Archive for November, 2011
REVIEW: ‘The Family Tree’ plays out like a bad ’80s film
The original plan this holiday weekend was to see Martin Scorsese’s new film “Hugo.” As a film connoisseur I was anxious to see his take on a film loosely based on the formative years of filmmaker Georges Méliès, the father of the science fiction genre. Unfortunately, AMC in all their infinite wisdom, decided against showing it in Quincy. Someone needs to alert the chain that we have good taste in film here on the Mississippi bluffs. I hit the new DVD releases for plan B, and decided to keep the family dysfunction theme going with the just-released film “The Family Tree.” I was drawn in by the robust cast of “those guys” – you know, the people you instantly recognize from many film and television appearances, but can’t quite recall his or her name. Unfortunately, the robust cast wasn’t enough from this film hitting every branch on the bad film tree (do those exist?) on the way down.
Bunnie Burnett (Hope Davis, “Real Steel”) is a miserable 40-something housewife and mother sleeping around with a neighbor when a sexual tryst gone wrong leaves her with short-term memory loss. When she awakes from surgery, Bunnie is a different woman who adores her husband and is hopelessly optimistic. With the heavy cloud of depression lifted from the household, the Burnett family goes about rebuilding their family ties. All seems to be going well until events from Bunnie’s past come to light and threaten the newfound happiness of the family.
“The Family Tree” plays out like a bad ’80s film, only not in the “so bad it’s good” way. The characters are poorly introduced and the exposition does a lousy job of setting up the plot. We get that Bunnie is unhappy, but only because she burns eggs and complains about her daughter’s attire. Jack Burnett (Dermot Mulroney, “J. Edgar”) gets no joy from his job as a hatchet man at the non-descript company “Mitybrite” and we know nothing more about what he does or the potential relationship they tease with co-worker Nina (Gabrielle Anwar, TV’s “Burn Notice”). Everything in the film appears just on the surface, and the themes of family, relationships, religion, gun control, and sexuality are all barely scratched. There is a running gag involving a hanging body in a tree that looks like it belongs more in “Caddyshack.” I understand what freshman director Vivi Friedman was going for, but it simply misses the mark.
The aforementioned cast is a great group, but they alone could not save the script. There is a bit of a Showtime feel with Evan Handler and Madeline Zima from “Californication” and Keith Carradine from “Dexter.” Zima plays a one-legged lesbian who seems wise beyond her years, but her character doesn’t aid in moving the plot forward. Christina Hendricks’ bosom (TV’s “Mad Men”) joins Selma Blair (“Hellboy”) and Chi McBride (TV’s “Boston Public”) to fill the collection of flat characters. The most depth is shown by Brittany Robertson (“Scream 4”) as Kelly, the Burnett daughter and only family member who seems to realize the full effects of the action unfolding around her family.
“The Family Tree” might have been salvageable had they gone for more of a mix of drama and comedy rather than the satirical route. The material was there in the script to work with – family, friendship, infidelity, mid-life crisis – but for whatever reason the filmmaker decided a dark comedy that wasn’t all that dark or comedic was a better way to go. With a loose narrative that is difficult to follow and flat characters not worth investing in, this film is as dysfunctional as the family it features. Save this one for when it appears on a USA Up All Night-style program, where it belongs.
REVIEW: ‘Home for the Holidays’ worth a viewing in celebration of the time of year
The holidays are right around the corner, so this week the Film School blog takes a look at a classic Thanksgiving film. Initially “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” came to mind, but then I realized, what could I say about the classic that hasn’t been said already? Instead I went with a lesser-known Thanksgiving film that celebrates family dysfunction in 1995s “Home for the Holidays.” If the phrase the whole is greater than the sum of its parts rings true, then the case here would be the family is wackier than the sum of its parts. Every family has its idiosyncrasies that aren’t truly revealed until everyone is together.
Forty-year old single mom Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) is having a rough holiday season. Just before embarking on a dreaded trip home for Thanksgiving, she is fired from her job as an art restorer at a Chicago museum and her teenage daughter informs her that she plans on having sex for the first time. Rather than rely on her family during this time of crisis, Claudia must survive the holiday as the personal sibling drama piles up. While exploring her own professional and personal inadequacies, Claudia finally begins to come to terms with her difficult family relationships.
Claudia’s family is made up of a terrific ensemble cast that includes gay brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), uber-conservative sister Joanne (veteran TV actor Cynthia Stevenson) and her timid husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg), and eclectic parents Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning). Each family member brings their own baggage to the dinner table – from Tommy’s secret gay marriage to crazy Aunt Glady’s profession of love to Claudia’s father. It all makes for an uncomfortable family visit, culminating with what is quite possibly the funniest dinner scene in cinema history.
Though Claudia is the film’s protagonist, Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tommy drives most of the narrative. He is an eccentric vagabond who serves as the family glue and the antagonist who constantly stirs the pot to cause trouble. His arrival sends the family into the kitchen to cook up a large festive breakfast, while his presence is a source of distress for Joanne and Walter that eventually leads to a fistfight. Tommy brings home not only his big personality but also a handsome stranger (Dylan McDermott) that helps turn things upside down for the family.
The narrative is moved along by title pages that almost serve as a journal of sorts, with titles such as “Company Arrives” and “The Point.” It can be a bit distracting at first, but works for the most part, as most title pages signal a new family member’s arrival. The plot duration spans only a few days, though the pall of despair that hangs over the Larson house makes it seem much longer.
“Home for the Holidays” is Jodie Foster’s second directorial effort (“Little Man Tate” being her first), and she continues to spread her director’s wings with some strong cinematic tools that aids in the storytelling. In the film’s exposition Claudia’s life is in shambles, and her environment and the shot compositions further emphasize this fact. A trip through a crowded airport filled with stressed out travelers, a cramped airplane ride, a twenty-four hour illness and an in-your face chain smoking mother all add up to create a sympathetic first act for the protagonist. Near the end of the film, the airport is less crowded, the plane has fewer passengers, and everything seems cleaner and more organized. As Claudia comes to grips with the world around her, the cinematic world is presented in a more polished manner to the viewer. It’s a powerful psychological tool that can pass along implicit messages from the director to the audience.
I would call “Home for the Holidays” a dark comedy if it weren’t for all of the family quirks that so many of us know all too well. It is part of what makes the holidays such an interesting adventure each year, and this film is that experience turned up a few notches. It’s a worst case scenario that plays out in the most humorous way possible, but still manages to maintain a degree of verisimilitude. There are several scenes amid all the comedic moments that come across as extremely powerful and emotional. That’s what family is all about, right? Part insanity, part emotional moments that make it all worth it. When you’re stuffed with turkey this week, I highly recommend a viewing of the film in celebration of the holiday.
REVIEW: ‘Father of Invention’ offers fresh take on themes of family, redemption
Living in a small town has its perks. Crime is low. You get to know people outside of your own neighborhood and often run into them while shopping or at community events. Commuting anywhere isn’t really considered a commute but rather a short drive. However, small towns sometimes bring about small opportunities — such as the chance to see Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial offering, “J. Edgar.” With two screens dedicated to “Puss in Boots” and Adam Sandler’s new…err, dare I say comedy in “Jack and Jill”…there simply weren’t enough local screens to go around so AMC gave the Hoover biopic the short straw in Quincy. I understand that this is purely an economical decision, but come on AMC, if I have to listen to you promote your Stubs reward program to me five times before I reach my seat, I expect a little something in return, like say for example, a good film. Alas, I decided to boycott the theatre this week and instead start my own #Occupy Independent Film movement this week with the latest Kevin Spacey film now available on DVD, “Father of Invention.”
Millionaire “fabricator” Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey) is on top of the world, making his fortune by combining gimmick as-seen-on-TV products to re-sell on TV. When one of his products begins cutting off the fingers of its users, Robert’s world comes crashing down. Broke and fresh off an eight-year prison stint due to “negligence,” he labors to rebuild the relationship with his estranged daughter Claire (Camilla Belle, “When a Stranger Calls”) while attempting to come up with one more great idea to pick up where he left off as the king of infomercials in a town that simply wants to forget him.
The script by writer/director Trent Cooper (“Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector”) is one part predictable, one part clever, which is extremely apropos given the nature of protagonist Robert Axle. Axle builds an empire combining products that have no business being paired together (for example — a weed whacker and sand wedge, so you can work on your golf game while doing yard work). The script is littered with contrasting themes and characters, such as Claire’s two roommates — one extremely compassionate to Robert’s plight, the other a man-hating lesbian who admonishes Robert at every turn. Even the film itself plays out like an Axle fabrication, combining observational comedy with family drama. Like his products, the genres don’t quite mesh, but thanks to the cast it somehow works.
Spacey has been on a roll lately playing some quirky characters, including Dave Harken in “Horrible Bosses” and Larry Hooper in “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” He was a perfect casting choice for Robert Axle with the comedic timing and dramatic range to pull off the duality required by the role. The supporting cast is equally talented. Heather Graham shines as the man-hating, on again-off again lesbian roommate Phoebe (another set of contrasting elements from Cooper), and Craig Robinson (TV’s “The Office”) plays the unassuming new husband of Robert’s ex-wife to the hilt. His dry delivery makes every line appear as a classic one-liner. Johnny Knoxville is a pleasant surprise as the assistant manager at Wal-Mart knockoff Family Mart. Each character in the film has been crafted with care and has their own imperfections — a classic example is Robert’s ex-wife and aspiring musician Lorraine (Virginia Madsen, “The Haunting in Connecticut”), who burns through $300 million of his fortune partly by purchasing 498,000 copies of her own album because she wants a gold record.
While it won’t be winning any Academy Awards, “Father of Invention” offers a fresh cinematic take on themes of family and redemption. It even makes a bit of a social statement by poking fun at the lengths people go to in consuming products meant to make life easier. Characters with missing fingers courtesy of Robert’s product pop up everywhere, regardless of class or creed. Though somewhat predictable, the plot is peculiar enough to keep your interest. The real draw for the film is the cast and how they all intertwine to tell a unique and offbeat story that, while not a new invention, serves as a great cinematic fabrication.
REVIEW: ‘Trespass’ is too much happening in too little space for the plot to work
This week the Film School blog tackles a film that is a bit of a conundrum. “Trespass” is a psychological thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman. With a veteran director, heavy star power and a reported 35-million dollar budget, all signs point to a successful venture. For some reason, however, the film received a very limited theatrical release last month and was released on DVD last week. I picked up a copy of “Trespass” this weekend, curious to find out just what exactly went wrong.
At first glance, the Millers have the perfect life. Kyle Miller (Cage) is a fast talking trader who is currently brokering a large diamond deal. He and his family live in an affluent neighborhood with an exquisite home and all the protection money can buy. Inside the Miller fortress problems are easy to see as Kyle has no time for his wife Sarah (Kidman) or teenage daughter Avery. When thugs show up determined to steal the diamonds from Miller, he and his family must survive not only the intruders but also the truths and family betrayals that are revealed during the invasion.
There’s a lot happening with the script that ends up as clutter in the film – it plays out a bit like a made-for-TV Lifetime movie rather than a traditional Hollywood narrative. It is referenced several times that key antagonist Jonah (Cam Gigandet, “Easy A” and “Pandorum”) is on some sort of anti-psychotic medication, but it never fully explained. His mental instability comes into play during the film’s climax, so it would be much more powerful knowing his backstory. Schumacher heavily teases Sarah’s involvement in the plot to steal the diamonds, but an awkward sequence of flashbacks consisting mostly of stolen glances between Sarah and Jonah don’t do the potential plot twist justice. And of course, the best home security money can buy is no match for the street thugs, though I suppose if it were the film would end in the first fifteen minutes.
Schumacher uses two techniques that end up as distractions – an often times frenetic point of view shot and slow dissolves to prior events that don’t reveal enough information to warrant a flashback. The point of view, or P.O.V. shot, can be used effectively to help the audience associate with a character’s situaton, but it is very overdone in “Trespass.” There are many twists during the film so I understand the need to not give too much information away, but many of the flashbacks reveal such little information they are completely unnecessary.
There’s just something missing from the whole film, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that something is. Schumacher is no stranger to the psychological thriller genre, directing “Phone Booth” and “Falling Down” – yet the magic from those two films are missing here. Maybe it is because protagonist Kyle Miller is completely unlikeable. That could be what prompted Cage to walk off the set for a day, demanding to switch roles from Miller to one of the intruders (he returned when producers threatened to offer the role to another actor). Or perhaps this type of crime drama – “Trespass” being the cliché crew of thieves breaking in to terrorize the rich – is simply running its course. It practically deserves a genre category, with classics such as “Panic Room” and 1979’s “When a Stranger Calls” — not to be confused with the lesser 2006 remake.
“Trespass” is exactly what it should be — a straight to DVD film that lacks the punch to sustain a lengthy and successful theatrical run despite the Hollywood heavyweights involved in the project. There’s simply too much happening in too little space for the plot to work. When you factor in a lack of likeable protagonists and a confusing backstory, the film potentially trespasses on an hour and a half of your life that you might find yourself wanting back.