Monday, August 18, 2014

Romantic Comedy ‘What If” plays cute

Director: Michael Dowse

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Jemima Rooper, Rebecca Northam

By James Colt Harrison

It’s summer and it’s time for some light and breezy romantic comedies that are as transparent as Swiss cheese. ”What If” fills the bill for lighter-than-air entertainment. Even the title was given a blast of helium when it was changed from ”The F Word” to the more bland “What If” for delicate American audiences.

When the leading man has grown up in front of our eyes as Harry Potter, debuted on the stage stripping himself of all his clothes and going bare naked in “Equus” (Best Leading Actor), we get the point that Daniel Radcliffe is now a young leading man. Well, sort of a baby version of a leading man. But cute, anyway.

Cute is necessary for this film to work. Radcliffe (Wallace) has dropped out of medical school after a bad relationship has devastated him. He has vowed not to get involved with another girl and has given up sex for the duration. His best friend Allan---the comical Adam Driver---and local sex hunk dives into a relationship with passionate Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) and marries her. It’s sort of an incentive for Wallace to get back into life again. Allan introduces Wallace to his cousin, airy Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator. She’s much involved with her live-in boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall).

Wallace and Chantry seem to have a lot in common and become great friends. They are funny and sweet characters and that word “cute” creeps in again. Chantry is devoted to her grounded and ambitious boyfriend Ben. But Wallace has bigger eyes for Chantry than he is willing to admit. And does she have more than friendly feelings for Wallace. They play cat and mouse emotionally and try to figure out where they stand with each other.

This is not a new situation between boy-girl relationships. There must have been a million movies before this dealing with the same dilemma. Radcliffe himself said, “In a lot of romantic comedies I think it can feel a little too easy on people’s relationships but this film accurately takes in some of the complexity of people’s relationships. And it is really, really funny.  That was the kind of main thing that drew me towards it.”

Director Dowse praised Radcliffe’s performance by saying “I think he’s totally accessible, beautifully flawed and immediately likeable as an actor, almost like a young Jack Lemmon. People inherently end up rooting for him.”

As Wallace’s best friend and room-mate Allan, Adam Driver’s comedy acting chops dominate all his scenes. Ms. Davis enthused, ”Adam Driver is so funny and wonderful in this movie and really bizarre. He’s so smart and such a good actor and it was such a wonderful experience to get to work with him and improv with him and, laugh and have him make me laugh all the time.”

The major portion of the film was shot in Toronto. Not usually known as a “romantic” city such as Venice or Paris, the crew used the water settings to great advantage. One of the funniest scenes in the film is a night-time skinny dipping at the beach. And, necessary to the story line, the cast and crew had to go to Dublin, Ireland for some scenes to wrap up the movie. It opens the film up visually and gives it the correct brightness for the overall look.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Thrilling Adventure With Surprises

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell

Review by James Colt Harrison

20th Century fox has a big hit on its hands with the latest version in the Planet of the Apes franchise. The new one is called Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the tile of which gives a clue as to what transpires now and what may happen in the future episodes. The sequel to this new film is already in the works, with director Matt Reeves also attached. Fox is already counting the piles of cash the film will bring in to summer showings.

We don’t want to rehash the plot because that is ludicrous and you can find out when you see this dazzling 3D color film. Essentially, the gist of the story is that decades ago a terrible virus almost wiped out human existance. The apes were not harmed. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is now the leader of their simian nation and has a family with two sons. Serkis is a master of CG action and stop-motion acting and achieved his well-deserved reputation for acting in the Hobbit films. He can only act with his eyes and mouth, but he does a superb job of conveying impatience, anger, and sorrow with his body language.

Several humans survived the virus in the San Francisco area. Some actual scenes were shot in the city and some were re-created on sound stages. You can tell the difference. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his troupe of Keri Russell, a nurse, and their son Kodi Smit-McPhee are pacifists and want to negotiate with Caesar to prevent war. Gary Oldman plays Dreyfuss, a militant guy who wants to wipe out the apes. He gives Malcolm three days to make a peace pact with Caesar.

The action seems to be almost non-stop from beginning sequences and liberally sprinkled throughout on frequent occasions The Ape Army is magnificent, imposing and frightening. Although the apes may still seem like savages to some, they also take on some human qualities which they would furiously refuse to admit. Is it a battle of good against evil? Yes and no. Who are the evil ones and who doesn’t have a blood-thirsty guilt? And who are the ones who have purity of thought?

Gary Oldman (Dreyfuss) is an unsung actor, even though he has appeared in many huge hits over the years. In fact, Oldman, who was born in London in 1958, is credited with having films that have grossed more than $9 billion world-wide. Some of his better-known films are Oliver Stone’s JFK, the horror film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as Sirius Black in the phenomenal Harry Potter series, and Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which earned him an Oscar® nomination for Best Actor.

Australia has given us Jason Clarke. After making a name for himself on television in his native country, he began appearing in films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence in 2002. A move to America saw him being cast in films Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), the action film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), The Great Gatsby (2013) with Leonardo DiCaprio, and White House Down (2013). His next appearance will be in Terminator: Genesis in 2015.

There will be no spoilers here. The film is sufficiently thrilling to keep you interested from start to finish. The action stops only to build up a reason for the next thrilling sequences. The Production Design by James Chinlund is both modernistic and primitive and has some of the most imaginative structures of recent note. The movie is wonderfully entertaining and far superior to the films that came before it. We hope this signals a new interest at Fox in turning out excellent sequels for this beloved series.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

"And So It Goes" Douglas & Keaton shine in comedy

Directed by: Rob Reiner
Cast: Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Frances Sternhagen, Frankie Valli, Sterling Jerins, Annie Parisse, Rob Reiner

Review by James Colt Harrison  

Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton are two veteran pros in the acting profession. Their years of experience, Oscar® wins, and other accolades over the decades has taught them to be relaxed and natural before the camera. Being relaxed before the color cameras has made them dominate the screen. It is dangerous to appear in a scene with either of them because they will steal the scene right out from under any other actor. They accomplish this feat in their new Castle Rock comedy And So It Goes ---with one exception. And her name is Frances Sternhagen.

Douglas plays an unlikable curmudgeonly real-estate broker who will do anything to get a sale and anything else he might want. He’s mean, he’s ornery, he’s thoughtless. At the same time, you can’t help but like him because he is funny. Only one person has been able to put up with him and put him in his place. That is his office mate Claire, played by the formidable Frances Sternhagen. They have been working together in the same office for 35 years. Ms. Sternhagen dominates their scenes and adds warmth and humor to his crusty personality.

When Oren (Douglas) lists his own home for sale, he moves next door to failed lounge singer Leah (Diane Keaton). She’s trying to supoort herself as a singer and works at a sleazy bar where Rob Reiner plays her toupee’d pianist. Reiner is always funny, and the rat’s nest on his head is the worst toupee ever seen by man. Keaton shows promise as a singer but has never gotten the breaks. She may be slightly long in the tooth for a beginning singer.

Oren sees great potential in Leah’s singing ability and decides to become her agent and get her better singing gigs. They fight and clash just about everything and bring laughs to the screen with their squabbling. But he does introduce her to a club owner---played by pop idol Frankie Valli---who gives her a job.  Oren’s life is thrown off the tracks when his son drops off a granddaughter (Sterling Jerins) The son is going off to jail for a minor charge and the girl enters Oren’s life at an awkward moment. Oren’s solution is to pawn her off on neighbor Leah as he doesn’t know what to do. Douglas’ floundering and awkwardness with a granddaughter he has never met is hilarious. The actor must show disinterest and yet become slowly attracted emotionally to the little girl. Douglas is a champion at being likable in an unlikable part. (See Gordon Gecko in the Wall Street movies). He’s superb and Keaton comes in a close second as a master of screen acting.

Keaton and Douglas play two people old enough to pair up. He’s impossible and she’s idealistic and probably not meant for each other. The situations are volatile and yet funny and they lash out at each other until they find a common ground as adults.

Real estate agent co-worker Claire is played by the wonderful stage and screen veteran Frances Sternhagen. She steals every scene she is in and Douglas is generous enough to let her shine. She’s 84 and has nothing to lose by being honest. And she’s hilarious as well. Ms. Sternhagen is the winner of two Broadway Tony Awards. Her first came in 1974 in The Good Doctor  as Best Supporting Actress as well as for The Heiress in 1995. She is the recipient of five other Tony nominations. She is best known to audiences for her role in Driving Miss Daisy, the 1988 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, which she played for two years. Unfortunately for Sternhagen, Jessica Tandy played the role in the 1989 film and won an Oscar® for it!

And So It Goes is a funny, adult film that is a nice 90+ minutes that isn’t tough on your bottom. You don’t have to sit through two hours of explosions and alien invasions. Just bring your funny bone, a delightful attitude, and your hunger for an adult comedy that doesn't insult your intelligence.

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"Wish I Was Here" Comedy with sad undertones

Director: Zach Braff

Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Jim Parsons, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, James Avery, Donald Faison

Review by James Colt Harrison

A few years ago young actor/writer/director Zach Braff was praised for Garden State, his first feature film. Whether it was a stroke of luck or just plain talent, the film put Braff on the map as a young new director to watch. This is always dangerous for a young director because the second creative output is always looked upon with more harshness than anyone should have to endure. Critics are now scrutinizing Braff’s Focus Feature Wish I Was Here and are expecting it to be as good as was Garden State.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) at 35 is still a struggling actor who yearns to have his dream come true. He has difficulty getting cast and is usually the wrong type. In one funny scene he auditions for a film, with such stalwart actors as the late James Avery, for a part for which he is obviously unsuited. Bloom is rather messed up psychologically as he is trying to find his own identity while trying to be a father and a husband. Wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is a bland blonde in a sea of Hollywood blondes. The film doesn’t give her much to do except support her husband’s dreams. Aidan’s trying to find a purpose in life, but Sarah doesn’t seem to have an interest in her own. She seems to be content raising the children.

Aidan and his father Gabe, played by Broadway veteran Mandy Patinkin, have never seen eye to eye. What they do agree on is that the children be sent to a private school, for which grandpa has always paid. Unfortunately he is ill and can no longer afford to pay for the children’s education. Aidan attempts to home-school the kids and it turns into a hilarious disaster. The scenes between Braff and Patinkin have a ring of truth. Braff’s character desperately wants approval from his father, but dad thinks acting is a silly profession to persue, and that attitude breaks Aidan’s heart. As an actor, Braff has a puppy dog cuteness to his manner and we can’t help but like him, even when he is being unreasonable. The film wavers between drama and comedy, with the comical scenes lightening what could ultimately turn into a tear-jerker.

TV’s Jim Parson comes in for a few cameo scenes to add some laughs but it doesn’t advance the plot, nor should it. Parson is a brilliant comic actor and should be given his own film in which to shine.

Aidan’s errant and good-for-nothing brother Noah is played by Broadway’s Josh Gad. He’s good at playing unshaven slobs, and this part is perfect for his comic abilities. Noah doesn’t want to have anything to do with his father because he feels he never got any support from him while growing up. Thus, Noah avoids going to the hospital when is father is dying. It’s not nice but it’s understandable from the son’s point of view.

Kudos must go to Patinkin as a generally unlikeable character.  He’s terrific as the tough old Jew who won’t compromise his expectatons of what he wants his two sons to become. He would be a good choice as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s Oscar® event. Patinkin had his first success onBroadway playing the part of Che Guevara in the hit musical Evita. For that role he won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor. Barbra Streisand cast him in her 1983 film Yentl.  He returned to Broadway to star in the Pulitzer-Prizewinning musical Sunday In The Park With George Then he made the comedy movie The Princess Bride in 1987. He has appeared in such films as Dick Tracy with Warren Beatty and Ragtime with James Cagney.

The film is certainly light-hearted and has plenty of comedy to amuse. But it has many dark sides to the story which may not coincide with the audience’s expectations from a Braff movie. There are far too many “F” words that are totally unnecessary to the story. It’s half comedy and half drama, and the audience will have to decide whether it’s better to have a half loaf of something or a whole loaf. Focus Features/Worldview Entertainment.

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"Boyhood" Growing up from a boy’s perspective

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Shane Graham

                 Review by James Colt Harrison

Films are usually made out of sequence, shot in small segments and have associated scenes grouped together. Sometimes the ending is shot before the beginning. But never before has a film been shot over a period of 12 actual years as has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  He has used the same actors during that same time frame and they too, age naturally. The film began shooting in 2002 and completed production in October 2013.

Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the parents of a little boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Mason grows up during the movie and we see it all through his eyes. Mason is an adorable boy of 6 years when the film begins, and we go through his entire life until about  age 18 when he is ready to go off to college. His little sister, played by Lorelei Linklater, the real-life daughter of the director, evolves from being a bossy and controlling girl to a loving older sister as they become teens.

Most males in the audience will be able to relate to the trials of growing up---the friends, the smell of the summer grass, the family gatherings, and slowly becoming a grown up yourself as the years pass. All the significant moments in life are here, presented simply, clearly, and in a straight-forward manner without frills. That’s the genius of Linklater’s directing---he has made the ordinary not boring but as a necessary part of all our lives, and especially that of young Mason. This reviewer also liked the film for its simplicity and felt very close to the boy’s experiences.  Mason’s experiences were human experiences and totally relatable by either males or females.

Ellar Coltrane said in an interview with People Magazine that “It was a transformative thing.” Growing up next to his character Mason was “very bizarre to see it all organized (on the screen.) You can look in the mirror, but you can’t really see yourself changing---or how you don’t change---over the years.” As they filmed in small segments over the years, Coltrane became close to his co-stars. “It just became very much of a collaboration. When you’re young, you’re kind of just along for the ride. But over time, we became more of partners creating something.”

Linklater has handled the subject matter and his young star with tenderness and truth. We were thoroughy immersed in the boy’s story and were amused, saddened, cheered, and delighted with the events that shaped his life. It’s a marvelous, stimulating movie.

Boyhood  has been getting sensational reviews and accolades around the world. Rotten Tomatoes called it “Breathlessly intimate” Famed Chicago critic Richard Roeper called it “one of the greatest films I have ever seen.” Awards collected were Best Director at both the Berlin International Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival, in addition to Best Film. The San Francisco International Film Festival awarded Linklater the Founder’s Directing Award.

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