The Company You Keep

April 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie
Directed by: Robert Redford (“The Conspirator”)
Written by: Lem Dobbs (“Haywire”)

It might flaunt the most impressive cast top to bottom you’re likely to see this year on the big screen (21 Oscar nominations, 4 wins), but the script behind Oscar-winning director Robert Redford’s political thriller “The Company You Keep” can only lead its actors just far enough before they’re let down by the material.

It really is unfortunate since Redford, who earned an Academy Award for directing in 1981 for “Ordinary People,” comes into the project with a lot of the pieces already in place. This should be a more intriguing look into the radical leftist organization known as the Weather Underground in the late 60s and early 70s, but it falters. The revolutionary group, whose members were charged during that time for bombing a number of sites such as the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, were hell-bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.

In “Company,” Redford stars as Jim Grant, a New York City lawyer and former activist of the Weathermen, who has been living as a fugitive for the last 30 years after a bank heist he is involved in during his heyday claims the life of a guard. Jim is flushed from his quiet suburban home when one of his former Weather Underground colleagues Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is finally found and arrested for her involvement in the radical movement. Her arrest triggers a domino effect that leads to Jim’s participation in the crime. Now on the run with the FBI and media (Shia LaBeouf plays a scrappy newspaper reporter who cracks the case) on his trail, Jim hits the road in search of a way to clear his name.

Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, “Company” is a sort of slowly-paced road-trip movie where tons of characters join the fracas, but none are very important to the overall narrative. It’s great to see the likes of heavy-hitters like Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte and Stanley Tucci tag in and out like some kind of all-star contest, but the substance behind each of their individual connections to the story is thinly scripted.

The acting makes up slightly for the film’s lack of tension. We’re not looking for car chases and extensive getaway scenes here, but Redford’s inability to draw out more emotional conflict from the script is its greatest letdown. There just aren’t enough big moments the talent can sink their claws into. “Company” is never boring, but it also never shifts out of first gear, which poses a major problem when you have a fugitive on the run and a lot at stake.

Friends with Benefits

July 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson
Directed by: Will Gluck (“Easy A”)
Written by: Keith Merryman (debut), David A. Newman (debut), Will Gluck (debut)

“Friends with Benefits” might have been given the benefit of the doubt if it had at least tried to be anything besides “No Strings Attached.” Sure, you’ve probably heard the comparison a million times already, but it’s evident that what we have here is the same movie six months later. If studios are this hard up for material, don’t be surprised to see a remake of one of these two rom com in about five years.

All kidding aside, a romantic comedy with this many unoriginal ideas can easiliy write itself. Boy and girl meet; boy and girl wonder if they can base a relationship on sex; boy and girl begin to fall for each other; friendship is ruined; relationship is mended. Happily ever after. Who actually knows what screenwriters Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Will Gluck (also the director) did to earn their paycheck?

While Justin Timberlake does exude 10 times more charm that Ashton Kutcher of “Strings,” “Friends with Benefits” just doesn’t have substantial material to work with. At first, it makes fun of what a cliché rom-com looks like and then blatantly becomes the exact same type of film it was parodying only minutes before. Maybe that’s the kind of sarcastic storytelling this genre is going for now, but it doesn’t make a difference when everything feels so recycled.

Let Me In

October 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins
Directed by: Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”)
Written by: Matt Reeves (“The Yards”)

Let’s imagine for a moment that the 2008 Swedish horror masterpiece “Let the Right One In” did not exist. How would its American counterpart “Let Me In” perform without the pressure of having to live up to its predecessor? How do you enhance something that was already considered by most as exceptional cinema?

From the start, “Let Me In” finds itself in an uphill battle with purists. It might be a film that didn’t necessarily need to be remade (other than to introduce the story to mainstream American audiences who would squirm at the idea of having to read subtitles), but on its own merit it’s still executed strikingly well.

Following the Dutch script rather closely, “Let Me In” tells the story of Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 12-year-old boy living in small town New Mexico in the 1980s who befriends a peculiar girl of the same age when she moves into his apartment complex with her father (Richard Jenkins).

Abby (Chloe Moretz) is pleasant enough, but immediately lets Owen know they can’t be friends. As the mystery builds we find out Abby – although she doesn’t refer to herself as a vampire – needs blood to survive. Her father provides her with the sustenance she needs to survive by slinking out into the dead of night to commit murder. A local policeman (Elias Koteas) begins to investigate when drained bodies start turning up in the snow.

While Abby hungers, Owen has his own personal problems. A trio of bullies is making his life miserable at school. His mother, who is suffering from depression triggered by her divorce, is emotionally distant (director Reeves decides to keep her face hidden from the audience for all her scenes). Abby becomes the only person he can confide in.

It’s evident how much Reeves loves the original film. There is a different type of eeriness in his version, but it works just the same. The original film was starker. “Let Me In” takes more cues from the horror/thriller genre. Reeves also uses an incredible score by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino to build the tension to threatening levels. The silly CGI (something the original does not use) knocks “Let Me In” down a few notches, but we’ll chalk it up as one of necessary evils used to help Americanize it.

It will be interesting to see how U.S. audiences react to the slow pacing and serious attention given to the subtleties of young love. For horror fans looking for buckets of blood a la “30 Days of Night” or for tweens hoping to get something to hold them over until “Breaking Dawn,” “Let Me In” won’t be that movie. It’s stylish and artful, not clichéd or hokey. And if “Let the Right One In” never existed, it would have hit a lot harder.

Dear John

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”)
Written by: Jamie Linden (“We Are Marshall”)

There’s only so much a filmmaker can do to avoid over-romanticizing the film adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel. While a director like Lasse Hallstrom (“The Cider House Rules”) has proven in the past that he can create great chemistry between actors (Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron in “Cider,” Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche in “Chocolat”) , it’s not always about the lovey-doviness.

If that was the case, “Dear John” wouldn’t fare so badly. There are, however, intangibles that make a difference in whether or not a story succeeds. In “Dear John,” Hallstrom and screenwriter Jamie Linden (“We Are Marshall”) almost manage to get past most of the pitfalls of a sentimental romance, but the third act is so incoherent when compared to the first hour of the film, it’s hard to fully recommend it.

The film follows the lovefest between special forces soldier John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and innocent college girl Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) who meet at author Sparks’ favorite locale – the beach (see “Message in a Bottle,” “Nights in Rodanthe”) – during a two-week-long spring break.

The courtship begins easy enough, but, of course, there’s only two weeks to get these young lovebirds to the point where they can’t live without each other. Things begin to progress rather quickly like most cinematic romances. John is a man with a past, although not much is explained about what made him so troublesome before he shaped up in the Army. He lets Savannah deep into his life and even introduces her to his coin-collecting-reclusive father (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) who Savannah believes is showing signs of autism.

While John and Savannah’s relationship flies by fast, Hallstrom and Linden are able to make the love story believable and sweet enough without drowning it in too much sap. The father-son story between Tatum and Jenkins offers an affectionate element rarely seen in these types of films. It’s a heartwarming part of the narrative mostly because of Jenkins’ effortless  performance, which is, unfortunately, thinly-written.

Where “Dear John” falters most is when John and Savannah are sent on their separate ways. John must return to military duty while Savannah goes back to college. Before they say their goodbyes, the two make promises to each other including keeping in contact through letters. The long-distance relationship is less interesting as letter pass back and forth and the narration becomes more and more like something you would find in the greeting card section marked “Missing You.”

When John proclaims to Savannah that “It’ll all be over soon and I’ll be back for good,” he doesn’t anticipate something like 9/11 happening. The tragedyaffects their plans to be together when John decides to reenlist with the rest of his platoon. From there, “Dear John” just delays the inevitable as the story becomes more and more melodramatic with each mail call. Hallstrom and Linden play the sympathy card for the final half-hour and unfortunately turn “Dear John” into an overemotional and manipulative mess.

Burn After Reading

September 2, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”)
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen (“Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”)

It would only be natural if you flinched a bit when you found out the recently Oscar’ed Coen Brothers would return to the comedy genre after their success with the suspenseful and fascinating “No Country for Old Men.” Not since 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” has the genre been good to them, although some may argue “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was a minor triumph.

Still, “Intolerably Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” were not up to form for directors who had helmed one of the best dark comedies of all time in “Fargo.” It’s good to see them slowly finding that niche again in their new film.

In “Burn After Reading,” the nation’s security is in jeopardy (well, sort of) when employees of a local fitness center, including Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), find a disc they think contains top secret CIA information.

With a bitter, recently separated ex-spook named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) on their backs, Chad and Linda decide they are going to milk their discovery as much as possible and see how far blackmailing someone can take them.

Linda, who’s tired of trolling on internet dates sites for the perfect man, has been longing for a few plastic surgery procedures her insurance refuses to cover so she can be more attractive, while peppy Chad is simply excited about being a part of the adventure. Academy Award winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) plays Harry Pfarrer, a delusional governmental employee with food allergies who’s been sleeping around with Osborne’s cold wife Katie (Tilda Swinton). Relationships continue to cross paths in this comedy of errors as the Coens write up a breezy little spoof that pushes the plot in bizarre and sometimes unbelievable ways.

The main problem with “Burn” is that the Coens haven’t developed characters as much as they have created caricatures of real people. It’s different when we’re talking about eccentricities like John Tuturro’s Jesus Quintana in “Lebowski” or even Clooney’s grease-loving Everett in “O Brother” because they seem to be in this completely different world devoid of any sanity. In “Burn,” however, many of the characters feel too manufactured in Anytown, USA. Their exaggerated stupidity can be endearing, but most of the time you’re thinking how no one can possibly be this dumb and needy.

Still, the Coens recipe for humor laden with violence is second to none and all the principal players give enjoyably jovial performances. It really is the Coen’s funniest film since giving us The Dude 10 years ago.

Step Brothers

July 28, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen
Directed by: Adam McKay (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy”)
Written by: Adam McKay (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”) and Will Ferrell (“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”)

They’ve only been in two movies together, but watching Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in their new film “Step Brothers” will make you wonder if they were created in the same agar-filled Petri dish or once connected at the hip.

It’s not only the fact that they have the same dollish, curly hair or that they both look like identical geeks in argyle sweaters on the movie poster. Ferrell and Reilly have the same offbeat comedic timing and when put together makes for one eccentric metronome of humor.

In “Step Brothers,” 30-something-year-old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) is not too thrilled when his mother (Mary Steenburgen) falls in love with Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) and decides to marry and move in with him and his 30-something-year-old son Dale (John C. Reilly).

The boys, er, men quickly butt heads as they invade each other’s personal space. Basically, they hate each other from the get-go. Not only is their respect parent stealing the other away from them, both their mother and father are beginning to recognize that if they don’t make Brennan and Dale grow up, get jobs, and move out, they are going to be stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Although the sibling rivalry/blood feud lasts for a good portion of the film (there are some great one-liners like, “I’m Dale, but you have to call me dragon” and “It’s like masturbating in a time machine”), the boys find out they have more in common then they first thought. Similarities in their personality take shape when both realize they share the same dislike for Brennan’s younger, douchebag-of-a-brother Derek (Adam Scott), whose seemingly perfect life is actually quite creepy.

While Ferrell and Reilly manage to keep the laughs coming for the first half of the film, Ferrell as a screenwriter once again proves that he can’t stop a joke from going on too long before it loses steam. At points, Ferrell’s humor is like the awkward silence or poorly extended scenes during parts of “The Family Guy.” You know there is a great comedic moment buried somewhere in the clutter, but its layers are far too thick to claw out.

“Step Brothers” is as juvenile as a film can get, even more so since the juveniles here are played by grown men. Once you get past all the horseplay and back to the short and offensive dialogue, there is some fun to be had with Ferrell and Reilly rampaging through the film like a fat kid through a candy store.

Richard Jenkins – The Visitor

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

His face might be recognizable, but chances are you can’t remember what movies actor Richard Jenkins has been in. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s not memorable.

In recent years, Jenkins has gone from play Ben Stiller’s disinterested shrink in “There’s Something About Mary” to Catherine Zeta Jones’s attorney in “Intolerable Cruelty” to Jennifer Aniston’s father in “Rumor Has It.” In his 34-year career, he has performed supporting roles in nearly 50 feature films including Lawrence Kasdan’s “Silverado,” Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and Allan Ball’s award-winning TV series “Six Feet Under.”

Now, for the first time in his career, Jenkins, who is originally from DeKalb, Illinois, is the leading man. In “The Visitor,” directed by Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”), Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a college professor from Connecticut who befriends a young immigrant couple after finding them stowed away in his New York City apartment.

Conned into renting Walter’s apartment, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who is from Syria, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), who is from the Republic of Senegal, find themselves without a home. Compassionate to their situation, Walter tells the couple they can stay with him until they figure out what to do. During their time together, he becomes mesmerized with Tarek’s musical abilities and begins to take lessons with him to learn to play the djimbe hand drum. When Terek is arrested, however, everyone’s life is thrown into a tailspin since he and Zainab are illegally in the country.

During an interview, Jenkins, 60, who was in Austin, Texas for the regional premiere of “The Visitor” at the South by Southwest Film Festival, talked about similarities between him and his character, learning how to play an African drum, and his thoughts on immigration.

What was your mind going through knowing this was going to be the first leading role of your career?

I always wondered if I would get the chance to do it and if I did would I be able to. We rehearsed for three weeks and it was really productive. Sometimes [rehearsals] aren’t productive in movies but this was. I understand now when I would ask a [lead] actor, “How are you doing?” and they say “I’m a little tired.” Emotionally, you have [the role] with you all the time.

This is a very emotional film, so did those feelings stick with you throughout the entire production?

No, not really. The whole process of making this movie was really terrific. The tone was right. The set was great. It felt relaxed. It was a great atmosphere. If I was going to do a lead role, these circumstances are the ones that I’m glad I ended up doing it in.

Like your character Walter Vale, you have this “everyman” quality about you that is very reassuring. How much of your character is actually Richard Jenkins in real life?

Well, one of the things that really struck me when I read [the script] the first time was that [Walter] is not interested in new situations. I’m kind of like that. I’m kind of stuck in my ways. I sometimes have to be pushed into doing new things. But when I am I almost always enjoy it. [Thomas McCarthy] told me he wrote this part with me in mind, so if I couldn’t bring something to this role then I would be in real trouble.

Are you fine having this “everyman” characteristic attached to you or is it limiting as an actor?

Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not Gary Cooper. I am who I am. I understand a role like this. It’s something that speaks to me. It’s nice to do be able to do roles that speak with you.

Tell me about learning how to play the djimbe. I read that you didn’t have to learn how to play it before production because Thomas wanted your character’s progression on the instrument to come naturally.

Well, I wanted to sound good at the end [of the movie]. I wanted to be free and full of emotion. I played the drums when I was young. I took lessons for five years and played it in junior high. I never got really good.

That final scene in the subway where you are playing is really powerful. How many takes did you have to do to get it perfect?

Well, it was one of those things where you don’t have a lot of time because you are in the subway and a lot of those people standing around are not extras. They’re just people standing around. I think by the end my hands were pretty raw.

Along with the musical aspect, the film, of course, deals with immigration issues. What kind of messages do you hope come across from that viewpoint?

Basically we wanted people to put themselves in other people’s shoes. I think what Tom wanted was to put a face on [immigration]. I think a guy like Walter puts these two cultures together and gives a face to this couple.

Do you have a personal opinion on the state of immigration today?

My personal opinion is we need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want. There are faces and people behind this issue. I think that’s where we get lost. Everything is generalized.

One of my favorite scenes is where Walter starts playing the drum for the first time and Tarek walks in on him and encourages him to keep playing. You can see in Walter’s face how much joy something as simple as beating a drum is giving him. Have you ever felt like that in your life where you try something new and immediately come alive?

For me it was acting. It was a “eureka moment.” It was a feeling that I had always been looking for. I knew [acting] is what I wanted to do with my life.

The Visitor

May 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”)
Written by: Thomas McCarthy (“The Station Agent”)

In the very first lead role of his entire 30-plus-year career as a supporting actor, Richard Jenkins has made heads turn in astonishment with “The Visitor.” Sure, it’s May but Jenkins has displayed the best performance of any actor since the start of the year with his passionate and dramatic turn.

In “The Visitor,” Jenkins is Walter Vale, a lonely economics professor living and working at a college in Connecticut. When the department chair asks Walter, who has become apathetic over the years as a teacher, to go to New York City for a conference, Walter grudgingly accepts the idea of having to sit through lectures for an entire weekend.

He will, however, get to go back to the apartment he owns in the West Village, a place he gets to rarely visit. But when Walter enters his flat, he surprises an immigrant couple who have been conned into believing Walter’s apartment is available for rent.

With nowhere to go Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), who is from Syria, and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Jakesai Gurira), who is from the Senegal, take their belongings and stand aimlessly on the sidewalks of New York for a while before Walter tells them they can stay with him until they get on their feet.

To pay Walter back for his kindness, Tarek, who notices that Walter is intrigued by his djimbe African drum, begins to teach him how to play the instrument. The bond between Walter and the couple grows as their cultures reveal both the differences and similarities of strangers from opposite sides of the world.

When Tarek is arrested for a misunderstanding in the subway, everyone’s lives come go a standstill as Tarek is placed in a security facility to await deportation. While there, Walter makes all efforts to help the couple find an immigration lawyer and allows Tarek’s mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), to stay with him until they find a way to get her son out of confinement.

Directed and written by Thomas McCarthy, whose last film was the fantastic “The Station Agent” in 2003, “The Visitor” is a beautifully constructed albeit small film that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Jenkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance and McCarthy’s attention to human emotion is impressive.