Little Fish


When you’re losing everything, hold on to what you have tightly.

(2020) Romance (IFCOlivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo, David Lennon, Mackenzie Caldwell, Ross Wirtanen, Heather Decksheimer, Natalie Smith, Ronald Robinson, Wyatt Cameron, Morgana Wyllie, Monique Phillips, Paul Almeida, Toby Hargrave, Albert Nicholas, Chris Shields, Jeff Sanca, Naomi King, Darius Willis, Emily Stott, Samantha Spear. Directed by Chad Hartigan

 

What makes us who we are? There are those who will argue (convincingly) that it is our experiences, our memories. Everything in our lives is filtered through them. The loss of memory is a kind of death; the loss of the essence of who we are, dying away in a fog of forgetfulness.

A pandemic has swept the world – no, not that one – of a disease called NIA: neuroinflammatory affliction. Think of it as a kind of supercharged Alzheimer’s; it affects the old and the young, causing memories to disappear; sometimes all at once, other times gradually. Emma (Cooke), a British ex-pat working as a veterinarian in Seattle, is fully aware of the ramifications of the disease. She is married to Jude (O’Connell), a photographer. She is trying to document everything about their relationship in the case that one or both of them are afflicted by it.

It has already hit close to home. Musician friend Ben (Castillo) has contracted the virus and is desperately racing to get his songs recorded before he forgets them or how to play at all. He is also beginning to forget his wife Samantha (Soko) which is terrifying to Emma. It becomes all the more terrifying when both her mother and Jude get NIA and while Emma can do nothing for her mother, she desperately tries everything to save her husband’s memory before she becomes just another face in the crowd to him.

This is a very poignant film that not only spotlights the true horror of diseases like Alzheimer’s but underscores the disappearance of thousands due to the pandemic we’re all experiencing. Hartigan utilizes the overcast Seattle weather and the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest to great effect. The movie is narrated by Emma as a series of journal entries in her quest to keep the relationship alive in Jack’s fading memory; the futility of her effort makes the movie all the more affecting.

Much of the reason the film works is the obvious chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell’ the intimacies of little moments – a touch here, a glance there, a caress across the back of the head – feel authentic and serve to remind us that true love is not a series of grand gestures, but of small ones. Yes, there are some Hollywood moves like kisses while holding sparklers on the fourth of July, piggyback rides and other horseplay but because the feeling between Cooke and O’Connell comes off so genuinely it doesn’t feel as forced as it might ordinarily.

We get very little context on how the disease is affecting the world at large. We get a sense that people are forgetting how to drive their boats and cars, abandoning them and walking (or swimming) back home. Most air travel has been banned because of the possibility that a pilot might forget how to fly a plane mid-flight. We don’t see how that would then affect supply chains, of how civilization itself would start to come to a screeching halt. Other than a scene at a clinic where people are signing up for an experimental treatment that could potentially be a cure, we don’t see the panic something like this would cause. If people aren’t willing to wear a simple cloth mask, how would they react to something like NIA?

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, this might hit a little too close to home. Those with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia may also find this troubling. For all others, the bittersweet quality might be the perfect tonic for some Valentine’s Day snuggling in front of the TV or movie screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A heartbreaking allegory. Terrific chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell. Achingly bittersweet.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending seems a bit drawn out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set during a pandemic, the movie was completed before COVID-19 was a news item.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YoTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Woman in Motion

Kindred


No rest for the weary.

(2020) Thriller (IFC) Tamara Lawrence, Fiona Shaw, Jack Lowden, Anton Lasser, Edward Holcroft, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Natalia Kostrzewa, Chloe Pirrie, Nyree Yergainharsian, Toyah Frantzen. Directed by Joe Marcantonio

 

John Lennon once wrote, quite accurately, that life is what happens while we’re busy making plans. In other words, plan away, but life happens no matter what your intentions are.

Ben (Holcroft), an English veterinarian, and his black Girlfriend Charlotte (Lawrence) have plans to move to Australia. Why? Likely because it’s about as far as they can get from Ben’s rabidly possessive mother Margaret (Shaw) and Ben’s super-creepy stepbrother Thomas (Lowden). When they go to lunch  at the crumbling estate where Margaret and Thomas live and where nine generations of Ben’s family has resided, breaking the news of their impending move doesn’t go well, to say the least.

However, their decision to move is put on hold when it is discovered that Charlotte is pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want. She tells Ben emphatically that she’s not ready to be a mother and doesn’t want to jeopardize their plans. Unfortunately, that all becomes moot when Ben perishes suddenly.

Margaret – who has been informed of Charlotte’s delicate condition by her doctor (Lasser), suddenly aims to be mother of the year, taking Charlotte in to live on the estate. But then, slowly, it becomes apparent that Charlotte won’t be permitted to leave and that Thomas may be drugging her to insure that she doesn’t. Margaret, you see, needs to have an heir to take over the estate and Thomas isn’t a blood relative. As Charlotte is beset by nightmares and images of ravens, she realizes that she is in a very dangerous situation that she must escape from quickly.

I think this is a movie that the filmmakers started out with honorable intentions, but along the way they got distracted. The pacing is slow and methodical which some thrillers can be in an attempt to build suspense; however, the payoff should then be a roller coaster ride and frankly, the climax here isn’t payoff enough. There are some interesting potential subplots going on here – the racial aspects, the supernatural aspects of the ravens, the gaslighting done by Margaret and Thomas, family madness running in Charlotte’s family, but none of these go anywhere. I thought at one point that the filmmakers were going for a metaphor of the control of a woman’s body by external forces, but that doesn’t pan out either.

What does work is Lawrence’s performance which ranks right up there with that of Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, which this film shares some parallel themes with. Her facial expressions are absolutely priceless throughout, as is her body language as new life grows within her character. She also gets the usually reliable Shaw to play off of, although Shaw is curiously overplaying her role here. It’s not one of the better performances by the veteran actress.

I get the sense that the filmmakers were going for something of a mash-up, but one of the pitfalls of doing one of those types of films is that it can end up being neither fish nor fowl, not enough of any one genre to really suck in fans of that genre. Horror fans will be disappointed, thriller fans are likely to be unimpressed and drama fans are not going to really connect. So you have a movie that combines genres but omits the best elements of each. Lawrence is the real attraction here; she is certainly a name to keep an eye out in the next few years.

REASONS TO SEE: Lawrence gives a truly dazzling performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film builds very slowly and gets bogged down in soap opera-esque plot twists.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for both director Joe Marcantonio and his co-writer Jason MacColgan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Narco Warriors

Tag


Jeremy Renner knows he’s better than you.

(2018) Comedy (New LineEd Helms, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Isla fisher, Lil Rel Howley, Hannibal Burress, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Nora Dunn, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Steve Berg, Indiana Sifuentes, Trayce Malachi, Jock McKissic, Thomas Middleditch, Al Mitchell, Sebastian Maniscalco, Vince Pisani, Kurt Yue, Kate Kneeland.  Directed by Jeff Tomsic

 

There’s a line in the movie that really rings true; “We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing.” Keeping that child-like part of ourselves alive means we’re ever changing, ever growing. Play can be a part of that; it teaches us about ourselves, if nothing else.

Hoagie (Helms), Jerry (Renner), Bob (Hamm), Chili (Johnson) and Sable (Burress) have been playing the same game of tag for thirty years. They’ve grown up a little bit since then; they’ve relocated all over the country from their native Spokane and have gone on to their own lives and their own families. But for one month every year – May, as it turns out – they are fair game to a no-holds-barred take-no-prisoners form of the children’s game.

It has helped keep their bonds strong even though they lead separate lives but for four of them, there’s a unifying factor – Jerry has never ever been tagged “it,” not even once, in thirty years. This will be the year, even though financier Bob has a reporter (Wallis) trailing him, even though Hoagie’s wife (Fisher) is about to lose her mind with competitive fire and even though Chili will be back in the territory where his ex-wife (Jones) dwells. For this will be the last year; Jerry is taking himself a bride (Bibb) and this will be his last year playing the game.

The filmmakers could have gone a few different routes with this and they elected to try and go down two different paths at once; the raunchy one and the heartwarming one. As fellow critic Roger Moore observed, they may have missed an opportunity by going the PG-13 route and thus attracting a larger audience pool but as it was, they didn’t do so badly.

The raunchy stuff isn’t as raunchy as other comedies that go there but it is enough to warn home viewers from letting their tweens and youngsters get hold of it. The element that gives the viewer some good warm fuzzies is well-earned without being too treacly, although there is a bit of a twist that was a little over-the-top.

As far as the comedy bits (mostly having to do with the lengths the players will go to tag Jerry and the lengths he’ll go to keep from getting tagged) while they were generally well-executed, some bent the boundaries of suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. That aside, this was a little bit better than I expected it to be although not quite as good as Game Night.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally heart-warming comedy about the bonds of friendship.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the comedy is a bit far-fetched.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief nudity, some crude sexual content and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is loosely based on an ongoing game of tag played by four friends in Spokane, Washington.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hangover Part II
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Heretics: The Politics of the Gospel

5 Flights Up


All they want is a room with a view.

All they want is a room with a view.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Alysia Reiner, Carrie Preston, Sterling Jerins, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van den Broom, Korey Jackson, Josh Pais, Maddie Corman, Miriam Shor, Nadia Gan, Katrina E. Perkins, Joanna Adler, Hannah Dunne, Liza J. Bennett, Jackie Hoffman, Marcia DeBonis, Jimmy Palumbo, Jordan Baker, Maury Ginsberg, Grace Rex. Directed by Richard Loncraine

What makes a house – or an apartment – a home? It isn’t the things that you’ve accumulated over the years, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t the location, although that’s a part of it too. It’s mainly the people that live in it and the memories you make together.

Alex (Freeman) and Ruth (Keaton) Carver have lived in the same Brooklyn fifth-floor walk-up for the 40 years of their marriage. Now Alex, a moderately successful painter, and Ruth, a retired teacher, are both getting on in years and that five flights of stairs is likely to only get harder on them. They’ve decided to sell and find themselves an apartment that at least has an elevator for them.

Lily (Nixon), their high-strung niece who is also a realtor, is getting them ready for their open house. The neighborhood they live in has undergone gentrification and Lily is confident that they can get north of a million for the apartment. Alex is unsure about this move; he is fully aware that they’re unlikely to get an apartment that has the same charm as the one they own and certainly none of the memories. Ruth realizes this too, but she tends to be more optimistic that they’ll find a new place to fall in love with.

But there are some complications. Their beloved dog Dorothy has gotten to be very sick and requires an expensive operation. The open house itself, which brings quirky and shark-like New Yorkers to the apartment to try and snatch up the property before someone else can, is hindered by an ongoing news story about the driver of a fuel tanker abandoned on the Williamsburg Bridge who may or may not be a terrorist. The media being what it is these days opts for the former.

Alex’s misgivings grow as they find an apartment in Manhattan that they both like, which sounds a little strange. Sure it’s a nice apartment. Sure it’s got an elevator. But can it be a home? Doesn’t sound so strange now, eh?

Loncraine, who has produced some pretty solid romantic comedies and feel-good movies on his resume (Wimbledon, My One and Only) continues to mine that territory here. Much of the movie’s success resides in its casting; Keaton and Freeman both banter with each other so well and show each other the kind of affection that only couples that have been married for decades can really get right that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t been a married couple for as long as Alex and Ruth have been. The two are both such screen pros in any case that they know how to work well with just about anyone, and here they both make each other shine.

This is a very New York-centric movie and New Yorkers are going to get it more readily than those who live outside the Big Apple. For them, the soaring cost of housing is of no great surprise; the rest of us might be nonplussed at what a million dollar listing is in Brooklyn. Then again, if I had to walk up five flights of stairs every time I came home, I’d either be a lot thinner than I am now or dead of a heart attack.

There is also a whole lot of dialogue about open houses, listings, market values and real estate in general. Fortunately, great actors like Freeman and Keaton can make even that dry kind of conversation sparkle, but only so much. The movie could have focused less on the sale of the house and more on how the concept of that sale was affecting Ruth and Alex, although they do spend a fair amount of time on that.

Clearly this is a paean to the dwelling. Not as a physical space mind you, but as a concept and more importantly, as an emotional touchstone. Using flashbacks to act as memories that were on the minds of the couple (played as newlyweds by van der Bloom and Jackson who channel Keaton and Freeman respectively very satisfactorily) enhances the idea of residence being more than four walls but a place where memories reside as well as people. Long after the physical layout is forgotten, the memories of a lazy Sunday afternoon, a rainy day movie, or a Christmas morning will linger in the heart and mind.

Loncraine has crafted a winner of a movie that sadly got shuffled off to the side during the onslaught of early summer blockbusters. I think that the suits at Focus felt that the material would appeal only to older audiences and in that sense they’d be correct, but I think that that same demographic that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a hit could have made this one a hit too. In any case, this is definitely a feel-good movie that left me with the warm fuzzies and is going to appeal to anyone who has ever lived in a home that they’ve loved. Although it got anemic box office during its limited theatrical run, I think that viewing this at home is the best possible place to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderfully effective performances by Freeman and Keaton. A celebration of home and hearth. A slice of New York life.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more real estate chatter than I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: A smattering of curse words here and there, and some artistic nude images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the open house sequence, the book that Alex is trying to read in the corner is A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On Golden Pond
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Southpaw

Love Birds (2011)


If it looks like a duck...

If it looks like a duck…

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Freestyle) Rhys Darby, Sally Hawkins, Emily Barclay, Craig Hall, Bryan Brown, Dave Fane, Faye Smith, Wesley Dowdell, Alvin Maharaj, Mia Pistorius, Sonia Gray, Hannah Matthews, John Callen, Alan Harris, Michaela Rooney, Beck Taylor, Tane Cullen, Eryn Watson, Matthew Metcalfe, Bronwyn Bradley, Stacey Leilua, Sara Wiseman. Directed by Paul Murphy

The Bee Gees once wondered “How can you mend a broken heart?” There is no single way to do it. Some say that time heals all wounds. Others recommend getting right back in the saddle again. Still others say that you need a hobby to take your mind off of things.

Doug (Darby) needs to find his own answer. His girlfriend Susan (Smith) – who is a spectacular beauty for what it’s worth – has dumped him on his rear end, leaving his world upside down and inside out. He is moping around his house when he hears a thump on his roof and upon further investigation discovers a wounded duck who is incapable of flying. Doug, being a good-hearted soul, takes the bird in but it soon becomes more trouble than it’s worth – keeping him awake nights, refusing to let him bathe alone, and pooping, pooping, everywhere.

Most of us would be making ourselves a nice Duck a l’orange right about then but as I said Doug is a good-hearted soul so he consults with Holly (Hawkins), the local vet. Her assistant Brenda (Barclay) immediately realizes that her boss should be with this guy but Holly, a single mum, is cool towards him so Brenda takes matters into her own hands.

The two eventually fall in love despite the hostility of Holly’s son Taylor (Taylor) towards his mom’s new beau but the more time Holly and Doug spend together, the better things get. Then Susan decides that she wants Doug back.

This is fairly pedestrian rom-com stuff with predictable plot points but what elevates it slightly above the rest is the charming and affable Darby, a fairly big name in New Zealand as a standup comic and occasional comic actor. His  chemistry with Hawkins as Holly is actually quite natural and charming. The cast is also buoyed by Watkins as Doug’s best friend who’s an absolute rotter and his buddies Gurneesh (Maharaj), Kanga (Fane) and Brent (Dowdell) who provide much of the physical comedy.

Another big plus is the addition of Queen to the soundtrack. Doug has become a huge Queen fan so we hear their music pretty much throughout the movie and it is utilized quite well, actually. Quite frankly, I have to say you can’t go wrong with Queen on your soundtrack (Da Queen will bear me out on that one).

You’ll see the plot points coming a mile off and you’ll know how the movie ends even before you stream it onto your computer (a DVD edition has yet to be released in the States) but you have to admire a movie that tries this hard to be charming and still manages to pull it off.

WHY RENT THIS: Darby is very likable. Laid back and gently humorous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks big laughs. Doesn’t add anything to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former international cricket stars Alan Border and Ian Smith make cameo appearances.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Danny Deckchair

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: 10,000 B.C.

Zookeeper


Zookeeper

Kevin James talks to his target demographic.

(2011) Family (Columbia) Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Ken Jeong, Cher (voice), Nick Nolte (voice), Adam Sandler (voice), Sylvester Stallone (voice), Judd Apatow (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Maya Rudolph (voice), Faizon Love (voice), Don Rickles (voice). Directed by Frank Coraci

 

There’s a Hollywood platitude that a smart actor never works with kids or animals. Of course if a career is going to have any longevity, it is inevitable that one will someday have to work with either or both. If you’re going to do a movie set in a zoo…well, be prepared to be upstaged.

Griffin Keyes (James) is a zookeeper who really loves his job. He enjoys interacting with the animals in his charge and cares very much about them. He is a kindly, genial sort who is also quite shy and a bit clumsy. He is trying to get over the rejection given him by Stephanie (Bibb), his ex who turned down his elaborate marriage proposal five years earlier. It devastated his self-confidence and led him to an existence with virtually no social life.

He has earned the respect of the zoo’s veterinary zoologist Kate (Dawson) who sympathizes with his plight. Stephanie had dumped him because he was a zookeeper, someone with a limited income and limited possibilities. Of course Stephanie is a shallow materialistic individual that has no business with guy like Griffin anyway but Griffin doesn’t see that.

He has a chance to win her back, even though she’s seeing an ex-boyfriend named Gale (Rogan) who is as mean and as shallow as she is. The animals, thinking that Griffin will leave them unless he finds a girl in town who will keep him there, decide to give Griffin dating advice so that he can win the girl.

Of course, this unnerves Griffin more than a little bit. It turns out however that animals can in fact talk and just choose not to because it freaks out the humans when they do. Griffin particularly bonds with Bernie the Gorilla (Nolte) who is depressed. Griffin cheers him up (by taking him to a TGI Fridays of all places) and the two become best friends. No comment on being the best friend of a primate, please.

Of course Griffin must eventually make  a choice between Stephanie and a life as a successful car salesman and Kate and a life as a humble zookeeper. I’m sure you’ll be able to guess which way the wind blows on this one.

The movie got critically panned during its release last year and it made a few “Worst film of the year” lists which I think is a bit harsh. Certainly there are some misfires here.

Casting James isn’t one of them. He is one of the most likable actors working in Hollywood and it’s hard not to root for him, even if his romantic leads of Bibb and Dawson don’t seem to be the types who would fall for pudgy older men. Of course, as a pudgy older man I have some experience in this.

The problem here is mostly with the zoo animals. They were matched with celebrity stunt voice casting which might have pulled a few bodies into the theater at the time but the CG was a little bit rough and the voices don’t always go with the animals really well.

Worse still, I get the sense that this was a movie that wanted to pull in an adult audience but the studio was aiming for a family audience and we got jokes that fell somewhere in-between. Some of the jokes were probably a bit much for kids, and others a bit dumbed down for their parents. Try to please everybody and you wind up pleasing nobody, and that statement is never truer than it is here.

There is some heart and charm and it shows through at unexpected times. Dawson does a great job as being the girlfriend everyone wants to have – just like in Clerks 2. She reminds me a little bit of Meg Ryan in that regard; she has a big future in romantic comedies in my opinion. Kevin James is also pleasant to watch.

And that really sums up the movie in a nutshell. It’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. You won’t hate it while you’re watching it but you won’t love it either. It’s just kinda…there. Your kids might get a kick out of the talking animals but something tells me that it won’t be enough for them to put it on their regular viewing list.

WHY RENT THIS: James is plenty likable and Dawson is the girlfriend every guy wants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animals don’t quite work out so well and the humor is mostly either too over the heads of kids or too dumbed down for adults.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor, a little bit of innuendo and some mildly bad words. Still acceptable for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and an in-depth look at the creation of Bernie the Gorilla in physical effects. The Blu-Ray also contains a playable demo for a Sony Playstation 3 Game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $169.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie basically made back its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super

Greenberg


Greenberg

Greta Gerwig is surprised that Ben Stiller knows his way to the kitchen.

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Susan Traylor, Merritt Wever, Blair Tefkin, Mina Badie, Mark Duplass, Juno Temple, Dave Franco, Max Hoffman. Directed by Noah Baumbach

There are those among us who are just harder to get along with than others. They, for whatever reason, seem bound and determined to alienate everyone around them, pushing them away with the firm hand of someone who has no intention of letting anyone near, but terrified that they will spend their lives alone.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) is like that. After a stint in a mental hospital, he has returned to his old L.A. stomping grounds (he used to be in a band) to housesit for his successful older brother (Messina) who is opening a new hotel in Vietnam.

His job is to care for the dog and the home while the family is gone. His brother’s assistant Florence (Gerwig) is left to hold the bag and inevitably become Greenberg’s assistant, not by choice but by necessity. Greenberg is prickly and socially awkward. He lashes out the people around him, writing letters to express his deep disappointment to various institutions and corporations. He holds people to standards he himself refuses to meet.

He hooks up with old friend Ivan (Ifans), a former member of his band and has trouble understanding why Ivan and the other bandmates were hurt by his actions, abandoning them just as it seemed they were about to achieve success, moving to New York City to become a carpenter. In the meantime, he is building a doghouse for his brother and entering a tentative, somewhat strange relationship with Florence. It is borderline abusive – Greenberg is often cruel in his remarks, sometimes purposefully so. He does things often without thinking. In short, he’s not a very nice guy. He himself doesn’t realize it – in many ways, he is the least self-aware character you will find in the movies.

Baumbach is one of the most interesting indie directors out there, with such movies as The Squid and the Whale in his credits. He has a flair for taking an unlikable character, as Greenberg is, and making them front and center and without resorting to cutesy Hollywood clichés gives the audience a way to if not relate to them at least understand them somewhat.

Stiller does perhaps the best work of his career as Roger Greenberg. Stiller’s work in comedies often puts him in the persona of a poor man’s Seinfeld – handsome, charming and quirky – but here he really comes into his own. A role like this is a bit of a chance – stars often feel the need to protect their persona as zealously as they trademark their images – but this certainly is a far cry from Stiller’s usual roles.

Gerwig has gotten a lot of positive reviews for her performance and that’s no accident; she has a very different role to tread, portraying a vulnerable and sweet girl without getting too cloying. Florence is one of those kinds of girls who you run into in bookstores from time to time, who flash that sweet but self-conscious smile for a millisecond that lights up an entire room like a flashbulb, then reverts to that mysterious half-smile that girls seem to learn from birth to bewitch guys. Her character has a shy, un-self-confident air about her and its rather sweet, but again, not cloyingly so.

Ifans is also charming, playing a bit of a sad sack, long-suffering friend who puts up with the slings and arrows Greenberg sends his way until he finally can take no more. He has a scene near the end where he has it out with Greenberg that is one of the movie’s highlights. It’s a tribute to him as an actor that you rarely notice how good he is in his role, until you think about it afterwards and realize that he was as good if not better than anyone else in it.

This is the kind of movie that defies conventions and typical Hollywood stereotypes. It’s not an easy move to watch at times – Greenberg can be an absolute rotten bastard. However, it is rewarding in that you find perhaps parts of yourself that up to now have not held up to self-examination. There’s a little bit of Greenberg in all of us; just hopefully, not a lot of him.

WHY RENT THIS: Exceedingly well-acted character study that is as fascinating as it is at times repellent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Roger Greenberg isn’t the most likable protagonist ever; you may find yourself rooting for him to get his just deserts.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was composed and arranged by James Murphy of the electronic band LCD Soundsystem.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last King of Scotland

Everybody Wants to Be Italian


Everybody Wants to Be Italian

If you'd had five cups of coffee out of this cup, your eyes would be as wide as saucers too.

(Roadside Attractions) Jay Jablonski, Cerina Vincent, John Kapelos, John Enos III, Dan Cortese, Richard Libertini, Penny Marshall, Marisa Petroro. Directed by Jason Todd Ipson

I will admit to having a more than passing affection for Italian culture. Not only do I love the cuisine (hey, I make a wicked lasagna), but I love the sense of family and belonging that is part and parcel of being Italian. Like most non-Italians, I have a bit of an inferiority complex.

Jake Bianski (Jablonski) is not Italian. He’s Polish as a matter of fact, but he owns an Italian fish market with Italian co-workers; Papa Tempesti (Libertini), the patriarch, Gianluca Tempesti (Enos), the ladies man, and Steve Bottino (Kapelos), the amateur psychologist. Jake is single but has a thing about Isabella (Petroro), the girl he broke up with eight years before. Even though she’s married and has three kids, Jake is positive he’s meant to be with her.

Of course, his buddies have all sorts of advice for him, being the caring sorts that they are. Also being busybodies, they set Jake up at a singles club for Italians, even though he’s not Italian. There he meets Marisa Costa (Vincent), a veterinarian who is also not Italian. Both of them claim they’re Italian just to justify their presence at the dance; they wind up going on a date. At the date, stupid Jake can do nothing else but talk about Isabella. Of course, Marisa figures that the two of them are still an item.

Thus they set out to be just friends, and as it turns out, they become good friends. They’re both good people and they have a lot in common. By the time Jake figures out that he wants more than friendship with Marisa, Isabella gets back in the picture.

This is Ipson’s second feature and it’s not bad, not really. Sure, it has loads of romantic comedy clichés and certainly the humor is uneven but there is a kind of offbeat Italian charm to it that kept my interest. There is a surfeit of Quirky Indie Characters to keep the filmmakers indie cred, but I can live with that.

The main leads – Jablonski and Vincent – have enough charisma and chemistry to keep the rooting interest alive. One of the big problems with romantic comedies is that often the leads are cast either because of their notoriety or because of their look. Here, it appears that Ipson tried to put two actors together who worked well together, and their relationship becomes believable; thus as the film progresses you want them to be together.

Does this pander to Italian stereotypes? The answer is yes to a large degree, but it’s never in an offensive way. These aren’t goombahs (at least to my way of thinking) but the kind of Italian you’d find in South Boston; abrasive but with a heart of gold. Nobody shoots anybody and to be honest, I loved spending time with these people, even the non-Italians.

Because the script doesn’t really go too far beyond what I would consider the standard romantic comedy fare, I had to give this a lower ranking than I might have ordinarily. I would have liked the filmmakers to go beyond the stereotypical romantic comedy situations and maybe used their ethnic choices more to their advantage. That worked wonders for Moonstruck. As it is, this isn’t My Big Fat Greek Wedding so much as it is My Big Dumb Italian Courtship. And, as we all know, the Italians are far more expert at love than the protagonists here. Don’t believe me? Get thee to Venice unbeliever!

WHY RENT THIS: There is a good deal of offbeat charm to the movie.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor quotient is a bit uneven and the romantic clichés fall a bit thick and fast.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a good deal of sex talk, making this a little bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cerina Vincent went from playing the Yellow Power Ranger on television to becoming a scream queen in movies like Cabin Fever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The audition tapes for some of the lead actors are there for the perusing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Changeling