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Being the first John Hughes film I have seen since the writer/director’s passing, I feel that I need to speak about the man’s oeuvre along with the movie itself. I think many could make the argument that Planes, Trains & Automobiles is his best work. He wrote a lot of scripts, even into the years before his death, but as far as the ones he directed, you won’t get one that resonates on an adult level quite like this. The Breakfast Club will always hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart, but, looking at his filmography, this 1987 entry is the one that doesn’t deal with teenage angst. Not even speaking about the swearing—we are talking hard-R for one rental car rant alone—the subject matter is more buddy comedy dealing with serious heartache on the holidays than high school cliques and growing up. The consummate Thanksgiving film? … I’d say so. One of the best comedies ever made? … I think one could argue that statement as well.

It is weird how many comedies of this kind deal with a marketing/creative executive—the underrated Nothing to Lose comes to mind—but we open with Steve Martin’s Neal Page watching his boss hem and haw about an advertisement, desperately needing to catch a plane home to his family in Chicago. The film quickly becomes a race against time to make it to the airport before 6:00, soon finding one man as a large adversary to this goal—John Candy’s great Del Griffith. This character is the epitome of what made Candy such a great comedic talent. His jolly appeal sucks you right in, making you feel for him despite his obnoxious talent at talking unceasingly. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, smiling wide when he is happy and pouting darkly when being chastised for being himself. For anyone that wonders whether they need to change who they are to keep relationships should take a good look at most of Candy’s roles, but especially this one, to see that all it takes is self-confidence and a love for yourself to succeed. If someone doesn’t like you for who you are, well then they aren’t worthy of knowing you anyways.

These two men find their lives to be intertwined for the next couple days, trying every way possible to get home. Between flight delays; inclement weather; a smoking and immobile train; a combustible rental car; awkward evenings in motel rooms; and just being two of the most opposite personalities to be put together in close quarters, the laughs are big and many. There are so many oneliners to be remembered and repeated—just ask my cousin who was quoting the film the entire day before we watched it—showing the talent that was Hughes. His ability to write how people speak was unequaled. He characters were real and very much based on people that we all have in our lives. Everyone has, or is, a stoic, serious, and cold Neal Page or an overbearing, kindhearted, loudmouth Del Griffith. No matter which they are, there is always something that makes them irreplaceable in your life; no matter their shortcomings, they are trustworthy, compassionate, and will risk their own lives for yours.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is full of set pieces and physical comedy too, but you cannot deny the writing and how it weaves all the parts to make a cohesive whole. This odd couple could make any situation gold, so pitting them against each other in heightened circumstances, let alone so many in such a short time, will allow them to excel. Tragedy upon tragedy can easily become too much, be seen as contrived plot devices that are utilized to advance the story artificially rather than a natural sequence of events. For some reason, though, and I think it goes back to Hughes, it completely works here. The transitions are seamless and instead of dreading the “I wonder what will happen next” question, you begin to anticipate the next unfortunate mishap, relishing the comedic genius that will follow. Both Martin and Candy are at the top of their games here, honing the elastic zaniness that made them so effective in earlier years to complement the seasoned professionalism that their careers had taken on. Martin, of course, has continued to evolve and succeed even now, more than two decades later, so we can only imagine the great unforgettable roles we’ve missed since Candy passed away in 1994.

Again, though, no matter how important these leads are to the film, Hughes is the wizard behind the curtain. All the things he is known for, the final freeze frame, the schmaltzy music cues, (which somehow work effectively every time), and the reality of how humorous heartache can be are included. They are little trademarks, proving the auteur Hughes was, and make you wonder how different some of his scripted works would have been if he was behind the camera on them. There is also something to be said about his supporting characters—well written and integral despite the lack of screentime they are given. Someone like Kevin Bacon makes his villainous part three-dimensional while having no lines, emoting strictly from body language; Dylan Baker embodies backwoods hick like no other; and Hughes regular Edie McClurg takes the f-bomb laced rant from Martin like a champ, adding the perfect footnote to the sequence. And I think this is why his films are so cherished and unforgettable; they do all the little things right, making them masterpieces whether you feel their subject matter deserves the praise or not. They have all stood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come, extending his legacy and securing his place in cinematic history.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles 8/10

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When looking in retrospect, it’s always nice to know that you made the right decision. While at the Toronto International Film festival this year, my friend and I had a conflict of movies with Up in the Air and The Men Who Stare at Goats. Both stared George Clooney, but only the one had any trailers and/or marketing push at the time. We picked the Reitman film in the end—and it was one of the best movies we saw at the fest—figuring to catch Goats during its theatrical run. Boy was that the right move as this film is a disappointment. Grant Heslov’s work isn’t horrible, in fact it was very funny, but it just doesn’t go anywhere. The premise is absurd, despite the disclaimer starting it claiming that “more is true than we may think”, and the plot progression uninteresting. It really is the acting that makes the movie worth watching as everyone’s timing and comedic styling fire on all cylinders.

To get people on the correct page right now, George Clooney is not the star of this film. He is onscreen for a lot of it, no question, but the true lead is Ewan McGregor as reporter Bob Wilton, a stand-in for the original novel’s author Jon Ronson. The Jedi quips aren’t subtle because of this casting—Mr. Obi-Wan himself—but he does real well as the delicate flower who sat at a desk all his life watching as his wife left him for a one-handed co-worker. So, with nothing to lose and a woman to attempt to win back futilely, he does what other younger Americans did, he goes to war. To keep in line with the humorous tone of the film, however, he of course has no credentials to cross over into Iraq and only by coincidence does he meet someone to piggyback over with. You see, a past interview of his was with a self-proclaimed psychic-spy that just happened to mention a fellow comrade named Lyn Cassady, a name that stuck with him to recognize on the nametag of a stranger at the hotel where he watched, in vain, as the syndicated reporters came back from the frontlines.

Cassady—a great turn from Clooney—takes Wilton under his wing and tells him about the top-secret government organization he was a part of years ago. Bill Django, played with an over-saturation of flower power hippy aesthetic by Jeff Bridges, heads the division in order to make super-soldiers that can serve without violence, (which in and of itself is funny since the non-violence is made into funnily extreme violence when practiced). Men like Cassady use their mental telepathy to find prisoners of war or terrorists that have otherwise eluded capture. The ability to stop a man’s heart by staring at them is also attempted, being practiced on goats, the animals used to test a soldier’s wound dressing skills. As is the normal stereotype for 60s style living, a lot of psychotropic drugs were utilized, as well as interpretive dance, creating longhaired warriors seeing with their third eye into the unknown. Eventually getting shutdown is of course a foregone conclusion.

All this history is told via flashback while Wilton and Cassady travel through Iraq looking for the ‘retired’ army man’s newest mission’s rendezvous. He saw his old teacher Django through a vision, calling him to arms, thus leading him on his current journey. Wilton has just found himself as part of the zaniness, slowly becoming a believer and even possibly a seer too. A kindred spirit, he gets captured by locals, gets trapped in the middle of a US privatized military firefight between competitors, (blamed on insurgents), and a visitor to a new government organization with flashes of the past psychic work used in a more focused way. How much any of this is fact, and has been experienced by Ronson himself, is unknown, but at least he and scriptwriter Peter Straughan filled it all in with some big laughs and a ton of head-shaking humor. You want to feel for some character, though, yet they are all either selfish of completely bonkers. So, the only way to really enter the movie is as a voyeur, hoping the events will lead somewhere or at least remain entertaining. The latter thankfully does occur, for the most part anyway.

McGregor is his usual affable self, playing the straight man to Clooney’s few-screws-loose ‘superhero’. Clooney is great, showing his comedic chops and really excelling like he has this past decade. The mix of stoic army look and cutting loose improvisation really make him into a three-dimensional character, truly believing in his abilities and calling. His confidence, despite having been given the ‘death touch’ that will kill him any time during the rest of his life, (yeah, that’s right), is unmatched, never showing fear, knowing his powers will get him out of any situation. Yes, most of those powers consist of coincidence and plain dumb luck, but his belief is everything. It’s not like he is trying to walk through walls or anything. The crazy stuff like that is left to guys including Stephen Lang, (it’s weird seeing him in a comedy after all those Avatar trailers), Bridges, Stephen Root, and Kevin Spacey, who is very hit or miss lately, but on his game here with much needed villainy. Their interactions make all the difference, keeping an otherwise static plot alive with color, putting a smile on your face even if you leave the theatre wondering what you just saw was all about.

The Men Who Stare at Goats 6/10

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[1] George Clooney stars in Overture Films’ THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. Laura Macgruder © 2009 Westgate Film Services, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) George Clooney, Waleed Zuaiter and Ewan McGregor star in Overture Films’ THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. Laura Macgruder © 2009 Westgate Film Services, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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The second installment to Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel series for the 2009-2010 season saw American-Chinese author Ha Jin taking the stage. He is an interesting writer in the fact that he crafts his work with his second language, English. Not even learning it until college, where it was his fifth out of five choices to study at university, he has both adopted it and America as his home. Saying that he is in semi-exile from China, he still holds a linguistic bond to the nation even though they have pretty much disowned him. By not returning to the country and writing in a foreign tongue, China has banned his books due to their subject matter, treating him as a non-native author. He, however, does not want to forget his past, setting his novels there until his newest work A Free Life. Finally moving his setting to America, this novel continues his literary evolution, turning to new territory in order to captivate audiences as well as himself.

His lecture focused mainly on this newest prose, in how it spoke to his feelings about language and the immigrant in a foreign land topic. Ha Jin did speak about the novel Waiting by stating the progression taken from it to the present. Some of the question and answer period delved deeper into that story, especially since it is the one read by most audience members in preparation for the talk, but I will admit to being more interested in his writing process and outlook on non-native tongue writers. A Free Life tells the tale of an immigrant and how he copes with a new culture and lifestyle. Unlike speaking about his acquisition of, or at least attempt for, the American Dream—like Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep did, a novel that influenced his writing—he began the journey after that success. While the main character isn’t a millionaire or anything, he has found the “popular” version of the dream with a house, car, etc, all by the age of forty; so the novel talks more about what an immigrant will do afterwards. To the author, the want to travel to a different land is not always to better one’s situation financially, but oftentimes for a spiritual pursuit, a cause in the metaphysical dimension that draws them somewhere to enhance their interior self. The book is not necessarily autobiographical, but he does admit to sprinkling in life experiences to keep the story real and true to him.

The process of writing the novel itself was a challenge to him because this was the first not set in China. Whereas he could fudge some details and write from his memories rather than truth, because the audience wouldn’t know what was true or not, writing about America meant he now had to get his facts straight. This also makes the process of translating a difficult one since some characters speak slang or just bad English, words that have no equal in Chinese. The idea of even attempting the conversion scared him a bit, and so he hired a professional to do it for him. After seeing how the essence of the story still remained, despite losing the nuance of English, he discovered how a good translator could enhance a tale by retaining its human spirit. “A good book,” he says, “should be translatable.” Seeing this power, he decided to now convert his works himself, allowing the power to create something new where a translation is impossible. Hired help needs to stay exact, whether the meaning doesn’t come through or not; the author himself can alter passages and make the words feel fresh in both languages, even if the words themselves are different.

Through the entire talk, this topic of language stayed at the forefront. Authors, like him, that came to America and decided to write in English rather than their native tongue, like Vladimir Nabokov, really influenced his work. Ha Jin loved his confidence in using puns and wordplay to add humor to the work. By taking archaic words and resurrecting them, or even creating words of his own, Nabokov allowed his work to show the struggle his characters faced in learning a new language. But jokes don’t always have to be from word games, they can succeed from drama and the human experience. A foreign writer doesn’t need to be a professional at slang and the intricacies of another language to joke; he can speak of experiences and share them in a witty way. My favorite line of the evening was towards the end as Ha Jin spoke about his novels living on after his death. He believes one should not be afraid to stay fresh and new or speak about things that may be controversial—like his view on Tiananmen Square and his banning in China as a result. One “needs to preserve truth in books, or else who will want to read them?” Truer words were never spoken as his own works resonate in their humanity despite their foreign environments, keeping his work relevant as the years go by.

Babel continues at Kleinhans with Azar Nafisi on 3/5/10 and Salman Rushdie on 4/16/10. Tickets on sale now.

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Everyone enjoys a feel good story, especially if it’s based on fact. When the main character of the true life tale is a young man saved from the squalor of gang life and an inevitable bullet to be loved, educated, and sent on his merry way towards a career in the NFL, well you’ve got film adaptation written all over it. That is exactly what Warner Brothers thought when optioning Michael Oher’s past, via a book by Michael Lewis, and casting Sandra Bullock as the woman who stood strong to make it all happen. While The Blind Side is most definitely a paint-by-numbers structured script, it does have its merits and signature moments. Most plots of this kind would have the boy in question needing guidance and tough love to break from his rough and tumble life, breaking the wild horse so to speak, but not here. Instead, Oher is a large boy that is smarter than most give him credit for, and a gentle giant at that. Rather than subdue his emotions and attitude, the Touhy family needs to peel back his onion-like layers. The kid scored in the 98th percentile on protective instincts, he knows which side are the good guys.

Having been taken from his crack-addicted mother at a young age, becoming a ward of the state, moving foster home to foster home, Oher took his mother’s advice to heart about closing his eyes to the bad things and opening them up again to a fresh new world. This boy has the patience and forgiveness of a saint, leaving all behind him, forgetting and repressing anything he no longer wants to remember. As a result, he has become a virtual mute, afraid to speak out, instead allowing his studies to get worse and worse while being deemed lazy and incompetent by his teachers. Only when Kim Dickens, (it’s always a pleasure to see “Deadwood” alums working on the big screen, and she is just one of two with Ray McKinnon’s coach, a far cry from his epileptic priest on the show), as Mrs. Boswell, discovers his ability to retain information do the adults learn to get behind him. Lucking his way into a private Christian school, he needed that support to succeed; he needed the fortitude of the educators to realize that his poor reading skills did not mean he didn’t comprehend the material to the point where he could excel. I do believe this Christian bent is a large part of the film—if not the true story itself—showing people willing to open their hearts to the unfortunate.

The most surprising heart opener is, of course, Bullock’s Leigh Anne Touhy. Right from the start we are shown a career woman with the stomach to stand up to anyone in her way. Compassion is not her strong suit, as evidenced by the ‘loving’ praise towards her children in their school extracurriculars and the cell phone never being far away. She does love her family and her husband, a man who franchised Taco Bells to immense success after a star college basketball career, but it just seems she is missing her true calling. Having money and the ability to provide for her children doesn’t seem to be enough; only when she sees ‘Big Mike’ freezing in the cold, about to spend the night in the school gym, does she realize that she can make a difference, maybe not to the world as a whole, but at least to this one boy, this one night. It is the beginning of a familial bond that not only changes the young man’s life into having a future that could lead to professional sports, but also the family itself, showing them all what it means to stick up for the less fortunate and discover how deserving they are to find a way to better themselves beyond the usual stereotypes.

Everyone knows that Michael Oher eventually gets drafted, to the Baltimore Ravens in fact—don’t miss the great collage of the real people during the credits—so his success isn’t necessarily the crux of the film. Even from the start, Bullock’s Touhy narrates and makes it known that it is her story about how God was behind her in creating a miracle. The movie itself does drag a bit as we can only see the Touhy’s immense compassion so much, or the many instances of watching Oher triumph against all odds. Eventually there will be his need to get better grades, (in comes Kathy Bates’ tutor), there will be his need to go back to the ghetto and realize who his true family is, the necessary overcoming of tragedy and needing to save someone close to him, and of course the juxtaposition of his life’s turnaround to an old friend who chose a different path. The message itself is heavy-handed for sure, and spoon-fed throughout, but it’s expected. What make a good film in this heavily saturated genre are the little things like characters we can feel for and root for against all odds. Fortunately, The Blind Side has those in full.

Bullock really gets the opportunity to act for once instead of be the romantic lead. I thought she did a wonderful job, especially expressing the hard exterior and loving core that lies beneath; I even didn’t mind the accent too much. She and Quinton Aaron, playing Oher, have a palpable chemistry that evolves into a mother/son bond quickly. Aaron is fantastic as the troubled boy—so resonate in his stoic silence—doing so much with so little each and every time he is on screen. It is Tim McGraw, though, who I can’t help but heap praise on. I have not seen him in a bad role yet, and for a singer turned actor, that’s a surprise. I wasn’t quite sure how he’d handle the clean-cut, loving husband, but his natural charisma and comfortability in front of the camera shows through again. One also needs to mention Jae Head as S.J. because he is surely the comic relief, livening up the otherwise depressing subject matter. If the woman next to me at the screening would agree to anything, it was that he was pretty memorable in his too smart for his own age way. But then she really seemed to be enjoying herself throughout the film, understanding a lot going on, agreeing out loud to many points as though she had seen it all before, (much to the chagrin of many sitting around us). And, frankly, we’ve all seen it before. That doesn’t, however, mean, if done right, we wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

The Blind Side 7/10

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[1] QUINTON AARON as Michael Oher in Alcon Entertainment’s drama “The Blind Side,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] (L-R) JAE HEAD as S.J. TUOHY, QUINTON AARON as Michael Oher and SANDRA BULLOCK as Leigh Anne Tuohy in Alcon Entertainment’s drama “The Blind Side,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Ralph Nelson

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It is something that I don’t necessarily wish was true, but watching an older film carries with it the process of aging. Some are timeless and relevant no matter when they are seen, while others become a remnant of the past due to style, dialogue, and subject matter. When viewing Ida Lupino’s film The Bigamist, the idea that it could have been something fresh back in 1953 kept creeping into my mind since my experience was more tv movie of the week in the present. By no means is it a bad film, I do think the production and acting is quite good, it’s just that you can’t help smirk at points screaming artifice even though that’s how it was done then. Melodrama was king and swooning women with their beaus pulling them close was the norm. I do believe that if you look past these dated limitations, the movie itself has enough interest to make it worthwhile.

The biggest knock against it, as one friend pointed out, is that all suspense is thrown out the window as soon as the title flashes across the screen. People may say, “What’s in a name?” but honestly, the answer is a lot. Just by renting the film you know it’s about a man with more than one wife, there is no question about that. So, when we are introduced to Edmond O’Brien’s Harry and Joan Fontaine’s Eve at an adoption agency, we know what’s behind his pause at signing a waiver giving full access to his background. Mr. Jordan sees the hesitation and starts to spin his wheels at wanting to find out the reason. He is in charge of placing a child with a family that’s both loving and caring, so we can’t fault him for his over-zealous nature and skepticism, (although we can fault the film for alluding to a past error of his and never expounding on it). We as an audience know the secret straightaway and know that the agency man will eventually too, so the whole film becomes an exercise in waiting to find out when and the revelation’s inevitable blow up.

So, the question becomes whether sitting through the story, told in flashback once Jordan discovers the secret for himself confronting Harry at his second home, is worth your time. Generally, a film of this kind would have the background information explained very early on so that the bulk of the runtime can be devoted to the thriller aspect of the wives finding out and what they do about it. Today’s Hollywood would make sure that one wife was unlikable, making us root for the other, along with a happily ever after ending with the deserving pair breaking free from the lying and deceit. The Bigamist does none of that, though, with its exposition being the entire film. Instead of us designating a heroine and a villain, we actually fall in love with both women and hope that, whatever happens, no one gets hurt too bad. In fact, by having Harry explain his situation to Mr. Jordan, hoping to appeal to the man’s kindness in not calling the police, we begin to see how he got himself into this situation. He has two women that when combined would be his perfect match and, if possible in some messed up way, he has stayed with both for their sakes rather than his own. You hate him for his bigamy and spinelessness towards doing the right thing, but you do, as Mr. Jordan says, kind of wish him luck.

While the entire film then becomes a moral quandary on our sensibilities, actually lulling us into believing that maybe bigamy in this situation is okay, the success of the performances slides under the radar. The only reason we would think the love triangle going on is acceptable would be because the people portrayed are so pure of heart, if not quite of mind in Harry’s case. Joan Fontaine is splendid as his first wife Eve, a loving beauty that hardened a bit once told she was unable to have children. Throwing herself into her work, she drifted away somewhat from Harry, yet retained her unceasing love for him. If anything, her ability to sell might have emasculated him somewhat, causing the loneliness that led to an affair with Phyllis, played by Lupino herself. Right from the start Harry was open with his wife about meeting this other woman because both thought nothing would happen. He never stopped loving Eve and O’Brien’s turn shows this as fact. All three are so in love that I do believe they’d forgive each other if given the chance and move to Utah to be polygamists.

I don’t want to forget to mention Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan, though, and not only because his house is mentioned when O’Brien and Lupino take a bus ride to the ‘houses of the stars’ in LA—talk about a weird meta-level inclusion. Gwenn is actually our entry into the story, our surrogate being told the whole sordid tale. We see him slowly become swayed by the emotions of Harry’s words, yet still retain the professionalism and moral center to know that no matter how pure the motivations were, what he was doing was wrong. Like him, however, we are only outsiders to the situation and have no power to disrupt two houses that otherwise are completely happy. It becomes the cathartic need to tell someone on Harry’s part, and as a result his conscience finally coming through, that will ultimately lead him to coming clean or continuing the lies.

The Bigamist 6/10

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Sometimes you just have to get over the fact that a film needs a good/coherent plot to be a success and let the stupidity flow over you. This is exactly what I did when sitting down to watch The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. You cannot argue the comedic talent involved, but you can make the point that Gary Sanchez Productions could bring the whole shebang down. I know I am in the minority on my feelings for Will Ferrell and his production team’s films, (Step Brothers being the only one I enjoy revisiting), but I’ll give the guys credit for going all out on the obscenity, absurdity, and down right immoral activities squeezed into this short and sweet mindless laughfest. Truly, some of the best moments are so indecipherable in anything resembling an intelligent discourse that laughing is the only sane response while you attempt to wrap your head around what happened. There’s a hate crime, there’s dildos falling from the sky, there’s a thirtysomething woman getting a ten-year old drunk in order to sodomize him, and countless other ‘memorable’ moments that strangely make wasting your time with this thing worthwhile.

In a so over-the-top that it works way, The Goods delivers just that. Towards the end it tries to get weighty in a “we need to redeem characters/make a point” kind of way, but I’ll forgive it. What the filmmakers forgot was that its complete lack of a moral center and plot coherency, beyond selling cars to serve as a backdrop for craziness, was what made it fun. Once you start to be something you are not, like making a sleazeball into a sensitive man, you lose the audience by slowing down what otherwise was a fast-paced gag show. So many funny instances are in lines said under people’s breath in response to what has happened, probably added in post. Craig Robinson’s schizophrenic, spoken out loud, inner monologues are gold in and of themselves too. When he begins to commentate a police raid to stop a riot, I couldn’t stop laughing. Talk about anger management issues, his turn on a dime facial expressions from pure anger to toothy smile make his bit part one of the most memorable. And that is really all this film is, a series of characters shoved together to play off of each other or shine alone.

You may want to go into a film and hope that the central plot is something to hold tight to and follow through with, but, honestly, who cares? Does it really matter if all the cars get sold from the fledgling Sellick Motors’ lot? Do we care if Don Ready finally wins over the innocent love interest with his crass confidence? Do we really want to know what atrocity happened in ‘Kirky’ so that we can delve deeper into the psyche of Ready? Hell no, we just want to hear the story because we assume it will deliver on humor … and it does with one of the few successful Will Ferrell cameos that I’ve seen, although it gets ruined by his return later in the film. Yes, we know that this ragtag bunch of losers, with the help of Ready’s foursome of car salesman mercenaries, have to push 211 automobiles in four days to save the dealership, but we are also aware that it’s all just a springboard for the ensuing insanity. I mean, come on, the reason Alan Thicke and Ed Helms want to buy the place is to set up a recording studio for the latter’s “man band”, (or as Jeremy Piven’s Ready says, his “man boy band”). We aren’t dealing with Wilde here.

Speaking of Piven, though, here is the reason for the film’s unlikely success. One can only stand lunacy without direction for so long, a charismatic leader is necessary to hold it all together. Piven is the glue here, spewing his absurd rhetoric to incite riots, animalistic aggression, or plain unadulterated fun. To watch him rile up an entire airplane to the point where they not only let him smoke, but also proceed to let loose, smoke pot, and have a communal ‘mile high club’ initiation is something to see. This is a guy that once traded his large bouncy ball kid toy for a tricked-out tricycle when he was a boy—he could sell spiders to an arachnophobic if given the chance. Sure some of his delusion inducing selling points are idiotic and poorly written, not to mention the imbeciles falling for it, but for some reason, when Piven is the one saying it, I’m pretty much ok with it all.

The supporting cast around our star does help make the film go round. Ving Rhames has some pretty awful lines to say, but he also has his share of funny moments too; Kathryn Hahn adds to her pedigree from Step Brothers by being the most macho woman out there while still retaining a ton of sex appeal; and David Koechner puts forth one of the best performances I’ve seen from him, (and playing off of James Brolin’s homosexual allusions doesn’t hurt either). Ed Helms, Tony Hale, and Ken Jeong bring their usual brand of comedy—hopefully the trio will eventually be able to break from their respective schticks in the future—and Jordana Spiro worked well with them all, being the newcomer to me as I’ve never seen her show “My Boys” if it’s even still on the air. I also really liked Charles Napier’s malicious old man living in the past and firing up his temper whenever someone steps on his bigoted toes. They are all enjoyable, and for that reason alone I say give the film a try. No one is watching it for stimulating conversation points, it’s viewed to laugh a little and brighten your mood. For me, watching people say and do all the things I’d never be caught doing myself does just that.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard 6/10

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[1] (Left to Right) Babs Merrick (Kathryn Hahn), Don Ready (Jeremy Piven), Jibby Newsome (Ving Rhames) and Brent Gage (David Koechner) are the best used-car sales team in the business, in the comedy “The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard.” Photo Credit: Sam Emerson. Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (Left to Right) It’s a do or die weekend at Selleck Motors and everyone, including longtime salesmen Wade Zooha (Tony Hale), Teddy Dang (Ken Jeong) and Dick Lewiston (Charles Napier) know it, in the comedy “The Goods: Live Hard. Sell Hard.” Photo Credit: Sam Emerson. Copyright © 2009 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION. All Rights Reserved.

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There is a new competitor on the animated picture front. The Spain-based company Ilion Studios has thrown their hat in the ring with the new film Planet 51. Unlike some of the other upstart firms that have cropped up in the past decade, Ilion’s artistry is very much on par with Dreamworks and Fox, (no one can compare to Pixar, sorry), and surprised me with how clean and polished the animation was. A studio like this needs to find success early, however, in order to keep capital up and the ability to continue forward into the future. With the worn-out premise of alien invasion turned on its head to become fresh and inventive, success may be upon them. It is a concept that appears so easy to have thought up, yet for the life of me I can’t think of something that has done it before. Having seen only photos of rocks from Planet 51’s NASA rover, America assumes the world is uninhabitable and thus sends an astronaut over to explore. Captain Charles T. Baker is in for a surprise, though, once he discovers that not only is there life, but that he is now an invading alien enemy.

That basic central storyline is one to keep the adults intrigued, because honestly, besides the role reversal, this is pretty much The Day the Earth Stood Still. The little kiddies have no idea what that film is and having cute, green, amphibious creatures to relate to while a large, charismatic Hollywood-type human goofs around reels them into the tale, whether they comprehend what’s going on or not. To the adults, Gort has been replaced by a very resourceful planetary rover that looks like the offspring of Pixar’s Wall-E and Eve, and Klaatu by Dwayne Johnson’s Chuck, a glorified button pusher that went into space so that he could come back to Earth as a hero well on his way to a government position. Even John Cleese is here to play the same role he did in the remake of that 1951 classic, although while the scientist of reason there, he is the scientist looking to cut open a head and play with alien brain this time around. But of course, there is that local Good Samaritan who puts the well being of a stranger before his own to save a life from bigoted attempts at eradication. At its core is the message that just because someone is different does not mean they mean ill will. Sometimes it is our own fears that cause the violence we blame on others.

That young boy is Lem, voiced by Justin Long, a high schooler that has just landed a job at his local science museum as an assistant curator. He has the goofy best friend, (Seann William Scott’s Skiff), the girl of his dreams next door, (Jessica Biel’s Neera), and confidence issues to hold him back from being the man he wants to be. Lem is the epitome of confused adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, a role that the youth of America can relate to when they sit down to enjoy an hour and a half of laughs. Stumbling upon the visitor from Earth hiding out in his museum, Lem finds that Chuck is just like him, a dreamer. Not the hero he thinks he is, nor the villain the town thinks he is, Chuck is just trying to get back home, discovering on the journey that maybe he can help this boy that has stuck his neck out for him. Sure the “girl advice” is cheesy and meant for laughs, but the sacrifices taken and the lessons of being more than the world thinks you are hit home, adding a nice theme to the mix, delivering a message for the kids, hopefully noticed amongst the humor.

Some moments may be deemed as a little risqué for the audience a PG film targets, but I think that is pretty much across the board these days—except for Pixar who truly seems to be able to tell a story so good that gimmicky humor is unnecessary. One moment comes directly before the credits with two alien, to us, youths parked on a cliff about to makeout. Once the Humaniacs come to destroy their world, the male says quietly, “I knew that would happen if we kissed”. It’s a funny moment and not anything for parents to worry about their child hearing. Those instances are mainly for the parents that brave their way through such a kid flick, some stuff to keep them awake and invested in the jokes. But that’s not all that Planet 51 is infused with, as there are a ton of references to cinema’s history. Not only does the dog-equivalent look like the titular character from Alien, but also the one wreaking havoc on the local mailman is actually named Ripley. Than there is comical homage to the lunar landing, Back to the Future flashes, especially Parts I and II, a Full Metal Jacket helmet nod, and even a Singin’ in the Rain dance number. Ilion pays respect to the past and brings it to the consciousness of the future.

Again, too, the animation is really well done. The realism quotient isn’t quite there; instead a stylized aesthetic is utilized. With plastic textures and shiny surfaces, Planet 51 is a cartoon as cartoons should be, adding its realistic moments with renderings of fire and smoke among others. Its story of beating the odds and getting the girl is cute, but I myself really enjoyed the environment it all takes place in. A hybrid of the past and future of humanity, this race lives in a world that resembles our own 1950s, complete with the music, the diners, and the wardrobe. However, the characters have hovercraft capabilities and laser weaponry to counteract the old-time look. To have that kind of technology and still only think space is 500 miles long is a fresh take on advanced intelligence for sure, just one more point making this film original in its own pastiche-like way.

Planet 51 7/10

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[1] “Lem” voiced by Justin Long and “Chuck” voiced by Dwayne Johnson in Columbia Pictures’ animated comedy PLANET 51. Photo By: Courtesy of Ilion Animation Studios
[2] “Neera” voiced by Jessica Biel and “Lem” voiced by Justin Long in Columbia Pictures’ animated comedy PLANET 51. Photo By: Courtesy of Ilion Animation Studios

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Does anyone not push the button? What can I say about Richard Kelly’s supposed turn to mainstream cinema? Three things, and they are as follows: One, the marketing for The Box has to be some of the worst in the history of film. Warner Brothers is selling a completely different movie than what is shown on screen. This isn’t a thriller against the clock for a yuppie couple; it’s a fight for the salvation of the human race. Hell, it takes place in 1976 … bet you didn’t know that, huh? Two, how did Kelly get the money to make this thing at a big studio? Maybe it was the success of the most recent Richard Matheson adaptation, I Am Legend, but honestly, did any execs at WB read this script? It screams indie and it pulses Kelly, two things moderate budget has never been behind. And, three, this thing blew me away with its darkness, its bleak outlook on humanity, its deadpan, almost Lynchian characters, and its pitch perfect finale. Wow, I did not expect this at all.

I do not blame the studio for deciding to withhold press screenings. I’m not sure if that decision was made countrywide, but it definitely was for Buffalo, NY. Anyone going in expecting to see what the trailer delivered will leave, not only disappointed, but completely cheated as well. They won’t like the fact that you have to think while watching it, they won’t like the fact that the unexplainable occurs, and they most definitely will want their money back. However, if you are like me, somewhat intrigued with what a guy like Kelly can do in the studio system, you went in with marginally low expectations, only to be pleasantly surprised with the gem of a puzzle that he delivered. Matheson is not an easy man to adapt as one would see from the list of attempts. I myself have always been a fan of his challenging and intriguing viewpoint of both life and death. I think Stir of Echoes is underrated, I absolutely love What Dreams May Come, and I think Will Smith made the first half of I Am Legend fantastic, (haven’t seen the other tries at that source material). But it is in his short stories where most success had occurred, especially in his numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. It is here where The Box finds its closest relatives.

Yes, the crux of the story follows a young married couple with their son, trying to scrape by paycheck to paycheck despite her being a teacher and him being ever so close to going into outer space. They do make mention on how they spend too much, and it does appear they live very comfortably in the mid-70s, but events begin to occur to make things even tighter. They were counting on certain assurances to get them by and even become more comfortable, but it all seems to unravel until a visit by a strange man named Arlington Steward and his riveting proposal. We have a cursory idea on who this enigma with half his face burnt off is because of a short prologue-like textual introduction at the start. It was a memo from the NSA in Langley stating that Steward had been released from the hospital and sent to an undisclosed location where he manufactured the button device given to the Lewis couple. It is part of the Mars project and it is unknown what his motivations are. The deal he brings—press the button and you will receive one million dollars tax free, only after someone you don’t know dies as a result—is a moral quandary that would give even the most well off person pause. Put it in front of a family looking for help and being manipulated into that situation, of course they will take the plunge.

I love the way the film is shot in long, deliberate sequences. Some scenes were so stark and methodical that I kept thinking about Kubrick’s The Shining. Mix in the supernatural and you come close to what is put on display. But, it isn’t cheesy in any regard and becomes very reminiscent of Kelly’s debut Donnie Darko, always hiding something more nefarious beneath the surface. The one fault I see is that while that film left everything to the imagination, The Box attempts to explain things a bit too much, leading to the problem of the general population feeling cheated by its absurdity and the intellectuals feeling pandered to and babied. Unfortunately, you cannot please one side without truly enraging the other, so Kelly does his best to toe the line, leaning towards the intellectuals, but in the end disappointing both sides. But, once we see the layers being pealed back on Steward, the wheels start to churn and allusions to other life forms, (Mars is a big background element throughout the film), as well as God himself crop up. Purgatory is a hell of a place to reside when the glory of the afterlife waits. Darko showed an Earth worth saving and the sacrifice necessary in order to do so; The Box shows a world where greed and desire rule, where we cheat and steal to stay alive, yet only prolong our own suffering from that final release. Two very different viewpoints, both just as beautiful, cynical, and engaging as the other.

And it’s all wrapped into some very fine performances from all the principals. James Marsden shows once more why he deserves a higher star in Hollywood, Cameron Diaz again proves that maybe she can act after all, and Frank Langella’s Steward is everything you could hope for with a wolf in sheep’s clothing role. Everything he does is part of the test, doing his best to prove why ‘life’ should cease to be, how its value is little more than worthless when compared to selfish gains. But the Lewis family shows him hope; they show him that maybe some people do see the importance of their fellow man. Rules are rules, however, and the test doesn’t stop until the button is reset and put into the hands of a new subject, (I don’t even want to broach the topic of what this film says about the female sex, something about a quick trigger finger indeed). It is tough to say too much without ruining the experience of the film itself. I’ll just finish by saying every aspect is great, from the acting, the wonderful 70s aesthetic, and the plethora of clues littering the backgrounds from the numerous bloody-nosed employees and their ever-staring eyes. Kelly is slowly becoming a director that I need to keep up with, I just hope his penchant for alienating the audience he needs to succeed won’t ruin his resolve and creativity.

The Box 9/10

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[1] JAMES MARSDEN as Arthur Lewis and CAMERON DIAZ as Norma Lewis in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Radar Pictures’ and Media Rights Capital’s thriller “The Box,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Dale Robinette
[2] FRANK LANGELLA as Arlington Steward in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Radar Pictures’ and Media Rights Capital’s thriller “The Box,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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What to say about a film based on a novel of great importance that doesn’t quite live up? You can’t go wrong with Charles Dickens’ essential A Christmas Carol, especially when it is done accurately. One thing that director Robert Zemeckis cannot be faulted for is his staying faithful to the tale and bringing it to a new generation of the masses. The Alastair Sim version from 1951 will always be, to me, the best adaptation, but the entries that spring boarded in their own directions from the source, like Scrooged, will remain the most memorable. So where does this new 3D version fall? Unfortunately, it’s in the realm of mediocrity. I think Zemeckis plays it too safe and too literal, but maybe that is what his goal was. If so, he accomplished it. To me, though, the umpteenth rendition of this classic holiday tale needed something to set it apart and make it relevant. The 3D gimmick had potential, but was under-utilized and Jim Carrey’s manic elasticity showed through at times, but his grouchiness overshadowed it all. Even at the end, when Scrooge awakens to the joy of yuletide, his antics are over-the-top and out of place.

It all started pretty impressively with the gorgeous rendering of an old, canvas-bound copy of the novel, a lit candle by its side. The cover opens to reveal an etched drawing of Marley, dead in his coffin, that soon morphs into the quasi-realistic animation that makes up the rest of the film. With a subtle, crisp three-dimensionality, I really found myself buying into it all, even with Scrooge pushing himself to the edge in order to tip the caretaker. His miser persona takes over before the young apprentice can put the coffin lid on, and in come the credits. The swooping camera takes us on a journey through the sleepy Victorian town as we travel around, floating between people, through wreaths, and around corners as the voice talent and crew’s names flash across the screen. It all makes the chore of wearing those god-awful glasses, (Can’t all 3D movies use that Disney mechanism so we can get comfy glasses with folding arms instead of these cheap, static yellow ones? This is even a Disney film!), acceptable, fully immersing us in this world. And then the wheels fall off as the plot takes over, slowing down the tempo and pushing the technology’s capabilities out of its wheelhouse.

My biggest knock on Zemeckis’s love for motion-capture animation is in the human forms. They should be perfect as they look the part, move like real actors, and have a decent texture too. Maybe it is that whole theory about the eyes having no life behind them that ruins the illusion, or maybe not. I will say that compared to The Polar Express and Beowulf, the characters work best here, so at least the technology is getting more advanced. The big question then is whether A Christmas Carol needed to be done in this medium. I guess it had been done with live actors so many times before that it was worth a try. Heck, if you can get Carrey to play three ghosts and Scrooge at every age, looking different each role, and even playing against himself, for the price of one actor, you’d be stupid not to. However, the result is like those Charles Schwab commercials that have been rotoscoped for no reason whatsoever. There is no fantastical imagery that needs animation, the ads just show a person talking, using the technique for flair alone, and hoping to grab the viewer’s attention while not using any of the medium’s true potential. Whereas Beowulf had mythological creatures to inhabit its world and Polar Express had elves and roller coaster-like sequences, this one rarely does anything to make the extra five-dollar ticket price worth it.

That’s not all though, the 3D still isn’t quite up to snuff either. I’m hoping that Avatar changes all that like it promises to, but I won’t hold my breath. The effect is pretty amazing, at least in the small quadrant your eyes can focus on at a time. I found that when I moved my head slightly, what was crisp and clean soon became doubled, while what was doubled became focused because my eyes now had it in their sights. Motion still blurs at too fast a speed for a brain to assimilate and, unfortunately, these problems do take you out of the story and acting. You find yourself adjusting to get as much of the screen in focus at one time, losing the nuances of the performances and the fantastic attention to detail. Truly, the snowflakes and the sparks or whatever small particles find their way between you and the characters are superb, bringing you into the film and the action. I loved the translucency of Marley’s ghost and the wrinkles of Scrooge along with the aging of the Ghost of Christmas Present. And the dark undertones were a welcome delight too, making the film a hard-PG that could scare the youngins’ just a bit.

As for the acting, one can’t complain too much. Gary Oldman is great as Bob Cratchit and Marley, visible ever so slightly, bringing a sense of reality to the otherwise plastic faces. Speaking of rubbery and fake, Bob Hoskins’ Mr. Fezziwig was the worst culprit of looking as far from human as possible, but luckily he is only onscreen for a brief time. Colin Firth may be the best in terms of the illusory effects of the animation, but the likeness is just too close and yet far off, making the face a tad strange. As for Carrey, well, this film is his vehicle for sure. The technique looks as though it was made especially for him and his chameleon-like mannerisms—always him but yet always a different body. He may over-play his hand at times, but when reined in, he also shines with enough nuance to carry the story and make his a worthy Scrooge in the lexicon of the role. It’s just a shame I can’t say the same about the film as a whole.

A Christmas Carol 6/10

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[1] Ghost of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge (JIM CARREY) stars in ‘DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL’. ©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Belle (ROBIN WRIGHT PENN) and Ebenezer Scrooge (JIM CARREY) stars in ‘DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL.’ ©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved.”

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Go figure, Roland Emmerich actually didn’t bore me to death with his latest disaster porn flick, ominously titled 2012. Oh he tried, padding this beast to over two and a half hours, that’s for sure, but for some reason—I can’t believe I’m saying this—it wasn’t horrible. Please don’t expect any critical acclaim or awards coming in, no, I didn’t say it was good, however, if you saw the trailer and thought it would be a successful choice to sit back and stuff your face with popcorn to, you won’t be disappointed. The contrivances are there, the introduction to meaningless characters only to have them come into play later is there, the over-acting is there, and those computers of Roland’s were definitely working overtime. Truly, the second best character in the film was the destruction itself—as long as real people weren’t in front of it to show how green-screened it was—doing what I had hoped the apocalyptic carnage would have done in The Day After Tomorrow. In a nutshell: fun, entertaining, end of the world fluff. If you wanted more, you’re deductive reasoning skills when watching a film trailer are sorely lacking.

Like all these films, it all begins with the scientists discovering how the disaster will play out. The interesting twist here, however, is that the governments of the world can’t find some hillbillies out in the desert to hire and solve the problem, thus saving the world while they wisecrack and sacrifice themselves for the heroic welcome back. Instead, it is up to the powers that be to create a timeline for survival. Noah was told to build an Ark before the flood and the world was asked to do the same as the Mayan calendar comes to a close. There is nothing like imminent extinction to put global animosity aside. I mean, come on, only a handful of countries have the financial backing to weather the end of days, you third world nations with chips on their shoulders better buddy up to be picked for the team. Science this and thermal crust temperatures that, jargon that even the President needs dumbing down aside, (honestly, Danny Glover? Seriously? Should have had Morgan Freeman play the role … again), it is the personal, human touch that’s needed to sustain such a long runtime.

But, who do we have on the civilian, “I need to care about them”, front? Oh, it’s John Cusack, and his selfish, failed, yet published, writer who needs the prospect of death to finally see that his love for his kids should have been the only thing mattering to him. Throw in the ex-wife and her new, rich boyfriend and we have us the making of a fun family road trip. Do we have a pilot? How about a former employer with the financial clout to allow some piggybacking to safety? And let’s not forget the necessity of a high ranking official in the government knowing our name enough to forget that we almost caused the deaths of thousands of people before we risked our lives to try and save the day. Yeah, we definitely need us one of those … just in case.

Seriously, though, who thought Shakespeare wrote this thing? The script serves one purpose and one purpose alone, to allow for the annihilation of an entire planet. There is nothing like watching the Sistine Chapel topple and roll over Italians in prayer; nothing like the Washington Monument severing into three pieces as it falls amidst the dust clouds from a volcanic eruption all the way in Yellowstone; and nothing like seeing California swallowed by the Pacific to get your adrenaline pumping. Thankfully, doing what Emmerich does best ever since Independence Day, most of the money shots are done in moments devoid of plot or central characters, allowing the visuals freedom to be as big as possible. Once people were placed in the vicinity—real people I mean, because those computer ones getting squished and falling from high rises are great—the whole illusion is shattered, making what looked three-dimensional starkly flat behind them. The water looked pretty real, the fault lines opening impressive, and the full-scale stuff at a far enough distance to be plausible didn’t have its detail ruin the façade.

So, kudos to the special effects team for sure. But let’s not forget the acting crew, because for something like this, Emmerich somehow got a talented bunch. Amanda Peet, Cusack, and the underused Stephen McHattie always seem to get the job done, even if they don’t always go above and beyond the call of duty and I really liked Jimi Mistry as the scientist that discovered it all. Thandie Newton is great, but unfortunately asked to do very little, and Oliver Platt is at his conniving best, a pleasure to see and a reason I enjoyed “Bored to Death” so much on HBO. However, I did say that the special effects were the second best character overall, (let’s say tied with a riotously funny Woody Harrelson—he hit that one out of the park), so I therefore need a top dog. The victor is one Chiwetel Ejiofor, granting this blockbuster way too much professionalism than it deserves. I’ve been a fan ever since seeing him in Dirty Pretty Things many years ago, but watching him vault a genre flick like this to resonating emotional heights just proves his worth. I hope 2012 makes some nice bank if only to get this guy a few more high profile roles, although I’d never want him to shy away from his indie roots. Maybe even co-star Thomas McCarthy can fit him in the next time he steps behind the camera.

2012 5/10

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[1] John Cusack and Lily Morgan (left), in Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009. Photo By: Joe Lederer
[2] (L-R) Lily Morgan, Thandie Newton, unidentified actor and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Columbia Pictures’ 2012. The action film will be released November 13, 2009. Photo By: Joe Lederer


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