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The Big Year

Posted on October 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm

“The Big Year” would be a lot better if it didn’t try so hard to be The Big Movie.   This over-Hollywood-ized take on the real-life story of passionate-to-obsessed birders (don’t say “bird-watchers”) makes us wish for a documentary instead.  Everything they do to make it “mainstream” and “accessible” and appealing to a mass audience just erodes the specificity that makes this world intriguing.  And the trailer misrepresents the movie, making it look like the usual wild comedy we associate with Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson when instead it is mostly a drama with a few awkwardly inserted moments of slapstick.  Just about the only comic moment not highlighted in the trailer is when a newlywed couple we see only once arrives on a remote island, his not having told her that what she thinks is going to be a romantic honeymoon is in a place where they will be staying in a barracks with no electricity or running water so he can see some birds.

Each year, extreme birders compete to see who can see the most birds from January 1 to December 31 by doing what they call “a big year.”  Winning requires expert knowledge because they have to be able to instantly identify hundreds of species, often based only on a quick glimpse from a long distance or even just from hearing a trill.  It requires absolute, unquestionable integrity.  No refs, no umps, no certifiers from the Guinness Book of World Records.  It is on the honor system.  And most of all, like all world-class endeavors, it requires a level of ambition, determination, and focus that can cause serious damage to friendships, marriages and careers.

Martin plays a very successful corporate executive who has postponed retirement twice.  His company begs him to stay, but he knows he cannot delay any longer if he wants to give the big year a try.  With the warm-hearted support of his wife and grown son, he decides to give it everything he has.  Black plays a software engineer at a nuclear power plant who continues to work full-time while he tries to break the all-time record set by Bostick (Wilson), a builder on his third marriage, to a wife who is trying to get pregnant.  Bostick promises he will not do another big year, but when it seems that the other two are closing in on his record, he can’t stand it any more.  And all three of them are off on a literal wild goose chase.

The scenery is gorgeous.  The birds (at least the less obviously CGI birds) are lovely.  But the personal lives of the three men are predictable and not very compelling.  Screenwriter Howard Franklin zigs where he should have zagged, sticking with the real stories when he should have been shaping a more involving story arc, and failing to convey the real heart of the story, what it is that makes these people so passionate.  We get a moment or two when a character explains why one species is his favorite and when all three of the main characters are briefly so transfixed by the sight of eagles mating that for a moment they forget all about competing and record-setting.  We never know what makes us want to watch birds.  But we do know what makes us want to watch movies and this one does not have enough of it.

(more…)

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Based on a book Based on a true story Comedy Drama
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Opening this Week: Two Remakes and a Bird-Watching Competition

Posted on October 11, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Opening this week, we have two remakes and a movie about birding. The original Footloose came out in 1984, starring Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, and John Lithgow. This remake has Dennis Quaid as the minister in a town so shattered by a terrible tragic accident that they have banned dancing. “Dancing with the Stars'” Julianne Hough and, in the role of the new boy in town who challenges the rules and teaches everyone to dance, Kenny Wormald, a former back-up dancer for Justin Timberlake.

In 1951, The Thing from Another World, a low-budget, black-and-white film directed by Howard Hawks, terrified audiences with a story about a remote Arctic research station where scientists have detected the crash of a spacecraft. When the frozen occupant of the craft thaws, he goes after the humans, who have no place to hide. The 1982 remake from scare-master John Carpenter was called The Thing. It starred Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and some of the grossest special effects of the pre-CGI era. (And you can glimpse the original playing on a television in the outpost.)

This new version, billed more as a prequel than a remake, stars two of my favorites, Joel Edgerton (the brother with a family in “Warrior”) and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Bruce Willis’ daughter in “Live Free or Die Hard”).

The non-remake of the week is “The Big Year,” based on a true story of a year-long competition between three men who see who can break the record for spotting the most birds. It is based on The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession and stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as three guys whose only common trait is that they are even more obsessed with beating each other than they are with birds.

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Opening This Week
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