An Acceptable Loss


Tika Sumpter speaks truth to power.

(2018) Thriller (IFC) Tika Sumpter, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Tavassoli, Jeff Hephner, Deanna Dunagan, Alex Weisman, Ali Burch, Clarke Peters, David Eisenberg, Alysia Reiner, Rex Linn, Carmen Roman, Henry Godinez, Tim Hopper, Rashaad Hall, Troy West, José Antonio Garcia, Peggy Roeder, Jin You, Patrick Mulvey, Jack Ball, Bella Wholey, Brittany Baker. Directed by Joe Chappelle

 

In this modern age, the government has thorny problems to wrestle with. How to deal with a threat which defies national boundaries but is just as deadly to its citizens as an attack on Pearl Harbor, for example. How does a nation react to terrorism without becoming terrorists themselves?

Libby Lamm (Sumpter) is part of an administration that had to face that question but her boss Vice-President Rachel Burke (Curtis) had no qualms about the answer. It has made Libby a social pariah, as her recommendation to the President (Linn) in her capacity as a security adviser led to a tragedy of 9-11 proportions. Libby is now in the academic sector, teaching an inflammatory political science course amid campus protests and drunken confrontations by self-righteous faculty members demanding to know how many people she killed.

Libby has chosen to write a book on her experiences, a book that the new regime, now led by the former Vice-President, desperately wants to see quashed. Libby, the daughter of a respected newspaper editor (Peters), is feeling a tremendous load of guilt and needs to write this book and have people read it in order to make some sort of emotional catharsis for herself. President Burke has sent oily Chief of Staff Adrian (Hephner), not coincidentally an ex-lover of Libby’s, to reason with her and bring her back into the fold but Libby is having none of it.

In the meantime creepy grad student Martin (Tavassoli) is breaking into Libby’s home and planting cameras in addition to stalking her in a way that says “terrorist” although in one of a series of plot twists we see that he’s much too academic for mere violence. In fact this whole movie is an endless series of plot twists, signifying nothing.

As potboilers go this one has its moments, particularly when Curtis is onscreen. There is an interesting concept in that Sumpter’s character is essentially a young Condoleezza Rice crossed with Jack Ryan which ought to be a delight for conservative moviegoers except that the rest of the film is essentially an indictment of conservative policies in the middle east which will no doubt get some eyes to rolling.

Chappelle and cinematographer Petra Korner seem to have made the conscious decision to overexpose the film, giving everything a nearly colorless, washed-out look. The effect is like watching a movie with your eyes dilated. I’m not so sure what prompted the look but it gets annoying after a while.

For the most part the acting is solid with Curtis setting the bar higher for everyone. She’s truly exceptional here, steely and completely sure of herself. She is confident in her beliefs and is quite frankly willing to do anything to support them and I do mean anything. She’s a cross between Dick Cheyney and…well, Dick Cheyney without the annoying heart condition. Her absolute certainty in her position puts Rachel above any moral concerns; it allows her to sleep at night knowing that anything done in service to her country is intrinsically the right thing to do, regardless of he consequences. It does bother me however that while Libby is considered a pariah as architect of the policy, the chief proponent of it (Burke) was elected President. The two don’t seem to add up logically.

The film suffers from a fairly bland script that utilizes a whole lot of dramatic reveals that don’t deserve the fanfare they’re given. The movie could have gone two ways – it could have been a standard direct-to-home video mindless thriller or it could have been a serious drama about how those in the corridors of power cope with their decisions when their decisions cost lives. Chappelle opts to go both routes which was too bad; the second half of the film which was the standard thriller is almost disappointing compared to the first half, the political drama which had a lot more potential. That’s a movie I really would have liked to see had they continued down that route.

REASONS TO GO: The film is a reasonably well-constructed thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The colors are washed out throughout, looking like a drab attempt at noir or a bad day at the development lab..
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chappelle also directed Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curtis starred in four films in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Adult Life Skills

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Unsane


Claire Foy still manages to get her running in on the set.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Amy Irving, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Sarah Stiles, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Polly McKie, Raul Castillo, Gibson Frazier, Lydia Mauze, Colin Woodell, Zach Cherry, Mike Mihm, Robert Kelly, Erin Wilhelmi, Sol M. Crespo, Natalie Gold, Emily Happe, Will Brill, Steven Maier, Matt Damon, Erika Rolfsrud, Aimee Mullins. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh

 

Most people don’t think they’re crazy. Even when they are, the thought that they are insane is ludicrous to them; it is the rest of the world that’s bonkers. We are all normal at least within ourselves.

The interestingly-named Sawyer Valentini (Foy) seems on the surface to have her stuff together. She works as a financial analyst and is brutally honest with her clients, a trait that gets her noticed by management. However, there are cracks in the facade. She really doesn’t have many social skills and her brutal honesty at work doesn’t translate well to her personal life. To be honest though that’s the way she likes it. When she uses her dating app, she tells the man who wants to date her that she can guarantee that he will get lucky that evening just as long as he understands that she’s not interested in romance or any further relationship beyond a roll in the hay. Most guys are going to leap into that with both feet.

However, Sawyer is bothered by dreams and occasional visions of a man who stalked her back when she lived in Boston. The stalking had eventually driven her to move to Philadelphia and start anew. She goes to the Highland Creek Mental Health Hospital to talk to someone about her fears. She is given some “routine paperwork” to fill out.

It turns out that the owners of Highland Creek aren’t nearly as altruistic as they sound; Sawyer has just signed papers consenting to a 24-hour voluntary commitment for which her insurance will duly be billed. When Sawyer loses it, those 24 hours become 72, then a full week when she slugs an orderly. Sawyer has a real issue with commitment apparently.

On her ward is Nate (Pharoah), an easy going chemical dependency patient, and Violet (Temple) who is pretty much aggressive and a bit psychotic. But one of the orderlies is a dead ringer for David Strine (Leonard) who stalked her in Boston. In fact, Sawyer is certain that he’s David Strine, come to finally claim her. Of course, nobody believes her and why should they? On the surface, it sounds crazy especially in light that she’s admitted to occasionally seeing him when he’s clearly not there. But is this a part of her delusion, or is she legitimately in danger?

Much has been made of the fact that Soderbergh shot the entire movie on an iPhone 7 plus and for the record it looks a hell of a lot better than it would if you or I shot it on our iPhones. There isn’t the jerky motion that comes from shooting on a handheld device; I have to wonder if Soderbergh some sort of Steadicam-like device to keep the motion of the camera smooth. The depth of field is also comparative to most professionally shot productions. However, the issues that iPhones have with lighting are definitely present here; some of the scenes are so poorly lit that it’s hard to see what’s happening onscreen.

Da Queen had a big problem with the plot in that the “is she or isn’t she crazy” question is resolved way too early leaving the movie with kind of anti-climactic tone. However, Soderbergh has tended to avoid making straightforward films. My gut tells me that he was trying to make a point. As part of the #MeToo era, I think Soderbergh was trying to make a point. He was trying to teach us what it’s like to not be believed – to be thought hysterical and untruthful which is clearly where Sawyer is coming from. There is definitely a message here and that message is “Sometimes you just have to take it on faith that the woman is actually a victim who is telling the truth about what is happening/happened to her. If so, it’s a powerful message that a lot of men need to receive. A lot of women too for that matter.

Foy, best known for the Netflix/BBC series The Crown is making a mark as an outstanding actress with excellent range. She delivers most of her lines in a flat, nasal delivery that sounds at home in New England. On top of that, she gives the impression of being fragile and brittle, far from the self-assured Queen Elizabeth II that she plays in her Netflix series. She’s very much like a lifelong smoker who has quit cold turkey; you can feel her nerves jangling from miles away.

Leonard makes a suitably sinister stalker. He’s not physically intimidating but there is an undercurrent of violence that threatens to erupt in several places; when it finally comes forward he proves to be vicious and unsympathetic. Leonard is himself a versatile performer who hasn’t yet gotten a role that is going to move him up the Hollywood ladder. Maybe one will come based on his work here.

This is a woman’s ultimate nightmare; to be trapped in a place she can’t escape from with a man who has been giving her unwanted sexual attention. I would imagine the very concept is going to make some women squeamish before they even start munching on their popcorn. It’s a movie that is genuinely creepy and reminds us that Soderbergh is the type of director who can work in just about any genre – action, comedy, drama, thriller, science fiction – and make a movie that is interesting and different. This isn’t likely to pull in big bucks at the box office but it could be one of those alternate choices for movie watching either in the theaters if you don’t want to see the big-budget films that are currently populating the multiplex or later on if you’re looking for something to watch at home once it becomes available. Either way, this is definitely one to take a chance on.

REASONS TO GO: Foy continues to be more and more impressive with each performance. This is a super creepy movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes are so dimly lit it’s hard to follow what’s actually happening. A major plot point is resolved way too early which gives the movie an anti-climactic tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing behavior, graphic violence, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hospital scenes were filmed at Summit Park Hospital in Pomona, New York. The hospital had closed on December 31, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Carpenter’s The Ward
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Death of Stalin

The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice

Baghead


There's nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

There’s nothing creepier than a friendly half-naked guy with a paper bag over his head in the woods.

(2008) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Ross Partridge, Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Elise Muller Jett Garner, Cass Naumann, Jennifer Lafleur, Darrell Bryant, Anthony Cristo, Jen Tracy Duplass, Heather Hall, David Zellner, Dan Eggleston, Spencer Greenwood, Stephanie Huettner, Amy Quick Parrish, Vincent James Prendergast. Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass

The creative process isn’t something you can really force. It happens or it doesn’t. However, sometimes it helps to shut out the distractions of your daily life and just get to it.

Four wanna-be filmmakers/actors are attending a film festival – Matt (Partridge) who is in his 30s and is still awaiting the stardom that he’s sure is coming his way; Chad (Zissis) who is beginning to watch his hairline recede and is desperately in love with Michelle (Gerwig), the youngest of their group and a budding alcoholic who is less interested in Chad than she is with Matt. There’s also Catherine (Muller) who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Matt which might be on or it might not be. She’s not really sure.

While at the film festival they watch a really bad feature by pretentious director Jeff Garner (playing himself) play with some acclaim, they come to the bitter realization that they’re not going to ever make the movie that will be the vehicle to establish their talents unless they write it themselves. Matt suggests heading to a cabin in the woods to write a film about four young people being stalked in a cabin in the woods by a guy with a bag over his head. It would be a slasher film spoof with a modern allegory of….oh, it’s crap.

But as the complex relationships between the four rear their ugly heads and create the kind of tension that they were trying to escape from in the first place, it becomes clear that they are being stalked by a guy with a paper bag over his head. Is it life imitating art or just a horrible coincidence?

For many, this is a mumblecore classic – the first of the genre to get distribution from a label affiliated with a major studio. Like most mumblecore films, very little happens here other than listening to people bitch and moan about their lives and loves. The budget is microscopic, the cast necessarily compact and the acting fairly naturalistic. But this is no Scream, mumblecore-style.

Zissis is the most appealing character here. Chad doesn’t have Matt’s ego or Catherine’s insecurities or Michelle’s immaturity, although he is a bit of a lost puppy. He also has a hopeless attachment to Michelle who is unlikely to return those feelings. Most of us at one time or another have been in a similar situation so we can watch Chad flail away futilely for the brass ring and nod in sympathy; we’ve all done it.

Gerwig, who is in many ways the face of mumblecore, is at her very best here. Her characters are generally flaky yet warmhearted and that is no different here. Don’t get me wrong; these characters can be annoying over the course of a 90 minute film but when played less for quirkiness and more for a terminal case of youth then we end up in her corner instead of irritated. Gerwig isn’t always successful at striking that balance but she does it here.

The other two performances depict rather unpleasant human beings, although of the two Partridge’s Matt is a bit more well-defined. Muller’s character is pretty one-dimensional as written but she gamely does what she can with it.

The problem with movies like this is that they have to grab our interest a little bit more strongly than other sorts of movies either with clever dialogue, an engaging plot or terrific performances. Baghead falls short in all three categories. I can only take so much self-absorption before I start getting the screaming meemies. I can respect the mash-up of genres here, blending romance, slasher horror, supernatural thriller and Hollywood indie and I can admire the tight craft that the Duplass brothers bring to the table – for a second feature this is incredibly self-assured. However, I can pretty much leave the hand-held camera gymnastics. I shouldn’t need to take anti-vertigo meds to watch a DVD.

WHY RENT THIS: Zissis and Gerwig have a sweet chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing much happens. Not always as interesting as it thinks it is.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit foul in places. There’s also some nudity and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second of five films directed by the Duplass brothers and the first to get a major studio release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an entertaining interview in which the Duplass brothers supply both frequently asked questions and answers, as well as a brief short called Baghead Scares.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $140,106 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Dinner for Schmucks


Dinner for Schmucks

Rolling on the floor laughing is just an Internet phrase, dammit!

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Jemaine Clement, Jeff Dunham, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Livingston, Lucy Punch, David Walliams, Ron Livingston, Larry Wilmore, Kristen Schaal, P.J. Byrne, Andrea Savage . Directed by Jay Roach

There are two kinds of people in business, it is said; those with ambition and those who succeed. Those who are successful, the inference is, act on that ambition. Sometimes, the price for acting on that ambition is high indeed.

Tim Conrad (Rudd) is that kind of ambitious guy, an executive at a financial firm who wants to move up the ladder. The key to his success is landing Muller (Walliams), a Swiss multi-millionaire. His boss, Lance Fender (Greenwood), is impressed enough to invite Tim to an annual event he hosts, a dinner for winners. Tim is psyched about this until he finds out that the event is not about highlighting legitimate talents, but to find the biggest loser for which the executive who brings him gets everlasting glory.

Tim’s girlfriend Julie (Szostak), who is a curator for the eccentric artist Kieran Vollard (Clement) doesn’t like the idea much. Tim has proposed several times to Julie but she’s turned him down each time. Tim agrees not to go to the dinner, hoping this will put him over the top with Julie.

The next day Tim is driving his Porsche when he accidentally hits a man picking up a dead mouse in the street. That man is Barry Speck (Carell), and it turns out his hobby is recreating works of art as dioramas with dead mice in the place of humans in the tableaux. Tim realizes that he has found the winning loser.

When Julie finds out that Tim is going to the dinner after all she storms out of his apartment, leaving her cell phone behind. Shortly afterwards, Barry shows up having confused the dates of the dinner. He gets on Tim’s computer while Tim is occupied and gives Tim’s address to Darla (Punch), a one-night stand that Tim had before he met Julie who is now psychotically stalking Tim. To make amends for inviting her, Barry decides to guard Tim’s apartment and intercept Darla before she gets there but mistakes Julie for Darla and implies to Julie that Tim is cheating on her.

Barry acts like a cyclone in Tim’s life, innocently doing the wrong thing and making things worse when he tries to atone. Discovering that Julie is on her way to Kieran’s ranch, Barry enlists the help of his supervisor at the IRS (yes, a guy like Barry could only work at the IRS), one Therman Murch (Galifianakis) who believes he is able to control Barry with the power of his mind. Uh huh, as if. Even this turns out to be disastrous.

Tim, who was on the verge of having it all, now finds himself on the verge of losing it all. However, he will attend the dinner in a last-ditch attempt at redemption. Maybe he might even deserve it.

This is the remake of a French film by Francis Veber entitled Le Diner de Cons (translated as Dinner With Cretins). I haven’t seen it myself but I understand it is less over-the-top and a little more cerebral than this one. Roach, who has the Austin Powers franchise to his credit, takes a little more in-your-face attitude, making it more like a Farrelly Brothers effort to my mind.

One of the things the movie has going for it is Rudd and Carell. Although they’ve worked together before (notably on The Forty Year Old Virgin) they never have quite as extensively as this. They do make a good comic team, with Rudd being one of the best straight men in the business and Carell rarely getting to let loose quite as much as he does here.

There are moments that are heart-warming but there is an underlying cruelty to the concept that gives one pause. On the surface, the heart seems to be firmly on the side of the Schmucks, but there is that nagging feeling that they’re really the butt of the joke once again. From my perspective, this is decidedly uneven and will have you flushing with embarrassment as you laugh at some of the antics of the schmucks but at the end of the day, it’s still funny enough to recommend. Just.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Carell and Rudd is spot on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Never really decides whether it’s going to be heart-warming or cruel.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of partial nudity and some crude content (sexual and otherwise) and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Early on in the film’s development, Sacha Baron Cohen was set to be the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the building of the mouse dioramas by the Chiodo Brothers (directors of the cult hit Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and a skit used during the 2010 ESPY awards lampooning the LeBron James press conference with Rudd and Carell in character.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $86.4M on a $69M production budget; the movie lost money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50