A comedy featuring Steve Martin Jack Black and Owen Wilson creates certain expectations not the least of which is well laughter. But David Frankel’s (Marley & Me The Devil Wears Prada) anodyne feather-light film The Big Year in which the three actors star is less concerned with eliciting big laughs than offering earnest insights on the meaning of success and the value of friendship.
Delving into the subculture of hard-core birders (don’t call them bird-watchers) the film follows three men semi-retired industrialist Stu (Martin) schlubby corporate drone Brad (Black) and suburban contractor Kenny (Wilson) as they vie in a year-long competition known as the Big Year. The goal of the competition is simple: to spot as many different bird species in North America as possible. As current Big Year record-holder Kenny is something of a rock star in the birding world. His cocky carefree manner masks a stark determination to defend his hard-won celebrity – and his fragile ego – against the likes of upstarts Stu and Brad both of whom are Big Year rookies. None of the three leads stray far from type but they do offer slight tweaks to their usual screen personas: Wilson is sly and Machiavellian; Black tones down the buffoonery limiting himself to two (by my rough count) pratfalls; Martin’s sardonicism is tempered with humility.
There’s no prize for winning a Big Year; the sole reward is the adulation of fellow members of the birding community. Competition is surprisingly fierce. The three men frantically criss-cross the continent darting from one remote location to another in search of the next rare find. At first wary of each other Stu and Brad eventually unite over a mutual desire to defeat Kenny whose crafty gamesmanship has frustrated them both. Their strategic pact gradually evolves into a genuine friendship leading both men to discover that there are more important things in life than winning an amateur birding competition.
Shot on location in British Columbia the Canadian Yukon Upstate New York Joshua Tree and the Florida Everglades The Big Year is a visually striking film showcasing one breathtaking panorama after another. At times director Frankel appears more interested in the scenery than his characters who despite the script's copious exposition aren't particularly well-developed. The story at times seem aimless and unfocused and its relaxed pace may prove vexing for some. Indeed it did for me at first. But once I adjusted to its easygoing rhythm the film’s modest charms began to reveal themselves.
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) adapts his Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play Doubt for the big screen keeping all the themes that made the original work such a hit on stage. Set in 1964 the film version opens up much of the talky proceedings and sets the action in a wind-swept Brooklyn Catholic school where Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to shake up the status quo and introduce a little more free thinking. These actions cause instant friction with the stern Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who immediately butts heads with Flynn. Significant change already is taking place as the school has admitted its first black student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When mild-mannered Sister James (Amy Adams) suggests that perhaps Father Flynn is spending too much personal time with Donald it sets Sister Aloysius off on an ill-considered crusade to get rid of Flynn triggering a battle of morals will and yes doubt in the minds of both the characters and the audience. Rather than casting some of his Tony-winning actors from the play Shanley decided he wanted a blank slate bringing in a new interpretation to the material. Obvious choice for the taciturn Sister Aloysius is Meryl Streep who using a slight Brooklyn accent convincingly tears into the role that won acclaimed actress Cherry Jones a Tony. Streep plays it broadly and the onscreen fireworks between her and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Flynn are indeed spectacular. Acting just doesn’t get much better than this particularly for Hoffman who is amazing as the charismatic priest walking the thin line between personal conviction and guilt. Adams doesn’t really get the big scenes but portrays Sister James’ hopeful innocence and naiveté with just the right amount of sugar -- not too sweet not too dark. Top honors in the cast go to Viola Davis as Donald Miller’s mother. Taking what is essentially a 10 minute role Davis will tear your heart out as she desperately pleads with Streep to let Donald stay in school. John Patrick Shanley clearly has a personal stake in this material and returns to directing for the first time since his ill-fated Joe vs. the Volcano in the early ‘90s. He seems much more at home with this more intimate piece casting it smartly and using the weather --including the use of a haunting rustling wind -- as a key part of the background ambience. Doubt is exactly the kind of traditional Broadway adaptation Hollywood used to do so well particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s and Shanley smartly doesn’t try to muck it up with any flashy filmmaking tricks. He lets his quartet of superior actors do most of the work turning Doubt into one of the best stage adaptations in many many years.
P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan follows J.M. Barrie's story almost to the letter. A girl on the brink of womanhood Wendy Darling (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) loves telling her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) stories of dastardly pirates as they sit in their nursery under the watchful eye of their St. Bernard Nana. Her 19th-century Londoner parents however believe the time has come for the young girl to grow up especially her father. Then a cheeky wild-haired boy named Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies through the nursery window one night with his trusted yet jealousy-prone fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) telling Wendy he can take her to a place full of adventure where no one ever has to grow up. She readily accepts the offer and with a few happy thoughts some fairy dust and her two brothers in tow she flies off to Neverland. (Not the ranch…the real place.) Once there Wendy encounters mermaids Indians and the Lost Boys (who refer to her as "mother") and gets the whole pirate experience in Peter's ongoing feud with arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs). But Wendy soon becomes conflicted because on the one hand she likes hangin' with hottie Peter but on the other she misses her mother. She decides it's probably best to go back and grow up but in her hurry to leave she ends up in Hook's clutches. A rescue ensues. Swords clash ticking crocodiles are fed and fairies are saved as our clever fly boy zooms Wendy and company back to London on a giant pirate ship. But does he stay and grow up himself? Hell no he's a Toys 'R Us kid forever!
All the kid actors in Peter Pan are highly watchable and appealing with angelic faces peaches-and-cream complexions and pouty cherry lips. This is the first time Peter is being played by a real-life boy a fact much hyped by the filmmakers and 12-year-old Sumpter (Frailty) does his best to live up to the expectations. (He's soon to be swoon-worthy material for sure.) He's got a mischievous gleam in his eye and a great sly smile but he really lights up when he's looking into Wendy's adorable face. Hurd-Wood the first-time actress who plays the spirited girl earned her role after a long and involved casting process it's well deserved; she fits the typical English-girl profile perfectly and gets the hang of her craft quickly infusing the character with a natural cheerful energy. It's also refreshing to see the young actors play up Wendy and Peter's feelings of first love which prior films always hinted at but never fully realized. Isaacs in a dual role as the firm-but-loving Mr. Darling and the frightening comical lonely charming needy reprehensible Captain Hook draws on his experience at playing exquisitely awful baddies (The Patriot Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and really sinks his claws into Hook. In a stand out supporting role French actress Sagnier (Swimming Pool) is really fantastic as the vivacious non-speaking Tinkerbell portraying the fairy's conflicted emotions with a silent-film over-the-top technique.
Director/writer P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding) and his team try to distinguish their film from the other Peter Pans of the world by using all the technical and special effects wizardry at their disposal. Hogan says his Peter Pan is the way its author Barrie intended to be when he wrote it as a play over a 100 years ago--full of fantasy and wonder. In a way he's right and production designer Roger Ford and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar take his vision and run with it giving audiences a very lush Neverland with waterfalls fluffy pink clouds crystal-blue waters and a gorgeous fairy world. But despite the bells and whistles there really isn't anything original and different in this Pan. Even its look at the dark side of Neverland has been done in Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel Hook which showed the dangers of Neverland. In this version lives really are at stake and the pirates are not cute and fun. Even the mermaids are mysterious and malevolent with scary faces and murderous intentions a far cry from the beautiful if somewhat mean-spirited creatures of the 1953 classic Disney animated adaptation another inescapable influence on the audience. When the crocodile draws near for example tick-tocking away the croc's signature tune from the Disney film comes immediately to mind. People may love those Disney films for those cutesy catchy songs but Peter Pan really is a good story. Heck it's a great story. But it's just been done.
A Guy Thing's premise is standard and remarkably uneventful. Paul (Jason Lee) thinks marrying the sweet and perfect Karen (Selma Blair) and working for his tough soon-to-be father-in-law Ken (James Brolin) is the best thing he's got. Until he meets Becky (Julia Stiles) the girl he wakes up with after his wild bachelor party. Paul can't remember what happened but assumes the worst and tells Karen a little lie to cover it up. His friends tell him it's fine it's "a guy thing" and he shouldn't feel guilty but in the week before his nuptials he watches the whole thing blow up in his face. See Becky is Karen's free-spirited cousin a girl who lives life to the fullest. Even if Paul wanted to forget Becky and the apparent incident he can't especially when he realizes he is beginning to have feelings for Becky and that maybe Karen isn't the right girl for him. Oh boy he's got some s'plaining to do. This is life folks--these are the tough choices you've got to make. Or so that's what the film wants us to remember when we walk out of the theater with our sides splitting from laughing so hard. Right.
After last year's stinker Stealing Harvard one would have hoped Jason Lee learned his lesson--but apparently not. The thing is the guy is talented. He's shown great comedic flair alongside director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) but it's obvious his judgment has been impaired somewhere along the way. Lee looks like he is sleepwalking through most of the film as Paul does nothing more than react to all the craziness around him typically coming to his senses just in the nick of time. Blair (Legally Blonde) once again plays the country-club princess to a tee but someone please give this actress something meaty for a change. She can handle it. Yet it's Stiles who surprises you in A Guy Thing. Venturing into a balls-out comedy for the first time she just seems so out of place in the romantic comedy milieu. You think it isn't going to work but then suddenly you realize she's grown on you and Becky's gangly klutzy style becomes the only refreshing thing in this tired genre movie. Larry Miller also makes a hilarious appearance as Paul's minister neighbor who has seen the whole "guy thing" transpire. Funny stuff.
Someone really needs to tell why these vacuous romantic comedies keep getting made. A Guy Thing portends to be different claiming the comedy comes from real-life choices rather than from outlandish unbelievable situations. OK then it makes sense Paul would climb out his future in-laws' bathroom window to escape seeing Becky only to get hung up on a tree limb then get shot at by big bad daddy Ken and then have to climb back in the bathroom and wind up squirting a shampoo bottle into the toilet to make it seem like he was having gastric problems to those listening outside the bathroom door. Sure that happens all the time. Comedy works best when it's a tad outrageous and don't think A Guy Thing is anything but although it fails most of the time. Still under the guidance of director Chris Koch (Snow Day) the film has a few laugh-out-loud moments including the rehearsal dinner scene where a pharmacy technician caters the meal (don't ask) and spikes the gravy with marijuana resulting in priceless reactions from some veteran actors such as Diana Scarwid and Julie Hagerty playing the two mothers. The actual meaning of "a guy thing " which can ultimately be defined as a guy's inclination to back his buddies up also gets explained in a few hilarious ways. Overall though it's just one formulaic moment after another.