Tag Archives: Dan Stevens

Home Away from Home

The Rental

by Hope Madden

Dave Franco has made a movie. James Franco’s younger, less creepy brother has been a welcome, smiling face in films since his teens. Directing his first feature, he sidesteps the more obvious choice of a comedy – given his background – and instead delivers a tense horror about jealousy, deteriorating relationships, and the dangers of Airbnb.

Dan Stevens stars as Charlie, handsome and successful older brother of Josh (Jeremy Allen White). As if Josh doesn’t have enough to live up to, his beloved and brilliant girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand) is Charlie’s work partner and the two just really click.

Together Mina and Charlie land a big deal. To celebrate, they and their significant others—Josh, plus Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco’s real life wife)—rent a gorgeous, off the grid place for a weekend getaway.

If you’re thinking this is an incredibly common premise jazzed up with a couple of impressive actors, you are correct. But there’s a lot to be said for a good cast.

All four convey a lived-in chemistry that gives the relationship conflicts more resonance. Brie and White, in particular, deliver believable warmth as big sister-in-law/little brother-in-law. Both are dealing with some jealousy, each lending support and guidance to the other. Secondary characters in indie horror are rarely given this kind of opportunity to breathe, but drawing the audience into these relationships benefits the tensions Franco is working to create.

Stevens and Vand work wonders as the morally conflicted central characters. Vand (exquisite in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—see it!) blends righteous indignation with guilty conscience. This helps her build believable motives for what could, in lesser hands, feel like conveniently poor decision making.

Liberal guilt, entitlement, questionable morality and selfishness rarely come packaged as sympathetically as Charlie, but Stevens is a solid character actor and here he creates a nicely complex character.

Rounding out the small ensemble, the always welcome Toby Huss also finds layers in a character that could easily have been one note.

So, performances are solid and Franco delivers a decent sleight of hand by Act 3. The film feels imbalanced by then, though, as if it wasn’t until  the 11th hour that Franco decided this was a horror movie. There’s enough suffering in the final reel to clarify The Rental’s genre, but that doesn’t mean it entirely works.

Muzzled

The Call of the Wild

by George Wolf

Look, we’re all thinking it, so let’s just get it out there.

Raiders of the Lost Bark.

Happy now? Okay, we can move on.

Truth is, there’s plenty of bark in this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, but not much bite to be found.

We’re still introduced to Buck, the sturdy St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, as the spoiled pet of a wealthy California judge (Bradley Whitford) in the late 1800s. Stolen and sold as a sled dog to French-Canadian mail dispatchers, Buck adapts to the pack mentality and the harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness, eventually teaming up with the grizzled Thorton (Harrison Ford) for a journey into the Yukon.

It should come as no surprise that Ford is effortlessly affecting as a world weary mountain man. What is surprising is his endearing rapport with a CGI dog (motioned-captured by Terry Notary). Ford’s narration is earnest enough to soften its heavy hands, drawing Thorton and Buck as two kindred spirits, both lost in their own wilderness.

While taking the actual wild out of The Call of the Wild seems sadly ironic, the computer-generated beasts come to fall perfectly in line with director Chris Sanders’ family-ready vision for the enduring tale.

Stripped of any bloody carnage, cultural insensitivities or harsh realities, Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch, The Croods) and writer Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) fill the gaps with obvious questions, easy answers, and a flesh and blood bad guy (Dan Stevens in full Snidley Whiplash mode) who manages to be the biggest cartoon in a film full of computer animation.

Buck himself – looking fine but landing a notch below the motion capture high water of the last Planet of the Apes trilogy – is often stuck between Lassie and Scooby, heroically loyal while seeming to instantly understand everything from English to drunkenness.

With the sharp edges ground down, this Call of the Wild becomes a pleasant metaphor for the simple life, and for finding your place in it. In short, it’s a PG-rated primer, meant to hold a place until the kids are ready for the real thing.

Christmas Rush

The Man Who Invented Christmas

by George Wolf

“Invented” might be an exaggeration, but Charles Dickens certainly gave the Christmas spirit a boost. Published less than a week before Christmas in 1843, his A Christmas Carol sold out in days, igniting an instant spike in charitable giving.

As the well-meaning but unremarkable The Man Who Invented Christmas points out, the soon-to-be holiday classic arrived under a looming publishing deadline, at a time when Dickens badly needed a hit.

Director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) and screenwriter Susan Coyne (in her feature debut) adapt Les Stanford’s book with a mix of fantasy and biography, never making the commitment to either that might have elevated the film beyond merely pleasant holiday distraction.

As Dickens (Dan Stevens) searches for inspiration, it arrives in the form of Mr. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Their interactions, though often charming, only touch on the personal demons Dickens was exorcising through his tale of mercy and goodwill, and the film is too eager to trade darker edges for sustained wholesomeness.

The peeks we do get into Dickens’s life are worthy, the period setting effectively detailed, and the whimsy entirely likable. Though certainly no classic, file this one under “satisfactory.”

 

 

 





Ask the Dishes

Beauty and the Beast

by George Wolf

Word is, the early plan for Disney’s live-action remake of their 1991 classic Beauty and the Beast did not involve a musical production.

Um, that’s crazy.

That soundtrack from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is in the team picture of Disney’s all-time best, and director Bill Condon politely reminded studio bosses that without it…what’s the point? Sanity prevailed, and Condon brings the familiar tale to life again with a lush, layered, often gorgeous vision, celebrating the brilliant songs that helped make the original the first animated film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Condon’s directing his first musical since the excellent Dreamgirls, and he hasn’t lost the instinct for staging a show-stopper or two. His camera pans and zooms during “Gaston,” revealing a village full of buoyant choreography, while the title song gets an intimate, classic treatment that builds upon a possible decades long investment in these characters.

“Be Our Guest,” the early request from various castle housewares to the captive Belle (Emma Watson), emerges as a joyous Catch-22. We can’t wait for Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the gang to start singing…but it is a hard act to follow.

Watson delivers a spunky Belle who’s more industrious than the animated version, yet at times bland next to the gregarious Gaston (a scene-stealing Luke Evans) and the often distracting face of the Beast (Dan Stevens). Even as wondrous visuals fill frame after frame (see the 3-D IMAX version if you can), CGI facial features can’t quite keep up, and choosing this tract over makeup artistry feels like an ambitious misstep.

The supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, Kevin Kline, Audra McDonald and Josh Gad, is delightful at every turn, and shows more welcome diversity from Disney. The brouhaha over the sexuality of LeFou (Gad) proves as inane as expected, though it does add some sly gravity to Gaston’s campaign against the Beast. As he rallies the villagers by exclaiming there is “a threat to our very existence!” Gaston leans in to LeFou and asks, “Do you want to be next?” Well played.

Add to this a diverse array of townspeople, two high-profile mixed-race couples, and LeFou’s partners during the dance finale, and Disney’s path to progress grows more concrete.

Devotees of the original Beauty and the Beast will have their nostalgia rewarded, but Condon’s vision has the flair and substance to earn its own keep. Though not quite as magical, there is something here that wasn’t there before.

Call it maturity, call it pizzazz….or just ask the dishes.

Verdict-3-5-Stars