Butter (2020)


The intensity of a teen boy confronting his own end.

(2020) Dramedy (Blue Fox) Alex Kersting, Mira Sorvino, Mykelti Williamson, McKaley Miller, Annabeth Gish, Brian Van Holt, Jack Griffo, Monte Markham, Ravi Patel, John Kassir, Jake Austin Walker, Rachel Wotherspoon, Adain Bradley, Natalie Valerin, Matthew Gold, Nikki Tuazon, Jessie Rabideau, Danielle Langlois, Walker Barnes, Shannon Kiely, Taj Speights, Olivia Baptista. Directed by Paul A. Kaufman

 

We are a society that demands conformity and regards those who fail to conform with suspicion and, just as often, with derision. Nowhere is that more apparent than in high schools, where those who don’t “fit in” often become the targets of bullying. Sometimes, just getting out of bed and going to school can be an at of heroism.

Butter (Kersting) is a morbidly obese high school junior in a suburban high school in Phoenix, where his parents lead more-than-comfortable lives. His mom (Sorvino) adores him and is his rock; she is also his enabler, often soothing his depression with his favorite food. To his dad (Van Holt), Butter is a disappointment, when he bothers to notice him at all. Oh, and the name? It’s an unwelcome nickname foisted on him after a group of bullies forced him to eat a whole stick of butter. Like most things, Butter just accepts it and lives with it.

He yearns for friendships, particularly from Anna (Miller), the prettiest girl in school whom he has a major crush on. He is a talented musician, a soulful sax player which his music teacher (Williamson) has noticed; he tries to get Butter to join the jazz band but Butter isn’t interested in standing in front of people and giving them another opportunity to make him a target. He is content to stay at home on the Internet, where he can create his own persona as a sensitive jock from another school, which enables him to chat with Anna, whom he believes wouldn’t give him the time of day if she knew who he really was.

After one lunch room humiliation too many, Butter reaches a breaking point (or, perhaps more aptly, a melting point). He creates a website where he announces his intention to eat himself to death on live stream on New Year’s Eve at midnight. He figures nobody will care anyway.

A curious thing happens, though; when he arrives at school the next day, people are treating him differently, like a hero rather than a target. A couple of popular boys take him under their wing and introduce him to others in their circle. For the first time in his life, he feels accepted and it changes his outlook on things. He even begins to lose weight, quite unintentionally.

But nobody is trying to convince him to change his mind. Nobody seems to think he’ll actually go through with it, and nobody reports his intentions to an adult – in fact, they advise him to password-protect the site so that adults can’t access it. In fact, his friends somewhat ghoulishly help him plan the menu for his final meal. But will Butter go through with it, now that he has something to live for? And if he doesn’t go through with it, will things end up being worse than before?

The issue of teen bullying has been tackled in documentaries and films for quite a while now; Erin Jade Lange, who wrote the book that this is based on, has written several that include teen bullying as a central theme. In that sense, there isn’t a lot of subject matter that’s particularly new here. That said, though, the movie packed a lot of resonance in it, especially for those who have endured the kind of hazing both physical and psychological that Butter endures (his real name, by the way, isn’t revealed until near the end of the film, and I won’t tell you what it is here). I have to admit, for the sake of transparency, that I was bullied during that time in my life, although not as severely as depicted here. I often felt the same way Butter did, and can relate to him eating to relieve the pain. To this day, I use food as a means of self-medication.

And to be honest, this isn’t to point fingers at anyone; I’ve forgiven those who were mean to me back then and moved on long ago. This just is to explain why I do feel an empathy for Butter – not just the character, but the film – that others might not. And quite frankly, there are some moments in the movie that brought tears to my eyes, including one in which Butter’s mother realizes the depth of his pain and how she has failed to see it. It’s a credit to Kersting and Sorvino that the scene works so well; it could have been a moment that came off as maudlin (and, to be fair, others do come off that way) but it winds up being absolutely heartbreaking and cathartic. Kersting, in his first lead role, gives Butter a great deal of personality. He feels like a real kid with real suffering. Miller also does a good job with Anna, who turns out to have more depth to her than even Butter gave her credit for.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, and at some times it tries to use a light touch when a heavier hand would have done, and vice versa, but it does hit the mark more often than it misses, and becomes, overall, a really moving film. Not everyone will be as affected by it as I have, but those who can look back at (or are right in the middle of) their high school years with bittersweet, conflicting feelings may well find this movie just what they need to get by.

REASONS TO SEE: Really speaks to the outsider in all of us, particularly those who have been teased for their weight. Kersting is very personable. The cast is strong throughout, particularly Sorvino who has a wonderful relationship with Kersting. Some very wrenching moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some serious adult themes involving teen suicide, profanity, violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2012 young adult novel by Erin Jade Lange.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Virgin Suicides
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Creation Stories

Cyrano


The melancholy nature of love.

(2021) Musical (MGM/United Artists) Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Monica Dolan, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua James, Anjana Vasan, Ruth Sheen, Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, Scott Folan, Mark Benton, Richard McCabe, Peter Wright, Tim McMullan, Mark Bagnall, Mike Shepherd, Paul Biddiss, Katy Owen, Paul Hunter, Celeste Dodwell. Directed by Joe Wright

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, MGM Studios was known for their classic musicals, from those created especially for the screen to those fresh from the stages of Broadway. Times have changed since then; musicals are less popular with theatrical audiences, MGM is no longer the dominant studio in Hollywood (although they did at one point buy United Artists, a studio best known for being the home to the Bond franchise). Earlier than that, however, French playwright Edmund Rostand wrote the classic romance Cyrano de Bergerac, which always (it seemed to me) to be perfect fodder for a musical. There have been several attempts at setting the classic Rostand play to music, but this one finally gives the story the music it deserves.

Most of you are likely familiar with the story, even if you didn’t read about it in high school Lit; Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) is a well-known man whose soulful poetry and rapier-like wit is the talk of the town. Sharper still is his skill with the sword. He is the type of man even in 18th century France who should have his pick of women, but one thing holds him back; his height (in the original, Cyrano was self-conscious about his prominent nose).

He is deeply in love with his friend, the beautiful Roxanne (Bennett) who is also being pursued by the pompous and devious Count De Guiche (Mendelsohn), who is in charge of His Majesty’s armies in one of the many wars France always seemed to find itself involved in back then. Cyrano is a soldier, but it is with one of his new recruits, handsome Christian (Harrison) to whom Roxanne has given her heart. In turn, Christian is smitten with Roxanne.

But Roxanne wants to be wooed, not just with flowers and longing looks, but with passionate love letters. Christian might have the makings of a fine soldier, but he is completely ill-equipped for this kind of warfare and Cyrano, wanting above all else for the woman he loves to be happy, agrees to write the letters for Christian. But the deception soon proves costly, for everyone involved.

Joe Wright, after helming such lush period fare as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, had gone on a bit of a cold streak in the last few years, but shows himself back with a vengeance. His sweeping camera movements are perfect for the scope and romantic sentiment of the material, and the production design lends itself for just that kind of direction.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets one of the finest actors of our generation, Peter Dinklage, to play the lead. Dinklage doesn’t have a heroic singing voice, but he has an honest one and it is perfectly suited to the music, written by the brothers Dessner of the National (that band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, wrote the lyrics along with his wife Carin Besser, who also fulfills the same function for the National). The music is decidedly non-Broadway, and like the music of that band has a deeply wistful, romantic quality that is absolutely perfect for the story.

The off-Broadway stage play was adapted for the screen by Erica Schmidt (who also wrote the stage play), who happens to be Dinklage’s wife, and to further add to the nepotism element, Bennett is married to Wright. So it’s no surprise that the cast and crew seem incredibly comfortable working together and that comfort shows on the screen.

I can probably continue spouting off superlatives for this incredible film, which deserves all of them and more, but I don’t want to be boring (which this movie definitely is not). Anyone who has ever loved someone who didn’t love them back will relate to Cyrano’s plight, and for my money, getting Dinklage to play this role was a stroke of genius. Dinklage has always excelled at expressing emotions non-verbally and in the scene where Roxanne informs Cyrano of her love for Christian, it is absolutely heartbreaking to watch Dinklage’s reaction as Cyrano.

Schmidt also modernized Roxanne somewhat; she was a bit shallow in Rostand’s play, and there is a certain amount of that here as well (her attraction is essentially to Christian’s looks initially), but Roxanne wants more than just a pretty face. She is also not the luminous, nearly unattainable goddess that Roxanne is often portrayed as, but more of a pretty girl next door sort. Some might find her a bit too ordinary to inspire the depth of feeling in all three of the men here, but I kind of like that Schmidt made her less of an object here.

This is a movie that goes for your emotional throat and never releases it once the fangs are in, which of course is what Rostand wanted to do all along when he wrote his play more than a century ago. There are some incredible moments here – the soldiers fatalistic song “Where I Fall” is an absolute highlight, and Wright employs pro singers like Glen Hansard of the Swell Season, and Sam Amidon. I know that the initial plan was to release this in time for Oscar consideration, but that plan changed which is a shame because I suspect that the film would have some impact on the nominations. This is very clearly the best movie musical since Les Miserables and certainly one of the best movies of the year, even this early in it.

REASONS TO SEE: Dinklage is perfectly cast and does a fabulous job. The music is absolutely amazing. Lush production values. A movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Rough around the edges where it needs to be. The best movie musical in ten years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bennett might be a little bit too “girl next door” to be Roxanne.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some of it brutal; there’s also suggestions of intimacy, brief profanity and mature thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dinklage and Bennett reprise their roles here from the stage version, which they premiered in Connecticut in 2018 before a brief off-Broadway run in 2019.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roxanne
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Butter

Man on the Dragon


There is no “I” in dragon boats.

(2018) Comedy (One Cool) Francis Ng, Jennifer Yu, Chan-Leung Poon, Tony Wu, Kenny Wang. Directed by Sunny Chan

In sports, as in life, it is much harder to overcome individuals working towards a common goal than it is individuals working for themselves. United, a group of people can accomplish just about anything; without that unification, accomplishment can be difficult to achieve.

Pegasus Broadband is a Hong Kong Internet access provider who is going through what businesses euphemistically call “an austerity phase.” Rounds of layoffs have hit the engineering department particularly hard as three installers deal with an increasingly uncertain professional future. In addition, they are all going through mid-life crises in their personal lives as well; Chan Lung (Ng), a single man, has an unrequited love for the girl next door – well, her mom anyway. Chan cooks for the two women and generally takes care of them, dreaming of a day when the three of them will be a family.

Suk Yee (Poon) gets no peace at home. His mother and his wife bicker constantly and the toxic environment has moved their young daughter to get in a series of physical altercations at school. William (Wang) has given up a professional table tennis career for his girlfriend but is beginning to suspect that the price for staying with her is too high. Finally, middle manager Tai (Wu) is estranged from his wife whom he believes is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

Pegasus, seeking to repair their tarnished image, has decided to put together a dragon boat team for an upcoming race. All four of these men are drafted to row on the team. Hard-nosed coach Dorothy (Yu) – who is forced to use an American crew coach as a front in order to get the gig even though she’s ridiculously qualified – knows the company expects to win the race but given the sorts of athletes she has and their lack of cohesiveness as a team that there is absolutely no chance in hell that they could beat teams that have been together for years but gamely, she tries to whip them into shape.

Although this is ostensibly a sports underdog movie and there are lots of elements that characterize that particular genre, this isn’t strictly put a sports movie. Rather, it’s about men facing uncertainty in their lives and trying to navigate often murky waters in an effort to find some sort of clue as to where they’re going, or even to take charge of their own boats. The main actors mesh together well and their relationships are totally believable. They act like long-time friends do, razzing each other and supporting each other when the chips are down.

The women in the film fare less well. Either they’re harpies, teases, unfaithful or unattainable. I wondered at times if writer-director Chan isn’t a bit misogynistic in his outlook; even coach Dorothy, who is a bit of a rallying point for the men, does not come off particularly well and she’s the only female character in the film who has any sort of development whatsoever.

The rowing sequences are nicely done, the speed and grace of dragon boats in the waters of Hong Kong harbor being captured well. The camera is absolutely smooth (I’m wondering if they used a Steadicam-like device to keep the camera stable) which makes watching the races pleasurable rather than bringing a handheld choppiness that leads to a feeling of seasickness in certain other films trying to capture rowing or crew races.

The movie feels a bit on the long side and the plot on the predictable side. Some of the dialogue is also a little overwrought but the movie has just enough charm to just about overcome the negatives and earn a mild recommendation. It’s not going to set any marks for originality although the number of midlife crisis movies isn’t a high one but I think unless you’re extremely discerning you’ll find enough cinematic bliss to make this one worthwhile.

REASONS TO GO: The male bonding is authentic and believable. The boat sequences are smooth and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The subtitles were difficult to read at times. The movie was a little bit on the misogynistic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors did their own rowing, supervised by actual dragon boat athletes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Playing for Keeps
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Far From the Tree

The Late Bloomer


Touchdown!

Touchdown!

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Momentum) Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, J.K. Simmons, Maria Bello, Kumail Nanjiani, Blake Cooper, Paul Wesley, Jane Lynch, Lenora Crichlow, Joey Greer, Matt Jones, Beck Bennett, Jason Antoon, Sam Robards, Ileana Douglas, Laraine Newman, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bobby Flay, Page Tierney, Vanessa Ragland, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kevin Pollak

 

Puberty is an uncomfortable time for all of us. Most of us remember it with a mixture of wistfulness and downright embarrassment. Most of us wish we could have a do-over for that time in our life. Imagine going through it though when you’re thirty.

For Peter Newman (Simmons), that’s exactly what he’s facing. A successful sex therapist who advocates abstinence in his proto-bestselling book From Sex to Success, he’s had few romantic relationships and *gasp* no sex. Let’s just try and put aside for a moment that a virginal sex therapist is about as useful as a basketball coach who’s never even seen a single game of basketball played before.

Speaking of basketball, while playing a pick-up game a particularly vicious shot to the family jewels sends Peter to the E.R. where he discovers something alarming; there’s a tumor on his pituitary gland. Mind you, it’s benign but its presence kept Peter from entering puberty. Once removed, Peter is going to get the whole enchilada.

Yes that includes acne, inappropriate erections, a massive urge to masturbate and a squeaky, cracking voice at the worst possible moments. Worse yet, his crush – his neighbor Michelle (Snow) who has the world’s most inattentive boyfriend (Wesley) and a dream of becoming a celebrity chef – suddenly becomes the subject of his sexual desires, jeopardizing his friendship with her.

For his friends Rich (Nanjiani) and Luke (Bennett) this becomes the source of great amusement. For his parents (Bello, Simmons) this becomes a long-awaited relief. For his boss (Lynch) it becomes horribly inconvenient just when Peter’s renown is bringing his clinic a ton of new patients and new revenue. For Peter it is sheer torture as everything in his life changes in the wink of an eye.

Believe it or not, this is based on actual events. The subject in question is former E! Network reporter Ken Baker whose book Man Made: A Memoir of My Body is what the movie is based on. Incomprehensibly, the committee of six (!) writers who are responsible for this thing chose to change professions and turn an interesting take on sexuality and puberty into a cross between a raunchy sex comedy and a clichéd rom-com.

Pollak, the same guy with successful stand-up/impressionist and acting careers (if you haven’t seen his impressions of James T. Kirk and Columbo, you’re missing something) was motivated to make a movie out of this story but something tells me that the script wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Still, the veteran Pollak could call on friends to do him a solid which explains the really top-notch cast. Simmons and Bello shine as Peter’s hippie parents and Lynch as always is dry as a bone in her delivery but charismatic as hell onscreen.

There is certainly room for a great movie here; Baker’s story actually has a good deal of humor in it and some real insight into sexual stereotypes, growing up, and the role of sex in modern society. We really get none of that here; mostly the humor is crude and juvenile which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the jokes were a bit funnier – or to be fair, if more of them were as there are I have to admit some genuine laughs here. There just aren’t enough of them to overcome a script that is riddled with cliches and an ending that recalls the worst aspects of sitcom writing.

REASONS TO GO: A really fascinating subject for a movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Juvenile humor and bland writing-by-committee torpedo what could have been a terrific film.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of sexual content (much of it of the juvenile variety), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wesley and Snow previously starred in the short-lived television show American Dreams.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forty Year Old Virgin
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

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Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)


Walter Mitty doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd.

Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly stand out in a crowd.

(2013) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Jonathan C. Daly, Terence Bernie Hines, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gunnar Helgason, Kai Lennox, Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Haroon Nawabi, Marcus Antturi, Paul Fitzgerald, Grace Rex. Directed by Ben Stiller

There is a real difference between the lives we lead and the lives we lead in our heads. In our own worlds, we’re beautiful, smart, popular, courageous, daring, heroic and irresistible to our preferred sex. We are saviors of the weak and protectors of the helpless.

For Walter Mitty (Stiller) the disconnect is more than most. He is a shy and somewhat socially clumsy man who works at Life Magazine as a negative assets manager (i.e. he is in charge of the negatives of the photographs for the iconic magazine) and often his daydreams stop him dead in his tracks. His sister (Hahn) calls it zoning out.

Walter crushes on the lovely Cheryl Melhoff (Wiig), recently hired in the accounting department but is too unselfconfident to approach her. What’s worse is that Life is about to be shut down, as announced by the somewhat petty transition manager (Scott) who also says the very last issue will have a cover photo by the magazine’s most famous photographer, Sean O’Connell (Penn). The problem is that the negative for the cover isn’t with the rest of O’Connell’s submissions.

O’Connell, a rootless sort who travels the world looking for that perfect shot isn’t exactly easy to get hold of – he doesn’t even own a cell phone (the teenagers in the audience couldn’t believe their ears). So the only way to get that cover for the last issue is to go out there and fine the reclusive photographer. However that’s easier said than done. The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts lay in the galley sheet of the same set of photos as the missing negative and those clues are pretty vague at best.

While ostensibly based on the beloved James Thurber short story of the same name, the title, the lead character and his daydreaming conceit are basically all that the short story and this movie have in common. Thurber’s short story is much darker in tone and even the Danny Kaye version from 1947 which wasn’t all that much of a match for the short story either was much less uplifting than the Ben Stiller interpretation. It’s all about seizing the day and living life while you still can.

Stiller is a likable enough lead and he has just enough schlubbiness to invest the characters he normally plays with a kind of underdog situation and that is true here as well. Walter is a good-hearted sort who doesn’t have enough go-getter in him to fill a thimble. He is well-liked but not well-respected if you get my drift. People dismiss him as a hopeless dreamer. Stiller fills this role well.

Veteran Shirley MacLaine makes a rare but welcome screen appearance as Walter’s mom but isn’t really given a lot to do – still, she’s always worth the added effort to see her. Comic Patton Oswalt also puts in an appearance as an eHarmony phone representative (mostly we hear his voice in phone conversations) and I’m reminded at how good he can be onscreen as he was in the Charlize Theron black comedy Young Adult.

Stiller the director also makes some interesting moves, nicely going from reality to fantasy and uses graphics within the film to advance the story. It’s a visually clever film. The soundtrack is awfully nice to with Swedish indie artist Jose Gonzalez supplying songs. So why didn’t I like this movie more?

The movie lacked soul, in my opinion, which is a different thing than heart which it has a lot of. I just didn’t get that spark of joy that the film should have produced. Sure one roots for Walter to find Sean and to get the girl but there are too many cliché moves and not enough genuine passion to make the movie more memorable. That’s not to say that it isn’t a pleasant diversion – you can do worse than to spend your entertainment dollar on Walter Mitty. It just let me down a bit so I feel justified in rating it perhaps lower than I would have liked given the source material and the talent involved.

The overall message of doing instead of dreaming is a tricky one to navigate. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big – every action begins as a dream more or less – but it shouldn’t happen at the expense of living life to the fullest. Not all of us can get on a plane to the middle of nowhere and embark on an epic adventure but that doesn’t mean we can’t embark on the epic adventures that are already around us.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive use of graphics and effects. Always a joy to see MacLaine.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks spark.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of crude language and some action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the fishing boat lands in Iceland, Walter is urged to grab the lone bicycle before a group of “horny Chileans” from a different trawler gets the bike to use to get to the strip club. Those Chileans would be sorely disappointed because strip clubs have been essentially illegal in Iceland since 2010

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bedtime Stories

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Her

Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)


The King and I.

The King and I.

(1993) Drama (Miramax) Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang, Yitong Zhi, David Wu, Qing Xu. Directed by Kaige Chen

Life imitates art, it is said, much more than art imitates life. Art can only capture an instant, a moment at best but life is long term. It is rich and full of the twists and turns that are not entirely all of our own making. We are relentlessly buffeted by the tides of history, even if we aren’t aware of it.

In the mid 1920s a prostitute brings her son to a prestigious school where the various disciplines of the Peking Opera are taught. However, he is rejected because he was born with a sixth finger. Undeterred, she takes her son home and hacks off the extra digit with a carving knife, then brings the boy back to the school where he is at last accepted. There, he meets a friend who will be an integral part of his life both professionally and personally.

The discipline at the school is brutal and absolute. The smallest of infractions, the most trivial of mistakes would lead to extravagant punishments painful, bloody and over-enthusiastic by the somewhat sadistic Master Guan (Lu). Eventually the boy and his friend grows up, becoming Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) who performs female roles as a male and Duan Xioulou (Zhang) who takes the masculine roles.

Their most famous roles come from the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine in which Dieyi plays the concubine, a most loyal servant of a King (played by Xioulou) who takes her own life after a military defeat of her master even though she has the opportunity to leave safely. The two become the toast of China and Dieyi, trained from boyhood to be effeminate, develops an attraction to Xioulou who doesn’t feel the same. When Xioulou meets and marries a former courtesan of the infamous House of Blossoms, the headstrong Juxian (Gong Li), a rift develops between the two friends that lead to the dissolution of the company on the very night that the Japanese invade.

The two men and the woman who has become unwittingly the third part of a triangle endure the tribulations of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang administration, the Communist revolution and eventually the Cultural Revolution. They have to endure the betrayal of Xiao Si (Lei) whom Dieyi rescued as a foundling and who becomes an opportunist, jealous of Dieyi’s status within the troupe. Eventually they have to endure the consequences of their decisions over the years.

Epics of this scale have become exceedingly rare over the years, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of making them but also because of the shift in moviegoers’ tastes over the intervening years. For American audiences the subject matter, the turmoil of 20th century China, is largely new territory. Most of us are taught little of events in that country in school and those of us who lived during some of the events either didn’t pay much attention to them or dismissed them altogether. Kaige Chen brings those events to life, giving audiences who didn’t live in that place at that time a sense of the horrors that took place. I can only imagine what those who lived through them thought of the film.

The Dickensian opera school would make Oliver Twist sympathetic to the plight of the boys while the lavish productions of the Opera are stunningly rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor labs left. While Cheung is exceptional as Dieyi and portrays his inner torment (and outer bitchiness) with a great depth of emotion, it is Gong Li whose performance will remain with you for a long time after you see this movie. Hers is a tormented soul, suffering through love for a man who isn’t entirely hers. It is as exquisite a performance as you’ll ever witness and reason alone to laud her as China’s finest actress (although I’m still partial to Michelle Yeoh myself).

The Chinese government had some issues with the movie – not the least being the depictions of the hardships during and after the Cultural Revolution and not a little because of the underlying homosexual relationships – and has banned it and un-banned it repeatedly. It shows China with all her warts and scars, but also her spirit and perseverance. It is a marvelous portrait of 20th century China, a nation in upheaval that rose to becoming the dominant world power that it is now. Even though the movie might be overly long for some, it is nonetheless more of an education than it is an entertainment, although there is plenty of the latter to be had as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautifully shot lyric poem. Gong Li is breathtaking.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of rough language not to mention some pretty heavy thematic material that may be inappropriate for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film from the People’s Republic of China to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: While complete box office figures aren’t available, it is worth noting that the movie pulled in $5.1M at the American box office, an unusually high figure for Chinese films until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along nearly a decade later.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scent of Green Papaya

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 27 Dresses

Baghead


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adaptation

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow

Putzel


So long and thanks for all the fish.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Stouthearted) Jack Carpenter, Melanie Lynskey, John Pankow, Susie Essman, Jarlath Conroy, Armando Riesco, Allegra Cohen, Steve Park, Adrian Martinez, Fred Berman, Fran Kranz, Ashley Austin Morris, Sondra James, Robert Klein (voice), Elizabeth Masucci. Directed by Jason Chaet

 Florida Film Festival 2013

There are those who believe that the most Jewish place on Earth is Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Israel notwithstanding. There is some credence to that. It certainly remains the center of what most Americans think of as American Jewish culture and it is my understanding that most American Jews regard it with some fondness, even if they have never lived there.

Walter (Carpenter) lives there. Actually, very few people call him Walter – everyone calls him Putzel – little putz – and have done since he was a young kid. Walter has ambitions. Walter has dreams. He works at Himmelstein’s and everyone knows that for smoked fish, Himmelstein’s. His Uncle Sid (Pankow) is running the place but Sid has no kids and Walter wants to inherit the store so bad he can taste it and let’s face it, it tastes like lox.

Walter’s wife Willa (Cohen) has left him. She’s been cheating on him with the amiable Hector (Martinez) who doesn’t see the problem. Walter also has a phobia – he’s incapable of leaving the Upper West Side. When he gets to the boundary, he freezes up. It’s like an invisible force field that prevents his egress into the murky waters beyond. Here there be dragons.

Still, Walter is pretty sure things will eventually go his way. Sid is talking about retiring with his wife Gilda (Essman) to Arizona, and the good-hearted Gilda has always treated Walter like the son she never had, particularly as Walter’s parents both passed away when he was very young. Walter is determined to show he deserves to inherit the store – in fact, who else is there? Song (Park), the Korean blade man who cuts the fish and loves what he does but he isn’t family. Neither is Tunch (Berman) who loves the fish a little too much.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Walter’s plans with the arrival of Sally (Lynskey), a sweet and fragile barmaid who dreams of being a dancer. Sid promptly falls head over heels for her and suddenly his plans to retire with Gilda to Arizona are thrown into chaos. Walter realizes that if he is to inherit the store and achieve all his dreams, he’ll have to sabotage Sid and Sally’s relationship but the more he tries to get them to do the right thing, the more he realizes that he’s in love with Sally.

This is sweet-tempered and slightly neurotic. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this is some lost Woody Allen movie from the 70s that was strangely transplanted into the 21st century. While not in the same league as Allen’s best work of the era, it is at least comparable and those who love Manhattan and Annie Hall will do back flips when they see this – at least those who aren’t using walkers these days.

The cast is solid and charming to a man (and woman). Lynskey, who has become a highly in-demand actress on the indie circuit, seems destined to break into mainstream success. She’s pretty, has terrific comic timing, and is able to convey strength and vulnerability with equal ease. She reminds me very much of Zooey Deschanel at a similar place in her career.

I’m not sure if Carpenter is Jewish or not but he certainly captures the idiosyncrasies of a nice Jewish kid from the Upper West Side nicely – the sense of humor, the romantic awkwardness – the sex scene with Walter and Sally may be the un-sexiest sex scene ever filmed and yet the most authentic –  and the inner decency. If he’s a bit neurotic, well, it kind of goes with the territory.

I was also impressed with the work of veteran actress Susie Essman who plays the kind Gilda – maybe the most level-headed character in the movie. She seems to be the soul of the family here and Essman, who has always been an actress who conveys warmth and caring, is tailor-made for the role.

Even if you don’t have lox running through your veins or a soul of gefilte fish you can still find plenty of reasons to love this charming, quirky movie whether it is for the moments of unexpected inappropriateness or the sweet charm that never gets cloying, like too much Manischewitz wine. Given the solid performances and the overall environment created, this can appeal to the Jewishness in all of us.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and gives a good sense of the Upper West Side. Funny and offbeat in places.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally inappropriate for younger audiences. May confound goyim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language and some sexuality, some of it with fish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lox is a fillet of brined salmon (although commonly confused with smoked salmon which is a different dish entirely) and the name is derived from the Yiddish word for salmon, laks.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Apprenticeship of Dudley Kravitz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is Where We Live and further coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!