The Curse of La Llorona


Can I get an amen?!

(2019) Horror (New LineLinda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola, Irene Keng, Oliver Alexander, Aiden Lewandowski, Paul Rodriguez, John Marshall Jones, Ricardo Mamood-Vega, Jayden Valdivia, Andrew Tinpo Lee, Madeleine McGraw, Sophia Santi. Directed by Michael Chaves

Hollywood has yet to mine the extremely fertile soil of Mexican, Central and South American folklore. Some mythic stories go back thousands of years to the Mayans, the Aztecs and other native cultures. Given how repetitive most Hollywood horror movies are, it would seem a slam dunk to try other sources for scares.

Anna (Cardellini) is a widow whose husband, an LAPD cop, died in the line of duty. She’s a social worker who often works with the cops, particularly close friend Detective Cooper (Thomas) who often supplies her with child endangerment cases. One such involves an apparently insane Hispanic mom (Velasquez) whose children have burn marks on their arms and are discovered locked in a closet surrounded by religious icons. This being a horror movie, it’s not the frantic mom who is responsible; it’s La Llorona, a.k.a. The Crying Woman, a 17th century beauty who in a fit of jealous rage drowned her two children when she discovered her husband had been unfaithful.

Now she’s after new children to replace her own little ones and she’s got her eye on Anna’s two kids (Christou and Kinchen). A kindly priest (Amendola), gun-shy after a recent brush with the supernatural, steers her to an ex-priest turned curandero (Cruz) who means to help Anna out by any means he can. However, La Llorona doesn’t take no for an answer easily.

The film is loosely tied to the Conjuring universe by the priest, who appeared in another spin-off that also didn’t involve the Warrens. This is the only movie to date in the Conjuring universe whose big bad didn’t appear in a previous movie which doesn’t hurt the movie as Chaves does a good job of setting the film up in the opening sequences of the film.

The actual La Llorona apparition is pretty cool, appearing often in billowing curtains or emerging from water. There are plenty of attempts to create a spooky atmosphere but too many jump scares ruin the broth. Cardellini is generally a proficient actress but she’s given little to work with here; her That ultimately comes off as colorless. Cruz fares a little bit better, offering a little comic relief.

The movie feels a little bit too much like a paint-by-numbers horror film trying to check all the boxes off on the scorecard. That’s a shame because there was certainly potential for a really whiz-bang horror film here. They got the technical end right; now if only they had the courage of their own convictions and allowed the main character to scare the bejeezus out of us.

REASONS TO SEE: The creature effects are pretty nifty.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of jump scares as well as an overabundance of child actor overacting..b
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and plenty of scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amendola reprises the role he played in Annabelle.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of La Llorona
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2019 concludes!

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train


Deidra and Laney are on top of the train situation.

(2017) Young Adult Comedy (Netflix) Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Sharon Laurence, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Myko Olivier, Sasheer Zamata, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe, Brooke Markham, Cj Strong, Deborah Lee Douglas, Tua Kealoha, Lance Gray, Chad Wright, Gerry Garcia, Nick Moceri, Kami Christiansen, Monica Moore Smith. Directed by Sydney Freeland

 

When you’re a single parent, making ends meet can be no easy task, especially if your employment options are limited and your ex isn’t paying the child support they owe. It’s a difficult situation, one which can go from precarious to catastrophic in a single moment.

Deidra (Murray) is the class valedictorian in a small Idaho town where she is the oldest of three children, including her middle sister Laney (Crow) and her youngest brother Jet (Gray) who likes to play with action figures. They live on the wrong side of the tracks (literally; the train tracks border their back yard) with their mom Marigold (Nicolet) who works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

One afternoon she unexpectedly loses it at work and goes on a rampage, smashing a big screen TV to pieces. Her erstwhile employer not only presses charges, they insist on making her out to be a domestic terrorist, raising her bail to unaffordable heights. There are bills to pay and Deidra realizes that not only can they not afford to keep food on the table or the electricity turned on, a social welfare worker (McInroe) is threatening to move Jet into a foster home if they can’t demonstrate that the environment is suitable.

In desperation, Deidra visits her ex-con dad Chet (Sullivan) who works as a technician for the railroad. He only has $13 to give them but he gives Deidra something much more valuable; an idea for a way out. He offhandedly mentions that there have been a spate of train robberies lately that have gone unsolved and the railroad brass has sent a security specialist named Truman (Nelson) to investigate. Vaping incessantly, he also has a checkered past in which he’d been drummed out of law enforcement for excessive use of force. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

Nonetheless Deidra figures out that she can hop aboard a freight car, break the lock and take whatever she can find in them. She knows she can’t do this alone so she enlists her sister Laney – who is embroiled in the Miss Teen Idaho pageant which she had only entered to support her “friend” Claire (Markham) who immediately turned her back on Laney when Laney was also selected as a finalist . Laney is at first reluctant but when things start to get desperate she agrees to help.

Deidra also enlists her ex-boyfriend Jerry (Olivier), who she dumped for selling pot, to sell the stolen merchandise on E-Bay. She’s set a goal of $12,000 which would be sufficient to catch them up on their bills and get their mom out on bail. She’s also pressured by the guidance counselor Ms. Spencer (Zamata) who believes that if she can get just one student out of town on a scholarship she’ll get promoted and Deidra is her best shot at it. With all this going on, the social worker and the railroad dick both sniffing around their lives and her dad trying to make up years of neglect to his kids, can this high school senior and her sister pull off the larceny they need to get their family whole again?

Those who have paid attention to my reviews over the years should by now realize that I’m not a big fan of the programming on the Freeform cable network. This movie positively reeks of the things that really make me frown about the cable network’s offerings. The script is absolutely ludicrous; for one thing, can you imagine a mother, particularly one who realizes she is the sole support for her kids, melting down like that and then treating her jail time as a vacation? None but the most irresponsible of parents would react that way and even then if they were of that nature they likely would have had their kids taken away from them long before. For some reason (and this goes back a long ways before Freeform was a gleam in Disney’s eye) kids movie/TV show writers delight in making adults be absolutely incompetent so that they can show how kids can solve their own problems.

Of course, normally Freeform and other Disney outlets don’t approve of using crime to solve the problems that their heroes and heroines are grappling with, but these are interesting times. For the working class, these types of conditions are reality and while the mom being hauled off to jail would in reality have ALL the kids taken to foster care, life for the working class particularly in rural towns is bleak and hopeless in a lot of ways – you can see why they chose to vote for the maverick outsider when it seemed like neither political party gave a rat’s behind about their situation. The movie reflects that frustration.

Murray, who also starred in the CW series Riverdale this spring, is a find. She plays Deidra as smart without being condescending and compassionate while being fierce. She avoids the clichés that so many young adult actresses fall into. Sadly, the material she has to work with here isn’t really up to her performance.

While the movie is entertaining for the main part, it’s clearly meant for a young adult audience and will offer little for audiences with a “two” or more as the first number in their age. I’m of the perhaps misguided belief that you can write terrific material for young adults without talking down to them as this movie does; it creates a world where the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do also. While empowering the girls in the movie, it also empowers them without consequences to their actions, something that really doesn’t happen often in the real world, even for adults. I applaud the filmmakers for making this an inclusive film that looks at the real economic situations faced by working class families everywhere; I just wish they could have presented real solutions and real information that kids who find themselves needing to be empowered can do so without fear of being jailed for it.

REASONS TO GO: Murray avoids young adult actress clichés. There is a decent entertainment value here.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a Freeform/Afterschool Special vibe (not necessarily a good thing). The ludicrous plot is clearly meant for youngsters, not adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some just as mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The high school scenes were filmed at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meghan Leavey

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


An odder couple you will not find.

An odder couple you will not find.

(2016) Comedy (The Orchard) Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby, Troy Kingi, Taika Waititi, Hamish Parkinson, Stu Giles, Lloyd Scott, Selina Woulfe, Mabelle Dennison, Timothy Herbert, Sonia Spyve. Directed by Taika Waititi

Florida Film Festival 2016

Kids aren’t always easy fits. They aren’t always little darlings. Some have had a tough go of things and they don’t always behave like angels. They act out. They lash out. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad kids though.

Ricky Baker (Dennison) is a kid just like that. After his mom gave him away, he has been shuttled from foster home to foster home. Each time he ends up back in the hands of child services and Paula (House), his exasperated case officer. Ricky has one more shot – out in the sticks with Bella (Wiata), a kind-hearted woman living on the edge of the bush with her husband, curmudgeon Hec (Neill) who clearly wants nothing to do with Ricky – and for whom the feeling is mutual.

Circumstances arise that force Ricky and Hec to go fleeing into the bush with the incorrect assumption that Hec has somehow abused Ricky (mainly due to the surprisingly naive Ricky himself) and that due to circumstances, Ricky will be remanded to juvenile jail until he turns 18 as he has used up all of his foster care opportunities. The two become the object of a massive manhunt, becoming a major news story in New Zealand and the two become folk heroes.

With the relentless Paula chasing them and bounty hunters on their tail, it will take all of Hec’s bush knowledge to keep the city-bred hip-hop loving Ricky safe. And all of New Zealand seems hell bent on capturing the two and sending them both to their respective jails.

From the co-director of the wonderful What We Do in the Shadows, this is one of those movies that either the humor will appeal to you or it won’t. For me and Da Queen, it definitely did. There’s a scene early on of Bella killing a wild boar which won’t sound funny on paper, but had me in stitches. Comedy gold, I tell you.

Sam Neill, who has been around for quite awhile, puts in what just might be his best performance ever here. It’s not that Hec is just grouchy; he has to deal with all sorts of emotions, including some tender ones, during the course of the film. I’ve always liked Neill, going back to his turn as an adult Damian in The Omen III to his work in Jurassic Park and one of my favorites, The Hunt for Red October. This is the movie that fans of this actor should make a point of seeing.

Also, mention must be made of Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker. This is a young actor who has amazing comedy chops. He is blessed with a script that doesn’t descend into chintz or shtick, nor does it unduly play off of Dennison’s size (he’s overweight as you can see from the picture). Yet they don’t make him a laughingstock, as the movies often do with portly kids. That’s a good thing to see, but as well, Dennison nails his role and makes Ricky Baker a memorable character. That’s not an easy thing to do in a film like this.

The scenery is beautiful – New Zealand came by its reputation as one of the most beautiful places on Earth honestly. The soundtrack is also chock full of some terrific Kiwi pop songs that will keep your toes tapping throughout. There literally is nothing not to like about this movie.

Okay, maybe one thing. Some of the humor might be a little more over the top than some American audiences are used to. There’s a character played by @Midnight favorite Rhys Darby named Psycho Sam who lives up to his name. His presence derails the movie a little bit even though Darby does a fine job. It just feels like the character came in from another movie.

Otherwise, this movie rocks from beginning to end. It’s funny, sweet and like Ricky himself has a heart of gold under all the bluster. Definitely one of the finer movies to be screened at the Florida Film Festival this year. It’s out and about the country right now, doing a walkabout of its on in American theaters. Catch it at one while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Much funnier than I was led to believe it was. The soundtrack is abso-bloody-lutely terrific. Majestical scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too out there for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the birthday scene, ten takes were filmed of the cast singing “Happy Birthday” to Ricky until someone realized that they didn’t have the rights to use the song. Therefore, the actors made up a new song on the spot, the one which appears in the film (and also partially in the trailer).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buddymoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience begins!

Case 39


Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

Bradley Cooper bids Renee Zellweger a fond adieu.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Renee Zellweger, Jodelle Ferland, Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Callum Keith Rennie, Adrian Lester, Kerry O’Malley, Cynthia Stevenson, Alexander Conti, Philip Cabrita, Vanessa Tomasino, Mary Black, Domenico D’Ambrosio, Benita Ha, John Carroll, Michael Bean, Lesley Ewen, David Patrick Green, Alisen Down, Jane Braithwaite. Directed by Christian Alvart

We are brought up to protect our children. They are precious and obviously important to our future as a species. There aren’t many parents who aren’t willing to give up their own lives for their children. What if, however, those children are evil?

Vancouver social worker Emily Jenkins (Zellweger) is given a heart-wrenching case of Lilith (Ferland), a little girl whose parents have been abusing her. The worst case scenario occurs when her parents attempt to murder the little girl. She is saved by Emily and Detective Mike Barron (McShane) who arrive just in the nick of time. Lilith is originally going to be placed in a group home but she begs Emily to look after her and with the blessing of the board Emily is allowed to take the traumatized child home temporarily until suitable foster parents can be found.

Heart-wrenching turns to heart-warming and then to heart-chilling as another child whose case Emily is working murders his parent. Barron tells her that the child had received a phone call from Emily’s home number the night prior to the crime. With Lilith suspected to be involved, an investigation is underway run by Emily’s friend and colleague Doug (Cooper). It doesn’t end well.

Although Barron is at first skeptical (and thinks Emily is in need of psychiatric help herself) but eventually comes on board, but by that time it’s too late. Lilith is revealed to be something terrifyingly evil in a child’s body. Emily is terrified but knows that if she doesn’t kill the entity, Emily will end up dead – and the carnage will start all over again with a different set of foster parents.

This is one of those movies that looked promising on paper, then generated some buzz with the casting of Zellweger and McShane (Cooper was cast pre-Hangover), then disappeared on the studio shelf where it languished for three years and several postponed release dates. Very generally movies that go through that kind of cycle tend to come to bad ends. Either a surfeit of studio interference turned a promising film into a miasma of differing visions and overly-thought out changes, or the movie was just plain awful to begin with.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised with this one which while not the kind of movie that makes year-end lists, was at least entertaining and even a little thought-provoking. Sure, the movie borrows liberally from other better films but let’s face it, most horror movies are guilty of that particular sin these days.

Children are often a taboo subject when it comes to American filmmakers – although we are dealing with a European filmmaker here. Sure, there are exceptions – but putting them either in anything more than minor peril or worse, portraying them as the cause of peril is generally considered off limits. For the most part, kids are portrayed as precocious little angels who get into trouble quite by accident. Rarely are they portrayed as malicious or evil other than to other children – and even then they’re mostly victims of circumstance. Case 39 takes a demonic child and makes her gleeful at the carnage she causes. This plays on something of a hidden fear for many – a perversion of innocence. That’s a powerful, powerful image.

However, the movie isn’t entirely successful. Zellweger’s performance isn’t among her best; in fact, she seems curiously lacking in energy. Some have characterized it as just going through the motions and while I can’t begin to pretend I know what her state of mind was filming this, it’s certainly a subpar performance for her. One can’t blame all of the movie’s shortcomings on her however – the movie often makes its points with a sledgehammer instead of a rapier, and sometimes the story is a bit confusing, giving me the impression that some important plot points were left on the editing room floor.

This isn’t as bad as I thought it would be nor as bad as the criticism of the film made it out to be. I suspect that some critics were reviewing the delay in release as much as the actual film itself, having made up their minds that a movie shelved the way this one was couldn’t possibly be any good. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination but it deserved better, both from the critics and the studio.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice exploration at our deeper feelings towards children,
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed and confused. Zellweger seems oddly listless.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing images, particularly concerning violence by and against a child as well as supernatural terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the arduous process of special effects make-up for a burn victim, as well as showing the digital effects creating a swarm of hornets as well as one on the pyrotechnics team.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $28.2M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Omen
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nightcrawler

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Truly, Madly, Deeply


Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

Holding on to the last remnants of the dead.

(1990) Romantic Fantasy (Goldwyn) Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Bill Paterson, Michael Maloney, Jenny Howe, Christopher Rozycki, Stella Maris, Deborah Findlay, Ian Hawkes, Arturo Venegas, Richard Syms, Mark Long, Teddy Kempner, Graeme Du-Fresne, Frank Baker, Tony Biuto, Nitin Genatra, Heather Williams. Directed by Anthony Minghella

Grief is never easy under any circumstances but when the person you’re grieving is the person you expected to spend the rest of your life with, it’s a special kind of agony. It’s like not only is the person you love dead, so is a part of you. You go from having everything figured out to having no future.

Nina (Stevenson), a translator from Italian to English, is going through that. Her man Jamie (Rickman), a cellist, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly – one day he woke up with a sore throat and the next day he was gone. She is having trouble dealing with it; she feels his presence everywhere she goes, hears his voice. Oddly, he’s speaking Spanish – a language he didn’t know in life and which he’s speaking with an atrocious accent.

Then one night, when she is playing piano he is there in the flesh. Well, as in the flesh as ghosts get – he’s most definitely dead. Nina isn’t sure that she hasn’t gone mad but frankly she doesn’t care – she has what she wants and needs. The two caper about at first like mad teenagers, with the only real difference being that Jamie is perpetually cold and needs the heat turned up to nearly unbearable levels.

Nina’s support group of her amorous building super, the plumber, the pest-control guy she calls to deal with a rat problem and her boss are….well, supportive but not understanding of everything but they give her a lot of leeway. Then she meets Mark (Maloney), a social worker who is deeply caring, just a little zany and sweet on children. In short, the perfect guy…and Nina really likes him. The trouble is that Jamie is still around, even though he’s begun to act like a real twit, bringing his fellow ghosts to Nina’s flat to watch videos. “Was he always like that” Nina wonders about her dead boyfriend. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t but can she let go of him either way and move on?

I love love LOVE this movie. Not just because it deals with grief in a fairly realistic fashion despite the fantastic nature of the plot (ghosts aside) but because it utilizes the talents of its leads so perfectly. We get the sense of how deeply compatible Nina and Jamie are, literally harmonizing in a scene where they sing pop love songs together, but we also see the other side – Jamie can be a right demanding bastard sometimes.

Stevenson is much better known across the pond than she is over here but she is a truly gifted comedic actress and musician (she plays her own piano here). There is a scene early on where she is talking to a therapist about her grief and breaks down – it’s so well done that your heart literally breaks for her and you just want to give her hugs.

Minghella, who’d later go on to direct The English Patient (and win an Oscar for it) as well as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain ,lays it on a bit thick in places here. Mark, for example, is so dang perfect that you half expect him to walk across the Thames – and not on a bridge either. What I do like here is that this isn’t a silly mindless supernatural love story like Ghost was – a film that quite frankly I loathe. There are layers that I appreciate. For example, one thing you should keep in mind while you watch is that there’s a reason that Jamie comes back and it may not be the reason you think. The movie’s last scene is absolutely perfect in a subtle way when you think about what’s going on. At the time I saw it I scarcely thought twice about it but when I thought back upon it later and realized what it signified, I was floored. That’s truly impressive when an ending is actually better after thinking about it than when you first watch it.

WHY RENT THIS: Treats grief as a real thing and doesn’t marginalize or trivialize it. Rickman and Stevenson harmonize well together, figuratively and literally.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little mawkish and too-good-to-be-true in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a smidgeon of bad language and some fairly adult themes going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title for the film was originally Cello, not only referring to Jamie’s instrument of choice but also a play on the Italian word cielo, meaning Heaven. It was originally made for British television.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with the late Anthony Minghella as well as an introduction by him to the DVD package.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $650,000 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Getaway

Hotel for Dogs


Hotel for Dogs

Proof positive that Hollywood is going to the dogs.

(DreamWorks) Emma Roberts, Lisa Kudrow, Don Cheadle, Jake T. Austin, Kyla Pratt, Kevin Dillon, Johnny Simmons, Troy Gentile, Ajay Naidu. Directed by Thor Freudenthal

I will admit to a severe soft spot for dogs. Put a few dogs in a movie and it’s an automatic win for me. Keep that in mind as you read on, gentle reader.

Andi (Roberts) and Bruce (Austin) are orphans as well as brother and sister. They live with a pair of dopey foster parents, Carl (Dillon) and Lois (Kudrow) who has aspirations of rock stardom with a slightly more ambitious reach than their talent is able to grasp. Lois’ idea of cooking is heating up the most disgusting frozen dinners imaginable, which the two understandably leave uneaten more often than not.

For someone wanting a rock and roll lifestyle, Lois has a fair amount of rigid rules for her charges to live by, one of which includes no pets. This is bad news as the two are devoted to their dog Friday, a lovable mutt taken to getting his meals wherever he can. He, like most dogs, is also prone to getting into mischief at the most inopportune times which makes keeping his presence secret from Lois and Carl a bit harder. However, fortunately for Andi and Bruce, the two of them are idiots so they manage to keep Friday nearby.

Although basically good kids at heart, Andi and Bruce have a penchant for getting into trouble, which keeps their long-suffering social worker Bernie (Cheadle) busy. He warns them, after the latest incident, that they can’t afford to alienate their current foster parents as keeping the two of them together would be next-to-impossible if they were returned to the orphanage.

On one of Friday’s misadventures, he is picked up by the local pound which gives people only 72 hours to pick up their pets before euthanizing them. The kids manage to get Friday out of there, only to have him lead them to an abandoned hotel where a couple of other homeless mutts reside. The soft-hearted Bruce convinces the more practical Andi that they could care for the three dogs there, and as you might expect the three dogs become more dogs right quickly.

Pet store employees Dave (Simmons) and Heather (Pratt), both seemingly cast out of the Disney Channel/Nickelodeon school of cute tweeners (although only Pratt has television experience, on the Disney Channel series “The Proud Family” as well as the BET series “One on One”), stumble onto the situation and are enlisted to help, as is would-be ladies man Mark (Gentile). In order to better care for the dogs, Bruce designs and constructs elaborate devices that take care of specific needs; means of feeding the dogs, disposing of their – ahem – waste products, throwing tennis balls and even a simulator to allow the dogs the sensation of driving in a car.

Like any kids movies, there are always mean-spirited adults wanting to spoil the fun of the kids and this movie is no exception, with the foster parents and the testosterone-overload head of the dog pound Jake (Naidu). The kids will need to use all their wiliness to outwit the adults…all right, it really doesn’t take much.

This is somewhat loosely based on a children’s book by Lois Duncan, who also penned the book that was made into I Know What You Did Last Summer, a teenage suspense novel that Hollywood turned into a slasher flick. Duncan openly despises that adaptation; I suspect she’s a bit more sanguine about this film which is far more harmless.

The devices invented by Bruce are marvelous and make for the best moments in the movie. Even hard-hearted adult critics will get a kick out of them, not to mention the young kids that are the target audience of the film. Also, the main dog actors are given distinct personalities and make for some real “awwww” viewing. The young juvenile actors are pretty much as you’d expect; white-bread, bland and freshly scrubbed. Pratt obviously got the memo that has circulated around Hollywood that all African American teen girls are to be portrayed as sassy and full of ‘tude.

Dillon and Kudrow, both marvelous actors in their own right, overplay their roles which is essentially the only option they had. Only Cheadle, one of the best in the business, comes off as sympathetic among the adult cast, and he makes of his role something better than it was supposed to be, with a nice little speech near the end.

My problem with most kidflicks of this ilk are that they have the same basic premise; kids are wise and committed, adults are stupid and greedy which means that the kids will win every time. I don’t have a problem with depicting kids as cause-committed or even smart, but I get tired of adults being portrayed as buffoons in movies – how are kids supposed to respect the adults in their lives when they are constantly told on television and in movies that adults are neither to be trusted nor respected? I wonder if that doesn’t have a lot to do with some of the problems that the last couple of generations have had in terms of dealing with authority and rules, as well as with issues of frustration and instant gratification. Then again, I’m getting to be a grumpy old man.

Still, this is pretty harmless stuff and even entertaining in places. As I said earlier, I’m a sucker for a movie with dogs and when you throw in the kids, W.C. Fields is probably rotating in his grave. Certainly this makes for good viewing if you want to keep your kids occupied for an afternoon.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s dogs. Some fun Rube Goldberg-like devices.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Typical kidflick conceit of stupid adults/smart kids.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of doggie doo-doo humor but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the more than 70 dogs used in the movie were actually rescued from the pound. Several of them were adopted by crew members after filming wrapped.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the planning and execution of the doggie gadgets shown in the movie. As a nice touch, there’s a public service announcement on adopting pets from your local shelter. There’s also a linked website that will allow you to insert pictures of your own dog into a cover insert as well as into a special downloadable trailer.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time