Wish I Was Here


The kids both know who farted.

The kids both know who farted.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Alexander Chaplin, Allan Rich, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston, Cody Sullivan, Donald Faison, Bruce Nozick, Matt Winston, Taylor Bagley, Jennifer Terry, Jackie Johnson, Bob Clendenin, Silvia Curiel, Nicole Galicia, Kevin Ho, Ross Ingram, Meli Alexander. Directed by Zach Braff

Growing up is a messy business. As we ride the crest of the wave that washes us from 20-somethings into 30-somethings, our lives have taken on a different cast. No longer are we carefree, without much responsibility. For most of us, that it the time of life where we find life partners, get married, have kids. Our focus changes from following our own dreams to becoming responsible for the dreams of our kids and sharing dreams with our spouses. It can be a scary, soul-churning thing.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is in that spot. An aspiring actor whose aspirations have not yet been rewarded with actual success, his two kids Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King) attend a Jewish private school run by their local synagogue. Given the uncertain nature of his profession, normally he could never afford that kind of schooling for his kids but his dad Gabe (Patinkin) pays for their tuition. His wife Sarah (Hudson) works in a crappy cubicle job opposite a man (Weston) whose inappropriate behavior forces her to go to her superior (Winston) who basically tells her to suck it up. She hates her job – although given the wariness that most businesses have for anything that would leave them potentially vulnerable to a sexual harassment lawsuit, the way her boss reacts doesn’t ring true.

However, Aidan is forced to make some changes when his dad announces that he can no longer pay for the kids’ schooling. Gabe’s cancer which had been in remission had returned with a vengeance and the only thing that might save Gabe’s life is an expensive experimental treatment that isn’t covered by insurance. Aidan and Sarah decide that the only alternative is for Aidan to home school the kids.

At first that looks on the surface like an utter disaster. Aidan isn’t the most reliable and responsible of men although his brother Noah (Gad), a disappointment to his dad from whom he had been estranged for some time, makes Aidan look rock solid by comparison. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the rest of his life – Aidan uses the opportunity to experience life with his kids, reconnecting with them in a meaningful way. In many ways, Aidan has grown beyond his father in ways neither man could ever expect.

 

Eight years ago, Braff – then the star of the hit sitcom Scrubs – directed Garden State which was essentially the state of the union for Zach at 20-something. This in many ways fulfills the same function for him at this point in his life. Not that Aidan is Zach or vice versa, but one gets the feeling that many of the challenges that face Aidan aren’t unknown to Mr. Braff in real life; the dilemma of pitting one’s dreams against the realities of responsibility and life. Of how to put your kids ahead of yourself when it wasn’t long ago that you were a kid too. It is a time of life when the tomorrow you were putting things off for has finally arrived.

In many ways this is a very Jewish movie and this may resonate more with those of that faith than with others. However it must be said that Grace’s struggle to integrate her very strong faith with a more modern lifestyle is something plenty of young people of all faiths are grappling with and that particular subtext is done with a good deal of sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment. Sometimes Hollywood tends to take sides in that particular struggle.

Hudson, playing the patient wife Sarah, is at her most lustrous best. She has certainly become her own actress, separate from her mother over the years and this may well be her best role ever. Sarah has a heart of gold but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have regrets or frustrations. She hates her job but she endures it for the sake of her husband and her children. She never pushes him to give up on his dreams of being an actor but you get the sense that she isn’t far from her limits on that score. She has a scene with Patinkin – call it the matriarch scene – that is absolutely terrific.

 

Speaking of Patinkin, he is as low-key as ever and plays the role of a dad who is certain he is right about most things, including how to relate to his sons. He doesn’t realize how alienated his eldest son is, or how deeply his actions hurt him. Gad plays that son with a certain amount of humor and a goodly amount of pathos. Braff’s former Scrubs mate Faison makes a memorable appearance as a used car salesman.

The movie bogs down in cuteness upon occasion. Aidan and his brother had played as children, pretending they were heroes of fantasy who were the only ones who could save the world and this feeling that he needs to be the savior is played out in Aidan’s head as a kind of space knight, followed by a cutesy 70s-style robotic orb and opposed by a dark, menacing cloaked figure whose identity is eventually revealed. These tend to be distractions that appear to be there to sate the Comic Con geeks (a scene was filmed there) and at the very least are unnecessary. The children, who most of the time are played fairly realistically, sometimes descend into forcing their quirks as opposed to making their characters real. It’s a mistake many young actors make but it can be annoying nonetheless.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that this is a deeply heartfelt project for Braff and I applaud him for getting it made in his own way rather than having a studio finance it and exert control in an effort to make the movie more marketable. Some have criticized Braff for going the Kickstarter route, questioning whether it was a good thing to fork over cash to a millionaire because he asked for it but I think that this kind of controversy is all Internet bovine crap. At the end of the day, Braff got the film made the best way he knew how and who really gives a rats tush how it gets financed as long as the film is of good quality?

In fact, this is a good quality film although the critics have been surprisingly ambivalent towards it. I think there is a good deal of insight to be had here if you don’t get hung up on the character’s hang-ups – Aidan and his dad are both fairly neurotic and there are some moments that you wonder if you can really get invested in either one of them, but at the end of the day if you are willing to hang in there you may find yourself really liking this, perhaps more than you anticipated.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure it should be said that my son Jacob was one of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign.

 

REASONS TO GO: Some tender and touching moments. Hudson has never been better.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the issues with faith may not necessarily resonate with everyone.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language (but not a ton) and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Braff was inspired by the success Veronica Mars had with their Kickstarter campaign; ultimately over 46 thousand donors raised over $2 million, some of which were given “thank you” shout outs in the end credits.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Greenberg

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: A Most Wanted Man

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New Releases for the Week of July 18, 2014


The Purge: AnarchyTHE PURGE: ANARCHY

(Universal) Frank Grillo, Michael K. Williams, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Keith Stanfield, Edwin Hodge. Directed by James DeMonaco

Has it been a year already? Oh, right, it’s time for the annual purge, a single night where the New Founding Fathers allow the people of the United States to run wild in the streets, where all crime is legal including murder and sensible people lock themselves in their fortress-like homes in order to survive the night. Not that it will help you if you aren’t wealthy enough to afford the very best protection, or if your car breaks down on the way home…or if you have some purging of your own to do. Happy purging, people.

 

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for strong disturbing violence, and language)

Aftermath

(Image) Edward Furlong, Monica Keena, William Baldwin, Andre Royo. Nine survivors of a nuclear holocaust as World War III rages gather at a farmhouse in rural Texas to await their fate. Radiation sickness, hunger, desperate refugees and their own bickering threaten to do them all in.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: NR

Le Chef

(Cohen Media Group) Jean Reno, Michael Youn, Raphaelle Agogue, Julien Boisselier. A great French chef who has become a brand name in France has found inspiration lacking as of late. The capital partner who essentially owns his restaurants is threatening to install a new chef in his own restaurant. Salvation may come in the form of a mule-headed, opinionated young chef who is brilliant and creative but impossible to get along with. A favorite at this year’s Florida Film Festival, you can read my review of the movie here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Planes: Fire and Rescue

(Disney) Starring the voices of Dane Cook, Julie Bowen, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook. After a damaged engine puts Dusty Crophopper’s racing career in jeopardy, he decides to put his talents to good use. He joins the aerial firefighting unit guarding historic Piston Peak National Park. However, he soon finds that it isn’t all that he imagined it would be.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for action and some peril)

Sex Tape

(Columbia) Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Rob Corddry, Rob Lowe. A couple whose marriage has been in the doldrums for some time decide to liven things up by making a sex tape. It works and they find their relationship clicking on all cylinders for the first time in years. However, the video – which was supposed to have been erased – ends up on their cloud which is connected to a bunch of devices they’ve given out as presents. Getting those devices back will be the easy part – keeping their sanity and their marriage together will be harder.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, premiere footage and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use)

Wish I Was Here

(Focus) Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad. A 30-something husband and father comes to a point in his life where he realizes that he needs to get serious about his responsibilities and grow up but that’s not an easy proposition in his family.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a clip and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)

Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

New Releases for the Week of March 8, 2013


Oz The Great and Powerful

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

(Disney) James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer. Directed by Sam Raimi

A small-time Kansas stage magician dreams of bigger things, of becoming a great and powerful man. When he is sucked through a cyclone into a magical land, it looks like he’ll get that opportunity but it will be a far more perilous journey than he could possibly have imagined and not knowing who to trust makes it all the more dangerous

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG (for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language)

56 Up

(First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield. In 1964 filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 classmates to get an idea of what their lives were like, what their hopes and dreams were and what they wanted to do with their lives. Every seven years since he’s gotten back together with the original 14 to see how they were getting on with their lives. Now that group is 56 years old and well into middle age, with old age in sight on the horizon. This social experiment has become one of the most important and riveting documentary series in the history of film.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR  

Dead Man Down

(FilmDistrict) Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard. When a woman witnesses a killer for hire doing his work, she contracts him to do a job for her – to take out a vicious criminal who’d disfigured her. When it turns out he has good reason for wanting this same criminal out of the picture, it looks like a match made in….well, heaven might not be exactly the right word but you know what I mean. Anyway things don’t go according to plan – they so rarely do – and they find themselves dealing with a dangerous kind of chaos. From the director of the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality)

Emperor

(Roadside Attractions) Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox, Eriko Hatsune, Kaori Momoi. Following the surrender of Japan at the conclusion of World War II, the American occupying force and General Douglas MacArthur, the de facto ruler of Japan, had a thorny question to work out. What were they to do with Emperor Hirohito, worshipped as a living god by the Japanese people but accused of war crimes. Should he be punished for the crimes perpetrated by the Japanese military, or should he be pardoned? With Japan a potential powder keg, MacArthur assigns an officer who has his own connections to the Land of the Rising Sun to unravel the Emperor’s guilt.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for violent content, brief strong language and smoking) 

Sound City

(Variance) Paul McCartney, Lindsey Buckingham, Barry Manilow, Trent Reznor. One of the most legendary recording facilities in the world is Sound City. Nestled amid unassuming industrial warehouses in the San Fernando Valley, this facility has been where some of the most influential and acclaimed albums in history were recorded. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl turns filmmaker as he chronicles the efforts to record an all-star album here, interviewing many of those who have recorded their most famous albums at Sound City.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

The High Cost of Living


 

The High Cost of Living

Zach Braff’s fortunes have plummeted since Scrubs was canceled as the mean streets of Montreal can attest.

 

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbe, Aimee Lee, Julian Lo, Sean Lu, Mylene Savoie, Paula Jean Hixson, Pierre Gendron, Nicole Barber, Anick Lemay, Graham Cuthbertson, Tony Robinow, Kyle Switzer, Ian Finlay, Nicole Jones. Directed by Deborah Chow

There are those who believe that life is a chain of random events strung together linked only by our presence in them. It’s not destiny, it’s not fate – it’s just random chance. People drop in and out of our lives like summer storms and some leave more of an impression than others.

Henry Welles (Braff) is an American living in Montreal on an expired visa. He sells stolen prescription drugs to make ends meet and goes club-hopping at night to  deliver his goods to a variety of clients. He lives above a Chinese food restaurant and those around him don’t know what he does for a living.

Nathalie (Blais) is pregnant and her husband Michel (Labbe) alternately dotes on her and treats her with indifference. One night she feels the labor pains begin – prematurely. Her husband is out so she calls a cab. The visibility on the snowy night is poor so she steps into the street looking for the cab to take her to the hospital. She is promptly struck from behind by a cab going the wrong way up a one way street.

She winds up with a concussion but worse still the baby dies in utero. Normally labor would be induced but the doctors don’t think that a stillbirth would be the best thing for her mental state so she is forced to carry the dead fetus for a couple of weeks longer. A couple of weeks after she gets out of the hospital, she is sitting in a cafe having a drink when a busybody chastises her for drinking while obviously pregnant. She loses it and is aided by Henry, whose compassion and gentle caring nature touches her, unlike her husband who grows more distant with each passing day, blaming Nathalie for losing his child. He and Nathalie eventually split up.

But she and Henry begin to form a strong relationship, even after she discovers what he does for a living. But she won’t be so sanguine when she finds out that it was Henry who ran her down and left her and her baby to die. And he doesn’t know how to tell her

This is not a sunshine and light kind of film but it isn’t a complete death dirge either. This is more about connections, and the very fragile nature of them, of how we sin against one another sometimes and how redemption is not always possible – but forgiveness can be. These are all some pretty deep subjects, and the lot of them in a single film is a pretty daunting task but Chow actually does pretty well with them.

Part of her success is in her casting. Both Braff and Blais (a veteran French-Canadian actress) do some superb work in their roles. Braff in particular is best-known for comedies (he became a fixture on hipper radars with “Scrubs”) but shows he has some dramatic chops that he can boast as well. I’m not sure he’s ready for mainstream leading man-ness but he certainly can hold a film on his shoulders.

Unfortunately there are too many plot points that simply don’t bear much weight. For example, there is no doctor alive who would have a woman carry a dead fetus in her womb for several weeks before she is emotionally ready to have it taken out. First of all, that’s essentially a rotting carcass she has inside of her and no doubt there would be dangers of infections galore and from a medical standpoint I’d think getting it out as quickly and as humanely as possible would be the order of the day. Even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be far more traumatic for a woman to be carrying around her dead baby inside her than to have it taken out. I don’t know; I’m obviously a woman but I suspect most women would agree with me.

The situation is a bit cliché but a movie could withstand that and still be enjoyable. It’s just that there’s too many of them here, from the quirky neighbors to the insensitive husband to…well, that would be telling. In any case, Chow the director deserved better than Chow the writer was able to deliver.

That’s not to say that Chow the writer doesn’t show some promise but I think it’s safe to say she’s more advanced at this moment as a director than she is as a writer. Given some quality material, I think she’s got a career chock full of potential. However, this film is merely a pretty good start for a first-time director with some good performances and some good moments. It’s worth seeing for Braff’s performance but those who aren’t into him might be forgiven if they give this a pass.

WHY RENT THIS: The acting is pretty good, particularly from Blais and Braff.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many indie clichés and a preposterous plot submarine the film’s best intentions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, some violence, and plenty of sexuality. There is also a plethora of foul words throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Chow’s first feature film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a brief interview with Braff and a short film, Mr. Stache.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Town

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Safety Not Guaranteed