit Pariyar, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal. Directed by Deepak Rauniyar

As we get older, we tend to like things to stay the way they are. Change frightens and confuses us. We find those who advocate change to be untrustworthy.

In Nepal, a civil war that lasted from 1996-2006 divided royalists, who believed in Nepalese traditions and Maoists, more progressive sorts In the tiny village of Nepaltra, the war decimated the village leaving few men other than the village elders and the town doctor Suraj (Baniya), the son of the former mayor and a Royalist himself. When the ex-mayor passes away, Suraj’ brother Chandra (Rai), an insurgent who now lives in Kathmandu, is summoned to help carry his father’s corpse down to the riverside where it will be burned according to longstanding village traditions.

Chandra – who was known as Agni during the fighting – and his brother fought on opposite sides during the Civil War and the enmity between them is boiling just under the surface. Making matters worse is Chandra’s ex-wife Durga (Magrati) whose daughter Pooja (Malla) is not Chandra’s. She’s not willing to divulge the details of her paternity and Suraj is one of the possible candidates. Pooja herself is hoping that Chandra is her dad. Durga needs Chandra to sign paternity papers acknowledging that Pooja is his even though she is not; without that signature, she can’t get the schooling that Durga desperately wants her to get. Complicating matters is street urchin Badri (Pariyar) who rumor has it is Chandra’s son.

While carrying their father’s body down to the river, Chandra and Suraj snipe at each other until the anger boils over and the two come to blows. Suraj walks off in a huff and it is up to Chandra to find suitable pall bearers as the remaining men are too weak and feeble to carry the corpulent corpse’s body down the mountain to the river. Accompanied by Pooja and Badri, Chandra goes to neighboring villages to find someone willing to help him carry his father’s body the rest of the way to his final rest.

Rauniyar is an emerging talent from an unlikely cinematic base but when you consider the kind of background scenery he has to work with and the richness of the Nepalese culture, things fall into place. Rauniyar takes advantage of both of those elements here as he creates a movie that is beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking all at once.

The beauty is courtesy of cinematographer Mark Ellam but given the dramatic scenery of Nepal he certainly has a leg up but the movie isn’t all about pretty pictures. This is a movie about the clash of traditions and progress, as an ancient culture tries to find its way in a world that is changing rapidly. Some of the changes are frankly welcome; Durga is despised in the movie because she is not only a woman but one of a lower caste. She is not even allowed to touch the body of her ex-father-in-law who she has been caring for during his final illness. There are many strictures in the daily life of the village that are senseless and a bit misogynist.

But it’s exactly that thinking that has to come under some consideration. In an era of cell phones and social media who has the right to tell someone that their society has to change? While I agree that things that are discriminatory and keep people from realizing their dreams should change, the rhythms of life that have been there for centuries can be a tricky thing to adjust to modern rhythms.

But that’s not what the Nepalese Civil War was about, of course. It was a determination on how they wanted to be governed and while the Maoists won out, the Royalists continue to seethe and certainly the division between Chandra and Suraj illustrates that. One of the more fascinating studies is the village priest (played by Deepak Chhetri) who worries that the identity of the villagers will be lost as their traditions disappear. It is not an unjustified fear.

The movie is powerful and emotional and while you might think that the grief over the loss of the father would be central to the story, it really isn’t. Suraj exhibits more grief over the loss of his culture than any for his dad, although he sees his father as representing the best of the village culture. Chandra, who is a good man for the most part, does seem to regret having left his home although one also gets the sense he feels it necessary. He has been burned by previous relationships and although he is kind to both the children and his ex-wife, there are some walls up that likely have to do with how the relationship with his ex-wife and brother ended up.

This is a very human movie and while it isn’t always delightful there are some moments of quirky humor, such as the attempts to get the somewhat obese corpse out of a tiny upstairs window since it can’t pass through the front door of the house due to local tradition. There are some moments of great pathos. While I’m not a fan of the ending, it’s really the only thing in the movie that felt wrong to me and quite frankly I was pretty much alone in that thought at the screening I attended.

The performances here are top notch; Rai is one of Nepal’s most popular actors and he shows that popularity is completely justified. Magrati, who acted as the casting director for the film as well, also shows some chops as she takes the part of what could have been a shrewish ex-wife and gave it depth, dignity and sympathy.

This is the kind of movie I truly adore. Not only does it present a culture that I don’t know much about but it is presented in a way that makes me consider the pros and cons of village life in Nepal. It also makes me consider the similar battles between the traditional and the modern in my own culture. While you can make what allegories you will of this film, I think there’s enough here that is universal that will appeal to any moviegoer who has curiosity about other cultures. This is an early favorite for the best movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A powerfully emotional film depicting the clash of traditionalism and modernism. The cinematography is gorgeous. We get a glimpse at a culture that is rarely seen in the West. The performances from Rai and Magrati are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: Some audiences may find it slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both of the films Rauniyar has made to date take place over three days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Jupiter Ascending


Star-crossed lovers...literally.

Star-crossed lovers…literally.

(2015) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Vanessa Kirby. Directed by the Wachowskis

The vastness of space seems to lend itself to stories that are epic. After all, a character study seems to lose focus when confronted with the vast nature of the cosmos. That doesn’t mean, however, that science fiction doesn’t have room for well-developed characters.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is living a life that she probably wouldn’t have chosen for herself. A house cleaner with relatives on her mother’s (Kennedy) side, she was born in mid-Atlantic after her mother fled Russia on the occasion of the murder of her husband (D’Arcy) – an astronomer studying in Russia – by Russian criminals.

She wakes up before dawn and spends most of her time wondering if this is all there is. When a particularly enterprising cousin urges her to sell her eggs for the money she needs to buy a telescope, something that would be a precious legacy from her ad, she goes for it. But for some strange reason, the surgical team wants to kill her. And they would have, too, if not for the intervention of Caine Wise (Tatum).

Wise, a genetically spliced humanoid of both human and canine genes, is a bred warrior who wears gravity boots that allow him to soar in an approximation of flight, although he has to move like a demented speed skater in order to use them properly. He takes Jupiter to the home of Stinger (Bean), likewise a spliced warrior sort and there Jupiter learns the truth; her genes are an exact match for the matriarch of an enormously wealthy and powerful family. They own whole planets that have been seeded with humanoids, using the genetic material once harvested to extend the lives of the very wealthy (like themselves). Three of the matriarch’s children – eldest son Balem (Redmayne) who owns the Earth and seems slightly psychotic, middle son Titus (Booth) who is something of a playboy, and youngest daughter Kalique (Middleton) who is ambitious, are all plotting to gain control of Jupiter with Balem wanting to kill her altogether because she, as the genetic duplicate of his mother, would receive the rights to all of the children’s fortunes.

This is all a bit much for Jupiter and if she feels like a pawn in an enormous game, well, that’s just because she is. However, Jupiter isn’t the frightened weakling the Abrasax family seems to think she is and before long, with Caine by her side and the support of the galactic police force, she may yet see this through. However, the Abrasax heirs with the stakes so high won’t play by any particular set of rules.

The Wachowskis who made their reputation on creating a world familiar and yet not in the Matrix trilogy, have attempted to create a detailed and lush environment on a gigantic planet, with a budget said to be in the $165 million range. There is a whole lot of that on the screen, because the special effects here are as good as any you’ll see this year and likely to get a nomination for next year’s Oscars although they’ll have to compete with the new Star Wars episode in that category. Bummer.

The problem here is that the story is so complicated and there is so much back stabbing and about facing going on that it’s hard to follow along. While you’re attempting to follow along you’re also treated to visuals that are so incredible and detailed that it’s really hard to take it in. This is a movie that’s built for repeated viewings.

The performances run the gamut. Tatum, who has matured into a pretty decent actor with a great deal of potential ahead after being somewhat wooden at the beginning of his career, helps make this film enjoyable. Caine is often mystified by the behavior of others and while he is quick with the “your majesty” and deference, he also is quite willing to take a chunk out of an entitled jerkwad if the occasion calls for it. Kunis is also quite the capable actress but here she’s a bit frustrating. She is definitely a damsel in distress here, not projecting much strength or wisdom on her own; she has these incredible genes that apparently the galaxy has been searching for but no genetic gifts. While I understand she was raised in the working class as a housekeeper (and why doesn’t she have a Russian accent like the rest of her family?) there should be something else there, don’t you think? This is where the character development thing comes in handy.

Redmayne, who is in the running for an Oscar this weekend, plays this role like he won the part in a reality show. It’s truly mystifying because we’re all aware what a terrific actor he can be, but he speaks in such a murmur it’s often difficult to make out what he’s saying, before erupting into Pacino-like shouts whenever his character gets frustrated. If it’s meant to convey that Belem is psychotic, well, yeah but psychotic in an “I eat spiders” kind of way rather than as a devious, dangerous villain. More like a petulant child. “The Earth is mine,” he says at one point and I half expected him to stomp his feet and shriek “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

Enormous space craft cruise majestically through space and there is that epic quality to the movie that I think is intentional, but there is also kind of a glacial quality that I think is not. Yes, there are some pretty good action sequences (including a chase sequence near the beginning of the film set in Chicago) but the kinetics of those sequences don’t continue throughout the movie; the momentum that is built up by the action just falls to the floor like a dead fish.

I really wanted to like this film. Heck, I really wanted to love this film – I respect the Wachowskis as film makers and have admired their films from the beginning of their career back in Bound and even including Cloud Atlas which didn’t receive a lot of love from critics and audience alike but I thought was one of the top movies of 2012 although in the interest of full disclosure, I was much more a fan of the sequences directed by Tom Tykwer than I was of those directed by the Wachowskis.

This will not make my list of top films this year, although it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s just an intimidating one, full of sound and fury but I’m not quite sure what was signified here. It’s not nothing, though. That I can tell you for sure.

REASONS TO GO: State-of-the-art eye candy. Tatum manages to perform well in a goofy role.
REASONS TO STAY: Head-scratching performance by Oscar-nominated Redmayne. Convoluted story.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence and space battle action, some sexually suggestive content and some partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally supposed to be released on June 20, 2014 but was delayed eight months so that the special effects could get more time and detail in post production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicles of Riddick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Past (Le passé)


Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

Berenice Bejo awaits the arrival of her ex.

(2013) Drama (Sony Classics) Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Buret, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli, Aleksandra Klebanska, Jean-Michel Simonet, Pierre Guerder, Anne-Marion de Cayeux, Eleonora Marino, Jonathan Devred, Sylviane Fraval, Yvonne Gradelet. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Any relationship but particularly a marriage is built on trust. Without it, the relationship withers and dies much as a rose in a glass vase without any water. That trust, once broken, can turn back savagely on the offending party without warning. The things we do in life don’t occur in a vacuum – they affect those around us in addition to ourselves.

Marie (Bejo) waits in de Gaulle airport in Paris for her ex-husband Ahmad (Mosaffa) to arrive from Teheran. Four years previously, he had walked out on her, leaving her with two daughters from an earlier relationship. Now, at last, he’s going to sign their divorce papers leaving her free to marry her current boyfriend.

That boyfriend, Samir (Rahim), comes with baggage of his own. He has a young son Fouad (Aguis) who is working out his own issues and a wife, Celine (Klebanska) who has been in a coma for eight months. Marie insists Ahmad stay with her and the three kids (Samir will stay in his old apartment above his dry cleaning business) and hopefully, have a heart-to-heart with her older daughter Lucie (Burlet) who has been at odds with her essentially since Samir came into her life. She hates Samir with a venom that only a teenage girl watching her mother remarry can possess.

It turns out that the adult Lucie is closest to in the entire world is Ahmad and it’s no wonder; Ahmad is gentle, kindly and compassionate. At first glance it’s hard to reconcile this man with one who would give up on a woman and her two daughters and walk away, but that’s exactly what he did. Clearly there’s more than meets the eye going on here.

Ahmad finds himself in a household that is far more fragile than it appears and it will only take the slightest of touches to knock the whole thing down and of course his presence is the catalyst for that to happen. He tries to reconnect with his family and friends from the Parisian Iranian community but finds himself being sucked into the fall-out of the war between Marie and Lucie. As it turns out, the events that occurred eight months previously have left a pall hanging over the house and those who live in it, one that will have devastating consequences for all of them.

This isn’t always a movie that’s easy to watch. Farhadi excels at portraying people in everyday situations that are turned on their ear by extraordinary mistakes – the sort we are all capable of making in a moment of pique or in a fit of anger. Wisely, Farhadi utilizes very basic storytelling techniques – there are no flashbacks, no flash forwards and curiously, no music on the soundtrack. What you see and hear is unembellished by trickery or point of view – this is the events as they happen as they are perceived by those they happen to.

Bejo, an Oscar nominee for The Artist, is sensational here. Marie is hanging on by her fingernails and although she isn’t a particularly nice person most of the time – she is manipulative and has an explosive temper – she is capable of great tenderness when the mood takes her. Bejo makes Marie complex and in many ways, unknowable but not nearly to the same degree as Ahmad. Ahmad is quite the enigma, rarely betraying his feelings (other than acute annoyance or distinct joy) and we know as much about him when the movie ends as we do when it began. That’s not an easy role to carry, but Mosaffa makes him likable enough that we maintain our identification with him.

The movie at 130 minutes is probably a good half hour too long. The younger daughter is extraneous to the story as is to a great degree Fouad, although he serves as something of a canary in a coalmine letting us know that All Is Not Well In This House. The performances here are raw and at times breath-taking, even from the juveniles.

It’s not the kind of movie that hits you over the head with grand revelations but instead kicks you in the shin with insights that will cause some reflection and eventually take your breath away once you’ve given it some thought. While I can’t really recommend this to everybody – some of it is really intense and for those who have been in a relationship issue similar to the one here it might bring back some really unpleasant feelings. However, this is a solid, well-made film on a subject that is often treated with more titillation than with any consideration to the real life consequences that those kinds of choices often leave behind for those caught in the crossfire.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and gripping. Captures the effects of infidelity on the lives of those not directly involved.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a bit too long. Youngest daughter was superfluous.  

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty mature and at times can be fairly intense. There is also some brief foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi doesn’t speak French and directed the movie through a translator.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Loosies

The Vicious Kind


Don't you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

Don’t you just hate going to the grocery store and forgetting what you went there to buy?

(2009) Drama (72nd Street) Adam Scott, Brittany Snow, Alex Frost, J.K. Simmons, Vittorio Brahm, Bill Buell, Alysia Reiner, Kate Krieger, Jordan Reid Berkow, Anne Gill, Emily Oehler, Jim Ford, Kevin Rogers, Robert Bizik, Rebecca Bond Nikeas. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Every so often you’ll run into someone who’s a real asshole. They say cruel things, express opinions that are deplorable, and their actions tell you that they are nothing more than self-centered misogynistic jerks.

Did I say misogynistic? Well, that’s because we’re talking about Caleb Sinclaire (Scott), a construction worker in Connecticut. He is estranged from his father (Simmons) and a bit overly protective of his virginal younger brother Peter (Frost) who is just back from college for Thanksgiving. He’s also brought his new girlfriend Emma Gainsborough (Snow), a sweetie whom Peter is over the moon for.

Caleb, not so much. He is deeply suspicious of her and when he hears the story of how they met (at a party she went to with a group of fraternity boys) he’s quite sure she slept with the lot of them, despite her denials that she slept with any of them. To Caleb, all women are cheating whores. His girlfriend Hannah (Berkow), to whom Emma bears a strong resemblance, was just kicked to the curb for that very thing.

Due to his strained relationship with Dad, Caleb excuses himself from the holiday but continues to run into Emma in odd places, mainly because both of them smoke and go outside to the same places for smoke breaks. An odd friendship begins to form…and an attraction that is a little disquieting to Caleb because he’d never hurt his brother, one of the few people on Earth that Caleb gives a damn about but he can’t deny what he’s feeling for Emma.

And Emma can’t deny Peter’s tender feelings for her as well. Peter is willing to give Emma his virginity which is no small thing – and yet she is beginning to be attracted to bad boy Caleb. As their encounters grow more and more erotically charged, Caleb embarks on an emotional rollercoaster that ranges from violent and threatening to weeping and helpless. Emma realizes that she is soon going to have to choose between the two brothers – the sweet but kind of bland Peter or the complex and unpredictable Caleb.

This is one of those movies that is out there with the very best of intentions but doesn’t quite hit the mark for one reason or another. It’s not for lack of trying however. Adam Scott, who’s been around and done a few fairly well-known roles (as his one in Step Brothers) shines here as Caleb. The character is a pretty tough nut to crack and as the movie goes on we do get some insight as to why Caleb behaves the way he does. That still doesn’t excuse him from assault, attempted rape, cruelty and yes – viciousness. It makes it hard to root for him even when he does start showing signs of becoming a new man.

Snow isn’t half-bad either although her performance tends to get ignored by a lot of critics who seem to be zeroing in on Scott – although I can’t blame them to be truthful. Still, Snow’s Emma is not everything she appears to be; she has a dark side which manifests first in the smoking habit she keeps from her boyfriend to her lust for Caleb and then finally in…well, that one you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The trouble here is that the filmmakers seem to think that nearly everybody cheats on their partners (nearly everybody in the movie does). The movie has a kind of cynical world view in which it’s okay to be a bitch/bastard to others because sooner or later they’re going to screw you over if you don’t do it to them first. I’m not sure I agree with that – while there are certainly people who don’t mind sticking it to other people, not everyone is that way in my experience – and thus I find a hard time relating to the film, which might contribute to my lower score for it. So that’s something to take into account.

Otherwise the filmmaking itself is pretty good from a technical standpoint. This is a pretty good looking film. It just didn’t reach out and grab me the way it should have with this kind of subject matter. Maybe the problem was that Scott gave too good a performance and the script was too vicious. Or maybe I’m one of those vicious critics who don’t get it. Golly, I hope not. So I’ll just leave it at this wasn’t my cup of tea but it just might be yours.

WHY RENT THIS: Snow and Scott deliver some pretty powerful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script seems to have a pretty low opinion of people. Caleb is such a douche sometimes you finally give up on him.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality is a bit in your face as is the bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie received two Independent Spirit award nominations (Adam Scott for Best Actor and Lee Toland Krieger for Best Screenplay) in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone

FINAL RATING:4.5/10

NEXT: Playing For Keeps