by Philip Price
I've never been a big fan of director Paul W.S. Anderson as I've never even seen a single ‘Resident Evil’ movie (though he's only directed three of the five) and while I did rather enjoy his 2008 re-make of “Death Race” that was as much due to the fact it starred Jason Statham as anything else. In light of that film and all of the facets that his 2011 ‘Three Musketeers’ interpretation had going for it I was rather interested in seeing how it turned out, but I couldn't even make it through the entirety of that flick when I rented it at home and I doubt I would have made it through “Pompeii” either had I not been sitting in a theater. The story of the city of Pompeii is no doubt a fascinating one as what occurred in the aftermath of Mount Vesuvius exploding in 79 AD and wiping out the entire city, killing 2,000 people, within a matter of moments and leaving everything covered in several feet of ash and rock, allowed those moments in time, those moments of fear and humanity to be captured, frozen in time and preserved for thousands of years creating a mystery around the city. It would be impossible not to delve into the stories that exist under the ash, but Anderson is not the director I would have chosen to create what is inherently an epic because once his name was attached it became immediately clear what type of film this would be and the final result proves nothing if not the fact he is a predictable and safe director. While it is only of my opinion, it would seem this kind of story lends itself to that of a gritty realism and an opportunity to ask and address bigger questions such as at the end of the world, what are we? As well as investigating the human element of survival and of meaning under circumstances completely out of our control. Instead, Anderson makes the whole point of this film feel like a reason for the 3D technology to exist because watching fireballs zoom by and crash into ancient cities is more entertaining than story or character development. I'm all about having fun at the movies and being completely wrapped up in the outlandish worlds of pure popcorn entertainment, but “Pompeii” doesn't so much have a story as it does serve as an excuse to blow shit up on the biggest scale possible. It is a disaster movie that keeps its promise in terms of action, but only skims the surface of what the circumstances of these events bring to the lives of those who suffered under them.
We begin in northern Britannia in 62 AD and are introduced to a young Milo who watches as his father is killed by Roman soldiers and his mother is lined up in front of Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) only to be cut down by his sword. Little Milo gets away and is picked up by a gang of travelers that take him to the capitol of Britannia where we meet him 17 years later and he's grown up to be Kit Harrington. He displays lightning fast quickness in his fighting skills and has become well-renowned for his them which end up getting him a ticket to the bigger show in the bigger arena that resides in the city of Pompeii. On his way to Pompeii the band of slaves Milo is entangled with are passed by a decorated carriage coming from Rome that becomes stuck in the muddy road due to the breaking of one of the horse's legs. The passenger of this carriage just so happens to be Lady Cassia (Emily Browning) the daughter of some of Pompeii's wealthy merchants as played by Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss. In a meet-cute moment Milo breaks the neck of Cassia's horse to relieve it from the pain it was suffering while leaving an undeniable impression on the young lady. Of course, their longing stares would never be able to come to any kind of fruition as he is a slave and she is of a proper, wealthy family that will of course be somehow contrived into an agreed upon marriage with gasp! the man who killed Milo's entire family! You guessed it, ol' Keifer as Corvus comes riding back into town with an agenda that has him investing in Cassia's father’s plans to re-build much of Pompeii, but only if Severus (Harris) allows him a moment alone with Cassia. So it seems Cassia and Corvus have a history and he might be the reason she was in such a hurry to return home from her year abroad in Rome; the very journey that put her on course with Milo and his gang of gladiators? That's the one. Don't worry though, this isn't all love story and melodrama as Milo gets a pal in Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who he will seemingly have to kill for half of the film to survive, but you know how things go; mountains explode, Romans don't keep their promises and Milo discovers there can be good in other people, but the thing is he doesn't discover that, he just stands there, brooding.
If there is something good to be said about “Pompeii” it is that it at least starts out strong and contains a few moments of truly striking imagery that don't seem overly rendered by CGI. The opening sequence, while bloodless in its massive amounts of violence, has a nice texture to it and even the follow-up engagement between Milo and his first opponents on screen are well-staged, frenetically shot, but with an atmosphere to boost the down-trodden, pessimistic nature of his existence. Once the film begins to move towards the titular city though, things begin to fall into comfortable standards and the story feels no more compelling than watching spliced together action scenes from other movies while the inevitable events of what motivate this film to exist happen in the background and we watch as there is nothing they can do, but continue on in their tortured ignorance that is only going to get worse. We get zero development as far as the love story goes and the chemistry between Harrington and Browning is non-existent, not at any fault of the actors, but because they are literally given two, maybe three scenes where they meet one another, see one another and then ride off on a horse together only to be captured almost immediately to figure out they love one another dearly. There is hardly any dialogue exchanged between the two and Anderson isn't a subtle enough director to allow the simple things like expressions on their faces or longing looks in their eyes to linger and put emphasis on the emotions being conjured up inside of them. Ultimately though, what doomed “Pompeii” from the start is the seeming lack of any real investment from Anderson in this story. He saw an opportunity to make a big, action adventure and he jumped on it, but even though it took three screenwriters (THREE!) to come up with this re-hash and mish-mash of parts from “Gladiator,” “Titanic” and any other sword and sandals epic or star-crossed lovers story you can think of you still can't artificially muster investment from the storyteller no matter how hard you try; and when there is no passion and only someone going through the motions, there exists no compelling nature for us to want to watch it or even bring it to the screen in the first place.
The bad thing is, I really wanted to enjoy “Pompeii” and I wanted it to light all of my senses on fire (no pun intended). I wanted to become interested in these people and the insurmountable odds they would be facing, I wanted a good throw-back to the time period in which it was set with extravagant yet gripping performances and maybe even some riveting moments of emotion coupled with the site of pure destruction. It could have been so much and I hate to dismiss the movie so harshly because it wasn't everything it could have been, but even if Anderson had no ambition behind his project I doubt he wanted it to turn out as boring and as rote as this concoction of clichés did. If we want to talk about extravagant yet embarrassing Sutherland is the first one to point a finger at. He puts on a funky accent and carries himself with a slight feminine hint that suggests he truly thinks he is coming off as if participating in a great Shakespearean play when in reality he just makes himself and all those around him look silly. Silly is a big problem here as the gravity of the situation calls for a seriousness yet the cheap looking costumes, sets and sometimes even the special effects render the whole of the film, well, silly looking. This is especially true in the first fight in the arena of Pompeii where Milo, Atticus and several other slaves are chained to an island and forced to fight an army of soldiers. It is a laughable exercise with not an ounce of blood to be seen when a character swings their sword and bad acting all the way around as people just seem to fall left and right no matter if they were hit with anything or not. Whether it is actually due to the acting or poor choreography (though probably a combination of both) it all just ends up looking cheesy and again just cheapening the entire experience. As I've never seen an episode of “Game of Thrones” (I know, I need to jump on the bandwagon) I didn't have much to go off as far as what to expect from Harrington, but he does fine enough staring at Browning and fighting when commanded. He really has nothing else to do and I doubt in the long run in his quest to be a movie star this little film on his resume will cause any harm. The same cannot be said for Browning though who now seems relegated to these kind of low-brow, period pieces that are made for the masses but typically fail to be seen by very many. She could very well break out more with an indie sooner or later, but she seems comfortable where she is and who's to argue with that? The likes of Harris and Moss are as wasted as the strong imagery of seeing someone or something walk through smoke. If this is the only feature that comes from the tragedy of Pompeii we would have been better off leaving it buried.
by Philip Price
From the opening moments of ”3 Days to Kill” I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to be laughing or not. That the first real "name" we see on screen comes in the form of Amber Heard is nothing but disheartening, but when you start throwing in nicknamed bad guys like "the albino" and "the wolf" I think everyone sat back in their seats and immediately realized what type of movie we were in for. As Luc Besson has done ever since truly breaking through in America with “Taken” six years ago it seems he has been keen to write another action hit starring a credible, middle-aged actor at the center of it. Granted, Besson only writes these things and hardly directs, but his distinct European flavor is written all over them and while neither “Lockout” nor this will work the way Neeson's surprise hit did it was nice to see Kevin Costner give it a try and it was surprising, if not concerning, to see McG behind the wheel of another seemingly brainless action movie that if not proving to be exactly artistic could at least be fun. The guy has directed competent action/comedies before, I actually enjoyed the two “Charlie's Angels” films though history doesn't look too kindly on them now, but has had a rocky road of swaying back and forth between genres since and has never really found a way to re-gain his footing. This is also the problem with ”3 Days to Kill” as not only does it not know what it wants to be, but it never seems to gain its footing in the first place. From the opening sequence that has Costner's senior CIA agent tripping and coughing through a large European hotel we are made to think he is going to be the nonchalant charmer who does his incredibly difficult job with an ease that makes him appealing, but instead it simply turns out he is in the right place at the right time and there isn't necessarily anything special about him other than the fact that he is dying and sees the error of his ways in choosing to chase bad guys rather than develop meaningful relationships with his wife and daughter. ”3 Days to Kill” could have easily been that dumb fun action flick that sees Costner re-gain some of his prime in a leading role, but instead it just turns out to be dumb with an identity crisis that leaves us nothing if not discontent.
As mentioned above, it is in that opening sequence that the disconnect would already begin to make itself known. There was something odd about it, something in the editing, in the mashing together of what seemed to be footage taken with different types of cameras and the juxtaposing of the quality of those images. There was almost no sense of location, no sense of where everyone was in relation to those who were pulling out guns and shooting everyone in sight. At one point I literally thought the group of bad guys were shooting a glass wall so they could step through to the outside and have quicker access to a vehicle, but they were actually shooting a wall to step out onto the roof for no other reason than to seemingly allow Costner's Ethan Renner to fire at them from below. Once the purpose of this set-up comes full circle in it displaying the effects of Ethan's illness on his day job and even justifying some of the weird camera and editing choices we are dropped into a film that wants to become ex-CIA badass figuring out how to deal with his teenage daughter. It is absolutely, one hundred percent, playing off those ideas of this guy being a trained killer and that he has accomplished so many things in his life and throughout the world, but when faced with the challenge of a teenager he's as helpless as the rest of us. It is corny, it tries to make this dynamic work as Ethan is then pulled back into his job on the promise of an experimental drug that could prolong his life. It's part making up for lost time, learning how to bond and part hiding daddy's true identity and catching the bad guy on the down low so said daughter really knows he's committed this time and won't disappear again anytime soon. That daughter, Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), is one of the only appealing aspects of the film as she is the only one who gives Ethan anything substantial to work with, but as we see him go back and forth between Zoey and this assignment of tracking down odds and ends to lead him to these faceless terrorists we come to realize we have no real interest in whether or not he ultimately takes down "the wolf" but more that he becomes the man he wanted to be that will see him coming to terms with the fact that what he did for a living doesn't define the man he is.
“3 Days to Kill” never becomes even this enlightening though and despite the fact that I honestly wondered at one point early in the film if it would end up giving us more than we bargained for, more than we could ask for from this type of film it was quick to clear up any confusion in showing the audience it had no real interest in putting perspective on its protagonists life, but wanted to do little more than entertain which (while not exactly captivating or interesting) it only manages to be about half the time. The issue lies in the tone of the film though because despite the fact I think McG knew what he wanted this film to be, he just isn't exactly sure how to get it there or even how to convey it correctly (though I'm sure there could have been plenty of people to help him do this if he actually had a clear vision). These tonal problems come in when the fact that Ethan only has a few months to live and that he immediately regrets what he's used his time on earth for. It is rather heavy handed stuff and if dealt with in a compelling fashion might afford the audience to buy into this as a genuine dramatic film with elements of action, something Costner is well-seasoned at and would serve his persona well. It is at every turn once the film gets into the meat of its plot though that it wants to deliver laughs and make light of the double identity life that Ethan is leading. If McG did in fact know what he wanted to do with this material it never comes through in the finished product and this type of swaying between the range of emotions and genres is never done with subtlety but with as heavy a hand that makes everything feel forced and staged rather than appealing to our characters at a natural pace. Speaking of forced, let’s not even talk about how Besson resolves this thing as he brings in a twist that attempts to tie the two storylines together but is nothing short of contrived and if anything discredits what little credit the movie had going for it. Pair this with the incredibly common soundtrack that builds and swells in all the right places if they wanted to make this thing even cornier than they do with its shooting style and dialogue as well as the horribly choreographed and captured fight sequences and you have something that makes you wonder who thought this was a good idea.
What ultimately comes to be redeeming about this movie though is the goofy chemistry between the actors and the earnest way you can see them truly trying to make this work even though they are aware of how much of an exercise in standard this whole thing is. Steinfeld, who I worried might have been a one and done with her terrific performance in “True Grit” has been able to turn herself into at least a credible presence for now, but she brings the father/daughter dynamic some real bite here giving her father what feels like more of a challenge than those on the bad side of the CIA. She is naturally a bit exaggerated, but not to the point we don't believe that she turned out to be the way she has with only her mother around to raise her and the culture she is not inherent to. Connie Nielsen gets a bit part as the estranged wife of Ethan and mother to Zoey, but the point of the film is that she leaves town for a few days granting Ethan the opportunity to step up and prove he's there to stay so she doesn't have much to do, but when she does return she does it in fine enough form and strangely lends a sense of those great ‘90s action B-movies to the proceedings that likely imply more stylistic references than anyone intended. Then there is the case of Heard who I really believe cheapens everything she takes part in and here gets the most out of left field things to participate that, unless I'm missing something major, make zero sense and only exist to further confirm the fact that she needs to play the same type of domineering dominatrix in every movie. As for Costner himself, well he wears a lot of scarves and popped collars in this movie and it starts to feel as forced as the rest of the elements, but otherwise he is rather charming as the disheveled American in a country where he is clearly looked down upon at every encounter and proves his self-worth by bullying those into submission to get what he wants. He develops fun and at least entertaining relationships with a luxury car service owner (Marc Andreoni) who assists him with acclimating to the current teenager landscape while having an odd yet slightly touching relationship with a group of squatters that have taken up residence in his apartment. I'm not entirely sure why so much time is devoted to them or why they are present (other than to show the importance of family, just seems an odd way to do it) but it's the small things such as this that keep ”3 Days to Kill” from completely floundering under its own confusion.
by Philip Price
“Diana,” not making a peep upon its release nor since, is one of those movies that simply exists where neither its content nor the way it was put together, where the techniques used to convey a well-known story, brought about no great insight, revelation or even valid emotional impact that only served to re-enforce the fact there was no reason for it to exist. It seems no matter how much director Oliver Hirschbiegel thought he might bring an interesting point of view to this film his attempts end up being completely ineffective in the fact that a majority of the people interested in the figure of Diana, Princess of Wales likely knew everything this movie would be bringing to the table (or had already read it in Kate Snell's book on which the screenplay was based) and thus found no reason to watch famous people play dress-up and re-hash the events of their beloved Diana while no doubt dramatizing it as much as possible. There was no need for this film, though not because we all know how it turns out, but because Diana was such a figure that the public felt like they knew so well, personally even, that it is almost a betrayal to them to see this actress portray a part of the peoples’ princess they might not have seen before. This is no fault of the writers, filmmakers or actors and obviously is an element they have no control over, but while it may have felt like a valiant effort, a story worth bringing to a feature film the end result is something that points to every reason why it wasn't a good idea. All of that being said, there is indeed an effort put forth here and despite the bad press it received before it was given a chance there is a Naomi Watts performance here that, while she no doubt had much higher hopes for it, should be recognized as what it is: convincing on what were impossible levels. The same stigma that applied to the movie applies to the person picked to play Diana and the performance they ultimately gave. What Watts is able to do is somehow transcend the barrage of images we've all seen and do what the movie as a whole was unable to accomplish and that is make us believe in this material. No, I didn't necessarily enjoy the film or find much of it interesting, but it has its moments and it had enough to show there is a solid biography to be made about Diana, but that this just isn't it.
Beginning quietly in the early morning hours of that fateful day Diana would come face to face with death we are walked through the final moments of her life with no preliminary information as to what state she is in or where she is going. In what initially appear to be nothing more than stylistic choices in the opening tracking shot we are brought around to a much more substantial weight by the end of the film where the sequence is repeated, though it would be interesting to analyze both and note the differences so as to catch the different implications it means to make. The problem with something like this, where these moments feel studied over and thought out is that the middle is filled with plodding melodrama that makes the well-regarded Princess seem like a woman not desperate to serve the world or fighting to solve its problems, but a woman desperate to be loved in the most sincere of fashions. Obviously, we all understand why a person of her position would want something as complicated as love yet as simple as a cozy relationship, but the effort and the desperate measures she descends too are conflicted by the fact she has every possibility at her fingertips. She is in the flux of both her relationship with Prince Charles and finding someone to renew her faith in that little emotion she puts so much value in while also attempting to define herself in the public eye as more than a looker who was once destined to be queen, but a human being who might use the advantages she's been offered to do some real good with. This brings up another issue with viewing the film in that how much of what we're seeing is conveyed successfully by the film and how much is simply taken as acceptable because we already knew the facts of Diana's public life. I find myself not being able to differentiate the two when reflecting on the film. Yes, of course I would like to think the small touches of personal discussion with Geraldine James' Oonagh Shanley-Toffolo, the former Irish nun who became a close friend of confidant of the late Princess' during this troubling time in her life; these discussions lend to a woman who was constantly searching for love and approval, but seemed to be searching in all the wrong places. The issue is how well these characteristics are brought to life and unfortunately, there isn't much fleshing out as the film seems too concerned with living up to the facade than telling that promised untold story.
Still, all of this aside the inherent problem with the film is that the relationship aspect, which it wants to focus on and peel back the layers of, is not worthy of this type of story. It may have felt like a romance worthy of the big screen treatment simply due to who one of the parties involved was, but the actual nature of the relationship was more in line with the lifestyle of the other counterpart, Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). Hasnat was clearly a very private person and someone who had no desire of living in the public eye or even had an affinity for being known as the man who charmed a princess and in that regard his persona overshadows the tone of the relationship and the secrecy of it that would stand to make it intriguing, yes, but not necessarily all that interesting. It is nice to think of such a grand public figure like Diana in her more intimate moments, having a normal relationship and developing feelings for a man that matches her ideals and fulfills her large capacity for love, but those are the moments not unlike each of us should experience while falling in love and so it ends up only being the nature of who this person was in terms of history that make what is otherwise a standard story all the more interesting. It doesn't, and it falls flat because it doesn't lend itself well to the format of drama because to create such drama in this story you must result to facets the public already knows became a factor: themselves. It doesn't help that Andrews’ performance is stiff and that he portrays the intelligent heart surgeon without a charming bone in his body that makes us wonder why Diana was ever taken with him in the first place. Of course, this could all be a result of the writing for when you're given lines such as, "you don't perform the operations, it performs you," there is only so much you can do and this coming from a guy who made countless conspiracy theories about a mysterious island seem completely legit. While it is hard to watch as Andrews floats back and forth between his feelings for Diana and his feelings toward the attention their public relationship would garner it is more frustrating to watch the potential chemistry between two actors of this level of talent squandered on an opportunity to create a love story because of the stipulations put upon them by the perception of reality the film takes sides with. It is not our business to know the ins and outs of Khan's relationship with Diana and even if it was, I doubt they would be groundbreaking but rather ordinary, an idea the film seems keen not to accept.
An idea that the film brings up, only to disregard later in favor of a public perception stance is that of a broken heart and how the habits of our human condition shape what our definition of that term means and the symbolism of how it could apply to the way Khan approaches love and how Diana viewed this emotion she so desperately longed for. It's always seemed that Diana had a slowly breaking heart that only became more and more damaged over time. It is with this type of slow-burning sympathy that Watts uses to paint a fuller picture of the individual Diana that allows the film to sustain mild interest throughout. Watts is more than an able actress, adept to the world of dramatic performances and likely was intent to research the role and delve deep into the depths of what made Diana tick, what made her remain so strong and able during what would come to be revealed as a stressful bit of life leading up to her untimely death. That she is able to make us buy into the reality of her interpretation shows it is not impossible to create an interesting take on the people's Princess and how her life became one so many others became invested in and seemingly lived vicariously through, but Diana, despite her likely feelings of obligation towards those that looked up to her, had to remember that she needed to live a life that made her happy first and foremost and not one that symbolized the dream-like nature of those that adored her hoped it actually was. The difference between real-life and the persona concocted for a public figure is so staggeringly different we forget they too operate day in and day out just as we do, needing to fill the small moments where they aren't the center of attention and cook meals for friends or comfort them in a time of need. These people are not dismissed from the natural duties of humanity and while “Diana” is able to give us slight glimpses into these types of moments, again mostly thanks to that sincere performance from Watts, it for the most part comes up still feeling like a cliff notes version of the final years of Diana's life where we are served a half-baked bundle of news stories acted out for the camera with only a rare amount of thought and focus put into the final product that comes to mean little more than a time in life most would like to move on from, but this film can't help but keep bringing up.
by Philip Price
“Endless Love” is not a great movie, but it does know exactly what type of movie it is and it embraces that whole-heartily. There isn't really a sense of real-world expectations (other than going off to college of course) and there is never any real feeling of impending doom despite the film’s attempts to continue to raise the stakes and put its characters in danger. If you saw the original 1981 film starring Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt you probably expected some of those stakes to pay off in different ways than this new version decides to take the facets of what is still essentially the same story. Surprisingly though, this new version feels very much like its own movie, like its own world and though it may be an imaginary world for many of us the film is able to deliver a convincing love story while never actually paying attention to the development of that core relationship. We understand the circumstances surrounding our two young lovers (portrayed by Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde) and we see the doomed nature of their obsession early on and the mountain of obstacles facing them, but thanks to the charming performances from both of these leads we are able to somehow root for these young lovers that don't necessarily give us any reason to do so as far as why their relationship is so special, but because of little more than their dedication to one another and the films unapologetically optimistic view of love we go from believing this is nothing more than a summer fling (as most of the adults here do) to buying into these kids truly having a genuine affection for one another that could sustain itself for longer than the flutter in time youth is. Still, to enjoy even a moment of this updated tale of forbidden love you have to be willing to accept the movie on its own, melodramatic terms. Everything here is amplified from the posh superiority of some of the inhabitants of this lakeside town to the circumstances that some of our characters just happen to wander into. So, as long as you can take these characters and their heightened emotions and accept them as the conditions of the film you might find yourself enjoying this, if not, you'll alternate between laughing and cringing.
We are welcomed to the world of country clubs and privileged youngsters where Jade (Wilde) and resides at with her surgeon father, Hugh (Bruce Greenwood), and author mother, Anne (Joely Richardson), where summer dresses are aplenty and boat shoes and khakis are in every male's closet. We are introduced to Jade as the quiet, bookworm of a young woman who spent her high school years mourning the loss of her oldest brother and remaining by her parents side for what comes to be seen more of their fear for allowing their daughter out into the world rather than that of her choice, but nonetheless her prime years of youth has been unfairly taken from her and she seems intent to make up for lost time when she sets her eyes on David (Pettyfer) as he works as a valet at said country club. The tension is light between the two as they go through the motions of their own little meet-cute while Jade discusses the possibility of throwing a party that might allow her to make up for that lost time, a party where David will solidify his kindness that moves he and Jade's relationship from sweetly awkward courtship to hot and heavy in an instant. From this initial moment on they are and expect everyone else to accept that they are inseparable. The trouble comes not from Anne who seems fascinated by the amount of affection her daughter and David have for one another or that of Jade's older brother Keith (Rhys Wakefield) who is turned from James Spader's ugly original brother to that of a jaded middle child that never saw the adoration given to his older brother nor the cherished protection his parents gave Jade. He knows it's not his fault, but he can't stand his parents for excluding him from their love and their approval. Thus the reason he is nothing if not thrilled to see his younger sister going against their parents’ grain whether it is solely because of David's presence or not. David though, is the guy from the wrong side of the tracks, the one that will never be good enough for Hugh's pre-med bound daughter which will do nothing short of create more problems and more drama as Jade rebels against her father’s wishes and Hugh blames David for these changes.
It should be said up front that I knew what I was getting myself into when walking into “Endless Love.” I'd seen the original and not thought much of it, slightly odd if nothing at all and a love story that was unconvincing and had no foundation. I was happy to see that writer/director Shana Feste was up for the idea of re-constructing the story elements and at least making them as grounded as possible while still playing up the Romeo & Juliet aspects of the story. While the original (and I have not read the original source material by Scott Spencer) dropped us into the already simmering relationship of David and Jade this new film builds it up as something David has been contemplating his entire high school career while the thought that a boy might even be interested in her is something that exhilarates the sheltered Jade. The problem with this is that the film takes no time to actually develop these characters or why their relationship is what they refer to as destiny. There are no deep conversations, no insight about one another that makes for one of them to be fascinated by or even relate to. They are teenagers, fresh out of high school, who in their small worlds would seemingly have nothing in common. Initially David and Jade expect to only have a few days together as Jade is set to leave for Brown University to participate in an internship that will only ease her course through medical school. With this I thought it might prove the more logical opportunity for the characters to prove themselves as worthy of the type of relationship they wished to embark on while giving them plenty of time to make memories that would go down as one of their better summers. Instead, all logic is thrown out of the window with these two as David, ignorant to the ways impressing fathers work, asks Jade to stay and not leave him, but to allow him to spend every day for the rest of the summer with him. Jade, who may or may not just be easily influenced is convinced of David's love (and it is genuine, I'll give Pettyfer that) and warrants the anger of her father, but while making out with David is a hobby she clearly enjoys (they do this constantly rather than, you know, build a relationship) it isn't one that will move the audience closer to believing that her first love is as distinguished as we are expected to.
Both Wilde and Pettyfer are attractive young actors who have more than enough reason to be attracted to one another and while we believe in their wanting to be together we don't really ever see any chemistry. There is a scene, early on in the film where they are asked to choreograph a dance as part of a party game and in this moment, this brief glimpse into what a conversation sounds like between them there are moments, reactions, inflections even that make it hard to repress a smile because they are recognizable in their universality of those first moments with a person you clearly have feelings for, but are scared to act on fully. It provides a glimpse of the relationship that could have been developed to justify what the title implies, but the film thinks this is more than enough and so the actors are given little to do from this point other than look lovingly at one another, kiss and then occasionally react to the events occurring around them that are present to create a compelling plot, but simply ends up all feeling rather uninteresting when compared with the pure hatred Hugh possesses towards the entire situation while coming off as nothing more than a big wet blanket to the teenagers in the audience that will see this as nothing more than parents trying to suck all the fun out of their lives because they aren't as happy and care free as they are now. No, it is clear Hugh is neither happy nor care free. He has lost a child, he doesn't want to lose another, he feels disconnected from his wife and may or may not be acting on such impulses (an unnecessary plot point that is brought up and then dropped, never to be heard from again). He doesn't want to see his daughter suffer any kind of pain, yet the wedge he has decided to drive between Jade and David does nothing but. As Hugh, Greenwood is a class act and pulls out all the stops for this villainous performance and while it only may serve as further proof I am getting older (and maybe more mature) it was his performance that I had the most fun with here. Richardson, on the other hand, isn't asked to take things as far as Shirley Knight was in the original, but her depressed/weirdly fascinated mother act is nothing if not off-putting and serves as more reason while the adult crowd will side with Hugh and anyone under the age of 21 will be trying to justify the points the movie makes. Hugh's actions are naturally amplified for the purpose of drama and there are some interesting thoughts about how far is too far when parenting, but overall “Endless Love” is more condescending to its audience than it is inspiring, treating these fools blinded by love with the constant promise of a honeymoon and not really asking themselves what it will take to keep the spark alive.
by Philip Price
Kevin Hart has officially become everything the studios behind him want him to be. He is a bankable star that can show up in the advertising for a film and almost guarantee a certain amount of audience because they know if Hart is present in the film, it will likely be a good enough time for them to dedicate part of a weekend night to. The good part of this line of thinking is that it is true. Hart, who has been around for years and serving as comic relief in any number of comedies finally was allowed his film breakout when his sense of stand-up was brought to his supporting character in “Think Like A Man.” Since, the guy has been pretty much unstoppable. Just look at the last few months alone: he single-handedly saved December's “Grudge Match” from being unwatchable and last month had one of the biggest January debuts when he teamed up with Ice Cube for the generic, but entertaining “Ride Along,” which continues to put up strong numbers at the box office almost a month later. All of this on top of the success he found last summer with the theatrical release of his stand-up special, “Let Me Explain,” has led to this Valentine's Day weekend release that will seemingly do nothing more than to prove how much Hart is actually worth as he goes up against a good amount of competition, but if his reputation precedes him and the quality of the film is good enough to generate positive buzz he will be poised to add that much more weight to his name. The good news is that “About Last Night” is not the exercise in safe movie-making “Ride Along” is and though this won't be as big a hit, it is a better film and one that isn't afraid to let its actors loose on the material and approach it in the most honest way possible. While this is still a remake of the 1986 flick starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore (which I have not seen) it seems to have modernized the relationship dynamics well enough while utilizing both Hart and Regina Hall in a way that counteracts the typical beats of a PG-13 romantic comedy while still fulfilling those requirements through the relationship explored by Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant's characters. As with almost every rom-com we know where things are heading and so it is really the journey that matters and for the most part, “About Last Night” delivers a fun, diverting and to a certain extent even an enlightening experience.
Going through the seasons of the year and chronicling the different stages of introduction, the honeymoon and then further into the stagnant phase every couple experiences at one point or another we see the evolution not only of Ealy's Danny and Bryant's Debbie in their relationship, but in themselves which is a credit as much to the performances of the two actors as it is to director Steve Pink who really conveys the story in a way where we become entangled in the relationship developing on screen, where we are legitimately invested in where these people take these emotions and impulsion's and would be willing to accept whatever it is they decide to do because we do in fact, trust them. Trust is a tough thing to get when we're talking about the genre in which this film operates, but Pink scores it early on with the credible and funny cast while using stylistic choices that ensure the pressure of this story succeeding doesn't solely lie on that of the performers and their chemistry. Bernie (Hart) is best friends and works with Danny and so it is natural that Danny joins Bernie as he follows up what was no doubt initially assumed to be nothing more than a one night stand with a second meeting and kind-of double date. Bernie rocked Joan's (Hall) world upon their first night of passion and vice versa resulting in the animalistic nature they display for one another on this second meeting while Danny and Debbie, Joan's roommate who is drug along despite her distaste for the night life scene, are left to create conversation of their own which eventually results in him walking her to the door which results in conversation which results in fascination that leads to an unexpected night of passion for them as well, one that they too expected to be nothing more than a one night stand. Using the passing of those seasons helps to show both the hesitation and the eagerness with which Danny and Debbie approach one another ultimately culminating in the acceptance on both of their parts that they want to go for a real relationship, a home building, heading toward marriage relationship which is a big step for both considering Debbie's issues with finding genuine feeling for someone in her busy professional life and Danny's scorned look at love after a split with his previous, dominating girlfriend Alison (Paula Patton). The conflict comes when trouble begins to invade paradise.
The good news, as stated in the opening paragraph, is that the film doesn't easily fall back on the genre archetypes it very easily could have. There are moments throughout where I expected certain things to happen simply because that is what usually happens under these circumstances in these movies (having not seen the original may have helped in this aspect) and this version instead went about it in the more logical, sincere fashion that not only makes us like the movie more, but the characters as well. Not to give too much away, but a prime example of this is Patton's character which we can see coming from a mile away, that is a given. As the early set-up ex of Danny we know she will not only factor into the way Danny believes relationships must be orchestrated, but that she will enter back into the picture at some point to pose a threat to the new, happier Danny. This moment comes, as expected, during the worst of times. As Debbie is away for business and their relationship isn't at its best Alison shows back up to make everything better for Danny and offers him everything in her attitude that he could have possibly wanted from her during their relationship. He is a good, strong guy and he knows to look past the immediate future and pleasures he might be rewarded with for what will no doubt be the more fulfilling and happier long-term future and so if you've come to know Ealy's character like you should you know how this situation will turn out. What Leslye Headland's re-worked script does best though is that it doesn't turn Danny trying to hide the fact he saw Alison from Debbie into a plotline. Instead, it is approached head on and cleared up so that even if the relationship has lost some of its immediate luster, there is still that level of honesty between the two that has always made them appealing. We follow these two further through the ups and downs and for the most part they subvert the corniness of how rom-coms usually depict relationships and allow what are unavoidably corny moments to simply become genuine. On the other side of things and what keeps the strong balance between sweet and sappy and the more vulgar, honest moments is the electric chemistry between Hall and Hart. Their Joan and Bernie are a couple doomed to succeed in our immediate introduction yet as much as we become involved in the plight of Danny and Deb, we better recognize what is Bernie and Joan.
“About Last Night” will function fully as a romantic comedy for the older, more seasoned set on Valentine's Day that don't care to deal with the PG-13 crowds that will flock to “Endless Love” or “Winter's Tale” for their date night. The film knows that audience and is speaking directly to them rather than the fictionalized, fantasized version of love and commitment that will fill the heads of those early daters wandering into the alternative fare. And while much of the credit can be chocked up to Pink's direction and Headland's writing that combine to overcome the clichés of the now disregarded genre it is the appeal of the principle cast that ultimately convince us this was worth investing our time in whether or not we've already learned the lessons the film is covering or not. Hart steals nearly every scene he is present in, not necessarily playing a different character than what we expect his real-life persona to be akin to, but still being able to rely on his quick wit and his breakneck delivery along with his stature and inherent physical comedy that comes along with it to ensure that we don't stop smiling. Plus, the guy continues to prove he can win almost anyone over and does so again here as he makes a comparison between he and Danny's situation and that of Lando Calrissian and Han Solo's when Solo reached Cloud City. It's impossible to tell if this was an improvised moment, especially given the nature of Headland's comedy and likely affinities, but either way Hart delivers it so convincingly that it breathes an air of veritable and genuine uncontrolled laughter into an otherwise convenient moment. There are multiple moments like this, but many of them come when Hart is given Hall to play off of and not just to go off on either Ealy or Bryant. Hall has been a master of the physical comedy realm for quite some time paying her dues in the “Scary Movie” franchise while lately being able to act and be funny in roles such as this and in “The Best Man Holiday” or “Death at a Funeral.” The majority of the laughs obviously go to these two and while both Ealy and Bryant have some awkward, stagey moments we buy their chemistry overall and these elements combined with the films willingness to not always play by the rules forgives the sometimes plodding pacing, always clean and shiny wardrobes and atmospheres as well as the lack of attention to great supporting characters embodied by the likes of Christopher McDonald and Joe Lo Truglio.
by Philip Price
Upon initially hearing that there was going to be a movie based solely around the Lego brand and the toys and properties they owned I believed it would turn out to be nothing more than a cash grab, something to build the name (not that it needed it) or possibly expanding the brand may be a better way to approach it. Essentially, I expected this to turn out to be nothing more than one big commercial. There was little reason for it to be more than that, why waste such effort or creative juices on something that would no doubt deliver zero gratification in the end and would only serve as something to further decrease the credibility of Hollywood products and the way in which children's entertainment disparages its audience much of the time allowing itself to get away with body function jokes and funny voices rather than actual, contextual humor? So, why would directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who took something like the beloved 1970's Judi Barrett children's book “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and turned it into a witty, colorful piece of cinema that took some unexpected themes and conveyed them in a manner that allowed the children to enjoy the food falling from the sky while the adults latched onto the insight the story might be re-educating them on, but was at least delivering it to them in a new, almost inspiring light? That these guys went on to direct something like “21 Jump Street,” a reboot of an ‘80s property that no one really put much faith in, and turned it into not only one of the best films of 2012 or one of the better comedies to come out in a good while, but a movie that used its interesting concept to delve into the strange dynamics of male friendships and the actual struggles it takes to maintain those types of friendships as each individual grows up and changes? That film didn't have to be anything more than a re-make slapped together by a board of executives to satisfy humor-hungry teens who move from R-rated comedy to R-rated comedy without a care, but Lord and Miller made it something more, something notable. All of that is to say that the directors have done the same here; they have transformed what could have been that one, massive commercial into something of a reminder, a love letter in ways to the spirit of childhood and how the imagination is just as precious as the adequacy we need to feel as adults. In short, “The LEGO Movie” is magical and reminds us of how simple it is to feel that little something extra.
We meet Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), an ordinary LEGO mini-figure construction worker, as he is just trying to live his day to day as normally as possible. He lives in a world of order and instruction where he follows the rules that have been laid out for him and all of the citizens that tear apart and re-build their cities day in and day out, going home to watch the same standard sitcoms and eat food from the same chain restaurants without ever giving a thought to doing something a different way or coming up with an original thought. This world is overseen by the tyrannical (though he hides it well) President Business (voice of Will Ferrell) who keeps Bad Cop (voice of Liam Neeson) on staff to do his dirty work. It is on a fateful night when Emmet stumbles upon a stranger at one of his work sites that is looking for what is known as the "Piece of Resistance" that his world is turned upside down. Emmet has no friends, though he'd like to believe his fellow co-workers and neighbors were figurines he could turn to, they serve as no real connection in his life. That is all brought to light as he introduces himself to Wildstyle (voice of Elizabeth Banks), a rebel of sorts and the mysterious figure searching for the "Piece of Resistance" that might ordain her the extraordinary Master Builder as prophesied eight and a half years earlier by Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman). When Emmet is the one who comes across the coveted red piece of resistance though, Wildstyle believes him to be "The Special", the one destined to save them all from President or rather Lord Business from taking over completely and gluing their universe together for good. It is in this mission that Emmet, Wildstyle and Vitruvius team up with all of the remaining master builders Lord Business has failed to capture over the years including Batman (voice of Will Arnett), Unikitty (voice of Alison Brie) and 1980's something Spaceman, Benny (voice of Charlie Day). This ragtag bunch of pros and unintentional heroes hit the road, stumbling through the multiple worlds in which the Lego toys have created and providing a depth to the universe that while not exactly is in line with any kind of cohesive or natural world all comes to make sense in the context of how Lord and Miller bring the film full circle; fleshing out not only the characters and the adventure they look to overcome, but how life and inspiration can be brought to anything with a little vision.
While there is plenty of stuff going on in the film and the numerous characters voiced by hilariously familiar vocal tones is winning it is the style of the animation that really stood out to me here. The attention to detail, as is common with most animated features these days, is astounding. While it doesn't always look like it, “The LEGO Movie” is completely computer-animated, yet Lord and Miller's team of animators have incorporated the style of stop motion not only to imitate the ways in which actual Lego figurines move, but to bring us a sense of the genuine aesthetic of the worlds and others we've seen in these kinds of films before while the difference in style stands to separate this from the average animated feature altogether. There is an inherent charm to the piece (no pun intended) that comes from the familiarity of the little faces on the yellow blocks, the space ships, the themes of the worlds and the mismatching of parts to create something wholly original that gives the film an initial upper hand, but is only made stronger by the charisma of that extensive and talented voice cast. As our hero, Pratt is more than fit for the role as he offers breezy quips at every turn that result in nothing less than a smile and was no doubt odd preparation for playing something very similar later this year in “Guardians of the Galaxy” (something I feel will be closer to this than some of the other Marvel films) while Morgan Freeman plays up his persona with grand results as the all-knowing wizard figure that guides our heroes on their journey. That upper hand, that familiarity accounts for half of the fun as the makers are able to incorporate well-known brands like Batman with the always hysterical Will Arnett doing his best Christian Bale impression while actually sounding like the boozed-up playboy with money to burn Bale's Bruce Wayne always purported to be. When you also have the likes of Charlie Day and Elizabeth Banks, two comedic performers known for the grace of their timing and unique vocal inflections, it is hard to create something not entertaining and even in their supporting roles they are able to give way to some of the more memorable moments (a hard thing to do in a film filled with them). It would be a crime to spoil all of the characters that pop up as anticipating who may show up next is a great added value, but I will say it was a nice preview of things to come this summer when Jonah Hill's Green Lantern played fanboy to Channing Tatum's Superman. It made everything about this film almost completely awesome.
It was about halfway through the film that I began to hope for where the film might take the opportunity it was setting itself up for. What it is setting up I will not reveal here for sake of the insight it brings to the themes and ideas that Lord and Miller have incorporated into their screenplay and what they are trying to get to the heart of. Still, the duo have used the colorful worlds and characters to create a subversive way of delivering the children in the audience that age old message that each and every one of them is special while not reducing the moral of the story to everyone is exceptional. There is a difference between being exceptional and feeling special. Everyone has the right to feel special, to feel treasured at least by the people they surround themselves with and because Emmet never had any true friends or companions, but instead was living life the way he believed he was expected to, also believed that made his existence fulfilling when in reality he needed to learn that it wasn't how well he followed the rules, but how well he exceeded them to actually feel raw, genuine emotion that hinted his life might be fully realized. While I realize that this all sounds a little silly and in-depth for a little animated film based on toys made for the point of pure merchandising that will warrant untold amounts of profit and the likely sequels given this thing is a box office success (and there is no doubt that it will be). It is the point that Lord and Miller were able to transcend those barriers and deliver a complete film rather than just what audiences, namely parents, expected it to be. There are hints of how we as a society don't need to always succumb to the social norms and simply follow trends or do what everyone else is doing to feel normal, that we shouldn't allow ourselves to become so trained in the ways of major companies that they dominate our lives and end up dictating them, but these are all things we've seen done subliminally before and I hoped this wasn't the only point “The LEGO Movie” would be trying to make to its young viewers. What I found surprising was that while it had plenty to say on the subject of the individuality of each person in the audience it also had something to say to the parents or older viewers in the crowd that might be too arrogant to think they have anything to learn. It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but it was nice to be reminded of how little space there is between childhood wonderment and adult nostalgia and how the two can sometimes be one in the same.
by Philip Price
How could something with so much potential and so many valuable moving parts be reduced to such utter filth? Well, that problem and answer is on full display in what we are calling “That Awkward Moment.” Each of the principal cast has better work in them, some of it just being released on home video, and others coming later this year in theaters. Why each of them decided to waste their valuable time on a project like this is beyond me, but maybe it was for nothing more than an opportunity to hang out with one another as that seems to be the hook the studio is looking to sell in the advertisements for the film so why should we think they made it look any different to Zac Efron, Miles Teller or Michael B. Jordan? While Efron is the clear marquee name here because he will put the most teenage girls in the seats it is Teller and Jordan who have actually been making the better career choices as of late that have landed them on many critics’ radars and have movie lovers like myself looking forward to their future projects. Both Teller and Jordan starred in films that made my list of the top 15 films of 2013 and I like Efron enough that I was really hoping this along with “Neighbors” later this summer might put him on the map as having a great transitional year after attempts at prestige like “The Paperboy,” “At Any Price” and “Parkland” failed to resonate with anyone. While I still have more than enough hope for Efron's pairing with Seth Rogen later this year “That Awkward Moment” is not his “The Vow” and it is clear he will not have the breakout year Channing Tatum had in 2012, but will instead continue looking for that one role that will push him to the next level while hopefully, at the very least, cementing his status as a young adult primed at playing to his comedic chops in quality comedies. That retrospective of where each of these stars are at in their career right now aside, “That Awkward Moment” had the potential to be an interesting and unique take on the romantic comedy from the perspective of a couple of twenty-something males living it up in New York City, but instead paints a portrait of these assholes and pathetic losers who have such a delayed sense of maturity that it takes them crushing young ladies emotions in more ways than one to realize they may actually care about them after all. It isn't flat out horrible, Teller does all he can to salvage it, but when there is hardly anyone to like on screen and no entertainment value in their moral ambiguity there is hardly anything to like or enjoy at all. Pity, because it had such serious potential.
First time writer/director Tom Gormican depicts his trio of badly behaving young men with a flair for camaraderie and an excess of chemistry but then decides to drown them in plot and unnecessary conflict that doesn't seem inherent to their character, but instead introduces into their lives unnecessary issues and a web of lies that could have all been avoided had these people simply acted their age. That is how annoying this film ultimately turns out to be. We first meet Mikey (Jordan) as his wife, Vera (Jessica Lucas), explains to him that she wants a divorce and that she has been seeing another man who unfortunately resembles Morris Chestnut. Mikey is a doctor, he went through school, he married the college sweetheart, he "checked all the boxes" as he says repeatedly and now he doesn't understand why things don't seem to be working out. In his state of grief he resorts to the saving grace of his two best friends, Jason (Efron) and Daniel (Teller). Both of which have a dream job of working in a hip, New York City-style loft facility and coming up with book cover designs that apparently pay them enough to each have very roomy apartments despite the state of the publishing industry at the moment. Jason and Daniel haven't been in relationships in some time it seems as both have developed a "roster" of women they like to call up and sleep with when their nightly outings to the same bar don't turn up anything new. The roster exists so that when it gets to the point that the booty calls begin to inquire about the state of their relationship or that they want more than sex out of these meetings they can move on and call the next girl on the list. It's this kind of outright, pre-meditated scummy behavior that puts us not even on the fence about these guys but repulses us from the beginning and makes us wonder why the film never follows them to a clinic to get tested because they definitely need to be. The only redeeming character here is Jordan's Mikey and even he comes off more pathetic than empathetic because he continues to go back to his wife (who was cheating on him, let’s not forget) and give her an ample amount of chances before she flat-out has to remind him why it wasn't going to work in the first place. Naturally, as this is intended to be a rom-com, Jason and Daniel both meet their matches in Ellie (Imogen Poots) and Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) who go from being the girls they like to hang out with to "the ones" they need to be with that will transform their entire outlook on relationships and love.
The problem with all of this though is that we simply don't buy it. We don't believe in anything in this world and we don't believe these guys would be this idiotic or oblivious to the details of the situations around them. It would have been better, more genuine even to keep each of the personality traits the same with each of the guys and simply leave out the hokey storytelling device that sets the events of the film in motion. You could simply have these guys act the same way based on their misplaced pride and it would have seemed more real than the pointless pact they made with one another in a effort to support their damaged friend. This only brings us to another seemingly obvious point that the film misses and this is more in the writing than anything else. It is clear Gormican knows that the most relatable character is Mikey and so he shapes the story device around this experience nearly everyone has dealt with at some point in their life and suckers us in through this angle while reverting to Jason to be the main character and the character he really wants to concentrate on. He knows though, that telling the story strictly from Jason's perspective is going to alienate the audience because Jason is little more than a selfish asshole and in a way I'm surprised Efron even agreed to play such a d-bag because it seems it will also stand to do nothing but alienate his own fan base which doesn't need to happen if his latest box office returns are any indication. We are intrigued by the story surrounding Mikey and where a guy who seemingly has it all together and figured out goes when the unexpected takes him completely by surprise and then are left to rarely re-visit him again. Instead, we are stuck with Jason who treats women as complete objects to satisfy his carnal desires and then dismisses them, squinting as they leave in hopes that they demand little more from him. Teller is kind of the middle man here, understanding that what he and Jason do isn't great and that his best friend/hook-up helper Chelsea is more than just that and something increasingly special to him. As little time is spent on Mikey, Daniel gets the shortest end of the stick despite Teller's performance being the most genuinely funny while his relationship with Davis' Chelsea is easily the most believable. Poots provides a nice foil for Efron's Jason and someone who could have easily taught him the lesson he needed to learn, but instead folds into his game as well.
With all of the above negativity I feel I haven't completely represented the film accurately as there are still moments where we see the charisma between our three leads come out and we understand why someone thought this might be a good idea. There are moments of writing, while still thinking it's too smart for its own good, are at least creative and lend the film a momentary break from all of its narcissism and simply allow the self-aware walls to fall down and give us that insight we all crave to reassure us we can at least share common experiences and feelings on some topics. A few exchanges between Jason and Poots’ Ellie are well-staged and expertly delivered by the young actors embodying them which says a lot as it is clear from my reasoning above that it is not the easiest thing to do to like these people. Teller infuses his brand of fast-talking/Vince Vaughn-like rapport into the scenes where the guys are just hanging out with one another and creates, whether scripted or not, some reliable running jokes that sustain themselves because of the way they're played rather than the fact they resonate with any part of the story, because they don't. “That Awkward Moment” doesn't actually have all that many awkward spots because it is so confident in itself, in its location and especially in its wardrobe, but more than anything it doesn't have a core heartbeat that will allow it to resonate with the masses, but instead will tell the young girls that go to see it for the marquee names and looks of its stars that it is unavoidable that they will have to sleep with a guy for them to even consider you as relationship material and even if you give them all of yourself that likely isn't going to happen, not unless you really have something special in your attitude or outlook that will serve as something they connect with and can see themselves actually conversing with you (about more than sex, obviously). I don't try to sound like a prude or allow my own personal moral compass to complicate the way I view a piece of art or someone else's vision for a film, but the actions and messages these people are sending on this large platform is too disgusting and something those young girls will take note of and act on as they enter college or the single life afterwards to ignore. Not that they aren't aware of these things already, but to see it is largely accepted as the norm in a major motion picture has to at least be disheartening, right? I know the film in general was.
by Philip Price
I really wanted to like “Labor Day,” despite the negative press it has received since premiering last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. I wanted to believe that there was no way a film adapted and directed by Jason Reitman that starred Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, both well-respected and credible actors, would turn out to be little more than a melodramatic romance that could have been just as well adapted from the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel than that of the Joyce Maynard source material. Granted, I don't know much about the source material or Maynard's writing, but if the film turns out to be anything it is a well-acted, beautifully shot slice of life drama that takes the late summer weekend that traditionally precedes the beginning of the school year and introduces a world of conflict into the otherwise simple life of a mother and child who are simply trying to get by. There is naturally more to the relationship between the mother and son as it becomes clear quite quickly that Henry (Gattlin Griffith) has been forced to grow up quicker than he anticipated and take care of his mother, Adele (Winslet), after his father (Clark Gregg) left them. Adele suffers from depression, but we understand this isn't due simply to the loss of her ex-husband to his secretary, but that this pain runs deeper and that the root cause of such pain has blurred the outlook she has on life and the qualities required to have what many would call a "normal" existence. There is a fair amount of ideas going on here; coming of age, forbidden love, regret and perspective, the depression aspect and, of course, the strong influence food plays in the developing relationships between characters. There is a charm to the film, but there is also a carelessness to the quality of the storytelling. It is almost impossible for Winslet or Brolin to give a bad performance and they bring their full efforts to two equally damaged people that need the strength of one another to feel complete, but the way in which this relationship and the circumstances surrounding their courtship develop do little to re-enforce the credibility these two actors bring to such a story. To be fair, this isn't a Nicholas Sparks adaptation and deserves to be seen as more than those manufactured stories now come off as because there is a strong air of authenticity to “Labor Day,” yet it simultaneously feels lacking in critical areas.
As the film begins we get the impression, as it is told from Henry's perspective, that this will ultimately be a tale not of how Adele was changed through the course of this encounter with Brolin's escaped convict Frank, but of how it left an impression on and influenced the man Henry would become. That it would speak to the idea that it's not a matter of how much time you have to spend with someone, but your actions in that time that will matter most. Though Frank, Adele and Henry only share this short moment in time over Labor Day weekend with one another, they are each forever changed in some way that will never allow their lives to return to the way they were before they knew one another. It is a grand notion with the aforementioned themes all concentrated into this one story that spans all of a few days. In that regard you could say it was trying to do too much, to say too many things on a variety of different stages of life, but the film never feels overly crowded or dysfunctional it just doesn't seem cohesive. We meet Henry as a young teenage boy ready to enter his seventh grade year and someone who is naturally beginning to be curious about the opposite sex. He tries not to concern his mother with his own questions or issues and is earnest in his attempts to fill the void left by his father, but he knows there is only so much he can do to fulfill the requirements of such desired companionship and though I doubt his initial thought upon being approached by Frank, who is clearly wounded and asking for help, is that he should hook him up with his mom it doesn't hurt that Frank continues to pay him compliments and admires his respectable attitude that no one else in his world seems to mention. This set-up of what Henry needs from a senior figure in his life and what he is depraved of bodes well for the opportunity that presents itself when Frank joins he and Adele at their house and the fact he is an escaped convict and that Adele and Henry will be sheltering him only adds to the tension of the story, but also allows questions to linger. The story veers back and forth between exploring all the themes and motivations it has set-up early on and the strict tension of the love story between a woman who needs to feel that emotion again and a man who has the odds stacked against him to ever lead a normal life. Both characters share this quality of not feeling normal but the development of the relationship feels short-handed because despite there being so much going on with each of these people we don't see that deeper connection come to fruition.
It is almost as if the film would have been more engaging had it focused on one of the adults more than the other and chronicled their psychological progress from being on one end of the spectrum to being able to find happiness with this other, unsuspecting human being that likely never thought they'd find joy again either. It is understandable why these two would feel attracted to one another and why something would develop between them, it is inevitable really, but the way in which this story is conveyed and the defining actions of these characters leave little room for such insight to breathe. The film, about halfway through, seems to forget it is being told from Henry's perspective as it too becomes more wrapped up in the relationship between Adele and Frank but tries to stay true to its narrator by never showing us the personal moments between the two, the conversations they have when Henry isn't around. Tobey Maguire narrates as the grown-up Henry and this works fine as we only see him physically near the end of the film and there are pop-ups from other recognizable faces like Reitman mainstay J.K. Simmons as well as James Van Der Beek in a small, but impressive little segment that will set you on edge. This is Brolin and Winslet's show though despite young Griffith doing his best to keep the small nuances and unique perspective from which Henry sees the situation unfolding as the most relevant. It is not out of character for Winslet to play this kind of distraught and emotionally damaged woman and she does that to grand effect here with shaking hands, fears of going out into the world and anti-social tendencies all intact, but it is Brolin who ends up shining the most because he convinces us that despite the large man-hunt taking place for his character and despite the lack of proof that he didn't actually do what he is accused of, we take Frank as an honorable and intelligent man who ultimately came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way in which his character arc unfolds from a menacing captor to a sympathetic and honorable man is justified solely by the presence Brolin brings with him. His overpowering jawline, his thick hands that slide over Adele's and the food they create and even the brooding but peaceful tone in which he speaks make for a well-rounded performance in a lopsided story.
While there was little to be understood about why a director like Reitman would want to veer from his typical style into the world of something like this sentimental love story at first it becomes clear over the course of the film why it would be interesting to see what more directors who are now attached to a stigma or certain genre would do if thrown out of their comfort zone. There is clear evidence not only in the casting, but in the pacing and well-executed high points of the film that display the knowing hand of not only a seasoned director, but someone who has their own style and vision. This was not a film put together in hopes of making women cry and serving as simple date night fodder, but an honest effort from a filmmaker who no doubt read and fell in love with the story the book told and wanted to see it brought to life on the big screen. While I don't know how or if the events of Maynard's novel are mirrored here exactly or if the storytelling technique or point of view is the same I assume it is likely safe to say that where the film runs into problems is having to condense the longer passages of character and relationship development down into single images or short scenes that leave more to be desired from an audience that so badly wants to be invested. I was really rooting for this film, I really wanted to like it and in all honesty I probably admire the film more than I actually enjoyed it. It is a solid piece of work and you could do much worse than this if you're looking for something to recommend on a rainy day or a love story to become wrapped up in, but the fact Reitman had the ambition and confidence to invest in and make this is more impressive than the film itself. I enjoyed certain parts of the film, the performances mostly, and there were times where I truly was on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails while only hoping the film didn't drown itself in the audiences’ standard expectations. It doesn't, and while the story itself is a clear weak spot early on the motivations and justifications of these calculated behaviors come full circle in a way that was more satisfying and insightful than I expected which, in many ways, elevated the first act of the film for me. Yes, it can be schmaltzy and yes, the peach cobbler scene is a little much, but damn does the food look good and damn if you're not left with something to think about and consider as you leave the theater.