Tag Archives: D+

SERENITY

Producer: Guy Heeley, Steven Knight and Greg Shapiro
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh, Garion Dowds, Robert Hobbs and Kenneth Fok
Studio: Avrion Pictures

D+

It’s a better than even bet that when the tormented protagonist of a story is the owner of a charter boat called Serenity, the name has some deep meaning in the writer’s mind. That’s certainly the case with Steven Knight’s film, which proves to be an extremely silly treatment of a very serious subject, and an irritating puzzle to boot.

Matthew McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a seen-better-days veteran living on Plymouth Island, eking out a living by taking vacationers out to catch sharks and tuna. His first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) is concerned about what might be called his boss’ Captain Ahab complex—an obsession with catching a particularly large tuna he’s named Justice. Dill lives in a shack perched atop a cliff near a lighthouse, and everybody he interacts with—the bartender at the local watering hole, the owner of the bait-and-tackle shop, even Connie (Diane Lane), the woman he occasionally sleeps with and whose cat she’s always asking him to find—is kind of peculiar. In fact, there’s something a bit off about the whole place.

Dill’s curiously repetitive existence is suddenly made more frazzled by the appearance of some unexpected visitors. One is Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), an oddball representative from an equipment company who offers him a free trial of a new fish-finding gizmo. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), a slinky femme fatale who asks him to murder her new husband Frank (Jason Clarke), a rich brute who abuses not only her but Baker’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), an introvert who spends all his time on the computer playing intricate video games. She’s persuaded Frank to go out on Dill’s boat to catch a trophy fish, and wants him not to come back from the trip.

It seems initially that “Serenity” is nothing more than a weirdly stylized tuna noir, but as it proceeds the movie grows increasingly strange, with Dill beginning to suspect that he might be in some waterlogged version of the Truman Show. Of course, it might just be that he’s going bonkers; certainly Duke and some of the other islanders think he needs a doctor. One doesn’t want to spoil the movie for anybody intrigued by its premise and wanting to unpack its mysteries by revealing its secrets, but perhaps a hint is permissible. Do you remember the old NBC series “St. Elsewhere”? Do you recall its controversial ending? Knight apparently does, and when you get into the last act of his film and realize where it’s headed, you might just want to be elsewhere, too.

Anyway, those who choose to venture out on Knight’s voyage can expect some pleasures. The visuals are nice, with the location nicely captured in Jess Hall’s widescreen cinematography. And Benjamin Wallfisch’s score has some impressive moments. You also have to admire the effort Laura Jennings’ editing exerts to be honest about what’s happening through quick montages, even if their surrealistic blur can be annoying.

There’s far less to appreciate in the acting. McConaughey certainly invests Dill with lots of intensity, but much of what he does has a histrionic vacuity to it; it comes across as effortful pose. Hathaway slinks about in her revealing dresses and trenchcoat, but instead of steaminess what results is more mannequin than actress; and Clarke’s personification of sheer nastiness has no shading whatever. Neither does Strong’s bureaucratic nerd, a part that once might have been written especially for Anthony Perkins.

And yet the fault doesn’t really lie with the actors; it rests in Knight’s conception of the characters they are playing—all pawns in what turns out to be an elaborate charade, the explanation for which will probably infuriate most viewers.

Of course, there are some people who enjoy McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials, so there may be a few who will take to “Serenity,” too.

ELLIOT: THE LITTLEST REINDEER

Producer: Lucas Lynette-Krech
Director: Jennifer Westcott
Writer: Jennifer Westcott
Stars: Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Martin Short, Morena Baccarin, Jeff Dunham Christopher Jacot, John Cleese, George Buza, Angela Fusco, Rob Tinkler, Julie Lemieux and Carly Hefferman
Studio: Screen Media

D+

Rudolph has nothing to fear from Elliot. Neither does Babe, or even “Arthur Christmas”—to mention only three of the children’s tales that writer-director Jennifer Westcott has blended into her Christmas-themed animated movie “Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer,” which joins the multitude of other utterly mediocre attempts to play off the holiday season. Very young viewers might be taken with it, but anyone over the age of six or so will find it an annoying addition to the banality that afflicts such dubious seasonal cinematic gifts.

Elliot (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) isn’t a reindeer at all; he’s a miniature pony. But he wants desperately to take a place among those that carry Santa’s sleigh through the sky on his yearly journey, just as Babe wanted to do the job of a sheepdog. At the North Dakota Whitty Bitty reindeer farm and petting zoo recently inherited by Walter (Rob Tinkler), Elliot practices diligently under the insistent guidance of his trainer, a goat named Hazel (Samantha Bee, a bit too strident for comfort), despite the ridicule of loudmouth reindeer DJ (Christopher Jacot, like Bee coming on awfully strong), whose father is the famous Donner (John Cleese).

Both Elliot and DJ hope their time come have come when it’s announced that yet another of Santa’s reindeers has retired and a competition is to be held at the North Pole to choose his replacement. To get there, Elliot and Hazel stow away on Walter’s speedster, and Elliot dons fake antlers to compete in the races being overseen by Santa’s chief lieutenant, a surly elf named Lemondrop (Martin Short).

Things won’t go smoothly at the Pole, particularly because there’s a nefarious movement afoot to modernize the Claus distribution system (echoes of “Arthur Christmas”) and a nosey reporter (Morena Baccarin) is snooping around (though she also serves as a romantic interest for Walter). But matters aren’t much better back at the ranch, which financial problems have put in the crosshairs of a potential purchaser, a Natasha Fatale type named Ludzinka (also voiced by Short), whose plans for the animals are not exactly nice.

The computer-generated animation in “Elliot” is okay, though hardly groundbreaking; the gaudy colors will probably keep the littlest kids entranced. The voice work is fine as well, with Short bringing lots of energy to his multiple roles, even if Bee and Jacot overdo things.

But the material proves just too bland even for the best of the behind-the-camera voice talent. The most obvious victim is Cleese; you might think that he could make almost any dialogue funny, but this movie proves you’d be wrong—Donner’s a dud. There are a few scattered laughs here and there, but for the most part Westcott’s writing is limp—witness the explanation she’s contrived for the means by which Santa’s reindeers fly, and its use to draw a comparison to contemporary sports scandals. Even the most talented voice actors would find it difficult to do much with it.

Of course, the movie closes—as you could easily predict—with Elliot’s joining Santa’s team, just as Rudolph did. That’s exactly what you’d expect of a story that keeps intoning that “big dreamers dream big” and, apparently, never give up, however long the odds. But it’s certain that “The Littlest Reindeer” won’t beat the odds and become a holiday perennial, except perhaps as a time-filler on some kiddie cable channel.