Butter


Butter

Jennifer Garner’s limo isn’t what it used to be.

(2012) Comedy (Radius) Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Phyllis Smith, Dodie Brown, Joe Chrest, Shelli Fox. Directed by Jim Field Smith

We are all of us good at something. Some of us are good writers, others good at sports. Still others are trivia whizzes while others can sing like an angel. However, it is only a select few who excel at butter carving.

Of course the first question is how do you find out that you’re good at that, but apparently Bob Pickler (Burrell) did, and he is so good that he has won the championship of Butter sculpting at the Iowa State Fair 15 years running. He is so good that those who run the competition have asked him to retire so as to let other people win, which seems pretty un-American to me – did David Stern ask Michael Jordan to retire so that other guys could be the best basketball player in the world?

This does not fit into the plans of his wife Laura (Garner) who was looking to use her husband’s fame and…well, not fortune but fame anyway – to catapult him into a political career and now is left scrambling to figure out some other way to do it.

She determines to enter the contest herself. Bob himself is a bit put out over the turn of events. He finds himself at a strip club where he propositions Brooke (Wilde), a somewhat volatile stripper, for sex in his van. This ends abruptly when Laura t-bones his van with her SUV.

This doesn’t sit well with Brooke, especially since Bob ran out on her without paying. Now she wants the $600 he owes her – yes, apparently that’s one thing that’s really expensive in Iowa. She decides to enter the contest to spite Laura, and to further cement her contempt she has sex with Bob and Laura’s daughter Kaitlen (Greene).

Destiny (Shahidi) is an 11-year-old African-American girl who has been shuttled in and out of foster homes most of her life. She is starting out anew with Ethan Emmett (Corddry) and his wife Julie (Silverstone)  They are decent people who become caught up in Destiny’s little hobby – butter carving. She caught the bug when she’d gone to the State Fair the previous year and been taken by Bob’s carving of Michelangelo’s Last Supper (which the Des Moines Register proclaimed as “better than the original” – BWAHAHAHAHAW!) Now she wants to try her hand at it, which her new foster parents enthusiastically encourage.

Destiny and Laura both have real talent. Both want to win for different reasons. Laura, on the one hand, will do anything to win – including seducing an ex-boyfriend (Jackman) into doing her dirty work for her. Still, when Destiny discovers the truth about her birth mother, she is moved into creating a carving that threatens everything Laura is trying to build. Laura will be left with the prospect that she may not be good enough to beat the 11-year-old girl.

There is a very dry, Midwestern sense of humor here, more like the love child of the Coen Brothers and Garrison Keillor. That appeals to me, although not everyone might get it. There were parts I might have laughed out loud more had I been in a theater (we saw this on VOD) but there were a few I did anyway. That’s always a good day for a comedy.

The cast is impressive. Not everyone in it is a household name but all are terrific comic actors. Burrell here continues his impressive work as seen on TV’s “Modern Family.” He’s not exactly the same guy but he is a very flawed but basically good man who makes one gigantic mistake and winds up paying for it. Wilde has done a number of different roles, like sci-fi (Cowboys and Aliens), medical dramas (“House M.D.”) and horror (Turistas). She has done some comedic roles before but none as memorable as this one. I’m beginning to become a big fan of her versatility as an actress.

The biggest surprise is Shahidi. She’s a new talent and if her performance here is any indication she’s got a bright future ahead of her. She is compelling and holds the attention of the audience whenever she’s onscreen. It’s a shame her part was written to be a little too perfect – no 11-year-old is that poised, that sweet and that talented all in one package, at least not so many that any of us would know one. A tantrum or two might have been more realistic.

There are definite political overtones here. While some have compared Laura to Sarah Palin (and she does copy some of the former governor’s mannerisms and speech patterns), I thought of her more as a Hillary Clinton type – a super-ambitious wife cuckolded and frustrated. I could be wrong though.

Like a lot of films that have hitherto played only in limited release, the studio has seen fit to put it on VOD to allow viewers who don’t live near the handful of theaters that will be playing it theatrically to get a chance to see it without having to wait a year for it to come out on home video and cable. Most of you can take the opportunity to see it there or, if you want to spend less money, wait for it to make its home video release. Either way, this is a solid comedy that is smartly written and quirky enough to be different but not so quirky that it becomes just another indie comedy.

REASONS TO GO: Dry Midwestern humor that is laugh out loud funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters in one place. Destiny is a little TOO perfect.

FAMILY VALUES: Well, the language is bad in places; there is some sexuality and a moment in which drug use is depicted.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Iowa, it was mostly filmed in Louisiana for tax purposes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100. The reviews have been weak.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cedar Rapids

JFK ASSASSINATION LOVERS: Laura’s run-off entry into the butter carving contest is a depiction of the open limo at the moment of the killing, complete with the President’s head exploding.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frankenweenie

Fair Game (2010)


Fair Game

Sean Penn may look intense but all he hears is "blah, blah, blah."

(2010) True Life Drama (Summit) Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Noah Emmerich, Liraz Charchi, Nicholas Sadler, Tom McCarthy, Ty Burrell, Jessica Hecht, Norbert Leo Butz, Rebecca Rigg, David Andrews, Bruce McGill, Sam Shepard, Polly Holliday. Directed by Doug Liman

 

When the story broke, it was almost something out of a John Le Carre novel. An American spy, outed in a newspaper and get this – orchestrated by her own government who were trying to discredit her husband who had written a report that basically accused that government of going to war over reasons that were false, that the administration knew were false.

Sounds like a novel, but this is what really happened to Valerie Plame (Watts). She was an operative for the CIA with expertise in the Middle East which at the time is where most of our intelligence efforts had shifted to with the fall of the Communist bloc. However to her neighbors, she worked a boring job in DC and was married to Joe Wilson (Penn), the former U.S. Ambassador to Niger.

He is contracted to do a fact-finding mission there to determine if Saddam Hussein is purchasing weapons-grade Uranium from Niger. Wilson checks with his contacts and not only is it not likely that they could be getting the uranium, it’s not physically possible. Satisfied, he returns home and presents his findings to the CIA who are busy amassing intelligence that the White House has ordered in order to justify their impending invasion of Iraq.

His wife Valerie is as well, trying to get hold of Iraqi nuclear scientists to debrief. They’re all telling her the same thing – there is no WMD program, it was dismantled after the first Gulf War. She is putting some of her contacts in danger so she is arranging for them to leave the country.

Then in the State of the Union address, President Bush refers to Uranium that Iraq is buying from Niger for their weapons program. Wilson is at first puzzled and then incensed; and he publishes an op-ed piece in the New York Times disputing the President’s facts.

Shortly thereafter in another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Robert Novak publishes a piece naming his wife as a covert CIA operative, quoting highly-placed sources in the White House (who allegedly turned out to be Richard Armitage, although Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are all looked at as possible sources as well in the film).

From then on, Plame’s position at the CIA was untenable. She was forced to resign and her contacts were compromised, with a number of them paying for her outing with their lives. Wilson was livid; he wanted to fight the situation, believing that this was a vindictive government functionary getting back at him through his wife (a theory which many hold to be true).

Plame was a little bit more low-key. However the strain was telling, not only in her relationships with her neighbors, friends and family (there’s a great scene with her parents, played by Shepard and Holliday) and her husband. The media scrutiny (which Wilson embraced to a certain extent) threatened to tear their marriage apart.

Liman who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith about fictional secret agents gets to play with a real one here. This isn’t a spy film though; it’s more of a political thriller and even though we know how it ends up (not a spoiler but we wind up going to war anyway). Liman gives the movie the pacing of a suspense thriller despite it being a biographical drama and that’s definitely the right way to go.

Of course, he benefits from having Penn, one of the best actors in the business and he delivers a typically outstanding performance. Joe is a bit of a hothead and a blowhard with a deep-seated sense of right and wrong; when he sees something that offends that sense he goes after it. He speaks his mind, sometimes at the expense of friendships. He does have some failings – he likes the spotlight a little too much for Valerie’s liking – but his intelligence and passion are undeniable.

Watts has less to work with than Penn does but she proves able with a part that has some subtlety to it missing from the more in-your-face Joe. She is more concerned with holding her family together but that’s hard to do when you’re getting threatening phone calls and neighbors asking about your espionage activities. Plame also has to deal with the country she worked so hard to protect literally betraying her and throwing her to the wolves.

The movie is largely based on the two memoirs written separately by Joe and Valerie and Liman rather than couching the film behind aliases here names names which is to be admired. I’m sure there are people in the previous administration who think this movie is beyond the pale but hey, you reap what you sow after all.

The overall tone is pretty dry to be honest but there is a certain courage of its own convictions. Yes, the movie certainly takes a specific viewpoint and if you disagree with it you probably won’t think much of the film, Sean Penn or no Sean Penn. Also, please understand what you see here isn’t gospel; while the Wilsons vetted the movie and what they understood was happening at the time is what we see. What went on behind the scenes is pure conjecture and while it’s based on educated guesses, chances are we’ll never really know how things went down.

Still, the movie at its best shows the effect of this kind of scandal on a family and that’s when I really enjoyed it. The political discussion while interesting is ultimately just an empty gesture that really won’t contribute much to your understanding of the actual events; perhaps we all see what we want to in these situations.

WHY RENT THIS:  A look at the inside of a scandal most of us barely knew through the news.  Penn and Watts give typically strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the facts from the movie have been disputed.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words but not much else to impede family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie won the “Freedom of Expression” award from the National Board of Review.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In a somewhat surprising and welcome move, the audio commentary is provided by Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame – the real ones.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $24.2M on a $22M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The General’s Daughter

Incredible Hulk


Edward Norton

Ol' green eyes is back!

(2008) Superhero (Universal) Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Greg Bryk, Paul Soles, Debora Nascimento, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz. Directed by Louis Letterier

 

All of us have some sort of demon inside of us. They are of varying size and ferocity, with varying holds on us but we all have one. Some, however, have demons that are far more evident than others.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is living as inconspicuously as possible in a suburb of Rio de Janiero, working in a soft drink factory. When he is at home, he is doing complex research trying to reverse his condition – when his heart rate goes over 200, his physiology changes, turning him into a green behemoth of enormous strength and agility. Banner had accidentally irradiated himself with gamma radiation in an effort to find ways to regenerate cells but which now the U.S. Army in the person of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt) wants to create an army of behemoths. Complicating matters is that Banner’s girl is Betty Ross (Tyler), the general’s daughter. Yikes.

Banner runs afoul of some toughs working in the factory and when they attack him and set his heart rate above 200, Banner hulks out just as the army arrives to capture him. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well for the army.

Banner returns to Culver University in Virginia where Betty now works and where she is dating psychologist Dr. Leonard Samson (Burrell). Betty is reluctant to reunite although she clearly still has feelings for Bruce but the suspicious Dr. Samson turns Bruce in and he is captured. But Emil Blonsky (Roth), a British Special Forces agent charged by General Ross to capture Bruce, has taken a super soldier formula and forces Dr. Samuel Sterns (Nelson), a genetecist who has been secretly working with Banner, to inject Banner’s blood into his veins, turning him into an abomination. Only Banner as the Hulk can save the city now.

This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana in the Banner role; the earlier version is a much more cerebral turn which was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but which I found to be much better than it was given credit for. This new Letterier-directed version is much more action packed, which is what fans wanted. Consequently it got better marks from fans although that didn’t translate into astounding box office.

Norton makes a terrific Banner; thoughtful, haunted and a little bit short on the fuse, temper-wise. There was a fall out between Norton and Marvel over the editing of the movie, causing the actor to distance himself from the film and Marvel to hire Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming The Avengers movie in the Bruce Banner role. One can only wonder what Eric Bana thinks of all this.

The action sequences are spectacular as you might expect although the CGI Hulk is still not quite as effective as he might be. There is more a connection to the Marvel universe here, with Doc Samson and the Abomination both in the mix and Hurt makes am mighty nice villain. This isn’t the perfect Hulk movie, but it’s a very good one and with homages to previous Hulk incarnations (including the Ang Lee version) in various ways, this is a fanboy dream.

WHY RENT THIS: Action-packed and a compelling story to underline it. Norton does a good job with the Banner side.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence and a few frightening images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paul Soles, who played Stanley the pizza parlor owner, provided the voice of Dr. Bruce Banner in the animated “Hulk” TV series in the 60s.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In the Blu-Ray edition, there’s an animated comic book feature that is also a part of the U-Control feature that allows viewers to access behind-the-scenes content while watching the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $263.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was just shy of being profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Please Give

Morning Glory


Morning Glory

Diane Keaton is thrilled she still knows which one of them is Indiana Jones.

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Patti D’Arbanville, Ty Burell, John Pankow, J. Elaine Marcos, Matt Malloy, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Reed Birney, Linda Powell, Vanessa Aspillaga. Directed by Roger Michel

Anyone who has to get up in the morning to go to work has at one time or another watched at least a snippet of a TV morning show, like “Good Morning America” or the granddaddy of them all, the “Today Show.” Making this kind of shows work takes a special kind of animal.

Whereas some women dream of finding Mr. Right or of having children, Becky Fuller (McAdams) dreams of producing the “Today Show.” She’s well on her way to getting there too, as a talented and highly-regarded producer on a local morning show in New Jersey. It’s no surprise that rumors are swirling that she’s about to be promoted to executive producer.

Instead, she’s let go in a cost-cutting move. Devastated only for a moment, the terminally chipper and perky Becky rolls up her sleeves and gets to work finding herself a new job on a different show. She finally finds one – on the lowest rated morning show on the lowest rated network – “Daybreak” on IBS.

The show is in the dumper for a number of reasons; no imagination, no good ideas, no energy, no life. Becky is bound and determined to turn the show around, going so far as to fire the smarmy lothario of a co-anchor (Burell) on her first day. Colleen Peck (Keaton), the ex-beauty queen co-host is clearly skeptical of Becky’s abilities to get anything done, although she approves of her ouster of her former partner, but the situation remains – morning show co-hosts don’t just go on trees.

Then Becky gets the bright idea of hiring Mike Pomeroy (Ford), a legendary news anchor who makes Dan Rather look like Perez Hilton. Dour and described by his producer Adam Bennett (Wilson) as the “third-worst person in the world,” Pomeroy has no intention of taking on a position that he views as contributing to the demise of proper news reporting – until it becomes clear that if he doesn’t, he’ll forfeit his lucrative salary.

The addition of Pomeroy actually makes things worse initially. He has no intention of doing the job they want him to do, and he has right of first refusal to any story assigned to him. He comes off as dour, curmudgeonly and humorless which is not exactly what people are looking for in a morning show. The ratings are declining and Becky’s boss (Goldblum) soon tells her that if things don’t turn around immediately, the show is gone.

Her only respite is her romantic relationship with Adam that has blossomed since she arrived at IBS but even that is in jeopardy as she feels that she has to constantly apologize for doing her job which is far from a 9 to 5 affair. Can she rescue a show that is sinking in spite of her best efforts?

I think we all know the answer to that. This is a bit of unrepentant fluff that isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, and that’s okay. Director Michel, whose Notting Hill remains one of the better romantic comedies of the past decade, knows how to get the best out of his actors and so he does here.

McAdams has oodles of potential but hasn’t gotten the role that will put her over the top just yet, and she’s still waiting. She has a terrific smile, awesome personality and great screen presence. She carries this movie as surely as a Julia Roberts or Amy Adams would; she’s moving into that elite set of company.

As he’s gotten older, Ford has made a career out of playing grumpy men. Here he takes it to a new level, making Mike Pomeroy an absolute prick but one that has enough at his core that we can’t dismiss him summarily as simply a jerk. That complexity keeps the audience from being turned off by him as we might ordinarily.

Keaton is one of the finest comedic actresses of all time. This won’t go down as among her finest work but it is solid nonetheless. Colleen is prickly enough to have an edge but she’s a trooper for her show and as the one out on the firing line of a show that is perennially in last, it is easy to see that the stress has taken its toll.

This isn’t a movie that has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but consistently evokes grins and even a few guffaws. It’s the charm of McAdams and of the ensemble in general that keeps this from becoming too much like a stage farce which at times it feels like it’s about to degenerate into. Again, there’s nothing extraordinary or new here but if you are looking to feel better about life in general, this is the perfect tonic for the troops.

REASONS TO GO: The leads are all pros and tackle their parts nicely. Not really laugh out loud funny but charming enough to keep the audience invested.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote in places, and sometimes has the feel of a stage play farce.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and some crude language here and there but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was co-produced by veteran television producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”).

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing here that screams “big screen;” you’re probably not going to miss anything by seeing it at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Great Buck Howard