In the cinematic desert that is the January-February movie-release schedule one gains a greater appreciation for mere competence. And that’s precisely what you’ll get with Man on a Ledge a mid-budget thriller with modest aspirations and genuine popcorn appeal. Sam Worthington (Avatar Clash of the Titans) stars as Nick Cassidy a former New York City cop wrongly convicted for the theft of a prized diamond. After exhausting all judicial avenues for exoneration he takes the unusual and seemingly desperate next step of planting himself on a ledge outside the penthouse of midtown’s Roosevelt Hotel and threatening to jump. An NYPD psychologist (Elizabeth Banks) is summoned to talk him down unaware that Nick harbors an ulterior motive. From his perch above midtown he is secretly orchestrating a scheme to take revenge against the corrupt corporate chieftain (Ed Harris) who engineered his demise and prove his innocence once and for all.
Director Asger Leth making his U.S. feature-film debut with Man on a Ledge keeps the pace brisk and never allows the tone to stray into self-seriousness which is crucial for a movie whose premise is so devoutly ridiculous. The script from Pablo F. Fenjves provides enough feints and twists to keep us engaged. Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez aren’t the most believable of couples but there’s a screwball charm to their comic routine as amateur thieves charged with aiding Nick’s scheme. (Leth can’t resist inserting an entirely superfluous – but nonetheless greatly appreciated – scene of the criminally gorgeous Rodriguez stripping down to a thong in the middle of a heist.) Worthington makes for a likable populist protagonist even if his Australian accent betrays him on copious occasions and Harris’ disturbingly emaciated frame lends an added menace to his devious plutocrat villain.
In 2010’s Get Him to the Greek wiry British funnyman Russell Brand played a spoiled lush whose immature antics threatened his rock-star comeback. In the 2011’s Arthur Brand plays a spoiled lush whose immature antics threaten his billion-dollar inheritance. Greek turned out to be one of last year’s underrated comic gems; Arthur not so much. Why? The two films are wildly different to be sure but I submit that the biggest reason for the disparity in quality can be traced to one crucial distinction: Arthur is a remake and as such carries with it the acknowledged lack of creativity inherent in just about every remake not directed by the Coen Brothers.
And Arthur does what most bad remakes seem to do dropping what’s essential about the original film keeping what isn’t and wrapping it all up in a glossy generic heavily-promoted package. The storyline is essentially unchanged – to retain access to his family’s vast fortune perpetually inebriated playboy Arthur Bach (Brand) is arranged to marry a respectable woman he disdains (Jennifer Garner) but he jeopardizes his inheritance by falling for a girl of humble means (Greta Gerwig). Much of the soul and charm of the original film are gone however sacrificed for a succession of canned comic scenarios that probably seemed funny in brainstorming sessions (Russell Brand in a Batman costume? Hilarious!) but are considerably less so when rendered on-screen.
But hey – all the characters’ names are the same! And they’ve all been updated with contrived tweaks that these days passes for invention! Arthur’s acerbic English butler Hobson is now an acerbic English nanny (Helen Mirren); his African-American chauffer Bitterman is now a Puerto Rican-American (Luis Guzman); his betrothed Susan Johnson (Garner) formerly a dainty debutante is now a pugnacious high-powered executive; etc. Brand for his part has little hope of measuring up to Dudley Moore who scored an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character in the original. He does get a few choice lines and he manages to conjure a respectable romantic spark with the luminous Gerwig (trying her best with a character conceived as little more than an assortment of manufactured quirks) but his talents appear severely constrained by a script that can do little more than dress him up in zany outfits and hope for the best.
Who’s fine? No one really but we all knew that right? Where does politeness stop and uncomfortable truth begin and what are the considerations we make before burdening someone with the unvarnished truth? Everybody’s Fine ponders these things in a somber and intelligent way that belies its generic holiday movie poster.
Robert De Niro plays Frank an aging widower who spends his lonely days keeping his empty nest tidy and its surrounding foliage immaculate in the way the retired tend to do. He feels intensely the absence of his four grown-up children since the recent death of his wife and when they all back out of a planned holiday gathering at the family home he decides to pack up his bag and travel across the country to see each one as a surprise. As he goes from home to home he begins to realize some uncomfortable truths about the relationship he has with them and even worse that there’s a bigger secret they’re all hiding.
This is a remake of a 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene the follow-up to director Giuseppe Tornatore’s triumphant Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso. The American interpretation is written and directed by Kirk Jones who previously showed a knack for arty yet accessible films with Waking Ned Devine which like Everybody’s Fine manages to successfully navigate that oh-so-thin line between saccharine sentimentality and genuine emotional resonance. Unlike Devine Everybody’s Fine has no comedic spoonful of sugar to make the discomfort of an all-too-real family dynamic go down.
De Niro’s portrayal of Frank comes almost as a relief. After a lifetime of loud and brusque characters he settles into the retiree part like a comfortable old pair of slippers. Frank is easily as conflicted as any other person De Niro has played but in a much quieter way -- a dad sorta way. De Niro so entirely and naturally becomes Frank that it’s hard not to project your own feelings toward your father onto him. And I suppose that is the point.
Frank’s children are played by Kate Beckinsale Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore who are given just enough development to explain their estrangement from their father -- but that’s all the roles require. They’re loosely defined enough for the audience to hopefully identify with at least one of them but only in the service of laying familial guilt at our own feet. It’s De Niro's eyes the audience sees through; it’s his movie and he owns it.
Everything eventually leads to that question of whether or not to trouble the ones we love with our bad news. Everybody’s Fine is relatively taciturn with its conclusions but offers an important suggestion to consider the matter more closely in the audience’s own lives. And isn’t that what good art should do? This may not be the most uplifting film one could see this holiday season but it is one of the more thoughtful ones. Between the simple effectiveness of De Niro’s performance the lovely cinematography of Henry Braham (it is sort of a road-trip movie) and the interesting questions it raises Everybody’s Fine is a terrific choice for those who want something more in-depth from their Xmas viewing than tinsel and tired sentimentality.
Charles Bronson may have passed away but the spirit of his Death Wish films lives on -- albeit in an absurdly twisted fashion -- in F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job Be Cool) gleefully over-the-top revenge thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Taking a welcome break from his recent run of lame chick flicks Gerard Butler (300 RocknRolla) stars as Clyde Shelton a loving husband and father whose placid suburban existence is upended when a couple of mangy meth monsters burst into his home. Not content to merely burglarize the place they proceed to butcher Clyde’s wife and daughter as he lies in a heap on the floor periodically losing consciousness after being stabbed several times.
The killers are soon apprehended and a grieving Clyde who somehow managed to survive the whole ordeal eagerly awaits swift retribution from the justice system. Hoping for the grim solace that only the death penalty can provide he places his faith in Nick Rice (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) the hotshot district attorney charged with prosecuting the case to do the right thing and see to it that the two killers fry.
Nick however has other plans. Seeing the case as anything but open-and-shut and fearful that a not-guilty verdict in such a high-profile trial could derail his ambitious career plans (he sees himself as a Giuliani in the making) he opts to strike a plea deal: One man gets a death sentence while the other gets a mere 10 years in return for testifying against his cohort.
Chastened by the unseemly bargain Clyde takes matters into his own hands delivering his own uniquely painful brand of vigilante justice to the sinister men who destroyed his family. But he doesn’t stop there not by a longshot. His grudge extends much much further -- to the very heart of the justice system itself -- and he intends to bring the entire corrupt apparatus down even if he has to do it while locked up inside a jail cell. Which is where he ends up after police nab him for personally imposing the death penalty on the convicted killers.
Indeed Clyde proves to be something of a savant when it comes to killing people in creative cinematic ways employing exploding cell phones remote-control machine guns and other methods to take out the various judges attorneys and politicians on his hit list. Most amazingly he orchestrates all of this mayhem from behind bars. Seriously this guy’s flair for novelty violence makes the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight seem amateurish by comparison.
The task of putting an end to all of Clyde’s mayhem naturally falls on Nick. And this is where Law Abiding Citizen’s fatal flaw emerges. Whereas Gray Butler and virtually everyone else seem to enthusiastically embrace the utter ridiculousness of it all Foxx plays it determinedly straight as if he’s the only one in the movie who isn’t in on the joke. Watching his performance it’s almost as if he’s making a different film than everyone else.
The right way for Law Abiding Citizen to end is for Foxx to administer an appropriately ironic death to Butler’s character utter something like “I rest my case ” and wink at the camera as he makes his exit. (Click here to read our exclusive interview with Foxx.)
I won’t give any spoilers away but suffice it to say this is NOT how the movie ends.
Then there are the 27 really bad bridesmaid dresses Heigl’s character Jane keeps in her closet. Quite spectacular really--ranging from a Goth rocker dress dog collar and all to a rodeo Western dress complete with cowboy hat. You see the completely selfless Jane is pretty much the world’s best bridesmaid. She’s happy to put on the most heinous outfit because she knows this is her girlfriend’s day and anything she wants goes. Thing is Jane forgets about taking care of herself forever putting aside her own hopes and dreams. Then she meets Kevin (James Marsden) a newspaper reporter on the bridal beat who witnesses Jane’s bridesmaid expertise one evening and decides a story about this wedding junkie is his ticket to journalism fame. Jane initially brushes him off--until her younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes to town and steals the heart of her boss (Edward Burns) a man Jane has been pining for for years. With Kevin’s influence Jane finally realizes it’s time to stop eating someone else’s wedding cake and take a stand. Heigl is on a roll these days. She got Knocked Up in one of last year’s funniest comedies and then won the Emmy for her role on Grey’s Anatomy. It makes sense she’d follow things up with 27 Dresses since she’s now considered the new go-to girl for romantic comedies. Of course Heigl as the “plain Jane” sister next to Akerman’s glitzy blondie is a tad unrealistic but Heigl totally sells it. The actress should be cautious about doing too many rom-coms however because she could pigeonhole herself and never be able to shake it (Meg Ryan anyone?). Marsden and Burns are adequate as the love interests with Marsden coming out of it smelling the sweetest. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) does what she can with the thankless role of bridezilla. But the real gem is Judy Greer as Jane’s coworker and resident wisecracker. The supporting actress has done the “best friend” character in countless romantic comedies--and in wedding ones to boot such as The Wedding Planner--but we never tire of her snarky enthusiasm. Director Anne Fletcher’s film career has been mostly as a choreographer specializing in comedies such as Along Came Polly The Wedding Planner and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (did they dance in that?). She got her directing break when they handed her the reigns to modest dance hit Step Up but it’s obvious being involved in all those romantic comedies rubbed off on Fletcher as she handles 27 Dresses with ease. Directing fluff movies of this kind has got be fairly easy technically speaking but Fletcher isn’t quite experienced enough to bring out the best in her actors which is what makes or breaks a good romantic comedy. That and the script of course--which unfortunately for 27 Dresses is a rather pedestrian effort from The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. The film’s highlight is definitely when Jane models all 27 bridesmaid dresses but other than that it’s all pretty formulaic.