It’s Christmas in Chicago and the far-flung members of the Rodriguez clan are coming home to spend the holidays at the their parent’s house. But Mom (Elizabeth Pena) has a surprise in store for the grown siblings: She is divorcing their father (Alfred Molina) right after the tree is taken down. This doesn’t sit well with the now adult kids including business man Mauricio (John Leguizamo) who has arrives with high-powered wife Sarah (Debra Messing). There’s also Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) a successful Hollywood actress who seems to be at a crossroads in her life while her nice neighborhood friend Ozzy (Jay Hernandez) would like to be mean more to her. And then there’s Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) just back from Iraq and unsure of his place in the family. All of these situations intertwine when the serious illness of one of their own is suddenly revealed and the family has to pick up the pieces and come together. Nothing Like the Holidays gains its strength from a superbly chosen cast including the wonderful Molina as the family patriarch who tries desperately to keep his family and marriage together. As his long-suffering wife Anna Pena is superb cutting right to the core of who this woman is. Also very impressive is Six Feet Under star Rodriguez who plays the returning Iraq vet with touching pathos. Leguizamo on the other hand pretty much sleepwalks through his one-dimensional role and is miscast opposite Messing who still manages to evoke sympathy for her career woman quickly running out of time to have a baby. Ferlito is just fine as the fledgling Hollywood actress who seems more at home than the rest. Hernandez is an attractive and forthright presence as the local boy who finds himself attracted to the possibly unattainable star. Meanwhile a cameo by terrific character actor Luis Guzman provides comic relief. Director Alfredo De Villa has proven he knows his way around a character-driven drama with his film Washington Heights. And with Holidays he clearly invests a lot of time making sure these interconnected storylines make sense in the scheme of things and turns the sometimes pedestrian situations into what almost seems like live theatre. The performances snap crackle and pop and the seasonal atmosphere really contributes to the satisfying dramatics . Although some of the actors are allowed to go over the top occasionally De Villa keeps control of the film and makes it work as a very engaging and lively holiday confection you and your family will most likely identify with.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Jim Davis (Bale) is an Afghanistan War veteran who still dreams of night vision combat. He seems to find comfort in his Mexican girlfriend but he goes back to L.A. to hang with his “homie ” Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). Mike in turn is married to the lovely Sylvia (Eva Longoria) a successful lawyer who wants her man to find a purpose in life too--or at least a paycheck. Jim thinks the easy ticket will be a law enforcement job so he can take care of both of them but he’s rejected. So the duo hit their old haunts stealing drugs getting high and faking phone calls from prospective employers. But they’ve got to do a quick come down after Jim gets a call from the Department of Homeland Security. The fact he’s already smoked up will not bode well for the urine test. Still Jim finds a way to slip through because this job is more than a power trip for Jim. It could allow him to bring his girlfriend to the U.S. and marry her. Nothing goes exactly as planned though. Mike must choose between his dangerous friend and his loving stable girl while Jim must survive his past to have any chance at a future. If Christian Bale is starring in an indie you know he going to be at least slightly psycho--American Psycho The Machinist to name a few. Few could make Jim as realistic as he does. Denzel Washington successfully does a charismatic street tough in Training Day but the British Bale has the manner and language down. When he says homie and other less printable slang it sounds like he knows how to use it carrying himself like the pompous gangsta. He’s scary seems unstoppable and you actually may want him to meet his end. Rodriguez plays Mike like a naïve man-child going along with his buddy despite evidence that it’s not in his best interest. It’s the less showy part so it’s hard to compare but you always believe him in the role. Longoria has a truly thankless part the totally normal one in a crazy world. The audience will relate and side with her but the actress has no chance to show any crazy quirks. All the time her Sylvia is so much classier you wonder what the attraction ever was to Mike. Some supporting actors also stand out. J.K. Simmons does his authority thing as the Homeland Security recruiter while Terry Crews is the most dimensional drug dealer seen in a while. He’ll do crime but he admonishes the boys to respect their ladies. Everyone will call Harsh Times gritty but what does that mean? Is it because of the language and violence? That’s a no-brainer in a crime story. Is it because the film is all grainy? That makes it look like a home movie but it doesn’t make “Baby’s First Bath” gritty. Is it because it’s dimly lit? That’s just hard to see not gritty. Harsh Times is all those things but the problem is who wants to watch this? Director David Ayer does create a believable world of street life but the plot ambles on. Two unredeemable guys get into trouble. They toke up but aren’t funny about it. They fight and shoot people but for no reason. They amuse each other but their exploits are hardly cinematic. It’s actually not all that entertaining of a world to visit but it achieves the discomfort an audience would feel like driving through the streets with their windows rolled up. Maybe that’s the moral of the story but honestly we don’t need a two-hour lecture; we already know.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Pity Mitch (John Francis Daley). It's his first day on the job at Shenanigans--a take on the nationwide-chain Bennigan's. The waiter who trains him Monty (Ryan Reynolds) is the same one he looks down on him. Monty shows Mitch the ropes as well as the cooks' genitalia. Sorry there's no other way to put it. See there's this game that the male employees play whereby...let's just say it's one of many unspeakable "games" they play that'll make you watch the film as you would a horror movie: your hands covering your eyes with just enough space between two fingers to catch a glimpse. And these are just Mitch's first moments on the job. Over the course of his shift he'll meet a twenty-something named Dean (Justin Long) who's trying to go straight--that is do something else with his life; a pushover (Patrick Benedict) whose timidity carries over to the urinal; and a veteran waitress (Alanna Ubach) who barks profane tirades about her patrons but not to them. People knock the MPAA's sense of humor but if they truly didn't have one this gross-out flick would be slapped with an NC-17 rating.
A film set in a restaurant falls squarely on the shoulders of its actors. Thankfully Reynolds and company make good carrying the film and its script of top-that one-liners and well shenanigans. Reynolds while now a bankable star in avenues other than comedy clearly has a knack for this stuff. His comedic timing and delivery are truly first-rate never more so than in Waiting excelling in the sheer vulgarity he has to shell out. Dodgeball's Long as Dean is downright earnest next to his buddy Monty but it's his role to defer to Reynolds' eloquent sarcasm. Of course this doesn't totally preclude him from joining in on the fun. He's just forced to take more barbs than he can dish out. Anna Faris (from the Scary Movie series) flies even more under the radar as Monty's ex the only one that stands in his way of proclaiming his prowess second to none. Also making pitch-perfect appearances as malevolent employees are fringe-sters Luis Guzman Chi McBride Dane Cook and Andy Milonakis with Anchorman's David Koechner as the manager.
Waiting is not the type of movie in which a separate director and writer is required--it's a package deal. That's because--and let's be honest here--a film set almost entirely in one location without a single stunt person or special effect doesn't need more than one voice. To this effect writer/director Rob McKittrick makes his first foray into each arena. Needless to say his directorial debut is almost a non-entity but that's more complementary than detrimental on a project like this. His stinging commentary on the other hand displays a comedic deftness that is worth keeping an eye on in the future especially if Waiting does any business at the box office.