Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Most Hated Woman in America

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Colossal


Put ’em up!

(2017) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Neon) Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dan Stevens, Hannah Cheramy, Nathan Ellison, Sarah Surh, Haeun Hannah Cho, Carlos Joe Costa, Melissa Montgomery, Christine Lee, Rukiya Bernard, James Yi, Alyssa Dawson, Miho Suzuki, Charles Raahul Singh, Jenny Mitchell, Maddie Smith, Everett Adams, Agamdeep Darshi. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

It is said that within all of us there are both angels and monsters. For the most part, the majority of us try as hard as we can to keep that monster inside and let the angel out but it can be difficult, particularly if we are coping with more than we can handle. That’s when those monsters can show their faces and take control.

Gloria (Hathaway) has some issues. She is chronically unemployed or underemployed. She goes out and parties with friends most nights; sometimes for days. She drinks far too much and often doesn’t remember what she did the night before. Finally, her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) has had enough. While he loves Gloria, he can’t stand being around her anymore. Nothing he can say or do has helped. It’s time for him to remove this toxic person from his life and he not only dumps her, he packs up her stuff and tells her she has to move out of their New York apartment…or rather, his New York apartment.

With no other options, Gloria moves back to her childhood home upstate that her recently deceased mom left to her. While there she runs into childhood playmate Oscar (Sudeikis) who has an inheritance of his own – his parents bar. He offers Gloria a job waitressing there which she gratefully accepts although perhaps working in a bar isn’t exactly the best place to be for an alcoholic. By day, Oscar helps out by buying her things to help furnish her empty home; by night, they work at the bar which has bottomed out in popularity in recent years. Oscar has closed off a huge chunk of it, decorated in cowboy fashion. Gloria resolves to spruce it up and reopen it. In between, there are late nights drinking with Oscar and his friends Garth (Nelson), a philosophical drunk and Joel (Stowell), a handsome local who catches Gloria’s eye.

But things take a turn for the strange when news reports show a gigantic monster rampaging in Seoul, South Korea and then disappearing. Like everyone else, Gloria is amazed and alarmed. Unlike everyone else, Gloria discovers she has a strange connection with the monster. The monster makes strange hand gestures that are very much reminiscent of the same quirky gestures Gloria makes. She also discovers that the monsters rampages take place when she is in the playground at a local park. She begins to realize that she is the monster.

Before too long, a second monster appears – a giant robot and Gloria’s monster is needed to do battle with it. She also finds she needs to do battle in real life as well with someone she trusted who has become abusive and controlling. Can she summon the strength to fight on both fronts and in doing so, save the lives of millions of people in Seoul?

Giant monster or kaiju films have regained popularity recently with the successes of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island as well as dozens of films in Asia. This is a very different take on them. Spanish director Vigalondo has been an up-and-coming name in horror films in recent years and this might just be his best work yet. It’s imaginative and thought-provoking, the latter of which being a rare quality in movies that are as entertaining as this one.

Hathaway gives a marvelous performance as a woman who has lost control of her life and who’s made a ton of bad choices, many of which were informed by alcohol abuse. She is appealing here as she is in most of her films and even though her character isn’t always doing the right thing we still end up rooting for her. Sudeikis is also a very likable screen personality and while the movie begins with him playing a role that is typical for him it changes somewhat as the film progresses. It’s really a marvelous role for him as it allows him to expand his range.

While the special effects reflect the movie’s small budget, the movie explores all sorts of things during the course of its run time from living with substance abusers to domestic violence and taking responsibility. These are some heavy topics for what is essentially a kaiju comedy that turns into something a little deeper.

This played the Florida Film Festival last month and one of the programmers for the Festival reported that a couple of angry ladies accosted him following the screening of this film and complained that it glorifies domestic abuse. Quite frankly with respect to the ladies making the complaint, I believe that their interpretation is quite a bit off the mark. One of the points that the movie is making is that domestic violence can come from people who are the nicest of guys outwardly; that’s why it’s so shocking when it happens in the film. Rather than glorifying domestic violence, the scenes depicting it show it for what it is – a disgusting, cowardly act.

While the movie’s final third is a little less impressive than the first two, it maintains interest throughout. Vigalondo has the annoying habit of having the onscreen characters visibly react to things that the audience can’t see which after having been done a few times gets to be a little bit annoying, but that’s really small potatoes. This is an inventive take on the giant monster movies that is both retro and modern. It’s cinematic fun of the highest order and should be a must-see for anyone who likes good entertainment with a dash of perspective.

REASONS TO GO: It’s definitely a different take on kaiju films. Hathaway makes an appealing drunk. Sudeikis is so charming to begin with his attitude change is all the more shocking. It is refreshing for a movie this entertaining to be this thoughtful as well.
REASONS TO STAY: It loses steam about 2/3 of the way through. The film has the annoying habit of showing actors reacting to things not revealed to the audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and scenes of mass destruction and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hathaway was in the second trimester of her pregnancy while she filmed this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big in Japan
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Unrest

Get Out


Daniel Kaluuya finds out we like him…we really, really like him.

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Lil Rel Howery, Ashley LeConte Campbell, John Wilmot, Caren Larkey,Julie Ann Doan, Rutherford Cravens, Geraldine Singer, Yasuhiko Oyama, Richard Herd, Erika Alexander. Directed by Jordan Peele

 

Given the situation and history of race in America, it could be forgiven if some African-Americans might have nightmares that white America is out to get them. Certainly given institutional racism in the past, the need for Black Lives Matter in the present and not a lot of hope for change for the future, life in these United States might seem like one great big horror movie for people of color.

Chris (Kaluuya) is a photographer who’s just getting started in his career. He is an African-American with ties to the community but he also has a white girlfriend – Rose (Williams) who has yet to inform her parents that she’s dating a black guy. But not to worry, she tells him – her parents are liberal progressives from way back. They’ll have no problem with it. When you’re taking your boyfriend to meet your parents for the first time, please understand that those words offer no comfort whatsoever.

Rose’s parents are pretty well-to-do – they have a vacation home in upstate New York that most would probably classify as an estate. Her Dad (Whitford) is a neurosurgeon and her Mom (Keener) a psychiatrist specializing in hypnotherapy. Dad is that kind of guy whose attempts to sound hip and current are awkward and unintentionally funny (“So how long has this thang been going on?” he  asks much to Chris’ bemusement). Mom offers to help cure Chris of his smoking habit which he politely refuses. He doesn’t want anyone messing with his head.

But awkward first meeting weekend gives way to some legitimate misgivings. The African-American domestics Walter (Henderson) and Georgina (Gabriel) seem anachronistic. The bonhomie of a family and friends gathering reveals racism bubbling just under the surface. The drunken brother (Jones) seems unusually aggressive.  Chris has nightmares and realizes that someone has been messing with his head after all. But the messing with Chris’ head is nothing compared with what’s going to mess with ours.

Peele is best known up to now for being part of Key and Peele who have one of the most respected shows on Comedy Central. Methinks that he has something else that he’s going to be best known for. He shows a confident, deft hand which is unusual for a first-time director and he took a nearly microscopic budget for a movie released by a major studio and parlayed it into what is sure to be one of the most profitable movies of the year.

He does it with a smartly written film that lightens the tone of the deeper issues it explores and doesn’t allow the audience to get angry or frustrated given the climate of the times. While I’ve heard some mutterings that the movie is racist towards whites, I would tend to disregard that kind of talk and compare it to certain SNL sketches that poke fun of white stereotypes. We all, after all, have our prejudices whether we admit to them or not.

He also does it with a near-perfect cast of largely unknowns from a feature standpoint although Whitford and Keenan are both veterans and Jones and Stanfield have some good performances under their belts as well. Each cog in the wheel performs exactly as they need to which helps ratchet up the creepy factor when it appears that Chris has entered a weird Stepford Wives town for Caucasians.

As light as Peele keeps it he does save room for some heavy horror moments although there’s not a lot of viscera here. It’s more the concepts that are horrifying rather than any visual gore although there are a few images where Peele brings on the red stuff. He’s not shying away from it so much as using it effectively.

Kaluuya, a British actor playing an American here, has star written all over him. He is absolutely mesmerizing onscreen and delivers an excellent performance that’s bound to get him noticed for more high-profile roles. He reminds me a lot of John Boyega and we all know that his career brought him into the Star Wars universe; something similar could conceivably happen to Kaluuya who I think would make a fantastic John Stewart in the upcoming Green Lantern Corps movie for DC/Warner Brothers.

This is one of those occasions where the critics and the general public have both embraced a film. It’s certainly bound to be one of the better horror movies to come out this year and some might well keep it in mind for one of the best movies of the year period. I’m not quite on board for that kind of lofty praise but this is definitely a movie worth seeking out if you haven’t seen it already and savvy movie buffs are likely to add it to their collection when it comes out on home video later on this year.

REASONS TO GO: A comic-horror look at African-American perceptions and racial stereotypes. There are some good laughs as well as some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might be made uncomfortable by the film’s attitudes towards racism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of violence, some bloody images, profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peele became the first African-American director to earn over $100 million at the box office on his debut feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Life as a Zucchini

Are We Not Cats


Someone needs a little hair tonic.

(2016) Romance (Tri-Coast Worldwide) Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere, Dean Holtermann, Charles Gould, Adeline Thery, Alice Frank, Tuffy Questell, Theodore Bouloukos, Joe Buldo, Ernst Zorin, Marika Dacluk, Bill Weeden, Alex Goldberg, Willy Muse, Carson Grant, Kelsea Dakota. Directed by Xander Robin

Some movies are easily described while others beggar description. This is one of the latter even though I’m about to give it a try.

Eli (Nicholson) seems to have a stable if unsatisfying life; he has a girlfriend, a steady job and an apartment in New York City – it’s a decent enough life. In a matter of hours though he loses all three and on top of that his parents decide to vacate New York for the heat of Arizona. “Visit us!” his mom exclaims once Eli has loaded all their furniture in the moving truck. That doesn’t seem likely given his situation – he’s essentially homeless and is sleeping in the delivery van that is his only source of income.

He gets a job delivering an engine to a small upstate town that will at least keep him afloat for a few months where he meets Kyle (Godere) who is having the engine put in his car but unfortunately Eli arrives with it too late for Kyle to drive out of the repair shop that day so Eli gives Kyle a ride home. In turn, Kyle takes Eli to an underground party in an abandoned warehouse space where he meets Kyle’s girlfriend Anya (Lopez) who seems to be the hippest person in all of New York State and that includes the five boroughs. Eli is quite smitten with her but Kyle gets mad at the attention Eli is giving Anya and he hits her. Anya seems to find that amusing but I guarantee most audience members won’t.

In order to stay nearby, Eli takes a job where Kyle works much to the dismay of both Kyle and Anya. When Kyle has to leave on some sort of trip, Eli keeps Anya company while he’s away. At first she is firm about keeping things on a friendship level; the two have a lot in common and seem comfortable with each other but both of them are hiding something; Eli is suffering from trichotillomania (a compulsion for pulling out one’s own hair) while Anya has trichophagia (a compulsion to eat human hair). We discover that Anya has been wearing a wig the whole time and is nearly bald from the yanking out of her own hair and consuming it. The two eventually have sex and while Eli sleeps Anya consumes his luxuriant head of hair, leaving him looking like a radiation victim as she does.

One of the consequences of trichophagia is that it can create massive hair balls in the intestines, effectively blocking the normal digestive process and this is what happens to Anya. Being that she lives in the middle of nowhere in a loft in which she has created a machine that creates light shows and kinetic movement by the sounds of a record played on an old-fashioned turntable, no help can arrive for hours so a distraught Eli realizes he has but one option – to perform surgery on her himself.

Yes, that’s essentially the plot and yes, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. I will give Robin props for at least coming up with an original concept here even if the execution isn’t always what I might like it to be. There is a little bit too much shaky handheld camera shots for my taste, but others may be okay with that. This is definitely going to appeal to Millennials as Eli and particularly Anya pretty much are almost stereotypical characters from that generation. In some ways, the whole film is an allegory for what it is to be from that generation; the characters have nowhere to go, nothing to do and are bored out of their minds. At least, to a mind of the generation that essentially fucked things up for Millennials.

Nicholson and Lopez are appealing actors who don’t appear to mind taking chances. Certainly it couldn’t be easy either having their hair shaved to look like victims of an atomic bomb or more likely to wear wigs that make them appear that way. During scenes in the middle of the movie, Lopez wears blue lipstick that gives her a corpse-like appearance and presages the scenes in the latter stages of the movie where she is getting her home surgery done.

That scene is fairly bloody and visceral and it may upset those who are affected by such things. There is a kind of absurdist humor that’s going on during it though that does lighten the mood considerably and in fact the whole situation is kind of abstract in a way – I don’t think you run into people who would willingly perform surgery (particularly on someone they are fond of) without any training whatsoever. Either Eli is an idiot, in a panic or self-confident beyond rationality. I’d probably choose the second explanation if given a choice.

The landscapes are pretty bleak here and most of the movie feels grimy and post-apocalyptic even though it’s clear that society continues to function in the movie (if you consider what society is doing right now “functioning”). Unfortunately the story feels disjointed and confusing and I had trouble at times figuring out why people were acting the way they did in the movie. There is a certain amount of nihilism present in modern society but if it really is as much as portrayed here, then we are truly screwed.

REASONS TO GO: It’s kind of a nifty allegory for how millennials are viewed. It’s edgy and at least tries to take a few chances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s way too much shaky cam. The film is fairly disjointed and occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, sexuality, some disturbing images as well as a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally started life as a 2013 short with the same title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fly (1986)
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: A United Kingdom

The Family Fang


A family photo of a fractured family.

A family photo of a fractured family.

(2015) Dramedy (Starz Media) Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman, Christopher Walken, Maryanne Plunkett, Kathryn Hahn, Jason Butler Harner, Josh Pais, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Michael Chernus, Eugenia Kuzmina, Linda Emond, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Jaiden Kaine, Grainger Hines, Scott Shepherd, Steve Witting, Danny Burstein, Taylor Rose, Genevieve Adams. Directed by Jason Bateman

Florida Film Festival 2016

Family isn’t always the way you envision it to be. Different families have different dynamics and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. And not all families are necessarily benevolent to their children either.

Caleb Fang (Harner) is an Artist (note the capital). He believes in Art above all else. His art is subversive performance art, usually utilizing his wife (Hahn) and children, whom he refers to as A and B. He has the kids pose as bank robbers, street buskers and other bizarre things without the general public knowing what’s going on. Caleb films everything to see the reaction of passersby. In an era before YouTube, he becomes a sensation in the art world but his kids grow up hating that their childhood was essentially hijacked in the name of art.

As adults, Baxter Fang (Bateman) has become a novelist who has written one good book and then one that he characterizes as “divisive,” and in the throes currently of a ginormous writer’s block. Annie Fang (Kidman) is an actress who, like most actresses of a certain age, is getting fewer and fewer good parts. When Baxter covers a redneck sporting event (in an effort to make some cash while his muse has dried up) and sustains a freakish head injury, his parent offer to help him convalesce. Baxter, terrified of being alone with Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett), convinces his reluctant sister to come along and save him.

Of course, Caleb wants to involve his children in a new art piece but when they refuse he gets extremely angry. Annie is hoping to snag a part that would jumpstart her career again and Baxter…well he’s still recovering and still can’t write a word. However when their parents turn up missing and later their car is found with Caleb’s blood on the front seat, both of the siblings are extremely concerned. Has something awful truly happened, or could this be their greatest prank ever?

Bateman, who debuted as a director with the solid Bad Words does well with this adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. This is a bit different than his previous effort as there is as much drama here as comedy. Bateman has always been a fine comic actor but shows some dramatic chops here and shows he can actually do some fine dramatic work. Considering he’s working off of Walken and Kidman, both of whom are extremely talented actors in their own right, he not only holds up with them but stands out. This is by far the most complex character he’s had to play in a movie yet.

Kidman and Walken also deliver solid performances, Walken in particular stealing the screen with his patented laser beam stare. Veteran stage actress Plunkett also kicks in with a fine screen performance. In the flashback sequences, Hahn is solid as is Harner, and Burstein and Emond also deliver noteworthy support. Bateman is clearly establishing himself as an actor’s director, and this kind of darkly comic material is right in his wheelhouse.

The only problem is that the middle third is a bit slow but it does kick it up a notch during the final third of the film. Other than that, this is a fine dark comedy with dramatic overtones that examine the dynamics of the dysfunctional family, how parents sometimes don’t do what’s best for their kids so much as what’s best for themselves and finally, the difference between art and Art and why one is superior and the other pretentious.

REASONS TO GO: Jason Bateman gives one of his best performances ever. The humor is subversive.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicole Kidman’s father visited her on the upstate New York set, but that was the last time they would see each other as he passed away on September 14, 2014. The world premiere would be exactly one year to the day of his death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Heart Huckabees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Louder Than Bombs

The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

The Automatic Hate


Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

Joseph Cross and Adelaide Clemens share a moment.

(2015) Dramedy (Film Movement) Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell, Darren MacDonald, Vienna Stampeen, Travis Quentin Young, George Riddle, Sea McHale, Matthew Fahey, Jozef Fahey, Craig Wesley Divino, Mark Andrews, Brooke Stone. Directed by Justin Lerner

All families have secrets; skeletons in their closets that once let out affect the dynamic of the family in unexpected and often unintended ways. Those secrets sometimes die with those who were there but there are occasions when the consequences are passed down the generations.

Davis Green (Cross) is a head chef at a Boston restaurant, but as well as his culinary career is going, there is a lot less to desire in his private life. His emotional girlfriend Cassie (Woll), however, locks him out of the bathroom and can’t stop sobbing. She needs alone time and Davis is inclined to give it to you, especially after he hears why she’s sobbing (although we don’t find out until later). He heads down to his favorite bar to hang out with some friends, when he notices a beautiful blonde there who acts like she knows him. When he approaches her though, she runs away.

She shows up later at his apartment and introduces herself as Alexis (Clemens). She tells him that she’s his cousin, but that can’t be right – his dad was an only child. Nonetheless, she insists that’s who she is. When Davis confronts his dad Ronald (Schiff), at first his dad – a respected Yale-educated developmental psychologist – denies the existence of a sibling. Not one to simply take the word of his own dad who has always expressed disappointment in Davis’ career choice (and choice of girlfriend for that matter), Davis goes to talk to his grandfather (Riddle) who seems to confirm that there’s a long lost brother – “we don’t talk about Josh” he croaks before having a panic attack.

Once again, Davis confronts his dad who reluctantly admits to the existence of Josh (Jay) but won’t explain why the two are estranged. Devastated by this and by a revelation from his girlfriend, Davis decides to take a break from everything and find his cousins.

That’s right, plural. It turns out Alexis has two sisters – Annie (Y. Zima) and Vanessa (V. Zima) and they live on a bucolic farm in upstate New York, although it is not super successful. They live a kind of hippie existence, even to the marijuana dispensary in the consignment store the girls run. It turns out that the feelings Davis’ dad has for Josh are reciprocated. Davis and Alexis try to figure out what would cause such a rift between brothers – and all the while Davis is developing feelings of his own for his first cousin. When a family tragedy forces the two families together, what comes next is inevitable – and awkward.

This is not your average family drama nor is it your average romantic comedy. It falls somewhere in between and is seriously bent, in a good way. It is also bent enough that it may make some feel a little bit squeamish, particularly when you learn exactly what drove the brothers apart. However there is a real heart at the center of the movie that kind of helps drive through the less savory feelings that may occur.

The mystery of that estrangement could easily be a MacGuffin or become a distraction but Lerner never allows it to do so. The casting of veterans Schiff (The West Wing) and Jay (tons of David Mamet films) is brilliant; the two have a bit of resemblance facially and in vocal mannerisms. The two feel like brothers, which is important here, although brothers who have not seen each other in 20 years and have lived separate lives. Everything works here.

The cousins are all extremely beautiful blondes, which makes for a happy reviewer. There’s also some nice cinematic scenery in the upstate New York countryside. While there are a few hiccups – the hoary plot-advancing device of finding home movies in an attic seems a little bit beneath this film – this is one of those gems that come along every once in awhile that flies under the radar and is far more impressive than you would think. However, those who are easily squeamish about unorthodox romantic and sexual relationships should be on notice that this film may be a little bit uncomfortable for them.

REASONS TO GO: Handles the mystery adroitly. The cousins are gorgeous. A lot of heart (oddly enough) at the center.
REASONS TO STAY: The adult relationships are a bit uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, graphic nudity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed in and about Mt. Vernon, New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Eddie the Eagle