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

Our Film Library

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!

Your Sister’s Sister


Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia, Kimberly Chin, Mike Harring, Kathryn Lebo, Jennifer Maas, Jeanette Maus, Jason Dodson, Dori Hana-Scherer, Steve Snoey, Pete Erickson, Evan Mosher, Seth Warren. Directed by Lynn Shelton

Florida Film Festival 2012

 

A relationship between two people is complicated enough. Add a third wheel and things get really crazy. When there’s also a fourth person in the mix (who happens to be dead) well, then, we’re talking crazy here.

Jack (Duplass) is mourning his brother Tom (Harring) who has been dead a year. Jack seems permanently stuck in the anger phase of grieving; at a party celebrating his brother, Jack seems intent on alienating everyone by explaining what a dick his brother was and that just because he’s gone doesn’t earn him a candidacy for sainthood.

His best friend Iris (Blunt) wisely takes him aside and tells him he needs to take off and put in some me time to work through his feelings. She suggests her family’s vacation cottage on an island in Puget Sound (did I mention this takes place in Seattle?) as the perfect place to sit around with no distractions, contemplate one’s navel and maybe do a little psyche repair work so that he can rejoin the human race. Realizing that she’s right, Jack agrees.

He bikes over to the ferry that runs to the island and quickly realize that he’s a little too old for this. It’s dark by the time he arrives at the cottage and he quickly realizes that the house isn’t vacant. There’s a naked woman in the shower. She turns out to be Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’ lesbian sister but he doesn’t know that and she doesn’t realize that her sister had invited Jack up so she clocks him with an oar.

Eventually the confusion is resolved and the two, with Iris in common, sit around and talk circles around why they’ve come to the island for the solitude – Jack’s grief and Hannah’s own as her longtime relationship (seven years) has ended. Talking turns to tequila, as it often will and tequila turns to sex – as it often will.

Iris arrives the next morning unexpectedly and Jack and Hannah scramble to hide the evidence of their indiscretion. You wonder why seeing as Iris isn’t Jack’s girlfriend – if anything, she had a relationship once upon a time with his brother. But as the three of them hang out and things get awkward we begin to see that the dynamics between the three people aren’t what they thought they were.

This is refreshingly a movie for adults. While the synopsis sounds a bit like a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, this is far from one. Shelton, who has been gathering a reputation as a fine writer/director on the indie circuit (her Humpday was one of the best-reviewed films of recent years) has written these as flawed individuals – as are we all – who do dumb things without really understanding why we’re doing them (and sometimes knowing full well why but powerless to stop the dumbness), even though they’re all basically decent people.

Duplass, a highly-regarded filmmaker in his own right, is developing into a fine cinematic Everyman. He isn’t buff, he isn’t tone and he isn’t always right. He’s just a guy, struggling with his own issues and those that come brightly packaged with being a guy in the second decade of the 21st century. You’ll probably recognize him as someone in your own life – a brother, a boyfriend, an ex, a son or a co-worker. He’s passive almost to the point of inertness, wallowing in an endless cycle of grief that he can’t seem to find a way out of. Most of the things that happen when he’s sober (other than the sex with Hannah thing that is largely his flirtatious suggestion) are at someone else’s impetus and he seems incapable of making decisions for himself until the movie’s end (more on that later). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – a lot of people are like that – but it can be infuriating to watch in a movie.

Blunt and DeWitt are both beautiful and smart actresses. There’s even a superficial resemblance and if you can get past the difference in accents (Blunt is British and doesn’t even attempt to hide it with a faux Yankee accent), they could well be sisters. When Hannah’s betrayal becomes apparent, it drives a wedge between them as you’d expect that it would but the way that they reconcile is also how you’d expect sisters to pull together.

What really hurts this movie is the ending. Not the very final scene, which actually is pretty cool  but the way things get resolved. It’s so Hollywood and doesn’t really resonate as the way real people act which is quite jarring when you’ve been admiring throughout the film that these characters are acting exactly like how real people act. Having seen this on Blu-Ray, I was moved to turn off the movie before said final scene and take a walk outside the house to cool off. I felt a bit betrayed to be honest which if intentional worked brilliantly. However I suspect it wasn’t; it was just a means of moving the film from point A to point B (or more like from point W to point X) and smacked of lazy writing, which I’m not accustomed to from Shelton.

Still other than that this is a standout film. Terrific acting, realistic situations, reactions and characters and a beautiful environment to put them in. While I was bothered by the movie’s resolution, I still believe in Shelton as a talented filmmaker who has plenty of wonderful cinematic moments left in her and hopefully, her best work still remains ahead of her. This one isn’t half bad though.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances. Emotionally powerful in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Duplass’ character is too passive for my tastes. The ending is an abrupt stumble at the finish line.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some adult situations and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rachel Weisz was originally cast as Hannah but when the shooting schedule for the movie was pushed out, Weisz had to drop out of the film due to a scheduling conflict with her film The Deep Blue Sea.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $125,000 production budget; the movie was a modest success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five-Year Engagement

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival Begins!!

The Last Holiday (2006)


Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

(2006) Comedy (Paramount) Queen Latifah, Gerard Depardieu, Timothy Hutton, LL Cool J, Alicia Witt, Giancarlo Esposito, Jane Adams, Mike Estime, Susan Kellermann, Jascha Washington, Matt Rose, Ranjit Chowdhry, Michael Nouri, Jaqueline Fleming, Emeril Lagasse, Lana Likic. Directed by Wayne Wang

We are most of us so busy making a living that we forget to actually live. Our noses are so far down to the grindstone that we fail to notice the blue sky and sunshine above our heads. We certainly are prone to forgetting that our lives are short and can end without warning; so many of us leave it with so many of our dreams unfulfilled.

Georgia Byrd (Latifah) works at a New Orleans department store giving cooking demonstrations and selling cookware. She is crazy about co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) but is far too shy to make a move. She goes home at night and watches cooking shows, making gourmet recipes that she serves to a neighborhood kid (Washington) while she consumes Lean Cuisine frozen meals because she’s dieting.

One day at work she hits her head and loses consciousness. She is taken to the store infirmary (do any department stores really have those? Outside of Harrods in London I mean) where Dr. Gupta (Chowdhry) takes a CAT scan on the used machine he has just received and to his horror discovers several brain tumors – products of the rare condition Lampington’s Disease. The size and location of the tumors indicate that Georgia is in the final stages of the Disease and has only a few weeks. The operation that might save her may well do no good at all and the prohibitive cost of the potentially life-saving surgery is something her HMO won’t cover. Georgia hasn’t the time to contest it.

She decides to spend her final Christmas season at the Grandhotel Pupp in Kylovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. It’s an exclusive resort but Georgia has been frugal and has accumulated a pretty good amount in her 401k so she cashes it out and flies out to Czechoslovakia. Why there? Why, her favorite chef – Didier (Depardieu) is the executive chef there.

Once there she intends to indulge herself and pamper herself with spa treatments, skiing lessons and of course sampling one of everything from the Chef’s menu. He is so grateful that she is not another diet-conscious American requiring substitutions of “healthy” ingredients that he comes out to meet her himself. This draws the curiosity of a neighboring table where Senator Dillings (Esposito), Congressman Stewart (Nouri) are sitting, as well as the man who is wining and dining them – Matthew Kragen (Hutton) who happens to own the department store chain where Georgia was formerly employed. He sics his assistant Ms. Burns (Witt) with whom he is also having an affair with on Georgia to find out just who she is. The paranoid Kragen is concerned she’s out to ruin his deal that the support of the politicians is crucial for.

Her can-do attitude and positive outlook are inspiring to the lot of them and the more enchanted they become with Georgia, the more suspicious Kragen gets. He gets the officious Gunther (Kellermann), a hotel concierge, to go through Georgia’s things. Gunther discovers that Georgia, whom all the others (as well as the hotel staff whom Georgia treats with kindness and respect – something they aren’t used to) assumes is extremely wealthy, is a store clerk in one of Kragen’s stores. But her triumph quickly turns to shame when she discovers a letter that Georgia has written instructing hotel staff what to do should she pass away while she’s at their hotel.

Sean, in the meantime, decides that he needs to tell Georgia how he feels about her (it turns out the feelings were mutual) and decides to fly to the hotel to do just that. However a blizzard has made getting there precarious and Georgia herself has decided she’d rather spend her last days at home. Will the two be able to get together before the end?

This is a remake of a 1950 comedy starring Alec Guinness in the role Queen Latifah plays here. It’s a very different movie, somewhat more witty and a good bit darker (there’s an astonishing twist that you WILL not see coming near the end of that picture that is absent here). This is much more heart-warming, a kind of a warm hug on a winter day by a beloved friend. Latifah shows her chops as a leading lady; she’s done a lot of comedies both before and since but this is really in many ways the best of the lot.

Georgia starts out kind of mousy (which is really playing against type for Latifah) but good-hearted and as she finally comes out of her shell and allows herself to live we get a sense of the joyfulness she has inside her. She simply learns to enjoy the things that are good in life; good food, good friends, taking risks and trying new things. It’s a lesson not all of us learn in many more years of life than Georgia has lived.

The supporting cast is particularly solid, with kudos going to Depardieu as the chef who feels underappreciated (although with the foodie revival of the last few years he may be feeling better these days) and Hutton who’s Keegan is a greedy paranoid bastard but not altogether without saving graces. LL Cool J, who has become quite accomplished as an actor since on L.A. NCIS shows some good chemistry with fellow rapper Latifah.

This isn’t a particularly remarkable story – even in 1950 when Guinness did it this was pretty tried and true stuff. It’s simply done very well here, largely due to the screen presence of Latifah who makes the audience feel like old friends. Much of why the movie works is due to Latifah who simply makes this movie a vehicle for her personality. While some of the dialogue is clumsy and has the characters saying things that human beings don’t say in reality, it can be overlooked if for no other reason for the warm fuzziness coursing through your veins when the end credits roll.

WHY RENT THIS: Really heart-warming. Latifah shows that she can carry a film on her own here. Depardieu is a whole lot of fun here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The dialogue can be awkward. A bit too rote in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few sexual references but nothing too overt.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Georgia is serving Sean duck hash on toasted baguette, the Food Network chefs who were advisors and on-site chefs had to substitute for the duck in Sean’s portion because actor LL Cool J doesn’t eat duck.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of Wolfgang Puck recipes that you can make at home, as well as an interesting featurette as to how this remake nearly hit the screen in the mid-80s…starring the late John Candy, which was shelved at the comedian’s death until Latifah’s agent read it and thought it would make a great starring vehicle for his client.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $45M production budget; the movie failed to recoup its production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: John Dies at the End