Barnyard (2006)

The bovine hero in this cartoon coming-of-age story is Otis (Kevin James), a ne’er-do-well who would rather grass surf with his friends than attend to his chores. And just as this cow spends most of his time coasting from one barnyard hijinks to another, this film meanders along without much purpose. Otis confronts a personal crisis early on when his father (Sam Elliot) is attacked and killed by a pack of coyotes. He has a chance to shed his immaturity and face up to his responsibilities. Instead, he uses his freedom to take joyrides in stolen cars and host raves in broad daylight.

The film spends most of its time establishing the fact that Otis needs to grow up, something already made clear in the opening minutes. The actual growing up, however, gets pushed to the last third of the movie. Though the farm animals elect Otis to be their leader after his father dies, it isn’t until the last twenty minutes or so that he begins to feel the weight of their decision. He finally sees the necessity of having someone in charge; there’s real danger out there, whether from coyotes, snot-nosed boys, or his own misadventures. Suddenly Otis’s “every animal for himself” philosophy seems woefully inadequate, replaced instead by his father’s mantra – “a strong man stands up for himself, but a stronger man stands up for others.” One assumes this applies to cows as well.

Otis questions his ability to live up this standard and, knowing he is not the cow his father was, thinks it may be better for him to leave the farm altogether. It’s a decision helped along by an encounter with the coyotes, who prey on his self-doubt as much as they do on the hens and Otis’s little chick friend, Maddy.

I may be confusing my politics with my cartoons, but this very timely and appropriate message about leadership and about defending others even at great cost to oneself gets lost in the wackiness. Everyone says the right things but the film isn’t in a rush to follow through. Otis’s relationship with his father isn’t particularly resonant. There’s a long gap between when his death happens and when it starts affecting anyone in an emotional way.

Kids will enjoy the distractions though. While Barnyard lacks a strong narrative, it does feature pool-playing farm animals and gophers trading sneakers on the black market. When the barn changes into a bar and disco at night, even I want to join in. A few human characters pop up for laughs, none of them purposeful. The clueless farmer is a genial, benign figure. Their neighbor, on the other hand, is a nosy woman who is portrayed as a loon just because she raises hell whenever she sees Otis and the gang doing human things. She’s ignored by her husband, made to feel a fool, and driven to self-doubt despite the fact that she is right about a cow stealing her car. Not cool, Barnyard, not cool.

Released: 2006
Prod: Steve Oedekerk, Paul Marshal
Dir: Steve Oedekerk
Writer: Steve Oedekerk
Cast: Kevin James, Courtney Cox, Sam Elliot, Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover, Andie MacDowell, David Koechner, Jeff Garcia, Tino Insana, Maria Bamford
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017


Detour (2016)

Detour is not the type of movie I watch for fun on a Saturday night, but dammit, Emory Cohen. The actor’s sensitive, Gilbert Blyth turn in Brooklyn has got me working my way through his back catalog and man, is it a dark, disturbing journey. Take Detour, which throws three lonely souls together on a cross-state road trip, ostensibly to kill one of the party’s stepfather. There’s a hitch in the plan, but not the typical kind like a cop coming up from behind on an empty road, though that happens too.

The film begins with Harper (Tye Sheridan), listening intently as a law professor expounds on how to get away with murder. The aspiring attorney has other things on his mind though. His mother is in a coma, thanks to a drunken joyride with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who decides to visit his younger mistress instead of the hospital. Harper suspects Vincent’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas is more pleasure than business and is willing to take drastic measures to keep his stepfather from straying. The tidy coed gets sloshed, stumbles into a trashy bar, and sets off a very regrettable chain of events.

Harper meets Johnny Ray (Cohen), a coked up tough who has “Fear” tattooed in Lucida Calligraphy font on his bicep. The guy is clearly bluster, but he’s enough of a live wire that you’d avoid his sightline just to be safe. Harper does the opposite and drunkenly admits to wanting his stepfather dead, which is good enough as a job offer for Johnny. When he shows up at Harper’s house the next day, it’s too late to turn back, and the two, along with Johnny’s girl, Cherry (Bel Powley), hit the road towards Vegas.

Except the movie takes some unexpected, well, detours. Johnny insists on seeing some snarly drug boss named Frank (John Lynch, who will always be Lord Archibald Craven or Balinor to me). It’s a meeting he characterizes as a courtesy call but is actually a mandatory stop and one that could have disastrous consequences for Cherry. A casual sit-down at some sleepy diner also escalates into a situation that well, doesn’t end cleanly. The most surprising diversion though is the film’s narrative shift. The movie starts to flash back as it moves forward, and the slow drip reveal of Harper and Vincent’s relationship, and of its deterioration, unsettles the entire timeline.

Detour rumbles and disturbs but leaves its best parts untouched. The talented cast, all garlanded with breakout star laurels, give meat to the script. Sheridan is a capable lead, walking his character down a fine line of privilege and insecurity and tipping him just over the edge when he gets too close to type. His is not the most interesting role but has the most closure. Powley, meanwhile, gets the most underwritten part. The actress is a tour de force in The Diary of a Teenage Girl but is too confined as the girlfriend/hooker/occasional drug mule. Still, she’s magnetic and it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I have to say Cohen is the best, and not because I keep toggling between sweet Tony Fiorello and trashy Tony Fiorello. Johnny is actually a pretty stale character, kind of a C-grade Ben Foster type. But Cohen shares a scene with Lynch that immediately transforms his character into someone who’s much less tough and selfish than he appears. That’s the Cohen I love.

Released: 2009
Prod: Julie Baines, Phil Hunt, Stephen Kelliher, Jason Newmark, Compton Ross
Dir: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

The Julius House: An Aurora Teagarden Mystery (2016)

The latest Aurora Teagarden mystery begins on a lonely dirt road in the countryside. A distraught old woman is standing outside a large house and has just informed the police of her family’s disappearance. It’s an ominous beginning and while not one of those Victorian mysteries that will keep you awake at night, there is a creepy doll sitting on a shelf of a hidden closet.

The Julius House is the best of the Aurora Teagarden series so far; make of that what you will. It’s mildly spooky, which gives it more kick than your average Hallmark mystery. The missing family turns out to be the Juliuses, and four years later, their house belongs to Ro (Candace Cameron Bure). Ro, full-time librarian and part-time detective, vaguely recalls the case of the missing family of three when she purchases her new abode, but she’s so taken with the extra wall space that she doesn’t consider the consequences of living at a possible murder scene or that closets may not be the only thing the house is hiding.

When she begins to dig deeper into the family’s disappearance, with the help of her journalist friend, Sally (Lexa Doig), her boyfriend, Martin (Yannick Bisson), and her mother’s boyfriend, John (Bruce Dawson), she only finds more questions. Why, for instance, was the teenage daughter afraid of her father? Why did her boyfriend leave town so soon after her disappearance? How long did the mother, who was dying from cancer, have to live? The only thing Ro is sure of is that the police’s conclusion is wrong and that the Julius family did not drive into a ravine by accident.

Meanwhile, things are percolating in Ro and Aida (Marilu Henner), her mother’s, personal lives. It turns out Martin from the last episode wasn’t the murderer (spoiler alert) and that he is dreamy good guy that Ro’s mother hoped he’d be. The two need to get on with it though because the running narrative here is that they aren’t officially a couple until they’ve had twenty-five dates, per Aida’s rules. Y’all are adults though, so why is this a thing? Aida doesn’t have too much time to meddle though because she is working out some kinks in her relationship with John, Ro’s friend from their Real Murders Club. John’s ready to propose but Aida’s being Aida and won’t say “yes” so easily.

I like John’s reappearance after getting sidelined in the previous movie. He’s levelheaded and calm, which is useful since people in this small town are getting killed left and right. Ro’s rival and wife of her ex-boyfriend, police detective Lynn (Miranda Frigon), is not as antagonistic, though I don’t mind when she is. I also liked Token Black Guy, concrete layer Parnell (Viv Leacock), who has a small but important role. Basically, any time secondary characters crowd out an overly chirpy Ro is fine with me.

Released: 2016
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Teena Booth
Cast: Candace Cameron Bure,Yannick Bisson, Marilu Henner, Lexa Doig, Miranda Frigon, Bruce Dawson, Peter Benson, Scott Lyster, Gabrielle Rose
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!! (2009)

You pretty much get what you expect with a movie titled Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!! The film works in broad stereotypes – about Jews, gay men, Italians – with occasional moments of surprise and reflection. The most interesting thing though may be the way this movie, released in 2009, comments on our own times. I won’t say that society has come a long way (see all of 2017), but it is reassuring that a gay couple wanting to adopt a child generally does not provoke raucous street protests. At the same time, the central conflict, first of a son coming out to his parents and then of their struggle to accept him, remains.

John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys fame plays the titular son, Nelson Hirsch, a cherubic business type who lives with his artist decorator boyfriend, Angelo (Jai Rodriguez). Since Nelson hasn’t come out to his parents, his pushy mother, Shirley (Lainie Kazan), assumes he just hasn’t found the right woman. She tries to set him up with every Jewish girl she can find, and when she mistakes Nelson’s decidedly non-Jewish centerfold model neighbor (Carmen Electra) for his girlfriend, she thinks her biggest challenge will be accounting for the mixed relationship to her congregation and friends. Of course, Nelson kiboshes all that when he comes out to his parents during his cousin’s wedding.

I admit that Young was the reason I watched this movie, and that I was disappointed that his role was so limited. He and Rodriguez don’t have much of a relationship on screen. They share a few intimate moments but mostly cycle between states of exasperation and forlornness as they deal with Nelson’s reluctance to come out to his parents and the Hirshes’ less than enthusiastic embrace of them. They sneak in some sweet smiles, but not enough to satisfy this rabid fangirl.

Neither is Shirley the main focus. Her outsized personality, thanks to Kazan’s presence, dominates the first half of the movie, but once reality sets in, it’s father Martin (Saul Rubinek) who struggles. Rubinek puts in the film’s best performance, a diligent associate at his uncle’s business who you sense would rather be concerned with the line of succession at work than with his son’s sexuality. But since the latter weighs so heavily on everyone else’s mind, he gets caught up in ridiculous battles over manliness. First he and his wife argue over which family line carried a dominant gay gene, and then he tries to one up Angelo’s father (Vincent Pastore) over who had the more macho childrearing skills.

The exchanges are cliché and rarely get at real feelings of pain and acceptance. The characters don’t break out of the generic box they’ve been put in so there’s no one to faithfully carry the emotions forward. The movie finally stumbles into an unnecessary adoption plot to tidy things up, but that comes on a bit sudden and out of left field. The resolution feels like a cheat. Then again, so does the rest of the movie.

Released: 2009
Prod: Evgeny Afineevsky, Svetlana Anufrieva, Rich Cowan
Dir: Evgeny Afineevsky
Writer: Joseph Goldman, Evgeny Afineevsky, Martin Guigui
Cast: Lainie Kazan, Saul Rubinek, Vincent Pastore, John Lloyd Young, Jai Rodriguez, Bruce Vilanch, Carmen Electra, Shelly Burch
Time: 91 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

The Nuttiest Nutcracker (1999)

Even if you’ve watched every Christmas special on Netflix, you can go ahead and skip this direct-to-video production inspired by The Nutcracker story. The movie retains the basic elements of the holiday classic but throws in a few extras, like talking food and a cheese kingdom. Which is great I suppose; I generally don’t object to cheese anything. But who knew chatty legumes would bring so much chaos? By the time the broccoli is barreling down the cheese mine, you’d wish the creators would have just stuck with a simple retelling.

There’s no need to complicate an already strange story about a girl, her nutcracker doll, a rat king, and dancing sugar plums. The movie begins when Marie, disheartened by the news that her parents are away for Christmas, receives a handsome nutcracker from her uncle. This is where things take a creative turn. A bowl of mixed nuts enters the picture to provide some commentary. The party mix includes an innocent little peanut, a wizened walnut grandpa, and an old timey sheriff nut, among others. They explain that the Mouse Queen was jealous of the prince’s love for a princess, so she bit the beautiful maiden, turning her into the ugliest thing ever. The prince broke the spell by cracking the hardest nut in the kingdom, but that act weakened him so much that he turned into a lifeless nutcracker doll. Okay.

But whatever, the important thing is that the Mouse Queen’s son, Reginald the Rat King, wants to do good by his mama, and battles the nutcracker, who gets some help from the Christmas Eve spread that’s suddenly come to life. Reginald decides to capture the nuts and make them work in his cheese mine, and yes, I am still describing the plot to The Nutcracker. Eventually, we get traces of the original story. Marie shrinks down to size to help in the battle, and after Reginald is nominally defeated, she journeys up her Christmas tree with her new friends to find the Sugar Plum Fairy. They hope that the fairy can help them bring the Christmas star to the top of the tree and restore Christmas.

Now I don’t object to talking animals or food, and I quite like the idea of a princess donning a camembert crown, but there’s little rhyme or reason to the anthropomorphism. Half the movie ends up being really noisy food flying around the screen with only occasional strains of Tchaikovsky’s music. The most distracting thing, however, is the time capsule animation, which reminds me of a discount computer game I would have bought from the K-Mart bargain bin in the late 1990s. Suffice it to say, that’s where this video should have stayed.

Released: 1999
Prod:  Dan Krech, Diane Eskenazi
Dir: Harold Harris
Writer: Diane Eskenazi, Sindy McKay
Cast: Debi Derryberry, Kevin Schon, Cheech Marin, Desirée Goyette, Jim Cummings, Tress MacNeille, Cam Clarke, Phyllis Diller, Jim Belushi, Jeff Bennett
Time: 48 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017