I’ll Be Home for Christmas (2016)

Sometimes you come across Christmas TV movie that looks – for a few precious moments – like it could be tolerable, a treat even. The opening scene is picturesque, the music gets you in the mood, and the lead actor rumbles onto the screen with little apology. I’m describing the first minutes of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, where James Brolin meanders through the countryside in a rusty RV while his wife, the divine Ms. Barbra Streisand, sings the title song. It’s certainly a step up from your usual TV fare, and you’ll be forgiven for wanting a little more from Hallmark.

As it turns out, a compelling script would have been enough. Granted, you’re not watching this or any other Hallmark offering for its original screenplay, but a fresh idea would be wonderful and, please, dialogue that wasn’t lifted from a 8th grader’s journal. But, no, this movie is a depository of clichés with two big screen actors standing around to make the whole thing look respectable.

The movie starts with an argument between Jackie Foster (Mena Suvari), assistant DA, single mom, and estranged daughter of Jack (Brolin), and Mike Kelly, police detective, single hot guy, and loyal protégé of Jack. They fight over a parking space, not knowing that this is only their first of three run-ins that day. The Pride and Prejudice rule applies here. Jackie and Mike can’t stand each other, and besides, she’s in a Very Serious Relationship with rich guy Rand (Jacob Blair). That can only mean one thing; Jackie and Mike are bound to be together. (By the way, if movies are anything to go by, single ladies, go out and get yourself into a feisty tête-a-tête right now.)

While they’re busy doing their thing, Jackie must also figure out what to do with Father, as she calls him. This one’s harder to decipher. The status of their relationship is never that clear. Jackie has far more animosity towards him than he does towards her. She resents all the time he spent away from the family, especially during the holidays, while he was working as a police officer and is also upset that he upped and left after her mom died three years ago. I can’t tell when Jackie’s hating on her dad though and when she’s stressed out and exhausted by her slavish need to follow a schedule. For his part, Jack seems conciliatory, awkwardly trying to make amends with his precocious granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) and forever delaying a planned fishing trip in Mexico. Brolin doesn’t seem to know what his character is up to, which is strange since he directed the damn movie.

Mostly, I’ll Be Home for Christmas is frustrating for its dullness. The predictable plot doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of imagination when it comes to characters. Jackie, Jack, and Mike are entirely forgettable without a spark of wit. Pretentious Rand stands out a little thanks to his villainy. I mean, the guy scoffs at the mere suggestion of volunteering at a homeless shelter. Various subplots and secondary characters also get thrown in – a destructive police dog, a theft at the local tree lot, the closing of said shelter, but none of this makes the movie more engaging. If, like me, you get to the thirty minute mark thinking you’ve reached the third act, then give in to your urge to change the channel.

Released: 2016
Dir: James Brolin
Writer: Robert Bernheim
Cast: James Brolin, Mena Suvari, Giselle Eisenberg, John Reardon, Jacob Blair, Angela Asher, Laura Miyata
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Rodeo and Juliet (2015)

First things first, Rodeo is actually a horse, so I’m not sure this metaphor works. Secondly, two young lovers who hide their romance from bickering parents does not a Shakespearean adaptation make. Thirdly, no one dies. Where is the happy dagger? Where is the grave man?

Now, I know I should have known better – I always should know better, but the earnest Shakespearean scholar in me thought I might give this a chance for the sake of research. So putting my ninety minutes to use, this yawning horse show is getting filed under “adaptations that allude to Bill S. but in fact are completely unrelated.”

Besides the curious title, which seems to endorse bestiality, the movie tries to capitalize on the timeless tale of forbidden young love with one of its own. City girl Juliet (Nadine Crocker) gets hauled to the countryside following the death of her grandfather, and her new environs do not agree with her – because hello, no cell coverage and what is that fresh air smell? But lucky for her, there’s a barn dance the very next night, and who does she meet but her gentle Romeo Monty (Zeb Halsell). Hands touch, eyes meet, sudden silence, sudden heat – wait, wrong fantasy. But hearts do leap in a giddy whirl, one that’s immediately quashed by Juliet’s mom, Karen (Krista Allen)

This Lady Capulet will not stand by as the nephew of her avowed enemy woos her daughter with his cool country ways. And Lord Montague (Tim Abell), well he’s not just the cowboy who supervised Karen’s dad’s ranch all these years while she was off writing saucy romance novels. Hugh wants a share of the property and, more importantly, a second chance with his old girlfriend.

I can accept this twist on warring houses and in fact think it makes the classic love story more compelling, but this isn’t exactly challenging TV. Karen and Hugh are a world apart from Juliet and Monty; they’re living in a Lifetime movie while the young’uns inhabit a poorly scripted CW spinoff. We’re only reminded that one story has bearing on the other when Karen checks in to make sure her daughter’s having quality alone time with her horse Rodeo and not her man Romeo. Those wanting a countrified Shakespeare will find only a scant two acts from the bard’s play, and those wanting an engaging romance shouldn’t be watching bad TV in the first place.

But if you want some rural landscapes, say because you grew up next to a soybean field and now live in a 250’ flat in Hong Kong, then by all means pop this on while you’re doing the ironing. There were plenty of open fields and tree-lined ranches to sate my country soul. I also gave the movie a single point for including a black character, a wide-eyed rodeo girl who takes on a Nurse/Friar Laurence role. Otherwise, seek out quality Romeo and Juliet adaptions. Even the one about garden gnomes is better than this.

Released: 2015
Dir: Thadd Turner
Writer: Stephen Beck, Harry Cason
Cast: Tim Abell, Krista Allen, Nadine Crocker, Zeb Halsell, Ariel Lucas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Up TV
Reviewed: 2017

Ash Wednesday (2002)

I decided to dig deep for this review, settling on a movie I watched as a broke grad student while cat-sitting for my professor. For someone who wrote expertly on Julia Kristeva and casually brought up Jacques Derrida, she had a pretty shit DVD collection, one I burned through instead of sweating over my thesis. Hence, this is me, ten years later.

Maybe it’s appropriate then that I’m writing about Ash Wednesday. I feel like I’m resurrecting something that should be left for dead, much like the main character in this movie. The film apparently screened in just two theaters, limping on to a lonely DVD afterlife in places as far-flung as Hong Kong. Similarly, Sean Sullivan (Elijah Wood) is resigned to a wayfarer’s existence after killing three men in a bar on Ash Wednesday in 1980. He does this to protect his older brother, Francis Xavier (Edward Burns), who is involved with the Irish American gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. Everyone assumes that Sean met a bloody end, but he was instead ferried away by Francis with help from the parish priest. Exactly three years later, word gets around that Sean is back from the dead, and the news doesn’t sit well with anyone.

You might think there’s more to the story, but this is really the entirety of the plot. Most of the movie is either people telling Francis his brother is in town or Francis telling them the opposite. Even when Sean finally emerges, the two continue to argue about his unexpected appearance. Since it takes so damn long for everyone to figure out what’s going on, the movie is stuck in limbo until Sean and Francis’s enemies decide to seek revenge. That’s when the brothers also realize that Sean needs to hightail it out of town if he wants to live another day. But this time he’s not going without his girl, Grace (Rosario Dawson). It’s going to be tricky to convince her though because no one bothered to let her in on the truth all these years. Not only did she believe she was a widow, but she also raised her son thinking his father was dead.

I’d hoped for something more gripping from Burns, doing quadruple duty as writer-director-producer-star. He had a much lauded indie hit, The Brothers McMullen, back in the mid-1990s and seems to have been trying to replicate that success ever since. This movie is another one of his contributions to the Irish American Catholic mythology, though more along the lines of Coppola or Scorsese. Unfortunately, the story never feels rooted in a real community. There’s plenty of religious imagery and the tone is one of perpetual Lent. You also have your Maggies and Murphys and even a bar called the Blarney Stone. But all this is window dressing to hide the fact that there’s not much there, not a deep meditation on Lenten sacrifice or a intimate portrait of Irish American identity. The casting is wildly off mark too. I’m sure there’s a good movie waiting to be made in which Burns, Wood, and Dawson star as a family unit, but this is not the one.

Released: 2002
Prod: Edward Burns, Margot Bridger
Dir: Edward Burns
Writer: Edward Burns
Cast: Edward Burns, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson, Oliver Platt, James Handy
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers is a everything you’d expect from a movie directed by John Singleton, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund, and set in Detroit. It has lots of guns, a good deal of punching, and more than my daily recommended dose of alpha male machismo. But it also has Chiwetel Ejiofor, so we’ll call it even. A tale of brotherhood and justice, the movie starts with a murder, a particularly cruel one. A grandmother is gunned down at a convenience store, seemingly a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but as her adult sons gather, little is what it seems.

The deceased is Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), a neighborhood guardian who’s fostered a number of children over the years. The only ones who couldn’t find permanent homes were Bobby (Wahlberg), Angel (Gibson), Jeremiah (Benjamin), and baby Jack (Hedlund), so she adopted them herself. The four – two of whom are black and two of whom are white – have drifted apart over the years, but they put their lives and differences on pause to come together and honor their mother, and to find the killers. That’s when things start to get crazy.

They deduce that her death wasn’t just the result of a robbery gone wrong but a calculated hit. Who wants to kill a sweet old grandma though? As the brothers get closer to the truth, they also find themselves tangling with the city’s criminal elements, which may involve the police. Two detectives (Terence Howard and Josh Charles) warn them off the case, and fur coat-wearing gangster Victor Sweet (Ejiofor) possibly has ties to one of the brothers.

There are a lot of characters running around, but somehow they manage to keep their distinct personalities, even if that is reduced to a few key character traits. Amongst the brothers, for example, Bobby’s the oldest and the natural leader, Angel’s the playboy, Jeremiah’s the good boy, and Jack’s the mama’s boy. These archetypes are meant to explore ideas of brotherhood, family, and identity, but they don’t amount to much more than broad overtures to a deeper social portrait. Neither the script nor the actors push the characters beyond their limited purpose within the plot, so any closer examination of race and class in this troubled part of Detroit simply fades. At the core, Four Brothers remains very much a police procedural, tense and action-packed to be sure, but not a film whose importance extends beyond whatever is happening on the screen.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Dir: John Singleton
Writer: David Elliot, Paul Lovett
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fionnula Flanagan, Terence Howard, Josh Charles, Sofia Vergara, Taraji P. Henson
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall, a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017