Review- Alabama Moon

Uriah Shelton, Jimmy Bennett and Gabriel Basso in Alabama Moon (Faulkner-McLean Entertainment)

Alabama Moon is a film whose road to distribution was a long and winding one. In fact, it’s eventual home video release (which is how I ended up seeing it) was delayed because it finally got a limited regional release in the Gulf states, mainly Alabama (naturally). It’s worth noting that this model is not unusual. The straight-to-video release isn’t as profitable as it once was, and for some reason just as maligned even in this Streaming Age, so limited releases will act as a springboard for DVD sales.

Alabama Moon tells the tale of young Moon Blake, a boy who is raised in the woods by an eccentric father who is wary of both modernity and the government. Very early on, and rendered rather dramatically, Moon loses his father and much of the film will deal with how Moon tries to cope on his own, while trying to avoid authorities like a bumbling quasi-humorous cop played by Clint Howard or the clutches of a reformatory.

The standout of the film is the performance of Jimmy Bennett, who plays Moon Blake. He was most recently JJ on No Ordinary Family but is perhaps known for playing young James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. While Bennett has played in much grittier, darker and dramatic vehicles before such as Trucker and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things this may just be his best performance to date. This role demands a lot of him not just in terms of highly-charged emotional scenes but also some comedic timing is required and he needs to be a grounded normal-seeming character in the film’s goofier moments. As I tweeted immediately after watching it he basically makes it worth watching on his own and is “crazy good.”

There are other performances of note as well. Those deserving first mention are Moon’s friends played by Gabriel Basso and Uriah Shelton respectively. They play very different kinds of characters but are equally good foils because it never seems unnatural that Moon would befriend either because they both seem to reflect disparate aspects of his personality both a fighter and a quiet, solitary type.

The adult casting offers more mixed results. John Goodman’s character thankfully plays a more crucial role later in the film than it seems he will early on and is very well played. Then we come to the last key figure which is the police officer played by Clint Howard. Now merely casting Clint Howard, or that you can cast him in the part, is already an indication of how you intend to play a part. Howard can play a creepy menacing type but more often than not he’s goofy and here he’s like a mean-spirited Barney Fife only less competent.

It’s in that writing and casting decision where the die is cast that the tone of the film will be a balancing act between very serious drama in a coming-of-age vein and lighthearted borderline screwball comedy that must counterbalance one another. It is to this film’s credit that it manages to keep them both in check and make the film both light viewing and emotionally engaging at the same time and also some of that credit once again goes to the cast.

The film manages to deal with quite a few themes in a subtler than expected manner despite the variegated tone. One of the main ones being individuation from parents specifically that one can accept their parents’s faults, love them for who they are and learn from them but must eventually learn to see the the world, and interact with it, in their own way.

It may be easy to read this review and see why this film has fallen through the cracks as it’s not exactly the easiest to pigeonhole, however, I hope that in reading this review you have also found it is worth your time.

I was rather pleasantly surprised by this film and I’m very glad I tracked it down.

8/10

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Review- Bridesmaids

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids (Universal)

Timing is an interesting thing and I think if I sat down to write this yesterday it might’ve been rather uninteresting, however, today is when I’m writing this and it’s after having read a very interesting New York Times article about the “Jokeless Comedy.” Bridesmaids is mentioned there and it fits the more character-driven mold Sternbergh makes reference to.

As with any approach it has its pros and cons and some cons can be avoided entirely if executed perfectly or very, very well. While it is very funny and enjoyable Bridesmaids doesn’t hit all the marks perfectly.

One of the best parts of the film is through these ladies, even in their silly exploits, we find quite a bit of commentary on youth, parenting, marriage, self-pity, jealousy, etc.

The script which is co-written by star Kristen Wiig is rather strong in building its protagonist and breaking her down. We are also very tenuously able to laugh at her misfortune without feeling sorry for her. This is made more difficult by the fact that it seeks sympathy and not pity but it succeeds.

It will never be a fault of a film if they attempt and take the time to build character and this film does. This films builds it and builds it well but the only sin that can be committed is building too much. The over-building and a montage too many happen in Act II making it a bit too long. Not too much of the information is redundant but some of it is.

This makes the film a bit longer than it should be and not too many laughs are added to the mix because of it. Judd Apatow is attached as producer to this film and another mandate of his lately apparently is that no film shall less than two hours long. This is not to say comedies ought never be that long but the reason so many run 90 minutes is because it works. It’s still just very hard but it’s easier to get your momentum up and keep the laughs rolling if the film is on the shorter side.

The cast of the film is brilliant, which helps greatly. Kristen Wiig does carry the film very well both in dramatic and comedic scenes. Maya Rudolph also does very well and makes a great partner for Wiig. Melissa McCarthy frequently steals scenes but Wendi McLendon-Covey was not to be outdone either.

The film is quite funny but I’d be hard-pressed to call it one of the funnier films in recent years, however, it is definitely recommended.

8/10

Review- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Ian McShane in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney)

The Pirates of the Caribbean series has, in my estimation, run the gamut from being rather enjoyable to creating the worst film of a given year. What has been consistent, and you may even go so far as to say pervasive, in the series is that there has never been one that was the fullest possible realization of the narrative presented. Even in the enjoyable ones there have been very blatant issues holding it back. While being one of the better ones this installment is no different.

The beginning of the film, ironically when set on dry land, is quite entertaining. Full of action, humor and even a bit of intrigue. The former being in the guise of who is assuming Sparrow’s identity. It keeps a lot of this enjoyable energy throughout but its grasp on it becomes slippery as the film progresses.

One minor element, which I thought would be (and was thankful it was not) a point of elaboration, was the zombies. They were just sort of there, which is rare for zombies and I was thankful that it’s an affectation and not a distraction.

Speaking of affectations we come to Johnny Depp, who perhaps has more affectations in this character than in any other. Depending on the plot this character has been very hit or miss. The enjoyability of Jack Sparrow walks a tightrope in the sauntering, off-balance way Depp himself walks as Sparrow. Sometimes the narrative supports his goofiness and others it loses it edge and plummets: here it’s funny.

As a matter of fact a lot of the film is funny. The humor keeps this film ticking even through some of its major problems, which will be dealt with shortly. There is enough peppered in to keep it interesting for even the spectator most inclined to be disinterested.

There are many characters in the film and that does become a bit of a problem as a simple tale gets convoluted with a bit too much intrigue. The constant need the film feels to keep tabs on all them (at least for a time) makes it drag despite the comedic efforts of some.

This is just one of the factors that lead to the running time to balloon and the pace to suffer. The other being the romantic subplot which really comes from Philip (Sam Clafin), the abducted cleric who doesn’t serve a purpose other than to involve himself in this romance with the mermaid (Astrid-Berges-Frisbey) and inflate the running time. The relationship between Sparrow and Angelica (Penélope Cruz) is more love/hate or antagonistic than a proper love story and their fate is predictable after a certain point.

Oh, yeah the 3D. Um, don’t bother. Had I not seen it abroad for an absurdly cheaper price than I could watch it here I would’ve been peeved about paying 3D prices for that; rather ineffectual.

Overall, I did enjoy the film despite dreading it going in. So it gets a pass.

6/10

Review- Meek’s Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Note: Spoilers within.

The first thing that bears mentioning with regards to Meek’s Cutoff is the trailer and it does connect to the film in a very real way. After watching the trailer you’d get the sense that while this will be a dramatic western and one with a journey but it’d be more uptempo. As soon as the movie starts, however, you will learn that exactly the opposite is true. This film has a very deliberate pace, which includes one of the slowest dissolves I’ve yet witnessed.

This is not to say that the pace is negative but just a warning that as a viewer it would behoove you to read a review, whether it be this one or a few others also before deciding to go out and see it. You really need to make sure you want to commit to seeing this movie because the trailer is selling a false bill of goods to an extent.

To be more explicit about the pace the polite word would methodical, and methodical paces can be trying if there is no reason for it but there is reason here. The tale that’s being told here is a part of a journey. There are a group of seven migrant people and a pathfinder looking for a new beginning. You don’t see their beginning but only the plight they currently face, which is mainly that of thirst. When the threat of dehydration and exhaustion are ever-present it can’t really be communicated in a quick cutting smooth flowing narrative context.

That’s just one aspect of the narrative conflict which is at work. This is the kind of film that actually has more going on than you realize on the surface because it doesn’t comment much on its issues and when it does so it’s only in a rather superficial way that belies its depth. The first struggles these travelers face is with with their pathfinder, played very well by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. They doubt he can really get them where they want to be, where there’s water and so do we after a point. This conflict precedes the one that dominates the second half of the film.

The major conflict of the second half of the film is both deciding what to do when they capture an Indian, Rod Rondeaux, and if they should follow and trust him. The film does well to not completely overlook its first conflict and places Meek (Greenwood) at odds with the traveling party about what to do with the native, there is some debate and they decide to spare him and hope he can lead them where they want to go.

The conflicts and intrigue continue here as not all the travelers are in agreement, some are scared of him and some see no alternative but to trust him. Stakes also get raised when much of their supplies are lost when one of their wagons crashes after making it down a steep grade.

The film only ever really goes over the top with some of its politicized dialogue. Almost any Post-Studio Era Western will have its debate on the true nature of the Native American and ostracize the racist White man who seeks to kill him- so that’s expected but it’s a bit much. Aside from that the drama is played rather close to the vest a lot of the time and doesn’t boil over too often. There is religious despair intimated by readings from The Bible, doubt and mistrust cast in glances and subtext.

There’s a stark isolation to the landscape and the framing of the characters that imbues itself in the celluloid and it’s a refreshingly cloistered tale wherein not only are there merely nine characters but you will even see them all at once. It’s a rare true ensemble piece where not only do all the actors get their moments but they frequently all play in a single shot.

It’s the kind of film you watch and feel like not much has happened but then when you reflect back on it there was more than you thought and to address the pace again I was caught off-guard by the ending because it didn’t quite feel like 104 minutes had passed. To comment on the ending I’m not sure it makes or breaks the film. It is open but if you consider the two most likely possible outcomes for the tale would those have been more dramatically satisfying? I think not, so this works just fine.

7/10

Review- Prom

Aimee Teegarden and Thomas McDonell in Prom (Disney)

This isn’t a review that’s easy to write and I’ll tell you why straight off the bat. It’s due to the duality of my feelings about the film in question. As I plotted it in my head it seemed appropriate that it be somewhat similar to the Win Win review, in as much as it would focus heavily on performance. The reason for that in this film is that I’m sad to say I didn’t walk away from this film liking it but in watching it and re-watching it I really did love the cast that was assembled for it and what they did with the material with which they were asked to work.

To get the negative out of the way first a lot of my dissatisfaction in the film can be attributed mainly to narrative and script. It’s a difficult task to juggle multiple storylines, especially in a romantic comedy. You’ll find varying degrees of success in this kind of film because it’s hard to balance the stories, tell enough of them, keep them fresh and make them equally compelling. A lot of the strands while they are engaging enough are all too easily predictable.

The film also struggles with believability as it does have a tendency to transpose Nova’s (Aimee Teegarden) pie-in-the-sky feelings about the prom to a few characters. In the beginning it’s contained just to her but it spreads. Aside from the strands being predictable none of them are really stories we haven’t seen: there’s the Triangle, the Jilted Girlfriend, The Presumably Imaginary Girlfriend, The College Split-Up, The Honor Student and the Bad Boy and so on. Again no inherently bad templates but there’s not enough of a twist to freshen these up and of course all these tales each have their own arc and thus we have to wait as each starts a little awkwardly and ends nicely in due course. The only truly refreshing end of any strand was Corey’s. Corey (Cameron Monaghan) being the friend who feels left behind when his friend Lucas (Nolan Sotillo) falls for Simone (Danielle Campbell).

In spite of all of this the cast does wonders with the material. The main thrust of the film is, of course, The Nova and Jesse (Thomas McDonnell) tale. It starts as love-hate as they are forced to work together to rebuild the ruined prom decorations. There is real chemistry in this pairing. Months ago I had read that McDonnell’s performance had created some pre-release buzz in the industry and it’s easy to see why. There’s a potential star in the making there. Teegarden overcomes some very clunky and awkward dialogue at times to deliver a very good performance that is a step above what she showed on Friday Night Lights and the flip-side of her Scream 4 turn.

The Triangle of the film is actually two, which is not an easy trick to pull off so the film does deserve credit for that. Tyler (DeVaughn Nixon) is dating Jordan (Kylie Bunbury) but he’s cheating on her and wants to be with Simone. Simone also gains the interest of Lucas and Lucas likes her. It’s this dynamic where you’ll find some of the better dramatic moments of the story. Nixon, while getting his comeuppance, does give a good portrayal of the guy who will never really get it and is just out for himself. Bunbury of the four probably has the least amount of screen time but she always exudes a nobody’s fool air and she’s waiting to catch Tyler in flagrante to unleash her claws. Danielle Campbell shines as she is consistently torn throughout the film once you see the crack in her facade she is a confused character pained by the situation she’s been placed in.

Nolan Sotillo and his frequent scene partner Cameron Monaghan frequently steal the show in this film. Their chemistry is great and they work really well off one another. They also bring some of the most genuine comedy to the film and genuine emotion in general. It’s that very word that popped into my head as Lucas was fighting for Simone’s affections and was getting swatted away, he and she are quite genuine in their emotion in those scenes. Furthermore, Sotillo adds a song to the soundtrack of the film which is fantastic, it’s just a shame that it’s buried as the second song in the end credits it really could’ve been a boon to the climactic moments of the film.

The next major pairing is that of Mae (Yin Chang) and Justin (Jared Kusnitz). It was in watching these scenes that I really realized the arduous task these actors were given, few if any of them deal with scenes that allowed their to be a rhythmic ebb and flow to their performance, they were either dealing in just one note or they were constantly at high tension. Yin Chang is constantly at high tension it’s just a matter of how much she shows it that changes and her performance is very good. It’s a shame, however, that the talents of these two are utilized in one of the least compelling narrative strands.

The loners of note are: Rolo (Joe Adler) who offers a necessary and perfectly offbeat dose of comic relief and Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) who is the nice guy desperately trying to find just one girl who can or wants to go out with him. As if that wasn’t enough story Lloyd also has a constant companion, his stepsister played wonderfully by Raini Rodriguez.

In the adults of this tale a few more issues are brought to the fore. Yes, of course, there has to be an obstacle to Nova and Jesse going to the prom but the machinations by which her awkwardly played father (Dean Norris) goes through to prevent it are hard to swallow. Not neglecting to mention that somehow this high school is big enough such that people can go there for four years and not speak to one another but Nova’s dad instantly knows who Jesse Richter is at the mention of his name.

Ultimately, I’d say if you want to see a group of young actors you’re likely going to want to see again in something else go out and see this film. If you’re all about narrative and don’t care about the acting, sadly I can’t recommend it and as much as I do like this cast and what they did with what they were given, sadly I can’t give this film a passing grade.

5/10

Review- Fast Five

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast Five (Universal)

As I first discussed in my review of Rio I bring quite a bit of baggage to any American-made film dealing with Brazil and I will be analyzing certain aspects that escape the notice of the common viewer. Obviously, some of these things also come into play when discussing Fast Five and I will attempt to address those as swiftly as possible and address the film as a whole.

However, with this particular film the Brazilian-ness of it and how accurately that is portrayed is a more pervasive concern as it touches many aspects of the film from dialogue, plot, believability, characters, plot points, acting and the like more so than in the aforementioned film.

Some examples: Firstly, I applaud this film for its attempt to be sneaky foreign (like Hanna) and actually include a bit of dialogue in Portuguese and even subtitling certain scenes. Most of the acting in the film as a whole is just fine, however, the noticeable sore spots are created by those portraying Brazilians who are clearly not. Joaquim de Almeida plays a drug kingpin and the mark of the major heist in this film, he does a fine job but as I suspected when I looked up the cast he’s Portuguese not Brazilian. Very noticeably a fish out of water is American Michael Irby as his second hand man. Spaniard Elsa Pataky and Israeli Elsa Godot are quite convincing, the latter not so much in one particular scene due to her look more so than her interpretation. The best Portuguese is spoken by Jordana Brewster who speaks it rarely and I wasn’t even sure she knew any despite being born in Brazil.

Issues with the story with regards to it being set in Brazil are most prevalent in two incidents that I take issue with. So far as having a druglord who has the Military Police in his pocket and corruption, I can take that. It’s an acknowledged issue that’s been long combated, however, if you want to see a film about the PM and how a good man can go bad and see a rather realistic rendition thereof watch Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite). The issues are the first scene where the American forces lead by Dwayne Johnson go up into a favela, in very cinamtically clichéd fashion all the runners and criminals brandish their guns like a territorial pissing then Johnson shows his gun and they all back away. The problem there is that that would either lead to a standoff or a firefight, which is not infrequent. It’s a movie device that really doesn’t apply here. There’s a more realistic scene where he’s baited out into the open and surrounded.

The worst scene of the film is the apparent defeat. Here for some reason the American forces decide they should drive, seemingly unnecessarily, through the elevated and undulating streets of a favela and it sets up a ridiculous confrontation.

There is enough action to carry this film along and make it a decent ride. The villain although broadly drawn does have some decent moments. The characters in the film are many so not many are developed in all that much detail but you do get a sense of them and there is a good amount of comedy mixed in which keeps things light in spite of the bickering minorities device that is employed twice.

To give this film its just desserts there is a hand-to-hand combat scene between Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel that trumps anything that occurred in The Expendables and no uncomfortable undertones to boot.

Despite being incredibly outlandish in terms of what the heist is, how it’s pulled off and what the reactions of law enforcement are to it at several stages of the film it’s still an enjoyable enough flick. It’s a decent popcorn flick that actually got me in the theatre by adding the heist element to a franchise that had never interested me before. Also, plan your health break carefully and stay through the end credits for a tag teases a sequel.

As a coda, bear in mind that with the financial success of Rio and Fast Five, Brazil will likely be the go to international transplant destination for franchises everywhere. I think James Bond needs a vacation, don’t you?

6/10

Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10

In Memoriam: Jackie Cooper

Jackie Cooper

As is my usual policy when deciding to write an in memoriam piece I don’t like to rush it to strike while the news cycle is hot. Part of the reason why is that I like to give the people I choose to write about their due rather than being short and sweet to the point of being curt.

Jackie Cooper’s was a long and extensive career that can not be summed up in a few short and sweet sentences. I’ll try and give it better perspective here.

From 1929-1931 Cooper made about 13 shorts as part of Hal Roach’s legendary Little Rascals troupe. Hal Roach being one of the legendary producers of Hollywood and the Rascals being one of his longest lasting legacies.

Below in two parts you’ll find one of their shorts where Cooper features prominently.

1931 turned out to be a watershed year for the young actor who in that year went most of the way to establishing his Hollywood immortality. First, there is his participation in the film Skippy, which earned him a nomination as Best Actor. A film which is mysteriously unavailable on DVD in the US.

However, in that year he also delivered what is likely his most memorable performance in The Champ, a film for which Wallace Beery captured Best Actor.

Another fine and more mature performance from Cooper can be found in the film Peck’s Bad Boy, which is a wonderful example of classic filmmaking because the story is so simple but so emotive. It also features two outstanding antagonistic performances by Dorothy Peterson and Jackie Searl. The film can be seen in its entirety here:

http://www.archive.org/flow/flowplayer.commercial-3.2.1.swf

Mickey Rooney, Freddie Batholomew and Jackie Cooper in The Devil is a Sissy (MGM)

Surprisingly Cooper never did capture the Juvenile Award, a special Academy Award that was awarded to a deserving young actor from 1934 to 1960. However, he did have another memorable performance with two of the other finest actors of his generation Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney in The Devil is a Sissy in 1936. His character being the most hardened of the lot.

While like many child actors Cooper found the work to be not as good or as consistent as he transitioned to adulthood he did keep working and with the advent of television he transitioned mediums and started building a long and impressive resume of guest appearances on the small screen.

Jackie Cooper with Emmy

Eventually he made his way behind the scenes as a director and producer. Some of his directorial credits include episodes of M*A*S*H for which he won an Emmy for the episode “Carry on, Hawkeye,” Mary Tyler Moore, The Rockford Files, The White Shadow for which he won an Emmy for the Pilot episode, Magnum, P.I., Cagney & Lacey, The Adventures of Superboy and Jake & the Fatman.

Between 1948 and 1971 there was but television work, he also garnered consecutive Emmy nominations as an actor in 1961 and 1962 for his work on Hennesey, but then there was the occasional blip of a film until he was cast as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, in the Superman films, the initial wave. It is in this capacity that he is known and remembered by many today as I have mentioned before many are lucky to be known by all for one film or project, even more fortunate are those who are known by many.

Jackie Cooper had many incarnations as an entertainer but in all of them he entertained audiences and endeared himself to them. He will be dearly remembered and sorely missed. He left an indelible mark on film and left innumerous memories behind. Let us take a moment and reflect on them.

Jackie Cooper in Superman (Warner Bros.)