Mother’s Day (2010)


Mother always knows best, especially when she's packing heat.

Mother always knows best, especially when she’s packing heat.

(2010) Suspense (Anchor Bay) Jaimie King, Patrick Flueger, Rebecca De Mornay, Warren Kole, Deborah Ann Woll, Matt O’Leary, Briana Evigan, Frank Grillo, Lisa Marcos, Lyriq Bent, Tony Nappo, Kandyse McClure, Jessie Rusu, Shawn Ashmore, Vicki Rice, Alexa Vega, Jason Wishnowski, J. LaRose, Jennifer Hupe, A.J. Cook. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are few bonds quite like the one between a mother and her sons. Especially when the mom is psychotic as all get out.

A group of bank robbing brothers (and sister) bungle a job and one, young Johnny (O’Leary) is shot in the stomach. They try to make it to their Mother’s house but are dismayed to find that she no longer lives there. The couple that bought the house – Beth (King) and Daniel (Grillo) apparently bought it at a foreclosure sale. It’s Daniel’s birthday and they have a bunch of friends over to celebrate – Treshawn (Bent) and his wife Gina (McClure), George (Ashmore) and his girlfriend Melissa (Rusu), Dave (Nappo) and his girlfriend Annette (Evigan) and Julie (Marcos), Beth’s best friend and a colleague of Daniel’s.

Trigger-happy Addley (Kole) and vicious Ike (Flueger) call their sister Lydia (Woll) who tells them that she and her mom now live in a trailer after the house was foreclosed on. Lydia brings Mother (De Mornay) over and they get George, a doctor, to try and help Johnny. Mother also discovers the interesting fact that the boys have been sending money to her old address – money that she hasn’t received.

From that point her demeanor changes from courteous and kind to vicious and cruel as she and her boys torture the hostages in order to find the money. The boys are going to need about ten grand to get to Canada and that kind of money just doesn’t grow on trees. As the night goes later and a tornado warning sounds, the hostages begin to bicker and fight amongst themselves and as Mother grows more impatient, the violence escalates.

This is a loose remake of a Charles Kaufman movie from the 80s about which Roger Ebert famously said “The question of why anyone of any age would possibly want to see this movie remains without an answer.” Like the remake, there was a certain mean-spirited attitude in the original (in which the hostages were all women). There are rape scenes in both movies (more graphic in the first) and redemption through violence in both.

The similarities end there however. This one has  much better acting than the first, which while a flop at its release has a kind of cult status among horror fans. This one didn’t exactly do blazing box office either which of course leads to the question why was it made at all.

De Mornay, a much-underrated actress who rarely gets the kind of parts she deserves but delivers each time she does, makes a fine villain. She’s never over-the-top with her character’s psychosis but instead keeps it low-key, making it all the more terrifying when she blows her cool. Most of the others in the movie do pretty well too.

The biggest problem was that once the set-up is complete it turn into a torture fest in which we are made to watch just how cruel these characters could be to each other, and while the original had just three victims involved, this one has eight and there really isn’t enough time for us to get to care about any of them. Most of the characters in this movie exist only to have bad things happen to them. The writers really should have cut out all but three or four of them and focused on them. The whole tornado subplot doesn’t work logically; they’d have been better off using a hurricane as a threat because that would have fit the story’s needs better.

Bousman, who has directed movies in the Saw franchise is  capable enough but here there are some continuity errors that frankly should never happen with a cast and crew of this quality. Quite frankly, while there might have been opportunity for an interesting movie about what it would take to force normal people into barbarity and how far a son would go for his mother, the filmmakers instead prefer to take the low road and just go for shock and gore. For me personally, I need a little bit more to keep my attention. There are, I’m sure, plenty of folk who are fine with just that – I’m just saying for myself it’s not enough.

WHY RENT THIS: De Mornay delivers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really never goes anywhere new. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, much of it gory as well as some depictions of torture. There is also plenty of cursing and some very sexual content

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the filming of a scene in which the criminals had their guns out, police mistook the actors for participants in a bank robbery nearby and held the cast at gunpoint until the situation was cleared up.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $862,769 on an $11M production budget; after several delays and studio switches, the film got an excuse-me theatrical release and quietly (and quickly) went to home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games (2006)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Grown Ups 2

Advertisements

Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

The Lucky Ones


The Lucky Ones

Michael Pena, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins be all that they can be.

(Roadside Attractions) Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Pena, John Heard, Molly Hagan, Mark L. Young, Howard Platt, Arden Myrin, Coburn Goss. Directed by Neil Burger

Many soldiers are called to serve their country in situations where they may be called into harm’s way. Some of them do not return, making the ultimate sacrifice. We think of the ones that return as being the lucky ones.

Three soldiers are on their way home to the United States from a German military hospital, all three having been injured in Iraq (two in combat situations, one in a situation he’d rather not talk about). Colee (McAdams) is on leave after a leg injury has left her with a limp; she hopes to return the guitar of a comrade to his family in Las Vegas. Cheaver (Robbins) is career army who is finally calling it quits; he suffered a back injury but is eager to reunite with his wife and son in St. Louis. TK (Pena) was the victim of a groin injury during a roadside bombing; also on leave, he wants to stop in Las Vegas to see if his equipment is still working before seeing his girlfriend in California.

All three land in New York City but a blackout has grounded every single flight at least until the next day and chances are that the wait in the airport will be even longer as the airlines scramble to get everyone where they need to be. Cheaver determines to rent a car and drive to St. Louis; Colee and TK overhear his plan and offer to go in with him; they figure they can grab a flight in St. Louis and get to Las Vegas from there.

Of course things immediately start to go wrong, from keys being locked in the car to accidents to breakdowns. They run into every conceivable eccentric from here to St. Louis and beyond. They also find that the return home is nothing like what they expected it to be.

The movie came out amid a raft of Iraq War-themed films that all, without exception, tanked at the box office regardless of how good the movies were, who was in them and what the theme was. The American movie-going public sent a very clear message to Hollywood: no films about the war please. That’s a bit of a shame, as some really decent movies, such as In the Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss got left by the wayside.

This modestly-budgeted film also suffered a similar fate, despite the filmmakers and cast’s declaration that this movie most definitely wasn’t about the war, and quite frankly I can see their point. However, in the same way, this isn’t a road movie either and while the war theme hangs heavily over the film (the opening sequence is the only scene set in the war), this ultimately becomes more of a three-way buddy flick.

In fact, it is the bond between the three soldiers that makes the heart of this movie beat strongly, and fortunately for us, Robbins, Pena and McAdams are all fine actors. McAdams in particular does a wonderful job as a perky, terminally optimistic Southern gal whose sweet smile hides a great deal of inner pain. McAdams is a very big reason why the movie’s charm got under my skin.

Pena is a fine actor (see World Trade Center and Crash) who hasn’t really gotten the attention he deserves and consequently doesn’t get the roles he deserves to play either. In that sense, he’s a lot like Adam Beach – someone who gives terrific performances every time out and yet hasn’t gotten the role that will really establish his career. Pena does a great job as usual but I think he’ll have to keep on looking for that elusive career-establishing part.

Robbins is the father figure and emotional center of the movie. He wisely underplays the role, making Cheaver a quiet leader rather than a rah-rah sort. When he breaks down emotionally, it comes without warning and gives the moment greater impact.

While I opine that this isn’t truly a road movie, it certainly is set up to be one, with all the stock characters (the oversexed housewife, redneck truckers, country club blowhard etc.) show up one by one, and the stock situations I mentioned earlier happen right on cue. The filmmakers try to throw a curveball with a tornado, but the effects are a bit weak and you wind up wondering “Why the hell did they do that?” after it’s gone.

Needless to say, this is a flawed movie whose heart is in the right place. The relationship between the three soldiers, as well as their background stories, compels us from the very beginning to get involved in the movie. That’s what casting the right actors for the right parts will do for you. Hopefully, film audiences will get over their distaste for movies set in the Iraqi war milieu soon enough that people will catch this movie on DVD; it’s not Oscar material by a long stretch, but it is deserving of an audience, one that it didn’t get during its theatrical run.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by the three leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the situations are terribly cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual content but it is the subject matter that makes this more for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie is the third occasion that Tim Robbins has played a member of the military; the other two films were Top Gun and Jacob’s Ladder.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hurt Locker