Welcome to Me


Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

(2014) Comedy (Alchemy) Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Thomas Mann, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Kulap Vilaysack, Mitch Silpa, Anelia Dyoulgerova, Joe Roland, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace, Rose Abdoo, Hannah Chodos, Sabra Williams, Charlotte Rabbe, Shanna Strong. Directed by Shira Piven

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Buy a new house, a new car, a new boat; pay off all our debts, take a fabulous vacation, maybe give some back to the community or to charity. I’m fairly sure most of us would not have buying ourselves our own talk show on the radar.

Alice Klieg (Wiig) ha s just won the California lottery. Up until now she’s led a kind of a drab existence although that’s largely drug-induced. Not the fun kind even – the prescription kind. She has a borderline personality disorder and needs meds to stabilize her moods which have a tendency to get savage without warning. She mostly keeps to herself and watches VHS videotapes of Oprah shows, which she has largely memorized.

So she says goodbye to her pills, much to the objections of her therapist (Robbins), puts herself on a diet low on glucose, high on protein and low on carbohydrates which she pronounces “carbohydrants.” With not a lot to do in Palm Desert (her home), she moves into a hotel room at the local Native American casino and finds herself fascinated by a product that she sees on a local shopping network that seems to fit into her dietary needs. She and her best friend Gina (Cardellini) get tickets to a studio audience for an infomercial huckstering the product and feeling empowered by her recent success, manages to get some camera face time. Flush with the success of that, she informs the station owner Rich (Marsden) that she has an idea for a talk show that she’s willing to pay for, starring herself with the subject of…herself.

While the acerbic director Dawn (Cusack) thinks that this is a monumentally bad idea, Rich is desperate for money to save the station, much to his brother Gabe’s (Bentley) chagrin. He was the face of the product that attracted Alice’s attention and now is attracting Alice’s attention for a whole other reason.

Alice, who has never had any sort of filter and blurts out whatever comes into her head (and reads prepared statements when she wants to get something across) has begun sleeping around with whoever catches her fancy. On the show she makes her grand entrance in a swan boat-like vehicle (she has a thing for swans, which decorate her house) and mostly talks about her diet, and re-enacts incidents from her life that bother her to this day, like someone stealing from her make-up bag on a ski trip, or a former friend who told others in high school that Alice had some mental issues. When provoked, Alice throws things or goes into screaming rages.

As the show continues to run and gets a kind of viral success, Alice begins to spin out of control. She is able to afford to buy what she wants which continues to feed into her disease. Her self-absorption becomes almost maniacal and even the loyal Gina is horrified and can’t cope with the new Alice. She is re-inventing herself, but is it into a person she truly wants to be?

Wiig’s post-SNL career has been largely of characters like this, although Alice is a bit of an extreme. She excels at characters who are just a bit off-beat, who march to their own drummer and who aren’t just ordinary folks. She has also been choosing of late indie films that allow her to really display her best work, roles that are really in her wheelhouse. In many ways, this is her best performance on the big screen, even more so than her work in the blockbuster hit Bridesmaids which essentially set her up as a star leading actress. Even as Alice becomes more unlikable, she remains sympathetic for the most part as we know she doesn’t really control her own actions.

This is one of two films I’ve seen at this year’s Florida Film Festival that has at their center a person with emotional/mental issues that make the conscious decision to stop taking their medication. It is played to much more comedic effect here and less to the chilling effect it is in Gabriel which might make those who are advocates for those who have issues to take pause; however, it should be said I didn’t get a sense that either Wiig or the filmmakers were making fun of Alice but showing the side of her that might provoke an audience to laugh. Certainly I went in thinking that I was going to be cringing more than laughing and ended up doing more of the latter than the former.

The movie starts out strong and kinda peters out near the end. A strong supporting cast, particularly Cusack who has become for my money one of the strongest character actresses working today, helps keep the movie interesting throughout, although some of the characters are a bit cliche. At times it feels like the writers had stretched out the movie to make it feature length.

Still in all, this is solidly entertaining. There’s some subtle – okay, not so subtle – commentary on our obsession with fame and of our consumerist, self-involved society which is quite welcome but for the most part shooting fish in a barrel. What it isn’t is an issue movie on mental health. Wiig remains an acquired taste for some, mainly because the roles she tends to go for are pretty quirky (and none more than this one) but when she’s on as she is here, she’s as good as any comic actress out there. For those who want to avoid the crowds at the big summer movies, this makes for a nice alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Wiig gives a stellar performance. Much funnier than I expected. Great supporting performances, particularly from Cusack.
REASONS TO STAY: Falls apart near the end. A couple of cliche characters in the mix. Some of the material feels a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, some graphic nudity, a fair amount of foul language and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shira Piven is actor Jeremy Piven’s older sister; the actress who plays Alice’s mother in the film is actually Shira and Jeremy Piven’s mom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Me Three Times

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New Releases for the Week of May 8, 2015


Hot PursuitHOT PURSUIT

(New Line) Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew del Negro, John Carroll Lynch, Mike Birbiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Mosley. Directed by Anne Fletcher

After the death of a drug kingpin, the Texas underground is turned upside down as it appears his widow may be telling the secrets of her late husband to the authorities. With murderous gunmen and crooked cops gunning for her, it is up to a serious, by-the-book Texas Ranger to keep her alive and deliver her to the courts to make her testimony. That is, if the Ranger doesn’t kill the outrageous, outgoing, sexy and impulsive widow first.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, violence, language and some drug material)

The D-Train

(IFC) Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor. Dan Landsman aspired to be the cool guy in high school but could never quite rise above the strata of nebbish that he had been assigned to. Now years later planning the big reunion, he finally gets his chance if he can bring to the party the coolest guy in school – who happens to be the face of a national tanning lotion ad campaign.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Selected Theaters
Rating: R (for strong sexual material, nudity, language and drug use)

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

(Music Box) Ronit Elkabetz, Simon Abkarian, Shmil Ben Ari, Gabi Amrani. In Israeli society, there are no civil marriages; every marriage takes place within the Jewish faith and can only be dissolved if both parties give permission and a tribunal of rabbis agree, Viviane Amsalem has been trapped in a loveless marriage and has been attempting to secure a divorce for three years, but her devout husband refuses to give her one despite the fact that he has been as miserable in the marriage as she has. This Oscar-nominated film points out the absurdity of the system as everything, no matter how minute, is brought up for scrutiny by the rabbis.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: NR

Ride

(Screen Media) Helen Hunt, Brenton Thwaites, Luke Wilson, David Zayas. When her son drops out of college to surf and find himself, a New York mom flies to Southern California, ostensibly to talk him out of this course of action. Unable to sway him, she decides instead to try and understand him and takes up surfing herself with the unexpected effect of finding herself.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: R (for some language and drug use)

Welcome to Me

(Alchemy) Kirsten Wiig, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Tim Robbins. A slightly mentally unstable woman wins the lottery and puts the money to good use – by buying herself a talk show in which the daily subject is…herself. This was the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language and brief drug use)

New Releases for the Week of September 20, 2013


Prisoners

PRISONERS

(Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A desperate father races against time after his daughter and her young friend have disappeared. The only lead the police have is a dilapidated RV that was parked on the street at the time of the disappearances. The driver, a mentally challenged young man, has been released for lack of evidence. As time ticks away with each moment bringing a greater chance that the children will be dead, how far will he go to find his little girl – and what price will he pay?

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)

Battle of the Year

(Screen Gems) Josh Holloway, Laz Alonso, Josh Peck, Caity Lotz.  A hip hop mogul, ticked off that the Hip Hop Dance World Championship has gone to countries other than the United State for 15 years, decides to assemble a dream team to bring the trophy back home – and a washed up former championship basketball coach to lead them there.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Urban Dance

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content and innuendo)

Generation Iron

(American Media/Vladar) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mickey Rourke (narrator), Lou Ferrigno, Michael Jai White. As the prestigious Mr. Olympia competition nears, renowned bodybuilders from around the world prepare for one of the most coveted titles in all of bodybuilding. As the film focuses on seven top up and coming young stars, legends and admirers of the sport weigh in.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and brief strong language) 

Grand Masti

(Maruti International) Ritesh Deshmukh, Vivek Oberoi, Aftab Shivdasani, Maryam Zakaria . A sequel to the huge hit sex comedy Masti finds the three sex-crazed men of that film now married to beautiful sexy wives. Perfect life right? Wrong! Their wives are too busy with their other obligations to give the men the sex they crave. They’re going crazy – until the opportunity to attend a college class reunion gives them the chance to sow their wild oats with willing co-eds. No, this isn’t a 70s porn film.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Phata Poster Nikla Hero

(Tips) Shahid Kapoor, Ileana, Katrina Kaif, Zakir Hussein. The latest from director Rajkumar Santoshi is the usual meld of high energy, low comedy and spectacular musical numbers and dance.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Thanks for Sharing

(Roadside Attractions) Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joely Richardson. Three people afflicted with sex addiction struggle to face life together after rehabilitation. Romantic involvements and interpersonal relationships become battlegrounds as the human need for companionship and love is at war with their obsessive need for sexual gratification.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some strong sexual content)

The Wizard of Oz IMAX 3D

(MGM) Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr. We all know the story. We’ve all seen the movie. Now you can see it like it’s never been shown before – in full-on IMAX 3D. I’m usually not too encouraging of my readers to spend their hard-earned dollars on blatant cash grabs, but this one might be the rare exception. Who doesn’t want to see a Flying Monkey in 3D on the IMAX screen?

See the trailer, promos, clips and stream the full movie at Amazon.com here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some scary moments)

Mystic River


Sean Penn finds out there's a paparazzi convention in town.

Sean Penn finds out there’s a paparazzi convention in town.

(2003) Drama (Warner Brothers) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, Kevin Chapman, Thomas Guiry, Emmy Rossum, Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Mackin, Adam Nelson, Tori Davis, Ari Graynor. Directed by Clint Eastwood

In Al Green’s R&B masterpiece “Take Me to the River,” he uses the river as a metaphor for redemption, for forgetfulness. In Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, it is a place where sins are buried forever in the eternal non-judgmental current that washes them to sea.

Three young boys growing up in a blue-collar Irish neighborhood in Boston are marked for life when one of them is abducted by a pedophile posing as a police officer and held for four days before escaping. The victim is scarred, having invented a different personality for himself in order to survive the ordeal. The other two are guilt-ridden, each wondering what their lives would have been like if they had gotten into the pedophile’s car instead of their cohort.

Years later, they have drifted apart, although not far. Jimmy Markum (Penn) is an ex-con who has reformed, and runs the corner store. Katie (Rossum), his daughter from his first marriage, is the apple of his eye, an eye trained steadily on her and a neighborhood friend Brendan (Guiry), whom he mistrusts. Sean Devine (Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife abruptly left him six months earlier and who periodically calls him and says nothing, waiting for Sean to speak, but Sean doesn’t know what to say. Finally Dave Boyle (Robbins), the pedophile’s victim, shuffles around like he’s in one of the vampire movies he loves to watch, and tries to make sense of the skewed perceptions his damaged mind takes in.

The three men see each other periodically, but are not friends the same way they were as children, although they remain drawn to their neighborhood and in fact the events that so marked them those years ago.

When Katie is brutally murdered, the three are drawn back together again, particularly as Sean is assigned the case. Dave reconnects with Jimmy, especially since Dave’s wife Celeste (Harden) is cousin to Jimmy’s second wife Annabeth (Linney). But as the men are drawn together, it becomes clear they are heading for an explosion. Dave arrives home the night Katie is killed covered in blood and with an implausible story. Celeste suspects that he is not telling her everything, but fears to connect the dots. Jimmy is a raging inferno, trying to reconcile his turbulent emotions but keeping it together externally; you literally expect him to have some of his internal organs pop out of his skin several times during the course of the movie. And while Sean’s partner Whitey (Fishburne in a most un-Morpheus-like role) trains his suspicions on Dave, Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend, who endured so much; the psychology is wrong, and Sean’s survivor guilt is becoming an impediment.

When Celeste finally breaks down and tells Jimmy her suspicions, the chain of events becomes inevitable. You get the sense that Katie’s tomb is actually a vortex, sucking the three men into a unavoidable collision. When it comes, you half-expect the film’s very celluloid to combust.

Eastwood knows how to let a story tell itself at its own pace. At times, Mystic River is languid and slow-moving, but that is only because the characters must have their chance to develop; without that, the movie would collapse. At other times, the movie feels like it is rushing viewers along in a riptide. Eastwood also is a master of establishing mood; at no point do you ever doubt the reality of the neighborhood and the people.

There are some great performances here. Penn is masterful as the tortured father of a murdered 19-year-old daughter. It resonates from the moment he realizes that she’s been murdered to the end of the movie and obviously resonated with the Academy – he garnered his first Best Actor Oscar for the role. He is a violent man, although that violence is kept below the surface; you spend every moment wondering when he will erupt; yet he never goes over the top. His actions all are consistent with the character, and Penn’s emotional performance makes Jimmy Markum real. Penn was so underrated as an actor at the time this was made; in time, he has become considered with the likes of De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman in the elite cinematic pantheon. His performance here is the chief reason you should see this movie.

Bacon and Robbins are solid in their roles; Robbins has a more difficult task in trying to humanize and make relatable a man who has been through something most of us cannot imagine. He is successful most of the time, but such an effort is made to make him appear guilty (when the majority of the audience will probably realize that he is not) that it robs him of his credibility. However, his portrayal of a damaged, tortured soul was enough to win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Bacon is more restrained in his performance, but doesn’t really convey as much emotionally as the incendiary Penn, and thus his work pales next to his co-star.

The supporting cast is for the most part solid, although Harden as the weak, emotionally dependent Celeste is at times cloying but what do I know – she was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Much has been made of the ending, which is (I think) deliberately ambiguous, especially regarding how the survivors react. The ending badly disrupts the flow of the movie. Mystic River is a good movie that could have been better, had the ending not been so badly botched.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar-winning performances and a compelling story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending completely ruins the film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a lot of bad language and a lot of violence, some of it implied of a sexual nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In a scene set in the morgue where Jimmy is alone with Katie’s body and emotionally promising revenge, the corpse burst into tears because actress Emmy Rossum was so moved by Penn’s performance.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are some interviews from “The Charlie Rose Show” of Bacon, Robbins and Eastwood. The 3-Disc Deluxe DVD edition includes the soundtrack from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $156.8M on a $25M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

DENNIS LAHANE LOVERS: The author of the book the movie was based on makes a cameo appearance during the parade sequence in which he can be spotted waving to the crowd from the back of a convertible.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life

Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

High Fidelity


High Fidelity

This is my movie and these are my people.

(2000) Romance (Touchstone) John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

John Cusack is one of those actors who is quirky, engaging, charming, occasionally irascible but always interesting to watch. In short, a young Jack Nicholson. From time to time, Cusack will produce small-budget films on his own that are generally paid for by his appearances in big-buck extravaganzas such as Con Air. Like Cusack himself, these less fiscally ambitious movies are nearly always quirky yet endearing and generally include his sister Joan in some capacity (see Grosse Pointe Blank).

In High Fidelity he plays Rob Gordon, who owns an eclectic record store in Chicago that actually sells records, and by that I mean vinyl. The store specializes in classic rock and soul and indie rock. Gordon has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), who left him to take up with a New Age ex-hippie named Ian (Robbins). While Gordon’s store employees – the loud, rude and opinionated Barry (Black) and the soft-spoken music nerd Dick (Louiso) – try to keep the store running (such as it does; the store is nearly broke), Gordon is busy trying to figure out why he keeps getting dumped.

A compulsive list-maker, Gordon seeks out the girlfriends responsible for his top five worst breakups in an effort to discover why they chose someone else over him.

Cusack imbues Gordon with complexity. He yearns for stability and contentment, but always sabotages himself with the wrong impulses just when those goals seem attainable. Moody, temperamental, a musical snob and more than a little bit of a jerk, Gordon is nonetheless sympathetic. He admires excellence (particularly in music) and champions the underdog without fail, which is why he sells vinyl, a sort of Don Quixote of music retail. He smokes compulsively, talks to the camera like it’s a confessional and plunges into all situations without fear. It may sound awful on paper, but Cusack is likable enough to pull it off.

To his advantage, Cusack surrounds himself with a great cast. Black and Louiso are hysterical as his employees. Sister Joan is her usual acerbic self as a mutual friend to the estranged couple. Robbins shows flair as the new boyfriend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lustrous in an uncredited cameo as Charlie (one of Cusack’s top five)and indie film queen Taylor, as another one of Cusack’s list, lends cachet. Bruce Springsteen even cameos as himself, displaying a heretofore unrevealed knack for the craft.

This was pretty much Jack Black’s break-out performance. It was from here that he went on to get leading roles and it’s easy to see why. His on-screen charisma is simply astonishing here. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, culminating in a stunning performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in the final reel. He’s manic, hysterically funny and infectious in this role which has to be considered one of the best performances of his career.

As a rock critic for an independent alternative weekly for six years, I can tell you that this is MY film and these are my people. Director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears wisely lets Cusack take center stage, letting the rest of the performers play off him and build their performances off of him. Cusack takes up a ton of screen time – he’s in almost every scene – so if he’s not your cup of tea, you should probably pass on this one. Still, there are some great laughs herein (particularly the scene in which Cusack and Robbins meet face-to-face in the record store), a lot of insight into why we mess up our relationships, and an awesome soundtrack, much of which was selected for the film by Cusack himself.

The film began life as a novel by Nick Hornby (from whose pen also spawned About a Boy). That was set originally in Hornby’s native London but was transplanted to Chicago by Cusack who co-wrote the script. I think the shift works really well; the action seems germane to the Windy City setting and one gets a sense of life among Midwestern hipsters. Chicago has always been a center for musical trendsetting and separate from L.A. or New York is a far more grounded location, making for more down-to-earth kind of realism rather than a boatload of trendies struggling to be the first to the Next Big Thing.

High Fidelity didn’t do killer box office, but it shouldn’t be overlooked among the wave after wave of teen sex comedies, self-indulgent Oscar leftovers, event movies and niche films that populate the video store. It’s a well-written, enjoyable movie that will be on your mind long after you turn off the TV slash computer slash smart phone.

WHY RENT THIS: Killer soundtrack. Fine script and excellent performances by Black, Louiso, Hjejle and both Cusacks. Some laugh-out-loud moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Cusack you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexuality and a lot of four-letter words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The location of Rob’s store Championship Vinyl used to be a Wax Trax record store, the retail outlet for the influential Chicago-based Industrial and Punk label.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Wanderlust

Arlington Road


Arlington Road

Jeff Bridges finds out his Oscar-winning script won't arrive for another ten years.

(1999) Thriller (Screen Gems) Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett, Mason Gamble, Spencer Treat Clark, Stanley Anderson, Viviane Vives, Lee Stringer, Darryl Cox, Loyd Catlett, Chris Dahlberg. Directed by Mark Pellington

With all the sociopathic behavior that goes on these days, it’s hard enough to Love Thy Neighbor. Heck, most of us don’t even know our neighbors; we’re all so wrapped up in our lives. Who has the time? But after seeing this movie, I suspect some of us will make the time.

Jeff Bridges is Dr. Michael Faraday, who teaches a course in American Terrorism at George Washington University. Bridges is, bluntly put, a mess. His wife, an FBI agent, had recently been killed in a Ruby Ridge-like incident. He’s shacking up with a grad student and, oh yes, his son is drawing more and more inward.

One day he comes across a neighborhood boy stumbling down the middle of the street and realizes the kid has blown a hand off. Bridges rushes the kid to the hospital and there meets the parents who happen to live close by. As played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, they seem a nice normal American family. Robbins and Bridges hit it off, and they soon become friends.

Still, this is a movie and as time goes by, Bridges becomes suspicious of his new best friend, discovering that his buddy has changed his name to hide some very disturbing incidents in his past. Eventually, Bridges suspects that the family next door may be responsible for an Oklahoma City-like bombing. But is it Bridges’ own paranoia, fueled by the loss of his wife in a senseless tragedy, or is Robbins actually a card-carrying loon with a dangerous agenda? The ending surprised even me.

The cast here is pretty impressive. Cusack is always watchable, although she seems a bit stifled in a role that might have suited a less quirky actress. Robbins is very impressive. For the movie to work, he has to convince you that he’s a nice guy building a dream life for himself and his family AND that he’s a cold, calculating killer capable of blowing children into small bits. You have to decide which the character truly is. If you can’t believe in both versions of the character, the movie becomes formulaic, but Robbins doesn’t let that happen.

Pellington creates a very believable suburbia, even if Bridges at times gets too strident for his own good. There are moments that sing with tension, while others are so mundane you’re lulled into a false sense of security. That’s what a good thriller is supposed to do.

Although there are times I think the filmmakers are a bit too influenced by Se7en and not enough by Poltergeist (a movie which very effectively portrayed horrific events happening in a normal environment), the filmmaking is otherwise solid and the ending is very satisfying, surprising even. After watching this, I’m making a point of getting to know my neighbors better. A lot better. Just as soon as I sign off the computer. Really.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performance by Robbins. Well-made thriller that creates believable suburban atmosphere and lulls one into the mundane before shocking you with something awful. Great ending, one I didn’t see coming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cusack seemed a bit too restrained in a role that might have suited a less quirky actress better.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a goodly bit of violence and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Jeff Bridges character was named for a real scientist, Michael Faraday. The street the movie filmed exteriors on was named for him.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.1M on a $31M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Submarine