Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words




October 6, 2014


There's something for everyone in theatres this week with no less than 25 new feature releases with everything from an outstanding "must see" political thriller KILL THE MESSENGER based on true life events and investigative reporter Gary Webb to an origin story for everyone's favorite vampyre with DRACULA UNTOLD and a commanding performance by the oh-so-sexy Luke Evans making him the hottest impaler ever. Writer/director Gabe Ibanez delivers a spellbinding and thought-provoking apocalyptic sci-fi noir and the idea of technological singularity with AUTOMATA while Bill Murray makes himself an Oscar-worthy contender in ST. VINCENT. Another Oscar-worthy performance comes from Hillary Swank in then five hankie drama YOU'RE NOT YOU about a woman afflicted with ALS. ONE CHANCE is the heartwarming fictionalized story of amateur opera singer Paul Potts who wowed the world and Simon Cowell. My heart laughed, wept, smiled and soared with every frame, every note of this film. And then there's the family film that will turn any frown upside down, and one documentary that boxing fans, fans of Muhammed Ali, and even this Frazier fan from Philly cannot miss. Let's take a look at a few.


So what happens when you take a beloved 32 page book published in 1972 about a boy named Alexander who is obsessed with all things Down Under and bring it into modern day and expand those 32 pages into a feature film? You get a wonderful, wonderful, fun-filled family film that just brightens the day.

Alexander Cooper is having the worst day of his life. Gum in his hair, getting slammed into lockers, no breakfast, inadvertently knocking over all the trophy cases in the school hallway, and to top it off, a classmate is having a super-cool-over-the-top birthday party at the same time as Alexander's plain old backyard cake and ice cream party, so no one is going to Alexander's party. Anything that can go wrong for Alexander does go wrong, including his birthday plans. But what about for the rest of his family? Oblivious to Alexander's plight, unemployed aerospace engineer Dad is super upbeat, while publishing executive Mom is anxiously planning a new book launch with Dick Van Dyke doing an inaugural reading. Sister Emily is stoked about playing the lead in the school play "Peter Pan" while brother Anthony is "blessed" for a hot looking girlfriend, taking his driving test and going to the prom. How can they all be soooo upbeat and happy all the time? How can Alexander be the only one having bad days?

But what happens when the clock strikes midnight and Alexander makes a quiet cupcake birthday wish, wishing that his family would know just once what it feels like to have a very bad day? As morning breaks, the Cooper family is about to find out as Alexander's birthday wish comes true.

We've got an infant coloring their face and eating a green magic marker, Anthony's tux isn't at the shop and he gets stuck with a 1970's powder blue ruffled shirt number, Emily wakes up sick and overdoses on cough medicine before her play, Dad gets a great job interview that gets interrupted when Anthony not only flunks his driving test but lands in jail while Mom, poor Mom, her book launch is a disaster when the printing is wrong and Dick Van Dyke is talking about "taking a dump on someone's face." And the hits keep coming all the way up to Alexander's birthday party. This is truly the most horrible, terrible, no good very day in the history of bad days. But the one person who can handle it all is the one who is used to very bad days - Alexander.

Directed by Miquel Arteta and written by Rob Lieber based on Judith Viorst's book, ALEXANDER is fun. This is family life. This is what families are all about. None of the perfect schmerfect stuff. Give us the infant coloring his face with magic markers and parents asking "Is that toxic"? Overdosing on cough medicine? Who hasn't! Crocodiles in the living room? Wrecked cars? Setting your shirt sleeves on fire at dinner? Thunder from Down Under strippers at a kid's birthday party? Just another day in the life. The adventures are fresh, fun and entertaining. Each character and disaster resonates. Messaging about families and the idea of needing bad to appreciate the good and vice versa is organically interwoven and doesn't hit you over the head. ALEXANDER is structured and designed for enjoyment. And it succeeds.

As Kelly, Jennifer Garner is perfect. While we saw her a couple years ago in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" as a mom wanting to be perfect and not knowing what to do, here she's what a real working mom is. Steve Carell is, well, Steve Carell. Upbeat exasperation. Kerris Dorsey and Dylan Minnette are ideal as Emily and Anthony and succinctly embody the truth in sibling relationships. As stuck-up beauty and Anthony's prom date, Celia, Bella Thorne is the poster child for the arrogant and snobbish campus queens who torment those beneath them. Supporting hilarity comes from driving instructor Jennifer Coolidge, book publisher boss Megan Mullally and, of course, Dick Van Dyke.

But the real casting joy comes in the form of Ed Oxenbloud. A scene stealer from start to finish as Alexander, Oxenbloud is a delight - both on screen and off! Himself an Aussie, it seems fated to cast him as the all-things-Australian-loving Alexander which allows Oxenbloud to have a real ease and comfort zone in Alexander's world. Notable is his skill for accents and he completely loses his own, nailing a Southern California 12 year old American. Oxenbloud brings a joy to the character and excels with facial expressiveness not to mention run of the mill 12 year old mannerisms. There is a fluidity not only in his performance but in his interactions with other cast members. Be on the lookout for great things from this young man beyond ALEXANDER!

Visually notable is that no matter how bad the day gets, Arteta and cinematographer Terry Stacey keep the visual tone upbeat and light, bright, naturalistic light. They make good use of the color green throughout the film developing a pleasant metaphoric texture.

Watching ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY insures that your day will be great.


Directed by British filmmaker Clare Lewins, who readily admits "I knew nothing at all about boxing when I started this project", I AM ALI gives us a closer look at the man behind the myth. While much of the archival footage is nothing new to us, the context within which Lewins presents it is. Providing us with an up close and personal look at Muhammed Ali thanks to interviews with his close friends, business associates like Gene Kilroy, some of his opponents, fans and family members, what sets this documentary apart are the interviews with two of Ali's daughters, Hana and Maryum, as well as son Muhammed Jr. and one of his ex-wives, and the inclusion of excerpts of audio tapes made by Ali himself over the years.

Devoted to his family and a loving father, nothing speaks louder about Ali the man than his audio recordings of phone conversations with his children as we hear the playfulness and love as Ali sings the ABC's song with a daughter learning her alphabet or a "serious discussion" with a 3 year old Hana talk about popsicles or a young Maryum telling "Daddy, I don't want you to fight anymore. You're old!" Designed by director Lewin so as to have the recordings of not only the Ali children but those Ali also made of his conversations with friends and confidantes serve as the connective tissue of the documentary, Ali himself is ever-present. We see the complexity of the man by just listening to his words, his conversations, his thoughts and grow more connected through the tonal inflections of his voice.

Noticeable are absences or omissions of the rest of Ali's nine children (which Hana and Maryum told me was merely due to scheduling issues), his ex-wives other than Veronica Porsche (who is the one interview who, between tears and emotionally halting words, speaks briefly about Ali's debilitated state due to Parkinson's disease) or even mentions of very public and intense relationships with people like Howard Cosell who helped make Ali's career through broadcasting.

But then there are insightful interviews with Muhammed Jr. who talks about the pressure of living up to being the son of "The Greatest", Mike Tyson recalling childhood events and a meeting with Ali that inspired him to become a fighter, ex-NFLer Jim Brown talking about the behind-the-scenes political fallout when Ali refused to go to Viet Nam and the need for Black leaders to understand his motivations to stave off uprisings, and one of my favorites, a heartwarming interview with Marvis Frazier who talks about the relationship between two of the greatest rivals in sports history both in and out of the ring - Ali and Joe Frazier.

Although there are neither present day photos nor interviews included in the documentary, there is never a moment that you do not feel Ali's presence as he is omnipresent. His voice is the guiding hand. And at the end of the day, while Muhammed Ali is still "the greatest" it is his love for his children and their love for him that truly makes him great.


Passionately fascinated with all things vampyric and particularly the historical facts and myth about Vlad the Impaler, needless to say I have been beyond curious about DRACULA UNTOLD. Mesmerized from small on by Murnau's 1922 silent, "Nosferatu", many subsequent Dracula tellings have been hit and miss with me, including Werner Herzog's 1979 retelling, "Nosferatu the Vampyre", with something always missing or simply rehashed. But now, director Gary Shore brings us an origin story that is fresh in concept, painting a different picture of Vlad and what led him to his ultimate destiny.

We first meet Vlad on a river shore in Transylvania. Something is amiss, leading Vlad to believe that an invasion by the Turkish ruler King Mehmed is imminent. Believing that a helmet found in the river floated downstream, Vlad and his men go in search of the source and the scouts or legion laying in wait to attack. But Vlad finds no army, no scouts. He finds a cave, a cave in which evil lives.

As two of his men are killed by whatever this unseen evil is within the cave, Vlad heads back to his home and to Brother Lucian, one of the monks within the kingdom. After all, who better to ask about evil than a religious man. Lucian spins a tale of a man being tricked into drinking the blood of a vampire, thus cursed for all eternity but with power of the darkest dominions and a thirst for blood.

Breaking a 10 year peace between Vlad and the Turks, King Mehmed demands 1000 boys for death squad training in his Army. Vlad refuses and war erupts. Unable to protect his people, including his own son, Vlad knows what he must do and ventures back to the cave on Broketooth Mountain.

Basing DRACULA UNTOLD on the history of Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes (as did Bram Stoker), Shore and screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless show us the man Vlad; the loving husband, father and prince, the man who will sell his soul to protect his child. We also see an expanded love story between Vlad and his wife Mirena. Keeping the story straightforward and simplifying history and myth, director Shore than has free reign to engage us visually with some stunning battle sequences, captivating shimmering imagery of glistening light against dark, and whirlwinds of bats at the command of Vlad. Much of the CGI effects are jaw-dropping.


Making the most of the picturesque yet rugged landscape of Northern Ireland, Shore and cinematographer John Schwartzman create not only a visually impressive palette celebrating shadows, the play of light and dark and most notably, use of negative space, but a widescreen scope of grandeur and vastness which serves to make the presence of Luke Evans and his performance even more commanding and impressive. And yes, Evan is just that. Commanding, impressive, intense, yet giving Vlad a vulnerability and likeability, not to mention romanticism, that tempers the demonology of myth. A multi-textured emotional and physical performance for an emotionally complex character. Disappointing is Dominic Cooper who never feels regal or militarily astute as the murderous Mehmed. His accent is also regionally bad.

Although there are moments that feel somewhat contrived, there is never a moment you are not fully engaged in the story or in the character. Luke Evans puts us under a spell in DRACULA UNTOLD.


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