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THE REWRITE

Yes it's a feel-good romantic comedy – it might even qualify as a chick-flick – but "The Rewrite" is a delightful film and a welcome return of Hugh Grant (who hasn't been doing very much these past few years) to a leading role. He plays screenwriter Keith Michaels who has not been able to follow up on his initial success of some years back and now can't even land writing duties on a remake of that film. He's pretty well trashed his life otherwise, indulging in too many of the perks of his early fame and losing his family in the process. The only gig his agent can get him is a writer-in-residence teaching position (available because of the sudden death of the original candidate) at a small but prestigious east coast college. He's about to refuse it when his electricity is turned off. He intends, however, to do as little as possible to collect his paycheck, partly because he's of the opinion that talent can't be taught and possibly moreso because he can't seem to pass up any opportunity to sabotage his life. He insults nearly everyone at a beginning of the semester faculty wine and cheese gathering and his initial class lasts 10 minutes during which he instructs the students to come back in 30 days with completed screenplays. He also enters into a sexual relationship with one of his students who turns out to be underaged. He's initially blind that his ideal match is a woman (Maeisa Tomei) who has returned to college after a marriage that went bust.

Yes, it all goes precisely where you expect – Keith realizes who's the perfect woman for him, discovers that he can teach and he loves mentoring his young charges – one of whom he guides to a successful sale of his first screenplay – and he even slithers out of the ethics charge resulting from his affair with the student – but with a film such as this that's precisely what you want to happen. The writing by director Marc Lawrence is delicious; it sounds naturalistic but it's just that much wittier than how most people actually talk. Grant is in top form here and Tomei is a terrific. The two are surrounded by a gaggle of wonderful character actors headed by J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney, neither of whom has ever given a bad performance that I've seen. Janney especially deserves credit for giving depth to a cliché character with a delightfully handled surprise revelation. This is a warm and wonderful film that is as much (and possibly more) a late in life coming of age story as a romance. The sparkling writing, splendid cast, a clever interpolation of a "Twilight Zone" episode and a resolution that shows feel-good movies needn't all be sappy – or at least sappy in a groan-inducing way. I loved this film.

2014 / RLJ Entertainment / 107m / $29.96 [NR]
THE VOICES

I don't suppose that I'm alone in having considered Ryan Reynolds a light-weight in the acting department. After watching "The Voices" I have to abandon that notion. Reynolds plays Jerry, a shipping department employee who, when we first meet him, seems eternally cheerful but socially awkward. The hints that there is something more wrong with him begin when he goes home and talks to his dog and cat – and they talk back to him. The dog is of course upbeat and supportive while the cat is sarcastically abusive; for some reason it speaks in a Scots accent, though I have no idea why (possibly snark just sounds nastier in that tongue). They function as the equivalent of the angels and devils that perch on cartoon characters' shoulders. We soon learn that Jerry has been only recently released from being institutionalized for schizophrenia since childhood. We later learn that what landed him there was assisting in his mother's suicide; as she began this act by trying to cut her throat you can understand why the authorities took a dim view of his helping her complete the process. Jerry's killing days aren't over however and in the course of the film he ends the lives of several more people. The first two are accidents – or are they? As the film is mostly seen from Jerry's disturbed perspective perhaps we shouldn't be too certain about that. When his stylish apartment is seen from others' viewpoint – or from Jerry's when he's on his meds – it's anything but fabulous.

All the promotional material for "The Voices" suggested that the film was a comedy but of course a black one. That sells it short (though I must say I can't suggest a better marketing strategy). Yes, it is very funny and stygian black but it's also very dramatic, often quite scary and very, very sad. But that doesn't mean it can't end on a cheery note (and there's a pun in there you won't get until you see the film). I'm trying to give a sense of what an oddball film this is without giving away too much of it because it works better if it takes you by surprise (and I will certainly attempt to watch it again soon to see if it works as well a second time). The changes of tone from comedic to dramatic to horrifying are as swift as they are deft and beautifully judged by director Marjane Satrapi (you may not have heard of her but you surely know of "Persepolis"). What is perhaps most unsettling of all however is that as Jerry descends further and further into homicidal madness he remains likeable; maybe that's simply because Reynolds is just so danged adorable. He's also danged impressive in a complex role that may not do his career a lot of good because this film is so "not for everyone" that I doubt it will be seen by many. I think his turn in a couple productions ("The Captive" and "Woman in Gold") will better aid his progress from himbo to actor though here he handles the gamut of emotions and even provides most of the voices Jerry hears. If you appreciate unusual – not to say transgressively quirky and even lunatic – films this one is for you.

2014 / Lionsgate / 103m / $19.98 [R]

WILD CARD

I wonder if Jason Statham has it in his contract that publicity materials must feature a photo of him leaping through the air a la the "Transporter" series promotional art. That such an image is on the DVD of "Wild Card" suggests that Stratham better complete his transition from action-hero to actor with alacrity before he becomes a parody of himself. In "Safe" (reviewed here sometime back) he displayed acting abilities I hadn't suspected and he does so again here. Both films naturally feature slugfests so his core fans won't be too disappointed but we're miles away from the likes of "The Expendables" here, thank Cthulhu. (Online comments suggest however that Statham's fans aren't much taken with this film. I suppose they want to see him join Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude van Damme in the kind of direct-to-video crap that is the fate of over-the-hill action stars.) Statham portrays Nick Wild, a freelance bodyguard who kvetches about getting out of Las Vegas if only he had a half million to allow it. His gambling problem deep-sixes that notion. When a past lover (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is raped and brutalized by a Mafia-connected thug (Milo Ventimiglia) Wild helps her get her revenge. She wisely splits afterward but Wild can't help trying to parlay his half of the payoff money into a larger pot and loses all when he gets his half million but can't walk away. This of course allows for the thug and his lackeys to engage Wild in various bouts of fisticuffs.

William Goldman's script is adapted from his novel and revised from his script for an earlier adaptation (1986's "Heat" with Burt Reynolds); it's his first screenplay in 11 years but the man hasn't lost his touch. He may have added an extra fight scene (and of course all are higher octane affairs than anything in the Reynolds production) but there are choice dialogue scenes between Wild and Cyrus (Michael Angarano), a young millionaire who claims he needs Wild's protection because he is so lucky at gambling. Actually he has quite a different agenda but I'll leave that to the film. While Statham's fans might find these exchanges boring. I wish there had been more of them because the two men have terrific onscreen chemistry with each other (Angarano is one of our more underrated young actors.) It's actually the fight scenes – due to their length and intricate choreography – that feel extraneous. The real meat of the film is a character study of Wild and the various people in Vegas that he's helped out over the years. Statham may never be a John Geilgud but surrounded by solid actors (Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Anne Heche, Sofia Vergara and of course Angarano) he acquits himself admirably. It's a pity the film died at the box office (making back only one million dollars against its 30 million cost) and so probably dooming Statham to more "Transporter" and "Expendables" sequels and the like. I hope it can find the audience it deserves on home video.

2014 / Lionsgate / 92m / $19.98 [R]

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Writer / director J. C. Chandor is fascinated by men up against seemingly insurmountable odds. His last film (reviewed here about a year ago), "All is Lost," had Robert Redford lost at sea after a devastating yachting accident and "A Most Violent Year" follows suit. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is expanding his heating oil business, a concern he bought from his wife Anna's (Jessica Chastain) father. Other heating oil purveyors are apparently resentful of his success and have hired thugs to hijack Abel's trucks and empty them of their contents; these thefts have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. Curiously – or perhaps evidence of a conspiracy – the police and the district attorney (David Oyelowo) are seemingly doing nothing to determine who the culprits are and apprehend them. Instead the DA is investigating Abel for corruption and there might be something to it because his main business associate (Albert Brooks) describes himself as a gangster and has surreptitiously (and illegally) gotten guns for the drivers. Anna – whose dad is in the slammer for his own criminal activities – has been cooking the books. Simultaneously, Abel has used the last of his reserve cash to make a downpayment on a storage facility that will ultimately lower his cost of doing business but he needs to come up with the balance in 30 days. The theft of the oil has already cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and when the bank gets wind of the DA's impending charges it pulls out of their agreement to supply the balance of the payment for the storage facility; Abel could lose everything if he doesn't obtain alternate financing in only a few days.

As with "All is Lost," "A Most Violent Year" is most successful on a technical level. The evocation of 1981 is beautifully realized and in a very offhand way, not overstated and showy. The acting is also quite good but hampered by the glumness of the film's tone and a casual pace; even the photography is on the gloomy side. Now as the film is a period piece it's hardly an expose even if it is an accurate depiction of how corrupt the heating oil business might have been slightly over three decades ago. Perhaps because corruption in the heating oil business seems hardly a matter to get into a dither about Chandor has adopted an approach so serious it weighs the film down. Then there's the matter of just how many obstacles Abel must overcome. I found myself recalling Thelma Ritter in "All About Eve," where she remarks, "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." Where "All is Lost" portrays a progression of challenges (and has a more svelte running time) this film has so many difficulties it would be risible if it weren't so stuffed absolutely full of its own sense of solemnity. Abel generates little sympathy because he's so pompously self-righteous and yet, in the midst of financial difficulties, moves his family into an expensive mansion. The pacing, the heaviness of approach and the low contrast photography make "A Most Violent Year" a slog to get through.

2014 / Lionsgate / 125m / $24.99 BR+digital [R]

ONE STEP BEYOND

"One Step Beyond" was not the first fantastic TV anthology series but it remains the most unusual. Also known as "Alcoa Presents," it purported to present docudramas of various brushes with the unknown. There were no morals to the half-hour tales (unlike "The Twilight Zone," which came along a year later) and no solutions to the peculiar events related. Host John Newland (who also directed all but five of 97 episodes over its three-year run!) would claim at the end of an episode that it was known when, where and to whom it happened but as to the how and why he just gave a bemused shrug. Surprisingly this lack of a traditional conclusion doesn't make the tales any less effective (though I have to admit that the passing of time means "One Step Beyond" has become pretty weak tea). As to the veracity of them – well back in my junior high school days I was fascinated by such stuff and read a great many books on things that shouldn't have happened but purportedly did. Abraham Lincoln's well-documented premonitions of death form the basis of one episode and those of the sinking of the Titanic another (Newland even cites a Victorian novel about a massive and supposedly unsinkable passenger liner, The Titan, that ends up on the ocean floor. Aside from those I didn't recognize any of the accounts of haunting, improbable coincidences and presentiments of doom.

As with many a TV series of the past, performers who later because much better known are among the various guest stars. Cloris Leachman, Charles Bronson, Louise Fletcher and Patrick Macnee all appeared on "One Step Beyond." The series spent part of its third season in Britain, filming at MGM's facilities there, which allowed for appearances from Hammer regulars Christopher Lee and Andre Morrell. Horror fans will also spot Julie Adams and Gavin Gordon (unrecognizable save by his voice). Newland's direction is a stylish solution to the realities of TV production of the day, where a half-hour show would be polished off in two days or three at most. Like Edgar Ulmer before him, he favored long takes with lively actor blocking and a very mobile camera. The facilities of Hollywood's MGM lot (intriguingly also the home for "Twilight Zone") meant Newland could even avail himself of some elaborate crane shots and standing sets. Add to that some artsy lighting and the lie is put to the notion that TV of the late 1950s and early 60s was invariably bland looking. With a total of 70 episodes on the Film Chest discs, this is the most complete collection of the series that has been offered so far and the remastering job is striking. Now, when is someone going to get around to Roald Dahl's "Way Out?"

1959-61 / Film Chest Media Group / 1739m (6 discs) / $19.98 [NR]

PELICAN DREAMS

"Do pelicans dream?" asks filmmaker Judy Irving of an avian rescue specialist at one point. His affirmative answer explains the title of "Pelican Dreams," a thoroughly engaging documentary about the titular birds in particular and man's complicated relationship with wildlife in general. It begins with TV news footage of a pelican strolling along San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (thus later dubbed Gigi) and apprehended by animal rescue people. When examined, it turns out that Gigi can't fly because she's severely dehydrated from malnutrition. If she can recover, she'll be set free; if not, she'll be put down so Irving follows her progress. Irving reveals that she's been fascinated since childhood by the birds she calls "flying dinosaurs" (and they do look a bit like pteradons with feathers – though I guess we don't know for sure that pteradons weren't feathered). She explores how these animals – along with bald eagles – have made a grand recovery after they almost went extinct from the effects DDT had on their egg shells. As with other species brought back from the brink, the salvation has resulted in some new problems, including an increased presence in populated areas – or should that be the increased incursion of humans into what had been wilderness?

Irving's film is about more than just the recovery of one lone bird. It presents an introductory to the pelican – not as complete as perhaps an Animal Planet examination but sufficient. It is during this that "Pelican Dreams" devotes footage to the animal soaring through the skies. So ungainly and even goofy looking walking about on land these creatures are magnificent in the air, particularly as they dive like arrows straight into the water to capture fish in their bills. Irving also visits with a couple that does animal rescue on their own and have three pelicans in their care (the wife performs physical therapy on their damaged wings). Two eventually recover enough to take off for parts unknown, leaving behind one whose wing just will not heal. Rather than see it destroyed, they take steps to have it legally declared a teaching bird and take it out one day a month to schools. I had no particular interest in pelicans before viewing this film – aside from finding amusing the idea of a mooted production that would have involved the Marx Brothers with a giant representative of the species – but I was enchanted by this.

2014 / Cinedigm / 79m / $24.99 [G]

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