The Films of 2020: The Lost Husband (dir by Vicky Wright)


The Lost Husband tells the story of Libby (Leslie Bibb).

Libby had a good life.  She lived in a big house in the suburbs of Dallas.  She had a handsome and loving husband named Danny (Kevin Alejandro).  She was the proud mother of two wonderful children, Abby (Callie Hope Haverda) and Tank (Roxton Garcia).  But then, one day, there was a car wreck.  Abby was injured and now walks with a limp.  Danny was killed.  And Libby was left a widow and a single mother.

When she loses her home, Libby and the kids try to live with Libby’s chain-smoking mother, Marsha (Sharon Lawrence).  Largely due to the fact that Marsha is a terrible human being who resents her daughter, that doesn’t work out.  Instead, Libby ends up moving out to a farm that’s owned by Aunt Jean (Nora Dunn).

Jean is plain-spoken but far kinder than Marsha.  She lives in a house without a television or a dishwasher.  Amazingly, she does have indoor plumbing.  Still, despite not having many modern luxuries, Jean proves herself to be a far stronger and far more caring person than Marsha ever was.  She not only gives Libby and her children a home but she also encourages Libby to work on the farm….

What?  Well, okay, maybe that doesn’t sound like Jean is doing Libby a favor by making her do physical farm labor but actually she is.  When Libby goes to work, she meets the handsome and single James O’Connor (Josh Duhamel).  James is the farm manager and, of course, he’s got some tragedies of his own that he’s still struggling to deal with.  Though James is at first skeptical as to whether or not Libby is ever going to be able to handle working on a farm, he’s impressed with her determination.  He also bonds with Tank and Abby and even goes as far as to teach Abby how to beat up the local bully….

And right now, you’re probably thinking that this is another silly Nicholas Sparks adaptation, the type of movie that’s perhaps destined to show up on Lifetime in another year or so.  Well, the film may very well play on Lifetime at some point in the near future but there’s still much more to The Lost Husband than just a romance between two troubled souls who work on a Texas farm.  The film is more concerned with Libby’s struggle to come to terms with the loss of her husband than it is with the possibility of her finding a new one.  Yes, James is a great guy and he looks like Josh Duhamel but this is a film that understands that Libby has to take care of herself first.

The Lost Husband is not really a movie that will take you by surprise but it’s still a gentle and sweet-natured film, one that has a good heart and is often sincerely likable.  Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel are both believable as two people who are still struggling to recover from their own pain but who still haven’t given up on the idea of finding some sort of happiness.  One thing I liked about the film is that it treated both Libby and James with respect.  Though Libby is not a natural-born farmer, she’s not portrayed as being some sort of spoiled city girl, either.  (In other words, she may not be excited about milking a cow but she still does it without accidentally getting a face full of milk.)  Meanwhile, James may be skeptical about Libby working on the farm but, at the same time, he’s not particularly rude or resentful about it.  Libby and James are both allowed to be adults, which is something of a rare occurrence in films about city girls returning to the farm where they grew up.

The Lost Husband is a nicely done romantic drama.  It’s not a film that’s going to change your life but it will definitely hold your attention if you happen to watch it on a rainy afternoon.

Film Review: 25th Hour (dir by Spike Lee)


(SPOILERS)

First released in 2003, 25th Hour is one of those films that gets better and better with each subsequent viewing.

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) may have done some very bad things in the past but nearly everyone has benefited.  His childhood friends, a trader named Frank (Barry Pepper) and a teacher named Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), both get to live vicariously through their friend, even if neither one of them is quite willing to admit it.  Monty’s father (Brian Cox) is a retired fireman who now owns a bar that was largely purchased with the money that Monty made from dealing drugs.  Monty’s girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), is “living high” off of the profits of Monty’s drug deals.  For that matter, so is Monty.  Monty has a nice apartment, a loyal dog, and a supportive boss named Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili).

Of course, Monty understands that he’s in the business of destroying lives.  When Monty first met Naturelle, he had just completed a transaction with a well-dressed businessman.  Years later, when Monty is sitting on a bench with his dog, that same man approaches him and begs for more drugs.  The man’s no longer wearing a suit.  Now, he’s apparently homeless and so addicted that he takes it personally when Monty informs him that he’s no longer in the drug-selling business.

Why is Monty no longer selling?  Someone told on Monty.  When the DEA showed up at his apartment, it didn’t take long for them to find the packages that he had hidden in the cushions of the couch.  For all of his swagger and confidence, it would appear that Monty wasn’t quite as clever as he thought he was.  Monty was arrested and subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison.

The majority of 25th Hour takes place during Monty’s final night of freedom, a night that he’s planning on spending it with Frank and Jacob, both of whom could have made the same mistakes that he did but, for whatever reason, they didn’t.  Needless to say, Monty’s got a lot on his mind.  For all of his attempts to hide it, Monty isn’t as tough as he pretends to be.  He knows that it’s not going to be easy for him to do seven years in confinement.  He’s terrified of getting raped in prison and he worries that he’s going to be locked in a holding cell with 200 other criminals.  Both he and his friends know that, even if he does survive, he’ll be a different man when he gets out.  Frank suggests that he and Monty could open a bar when Monty is released but they both know this is an empty promise.  Not only is Monty is scared of the future but he’s haunted by the past.  Is he getting what he deserves?  What if he had made different choices?  Will Nautrelle wait for him or, as some of his associates suggest, is she the one who betrayed him in the first place?

Over the course of the night, both Frank and Jacob are also forced to deal with their feelings towards Monty.  Frank is a Type A personality, the one who spends his day screaming into telephones and who eagerly looks forward to exploiting bad economic news for his own financial gain.  Frank says that Monty is getting what he deserves but, as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that Frank knows that he has more in common with Monty than he wants to admit.  Jacob, on the other hand, is a socially awkward teacher who is struggling to deal with a crush that he’s developed on one of his students (Anna Paquin).  If Frank fears that he’s more like Monty than he wants to admit, Jacob wishes he could be more like him.  At first, it’s hard to imagine that these three men could ever have been close friends but, as soon as you see them together, it all makes sense.

As directed by Spike Lee, one of American cinema’s greatest provocateurs, 25th Hour is more than just the story of one man’s last night of freedom.  Over the course of the film, Monty becomes a symbol of not just New York City but of America itself.  Driven by self-interest, Monty has spent his life ignoring the consequences of his actions and, now that he has no choice but to confront them, it’s too late.  During the film’s most famous scene, Monty stares in a mirror while his reflection rants against every single neighborhood and ethnic group in New York City.  The rant is such a powerful scene that it’s easy to miss the most important point.  Only at the end of the rant does Monty’s reflection admit that he’s as much to blame for his life as any of them.

Oh yes, the Rant.  The Rant is so famous that I was almost tempted to not mention it in this review, just because it doesn’t seem as if there’s much left to be said about it.  Even people who dislike the film seem to be in agreement that the Rant is one of the most powerful and incendiary moments in early 21st century cinema.  The Rant gives us a portrait of a divided and angry society in collapse and it’s a portrait that is probably even more relevant today than it was when the film was first released.  The Rant feels like such a classic Spike Lee moment that it’s surprising to discover that the Rant was included in the script even before Lee was attached to the film.

A few things about the Rant:

  1. The film deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Monty is actually speaking.  We see the back of his head and his reflection but the movement of his head rarely seems to match the movement of his reflection.  Regardless of whether Monty is actually speaking or just imagining the rant, the scene does make clear that, even on his way to prison, Monty can only truly express himself while alone.  Of course, once he’s locked up, Monty’s not going to be alone for at least seven years.
  2. “Enron!”  I have to admit that, when I recently rewatched film, I laughed when Monty started ranting about Enron.  I can vaguely remember a time when everyone was obsessed with Enron and Halliburton and all that other stuff so I found it funny that I briefly had to struggle to recall just what exactly Enron was.  16 years from now, I wonder if people will watch old movies and TV shows and say, “Why are they all so obsessed with Russia?”

As well-done and brilliantly acted as it may be, the Rant has tended overshadow an even better moment.  It has been said that the key to a successful work of art is a good ending.  As a writer, I can tell you that endings are a hundred times more difficult than beginnings.  Fortunately, 25th Hour has an absolutely brilliant ending.

After having finally convincing Frank to beat him up (in an effort to make himself look tougher once he arrives in prison), Monty is being driven to the prison by his father.  As they leave New York City, Monty takes one final look at the city and it’s citizens enjoying freedom that he’ll never again have.  (This is such a New York City that you can’t help but feel that it’s adding insult to injury that Monty’s going to have to serve his time upstate.)  As he drives, Monty’s father begins to talk…

It’s all about decisions and consequences.  Monty made his decisions years ago.  Over the course of Monty’s last night of freedom, Frank, Jacob, Naturelle, and even Uncle Nikolai made their decisions.  And now, as he drives his son to prison, Monty’s father is forced to make a decision of his own.  There’s so much great acting to be found in 25th Hour but, during that final soliloquy, Brian Cox upstages all of them.  Brian Cox is one of those character actors who seems as if he’s been around forever.  He’s the type of dependable actor who, much like Monty’s father, is often taken for granted.  If nothing else, you have to be thankful for a film like 25th Hour because it gives everyone a chance to be reminded of just how brilliant an actor Brian Cox truly is.

(Here’s a random bit of a Brian Cox trivia.  While everyone knows that, in Manhunter, Brian Cox was the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter, he also played Winton Churchill the same year that Gary Oldman won an Oscar for playing the same role in Darkest Hour.)

25th Hour is not an easy film to watch.  At times, it’s one of the most depressing films ever made.  It’s tempting to say that, as bad as things ultimately turn out for him, you’re glad that Monty has his father and his friends but that’s really not true.  No matter how much his friends care about him or how much Naturelle and his father love him, Monty’s going to prison and his story is simply not going to have a happy ending.

And yet, 25th Hour is one of those films that you can’t look away from and, after you watch it, you simply can’t forget.  Every time I watch 25th Hour, I find new details to appreciate.  With each subsequent viewing, the pungent dialogue becomes even more multi-layered.  With each subsequent viewing, Monty becomes even more of an intriguing and tragic figure.  This is a film that makes you appreciate the brilliance of Edward Norton and mourn the fact that Barry Pepper rarely gets roles as good as his role here.  With each viewing, 25th Hour reminds you of what a great talent we lost when we lost Philip Seymour Hoffman.  It’s film that gets better with each viewing.

Assuming that Monty survived and managed to stay out of trouble, he should be out of prison by now.  Hopefully, wherever he is, he’s doing okay.

A Movie A Day #322: CHiPs (2017, directed by Dax Shepard)


Based on the campy 70s cop show that will live on forever in syndication, CHiPs is about two unlikely partners who, after a rough beginning, work together to catch a cop’s killer and capture a gang of armed robbers.

Officer Jon Baker (Dax Shepherd) is a flaky former motocross champion who joins the California Highway Patrol to try to impress his estranged wife (Kristen Bell).  Baker pops painkillers like candy, throws up whenever he enters an unfamiliar house, and has a knee that randomly goes out.  Baker can’t shoot, fight, or think but he sure can ride a bike.

Officer Francis Llewelyn “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Pena) is actually an FBI agent named Castillo who has been assigned to work undercover to investigate corruption in the CHP.  Ponch is a sex addict who is obsessed with yoga pants and who keeps accidentally shooting his former partner (Adam Brody).

Both Baker and Ponch are given one identifying characteristic.  Baker’s thing is that he always says the wrong thing and then apologizes.  Ponch’s thing is that he always says the wrong thing and then doesn’t apologize.  That is about as deep as things get.

I’m not really sure who this movie is supposed to appeal to.  Michael Pena and Dax Shepard have been good in other productions but they’re both awful here, let down by a script that does not have much to offer beyond tepid bromance and dick jokes.  The humor is too deliberately lowbrow and raunchy to appeal to the people who were fans of the quaintly innocent TV show but it’s also neither meta nor clever enough to appeal to the audience that made hits out of 21 and 22 Jump Street.  I guess the ideal audience for this film would be people who still find gay panic jokes to be hilarious because CHiPs is full of them.  If the last movie you saw was made in 1999 and starred Adam Sandler and David Spade, CHiPs might be right up your alley.

CHiPs is a terrible fucking movie but what really distinguishes it from other terrible movies is the amount of contempt that it seems to have for its source material.  The Jump Street movies might have poked fun at the TV series that inspired them but it was still obvious that the films were being made by fans.  CHiPs can’t even be bothered to use the original’s theme music as anything other than a way to punctuate a few cheap jokes.  Erik Estrada, the original Ponch, does have a cameo but only so he and the new Ponch can talk about eating ass in Spanish.  Otherwise, there is nothing that links the movie to the TV show.  A more accurate title would have been Two Assholes On Motorcycles, except the motorcycles really are not that important to the film.  So, I guess the title would actually just have to be Two Assholes.  That sounds about right to me.

CHiPs proves that not every stupid cop show needs a movie version.  Now, excuse me while I get back to work on my T.J. Hooker spec script…

Lisa Marie Finally Gets Around To Reviewing Cedar Rapids (dir. by Miguel Arteta)


So, in my review of The Beaver, I talked about the annual Hollywood Black List and how the movies that are always listed at the top of the black list usually turn out to be vaguely disappointing.  Well, in that review, I failed to mention that The Beaver was not the only Black List film that I’ve seen (so far) in 2011.  A few months ago, I saw the film that topped last year’s list, Cedar Rapids(The Cedar Rapids screenplay, by the way, was written by Phil Johnston.)

Now, Cedar Rapids (which is scheduled to be released on DVD in June) actually had a pretty good run down in here in Dallas.  Unlike Austin, Dallas is not a film-crazed city and — with only four theaters currently specializing in indie and art films — it’s usually a case of “you snooze, you lose” when it comes to seeing anything out of the mainstream.  We’ll have a few hundred theaters all showing something like Avatar for half a year but a film like James Gunn’s Super will usually sneak in, play in one theater for two weeks, and then just as quickly vanish.

Cedar Rapids, however, stuck around for about a month and a half, playing exclusively at the Dallas Angelika.  It took me a while to actually find the time to go see it (and, perhaps because of the whole Black List thing, I just didn’t feel much enthusiasm for seeing it) and, in fact, I ended up seeing it the last day it played at the Angelika. 

As for why I wanted to see it — well, it had gotten some very positive reviews from critics who traditionally don’t give comedies good reviews so that piqued my interest.  I knew that the film featured three of my favorite character actors — John C. Reilly, Stephen Root, and Thomas Lennon.  The film was also being touted as a comeback for Anne Heche whose autobiography Call Me Crazy was a favorite book of a former roommate of mine.  Finally, I wanted to see the film because it starred Ed Helms, who, at the time, I thought seriously might end up as the new boss on The Office.

Helms, in case you don’t know for some reason, plays Cornell graduate Andy Bernard on The Office.  When he first appeared during the show’s third season, he was portrayed as an incredibly obnoxious preppy with an anger management problem and I loved how Helms so thoroughly threw himself into making Andy just the most annoying human being ever.  Andy was eventually sent to anger management classes and, upon returning, the character has become less obnoxious and just more buffoonish and, in my opinion, a lot less entertaining.  As well, with Jim and Pam now safely married, Andy ended up as the focus of some of the Office’s weakest episodes.  In fact, Andy was the center of so many episodes earlier this season that I found myself wondering if the show’s producers weren’t perhaps trying to see how the audience would react to Ed Helms becoming the new star of the show.  Since I had mixed feelings about that prospect, I felt that maybe Cedar Rapids would provide me with an answer.

In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an almost impossibly innocent insurance agent who is sent by his boss (Stephen Root, who appears to be the go-to guy when you need someone to play a friendly but vaguely threatening manager) to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Tim is ordered to conduct himself well, to go out of his way to impress the conference president (Kurtwood Smith), and to win the prestigious “Two Diamonds” Award.  (The award has been won for the company in the past by Helms’ rival at the company who, at the beginning of the film, accidentally kills himself while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation.  The rival is played by Thomas Lennon and I’m kinda sorry that Lennon didn’t have more scenes because seriously, he always makes me smile.)

After saying goodbye to his much older girlfriend (Sigourney Weaver, who is wasted in her cameo), Helms heads off for Cedar Rapids.  This is a big deal for him because he’s the type of movie innocent who has never even been on a plane before.  Helms arrives at Cedar Rapids determined to do the right thing but he soon discovers that he is rooming with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a loud, crude, and cynical agent who indulges in every vice that Helms has been ordered to avoid.  Needless to say, Helms initially tries to resist being drawn into Reilly’s orbit but soon, he finds himself being corrupted and enjoying it.  Through Reilly, he meets yet another insurance agent (played by Anne Heche) that he soon finds himself falling in lust with.  All this happens, of course, under the disapproving eye of Kurtwood Smith and Helms soon learns just how far he is expected to go to win that Two Diamonds Award…

As it might be obvious from the above description, Cedar Rapids is one of those films that attempts to be both a wild comedy and a poignant coming-of-age drama.  And it succeeds very well at being a comedy and it does pretty good job of being a drama but it never manages to do both at the same time.  The end result is an entertaining but wildly uneven film that never feels like it’s quite as good as it should be. 

The film is at it’s best when it’s just Helms, Reilly, Heche, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (playing another insurance agent) hanging out and BSing.  Those scenes ring well and all four of these actors have a real ensemble chemistry together.  You really do end up believing that Reilly, Heche, and Whitlock truly do care about their new friend and you just as strongly believe that Helms really is falling in love with Heche.  These are the best scenes in the movie. 

The film is less effective when it tries to be something more than just an ensemble comedy.  It’s in these scenes — with Kurtwood Smith quoting bible verses and the Two Diamonds Award becoming a metaphor for all sorts of things — that the film gets heavy-handed and a bit boring.  I also have a feeling that these scenes are probably the reason why so many Hollywood readers went nuts of the Cedar Rapids screenplay because these scenes are the least challenging in the film.  These are the scenes that pat you on the back for watching the movie.  Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that Kurtwood Smith’s character is going to turn out to be a hypocrite because when was the last time that you see a movie in which the guy who talked about Jesus didn’t turn out to be a hypocrite?  Therefore, it’s kinda hard to buy into Helms’s shock when he discovers that Smith isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be.  I mean, I can force myself to buy that the Helms character has never been on a plane before but my God, has he never seen a movie or an episode of Law and Order before either?  Seriously, the character isn’t a Mennonite.  He’s just from the midwest.

In the lead role, Ed Helms is a lot like the movie.  He’s great when he’s just a member of the ensemble but sometimes seems to struggle a bit in the more dramatic scenes.  To a large extent, the problem is that the film goes so out of it’s way to present Helms as being some sort of man-child that it’s hard to take him seriously once he suddenly starts to think for himself.  As I previously stated, the supporting cast is uniformly strong.  Reilly is a drunken, foul-mouthed force of nature while Heche steals every scene that she’s in and, in the end, proves herself to really be the heart and soul of the film.

So, in the end, I guess I would say that Cedar Rapids, as uneven and as frustrating as it occasionally turned out to be, is worth seeing once it comes out on DVD in June.