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This is a film that fails greatness by a stretch, but is still better than most of the trite by-the-numbers crud churned out by Hollywood for the Spike TV crowd these days. "The Californians" features a few genuinely funny moments and some quietly competent acting by a fine cast. Just when you think you have it pegged as an "ecofreak" movie or a satire on hippy-dippy California culture or a send-up of greedy and insatiable developers, it makes a sharp turn into something else. I have a sneaking sympathy for films that violate expectations and refuse to be pinned down. No easy answers; no car chases; no Star Turns -- can you deal with it?
I live in Marin County where this flick was filmed and was an extra in
it. I remember watching Jonathan Parker direct his actors and thinking,
"This is gonna look better in the finished product. It HAS to." Because
what I was seeing looked laughably amateurish. If not for the presence
of name actors like Noah Wylie and Illiana Douglas, I would have
assumed I was watching the production of a student film.
Well, when this baby finally hit screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I was surprised to find my suspicions had been correct: no amount of editing or re-packaging was gonna polish this turd.
What's too bad about all this is that, at its core, the movie had some good ideas. The ongoing battle between slick, greedy developers and aging, environmentalist hippie boomers is a very real one here in the Bay Area, and there's ample hypocrisy and fodder for satire on both sides.
But Parker gets lost in a sea of tired clichés and labored, talky dialog and in the end can't decide what kind of movie he wants to make. Is it a satire of the tug-of-war between progress and preservation and the colorful players involved? Or is it a sappy, love-triangle romance? Or how about the tale of a short-sighted man's redemption by way of a flighty young songbird? The Californians tries to be all these things (and more) and ends up being nothing more than a muddled, uneven mess.
It is difficult to believe that this discerning cast would have
involved themselves in this project if the initial reading proved to be
as unsatisfying as the finished work.
Another work, John D. McDonalds' book "Condominium", for example, dealt with similar subject matter but with an intelligence and style that allowed the protagonists to be understandable and even sympathetic characters in spite of their flaws. In "The Californians" the characters appeared unaware of the importance of the world around them while wandering aimlessly through their own, increasingly trivial, lives.
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling:
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs
and blaming it on you ... chances are you haven't grasped the
One has to wonder how did Henry James novel "The Bostonians" inspired
Jonathan Parker into re-telling it using themes of ecology, greed and
love in the Californian landscape of Marin County. The basic problem
with the film is that it throws a lot of ideas around, but eventually
none of them come to be realized.
The idea that a young woman, Zoe, the daughter of progressive parents that are into the environment and that falls for the greedy developer, Gavin,is something that doesn't pan well. The same goes for Olive, the sister of Gavin who is opposed to all his big plans to create a gated community where multi-million dollar homes are going to built.
The only interesting thing in the film is the cast that Mr. Parker attracted. Noah Wyle, Ileana Douglas, Kate Mora, Joanne Whalley, Keith Carradine, Cloris Leachman, and Valerie Perrine, are among the players of this satirical film that doesn't live to its premise.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I liked the concept of this movie but it was too cluttered. My mother agrees with me on this point. There are so many themes running that it feels like having a three course meal from McDonald's drive-in. There are also too many main characters. This movie is about messages - naturalist to commercialized, being true to others and/or oneself. This movie feels like the writing was inspired by passion. The problem is that all that passion means nothing if it gets caught in a blender. In this case less is truly more. Finally, I must say in defines of this movie... life sometimes jumps in and out, up and down very quickly. The people in our lives are many and sometimes we are forced to make rapid decisions regareding them and us.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The pieces of this movie are much better than its entirety. Featuring
some really fine musical performances, it is also at times cloyingly
unwatchable. Its attempt to be "fair and balanced" is about as fair and
balanced and believable as Fox cable news; it pokes witty and
intelligent fun at strident liberals, while taking cursory potshots at
greedy bankers who foreclose on cute visionary land developers.
fr Noah Wyle is so cute as the steamroller of California's last few inches of free livable terrain that zealous liberal women of all ages melt before his dreamy gaze. All except his miserable, jealous, possibly lesbian, twin sister.
"You're so hot!" exclaims Cloris Leachman's upper crust earth mama. Looking like Tucker Carlson sans bow-tie, Wyle seduces beautiful young Kate Mara by taking her to his hideous McMansion dream home. Despite the fact that she was raised by hippies and spent her entire life loving nature and fighting to preserve it, one glance at the ersatz Roman columns and faux marble fountain in the living room is enough to convert her to an appreciation of his architectural "artistry."
Immediately after insulting her by telling her that she's a packaged commodity being exploited by all of her p.c. friends and family, he wins her back by adding that he loves her packaging. And what's inside. Awww. How can any woman resist such heady charm? And that twinkle in his eyes?
But it's easy to see how a beautiful talented young hippie chick could turn to putty in Wyle's hands. Apparently there are no cute boys in Northern California who share her political views, or appreciate her fashion model good looks, her passion or her genuinely lovely singing voice.
Mara plays a beautiful and glamorous hippie singer raised on protest songs, playing in a folk group with her family. In one unlikely moment, dad Keith Carradine, who is perhaps the most interesting of all the stereotyped characters in this movie, shows an ugly side as he chides his daughter for greedily wanting to go out on her own. Revealing his own inner greed. Another evil hypocritical hippie exposed.
To be honest, Wyle undergoes a dramatic character change of his own. Losing his Brooks Brothers sports coat for a more organic L.L. Bean ensemble of layered denim and cotton. Which totally sums up his depth of character.
At the big climactic concert, Mara hesitates before going onstage, pining for vapid, avaricious, pretty boy Wyle (who has overshot his financial dreams and wound up screwed by the evil banks who've foreclosed on his dream project) and doubting the motives of everyone she ever trusted in her life, from birth.
Finally she comes out onstage, quieting the frenzied fans lusting for her politically correct folk tunes. Instead, she announces her love for a developer, which upsets them even more, into a booing hissing near riot.
Luckily, she soothes their primitive savage breasts by singing her latest song, a brain-dead ditty about getting a tan and walking hand in hand with her man on the beach. Prompting a chorus of oohs and aahs and a vigorous ovation.
Having thus seduced them into bliss, she exits with her man, while the shrewish liberal harpy who'd exploited her worst of all now finds her own happy ending onstage, crowing out a song which succinctly condemns every facet of humanity without discretion, or any sense at all.
Generally I view films out of the USA as second class. They all appear
to be obsessed with violence, nudity, sex or drugs. None of which I
This movie had none of those disgusting attributes. While it was a satire that did "take the mickey" out of both sides of an issue, as previously mentioned, it did have an underlying message with meaning (actually meanings).
I found the text enjoyable and easy to listen to. I found the singing by all artists excellent. Notwithstanding other comments, the movie did have a flowing story.
I urge the movie producers of this planet to learn that they can produce quality.
I agree with baxterp and really don't have much more to say, although I
can't resist saying something.
Too many movie critics are overly impressed with movies that convey a one sided political perspective and fail to notice how one sided and underdeveloped the characters in such films tend to be. Think Syriana, The American President, The Insider, Erin Brockovich.
What is clever about The Californians is that an ostensibly demonized character, a housing developer, has a sympathetic and warm side, while his sister, an environmental activist, has a jealous and vindictive streak. Even the roles of "developer" and "activist" were shown to have multiple facets.
Finally, the love story between Gavin and Zoe was nicely woven into the above plot twists.
A true sleeper only appreciated by those not blinded by political activism.
If John Muir were alive today, he might make a movie like The Californians. Gavin Ransom (Noah Wyle), an avaricious real estate developer and land exploiter has a twin sister, Olive Ransom (Illeana Douglas) who is a passionate environmentalist and vegan. Their diametrical philosophies illuminate the intricacies of hypocrisy. Olive discovers a mellifluous vocalist, Zoe Tripp (Kate Mara), whose pro-ecology ballads are reminiscent of Joan Baez. Soon Zoe is offered a recording contract, which excludes her guitarist-accompanist father, Elton Tripp (Keith Carradine), and the lyrical import of her songs is threatened by commercialism, as many species are threatened by builders and human population growth. A romance develops between Gavin and Zoe, despite Olive's opposition, as Gavin loses his way on the road to quick riches, and finds other values aside from money.
This is an unpretentious movie that offers a bit of a nice diversion
from one's other interests. I enjoyed it because I live in California,
and could identify with a number of characters in the film (knowing
some activists, real estate developers, Bay Area residents, etc). I
also realized that I had visited some of the filming locations over the
years in my travels.
While it is no Citizen Kane, it is certainly not a waste of time. I would recommend it as a nice "date flick" to be enjoyed with one's significant other, some light conversation and a bottle of Napa wine. Better yet, if you are a romantic, order a dozen raw oysters and a bottle of your favorite champagne with which to woo your significant other, and connect with the film in a poly-sensorial way. (You will need to see The Californians it to understand what I am writing about.)
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