‘The Kids Are All Right’ is About Marriage, Period

The Kids Are All RIght movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does this mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Do they make better decisions in their lives than the adults? We all know kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell this out literally. Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition which barred gay couples from getting married and found funding from people who didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a gay or lesbian movie would make audiences completely miss the point as that is like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is not any different from what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage can be.

Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt about how deep their affection for one another is. Furthermore, they have two wonderful children: a 15-year-old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two grows quickly.

But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy.

What I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one which deals with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Director Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they give them with hilarious dialogue which is also insightful and refreshingly down to earth. These are people with visible flaws which make them all the more human, as if we need to be told this.

I never found myself taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us. When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.

All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their roles, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. While at times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.

Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules who feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors seriously feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Moore never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center which she finds her way back to. Also, her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and it comes from an honest place.

Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he had a hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way which is not exactly appropriate.

Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Wasikowska gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence which makes her character wise beyond her years to where she comes across as the most mature one in the film. Hutcherson also makes Laser into an interesting kid caught up in friendships which aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest scenes this movie has to offer.

If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s the ending. The plight of Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all which had ensued.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies: regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship which any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.

By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Donald Trump. End of story.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Kimberly Pierce’s ‘Carrie’ Not Really Necessary, But Better than Expected

Carrie 2013 poster

“Carrie” was the first Stephen King novel ever published, and it’s the one people keep coming back to. Filmmakers had the hardest time, until recently that is, getting “The Dark Tower” made into a movie, and bringing “It” to the silver screen seemed to be an impossible challenge. This serves as a reminder of how development hell is still alive and well in Hollywood. “Carrie,” however, has been adapted into the horror classic Brian De Palma directed in 1976, turned into a musical that became famous for how long it didn’t run on Broadway, generated a sequel called “The Rage: Carrie 2” which disappeared from theaters not long after its release, and was later remade into a TV movie where the only saving graces were Angela Bettis as Carrie White and Patricia Clarkson as Margaret White. Now we have yet another remake of “Carrie” which would have been totally unnecessary were it not for Kimberly Peirce, the same filmmaker who gave us the brilliant and emotionally devastating “Boys Don’t Cry” which dealt with a human being cruelly cast out of regular society. As a result, this remake suddenly felt a lot more promising than I expected it to be.

Why do people keep coming back to this particular King novel? Well, with its themes of bullying, isolation and the pain of adolescence, “Carrie” proves to be as timely now as it was when the novel came out in the 1970’s. The story remains the same, but the tools of humiliation and anger have been slightly updated. Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) still has her first period, but this time it is captured on an iPhone and posted on the internet with gleeful malice and a complete lack of sympathy. Granted, Carrie probably doesn’t have a Facebook page as her mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) has spent a lot of time homeschooling her daughter before being forced to send her to a public high school, and she remains as strictly religious as ever; locking her poor daughter into a closet to pray to a bleeding Jesus on a cross.

The main fault with this version of “Carrie” is it follows De Palma’s film a little too closely. For those who have seen the 1976 movie, not much has changed, so this may not seem as scary as before. At the same time, I found myself admiring what Peirce was able to convey with the characters, particularly the females. While certain characters end up coming off as a bit too generic, we get to see the different dimensions which make them more human than the average character we constantly get exposed to in horror movies.

Moretz successfully makes the character of Carrie White her own, and you never feel the shadow of Sissy Spacek’s performance hovering over her. She is able to bring more of Carrie’s rage we saw in King’s book, and we see her as a powder keg just waiting to explode. We all know her as Hit Girl from the “Kick Ass” movies, and it’s only a matter of time before she starts kicking some serious ass at the prom. Even though Moretz doesn’t quite match the description King made of Carrie in the book (she’s one of those actresses you can’t make look ugly), it’s clear from her performance how deeply she understands this horribly shy and alienated teenager inside and out. While this Carrie isn’t ugly by a long shot, she is made to feel ugly by everyone around her, and you can see this weighing heavily on her psyche.

Julianne Moore continues to put in one great performance after another, and her work here as Margaret White is very effective. Whereas Piper Laurie played Margaret as a deranged religious zealot whose devotion to Jesus was unwavering, Moore instead makes the character surprisingly empathetic. Margaret is still deranged, but Moore shows her to be a loving mother who does care ever so deeply about her daughter even if her love comes with a lot of mental anguish. Moore even shows Margaret engaging in self-mutilation which is painful to watch and adds another layer to this character which wasn’t in the book.

Actually, for me one of the most fascinating characters in “Carrie” is Chris Hargensen who is played here by Portia Doubleday. Chris hates Carrie with a passion and looks forward to humiliating her with a vengeance on prom night, but I found myself really getting caught up in how the character goes from being just another spoiled girl to someone who slowly gravitates towards the dark side. Chis initially shows some hesitation when her never do well boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell) kills the pig whose blood they will use to dump on Carrie, but once she starts cutting the dead pig’s throat, I found the look on her face to be one of the movie’s most horrifying moments. As she gets deeper into criminal activity, we see Chris starting to get both aroused and scared by it, and she doesn’t realize until it’s too late that there’s no turning back.

I was also glad to see Judy Greer playing PE teacher Miss Desjardin, and the role allows her to balance out her sweet side with a rougher exterior as she gets constantly exasperated by her students who show little signs of being the least bit sympathetic towards Carrie. I also have to give Ansel Elgort some credit as he makes Tommy Ross’ transition from not wanting to take Carrie to the prom to making sure the two of them have the best time possible very convincing. Then there’s the lovely Gabriella Wilde who plays Sue Snell, the popular girl who encourages Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. She’s very good in the role and shows us the inner turmoil going on as she sees her goodwill get dumped on, literally.

Look, there’s no way that Peirce could have topped De Palma’s “Carrie.” Having read the book, it would have been interesting to see it done as kind of a documentary as the book is told from various points of view where the townspeople share their memories of what happened on the night of the prom. Still, it’s Peirce’s approach to the characters which made her version of “Carrie” worth watching for me.

Was a remake of “Carrie” really necessary? Not really, but it happened anyway and not for the first time. Having Peirce behind the camera for this one gives this remake a reason for being, and she is blessed with a cast who did not let their memories of De Palma’s horror classic get in their way. If anyone else had directed this version, I’m not sure I would have bothered watching it. Peirce remains a filmmaker who understands how cruelly we can alienate someone for being different, but she never gets caught up in making this into a message movie. She is determined to have us rooting for Carrie even as she lays waste to a town and its inhabitants who have been relentlessly cruel to her. That’s why we go to the movies anyway, to engage in our fantasies.

Now let’s think about adapting some Stephen King novels which haven’t already been made into movies or miniseries. There are so many to choose from.

* * * out of * * * *

Click on the video below to check out the interviews I did with Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer and Kimberly Pierce on “Carrie” for the website We Got This Covered.