REVIEW: “Hateship, Loveship”

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It’s always interesting to watch actors or actresses who make their living in comedy tackle dramatic material. Many comedians have a natural impulse to draw attention to themselves. It’s the nature of their humor. That’s why certain dramatic roles are so difficult for them. I think that’s what makes Kristen Wiig’s performance in “Hateship, Loveship” so compelling. There’s nothing showy or attention-grabbing about it, and for a comedian that could be hard hurdle to clear.

I’ve always found Wiig to be funny, but here she has to dial it back and put away any hint of flash or swagger. She plays the quiet and withdrawn Johanna Parry. As the film opens we see her as the caretaker for an elderly woman. It’s something she has done since she was 15 years old. At first glance Johanna’s clothes give the illusion that we are watching a period piece. At one point in the film she is called “Little House on the Prairie”. But actually her world has revolved around her caretaking and she’s has had practically no social life whatsoever.

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The elderly lady dies which frees Johanna in a variety of ways. She immediately lands a job in small town Iowa as a housekeeper for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha lives with her grandfather because her mom was killed in a car wreck and her dad Ken (Guy Pearce) is an unreliable come-and-go father with a drug problem. A resentful Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle) play a cruel joke on Johanna making her think that Ken is attracted to her through a series of fraudulent emails. This causes Johanna to make some spontaneous but earnest decisions which shifts the movie into an entirely new direction.

Many of the movie’s later plot turns may seem a bit implausible but writer Mark Poirier wisely keeps his focus on the characters and director Liza Johnson allows them the room to breathe and grow. This is important because “Hateship, Loveship” is all about relationships – fractured relationships, rekindled relationships, potential relationships. There is no magic formula to what makes this a good movie. It’s simply a collaboration between filmmakers and performers who know how to tell a smart and focused story.

Guy Pearce and Kristen Wiig in Hateship Loveship (2013).

The cast sparkles and everyone is given some level of character complexity. As mentioned, Wiig is fantastic. Her dowdy, naive, and socially awkward Johanna is the emotional centerpiece. It’s a beautifully reserved performance and it takes some time to truly appreciate what she’s doing. The always reliable Pearce has no problem revealing the multiple sides of Ken. In one scene you feel sympathy for him. The next scene he does something utterly shameless. And I do love Steinfeld. She’s a great young actress with a long career ahead of her. Veteran actor Nolte is absolutely perfect and Gayle is shockingly vile. And then there is the small but lovely performance from Christine Lahti.

“Hateship, Loveship” is a modest but compelling character study – a film that is most interested in people and the relationships they share both good and bad. There are a couple of twists that you just have to go along with, but I had no problem doing it. That’s because I cared about these characters. They aren’t paper-thin caricatures or boring, lifeless clich茅s. Johnson’s direction and Poirier’s script doesn’t allow them to be and because of that “Hateship, Loveship” is a pleasure to watch.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Rover”

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Director David Mich么d made a splash in 2010 with his critically acclaimed debut film “Animal Kingdom”. The movie would capture many people’s attention as well as numerous awards nominations. “The Rover” is Mich么d’s sophomore effort and in many ways it is vastly different from his first film. It’s a much more visual experience that employs atmosphere and environment over a stricter and more focused narrative. For some people that seems to have been a turn-off. I found it to be a fresh, unsettling, and thoroughly exhilarating package.

Mich么d wrote the screenplay based on a story he created with actor Joel Edgerton. The film begins with the words “Australia. 10 Years after the collapse”. Basically the world economy has crumbled and the Australian Outback has dissolved into a violent dystopia. The rule of law has disintegrated with the exception of small groups of soldiers who occasionally patrol the areas. Two very different men come together on this wasteland. Eric (Guy Pearce) is a bitter and enigmatic loner. He always seems to be laboring to keep his violent anger under control. Rey (Robert Pattinson) is a very simple and dependent American who is left behind by his brother and accomplices after a robbery goes bad.

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Rey’s brother Henry is played by Scoot McNairy who always delivers in small roles like this. After leaving a wounded Rey behind Henry and his crew steal Eric’s car after wrecking theirs. We quickly understand that Eric’s car is extremely important to him, perhaps the last thing of any value that he has left. He sets out to get it back and in doing so crosses paths with Rey. The two develop a tempestuous relationship as Eric’s barely bridled violence clashes with Rey’s emotionally delicate neediness. Eric keeps Rey close as a convenience. He needs to get Rey’s brother while Rey just needs someone to cling to.

The dialogue in “The Rover” is sparse and I had to adjust to its style of storytelling. But I quickly found myself enamored with the effectiveness of Mich么d’s methods. I had no trouble comprehending the desolation and rigidity of the world these characters inhabit. I had no trouble seeing the violent complexities of Eric or the fractured yet sympathetic psyche of Rey.

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We are asked to seek answers and information through our senses and I really responded to that. Mich么d’s camera frames some truly captivating shots. I’m not familiar with Natasha Braier, but she was credited with the cinematography and I’ll definitely be looking for her name in the future. The two create a visually terrifying dystopian world that is both beautiful and threatening. Filming took place in the Australian desert and the cameras utilize the location to its fullest. All of this contributes to the storytelling but I do feel as if the film withholds small bits of meaningful information. I’m not saying I need or want everything spelled out for me. I think that would ruin the film. But just a touch more background would do wonders.

And how can I talk about the film and not mention the two lead performances? Readers of this blog will know that Guy Pearce is an absolute favorite of mine and his work here illustrates why. He gives one of my favorite performances of the year. He defines his character through several unconventional ways – through expressions, mannerisms, and even his bursts of violence. He hasn’t much dialogue but he doesn’t need it. He is mesmerizing. But for me the real revelation is Robert Pattinson, someone I’ve never believed in as an actor. Pattinson sheds every glimpse of his past “Twilight” pretty-boy status. It’s a very demanding role and I found myself shocked at how well he pulled it off. This could be a turning point for him.

In many ways “The Rover” reminded me of an end-of-the-world western. It quickly initiated thoughts of everything from “Mad Max” to “No Country for Old Men” to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. It’s a grubby, callous, and ferocious film that takes what looks like limitations and uses them as great strengths. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone. It’s grim, violent, and hopeless. But it’s also captivating cinema that I couldn’t turn away from.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

The Public Movie Defender : “The Time Machine” (2002)

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The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #3 – “THE TIME MACHINE” (2002)

TIMEThe 1895 novel “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells has long established itself as a science fiction classic. While I’ve never read the entire novel, I still remember seeing a film adaptation as a young boy. It was a film from 1960 which was directed and produced by George Pal (Pal had already made a film version of the other Wells science fiction classic “The War of the Worlds” in 1953). There was a made for TV movie in the late 1970s but Pal’s version from 1960 was my first real exposure to this timeless story (pun intended).

Time jump ahead 42 years to 2002 where Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, made his live-action directorial debut with a fresh look at “The Time Machine”. It’s more of a remake of Pal’s film but it has several unique angles of its own. It’s certainly a movie I feel compelled to defend. It was universally dismissed and its current Rotten Tomatoes score sits at an abysmal 29%. I think this is a much better film than that and many of the criticisms fired its way are a bit unfair. For me Simon Wells puts out a vision with a little more heart and weight than the previous film and John Logan’s sharp screenplay is a crucial part of that.

But for me the biggest selling point for the film was the performance of Guy Pearce. There’s no need to dance around it – I’m a huge Guy Pearce fan. He’s an immensely talented and underrated actor who has shown diverse range throughout his acting career. This was one of the movies that really sold him to me. Some have found his performance “lifeless” while others have claimed he was miscast. I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s Pearce’s performance and his ability to convey the driving force behind his character’s actions that gives this movie an injection of emotion. I also think he fits perfectly into the socially awkward role that’s called for early on.

Pearce plays Dr. Alexander Hartdegen, a Columbia University professor and part-time inventor. Alexander feels detached from his home in 1899 New York City where everyone are “dinosaurs” and “all alike, all in identical bowler hats”. He’s a nerdy fellow who loves tinkering and he has a hidden interest in the theory of time travel. Sometimes his interests take his focus off of his sweetheart Emma (Sienna Guillory) whom he truly loves. In fact, a horrible tragedy involving Emma is the catalyst for him building his time machine. In other words the romance is a key component to the story. It’s not delved into at great lengths but I do feel that Pearce sells it and the post-tragedy emotions especially well.

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“The Time Machine” can really be broken down into two parts, the pre-machine 1899 New York and the unintended future year of 802,701. Yet in between those two main focuses are several scenes featuring different time periods. Alexander’s ‘fish out of water’ status and overloaded curiosity at his futuristic stops was a treat for me, again much due to the performance of Guy Pearce. These brief scenes give some explanation to the bleak future that Alexander ends up in. They also offer a small bit of commentary which I quite liked.

The second half of the film takes place in the aforementioned future of 802,701. Technology and advancement is gone and humanity has basically started over. It’s here that Alexander meets Mara (Samantha Mumba), a young woman who is part of a cliff dwelling tribe called the Eloi. Naturally the clash of a well-dressed future man and an indigenous native tribe is a huge obstacle but fortunately Lara speaks a little English (the stone language). Don’t worry, this isn’t a random thing. The movie does explain it. But Alexander soon learns that even that time period has its own problems, namely a subterranean species known as the Morlocks.

I’ve defended the acting and the story. Now let me talk a little bit about the special effects. I found the movie’s visuals range from the bland to the spectacular. The time traveling scenes are beautifully done and show off the technical rise of society all the way through another Ice Age and the blossoming of a new world after it. I also loved the design of Alexander’s time machine. There is such detail and craft in the way it’s made and you can almost believe in it completely. Now I wasn’t as impressed with the Morlocks once they appear. They’re just a tad too fake. But that doesn’t apply to Jeremy Irons who shows up as the Uber-Morlock – their leader. He is disgustingly eerie. His makeup alone was a big reason the film received an Oscar nomination in that category.

There are several other great touches and key components that make this such a great film. I adore Klaus Badelt’s brilliant and stirring score. Orlando Jones is a blast playing a holographic A.I. librarian. And the touching final scene still pricks my heart every time I watch it. “The Time Machine” is an underappreciated movie anchored by a fine lead performance by Guy Pearce. Simon Wells would suffer from exhaustion and Gore Verbinski would finish up the film. I give them both credit for giving us a delightful science fiction picture that’s far better than what many critics have said. It struck a chord with me the first moment I saw it and in my eyes it’s still an overlooked gem.

VERDICT : “THE TIME MACHINE” – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

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Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

TOP 5 SUPPORTING ACTOR PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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Yesterday it was the ladies, today it’s the men. Today I’m listing the Top 5 Supporting Actor Performances from 2012. This category was a very strong one and I had a tougher time narrowing this field to five than any other. I think you’ll notice that there is such a wide range of performances on this list. There are good guys, bad guys, and some guys you just can’t figure out. But everyone gives a wonderful performance and deserve the recognition. So enough rambling. Here are the 5 Best Supporting Actor Performances (according to me)…

#5 – TOM HIDDLESTON (“The Avengers”)

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This is certainly not an Academy-like pick but it’s a worthy one. I love Tom Hiddleston and he could easily appear in two spots on this list. He was fabulous in “The Deep Blue Sea” but I’m going with the flashier and definitely more explosive performance from “The Avengers“. When Hiddleston is on screen as the mischievous villain Loki you can’t take your eyes off him. His conniving smiles, his devilish arrogance, and his way with words make the character one of the most entrancing villain you’ll see. I love the performance and I’m making up for where the Academy dropped the ball.

#4 – BRUCE WILLIS (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

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Writer and director extraordinaire Wes Anderson quite possibly writes some of the most quirkiest characters in cinema history and I love them. “Moonrise Kingdom” has a couple of great characters and performances that could have made this list but I’m going with Bruce Willis. He plays a small community police captain with his own bit of baggage. Willis melds perfectly into Anderson’s accentuated world. He brings some great laughs as well as some pretty heartfelt moments. Willis gets it all right and even his funky blonde hairpiece works to perfection.

#3 – DWIGHT HENRY (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

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It’s hard to believe that this was Dwight Henry’s first real acting gig. His performance as an ill-equipped and ill-tempered father in the poverty-stricken New Orleans delta was outstanding. Henry owned a bakery before landing this role but you would never know it. He brings such a boisterousness and volatility to the character that is essential to making everything work. At times you want to punch him in the face. Other times you want to cry for him. Henry has made a big splash with his first role and hopefully more people will now get to experience it in “Beasts of the Southern Wild“.

#2 – GUY PEARCE (“Lawless”)

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I don’t think there is a role that Guy Pearce can’t handle. In “Lawless” he plays a rather twisted special deputy sent to the hills of Franklin County, Virginia to put a kink in the moonshiner rings. Pearce has an absolute blast with the role and shows it through his creepy appearance and violent temperment. Several of his scenes stand out including his initial face-off with Tom Hardy. Pearce gives us a true villain and you hate him without any question. I loved this performance and it was one of my favorite bits of supporting work of the year.

#1 – MICHAEL FASSBENDER (“Prometheus”)

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Michael Fassbender has become one of cinema’s best actors and I knew from the opening moments of “Prometheus” that I was in for a real treat. In the movie he plays an android named David and throughout the film we are trying to figure him out. Fassbender’s emotionless demeanor and cryptic forms of speech make him impossible to read and I loved watching him slither in the background of many of the scenes. This was a unique and pivotal role in the movie and Fassbender handles it with ease. I know some have had issues with “Prometheus” but how can you not love his performance.

So there are the 5 Top Supporting Actor Performances for 2012. What are your thoughts on the category? Where did I go wrong? Tommorow it’s back to the ladies as I unveil my Top 5 Lead Actress Performances.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIES THAT I LIKE BUT NO ONE ELSE DOES

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Ok, I’m opening myself up to tons of mockery and ridicule but that’s the nature of the Phenomenal 5 right? After a break for the holidays I thought it would be fun to start the Phenomenal 5 back up with a list that should have people letting me know how nutty my taste in movies can sometimes be. I’m listing five phenomenal movies that I really like and enjoy but that few others seem to care for (ok “phenomenal” may be a stretch but just go with it). There have been a few movies over the years that I (and apparently I alone) have really liked that simply wasn’t liked by anyone else. In fact, I bet we all have some of those films in the backs of our minds. I mean just here recently I took some good ribbing over my positive review of “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Well you won’t find it on this list but I’m offering up five flicks that I’ve seen multiple times and still thoroughly enjoy even if no one else does.

#5 – “WATERWORLD”

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It’s not that “Waterworld” is hated, but it’s safe to say that few people really appreciate the movie as much as I do. Everyone knows the story. At the time, “Waterworld” was the most expensive movie ever made and it never actually made a profit until well into it’s home video release. I’ve always believed this played into the reason why this this film never impressed a lot of people. It’s certainly not the most polished movie but as for creative post-apocolpyptic sci-fi goes, I found it to be a lot of fun. It didn’t do Kevin Costner’s career any favors and it’s still laughed at by some and deemed utterly forgettable by others. But I still feel “Waterworld” is clever and unique and I can watch it today and still have a good time.

#4 – “JOHN CARTER”

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I honestly still struggle in understanding the backlash against this year’s “John Carter”. Like “Waterworld”, it wasn’t the most even and polished movie that you’ll see, but it was far from being a terrible film. And to be honest, I had a great time watching “John Carter” on the big screen with my son and it held up after a second viewing. This isn’t a movie that has any chance of making it on my top 10 of 2012, but I thought it to be a visual feast of cool effects and futuristic creativity. I also found myself interested in the story throughout even though there were a few rough patches. This movie was slammed by critics and moviegoers alike but it’s a movie that I liked and that I can appreciate despite its few flaws.

#3 – “STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE”

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Okay, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone hates this movie. But it’s also safe to say that millions of Star Wars fan boys, a group that I proudly consider myself a part, took great issue with this movie. In fact, many people still blast this film as a devilish plot to kill the Star Wars franchise. I certainly don’t consider this movie to be as good as any of the three films in the original trilogy. But it does feel like a Star Wars movie to me and it has its own special moments that set it apart. Yes, I hate Jar-Jar and yes, midichlorians are absurd. But the space sequences never looked better and it probably gave us the best light saber duel in the entire franchise. It was a no win situation for Lucas, but for me he pulls it off.

#2 – “CLASH OF THE TITANS”

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Talk about a movie that I spent a lot of time to defending! With the exception of my lovely wife and 10-year old son, I don’t think I found another person that I know who liked this movie. It was criticized for everything from the cheesy dialogue to Sam Worthington’s haircut. But I still think people completely missed what this movie was aiming for. I grew up adoring the “Sinbad” movies, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and of course “Clash of the Titans”. This remake was a simple tip of the hat to that past movie genre. It wasn’t trying to be new or groundbreaking. It was a fun, creature-filled action romp that took me back to my childhood. It’s sequel is utter crap, but I still proudly stand by this one, and I still thinks is does more things right than it’s given credit for.

#1 – “THE TIME MACHINE”

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I really like every movie that I’ve mentioned, but this is the one film on the list that I truly love. It’s hard to explain especially because I recognize that this film has several flaws. It’s a shining example of how a movie with a great lead performance and a handful of wonderful scenes can be a genuinely memorable experience. Look, I admit the special effects are sometimes laughable and it flies a little off the rails in the second half. But I love Guy Pearce’s performance and I buy into everything his character is doing and feeling. It’s authentic and heartfelt from the opening sequence to the beautiful final shot. And while most people have dismissed this movie, it still moves me each time I watch it.

So go ahead, get your verbal guns ready. I’ve made myself an easy target. Which of these movies have I lost my mind defending? How about you? What are some movies that others hate but you adore? Please share your thoughts and please….go easy on me.