The Lucky One (2012)

Hallmark movies are an insidious thing. I’ve seen and reviewed so many of them that films like The Lucky One now seem classy stuff. Let’s not kid ourselves though. Nicholas Sparks serves up nothing but treacle – but since this is Zac Efron treacle, I give myself permission to dive in. I’m not sure the hour and a half swim in sugary sludge is worth it, however. Still, anyone who dares take a dip should know what they’re getting into. All of Sparks’s novels and movies find inspiration from the same bingo card, and this one does its best to tick all the boxes.

Efron plays Logan Thibault, a Marine who’s recently returned from his third tour in Iraq. He’s suffering from PTSD and, worried that he might accidentally strangle his nephews and desperate to escape the suffocating normalcy of suburban Colorado, he decides to take a hike, a very long one. The guy walks across the country to Louisiana, maybe because he’s crazy but also because he wants to find a woman, “the lucky one.” It’s not what you think, unless you guessed that she was an anonymous face in a photo that Logan found during a firefight. He credits her picture with saving his life, and while he wrestles with survivor’s guilt, he figures he should at least say thank you and perhaps return the photo.

Logan clearly has stellar Googling skills because he manages to find Beth Green (Taylor Schilling) at her dog kennel somewhere out in the Louisiana woods. Before he can explain that he’s not a stalker, she assumes that he wants to apply for a job and just like that, he’s lost his courage to correct her. Folks, this is why we must watch movies; we need to hammer home the importance of communication. This initial misunderstanding is the basis for a lot of hurt later, pain that could have been avoided if Beth had been a little more patient and Logan had been a little more forthcoming. They would have clarified straightaway that the photo belonged to Beth’s deceased brother, killed in action alongside Logan’s friends.

This isn’t Logan’s only problem though. He has an uncomfortable meeting with Keith (Jay R. Ferguson), Beth’s boorish ex-husband and father of her son, Ben (Riley Thomas Stewart). Keith is a toxic brew of wealth and male entitlement, a sheriff’s deputy and son of a local judge who thinks he can police the town and its women. Ben adores his father but has trouble living up to his macho expectations.

People like Keith exist. Look at Twitter, or the White House, so it’s important that we have characters like Logan, who will encourage Ben’s musical pursuits and stick around for some after-dinner chess. He even works overtime to help Beth’s grandma (Blythe Danner) with kennel repairs and ends every sentence with a “sir” or a “ma’am.” Did I mention he’s also played by Zac Efron? Yes, Troy Bolton grows up and bulks up. This is Efron’s first real adult role, and unfortunately it doesn’t call for much acting. We’re not counting his turn in 17 Again, in which he plays a man swapped into a teenage body. That part required some actual skills, but here, all he needs to do is be a generic love interest. He does a decent job of it, and shy, reserved Logan allows the imagination to fill in the rest.

My imagination isn’t so strong as to overcome the mismatch between Efron and Schilling though. Both have a world weariness about them, but hers is better suited to play Logan’s older sister rather than his lover. Beth’s feelings of loss run deep and because she knows how difficult it is to also support a returning vet, her vulnerability around him seems too easy and clean. Nevertheless, Schilling does her damnedest to turn up the heat, and I’m nominating two scenes for the incredibly-over-the-top-yet-incredibly-hot hall of fame. One involves your standard outdoor shower sex, and the second occurs when Beth is washing the dishes and spies a sweaty Logan from the window causing her to lose all her shit. Girl, same. This is why people watch these movies though, right, to feast on the latest up-and-coming star, be he Ryan Gosling or Liam Hemsworth or Scott Eastwood. I know objectification is not everyone’s thing. Well, sappy romances filled with stock characters aren’t my thing, but I do love how the lush southern scenery frames our couple. The backlighting is intense, and if I ever meet my own Logan Thibault, I better look as fresh and sun-kissed as Beth does in every damn frame.

Released: 2012
Prod: Denise Di Novi, Kevin McCormick
Dir: Scott Hicks
Writer: Will Fetters
Cast: Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Blythe Danner, Jay R. Ferguson, Riley Thomas Stewart
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018


How Do You Know (2010)

How do you know when a movie’s not worth watching? When you’ve started it at least a dozen times for the better part of the year, and it becomes a permanent fixture on you’re “continue watching” tab on Netflix. Since I’m cleaning house now, out it goes. Overly long and tedious, the film takes a good half hour to get started and another hour and a half to lumber to some sort of conclusion. Yes, there is a satisfying payoff at the end, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Writer and director James L. Brooks creates a sprawling story with three and a half main characters and a strong supporting one, so that kind of makes four. Reese Witherspoon centers the story as Lisa, a softball player for the U.S. national team. She gets cut and not knowing what to do next, starts dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a player for the Washington Nationals. A friend of a friend, George (Paul Rudd), keeps showing up too. He is burdened by financial fraud charges on account of his father, Charles’s (Jack Nicholson), wrongdoing and not his, and the two commiserate over the uncertain trajectory in their lives. George also gets an occasional boost from his loyal and very pregnant assistant, Annie (Kathryn Hahn).

There’s material enough for at least two movies here, and it often feels like Lisa’s troubles are wholly divorced from those of George and Charles. There’s a disconnect that reminds me of those Valentine’s Day movies by Garry Marshall featuring a boatload of stars, except that this is the less harried version and tries to give each character and plot point its due. It’s just too much for one film though, and that’s unfortunate because once the movie settles into a rhythm, its talkiness becomes more pointed and bearable. Brooks, who worked in television for many years, shows his roots, and the whole concept might translate better on the small screen.

The extended running time and episodic treatment would smooth out some kinks in the storytelling, especially regarding Lisa’s character. Witherspoon is a convincing softball player who’s earned her spot at the top of the roster, if not because of her stats – she’s thirty and milliseconds slower rounding the bases – then because of her leadership and experience. Lisa pushes herself to excel at everything, which up to this point has been mainly softball. Maybe that’s why she makes the ill-considered decision to date and move in with Matty, even though he has even less sensitivity and self-awareness than another Wilson character, Hansel from Zoolander. The guy thinks he’s a gift because he stockpiles pink sweats in different sizes so that girls will have something to wear after spending the night with him. Really? This is the guy? You’re tearing me apart, Lisa.

In fairness, George isn’t a great match either. He has trouble articulating his well-meaning thoughts, and he fumbles in a way that is uncomfortably true to life, but much of his time is spent in a state of awkwardness that is frustrating instead of endearing. Maybe he is the better guy because he gives thoughtful gifts, owns a copy of Bambi, and is played by Paul Rudd, but it takes a lot of hemming and hawing before Lisa or the audience can find that steady, less frazzled piece of him.

When Lisa and George do find the better parts of each other rather late in the game, the movie brightens. It also becomes clear how much the story is weighed down by excess baggage. Nicholson’s character should have a much bigger role than he does. Charles sets his son up to take the fall, knowing that George could end up in jail. It sounds like a major issue that needs working out, and the script keeps pulling us in that direction but never fully commits to this subplot.

Released: 2010
Prod: Julie Ansell, James L. Brooks, Lawrence Mark, Paula Weinstein
Dir: James L. Brooks
Writer: James L. Brooks
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Molly Price, Dean Norris, Tony Shalhoub
Time: 121 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Rumor Has It (2005)

This movie has got me very confused about my feelings, and like Jennifer Aniston’s character, I don’t know if I’m supposed to be hot for Kevin Costner or if I should want him as a dad, or both because I’m definitely feeling both. But then again, I’m also a little creeped out that Mr. Costner, or rather his character, has successfully seduced three generations of the same family in this story about the story behind The Graduate.

Pasadena in the 1960s is abuzz after the release of the novella and the movie, and the whole gossipy lot are trying to figure out which of their neighbors inspired the famous characters. Thirty years later, Sarah (Aniston), a weddings and obit writer for the New York Times, is back in her hometown for her little sister’s (Mena Suvari) nuptials and experiencing anxiety about her own engagement to her boyfriend, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo). Despite her affection for Jeff, she senses that marriage will be a dead end, much like it was for her mother. When she shares her worries with her grandmother, Katharine (Shirley MacLaine), the latter lets slip that Sarah’s mom escaped to Cabo San Lucas right before her wedding to Sarah’s dad (Richard Jenkins) and spent a few nights with classmate Beau Burroughs (Costner), the Benjamin Braddock of this nutty romance.

That means that Beau might be her dad, which is crazy since on what planet does Kevin Costner look old enough to be Jennifer Aniston’s dad? Pasadena Planet apparently. Unable to brush the news aside, Sarah decides to seek out shady Beau, now a successful tech entrepreneur. Their meeting leads to all sorts of weirdness, including several charged discussions about “blunt testicular trauma.” But it also leads to feelings between the two and exchanges that are both so uncomfortable but also strangely sweet. Needless to say, sleeping with the guy who slept with your mom and grandmother cannot end well no matter how ruggedly handsome he might be.

Whatever wacky spell Sarah and her family have fallen under, I think I have too because even with a lackluster script, I found myself quite invested in the story. The cast all give stellar performances that stand on their own merit. MacLaine is a steely and formidable Mrs. Robinson, it’s too bad she only shared one scene with Costner. That fiery confrontation was enough to sate the appetite though. Kathy Bates also makes an impression with a small role as Sarah’s gabby Aunt Mitsy, as does Jenkins in a rather thankless part. Costner, of course, is charming. I am charmed. But it’s Aniston who really pulls the film together, floating in and out of a dozen emotions like one should when navigating a quarter-, or third-, life crisis.

Released: 2005
Prod: Ben Cosgrove, Paula Weinstein
Dir: Rob Reiner
Writer: Ted Griffin
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine, Mark Ruffalo, Richard Jenkins, Mena Suvari, Kathy Bates
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

The Last Song (2010)

I decided to take a break from Hallmark movies and seek out films with better production values, if not better source material, so The Last Song it is. Based on another formulaic Nicholas Sparks novel, it has everything you’d expect from the writer – young, mismatched lovers, southern beach views, unfilled potential, premature death, hot dad. That’s right, Greg Kinnear. The former Talk Soup host has transformed himself into a sexy middle-aged father (he did play JFK), and I am fine letting the kids have Liam Hemsworth.

The summer fling plot involving the youngest Hemsworth brother doesn’t work for me, not because it’s clichéd but because I just don’t care. Miley Cyrus plays Ronnie, a rebellious but super talented pianist who casually passes up the chance to study at Julliard. She and her brother, Jonah (Bobby Coleman), have to spend the summer at their dad’s in Georgia, where she immediately runs into Will (Hemsworth). After some initial misunderstandings that lead to icy glares from Ronnie and puppy dog eye apologies from Will, they’re making out on the beach, at the aquarium, in the mud. Whatever suits, kids. Life can’t be too easy for these beautiful people though, so there’s some wrong side of the tracks stuff and jealous delinquent friends to throw things off course.

Cyrus and Hemsworth are fine. They’re not particularly good, but they make photogenic lovers. The former has a hard time losing herself in her character, and whenever she appears, you know it’s just Miley Cyrus, shark dancer, pretending to be Ronnie, disgruntled piano prodigy. She plays up her character’s sullen teenager bit too much, smothering Ronnie’s doubt and vulnerability. Luckily her boyfriend balances things out by being the chillest dude ever, but this is what we need and expect from Australians.

What I’m really invested in is Steve’s (Kinnear) storyline. Okay, also his face. Steve’s issues are the stuff of melodrama, but I’m here for it when he’s played by Academy Award nominated actor Greg Kinnear. The man is recovering from a messy divorce, he has a kid who loves him and one who hates him, he lives in the shadow of a career as a concert pianist and Julliard professor, and now he’s paying back his sleepy community for some criminal behavior that may or may not be his fault. (It’s not.)

Kinnear makes me sort of forget that I’m watching a wretched Nicholas Sparks movie and instead a more nuanced picture about a rueful man who doesn’t know if everything good about life is in the past. As Steve, he should be the lead and not Cyrus. His character has far more depth, and he has this way of looking at his daughter that is rich with love and hope and tenderness but also so much disappointment, hurt, and regret. And that’s different from the way he looks at his younger son. Theirs is a relationship of mutual adoration, and you can feel the desperation as Steve tries to hold on to every second with Jonah, knowing that he can’t. Dammit, Kinnear, now I’m emotional over a Nicholas Sparks movie!

“When I Look at You” by Miley Cyrus:

Released: 2010
Prod: Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot
Dir: Julie Anne Robinson
Writer: Nicholas Sparks, Jeff Van Wie
Cast: Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, Greg Kinnear, Bobby Coleman, Kelly Preston, Carly Chaikin, Nick Lashaway
Time: 107 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale (2015)

I’m going to put aside the fact that I’m questioning my life choices right now and just accept that I’m watching A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale at three o’clock on a Monday morning in the middle of July. The film is terrible. So is the title. The script reads like a reject from a fanfiction club. The movie is a love song to dogs and dog parks with only an occasional nod to Christmas, and I like exactly one of those things.

I also tend to dismiss offhand anything that is part of UP network’s Christmas lineup. UP, the channel that specializes in wholesome family programming, makes the Hallmark Channel look like Masterpiece Theatre (yes, even you, Hats Off to Christmas). ADCT has some redeeming qualities, but it is comically, relentlessly optimistic. Before the opening credits begin, Luce (Lexi Giovagnoli), our chief dogwalker, leaps out of bed with eyes wide open. She’s the kind of girl who sleeps with her makeup on so that she can get a jump start on life, at least she does if it’s five days before Christmas. Dean (Jonathan Bennett), a dog lover and a college student practicing his veterinary skills on the sly, also remains suspiciously upbeat even after he finds out that his dog park clinic will be bulldozed to make way for a luxury spa.

Both lead actors remind me of other people. I kept mistaking Giovagnoli for a perky, wide-eyed Melanie Lynskey, which is fine because I love Melanie Lynskey. This endeared me somewhat to her character, despite the fact that the Luce is a poster child for privileged rich white girl. I almost stopped the movie after a few minutes when Luce and her friends skip into a jewelry store though; they’re buying matching necklaces for some Christmas party while she has just maxed out her parents’ credit card to buy a nice watch for her boyfriend of three months. Bennett, on the other hand, is not so lucky in this department. I kept seeing pharma bro Martin Shkreli, apologies to Bennett and fans of Mean Girls.

In fairness, the plot is no worse than anything you’ve seen before on UP. There’s conflict of the existential and the romantic sort. Will the dog park meet its end? Does this mean one of the dog walkers will regain the hundred pounds she lost? Can lonely dog walker woman find true love without her canine matchmaker? Will Dean find out who Luce really works for? It all ends predictably, that is to say happily. You just have to watch a circus of amateurs tumbling around in order to get there.

ADCT lacks nuanced acting and writing, of course. I mean, the reason why dog-hating Luce is walking dogs is because she has no money and her parents are off doing some charity gig in Botswana, leaving her and her little brother alone for Christmas. She seems nonchalant about it, but this arrangement seems like a big deal and Luce probably needs to talk to someone about it. But fine, go walk them dogs.

Having forfeited an hour and a half, however, I will commend the movie for its characterization of Missy, Luce’s boss and husband of dog park killer. I expected her to be a one note ninny, and she is for most part. But she also surprises by being a decent person when called upon and by standing by Luce when the easy thing would have been to pit the two women against each other.

Released: 2015
Dir: Letia Clouston
Writer: Jake Helgren
Cast: Jonathan Bennett, Lexi Giovagnoli, Dina Meyer, Patrick Muldoon, Jennifer Joseph
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPtv
Reviewed: 2018