That isn’t to say Martian Child doesn’t get to you every once in a while. It starts off with science-fiction writer David Gordon (John Cusack) telling an audience what a geek he was as a kid. Now of course he’s fabulously successful but he still feels a little like an outsider—and he is certainly not at all fulfilled. You see David has recently lost his wife and in trying to grasp at something meaningful he is contemplating adopting a child. Not just any child mind you—David wants Dennis (Bobby Coleman) a young orphaned boy who spends his days in a box and claims to be from Mars. Seems like a match made in heaven right? Not exactly. The odd youngster proves to be a tad overwhelming for the single dad especially when some of the weird stuff Dennis does actually makes sense. Is he really an alien? David wonders just that and in doing so gradually finds himself growing more attached to the boy and experiencing the transformational power of parental love. Like many other TV movies-of-the-week that masquerade as feature films by using bigger star power Martian Child has John Cusack in its corner. The actor tries his darnedest to do something different with the part playing David with much earnestness and honesty. David gets a lot of things wrong in his attempts to be a dad but his warmth and kindness towards the boy never waver--although I think the Cusack performance we should be looking forward to is his dad in the upcoming Grace Is Gone. Coleman (Must Love Dogs) also does some fascinating things as the strange little Dennis—once you get past his very high-pitched gravelly voice. The young actor plays Dennis with the right amount of weirdness and sadness as a little boy just looking to be loved. The rest of the supporting characters are unfortunately written with every cliché in mind so the actors playing them can’t really shine including Joan Cusack as David’s disapproving—and then approving—sister; Amanda Peet as David’s old friend who exudes enthusiasm ad nauseaum; and Richard Schiff as the child social services shrink who doesn’t think David can be a good single parent. There always has to be a party pooper. Apparently Martian Child sat on the shelf for a little while before being released. It could be because there isn’t really anything compelling about the film save for a few moments any normal emotional person would get choked up about. Dutch director Menno Meyjes who also directed John Cusack in the little-seen Hitler drama Max just doesn’t use enough of his imagination in Martian Child. There are endless possibilities especially since David writes science fiction and Dennis believes he is from Mars. More star gazing perhaps? Fantasy sequences in which Dennis talks to his comrades in space? Alas no. Instead Martian Child plods along its merry little predictable way. You know I’m not a director but sometimes I feel I could do a lot of the same work for a lot less money.
Miss Potter is a biopic about Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger)—the literary phenomenon of the early 20th century who created the hugely popular Peter Rabbit books. The film examines how she rose to fame in Victorian England a time when women were only expected to marry and run a home. As the story begins Beatrix 32 is well-adjusted despite being unmarried and living with her well-to-do parents. An accomplished painter she dreams of publishing her pet animal drawings as well as the stories that go with them and in neat small-sized books perfect for children. Of course most publishers scoff but one decides to publish Beatrix’s “bunny book ” as a lark and soon sets in motion a publishing juggernaut. During the process Beatrix also falls in love with her young editor Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) and agrees to marry him much to her mother’s chagrin (he’s a “tradesman ” after all). Basically Miss Potter ends up living the life she wants to lead bucking whatever rigid system put before her. Zellweger is playing yet another English rose but this time without the extra weight. Although not nearly as endearing and quirky as Bridget Jones Zellweger’s Beatrix is still plucky and outspoken willing to stand by her beliefs and forge ahead despite the opposition she faces. In other words Zellweger—who won her Oscar playing a similar part in Cold Mountain—could do this in her sleep. McGregor too seems comfortably fitted for the role of Norman an earnest fellow with good moral fiber a determination to succeed and love in his heart for Miss Potter. Veteran British character actors Barbara Flynn (HBO’s Elizabeth I) and Bill Paterson (Bright Young Things) effectively play Beatrix’s parents with Dad Potter being the more sympathetic and Mom Potter being the uptight battleaxe. And finally Emily Watson who does a nice turn as Norman’s spinster sister Millie. A brash intelligent woman who also speaks her mind Millie thoroughly enjoys life as an unmarried woman and quickly takes Beatrix under her wing. Director Chris Noonan waited a decade after helming the Oscar-nominated Babe before finding his follow-up project setting his sights on Miss Potter. There’s definitely some symmetry to his choice with both beautifully framed films having much of the same sweet-natured sensibilities as well as er animals. Much like Finding Neverland which showed how James Barrie came up with Peter Pan Miss Potter works best when Beatrix is standing up for her rights falling in love and drawing her adorable illustrations her “friends ” as she calls them who come to life and talk to her. Thankfully Noonan and screenwriter Richard Maltby don’t have the animated characters actually speak—only Miss Potter can hear them--but its still a clever device and definitely brings up feelings of hearth and home remembering those stories all over again. Unfortunately the film stalls a bit towards the end when the scenery shifts to England’s the Lake District where the real Beatrix Potter eventually retired to and helped preserve for future generations. Still overall Miss Potter is a charming look at one of the literary world’s more successful authors who was also a feminist and an environmentalist. Pretty amazing lady actually.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.