Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Jason Bateman follows up his strong directorial debut, Bad Words, with The Family Fang, a loopy tale about a quirky, dysfunctional family. Unfortunately, the movie never really finds its way.

The film gets off to a good start as Bateman plays Baxter Fang, a down-and-out writer trying to put together his next novel who is taking odd writing jobs in the meantime. He winds up doing a feature on potato guns, and eventually gets shot in the head by one.

Enter Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman), his actress sister; she used to be an indie-film queen, but she’s reached that stage in her career where taking off her clothes is mandatory. She comes home to assist Baxter, which gets them ruminating on their childhoods.

Their parents, Caleb and Camille (played in their older versions by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett), were infamous pranksters. They would stage bank robberies and other public occurrences, film them—and call it art. This resulted in a rather screwy childhood for Annie and Baxter, with parents who got famous by basically being horribly irresponsible.

Oddly enough, the film loses steam when Walken enters the picture. The premise involving his character feels a little too contrived, and it actually puts a strange restriction, of sorts, on the weirdo actor. When Walken is off-screen, the movie has a whimsical, funny vibe. When Walken is present, the film feels phony, even though his performance is OK.

Bateman has the potential to be an interesting director, but the subject matter doesn’t suit his style this time out. While The Family Fang feels uneven, Bateman and Kidman are good together, so it isn’t a complete waste of time.

The Family Fang is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and It will be available on DVD July 5.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The Jungle Book, Disney’s latest live-action take on one of its animated classics, is clever: It actually contains sly nods to Apocalypse Now and Saturday Night Live.

Jon Favreau’s delightful and funny take on Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a boy raised by wolves is an all-around winner. Kids and adults will love the talking (and sporadically singing) animals, while adults and some of the cooler kids will enjoy the movie references and clever Easter eggs.

The story is pretty simple: A young boy, Mowgli (newcomer Neel Sethi), raised in the jungle, is pursued by a pissed-off tiger (the voice of Idris Elba) who had his face burned by a human when he was young (shades of Darth Vader). When plans to leave for a human village are rudely interrupted, Mowgli winds up staying in the jungle longer than he planned. He encounters Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), an evil temptress snake, and other perils while building a special friendship with a big bear.

As far as I could see, he never stops to wash his red shorts. A swim in the river doesn’t count. You need detergent.

Bill Murray is a masterstroke of vocal casting as Baloo, the big bear who befriends Mowgli on his extended jungle trek. But casting Christopher Walken as King Louie, the Kong-sized master of all apes, actually tops the Murray casting feat. It gives Favreau’s film an opportunity to become truly weird, very funny and even a little scary.

Favreau finds some clever ways to mix musical performances into the movie, even though it’s not a bona fide musical. Baloo and Mowgli happily sing part of “The Bare Necessities” together while floating down a river, accompanied by a full orchestra led by John Debney. It’s great, but it’s not the film’s musical highlight: That comes when Walken’s King Louie, portrayed with undertones of Brando’s Col. Kurtz, suddenly busts out “I Wanna Be Like You.” Walken is perfect for the song and perfect for the character, making the scene an instant classic. Johansson performs another song from the animated movie, “Trust in Me,” during the credits.

Incredible special effects seamlessly mesh with live animals, motion-capture work and puppetry. The talking animals actually look like they are really talking.

Other voices include Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, the panther who raised Mowgli, and Lupita Nyong’o as the wolf, Raksha, who acted as his mother figure. Giancarlo Esposito, aka Buggin’ Out, lends his chords for Akela, leader of the wolves, and Garry Shandling voices Ikki in what turned out to be his final film.

If you have a couple of extra bucks, shell out for the 3-D or, better yet, IMAX version of the movie. Favreau was very conscious of the technology, and he gives the movie some nice extra scope. Tree branches look like they are going to poke you in the face, and it almost seems as if Kaa might get you into her death coil. The 3-D also makes the pop-up-book end credits all the more fun.

It’s worth noting that the movie, which appears to be very outdoorsy, was filmed entirely on studio sets and made within computers. Every landscape you see is artificial, making the filmmaking achievement something of a miracle.

Sethi, the only live actor with a big part in the film, is good enough as Mowgli, although interest in his character’s plight is diminished by the fact that the film is so much cooler when the animals are at the center of the action.

Talks are under way for a Jungle Book 2 already, with Favreau returning, so the adventures of Mowgli look to be continued. Perhaps a main plot point could be Mowgli finding some new shorts or a bathing suit. He’s going to get a fungus in those red shorts!

Hopefully, Murray will get over his sequel stigma and be back as Baloo. And Walken … I gotta have more Walken!

The Jungle Book is playing at theaters across the valley in various formats.

Published in Reviews

Director Clint Eastwood continues creative slump with Jersey Boys, a drab adaptation of the Broadway musical.

Jersey Boys further proves something that Eastwood established 45 years ago with his appearance in Paint Your Wagon: Dirty Harry has no business being around a movie musical. Oh, sure, he’s musically inclined. He’s been composing scores for some of his movies, but I’d like to point out that those scores kind of suck, especially that stupid “Gran Torino” song. His musical taste travels toward the meandering and sleepy.

Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who performed the role on Broadway) and The Four Seasons, and how they went from being small-time hoods in New Jersey to being big-time rock stars. I’ve never seen the Broadway show, but I have to think its success means it was somewhat enjoyable and lively. Well, the movie version is neither of these things.

As in the musical, each member of the Four Seasons breaks the fourth wall to address the audience. It’s a gimmick that feels forced the way Eastwood stages it. Every time somebody faced the camera and started gabbing, I found myself getting annoyed.

Much of the film’s focus falls on Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), an early leader of the band and a bad influence on Frankie. Over the course of time, DeVito gets himself deep into debt—to the point where he has to be bailed out by a friend in the mob, represented here as Gyp DeCarlo and played by Christopher Walken in a thankless role.

The movie follows the band through its early session-musician days, and even includes a brief appearance by Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) before his Hollywood emergence. (Pesci apparently had a real-life role in getting the band together.)

The Four Seasons have some great songs, including “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like a Man” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night!).” Young gives it a good go, belting out the hits with a voice akin to Valli’s signature falsetto. It’s admirable that Eastwood and his performers opted to have the music performed live on set rather than lip-synching. However, something happened in the final mix that flattened the overall musical presentation. The songs, although competently performed, lack a certain spark. They just feel like pale copies of the originals. (Perhaps it was the sound in the theater I was in.)

The timing of this film’s release seems a bit odd. It arrived with little to no fanfare during a drab week within the summer movie season. It’s almost as if Warner Bros. knew it had a stinker on its hands, and tried to dump the movie during a week with little competition to give it a fighting chance. Clint Eastwood films usually get high-profile, awards-season releases, but this one was snuck out there for an unresponsive public.

This is the second Eastwood-directed movie in a row (with the terrible J. Edgar) to feature brutally bad makeup. As the movie travels from the 1960s into the ’70s, it becomes a parade of bad wigs and hilarious mustaches. By the time The Four Seasons reunite for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990, they look, well, silly. I concocted better old-man makeup on Halloween during the 1970s using flour and baby powder.

The movie does come alive during the closing credits, when all of the members of the cast gather for a triumphant musical-medley finale. It’s the only time when Jersey Boys feels like a legitimate, joyful movie musical.

It’s much too little, way too late.

Jersey Boys is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Without a doubt, Seven Psychopaths is one of the best releases of 2012, and it further establishes writer-director Martin McDonagh as a creative force to be reckoned with.

McDonagh assembled a stellar cast, including Colin Farrell (who also starred in McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges), Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson. Farrell plays Marty (a character McDonagh undoubtedly modeled upon himself), a screenwriter struggling through his latest project. His movie within the movie involves seven psychopaths, and the characters might—just might—be based upon people he actually knows.

McDonagh writes some of the funniest and most shocking dialogue out there, and he gets masterful performances from everybody involved, especially Walken and Rockwell. Walken is allowed to be as strange and eccentric as ever, while Rockwell gets his best role in years, allowing him to show off that funny, nasty charm that makes him unique.

A subplot involves Rockwell and Walken kidnapping a dog belonging to a crime boss for ransom, and it all leads up to a surprising, and violent, conclusion.

This one ranks with Barton Fink and Adaptation as one of the better films about the frustrations of writing.

Special Features: There are only a few short behind-the-scenes featurettes. The movie is great, but the features are disappointing.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In Stand Up Guys, a bunch of great actors get together and do their best with middling material.

Al Pacino plays a criminal released from a long prison haul, and Christopher Walken plays the guy who is supposed to pick him up—and take his life soon thereafter. I have a hard time with this premise: If you are a crime boss with any brains, and you want somebody smoked, you don’t hire the dude’s best friend to do the gig. Don’t you think there’s a chance the dude won’t follow through?

Anyway, Pacino and Walken hang out for a night that includes stealing cars, snorting prescription drugs and hanging out with another old guy (Alan Arkin). The trio makes most of this watchable, but with this cast, you want something more than just watchable. Pacino works hard to get credibility back after a string of loser movies, and he redeems himself just fine. Walken is good here, playing a character with more depth than his usual parts. Arkin is just doing his shtick.

Nothing all that surprising happens, and that's a shame.

Stand Up Guys is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews