Sunshine Cleaning

sunshine_cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a fun movie with a warm heart that leaves you satisfied and content. Brought to us by the same people who produced Little Miss Sunshine, this Sunshine-film has the same indie feel but not quite the power punch that the Academy Award winning film had. 

Headlined by Amy Adams, Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt the cast delivers big time for director Christine Jeffs. Arkin is wonderful as an eclectic, warm-hearted but slightly unethical father figure. Emily Blunt and Amy Adams are both strong as down on their luck sisters with Blunt adding an especially touching performance as the younger sister still haunted by the death of her mother so long ago. The assemble makes this film worth watching and hilarious at times, but it’s the script that keeps this film from elevating beyond a fun film to an exceptional film.

While I love the understated melodrama I also feel a little lost at times when trying to make sense of the familial relationships and family condition. I was longing for a little more understanding of why they are who they are to truly empathize with each character. I found the script a little too vague at times and too concerned with trying to write a “funny” moment rather than let the characters and situation carry the humor.

In the end, this is a highly enjoyable film that is well worth the time and money but don’t expect the same magic that Little Miss Sunshine brought.

Film Rating: projectorprojectorprojector

Film’s website: http://www.sunshinecleaning-themovie.com/#/home

Bottle Shock

Bottle Shock is a surprisingly funny and entertaining movie that reminds us about our humble roots in California and urges us not to take life too seriously.

Set in the 1970s just as the Napa Valley Wine Industry was about to make its grand entrance on the world stage, the film weaves together three to four character storylines in an attempt to capture the spirit of the maverick California winemakers. It succeeds on many levels.

Director Randall Miller does a wonderful job recreating Napa of the 1970s down to the detail. The Gremlin that Alan Rickman drives up in was awesome and it’s a choice that shows how Miller wanted to keep the tone light and funny (watching Rickman experience KFC for the first time is another!). With a film about wine it would have been easy to get too serious and lose sight of the comedy of this particular situation. He allows the actors to have fun with their characters and in the end we have a cast that is likable and fun to watch.

The screenplay, written by Miller along with Jody Savin and Ross Schwartz, does a good job retelling an actual event while still keeping the audience interested and rooting for the underdogs. The small dramatic “changes” made to the script do wonders to keep the audience guessing about how this true event unfolds since most already know how it ends up.

I’ve read elsewhere that some people have problems with Chris Pine as “Bo Barett” (and his wig!!) but I disagree. He plays the roll of hippie-prodigal son well and his costume/hair go a long way to keeping the film light and the comedy flowing. Bill Pullman is solid as his somewhat suffering dad and Rachel Taylor and Freddie Rodriguez are good co-stars as Bo’s hippie friends.

Alan Rickman, however, steals the show. His portrayal of a snobbish Brit who is obsessed with the French wine culture is one for the ages. Some of his one liners in this film get the loudest laughs. I won’t spoil any of the lines, but when he comes to California and has to explain to Pullman why people think he is a snob is one of the best moments of the film. In a very small roll, Dennis Farina plays Rickman’s American friend in Paris and provides some great, off-the-cuff, looks and one-liners that help us not take Rickman so seriously.

If there is anything I didn’t like about the film it’s the love interest/triangle storyline between the three younger characters. I don’t understand why it’s in the film and it makes Taylor’s character seem too much like a slut. I also found Pullman’s character a bit too “troubled” and “moody.” His relationship with his Son is a bit one dimensional until the end of the film. I would have liked to see this relationship developed more fully throughout the film.

In the end, I highly recommend this film to anybody looking for a different movie this Summer. If you are sick of explosions, car chases and big-budgeted blockbusters, this little independent film is well worth the time. If you have some knowledge of the Napa Valley wine history you’ll delight in the many inside jokes, but even if you know nothing about wine the film will leave you laughing and in a great mood.

Rating: 1/2

Film’s Website: http://www.bottleshockthemovie.com

Wanted

Since it is my policy not to reveal plot points when reviewing a film, this review is going to be short. Wanted is a terrible film because it’s unbelievable, the stunts are nothing that we haven’t seen before and the storyline is way too predictable. As a viewer this is one of those films that leaves you saying, “oh, that wouldn’t happen,” too often, followed by laughter. The film just doesn’t work.

I don’t blame the acting, or even the directing, since the script is that poorly written. The premise of an all-telling loom revealing the fate of the peace-loving world should have shelved this film before it ever got to production. Since it didn’t, director Timur Bekmambetov didn’t have much choice but try and make the production values strong. They are, and the stunts are kind of cool to watch (even if they aren’t that original) which is why I’m giving the film a little more than one projector. The acting is what you expect from an action film; nothing special but good enough, however, even Morgan Feeman and Angelina Jolie can’t save this film.

Rating: 1/2

Film’s website: http://www.wantedmovie.com

Lars and the Real Girl

Mental disorders, loneliness, and abandonment issues aren’t the kind of themes that you usually find in a comedy, but they make up the bulk of the story in a delightful quirky film, “Lars and the Real Girl.” Written by Nancy Oliver of “Six Feet Under” fame it has the strange, off-kilter comedy that you would expect from a HBO scribe but also the touching warmth of a good melodrama.

What makes “Lars and the Real Girl” work so well is that nothing that happens is expected, or seemingly plausible, but it all seems real. Does that make sense? If it does, then you’re going to really love this film. Oliver creates a world that seems overly cold and sheltered in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Her lead characters seem disturbed and the movie seems headed in a very dark direction. Then, a package arrives, and you start laughing and can’t believe what;s happening on screen. It’s that much fun.

Director Craig Gillespie does a wonderful job creating the look and feel of this small town and makes smart choices in how to photograph this film. It starts off quite dark and “contrasty” but lightens up and becomes far more colorful by film’s end. It’s a great interpretation of the script.

But when all is said and done with this film, you stay connected because of the acting. Ryan Gosling is absolutely spot-on with his portrayal of lonely, and slightly disturbed, Lars. Kelli Garner is refreshing as his would-be suitor, and Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are perfect as Lars’ somewhat confused, but loving, family. While it is easy to praise Gosling for his outstanding performance, much kudos has to go to Gillespie and the supporting cast for “believing” Gosling’s character. This film wouldn’t have worked if the rest of the supporting characters didn’t believe in Lar’s crazy journey. What makes this film so wonderful to watch is that no matter what unbelievable thing happens, it seems the perfect action for the people in this film. That is a testament to the great writing, directing and acting.

If I have a complaint it’s that the pacing of the film is a bit slow. It’s not that the film is too long (it only runs about one hour and 45 minutes) but some of the scenes seem to drag. With dark comedy sometimes a bit too much slows the plot down. I also felt the beginning of the film was a bit confusing and took too long to get going. Stay with the film through the first 20 minutes and you’ll be glad you did.

Rating: 1/2

Film’s website: http://www.larsandtherealgirl-themovie.com

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Welcome back Indy, thanks for the great times, now enjoy your retirement. The fourth installment of the Indiana Jones saga is great fun to watch, but doesn’t live up to the quality of its previous three chapters. There’s no need for a lengthy review here, other than to say that if you loved the first three films you will enjoy this one for all the same reasons. Harrison Ford is as good as ever and the action is amazing.

What’s not up to par in this installment is the story and the villain. In the first three films the story centered on a monumental journey in search of some mythical item that could destroy the world if captured by evil hands.  In the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the journey seems way too easy and the protagonist too wimpy.

While the search for the famed “city of gold” is a great myth to center a story around I just never felt like the world was going to end if the Russians got there first. It certainly didn’t feel like the race to get the Ark or the Grail. I guess I didn’t understand the power that was at risk. I also didn’t feel like Cate Blanchett’s character was all that menacing. Her “evil” was so comical she actually made me laugh a few times. And what was that whole psychic thing with her?

In the end, this film was as much about reliving some great childhood cinema memories, and for a lot of young parents, introducing their children to a movie hero from their childhood. All good reasons to catch Indy on his farewell tour!

Rating:

Film’s website: http://www.indianajones.com/site/index.html

The Visitor

In a word… brilliant. This is the first film of the year that truly deserves Oscar buzz. From the writing, to the directing, to the acting, “The Visitor” is a wonderfully small film that delivers a bigger punch than most block-busters could ever dream of doing.

From the mind of Thomas McCarthy (writer and director) “The Visitor” is one of those family dramas with hints of humor that will make you smile, cry and think. It’s not only a great story, it contains enough political timeliness to make the film matter in today’s current climate. McCarthy is subtle with everything he does (his 2003 film “The Station Agent” was great) and this time is no different. He delivers a script that any actor would love and directs the film with a careful balance between sentimentality and comedy.

At the heart of “The Visitor” is the performance of lead actor Richard Jenkins. A long time character-actor (you’ll recognize him immediately), Jenkins delivers the kind of performance that will be remembered at Oscar time. He’s already receiving early buzz and it’s well deserved.  He is both strong and weak, open and closed, warm and cold as his character confronts a mid-life crisis in a life that has failed to deliver all that he expected. At times, his deadpan delivery is incredibly funny. When he is discovered practicing his drumming, you’ll bust out laughing.

Jenkins is not alone in this film and, hopefully, his co-stars are remembered at the end of year as well. Haaz Sleiman and Hiam Abbass deliver quality supporting performances that allow Jenkins to shine. Sleiman’s portrayal of an illegal Syrian immigrant is incredibly powerful. His character comes across as warm and caring but also pained by a past that haunts him. Khaili is even better. Her performance as the mother of Sleiman’s character is stunning in it’s depth. This is what a true supporting role is all about. She is both stoic and vulnerable as a mother dealing with a terrible situation and a woman falling in love.

Finally, McCarthy’s story sense is spot on. Instead of taking us where we expect, his story twists in unconventional ways leaving the viewer surprised and satisfied. I had no idea the film was going to end the way it did and that was great. It’s not an unrealistic ending, just unexpected and that sums up this gem of a film… an unexpected jewel that should not be missed.

Rating: 1/2

Film’s website: www.thevisitorfilm.com

Iron Man

So after all the hype, did Iron Man stand up? Kind-of. I have to admit that I had HUGE expectations coming into this film and I’ve discovered that I’m usually disappointed when I do, but I couldn’t help it with this film. Marvel Comics making their first film on their own and Robert Downey Jr. as a super hero? I couldn’t wait. Now that it’s over, I had a good time, it was worth the price of a ticket but it is nowhere near as great as so many people have said. I think it seems great because, quite frankly, 2008 has been a terrible year for films so far and this is the best of a bad year (at least so far).

What’s good? Downey, the special effects and the general plot line.

What’s not good? The length, the direction and the script.

Let’s start with Downey. He is as good as I thought we would be, adding that touch of sarcasm and self-awareness to his character that hardly any actor today could pull off. He is a delight to watch and without him this film would be a disaster. The special effects, as you would expect, are amazing. The scenes of Iron Man flying around and doing battle with jet fighters is just stunning. The depth of the picture makes it seem like 3D and the editing is quite strong. It’s a visual paradise to watch. I also like the general story, that is, the story of Iron Man. I don’t give credit to anybody on the film for this, that credit belongs to Marvel and the legendary Stan Lee.

Where the film falls flat is in it’s writing and directing. Jon Favreau is a bit over his head with this film and it shows in the wasteful use of such actors as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard. When you are handed these three as your supporting cast you have to get more out of the script for them to act with. Their characters were almost unnecessary and why you would cast such great actors into these roles is beyond me. And that brings up my biggest complaint. When you have Downey as your lead, you had better deliver a script befitting his talents. It wasn’t nearly smart enough to really take advantage of Downey’s best acting traits – that sarcastic, self-awareness that makes his characters seem bigger than life. If the supporting roles don’t have much to do, why not them make this a Downey film? Favreau should have seen this from reading the script and had the changes made to either showcase Downey better or beef up the supporting roles.

I also had a problem with the length of the film… just over two hours and it could have been 30 minutes shorter. I know it’s the trend these days – longer films – but I wish directors would show some restraint and make the film shorter when the story screams out for it. For the two hours that I did watch, I sure wish I could have seen more action scenes, or at the very least additional plot development.

In the end, I felt like I was watching a film that is just setting up a new franchise. Maybe Iron Man 2 will be better. I certainly hope so, but for now this one will do if you are looking for a fun movie to beat the Summer heat.

Rating: 

Film’s website: http://ironmanmovie.marvel.com/

Smart People

“Smart People” is a fun, quirky movie that will resonate with a lot of people because it’s about dealing with anger, depression and family but in a funny, almost off-kilter way. I enjoyed this film because it seems unique and the acting is outstanding. I had some issues with the plot, but for the most part I found myself lost in the wonderful characters and well-written dialogue.

Director Noam Murro does justice to Mark Poirier’s script and directs an ensemble performance that might see some awards for ensemble acting if voters will remember this small film. Dennis Quaid pulls off a subtle, yet, powerful performance as a lonely widower who struggles to overcome his own vanity in order to find love again. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Quaid’s love interest and delivers a sound performance as a successful doctor struggling to trust the men in her life. The film is best, however, when Ellen Page and Thomas Hayden Church are on the screen. Playing Quaid’s overly intelligent and motherly daughter, and his mooch-of-a-brother the two steal every scene and provide the film’s best laughs. It’s these two characters that add depth to the story and provide the closure needed to make this film work. They also have the best lines that add that quirkiness to the film that without would be too depressing and morose. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the producers of this film also made “Sideways”.

What bothers me are some of the plot details that derail the film a bit. First, there is the story of Quaid’s son. Apparently the two don’t get along but we never really know why and too much time is spent on a storyline that goes nowhere and adds nothing to the film. Second, it’s Quaid’s and Parker’s stormy relationship, or more to the point – Parker’s constant anger. At first her anger toward Quaid is understandable since Quaid is a jerk but when he starts to show signs of changing, Parker remains angry. The scenes in the hotel and airport are particularly strange as you have no idea why she is so angry. Finally, the film is wrapped up a bit too neatly and too easily after all the drama that has unfolded.

In the end, the outstanding acting and clever dialogue make this a fun film to watch, even if the subject matter is a bit dark. It’s well worth a night out at the movies with family and friends. It will give you something to talk about at dinner.

Rating: 1/2

Film’s website: http://www.smartpeoplethemovie.com

Charlie Wilson’s War

What kind of film would you expect from the writing of Aaron Sorkin and the direction of Mike Nichols? A smart, witty and entertaining film that challenges conventional wisdom and pokes fun at the establishment. How this film only received one Oscar nomination is beyond me. It was quite clearly one of the best films of 2007. The acting is superb, the writing amazing and the direction incredible. Maybe there is a bit of war-fatigue among film audiences with so many docs and feature films about Iraq, but “Charlie Wilson’s War” deserved far more attention.

Let’s start with the writing. This is Sorkin’s best stuff since Sports Night – that ill-fated but brilliant sitcom with the best dialogue on television. Forget West Wing, Sorkin’s work on Sports Night is some of the best writing in the history of television. It’s a shame the show didn’t last longer. In this film, Sorkin brings his unique ability to write dialog that seems absolutely natural and incredibly intelligent at the same time. The only other writer that can equal him is the master… Woody Allen. 

When you are blessed with a great script you are well on your way to a good movie, but when you pair it with one of the best satirical directors of all time you get greatness. This film reminds me of Nichols work with “The Birdcage” and “The Graduate”. All three have that serious tone with a hard, comedic edge to them. The characters seem like cardboard cutouts, but they aren’t. The plot seems simple, but it isn’t. Watching this movie is like watching a master conductor lead his symphony. I only wish more people had seen it.

One thing that has always impressed me with Nichols is his casting. It’s perfect, and Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts are another example of a job well done. The three deliver superior performances and all seem to feed off one another. The office scene between Hanks and Hoffman when they first meet is absolutely hilarious. The scene where all three meet is another gut buster. Why Hanks and Roberts were ignored by the Academy is beyond me. The Golden Globes had this one right — nominating all three and Sorkin.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” is a great film that deserves a second look if you haven’t seen it. Take the time to watch one of America’s best directors, Mike Nichols, at his best and you won’t be sorry. I only wish the film received more attention because its message is too important for us not to listen to.

Rating:

Film’s website: http://www.charliewilsonswar.net

Cloverfield

Ok, so after all the hype I finally got a chance to see this film and two days later I still have a headache!! I was hoping that this film would be different than “Blair Witch,” but unfortunately it was not. From the contrived storyline, to the horrible camera work, to the poor acting this film misses on almost every level. 

When I found out that JJ Abrams was involved in this film I expected, at the very least, an interesting storyline that would keep me guessing throughout the film. It’s what he does so well on Lost and Alias. It never materializes. When I looked a little further into who did what it became clear as to why…. Abrams brings all of his TV buddies to the film (writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves) resulting into a glorified TV movie that fails to make an impact on the big screen. Now, I’m not one to bash TV people crossing over to film (or vice versa) but if you are going to make the crossover you better understand how the medium changes how you write and direct the film. Goddard and Reeves fail miserably in this regard. Watching this film seems like you are watching a television pilot. The storyline is being told just to set up the series, not to stand on it’s own as a quality film. Since Cloverfield 2 is arleady in pre-production it’s obvious that this was their intent, but that still doesn’t make this film any better.

More specifically, I hated the camera work and all-too-convenient plot devices. First the camera work. It gave me a headache and it didn’t add a single thing to the story. That’s the worst thing. It was a gimmick. I’m fine with taking chances (remember the old M*A*S*H episode told from the POV of the patient – brilliant) but it has to enhance the story or it just stands out as “look ma, no hands.” Second, the writing. I hate it when characters are just plain stupid or doing things that are totally unreal. What am I talking about? A monster attacks the city from the water and the military decides the best way to evacuate the city is over a bridge?? How about a skyscraper falls against another and neither collapse AND are structurally sound enough for four people to walk to the top. Oh, and a helicopter crashes and only our heroes survive (did they steal this from that ER episode?).

Maybe I’m being unfair here. Maybe I expected too much from Abrams and crew, but if I were JJ and I was making the crossover into film I would go and get an established film crew to make my idea fly. Unfortunately he didn’t and the result is a truly bad made-for-tv horror film that belongs on “Creature Features” not the big screen.

Rating:

Film’s website: http://www.cloverfieldmovie.com