Rust Creek


Kentucky back roads are full of unusual roadkill.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Hermione Corfield, Jay Paulson, Micah Hauptman, Sean O’Bryan, Daniel R. Hill, John Marshall Jones, Jeremy Glazer, Jake Kidwell, Denise Dal Vera, Laura Guzman, Virginia Schneider. Directed by Jen McGowan

 

Road trips are a favorite of mine. There’s no better way to see the countryside, to get a feel for those who live there. However, there are some roads that are best not traveled upon.

Sawyer (Corfield) is one of those college students who are popping up everywhere – bright, ambitious, and fiercely determined to follow the road they’ve mapped out for themselves. Yes, that spells “irritating” for us older folks who once were bright, ambitious and fiercely determined to follow the road we mapped out for ourselves but somehow took a wrong turn.

Sawyer has also made a wrong turn. She’s driving through the backwoods of Kentucky during Thanksgiving week to get to Washington DC for a job interview and not just any job interview – one for her dream job. The Interstate is literally bumper to bumper with holiday traffic so she decides to take a road less traveled. Her GPS turns out to be unhelpful to say the least – sending her down roads that don’t exist or in dubious directions. Hopelessly lost, she stops to get her bearings and consult an actual paper map.

That’s when she gets the attention of Hollister (Hauptman) and Buck (Hill), a couple of locals – brothers and from an inbred family, judging from appearances. Things quickly get creepy and before you can say “isn’t that the kid from Deliverance?” she’s saying “you’re making me uncomfortable” and one of them makes a try for a Presidential pussy grab which goes over about as well as you’d expect. Things escalate and both of the Backwoods Boys get stabbed but unfortunately so does our heroine.

She escapes into the woods though, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She’s bleeding and the Kentucky woods are no joke in November. She eventually passes out and finds herself awake and in restraint in a trailer that looks like its seen better days. So too has the guy living there, Josh (Kidwell) who to make matters worse is a meth cooker and brother to both Hollister and Buck.

But Josh is different and he knows what the score is; why the Sheriff (O’Bryan) seems unconcerned with an abandoned car and missing persons report, and what Buck and Hollister were up to. Sawyer knows she’s in over her head but if she’s going to get out of this alive she’s going to have to be even tougher than she’s ever been.

Sawyer is one of the strongest and fiercest female characters in a low budget thriller to come along in a long time and Corfield does her justice. She could well be a 21st century Ripley, but strangely during the second half of the film her character’s strength seems to be sapped and she is almost waiting for Josh to save her. I can understand that a character as traumatized as she is during the course of the movie might lose some of her steam but I think the film would have been better served had Sawyer been more of a force throughout. I could see her being a role model but then….well, not so much.

Cinematographer Michelle Lawler gets to play in the Kentucky woods and she hits it out of the park, turning this into as beautifully shot a thriller as you are likely to see anytime soon. The woods are deceptively beautiful, the bad guys notwithstanding and it almost gives me thoughts of moving there someday. Almost.

The movie is a little bit on the long side as we learn more about meth cooking than I think most of us will ever want to know. Also Buck and Hollister are so stereotypical that the state of Kentucky might seriously think of protesting the film for perpetuating those stereotypes. I’m not saying that guys like his don’t exist, but they’re given not a lick of character development and that, too, hurts the film.

Still, this is a solid and eminently watchable thriller that has some really high points but just misses on others. It’s out in theaters for a limited run and also on VOD if it’s not playing in a theater convenient to you. As January films go, this one isn’t half-bad.

REASONS TO GO: Corfield is one of the strongest and fiercest scream queens to come along in years. The Kentucky scenery is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat long. The villains are for the most part stereotypical rednecks.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production company, Lunacy, has a mandate to support female filmmakers; thus most of the key behind the camera roles have been filled by women, including director, writer, director of photography, production designer, sound mixer and colorist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Archer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Christmas Chronicles

The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk


War and football: two American pastimes.

War and football: two American pastimes.

(2016) Drama (Tri-Star) Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Arturo Castro, Mason Lee, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Beau Knapp, Tim Blake Nelson, Deidre Lovejoy, Bruce McKinnon, Ben Platt, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Barney Harris, Christopher Cook, Laura Wheale, Richard Allen Daniel, Makenzie Leigh, Dana Barrett. Directed by Ang Lee

 

It is often easy in war to identify a hero. The crucible of battle can bring out the highest of human qualities as well as the lowest. But what happens to heroes after their moment?

Billy Lynn (Alwyn), a 19-year-old Texan from a small town, is finding out. During a skirmish with his Bravo company in Iraq, he sees his Sgt. Shroom (Diesel) go down after being hit. Without thinking, he goes out to defend his fallen comrade who has been a bit of a mentor to the young boy, taking on an Iraqi insurgent in hand-to-hand combat. The episode is captured on video and goes viral.

The Bravo company is sent home on a publicity tour, culminating in a Thanksgiving Day appearance at a halftime show at the Dallas stadium for their pro football team, whose smarmy owner Norm Oglesby (Martin) professes great admiration for the Bravos while at the same time trying to figure out a way he can exploit their fame for his own purposes. The company is presided over by Sgt. David Dime (Hedlund) who is a bit more worldly and protective of his boys, while a Hollywood agent (Tucker) tries to get the Bravos a movie deal for the rights to their story.

Set during the day of the big halftime show, Lee’s film captures the bonds of brotherhood between the soldiers who are increasingly disconnected with the well-meaning but clueless civilians who “support the troops” but don’t have any idea what that entails. Alwyn, a British actor, pulls off the American accent without a flaw and captures Billy’s jarring juxtaposition between worldly warrior and naïve 19-year-old. It’s a scintillating performance that hopefully will be the first of many for a young actor with a whole lot of upside.

His conscience is his sister Kathryn (Stewart) whose liberal anti-war aphorisms meet with disapproval in the Lynn family who are solidly behind the war. Perhaps the face of the attitude towards his heroism comes from cheerleader Faison (Leigh) who is more interested in her own image of him as a Christian soldier than in the real Billy Lynn.

Based on a book by Ben Fountain, the movie feels much of the time that it is trying to take on too many ideas in a superficial manner without settling on anything concrete. The overall impression is of a film without a message although it desperately is trying to get something across. I’m a big Ang Lee fan but this isn’t going to go down as one of his best.

Much has been made of the technical aspect of the movie; it was filmed at a higher frame rate – about five times faster – than standard movies. Unfortunately, few theaters are equipped to show the movie this way, although I understand that the effect was impressive and completely immersive. Perhaps someday we’ll get to see it the way it was intended but the 2D was satisfactory in terms of the images.

Much like this review, the film is scattershot. There’s a cohesive whole to be had here but it eludes the filmmaker; just when you think the movie is about to gel, it goes off on another tangent or several of them. This is the most unfocused I’ve seen Lee as a filmmaker in his entire career. This is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.

REASONS TO GO: Some strong performances and content make this worthwhile.
REASONS TO STAY: A feeling that the film is all over the place makes it not.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of salty language, some scenes of war violence, some sexual content and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Mason Lee, who plays Foo, is Ang Lee’s son.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Origin

Hello, My Name is Doris


Sally Field has double vision.

Sally Field has double vision.

(2015) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Isabella Acres, Kyle Mooney, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Caroline Aaron, Tyne Daly, Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Wisocky, Amy Okuda, Don Stark, Nnamdi Asomugha, Anna Akana, Rich Sommer, Emilie Germain. Directed by Michael Showalter

There are a lot of reasons that people fall in love. Sometimes it’s a chemistry thing. Sometimes it’s a sexual thing. Sometimes it’s a shared interests thing. And sometimes, it’s a desperation thing.

Doris Miller (Field) has just buried her mother, whom she has spent much of her adult life taking care of. Doris is a bit eccentric; she dresses like a bag lady being played by the love child of Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher and kind of walks her own path. Her brother (Root) and sister-in-law (McLendon-Covey) urge her to sell the house, which they have ulterior motives for, but she’s not inclined to do so. Doris has lived here all her life and sees no reason to find a new place to live, even though her commute from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan is grueling.

At the firm where she works in the accounting department, she gets on an elevator soon after the funeral with the handsome new art director, John Fremont (Greenfield) – not the general who left his mark on California maps. And wouldn’t you know it, she develops a huge crush on the much younger man.

Doris hasn’t exactly had a whole lot of romantic experience, most of her free time revolving around the care of her mother. So she approaches her best friend Roz (Daly) who steers her to her 13-year-old granddaughter (Acres) who helps Doris set up a fake Facebook account so she can keep tabs on her new beau. Of course, she ends up creating havoc in his life, especially when she gets jealous of his new girlfriend Brooklyn (Behrs). But that isn’t all that’s changing; some of John’s hipster friends are discovering that the quirky Doris is the new kind of cool. She even poses for an album cover; but are her new friends driving Doris away from her old friends? And are her new friends more bent on hanging out with the new flavor of the week rather than genuinely interested in her?

There are a few not-so-subtle undertones here, mainly in how we look at the aged. Field is no spring chicken but she carries herself with a great deal of charm and comes off as so likable that even when she’s engaging in creepy stalker behavior you still end up liking her. But in a lot of ways, her character is kind of a cliché eccentric old woman who is so out there that she fits in with the hip millennial crowd. I found that it was a little bit condescending in that Doris has to dress like a mannequin found in a Mad Max movie and literally throw herself at a younger man to get him to be interested in her. There are plenty of young men who are into older women out there; why does an actress the caliber of Sally Field have to debase herself in order to have a relationship between a younger man and an older woman seem viable?

There are plenty of cliches of the indie variety from the New York location (albeit a lot of it takes place outside of hipster heaven Manhattan and hipster other heaven Brooklyn) to the soundtrack to the pretentions of the mainly artistic people portrayed here. There are a few things that kind of break the mold – the dialogue, for example, is clever but not overly so to the point that it doesn’t sound like real people talking, a very major indie sin.

The film also has something positive that’s a mite rare these days – a delightful ending. Yes, the movie actually ends in a way that is both satisfying and organic. I wish a lot more movies gave the kind of thought to their ending the filmmakers here obviously did with theirs. You think for a moment the movie is going one way and then – it doesn’t. Kudos to the writers for that.

There is definitely a good deal of entertainment value here. Field clearly still is at the top of her game and I hope that with some good roles starting to appear for women in her age range that we’ll see more of her on the big screen in the coming years. I only wish the movie hadn’t treated the romance between the older woman and the younger man as something ridiculous; certainly they wouldn’t have if the relationship had been between a 60-something guy and a 20-something woman. As a society, we seem to be okay with one and not with the other. There’s a good documentary in the exploration of that double standard somewhere.

REASONS TO GO: Field is still intensely likable. A very satisfying ending.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit condescending and cliché. I think the May-December romance should have not been a source of ridicule.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to merit an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Chasing Mavericks

That Awkward Moment


Zac Efron is confident he's the prettiest one of the trio.

Zac Efron is confident he’s the prettiest one of the trio.

(2014) Romantic Comedy (Focus) Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas, Addison Timlin, Josh Pais, Evelina Turen, Karen Ludwig, Tina Benko, Joseph Adams, Lola Glaudini, John Rothman, Barbara Garrick, Reif Larsen, Kate Simses, Emily Meade, Alysia Reiner, Julia Morrison. Directed by Tom Gormican

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-3

According to Jason (Efron), a book cover designer and long time player, any sentence uttered by a woman that you are seeing that begins with the word “So…” is an intimation of impending catastrophe. It is the linchpin of any relationship; the moment that a relationship moves from “dating” to “boyfriend/girlfriend.” It is the type of commitment that guys like Jason find to be about as repellent as walking barefoot over a floor covered in broken glass and scorpions.

He works with his buddy Daniel (Teller) who is basically a 16-year-old in a twenty-something’s body. Daniel uses Jason’s friend Chelsea (Davis) as a means of meeting women for one-night stands (Jason needs no help for that). The two have a third musketeer, Mikey (Jordan), a married doctor but Mikey’s just been hit by a bombshell; his wife Vera (Lucas) has been cheating on him with Harold, a lawyer who looks suspiciously like Morris Chestnut.

Mikey is depressed as all get-out and Daniel knows exactly what he needs – a night in a bar drinking and picking up some chick for a night’s entertainment. Mikey makes a connection with a young lady in glasses (Simses) who gives him her number to use “when (you’re) ready” while Jason ends up with a cute blonde named Ellie (Poots) who has an unusually high number of condoms in her apartment and wears hooker boots. Seeing as the New Yorker just printed an article on hookers in the East End dressing like hipsters, the perpetually broke Jason makes a pre-dawn run for it, fearing Ellie will be asking him for payment in the morning.

The three friends decide to make a pact, all of them having had a wonderful time the evening before – all three will remain single for as long as possible to keep the party going. Mikey is still a little hung up on his ex but agrees that he hadn’t had that much fun in quite some time.

It turns out Ellie isn’t a prostitute – she works for a publishing company that Jason’s socially awkward boss Fred (Pais) is courting. D’oh!  As it turns out, Ellie and Jason end up falling hard for each other. Daniel winds up falling hard for Chelsea – and she for him, hard as it is to believe. And as for Mikey, his attempts to reconcile with Vera turn out far better than he expected. Of course, all three of them, not wishing to look bad in the eyes of their friends, hide their relationships from each other. And of course all three of these geniuses end up imperiling their relationships because of their lack of communication. When will they ever learn?

I understand that this was on the Hollywood Black List of best unproduced scripts of 2012 and I have to wonder how on earth it got there, unless substantial revisions were made during filming. The movie is chock full of the same old tired rom-com clichés that have made nearly all of the romantic comedies produced by Hollywood over the past decade nearly identical in nature. It’s a form of chauvinism, thinking women will settle for the same old thing year after year…although considering some of the relationship choices I’ve seen some of my women friend make during that time, perhaps the studio bigwigs are on to something.

I haven’t been a great Zac Efron fan I have to admit but he does make a pretty decent romantic lead. He’s certainly got the looks and the abs for it and while his acting chops are pretty weak, the same thing could be said for both Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum at the same point in their careers and in both of the above I’ve seen a ton of improvement in that department. I could see Efron becoming a really good actor down the line.

Jordan is an amazing actor but he is hardly utilized here, essentially playing the role of the African-American friend. He has a few decent moments in the film and his banter with Teller and Efron is natural and unforced, something you can’t always say for the other two.

It is the women who fare best here. Poots has done some sterling work in films like A Late Quartet gets the meatiest role and makes the most of it; her expression as she stares at Efron as he goes through his antics is definitely worth a thousand words at least. This British actress has the kind of ability that is possessed by Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams; hopefully she’ll start to get some A-list roles sent her way soon.

While there are some new romantic movies opening up just in time for Valentine’s Day (especially the anticipated Winter’s Tale) as I have not seen them yet I can’t really recommend them much and for my money this is the best romantic movie in theaters at the moment; ladies will swoon over the handsome Efron and guys will appreciate the banter and relationship between the men which is pretty genuine. So fellas, this is a rom-com that you can actually enjoy without feeling you are enduring it for the sake of your woman’s tender attentions after the credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Efron becoming a solid romantic lead. Occasionally very funny. Authentic relationship between the guys.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many rom-com clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of foul language, even more sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally to be released by FilmDistrict but after Focus absorbed that distribution company (their production side remains independent) this became the first FilmDistrict property to be distributed by Focus.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: About Last Night

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart continues!

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

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

Jack and Jill


 

Jack and Jill

Dumb and Dumberer.

(2011) Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Katie Holmes, Al Pacino, Elodie Tougne, Rohan Chand, Eugenio Derbez, David Spade, Nick Swardson, Tim Meadows, Norm MacDonald, Allen Covert, Geoff Pierson, Valerie Mahaffey, Dana Carvey, Regis Philbin, Gary Valentine. Directed by Dennis Dugan

 

Have you ever had a houseguest who just drove you up a wall? Their habits were completely disgusting; they broadcast their opinions at volumes that would drown out a jet engine and before long even the  sight of them makes you want to scream. And why would you admit a houseguest like that? Because they’re family, that’s why.

Jack (Sandler) is a successful TV director who live in a beautiful home in Beverly Hills, a beautiful wife (Holmes) named Erin and two beautiful kids. He has a Mexican gardener (Derbez), courtyard seats at Laker games – everything you need for what qualifies for the perfect life in El Lay.

He also has two impossible tasks in front of him. The first is to satisfy a client – Dunkin Donuts to be exact but who’s keeping score – who want him to sign Al Pacino to be the celebrity spokesman for their new Dunkaccino product. Yeah, that’ll happen – but the most daunting task is to survive the annual Thanksgiving visit of his twin sister Jill (also Sandler) without shooting her in the face and dumping her body in a wood chipper.

That’s because Jill has all the tact of a rampaging rhinoceros on crystal meth. With her broad Bronx accent (which her brother has pretty much lost) and near-incomprehensible dumbness (she doesn’t know what the Internet is….seriously?) she may be the single most obnoxious and unlikable character in the movies in the last 20 years that I can think of. Maybe ever.

She wants some “twin time” so her Thanksgiving stay stretches into December, through Chanukah and beyond. Jack wants her gone by the time his family leaves for a much anticipated and much needed cruise. She has a list of things she wants to do, including  a Laker game where Jack runs into Al Pacino (playing himself). To the astonishment of everyone not named Al Pacino (including everyone in the audience) Pacino falls crazy head over heels for Jill which to me should have alone qualified him for an honorary Oscar, if not psychiatric evaluation.

Now Jack has the perfect “in” with Pacino but Jill, being the dim bulb she is, refuses to help a brother out. Now Jack stands to lose everything – including the sister who was one his Womb Mate (bwah haw haw haw haw). Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.

This is a real mess. The crux of the movie is Sandler playing two roles that are similar but with some compelling differences beyond the obvious one of gender. Whereas Jack is composed, literate and successful, Jill is shrill, oblivious and a bit of a failure. Yet they still have the same mannerisms and look a lot like Adam Sandler which is pretty unfortunate for Jill because she looks pretty mannish and is never really convincing as a woman – she lacks the innate grace of movement that women possess. She is literally the Man Who Came to Dinner…and then stayed..and stayed…and stayed.

In fact Sandler is so unlikable in both roles that he won Razzies for both – the first time an actor has taken awards for each gender in the history of the dubious honor that is the Golden Raspberry. Jack and Jill in fact took a total of ten of them including all of the “major” awards, marking it the worst film of 2011. I guess you can make a case for it, although personally I’d have put Hop and Melancholia both ahead of it.

What saves this movie for me is Pacino. He is the very definition of a good sport, lampooning himself somewhat as a hyper-sensitive, temperamental diva of an actor who has abysmal taste in women and sees something in Jill NOBODY else can see; not even her brother. Sometimes strangers see us more truly than our own family does.

It’s easy to kick a dead horse, and this movie has all the stench of a rotting equine cadaver. While there are some bright spots – besides Pacino, Holmes acquits herself well – the lack of a truly funny script sinks the movie beyond all redemption. The sad thing is, the makers of this movie have all made very funny film previous to this, so it’s obvious they know how. Unfortunately, this is all base stuff that has the humor level of two six year olds on a school playground screaming “PEE PEE! DOO DOO! CACA!” and laughing hysterically at each other as they do. If you still do that, by all means rent this. If you think Adam Sandler can do no wrong, rent this. Otherwise, look elsewhere.

WHY RENT THIS: Holmes at least maintains a shred of dignity. Kind of fun seeing all the SNL vets onscreen, plus all the celebrity cameos. Pacino is fun to watch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hideously unfunny. Sandler overacts shamelessly as Jill.

FAMILY VALUES:  The humor can be pretty crude; there’s also a little bit of violence for comic effect as well as some bad and/or suggestive language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allen Covert plays Otto in the movie, the same role he had in Happy Gilmore.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on filming on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Allure of the Seas. There’s also a featurette on the various cameos that appear in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on a $79M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Deeds

FINAL RATING: A very generous 4/10

NEXT: Goats

The Roommate


 

The Roommate

The backwards on the floor no-look door opening technique rarely works.

(2011) Thriller (Screen Gems) Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, Cam Gigandet, Aly Michalka, Danneel Harris, Frances Fisher, Billy Zane, Tomas Arana, Chris Bylsma, Nina Dobrev, Matt Lanter, Katerina Graham, Ryan Doom, Carrie Finklea. Directed by Christian E. Christiansen

 

Ah, sweet college days. The parties, the friendships, the dorms. Who can forget that sort of half-baked roommate, the one who drove you crazy? Of course, there are always the crazy roommates who were really crazy…

Sara (Kelly) is a fresh-faced young fashion student mending from a broken heart and attending a school in sunny Southern California which must look pretty cosmopolitan to a girl off the farm in Iowa. She winds up with Rebecca (Meester) as a roommate. Rebecca comes from good money but she has a lot of problems. She’s an art student with a taste for let’s just say the darker side of art. She also is a bit obsessive when it comes to Sara. She wants Sara to like her. Her and nobody else, to be exact.

This becomes somewhat inconvenient for the other people in Sara’s life, such as the hunky frat boy Stephen (Gigandet) that she’s dating, or the ditzy party girl Tracy (Michalka) she’s friends with. Rebecca goes further and further off the deep end and we know what murky waters that can lead to.

Christiansen has an Oscar nomination to his credit (for a live action short) so we know he has at least some talent and imagination. At times he sets up some fairly innovative camera shots but that really doesn’t help this mess out much. The problems here are myriad and mostly have to do with the writing and the acting.

While not credited anywhere, this seems disturbingly similar to the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Bridget Fonda film Single White Female which is a far better movie than this one. It contains a lot of similar elements to The Roommate but is executed much better. Single White Female at least has the courage of its convictions whereas The Roommate is something of a tease, wanting to titillate with the promise of homoerotic encounters as well as straight-out gore and really, delivering neither.

The cast is attractive enough, although they tend to lean heavily towards CW alumni. Unfortunately, most of the characters they play lean towards the single dimension and other than Rebecca we really don’t get much background whatsoever. In short, we aren’t given a reason to care about any of them. That’s not always a problem with the script; some of the acting seems to be a bit forced while in other cases the performances seem obligatory, as if the actor just wanted to collect the paycheck and move on.

For me there is a point where reboot ends and rip-off begins and that’s pretty much the way the filmmakers went at it here. There’s little or no originality and some of the creepier elements that made Single White Female work so well are absent here. The filmmakers, rather than going for suspense and tension go instead for cheap thrills. Unfortunately, there are far too many movies out there where you can get those. I think the film would have been better served to go for an R rating instead of a PG-13; more gore, more sex might have given the film an edge it doesn’t possess.

WHY RENT THIS: Some very good-looking actors and actresses at work here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A poorly executed rip-off of Single White Female. Could have used some more edge.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a lot of violence and menace, some sexuality, teen partying and a few choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, the poster depicts the Christy Administration building from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. While the photo of the building was legally leased from a stock photo service, the school was concerned that their image might be tarnished by the depiction of their school in the poster of the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a nice feature on the wardrobe department for the film, something that doesn’t get coverage often on home video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.5M on a $16M production budget; the film made back its production costs and a bit more than that during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Lebanon