Archive for the 'Film Reviews' Category

Living With Lincoln

Living With Lincoln (9/6/15) HBO (2015 ***) Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt and Brian Oakes. Peter Kunhardt tells the story of his family, particularly his grandmother Dorothy, and his family’s very special collection of photographs of America’s 16th president. To be perfectly honest, this documentary was a bit of a bait-and-switch. Much, if not most, of its content focused on Dorothy Kunhardt’s life and career. She was the children’s book author of Pat the Bunny and Junket is Nice. While fascinating in her own right, I was understandably more interested in the Lincoln photographs. The documentary technique was solid, featuring home movies and plenty of motion graphics to break up the otherwise static material.

Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson (9/1/15) Netflix (2013 ***) Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, including interviews with Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green, Stephan Pastis and others. This documentary is an examination of the work of Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator, as well as an unabashed love letter to the reclusive “J.D. Salinger of cartoon artists.” The documentary technique was solid throughout, with an appropriate use of motion graphics to break up the talking heads interviews. However, I found the narration to be a bit sophomoric at times, and had wished it were smarter and coming from a more authoritative position with respect to the history of American cartoons. Having said (written) that, the opposite could easily be argued, that it was in fact the perfect choice for the audience, assuming the audience was made up of grade school kids who had just discovered Calvin & Hobbes for themselves. As I watched the film, I kept wondering whether Bill Watterson himself might make an appearance, but (kinda sorta spoiler alert) sadly he did not. One historical note: Subsequent to the release of Dear Mr. Watterson in 2013, Bill Watterson did come out of his cave briefly, returning to the comics pages in a handful of panels in the strip Pearls Before Swine, created by Stephan Pastis, one of those interviewed for this documentary. One has to wonder what connection there might be, if any.

Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas (8/29/15) Netflix (2013 ***) Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, starring Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin and Willem Dafoe. A psychic short-order cook knows something really bad is going to happen in his small town, just not quite what. I have no real explanation for it, but I’ve been meaning to read Dean Koontz’ novel of the same name for several years now, but had never gotten around to it. I’m sure that’s based almost entirely on reading the back of the paperback in an airport book store at some time far in the past. Based on that interest, when I saw Odd Thomas listed on Netflix I decided to give it a shot, not knowing much about it. According to Wikipedia, the film got a theatrical release, but everything about it screams: “made-for-TV-movie-intended-as-a-series-pilot.” It is very strange tonally. I know I tend to write in my reviews about tone a great deal, but I was surprised by not only how light its tone was, but also the choices made in its premise. Some examples: The main character is a generally well-adjusted young man who not only has a girlfriend but also a good working relationship with the local police. While I don’t think I can give it a strong recommendation, and I found it predictable at times, it was still a mildly entertaining watch.

Get Smart

Get Smart (8/28/15) IFC (2008 **) Directed by Peter Segal, based on the TV show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin and Terence Stamp. A top-secret spy agency analyst named Maxwell Smart is promoted to field agent and teamed with an experienced female agent named 99. Prior to this film being released, I’d looked forward to it. Steve Carell seemed ideally cast for the role made so memorable on TV by Don Adams. But then I read the reviews, which were not kind, settling at a not particularly fresh 51% on Rotten Tomatoes. My personal experience matched that rating pretty accurately. To be honest, more than anything it made me want to watch the original show which ran from 1965-1970, then played in syndication in the after-school block of programming, which is where I watched it. It’s a real shame, too, because I think it could have been an excellent film, worthy of a sequel, if not two. As evidence, I humbly point you to This year’s Spy (2015), starring Melissa McCarthy, which had the same exact premise.


Disturbia (8/26/15) Cinemax (2007 **1/2) Directed by D.J. Caruso, starring Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss and Sarah Roemer. When an angsty teenager spends his summer under house arrest, his voyeuristic proclivities lead him face-to-face with a serial killer. I was vaguely aware of this film when it was released eight years ago, yet never quite got around to watching it until now. Clearly intended as a tribute to one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Rear Window (1954), it didn’t quite land for me. Then again, how could it? Watching the credits, I found it interesting that its Executive Producer was Ivan Reitman, then again maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It worked reasonably well as a thriller (if you could turn a blind eye to a few lapses in narrative logic), but never really connected with me. As for why, I think I might have to play the generational card on this one: I didn’t really relate to the main characters and would love to know if audience members who were in their teens and twenties when the film was released had more they could relate to.


Robocop (8/25/15) Netflix (2014 ***) Directed by José Padilha, starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley and Samuel L. Jackson. When the only honest cop in the corrupt Detroit police department gets blown up in his driveway, a robotics company gives him a second chance to clean up the city. I enjoyed this remake more than I expected, mostly because I expected almost zero from it. The film was cast with always-nice-to-see faces in major roles, but I wish they’d cast a more interesting and/or familiar lead. This attempted franchise reboot also tinkered with the original premise, and in particular with the basics of the main character and his relationship with his family. This very much altered the story dynamics in a way that may have been an attempt at a more relatable central character, but resulted in a weaker story overall. The other major questionable decision was to tone down the original series R-rated content to PG-13 level, in the hopes of producing a series with wider appeal. Not surprisingly, it did not result in a better film. However, ignoring that, the new version of Robocop was still mildly entertaining, with a couple of juicy Easter eggs thrown in as well.

The Singing Nun

The Singing Nun (8/24/15) TCM (1966 **) Directed by Henry Koster, starring Debbie Reynolds, Ricardo Montalban, Greer Garson, Katharine Ross and Ed Sullivan. When a nun lands a recording contract, then goes onto fame and glory, it makes it surprisingly hard to do the Lord’s work. Oh, the mid-1960s were a strange time. This is one of those films that everybody was aware of, most people had seen, but was really not a particularly good film. The screenplay (based on a true story — more on that in a minute) seemed to have been written in about a week, and the lighting throughout felt more suitable for a TV show than a feature film. Attempts to add contemporary relevance (“I’m going to have an abortion, sister!”) seemed completely discordant. And I didn’t even find the music to be particularly memorable! Though I’m not interested enough to do a lot of research, I’m understandably curious about whether or not this project was rushed into production based on the success of The Sound of Music, released the year before. Now I mentioned that The Singing Nun was based on a real person, a woman named Jeanne Deckers, who achieved fame in the early 1960s because of a French-language chart-topping song “Dominique.” Her story is actually quite tragic, and in 1985 she was no longer a nun and committed suicide, along with her female lover.

Men of Boys Town

Men of Boys Town (8/23/15) TCM (1941 ***) Directed by Norman Taurog, starring Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Bobs Watson and Darryl Hickman as Flip. The dynamic duo of Father Flannegan and Whitey Marsh, along with their diminutive pal Pee Wee, take on the antiquated reform school system. I didn’t expect much from this sequel to the 1938 film, which I watched and reviewed back on 10/31/10, but it delivered emotionally. Of course your mileage may vary. Men of Boys Town falls into that category of films that are so old fashioned and simple in their construction and execution that most modern viewers would likely find them boring and/or quaint. (By the way, isn’t “quaint” one hell of a word?) The story contained a couple of weird logic problems, such as setting its fictional, demonized reform school 1,000 miles away; I lost count of how many times various characters traveled to and from that faraway place. My only guess is that was done so viewers at the time in Nebraska or Iowa wouldn’t think the corrupt institution was set in their home state.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (8/23/15) HBO (2014 ***) Directed by James Marsh, based on the book by Jane Hawking, starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones and David Thewlis. When cosmologist doctoral student Stephen Hawking is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and told he has two years to live, he gets married, then sets about describing the brief history of time. Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his lead performance in this film. He was certainly effective and managed to portray the physically-challenged physicist with compassion and nuance. However, I must admit that the film never reached me on an emotional level. And let’s face it, folks, I am not that hard to make cry. So why wasn’t I moved? What was missing? Much of the film centered on the strained marriage between Hawking and his wife, which wasn’t surprising, considering Jane Hawking wrote the book on which the film is based. Unfortunately, the resolution of that conflict may have been true to real-life events, but it still felt false dramatically. On another note, it’s an interesting coincidence that I watched The Theory of Everything the day after watching Contact (1997), given that the latter was based on a novel by another well-known astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, and both contained themes related to the never-ending conflict between science and religion.


Contact (8/22/15) HBO (1997 ***) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Carl Sagan, starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and William Fichtner. When young astrophysicist isn’t busy boning rugged-looking men of the cloth, she spends every waking minute listening for extra-terrestrial voices. I hadn’t watched this film since it was originally released. I remember being fairly disappointed by it, actually, having expected much more from Robert Zemeckis, the director behind Back to the Future (1985) and Best Picture winner Forrest Gump (1994). My expectations were clearly higher than they should have been. It’s interesting that this film shares something in common with another film I watched lately, one that also stars Matthew McConaughey: Interstellar (2014). Both films begin on fairly grounded reality, then progress into a second act related to the execution of a large-scale space project / mission, before reaching a dramatic climax that is (no spoilers here) somewhat abstract in nature. I gotta say that McConaughey’s acting chops had improved substantially in the interim.