Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

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Hitchcock


Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Kai Lennox, Tara Summers, Wallace Langham, Paul Schrackman, Currie Graham, Melinda Chilton, Mary Anne McGarry. Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most decorated and respected directors in the history of movies. We are familiar with him as a man mainly through his television show and his dry sense of humor, his cameo appearances in his own movies such as Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train. Few know that as he finished another triumph, North by Northwest, he was aching to redefine himself. He managed to do that with a little movie called Psycho.

Hitchcock (Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) are reveling in the acclaim for his latest picture. Like the wives of many great men, Alma contributes a great deal to his success although she has been content to remain out of the limelight. However, Hitch’s colossal ego and womanizing has frayed her patience to the breaking point. She assumes he will take on another suspense film for which he has become justly famous.

However, her husband yearns to stretch his wings somewhat which doesn’t bother you – when she discovers that his next project will be based on the Robert Bloch novel Psycho she is horrified. The movie is about a serial killer (who is in turn based on Ed Gein (Wincott) who has been haunting Hitch’s dreams of late) which in that era was unheard of. Until then, movies took the point of view of those who chased killers, not of the killers themselves and particularly not those who were clearly insane.

But as usual, Hitchcock gets his way. However, the studio shares Alma’s concerns. Hitchcock is forced to finance the film himself with Paramount acting only as a distributor. He sets out to assemble the cast which will include Anthony Hopkins (D’Arcy), Janet Leigh (Johansson) and Vera Miles (Biel). The latter Hitchcock had worked with before – until she had dropped out of the production due to her pregnancy, incurring the wrath of the director and he didn’t mean to let her forget it.

Because Hitch is paying for this, things are done on the cheap. Black and white film stock in an era of color. Filming on the Universal lot rather than Paramount’s because studio space is cheaper there. First-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Macchio).

But while something amazing is taking shape onscreen, things are in chaos at home. Alma is not just feeling taken for granted, she’s feeling downright ignored. Her contributions, normally appreciated and vital, are being virtually unheard. She is feeling somewhat obsolete, particularly as Hitch pays more attention to Leigh. Alma begins to develop a relationship with budding screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Huston) which drives Hitch crazy with jealousy. Still, as the film comes towards completion, will the movie vindicate the director’s vision – and will it be enough to save his marriage?

History shows that it did and Hitch remained married to Alma until his death in 1980. Psycho remains to this day the most profitable black and white sound film ever and in some ways is the film most identified with Hitchcock. As I mentioned in my review (see link above) this is the movie that ushered in the modern horror genre in many ways with the serial killer POV, the death at an early stage of the film of a lead character, excessive violence (although it seems tame today) and the psychosexual aspects of murder.

But this is a film about that film so we must talk about Hopkins as Hitchcock. Hopkins is one of the ablest actors of our time, having mastered characters both villainous and kind. He assays the character of Hitchcock with the use of a fat suit (Hopkins had just completed a weight loss program and was loathe to gain a significant amount of weight to take on the part of the portly Hitchcock) and an uncanny mimicry of the director’s mannerisms. Does he capture the essence of Hitchcock? I think so, insofar as we know what the essence of Hitchcock is.

There’s the rub, in fact. No disrespect to Hopkins, Hitchcock was and remains an enigma in many ways. He was a very public figure but we never really got to know the man. Sure, there are lots of biographies that talk about his obsession with his leading ladies (that were nearly always blondes), his difficult relationship with his mother, his tyrannical style as a director, his flirtatious nature which most people today would say bordered on sexual harassment. However there is precious little information direct from the source – Hitchcock disliked talking about himself except in very broad terms. Most of the more intensely personal information that Hitchcock ever revealed was in an interview by French director Francois Truffaut years later. Hopkins gives a game try but he’s hampered from the get-go.

Mirren is a different matter. She has as much onscreen personality as any actress alive, perhaps the most of any. She’s like a hurricane bearing down on a peaceful fishing village and as Alma nags Hitch about his weight and drinking, expresses her opinions about the risks he’s taking with their savings and his career or quietly standing off to the side in his shadow, Mirren makes us understand that she was a formidable woman indeed and every part as necessary to Hitchcock’s success as the director himself.

We see a bit of the filming of the movie – oddly the iconic shower scene gets very little time here – but then again this isn’t really a nuts and bolts primer about the making of a movie. It’s about how movies get made and in particular this one, which followed a somewhat torturous path to completion. Film buffs will probably be curious to see this but might be disappointed. For one thing, it misses out on some interesting aspects, like Hitchcock submitting an anonymous bid to Bloch for the rights so he could low-ball the author. For another, it does fudge on history although one of the items that critics have been disparaging the most – Alma’s relationship with Cook – is actually true, verified by correspondence between the two.

I found the movie to be an entertainment more than a historical document. As the former, this is a winner. Although I never believed for a moment I was watching the Master of Suspense at work, I felt like I was watching how he might have worked and I am satisfied I got some insight into his creative process. However, as the latter, I don’t think this stands up nor do I think it was meant to. There is enough here to be informative as to how the movie came together and we see some aspects of Hitchcock but again I don’t think we get a very complete portrait of the man. Then again, an hour and a half is really an insufficient amount of time to really get a complete picture of anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the creative process behind one of the most iconic films ever made. Mirren is a force of nature. Of interest to film buffs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t give a lot of insight to Hitchcock the man. Fudges a little bit on history.
FAMILY VALUES: Some cinematic images of violence, a bit of sexuality and some language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in Hitchcock’s office on the Paramount lot were filmed in the late director’s actual offices, which are still there.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an amusing cell phone PSA.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shadow of the Vampire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Darling Companion

Transcendence


Johnny Depp's salary for the film is displayed behind him.

Johnny Depp’s salary for the film is displayed behind him.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Clifton Collins Jr., Cory Hardrict, Falk Hentschel, Josh Stewart, Luce Rains, Fernando Chien, Steven Liu, Xander Berkeley, Lukas Haas, Wallace Langham, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Olivia Dudley. Directed by Wally Pfister

Our attitudes towards technology tend to be split down the middle. On the one hand, we appreciate the wonders of it and become addicted to our laptops, our cell phones, our microwaves and our GPS devices. We eagerly speculate as to what amazing discoveries will be a part of our daily lives ten or twenty years down the line,

On the other hand, technology terrifies us. We tremble at the thought of atomic bombs, killer drones and artificial intelligence deciding that humanity is superfluous and wiping us all out like Skynet and Judgment Day. It isn’t hard to imagine our own hubris creating the seeds of our extinction.

Will Caster (Depp) is one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence. He and his wife and lab partner Evelyn (Hall) are on the verge of a major breakthrough, creating a machine that  will not only think analytically but feel emotions, thus having more brainpower than the combined intelligence of every human that ever lived. Scary stuff.

A little too scary for some. A group of what I guess you’d call technoterrorists – a group of angry young people out to stop technology from taking over our lives at all costs – launch a coordinated attack on artificial intelligence labs all over the country. Decades of research is wiped out in the space of hours and the possibility that the scientists will never reach their goal looms large. Worse still, Will was shot – well, grazed – but the bullet that grazed him was coated with a radioactive isotope that will kill him in a matter of weeks. You can’t say these terrorists didn’t learn well from the KGB.

Evelyn kind of loses it. She wants to save her husband but knows his body is doomed. After reading some research from a scientist who was killed in the attack, she realizes that consciousness can be uploaded into a computer – he had done it with a rhesus monkey. With no other option, she determines to follow this course. She needs help and recruits Max (Bettany), a fellow scientist and close friend to both Will and herself.

Because this untested research would never be sanctioned in any reputable lab, particularly with FBI Agent Buchanan (Murphy) keeping a close eye on things. Their mentor, Dr. Tagger (Freeman) is unlikely to be supportive either. As Will’s body deteriorates, the attempt is made. Eventually, Will’s body dies. Did his soul?

At first, it seems the effort went to naught but a single line of text – Is Anybody There? – tells them that their experiment was a success. In fact, better than; Evelyn is convinced that everything that was the essence of what Will Caster was lives on in this machine. In a sense, she has become a modern Frankenstein.

But is this really Will? When circumstances force her to upload Will to the Internet, things begin to take a sideways step. Will manipulates bank accounts and stock, allowing Evelyn to create a kind of data fortress in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. Will has started making breakthroughs in cell regeneration, allowing those who are infirm to be healed. However, the down side is that Will’s source code is also uploaded into these recipients of his generosity, making them in essence worker bees with greatly enhanced strength and speed.

Evelyn watches this with horror despite the apparently benign intentions of the new Will machine. However, if he is making fundamental changes to the DNA of the people of this town, will he use this ability to control them? And if so, will there be any true humans left?

Depp has had a string of missteps on the big screen lately and this one, according to the box office figures, isn’t going to break that string although in terms of quality it is certainly an improvement over his last couple of films. This is intelligent sci-fi, raising questions about our increasing reliance on technology as well as how much we’re willing to give up for comfort and safety. These aren’t easy questions to answer nor do the filmmakers make much of an attempt to give you any.

This is one of Depp’s most low-key performances in ages. Caster talks in a kind of monotone, probably because he’s so busy thinking. We rarely see any emotion out of Depp and therein lies the problem; Caster is already robotic by the time he becomes a machine. The change isn’t terribly noticeable. Hall, with a Cambridge education, seems overly hysterical here in playing a rational scientist although if I’d seen the love of my life waste away after being shot by terrorists, I might be a bit hysterical too.

Only Bettany acquits himself nicely here, although Murphy and Freeman are solid in small roles. The acting here doesn’t really stand out but the special effects and set design do. There is a sleek futuristic look to the Caster compound and the digital effects, while not breakthroughs, are at least wow-inducing for the most part.

I do like the concept although the film isn’t always true to its inner logic and at the end of the day, falls just shy of being a much better film than just merely entertaining. There is a lot to digest here and while it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey it is at least better than some of the more visceral sci-fi entries of recent years.

REASONS TO GO: Great effects. Nice concept. Keeps you guessing.

REASONS TO STAY: Misses the mark. Occasional overuse of technobabble.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and violence (some of it bloody), a bit of sensuality and occasional foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pfister’s debut as a director. Previously he has been a renowned cinematographer working for such directors as Christopher Nolan and Kevin MacDonald.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lawnmower Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Heaven is For Real

Draft Day


Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

Jennifer Garner looks on as Kevin Costner practices his bemused expression.

(2014) Sports Drama (Summit) Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Frank Langella, Denis Leary, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Ellen Burstyn, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Chi McBride, Griffin Newman, Josh Pence, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott, Wallace Langham, Kevin Dunn, Rosanna Arquette, Jim Brown, Patrick St. Esprit, Margot Danis, Jennifer McMahan. Directed by Ivan Reitman

Football isn’t just a sport in the United States; it’s virtually a religion. Fans hang on every little bit of minutiae, from coaching strategies to fantasy leagues to postgame analysis. The NFL Draft has become something of a spectacle in its own right.

Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns who are coming off a disappointing season with a suspect quarterback (Welling) and a new Coach (Leary) hired away from the Dallas Cowboys, has a lot on his mind on the new Draft day. His boss, Browns owner Anthony Molina (Langella), is disturbed by the diminishing returns of his football club and needs Weaver to make a splash at this year’s draft – or else. His girlfriend Ali (Garner) who also happens to be his salary cap specialist, announces that she’s pregnant. His dad, a former Browns coach who Sonny himself had to fire, passed away a week earlier.

He’s been vacillating between two choices in the number seven position; linebacker Vontae Mack (Boseman) from Ohio State who really wants to be a Brown and has the advantage of being a star on the local college team, and running back Ray Jennings (Foster) who is the son of Earl Jennings (Crews), a Cleveland Browns legend. Jennings the younger has the disadvantage of having a recent arrest on his resume.

Then the Seattle Seahawks come calling and they’re interested in dealing. They have the number one pick in the draft overall and there is a can’t-miss quarterback, Bo Callahan (Pence) from the University of Wisconsin up for grabs. If the Browns are willing to give them their next three first round picks, they can get themselves a quarterback being touted as a legitimate franchise player. Knowing that this is the kind of move that can save his job, Weaver pulls the trigger. This pleases his boss but not his coach who has an innate suspicion of rookie quarterbacks, nor his current quarterback who has worked hard since his injury to get into the best shape of his life.

Something about the deal doesn’t feel quite right to Sonny. Why would Seattle want to pass on a sure thing? Unless there’s something that gave them cold feet…and nobody has found anything about Callahan that doesn’t look like he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer. Sonny needs to find out what’s what and maybe do some wheeling and dealing and in the meantime the clock is ticking as the Draft approaches.

The movie was made with the blessing and full co-operation of the NFL with commissioner Roger Goodell making a cameo as himself and the real team names and logos used, not to mention cameos by ESPN analysts and sportscasters. That’s meant to give the film a sheen of legitimacy and it’s quite effective.

Costner’s career resurrection continues as he utilizes his laidback personality and bemused smile to good effect. He’s perfect for this kind of role; canny, a little bit flustered, good-hearted and trying to do the right thing. In years past Costner would have played the athlete so this is a very natural move for him.

Leary, a stand-up comic who has done a lot of dramatic roles on the small screen, does really well here as the arrogant ex-Cowboys coach, constantly flashing his championship ring to remind people that he’s a winner. His back and forth with Costner is among the movie’s high points.

The problem here is that there is too much going on. I could have done with less soap opera and more expose of how things really work in an NFL club’s front office. I suspect a lot of football fans will agree with me on that point. While the plot ends up fairly predictable, I did appreciate the idea of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the screens. Also a note to Reitman – overuse of graphics and fancy camera dissolves can get pretty distracting. Otherwise this is solid and entertaining spring fare guaranteed to make football fans long for the fall.

REASONS TO GO: Costner is solid as ever and has some terrific scenes with Leary.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Graphics get to be somewhat intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunny Weaver Jr. was originally meant to be the GM of the Buffalo Bills but the team was changed when the producers found that it would be much cheaper to film in Ohio.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Major League

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Joe

Ruby Sparks


Zoe Kazan has just punk'd Paul Dano.

Zoe Kazan has just punk’d Paul Dano.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Elliott Gould, Steve Coogan, Chris Messina, Deborah Ann Woll, Aasif Mandvi, Toni Trucks, Jane Ann Thomas, Alia Shawkat, Wallace Langham, Emma Julia Jacobs. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 Cinema of the Heart

The problem with love is that we can’t have the perfect mate. That’s because we ourselves are imperfect and besides, how boring would it be if the person we were with was perfect? There’d never be any growth…ever. It would always be exactly the same. What would you do with perfection?

Calvin (Dano) isn’t really worried much about perfection. He is worried that he might have already peaked in life. He wrote a wildly successful, award-winning novel when barely out of high school. That was ten years ago and he hasn’t written a word since. His brother Harry (Messina) is supportive as his agent (Coogan) who surely must be the most tolerant agent in history. Calvin still does the occasional reading and still carries enough cache to get numbers slipped his way but he is in a funk that has finally compelled him to see a shrink (Gould) who tells him to write about the perfect girlfriend.

This works wonders. Calvin starts writing in a feverish pitch about the most wonderful girlfriend ever. She makes all other girls look like harpies by comparison. Calvin can’t stop writing about her…until she shows up in his house, just as real as you or I.

At first, Calvin thinks he’s blown a fuse. Then he realizes that everyone can see her, and that she is in fact real. Calvin freaks out quite naturally while Ruby (Kazan) wonders why he’ s acting so strangely. However it turns out that when Calvin writes about her, whatever he writes happens; if he writes she speaks French fluently, she starts conversing in perfect French. If he writes that she’s doing naked jumping jacks…well, you get the idea.

The relationship turns toxic though. Calvin turns into a right little shit about it and starts abusing his power over poor Ruby who although compelled to do as he writes is still an autonomous thinker in all other ways. Can a man mess up the perfect situation?

Of course he can. That’s the nature of men after all. Dayton and Faris, the team that brought us Little Miss Sunshine, have this as their follow-up and while it doesn’t measure up to their last movie in terms of sheer quality and laughs, proves that it at least wasn’t a fluke either.

Dano is at once both the perfect choice and the wrong choice for Calvin. He’s perfect in that he captures Calvin’s indecisive nature and his kind of general “wandering through life” vibe. He is the wrong choice however in that the very things that make him perfect make it difficult for an audience to connect with the lead character. Is that a fault of the actor? I dunno. I think that a lot of indie comedies have aspired to a Jon Heder-like character in every comedy which perhaps is an unconscious attempt to duplicate the success of Napoleon Dynamite which is the kind of studio douchebaggery the indie scene is supposed to be against.

The movie has a kind of a sweet core though which is nothing to sneeze at, and Kazan does make for the world’s best girlfriend, which isn’t surprising since she co-wrote the movie. While the ostensible protagonist is Calvin, it is Ruby that you’ll remember from the film and Kazan’s portrayal of her. She has the same kind of screen attractiveness that another Zoe (well, Zoey – Deschanel) possesses and may well have the same kind of successful career that she has.

I like the premise a lot but thought the execution of it was uninspiring. Calvin’s decline from nice nebbish to real jackhole is a bit jarring and doesn’t serve the story well. I kept wondering what the point was that the writer were trying to make – that all men are manipulative jerks, or that perfection is something we can’t handle, or that we’re never satisfied with what we make up in our heads – I don’t really get it. But then again that might be part of the master plan, to leave you trying to figure it out which isn’t a bad thing. It’s still a really good movie despite my criticisms of it and I really do recommend it whole-heartedly but I’m still scratching my head a bit.

WHY RENT THIS: Kazan makes a great perfect girlfriend. Intriguing premise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. Dano a bit too laid back.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of bad language and a little drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the time of filming, not only were Dayton and Faris a couple but so were Dano and Kazan.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a real interesting but brief featurette on real life couples involved in the making of the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget; I think that the movie was profitable in all likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Than Fiction

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Conclusion of Cinema of the Heart 2013

Little Miss Sunshine


Little Miss Sunshine

The Hoover family weathers yet another catastrophe but they suck it up in the end.

(2006) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Wallace Langham, Lauren Shiohama, Matt Winston. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Some families seem to live charmed lives, while others seem to live under a cloud. Thus it is with the Hoovers, a middle class family living in suburban New Mexico that on the surface seem pretty normal – a supportive mom, a self-employed dad, an irascible grandpa and two kids. However, beneath the surface, there is nothing normal about any of them. 

Into this mix comes Uncle Steve (Carrell), the brother of mom Sheryl (Collette). He has just been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt. At the dinner table, he tries to explain why he tried to kill himself. It wasn’t because of the failed love affair with a grad student – a male grad student to the bemusement of grandpa – or the loss of his job after a meltdown, or the fact that his ex-lover has taken up with his rival, the second best Proust scholar in America. It’s just that his grant has been yanked and given instead to his ex’s new beau.

Everybody is kind of living in their own little world. Grandpa (Arkin) has been kicked out of the retirement community he loved being in because of his excessive drug use, and I’m not talking about the kind prescribed for his colon problems. Teenaged Dwayne (Dano) dreams of going to flight school and flying fighter planes for the Air Force, and has taken a vow of silence until he achieves that dream. Little Olive (Breslin) wants only to be the next Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant winner.

Sheryl is trying to hold everything together, but it isn’t easy. Money is tight, especially since her husband Richard (Kinnear) has quit his job in an attempt to sell a self-help system he came up with called “The Nine Steps.” However, there is light at the end of the tunnel – his agent Stan Grossman (Cranston) is going to a self-help convention in Scottsdale, Arizona and is supremely confident he’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. Richard is nervously…ok, agonizingly, awaiting the phone call that the deal is done.

Things change when a different kind of phone call arrives. The little girl who won the regional pageant that Olive was runner-up in has been disqualified and Olive can now go to the finals in Redondo Beach, California. She goes absolutely nuts with joy. Flying her there is out of the question – the family can’t afford it. Sheryl can’t drive her all the way there, since they won’t all fit in Sheryl’s car and the VW microbus is a stick shift and Sheryl only drives an automatic. There is no question of leaving Steve by himself, since he is still technically on suicide watch. That means everybody goes, even though Dwayne would rather be eaten alive by army ants.

They set off into the land of the surreal; driving along the southwestern highways that lead from Albuquerque to L.A. Along the way, every disaster you can possibly think of befalls the family, from financial to mechanical to personal. As the journey continues, each member of the family will have to face their own personal crisis and eventually, all of them will have to come together to support little Olive in her dream, despite enormous obstacles.

This is quite plainly the funniest movie I saw that year by far. I was laughing out loud throughout the movie, and during the climactic scene, nearly nonstop. I was laughing so hard Da Queen was beginning to wonder what species had accompanied her to the theater; judging from the hooting sounds I was making, it sure wasn’t Homo sapiens

Unlike a lot of modern comedies, this is a movie that doesn’t rely on one cast member to carry the jokes. In fact, it’s fair to say that nobody in the movie is overtly comedic. This is a comedy of situation and of character. Yeah, there are some good one-liners, but for the most part, this is a bunch of more-or-less ordinary people just trying to get by as their situation spirals out of control. They are riding in a microbus that sabotages them at every turn (they must push the bus to start it and then run like track stars to leap into the side door, and this bus also has the most persistent horn in the world – it emits the noise that you would expect of a wounded or dying roadrunner). 

A lot of people will go to see this because Steve Carrell is in it, but he isn’t the star of the movie. This is most definitely an ensemble piece and everyone continues pretty much equally. Kinnear generally appears in roles as affable but backbone-challenged guys, and he gently spoofs his own image here, a kind of nudge-and-wink job that doesn’t get in the way of the movie but adds to it. Carrell plays it very low-key, keeping the wackiness pretty much to everyone else. He isn’t the straight man per se, but the closest thing to it in this movie. Youngster Paul Dano has the toughest row to hoe, having to be completely without dialogue most of the movie, but he does a great job at getting across teen angst without saying a word.

Still, I loved Toni Collette in this. She plays a supportive mom who has to deal with a chaotic situation nearly non-stop and she loses it in a couple of places but in a manner that is not so over-the-top and perfectly believable. I think that’s really the key as to why this movie works so well – everyone in it is so believable, even the bitchy pageant official (Grant). Nobody sinks to caricature in this. Even Breslin as Olive is not annoying in the least.

As with all good comedies, there are moments of pathos and revelation. In the end, what keeps the Hoover family going is that they are a family and they lean on each other, dysfunctional as they are. There is a tender moment during the movie where Dwayne is completely shattered, sitting in a field and utterly lost. He doesn’t want to go on anymore. Little Olive just walks out to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. A simple moment between a little sister and her big brother that doesn’t feel forced or manipulative at all; it’s a completely natural little gesture of comfort that works because that’s what brothers and sisters do.

Dayton and Faris come from a music video background; this is only their second feature and the first to really make any impact. They took a tightly written script (by Michael Arndt) and delivered it without hamstringing it with cliché. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff; it’s simply a seriously funny movie that will be the kind of movie you’ll be able to watch a lot of times without it losing its freshness, and that’s a very difficult and rare achievement for a comedy.

WHY RENT IT: Laugh-out-loud funny throughout that isn’t dominated by one chracter or actor; the actors are believable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those looking for a Steve Carrell movie will be disappointed; he is as restrained as he ever has been in a movie and is simply a cog in the machine here.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bad language, a little sex and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Abigail Breslin wore a fat suit during filming to make Olive look a little chubbier than she actually is.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a music video by DeVotchKa as well as four different alternate endings.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.5m on an $8M production budget: the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Illusionist

The Great Buck Howard


The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Skyline