12/31/2007

There Will Be Goodies

Now playing in limited release, There Will Be Blood has been named as the Best Film of the 2007 by countless critics.

However, for those of us who don't live in New York or Los Angeles who must wait to see Paul Thomas Anderson's latest work, Paramount Vantage has offered some goodies to tide us over.

Check out the trailer below from MovieWeb*


* Note: Is it just me or does Daniel Day Lewis remind you of a more sinister version of the male lead in The Music Man?


And as reported by
New York Magazine and bloggers on the web, the screenplay is now available online as well.

12/30/2007

Introducing Take Two

Checking back in to wish everyone a
Happy New Year!


A new feature has been added to the Film Intuition homepage called Take Two which highlights two film related topics each week that you may have missed the first time around. Click Here to check it out

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As always, thanks for your loyal readership.

- Jen

12/27/2007

Charlie Wilson's War

Director: Mike Nichols

“Our movie isn’t about 9/11 or the war in Iraq. Those things are beneath the surface. They’re unstated. Unspoken. But everybody knows they’re there.”
– Director Mike Nichols
as quoted in Entertainment Weekly

Nichols is right that the subtext of Charlie Wilson’s War is sure to affect all news savvy audience members who see his latest film but instead of his War falling flat on its face the way that box office bombs Rendition, Lions for Lambs or In the Valley of Elah did despite critical praise, Nichols makes sure we’re thoroughly entertained. In addition, Charlie Wilson's War has picked up unprecedented momentum with its end of the year release that I suspect will only increase during award’s season. Although most of the publicity stills and press fixate on the mega-watt smile of the gorgeous Julia Roberts and America’s favorite good guy Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson’s War belongs to supporting player Philip Seymour Hoffman who commands our attention within seconds of his first scene as his CIA rogue officer Gust Avrakotos yells at a helpless John Slattery before proceeding to break the window to his office for the second time. It’s loud, it’s angry, it’s shockingly funny and it’s pure “Phil Ham and Cheese” as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson called the actor in his film Magnolia; in other words, we eat it right up and can barely wait for seconds. Nichols’s film, penned by scribe Aaron Sorkin, the mastermind of the critically lauded West Wing and unfairly canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is based on the nonfiction book by 60 Minutes’ George Crile that centered on unlikely alcohol drinking ladies man Democratic Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks) who, along with rich religious right poster girl millionaire Joanne Herring (Roberts) and Agent Avrakotos (Hoffman) manages to help fund the covert war in Afghanistan for the rebels to overthrow the communist Soviets who have been invading and bombing their region. Of course, as we now know in 2007 with the gift of hindsight, their actions have as IMDb notes “far-reaching effects,” with the Afghanistan citizens being inundated by Taliban forces after the war which resulted in the horrific circumstances leading to both 9/11 and the wars we’re fighting today. However, as a purely entertaining and fascinating look at the cold war era, Nichols’ film is richly deserving of its five Golden Globe nominations and will hopefully not get lost in the shuffle of big studio holiday releases. Although it won’t end up on many top ten lists, Charlie Wilson’s War is quintessential Nichols and Sorkin and worth a look to see an effectively against-type Hanks and Roberts and the always mesmerizing Hoffman in one of 2007’s most memorable performances.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Director: Jake Kasdan

Just as he did in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, in this skewer of musical biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line, actor John C. Reilly deftly walks the line (no pun intended) between comedy and drama for co-writers Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) who as Rolling Stone noted crafted the screenplay over a series of “late-night phone calls.” Reilly stars as Dewey Cox, a Johnny Cash like musician who overcomes a tragic childhood of accidentally splitting his brother in half with a machete to become a best-selling rock ‘n roll star marrying 3 women and producing 22 kids and 14 step-kids in his couplings with 411 women as he becomes addicted to every drug he can get his hands on over the course of his career. Although his dad perpetually exclaims that “the wrong kid died,” and Cox tries to bury his guilt in orgies and substance abuse along with his tendency to rip out any lavatory sink standing in his way (a la Walk the Line), he finds a calming influence in his lust for cross wearing backup singer Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer). Jenna Fischer is just one of many recognizable faces from not only her wildly popular sitcom The Office but other sources of brilliant comedy in shows like 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, other Judd Apatow films, and Christopher Guest mockumentaries and Walk Hard benefits from the recognizable cast which, in any other film may have seemed like showboating but in something as freewheeling and irreverent as Kasdan’s movie, it’s a treat to see a good percentage of actors who have made us laugh in the new millennium all together in one film. While there’s some clever stunt casting of Jack White as Elvis and Frankie Muniz as Buddy Holly, the best cameo turns are by the comical stars chosen to portray The Beatles. In the brief scene they’re in, Jack Black (as Paul McCartney), Justin Long (George Harrison), Jason Schwartzman (Ringo Starr) and Paul Rudd (John Lennon) steal the film, which had veered off track after the brilliantly funny opening half hour and keep us engaged. Although the humor isn’t as fast or furiously funny in the overly long second half as it was in the first and fans of Kasdan’s previous films Zero Effect and The TV Set will find themselves a bit disappointed by the noteworthy lowering of the quality bar in his career, it’s an entertaining little movie that may play even better in family rooms with groups of friends than it did on the big screen. However, Reilly, who as Apatow notes “approaches [even a silly movie]... like he’s doing Casualties of War,” makes the film work even after the one-joke premise has begun to grow weary in its finale that, like Beyond the Sea (which may have been another film they were parodying) has a conclusion that doesn’t pay off as much as the filmmakers had hoped.

The Savages

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Like Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages is an equally dysfunctional independent film erroneously advertised as a comedy filled with characters that viewers will tire of after only five minutes despite the fact that the cast is comprised of Oscar nominees and winners. Slums of Beverly Hills director Jenkins opens her film under the pretense of comedy (although one that disturbingly seems to be laughing at the subject rather than with them) by showing a group of elderly women cheer dancing in Sun City, Arizona—women whom some viewers were giggling at but some of us with parents or grandparents of the same age were immediately saddened by—women whom we never see again. Lenny Savage (Phillip Bosco), suffering the beginnings of a rapid dementia that’s caused him to lose all inhibition and the ability to look after himself, is thrown for yet another loop when his girlfriend of two decades dies and the papers he’d signed as a sort of “cohabitation pre-nup” state that he must vacate his former lover’s home. Lenny’s two adult children, Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman respectively) arrive on the scene from New York to whisk their dad out of sunny Arizona and try to find him suitable nursing home housing back east and, as predicted, the laughs stop coming with all of the tongue-in-cheek humor and one-liners being saved for the misleading trailer. Despite the fact that, as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, Jon and Wendy have names “out of Peter Pan… their life is no fairy tale.” Jon seems to be the more functional of the two, working as a professor in Buffalo, New York and tirelessly plugging away at his scholarly book on Brecht instead of dealing with his commitment-phobia when his serious girlfriend of three years is forced to return back to Poland as her Visa is running out since he’s unable to marry her. Compulsive liar Wendy, a train-wreck from the moment we see her, is embodied by the always pitch-perfect Laura Linney as a sort of thirty-nine year old kid (and indicative of the Peter Pan influence she shares with brother, someone who never wants to grow up) employed as a temp who steals office supplies and works on letters for artistic grants to finish her autobiographically whiny play about her horrid childhood by day and having a none-too-romantic affair with her married loser neighbor by night. Although it’s the immensely gifted Hoffman whose character we’d rather spend any time with onscreen and he was nominated for Best Actor from the Golden Globes (inexplicably labeling the film as a comedy), he has less screen-time than Linney and we quickly realize that despite Linney’s acting talent, Wendy isn’t exactly someone we neither care to have as our tour guide nor root for and this unlikability of not only the characters but the color-palette and grim subject matter made Jenkins’s film feel infinitely longer. As was the case with Margot at the Wedding, word-of-mouth by audience members is sure to hinder the box office performance as viewers begin to sour on the influx of so many overly indulgent independent films mislabeled comedies with such aggressively unpleasant characters whose annoying quirks the directors unfortunately assume will be charmingly offbeat. To quote Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, “everything is not an anecdote” or in this case a film that audiences will actually want to see.

Jump Tomorrow

Director: Joel Hopkins

In his review of the adorable Jump Tomorrow, Roger Ebert calls it a “low-key screwball comedy... [that] takes a 1930’s Hollywood formula and recasts it with unexpected types.” While-- as per usual for the legendary critic-- it’s an astute comment, I’d also note that director Joel Hopkins’ film, based on his short story “Jorge” also owes much to the bright and silly comedies of the 1960’s such as The Party (minus the racism, of course) and The Graduate (minus the kinky strangeness) in his story of Nigerian immigrant George Abiola (Tunde Adebimpe) who finds himself traveling with a romantically jilted, slightly unstable Frenchman (Hippolyte Girardot) on his way to his arranged marriage to a childhood friend near Niagara Falls. After learning he was late to pick up his bride-to-be, he shares a meet-cute with affable, pretty Latina Alicia (Natalia Verbeke) who impulsively invites George (now christened Jorge) to a party. Attracted to the young stranger, George decides to pay the party a visit with his new friend Gerard in tow and again shares great chemistry with Alicia before learning that she’s in a committed relationship with her British boyfriend Nathan (James Wilby), a pretentious former professor of Alicia’s whose idea of romance is to give his love a ring made of bone and chooses to document his meeting her family by burying his head behind the camcorder for the entire thing, after first alienating Gerard by proclaiming that as a language French will be dead in a number of years. Needless to say, audiences know that he’s not the right man for Alicia and although it’s slightly predictable, the cute film benefits from its complete likability and lovely characterizations by the energetic cast. Winner of a BAFTA award, as well as other accolades at the Deauville Film Festival and Florida Film Festival and thankfully released by MGM and IFC on DVD, Jump Tomorrow is at once hip and quirky and the type of independent charmer sure to inspire viewers to recommend it to others.

Rescue Dawn

Director:
Werner Herzog

Based on Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn goes deeper into the story of Lieutenant Dieter Dengler in this gripping account of the German-American’s heroic escape attempt from a POW camp in Laos after he’s shot down just forty minutes into his first bombing mission. Part of the initial top-secret operation by American military in 1965, Dengler is offered the chance for release if he signs a statement by his captors that decries his adopted American homeland but refusing to go against his own beliefs, Dengler ends up alongside other POWs including Americans Duane Martin (Independent Spirit Award nominee Steve Zahn) and Eugene McBroom (Jeremy Davies) with whom he tries to inspire with his ingenious plan to try and flee their Laotian captors once the monsoons begin and they’ll have access to water. Shot in forty-four grueling days in Thailand, Herzog’s sleeper masterpiece was quietly released at art-houses across the country earlier in 2007 and just as quietly onto DVD shelves later in the year where, despite numerous critical accolades and recent awards talk, it’s destined to be overlooked in the sea of major disc releases such as Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard but for those who take the time to seek it out, it’s a wonderfully powerful hidden gem. Featuring yet another excellent turn by Christian Bale which, when analyzed alongside his stellar portrayal in 3:10 to Yuma will make it a crime if he is forgotten during Oscar time, the real beauty of Rescue Dawn is in the naturalist turns by the main three leads who, most likely due to the fact that they all went on frightening diets dropping 33 (Davies), 40 (Zahn) and 55 (Bale) pounds respectively and the grueling shoot of physically demanding scenes, flourish in one another’s company and challenge each other admirably. Zahn is particularly a revelation considering his most usual goofy screen persona in films like Happy Texas or That Thing You Do and it’s fascinating to watch him, along with the other actors (especially Bale who actually did the things shown in the film) recollect on their experiences in a forty-four minute worthwhile behind the scenes documentary that for once, seems less about publicity and more about the human experience that’s available on the DVD. An unforgettable film in the distinguished career of Herzog and one that captures the very best performance of Zahn and one of Bale’s top five as well.

Imagine Me and You

Director: Ol Parker

Before the minister asked attendees if there were any objections to the marriage of Rachel (Piper Perabo) and Heck (Matthew Goode), perhaps it would’ve been better if he’d checked with the bride. In writer/director Ol Parker’s debut film, pretty and thoughtful Rachel is all set to marry her best friend Heck but finds herself pulled by unexpected stirrings on the way to the altar after she catches sight of Luce (Lena Headey), the beautiful florist her mother had hired to piece together the bouquets and arrangements for Rachel’s big day. At the reception, the two become fast friends when Luce rescues Rachel’s oversized wedding ring from the party punch bowl and although Rachel tells husband Heck that she feels a certain near soul-mate like friendship connection with Luce, she and Heck decide to play matchmaker by inviting Luce and Heck’s obnoxious humorous admittedly cad like friend (as is always the case in British comedies) to dinner but before he arrives, Luce admits that she’s just not that into men. Her confession complicates Rachel’s ability to spend time with her new friend, not out of prejudice but the opposite as she begins to see that her lifestyle may be the one Rachel had belonged in all along, although Luce tries to distance herself from her acquaintance not wanting to mess with a couple’s happiness. Despite the overly polite and as several critics pointed out, unbelievably convenient and nearly apologetically chaste proceedings that made Imagine Me and You the second recent film including the bright but admittedly far fetched Gray Matters to deal with a marital love triangle and female’s coming out, the charms of not only Headey and Goode but especially the always under-utilized Piper Perabo make it entertaining. Although as a straight filmgoer, I can see the arguments of my gay friends in their opposition to the trite plot points and feel this may have begun in the film’s initial stages as it was originally written as a heterosexual love story (IMDb), it’s still another forgettable, escapist British comedy that’s sure to delight.

Dallas 362

Director:
Scott Caan

When it comes to friends getting older and drifting apart, “it’s a whole thing” as the two main characters in Scott Caan’s feature film debut would say.

Boasting an impressive performance by Shawn Hatosy, the actor whose turn recalls the early work of Chris Penn helps make this film jump from compelling to poignant in his turn as the mid-twenties Rusty.

As the movie opens, we discover that life with Rusty's fellow hard-living pal Dallas (Scott Caan) is beginning to not only drain on Rusty but may ultimately lead to irreparable harm or even death from their constant bar brawls and hustling as collectors for a local bookie. However, Rusty’s close and trusting bond with his widowed loving, protective mother Mary (Kelly Lynch) who refers to her son as her best friend leads Rusty to seek psychological counseling from Mary’s boyfriend Bob (a terrific Jeff Goldblum).

A laid back pot-smoking shrink found only in the movies, Bob warms to the articulate Rusty whose conflicting promise and loyalty to honorary brother Dallas is tested when Dallas concocts a dangerous scheme to commit robbery with questionable accomplices and very little information.

And although some of the grating roles, including Val Lauren as Christian whom The New York Times referred to as “an odd amalgam of Jerry Lewis and Sal Mineo,” but instead reminded me of Ratso Rizzo, do wear on the nerves as do the uncomfortable and never believable exchanges between the young men and the women they pick up, nonetheless Scott Caan shows immense talent.

This is especially evident given his innate understanding of a certain type of male coming-of-age while trying to live up to the hyper-masculine image of his idolized father (reminiscent perhaps of his real life dad James Caan), the knack for male dialogue along with creative camera trickery and cool cinematography that earned Scott Caan the Critics Award at the CineVegas International Film Festival.

Acclaimed by the BBC as a movie with “heart, wit and sheer class,” when viewed alongside his second film The Dog Problem, film fans will begin to realize that, in addition to the usually tough guy sidekick he plays in films like Brooklyn Rules and the Ocean’s Eleven series, Scott Caan has the makings of a truly promising writer/director.

The Nanny Diaries



Directors: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Although the previews made the film look like The Devil Wears Prada for childcare workers, this cinematic adaptation of the bestselling novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus begins similarly to the Ashley Judd vehicle Someone Like You, the film version of the novel Animal Husbandry in combining anthropology and natural history with pop philosophy. In Nanny, recent college graduate Annie (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself caught by the post university panic of trying to figure out the rest of her life with her blue collar background and hardworking nurse mother advising her to go into finance when her heart is leading her towards continuing academic study in the economically uncertain field of anthropology. After she intervenes in a near-accident by saving a young child from harm in Central Park, she is lured into the world of nannydom by glamorous Mrs. X (Laura Linney), a designer apparel clad, Upper East Side blue blood who recruits Annie, now conveniently called Nanny by Linney to stay in her posh apartment (in humble worker’s quarters, of course) and take care of young Grayer full time. Inspired by the years of nanny positions held by both Kraus and McLaughlin along with stories shared by the other nannies and families they came across, the story was wonderfully clever and sophisticated on the page and despite the well-meaning film from The Weinstein Company and crafted by American Splendor directors Berman and Pulcini, it feels a bit too inauthentic and rushed for us to become fully invested. Part of the problem seems to be in the casting of the otherwise exceptional Johansson who never seems quite convincing in her role, although her performance is elevated by the stellar turn by Laura Linney who as the authors note in their DVD behind-the-scenes interview feature, goes through several different emotions in one scene coming off as far more human and complicated than the Cruella character embodied by Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada. Still, it’s a fun time-waster that is sure to appeal to those of us who still remember both the joys and frustrations of looking after other people’s children.

Road

Director: Leslie McCleave

A simple business road trip turns eerily mystical and suspenseful after Margaret (Catherine Kellner), a freelance environmental photographer is granted her first important governmental assignment to visit Canadian toxic waste sites and use her high tech radiation equipment camera to assess toxicity levels. She journeys from New York with her good-natured but admittedly slacker-like ex-boyfriend Jay (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and while at first one assumes that looking at toxic waste may serve as a metaphor for their ruined relationship, writer/director Leslie McCleave throws us for the first of several loops when unexplained events and circumstances befall our leads. Despite the thousands of miles traveled, the two are shocked to discover that the car is never in need of gas and Jay is confused by the fact that he spent his last twenty dollar bill yet it reappears inside his worn wallet, and they’re plagued by devices to the outside world that don’t seem to work right such as the static filled radio, pay phones that are always broken, and Margaret’s camera that won’t uplink her data so that its memory is filled quickly and she’s stuck just visiting sites without any means of recording her findings. Cerebral, strange yet compulsively addictive, the film begins like a typical estranged lovers on the road movie but evolves into an unexpected mysterious treat for film fans who love to solve puzzles and despite an unfortunately vague ending, we’re left trying to piece together the metaphors of our deteriorating environment, dependence on gas and money, etc. that all resonate subtly and methodically. Chris Brokaw’s musical score to Road earned him the composer the Certificate of Excellence at the 2006 Brooklyn International Film Festival and the two stars (Kellner and Moss-Bachrach) won Outstanding Performance accolades at the 2005 Los Angeles Film Festival. Wonderfully clever little sleeper that sneaks up on you— McCleave’s film plays especially well at home on rainy days when you don’t exactly feel like going on the road.

Sicko

Director:
Michael Moore


Love him or hate him, in Fahrenheit 9/11 documentarian Michael Moore’s investigation and indictment of the healthcare industry, he manages to tackle a topic that affects every American regardless of party lines and produces his strongest work since the film that launched him, Roger and Me.



The film chronicles the creation and promotion of HMOs by former President Richard Nixon in 1971 as a profitable business venture that left patients reeling up through the admirable goal of former First Lady Hillary Clinton in trying to champion universal healthcare reform in the 90s that ultimately failed due to red-tape and big business trappings.

When addressing the subject, Moore is at his best when focusing on the lives of everyday Americans who’ve become victims of the very healthcare system that should theoretically and morally help them. And in the opening minutes, we meet a few individuals forced to evaluate treatment options verses price tags and make choices on how much their bodily well-being is worth with decisions that should rattle even the most cynical Moore detractors.

To this end, I defy audiences not to be affected by the heartbreaking stories of a woman employed by a hospital who, despite her position, must watch her beloved husband and father to her child die and the elderly couple who, both stricken with medical maladies in a short period of time are forced to move in with their grown daughter.

Incidentally, the daughter’s husband is forced to leave America for work as a plumber in Iraq as he’s unable to provide for his family and their tearful goodbye occurs on the very day that her parents move in and are shouted at by their own son, who as viewers who’ve experienced medical situations realize, are often ostracized for weaknesses that is maddeningly out of their control.

After revealing that fifty million Americans are currently without health care, Moore studies the problems plaguing both the citizens who aren’t covered by HMOs and those of us who are that are drowning in co-pays, pre-authorization headaches, preexisting conditions disqualifications, and claim denials that have caused some of our citizens to leave their beloved American home out of sheer financial necessity to seek help in places such as England, France and Canada. Explaining the policies of other countries, Moore shares that they not only have universal healthcare but incidentally also boast longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than the United States.

In the most controversial segment of Sicko, we meet three of our cherished American heroes who were part of the clean-up and remains search and rescue at ground zero on 9/11. Individuals from all areas comprise the group including some of whom are on disability and can’t make ends meet, denied additional support from the government since they weren't paid New York employees but people who came in from neighboring states or from other agencies just volunteering out of the goodness of their hearts.



Unable to get the help they need here, Moore takes the three along with a number of other Americans who aren’t enjoying quality healthcare to-- as he hopes--Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where terrorists and prisoners are given exceptional medical care that most of us couldn’t begin to afford here in the states under HMO policies.

Ultimately ending up at the mercy of the Cuban healthcare system, they are given no special treatment but receive comparable and at times life-enhancing tests and medication evaluations that enable them to-- as a few note-- feel better than they had in a long time.

Eventually asking, “Who are we?” Moore makes us wonder at who we have become in our country with so many good-hearted people who sincerely want to help one another but are denied the basic human right of medical treatment. It shouldn’t be this way and Moore’s film couldn’t be timelier with the upcoming presidential election and proposed plans by some candidates who long to create universal healthcare platforms.

And seemingly the only thing that would stand in their way is the HMOs and lobbyists but one thing is for certain and that is that such a plan would benefit all Americans regardless of which party, if any, that they belong to or follow.

A film that every voter or parent should see-- Sicko may in fact be the movie that changes the toughest of attitudes when it comes to the man who risks judgment and his own safety to bring us stories mainstream media ignores right before they go to a commercial break with a channel block owned by makers of prescription medication.

12/17/2007

Movie Review: Atonement (2007)

Director: Joe Wright

Midway through Atonement, Robbie Turner, a young British World War II soldier played by James McAvoy stumbles into a French theatre desperately searching for a drop of water when he notices an exquisite black and white love scene flickering above him on the screen. Although he doesn’t speak French, cinema is a sensory language comprised not only of sound but of visuals and their effect on viewers. And McAvoy is as taken in by what he’s seen as are we while audience and character both remember his love back home in England—the love from whom he was torn by a false criminal accusation and the love who continually professes in her letters that she will wait for him.

Screened moments like this send shivers down my spine and remind me once again of my passion for the medium— a moment so delicate and subtle that I was as mesmerized as the soldier onscreen and nearly forgot that just minutes earlier I’d been overwhelmed by yet another dazzling sequence and one of the most audacious in recent memory as the same young man along with two other soldiers wander the soldier filled beach at Dunkirk for four and a half minutes in a single shot. Of course, once I’d collected myself after leaving the theatre, I realized I was forgetting dozens of pitch perfect moments, shots, sounds or scenes that occurred both before and after the halfway point and realized that Atonement is simply one of those movies that can make a believer out of even the most apathetic and frustrated audience member in the power of film as an art form.

Like the critically acclaimed bestselling novel Atonement by Ian McEwan upon which Christopher Hampton’s screenplay is based, the film by Joe Wright seems to be divided into three distinct parts with an epilogue included as a conclusion. While it’s always difficult to take a highly literary and beloved novel and distill it into a screenplay, everything about this adaptation falls solidly into place and manages to capture both the textual essence and ever so important subtext of McEwan’s gorgeous prose into one of the most breathtakingly perfect films of 2007. As I’m currently reading the novel, I worried that I’d be judging the work far too harshly without the benefit of separating the two but the movie compliments the book magnificently without parroting it or remaining so completely imprisoned by the book that it feels like a flat or wooden made for television period film.

Announcing itself as a unique reinvention of the competent yet often uninspired frequent masterpiece theatre type adaptations we see time and time again on the big screen (think Memoirs of a Geisha), we begin with a series of quick cuts set to a wonderfully unique score by Italian composer Dario Marianelli that works in the sound of a typewriter with the piano melody as young thirteen year old Briony Tallis finishes the play she’s written for her brother’s return in the summer of 1935. Set in England on a lush meandering and large country estate, we’re introduced first to the highly imaginative Briony (played at this age by a fiercely mature Saoirse Ronan), her slightly bored older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (Last King of Scotland’s James McAvoy in a career making role), the college aged son of their housekeeper Brenda Blethyn.

After Robbie professes his love for Cecilia over several varying drafts of notes, he selects one for Briony to deliver and when the two declare the mutual affection of which they seemed to have been ignorant for a long time, they impulsively make love only to be caught by a confused Briony. When events turn tragic on the same fateful night, Briony, upset and overwhelmed by everything she’s seen in one day makes a false accusation and Robbie is taken in by British authorities, and later serves prison time where he is released only when he makes the choice to become a soldier in World War II.

While the first part of the film shows off not only the bravura score by Marianelli, the sumptuous cinematography from Irish cameraman Seamus McGarvey (responsible for the equally lovely photography on The Hours) and careful editing by Paul Tothill that manages to capture different points of view of each character in a series of scenes indicative of its literary source, the second part of the film is more classically stylized with a darker palette to suit the tone of danger and resignation during wartime both in France with Robbie and England with the Tallis sisters as Briony is now played by one of my favorite young actresses Romola Garai. In the third act the methods employed in both parts are combined to superb effect before a fittingly melancholy and modern conclusion that finds the last and third actress portraying Briony in Vanessa Redgrave.

As reported on IMDb, to prepare for the film, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright immersed himself in British movies of the 1940’s and was particularly inspired by Brief Encounter and while homage is paid to cinema of that era, it’s a stunning work that makes wise decision to use some modern techniques with older sensibilities and filmmaking as well. Following up his wonderful Pride and Prejudice which also starred Keira Knightley in an Academy Award nominated performance as Elizabeth Bennet with only his second feature film, Wright also made history by being the youngest director (just 35) to have his film open the Venice Film Festival.

Hot off the heels of seven Golden Globe nominations and a great marketing campaign from Focus Features (which is quickly becoming the new Miramax), Atonement has as of this review landed in the top spot of my favorite films of 2007 and will no doubt earn Wright and several others involved Academy Award nominations in the coming year.


Interview

Director: Steve Buscemi

In the first of a scheduled trilogy of American remakes of movies made by murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, director, co-writer and star Steve Buscemi crafts a uniquely claustrophobic and admittedly incredulous satire on the nature of celebrity that rivets audiences within minutes and never surrenders. Working with co-writer David Schechter, based on Theodor Holman’s original screenplay, their film-- although accurately criticized for its dubious reality-- is undeniably compelling and addictive, thanks largely in part by the performances of not only the pitch perfect Buscemi but by the seductive tour de force from British actress Sienna Miller that’s even more impressive than her oft-cited turn in Factory Girl. Set over the course of one evening, we follow Buscemi’s reporter Pierre Peders, a Washington war correspondent with a tarnished reputation now relegated to profile puff pieces of celebrities such as his latest assignment to interview sexy siren Katya (Miller), currently starring in a Sex and the City like television show. Unable to mask his contempt for her lifestyle of implants and gossip or the way she makes a living, he arrives at the restaurant unprepared and when Katya strolls in very late for their appointment and then demands that a few nobodies leave her favorite table so that they can sit there, he lets her have it with both barrels. The war of words turns into a tense heated exchange causing Katya to storm out. When the beguiling beauty of the actress’ smile causes Pierre’s cab driver to have an accident, Katya, feeling guilty, convinces the reporter to come to her apartment. The first aid quickly turns into drinks, baits, and a tense battle of not only the sexes but of intellectual one-ups as well while the duo flirt, argue and reach as Buscemi noted on the DVD a enhanced level of intimacy some married couples don’t achieve. The surreal sense of isolation and voyeurism takes effect as Buscemi uses van Gogh’s signature method of shooting with three simultaneous video cameras which causes viewers to feel a heightened sense of guiltily observing life being lived, although the lives feel a bit theatrical and over-written. However, despite the seemingly stagey way the film which feels distinctly divided into acts is executed, we cannot stop watching, shocked from one line to the next as the troubled two with an undeniable connection begin to hit each other where it hurts with accusations, confessions and truths that we’re never sure we believe. Unfortunately it's all wrapped up much too abruptly in a predictably “gotcha” twist of a conclusion which satisfies the need for the filmmakers to tap right into the trend of the moment in a way that doesn’t feel at all earned and in fact slightly cheapens the brilliance that came before it. Still, quick finale aside, the reason to watch is for the interplay between the leads and for the star-making turn by Miller who-- with her work in Casanova and Factory Girl-- has always been on the cusp of fame. My only worry is that despite her admirable choice to appear in thought provoking independent or art house films, most audiences won’t get the chance to discover her—yet her anonymity works wonders for a film like Interview where we buy right into her as Katya and hopefully now with its release on DVD, other viewers will give this talented actress their attention as well.

The Hottest State

Director: Ethan Hawke

When Sarah, the female singer he recently started dating nervously informs William of her stage fright, he advises her to impersonate her favorite singer and eventually she’ll find that she’s become herself during the performance. Of course, what our young character doesn’t realize is how dangerous such a proposition is for someone in their early twenties who often haven’t the foggiest perception of their own individual personality themselves. It’s worse still when not only does Sarah barely know herself but neither does William or for that matter writer/director Ethan Hawke whose under-developed character of Sarah is made all the more noticeable when contrasted with the fully realized, articulate and autobiographical William. Based on the semiautobiographical debut novel of actor turned writer/director Ethan Hawke that I read in the 1990’s with the title of the same name that refers both to young love and also the hottest state in the country (Texas), the story seemed to be less cinematic than the actor’s Ash Wednesday penned a few years ago. Yet the film version of State does pay homage to a lot of classic films including Paris, Texas, The Last Picture Show and Splendor in the Grass—incidentally all of which are movies that aspiring actor William (the spitting image of young Hawke played by Mark Webber) attends in the film. After the Texas native from a broken home—the product of hardworking mom Laura Linney and estranged dad Ethan Hawke (in a terrific Sam Shepard inspired turn), ventures to New York to make a name for himself, he meets a beguiling hopeful singer named Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) with an unexplained love of country music twang despite coming from middle class Connecticut. Played by the talented yet woefully miscast Maria Full of Grace Academy Award nominated actress Moreno, Sarah is a beautiful yet frustratingly vague fellow bohemian who, despite her proclamation that she does not want a boyfriend, ends up tagging along with William for a week of passion when he journeys to his location shoot in Mexico for a filmed adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Of course, the bliss is only temporary for when William returns, he finds a much changed Sarah, angered by the loss of control one faces in the early stages of love as she drives him away in a quest for space which brings out the most painful and obsessive reactions in William that Hawke admirably and unflinchingly depicts. Michelle Williams has a nice if small role as an ex-girlfriend of William’s who appears as first a shoulder than an entire body for William to cry on and she’s so good in her few scenes with a fascinating range of choices that we begin to wish that Hawke had combined her character with Sarah’s for more depth and cast Michelle Williams as the leading lady, instead working with the talented Moreno in his next work.

While it’s a film that overstays its welcome by a good twenty to thirty minutes mostly because William is the only character we feel we actually understand despite some great subtle supporting work by Linney, Hawke and others but Hawke's earnest dialogue does display his considerable talent as he captures not only the angst to be found in heartbreaking young love but also in trying to come of age as an artist. Perhaps, the best example of this is expressed in a rare and poignant moment by Moreno on her front porch when she brings Webber home for the holidays and asks, “Don’t you find it odd when you’re a kid—everyone in the whole world tells you to follow your dreams—and when you get older they act all offended if you even try?” And while I can’t say that The Hottest State is a wholly successful work by Hawke, I can say that I’m grateful that he tried and managed to depict the passion of young artists trying to follow those dreams despite the bumps along the way.

First Snow

Director: Mark Fergus

The dismal fate of self-admitted “desert rat,” a.k.a. arrogant salesman Jimmy Starks propels this bleak and gritty neo-noir from first time director Mark Fergus, who along with his co-writer Hawk Ostby penned one of the best films of 2006 with their adaptation of Children of Men. In First Snow, we follow our unlikable hero played by Guy Pearce as he takes inventory of past mistakes in order not to set things right but hopefully stave off his impending death which was predicted by a eerily convincing and cryptic ten dollar fortune teller (J.K. Simmons) who states that Jimmy will flourish professionally until his life runs out with the first snow as “no more roads” are glimpsed in his future. At this point logic driven audience members will undoubtedly ask how much of Jimmy’s plot is fate and how much is actually going to be self-fulfilling prophecy but convinced the noir setup has to pay off grandly, we stay with the tale. Revisiting the same themes of revenge and regret with the underlying sense of dread that permeated some of Pearce’s other dark work including the masterpiece Memento that first launched him into the spotlight, First Snow sets itself up for greatness but it ultimately suffers due to the sheer unpleasantness of our main character who treats his associates and girlfriend like disposable trash. In addition, the intentionally ugly and greasy cinematography sure to get the “worst side” of all along with the B movie aura never makes First Snow appear to be anything but a cheap thriller, although hope is held out for an ending that may try and tie it all together. However, we later discover that the conclusion is revealed as voice-over and may have been missed if audience members had simply coughed too loudly or zoned out, which made my mind in particular begin to reel and come up with a handful of ways the ending could have been better tied in with the story to still get the point across in a way that doesn’t make it feel tacked on and ultimately unmemorable. A moody failure, Pearce and the writers try but ultimately are snowed in by First Snow.

Kiss the Bride

Director:
Vanessa Parise

One of the cardinal rules in romantic cinema is if a man says the words “let me cook for you” before concocting a succulent dish for the female object of his affection, it makes no difference whether or not he is the leading lady’s boyfriend since he no doubt will be by the end of the film. In Kiss the Bride, by writer/director Vanessa Parise, the man in question is Tom Terranova (Sean Patrick Flannery in a supporting role), a chef of a small but classy restaurant who gets a second chance to secure the love of his dream small town girl turned TV actress Niki Sposato (Brooke Langton) when she returns to her small seaside community in Rhode Island for the wedding of her little sister Dani (Amanda Detmer) to Geoff (Johnathon Schaech). Drawing from her own Italian American heritage and setting the piece in her Rhode Island hometown, Harvard educated Parise who took a deferment from medical school to pursue a career in the arts, shows up as Chrissy, the eldest of the four Sposato sisters who, like the other women in the family, finds herself at a crossroads in her life. Rounding out the family is rebellious and flamboyant Toni (Monet Mazur) who decides that the best way to shock parents Talia Shire and Burt Young is by bringing home a newly acquired girlfriend (Alyssa Milano), which predictably steals some of the thunder out from what should otherwise have been sweet, virginal homebody Dani’s week of marital preparations. Winner of multiple awards at film festivals including San Jose, Hamptons, Rhode Island and Sarasota’s festivals, Parise’s charming yet slightly stereotypical and predictably forgettable chick flick has enough likability embodied in the earnest young cast (including a great turn by Parise herself) to make it successful cable TV fare.

Sweeney Todd

Complete Title:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Director: Tim Burton


Shave and a haircut, slit slit. In the sixth collaboration of director Tim Burton with actor Johnny Depp, the duo reunite for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, which according to IMDb was based on nineteenth century legend. For those unfamiliar with the storyline, Todd chronicles the tragic tale of Benjamin Barker who, as the film begins is returning to Victorian era London to exact revenge on the evil judge who-- obsessed with Barker’s beautiful wife-- drove Barker out of London after attacking the wife and stealing the man’s daughter Johanna as his young ward. Forever changed by the actions of Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman), Barker now calling himself Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) reopens his barber shop above the meat pie maker’s store below where its widowed owner Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) “sells the worst pies in London.”

With Lovett’s help, Todd causes a spectacle in town catching the eye of Turpin’s evil right hand man Beadle (Timothy Spall) by ruining the reputation of a phony elixir selling barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen) whose ill-treated orphan worker Tobias (Ed Sanders) is taken in by Lovett. Soon, the barber shop is used as a murderous front as the “barking mad” barber treats first Pirelli and then unsuspecting clients to a too-close-for-comfort shave and downstairs, eager to resurrect her failing business, the appreciative Lovett helps Todd hide his massacres by adding the mystery meat to her now world famous pies. Decidedly devious, this visually stunning film (photographed by Dariusz Wolski) will keep audiences mesmerized by the spectacular sound and breakneck editing of Chris Lebenzon that showcases the talents of director and star with source material that seems like the perfect fit.

As reported on IMDb, Sondheim had resisted attempts by filmmakers to relinquish his popular musical opera in the past but was impressed by Burton’s vision and also given the condition of having Helena Bonham Carter audition for him after she’d taken musical voice lessons in preparation. Recently named one of the top ten best cinematic works of the year from the National Board of Review and sure to garner placement on numerous critical lists and award nominations in the coming weeks, Sweeney Todd is a wickedly funny and shocking film that-- despite the excessive gore and disgusting plotline that may alienate traditional musical fans-- is the most jaw-droppingly impressive work made by Burton with Depp since 1994’s brilliant Ed Wood.

Conventioneers

Director: Mora Stephens


Right wing, left wing-- birds of different feathers seldom flock together. In this Independent Spirit Award winning film from director Mora Stephens who co-wrote the script with her editor and co-producer husband Joel Viertal, party lines are crossed when romance blooms amidst the angry divide. Matthew Mabe stars as Dave, a young unhappily married Republican Texas native complete with the old-fashioned slow talking drawl, who leaves his new home in Washington D.C. to attend New York City’s 2004 Republican National Convention as a delegate. Once in the big apple, Dave reunites with his former Dartmouth classmate Lea Jones (Woodwyn Koons) and after the two meet to catch up, it’s revealed the passionate and fiery Lea is planning some major symbolic protests with her Democratic activist friends and predictably, Lea and Dave get into a heated argument about the state of America and the post 9/11 political climate. Hours after their fight, they try it again and leave politics on the back burner only to reminisce and flirt about long forgotten feelings that cause the two to fall impulsively into bed together. Conceived as “an ironic Romeo and Juliet story… that explores the consequences of the divide in American politics,” by Mora Stephens on IMDb, Conventioneers was filmed during the actual convention leading to the arrest and detainment of numerous crew members including the director and producer as revealed in the film’s closing credits. While the combination of improvised and scripted dialogue is a bit uneven at times, the naturalistic style of the piece and the compelling portrayals by the two refreshingly real leads with a completely unaffected delivery of the dialogue keeps us riveted and despite an obvious slant to the left that may annoy right-wingers, as Variety pointed out, the real achievement of Conventioneers “lies in its honoring the sincerity and passion on both sides” of the political spectrum. Admirably, the filmmakers don’t opt for a cookie cutter conclusion, never forgetting the complexity of the characters' lives and their commitments to family and friends and the final scene is a breathlessly quick, swift kick to the heart that makes the film much darker than one had possibly expected.

Hot Rod

Director:
Akiva Schaffer

When he fails to combat the rage felt after learning his stepdad is dying of a heart ailment by punch-dancing in the woods Footloose style, Rod Kimble (Saturday Night Live’s Andy Samberg) makes the foolish decision to jump fifteen school buses on his motorbike in the hopes that his stunt will raise enough money for a transplant. The decision is made less out of the goodness of his heart and more because Rod decides he wants to win the old man’s respect by besting the tyrannical stepfather in one of their frequent fights. In this odd comedy produced by Lorne Michaels and Will Ferrell, audiences are treated to an amusing setup and some clever choices in humor. Unfortunately, the film quickly gives way to predictable commercial plot points along with gross and/or uninspired comedy that end up making the movie which starts out entertaining enough wear out its welcome by the halfway point. Despite an enthusiastic turn by Samberg as the young man who, believing his father to have been a stuntman, decides he will follow in the same footsteps with the support of mother Sissy Spacek, friends, brother and cute girl next door (Isla Fisher) as well as a funny cameo from Arrested Development’s Will Arnett, Hot Rod seems to be ultimately passable Saturday Night Live styled entertainment with a rushed feeling that makes it one of the SNL's inferior offerings.

12/15/2007

We've Moved

Hey Everyone,

In case you haven't checked the sidebar or address bar, Film Intuition has moved to a new domain. After more than a year of life on the blogosphere, Film Intuition's Google blog still remains active with nearly five hundred reviews, countless visitors and consistently high placement in the external links section of IMDb. However, in keeping with the demands of the growing site and supportive readers, this domain name was recently acquired to give the site a new home base with additional pages and more for fans to explore. Feel free to look around, offer feedback and check back often for new updates and further options for interactivity.

There's no need to change any bookmarks as you'll automatically transfer over to the new location but here are two of the updated site addresses for future reference:

Home Page: http://www.filmintuition.com/
Review Database Blog: http://reviews.filmintuition.com/

Although I've been busily building the new site, I've stayed current on the latest releases and more reviews will be posted next week.

As always, thanks for your readership and support.

Happy Holidays,
Jen

12/08/2007

Imagination

Director: Eric Leiser

Former Spongebob Squarepants prop animator Eric Leiser explores his passion for his baccalaureate major field of experimental animation with this three year effort co-written with his brother, the composer and poet Jeffrey Leiser. In this haunting work which should be of particular interest to students specializing in the various techniques of film animation, Eric Leiser draws upon his vast experience and melds together puppetry, stop-motion sketches, camera trickery and claymation that dazzles the senses and makes the live action sequences pale in comparison. Employing a story that trips the mind fantastic, the brothers craft a tale which centers on two medically challenged twin sisters who are brought in for neuropsychological testing by Dr. Reineger (Ed K. Gildersleeve) when young Anna Woodruff (Nikki Haddad) is viewed as a likely candidate for Asperger’s Syndrome. After their mother worries about the sisters’ increasingly tight bond and their tendency to disappear into the far reaches of their imaginations, Anna’s twin Sarah (Jessi Haddad) is brought in for the study after she is found to be legally blind—a condition that the optometrist predicts will worsen with time. The melancholy plot is elevated by bursts of clever animations that creep around every corner along with the sweeping score by Jeffrey Leiser that is so impressive one wonders if there will be an option on the upcoming DVD to isolate the superior music and visuals since they show off the Leisers’ considerable talent in their chosen areas. However, the existential questioning that permeates the fascinatingly chilly first half of the film soon evolves into a spiritual crisis for the doctor that doesn’t quite synch with the beginning which had called to mind the imagination run amok and lurking foreshadowing of sadness to follow evidenced in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. Still, the proposal of the two twins unifying into one with a psychic connection is a creative idea sure to intrigue devotees of Philip K. Dick’s phantom twin motif and surrealist film fans along with lovers of animation in every form. Imagination, which was an official selection at the Tel Aviv Film Festival, the Istanbul International Animation Festival in Turkey and played in select screenings in the states, is set to be released by Vanguard International Cinema on DVD on February 26 of next year.

12/05/2007

Note About Intellectual Copyright

It has come to my attention that my name and written material from this blog has appeared on other sites.

Disclaimer note: I am not responsible for the content of other sites nor have I received notification or permission for my words and name to be used. I am fine and flattered by the citation on scholarly or professional sites but am greatly appalled by usage on objectionable sites.



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12/03/2007

Juno (2007)

Director: Jason Reitman



Despite the Napoleon Dynamite marketing strategy of orange t-shirts with a slogan to rival Dynamite’s catch-phrase "Vote for Pedro" and an online club to create a Junoverse of fans who’ve seen the film numerous times, Juno is not only superior to Napoleon but also from the moment it begins, it makes one think it’s a more earnest and lovely version of Ghost World.

Co-produced by Ghost World producer John Malkovich, director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) returns hot off his filmmaking debut Thank You for Smoking with another gem sure to be a cult hit among independent film fans. The film which has been making its way from ecstatic critical receptions and festivals around the globe has just last week been nominated for a few Independent Spirit Awards including Best Film and Actress for its triumphant turn by up and coming star Ellen Page.

Likable Page whom audiences may remember from X-Men 3 and Hard Candy has made an increasingly positive impression on me since I first saw her work in Canadian films chosen for the Film Movement series such as Wilby Wonderful and Marion Bridge years ago.

The twenty year old Page is currently the toast of the awards season with rumors of a possible Oscar nomination and from the opening moments of Juno, we’re instinctively on her side as the precocious, unique and unforgettable sixteen year old who is shocked to discover she is pregnant from a spontaneous and none-too-romantic coupling with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) that seems to have been initiated out of sheer boredom.

Although she uses the hamburger phone in her bedroom “to procure a hasty abortion,” Juno changes her mind once in the creepy clinic and decides to take an unusual route of finding a couple advertising for adoptable spawn in the Penny Saver.

It’s adoption at first sight when Juno lays eyes on the beautiful, wealthy St. Cloud, Minnesota couple Vanessa and Mark Loring (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman respectively) and after a delightfully awkward encounter that still felt far more real than anything in the Meet the Parents films, Juno decides to keep the baby in the oven until it gets cute enough to be handed over once it’s born only to realize that parental appearances can be deceiving.

A film about teenage pregnancy shouldn’t be this winningly heartfelt or funny but we’ve been treated to an impeccable and refreshing script by first time writer Diablo Cody that hooks us from the start. Cody, a Minnesota native herself, has a knack for not only the atmosphere of her home state which as a fellow native Minnesotan I can say rang true which is used to great effect in Reitman’s film but is also a distinctive writer that made me recall the delightfully original scripts for Bottle Rocket and Swingers in announcing that a new writer has arrived.

Cody, a former stripper made famous from her tell-all blog, explained to Filmmaker Magazine that writing in Minnesota which is so far from all of the Hollywood glitter, marketing campaigns and commercial strategies was an experience free from all pressure and that amazingly her preparation consisted solely of purchasing a few shooting scripts for movies she liked from a local bookstore to learn the format.

Reitman who is also featured in the same interview for Filmmaker expressed throughout the piece that he’s more pleased with the filmmaking skills on display in Juno than in his terrific debut Thank You for Smoking and he’s again marked himself, along with Ellen Page and Diablo Cody as extraordinary talent to watch.

Recently I saw the film in a sneak preview which is one of many quiet audience launches sure to build hype; however it's a film that, once you’ve seen it, you begin to realize that no hype is needed since it’s all the more satisfying to just wander in and be completely entertained. Juno is indeed one of the better films I’ve seen in this half of 2007 and one richly deserving of award consideration.

Hairspray

Director:
Adam Shankman

Ain’t that a kick in the head?

First he was summer lovin’ in Grease, now unable to stop the beat in Hairspray; John Travolta must have a thing for the perfect cut and style. Vidal Sassoon, give this man a contract! Working from the stage musical by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan which was based on John Waters’ cult 80’s film, screenwriter Leslie Dixon melded together the vibrancy, humor and spunk with a terrific adaptation for director Adam Shankman. Shankman, most known for directing comedy hits such as Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and The Wedding Planner is a veteran choreographer and dance consultant for a wide variety of creative outings and his talents are put to great use with a film that, admittedly when first announced sounded like a gimmicky nightmare but ended up being one of the nicest surprises of 2007. Of course, most of the press surrounding the film centered on John Travolta’s decision to don drag for his role as Edna Turnblad which, according to IMDb caused the star more than four hours of fat suit and makeup preparation each day but he’s great in the role in a refreshingly understated bit of cross-dressing that goes against the old Hollywood adage by calling very little attention to it at all and soon into the film, we forget that Mr. Saturday Night Fever has become a Mrs. The real joy of the film is tiny Nikki Blonsky who has enough energy to rival a case of Red Bull as Tracy Turnblad, the lovely, overweight teen obsessed with dancing on The Corny Collins Show alongside her crush of the moment, the show’s handsome star Link Larkin (Zac Efron). When one of the dancers of the 1960’s Baltimore hit must take an “ahem” nine month leave of absence, Tracy and her best friend Penny (the adorable Amanda Bynes) sneak over to the set where Tracy wows host James Marsden and finds herself an arch rival in perky, blonde princess Amber von Tussle (American Dreams’ Brittany Snow) and Amber’s diva-licious stage mother Velma, played by Michelle Pfieffer as a sultry siren a la her character in The Fabulous Baker Boys. Along the way, the sunny movie that’s filled with a palette as bright and colorful as the suckers Penny incessantly devours throughout the film, doesn’t forget its roots in the 60’s by providing a great storyline that focuses on TV’s ignorant and fearful separation of the races by segregating dancers on American Bandstand like Corny Collins’s Show until Tracy befriends Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and younger dancers Elijah Kelley and Taylor Parks that cause her to act. A delightful musical with an infectious soundtrack—sadly one that was overlooked in the summer but now with its release on DVD will hopefully attract more fans in the holiday season.

Lions for Lambs

Director: Robert Redford

A liberal talk-a-thon is how most critics have described director Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, the first studio release under the watch of Tom Cruise and production partner Paula Wagner. Fittingly enough the highly verbal characters do talk enough to rival a sewing circle and perhaps instead of referencing an obscure twentieth century war quote that moviegoers may have trouble remembering, the film’s alternate title could have been How to Make an Antiwar Quilt. Following up his script for his similarly topical Middle East themed Jennifer Garner starrer The Kingdom which was directed by Peter Berg who also shows up in Lions, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan crafted a more cerebral work about the war on terror filled less with action than with controversy, sound bytes, and hypothetical what if’s that rival the heyday of CNN’s Crossfire. The Opening Night Gala film at the 2007 American Film Institute Festival, Lions for Lambs is the latest in a series of films that have crashed and burned at the box office indicating American filmgoers’ lack of appetite for movies dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and while it is ultimately filled with words that don’t speak as loudly as some of the film’s bursts of action, it’s filled with tremendous turns by its stellar cast. Tom Cruise picks up where his character in Magnolia left off as a handsome, polished and arrogant GOP senator who wields his charisma like a weapon in his near film-long interview with journalist Meryl Streep whom he invites to share his new risky strategy for the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile we’re introduced to a privileged, brainy and apathetic college student called to the office of liberal professor Robert Redford to try and engage the young man whose formerly spirited debates marked him as a scholar to watch. Redford tells the student of the last two young men who’d inspired him who attended the university on a scholarship only to volunteer for military duty in Afghanistan. The flashbacks of Michael Pena and Derek Luke as two forthright and heroic young men mark the high points of the film and tensely effective editing is employed as the talk is intercut with the plight of the two students now soldiers being affected by all of the new strategies and issues discussed in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms in America as they fight in the Middle East. Ultimately as John Wildman wrote in the AFI publication, “…arguments, memories and bullets fly…” and the talky film is an antidote to most war films but we’re nonetheless left with an unsettling feeling as the conversational circles which we all know cannot result in a quick fix are just kind of tossed aside for a quick finale that goes for a cynical punch right to the gut. Even though we know that nothing will change, Redford’s character had us believing that a slight difference could be made by concerned citizens but still, in the end, the two endearing characters we find ourselves most inspired by are not the academic, politician or writer but two young soldiers who take action because they feel they have been failed by words.

The Hole Story

Director:
Alex Karpovsky

As a native Minnesotan, I say with great affection that despite the beauty of the land of ten thousand lakes, visiting the state during the devastatingly freezing season of winter is probably one of the worst travel decisions a person could make. However, if I worked as an editor of karaoke videos like filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, I too would probably be enticed by any deviation from splicing together footage of uninspired, benign visuals set to the bouncing balls dancing over song lyrics which entertain tipsy bar patrons during happy hour. After failing to persuade any television networks to pick up his pitched reality series idea entitled Provincial Puzzlers that would investigate natural phenomena throughout small town America, Karpovsky hires a small crew including the cameraman whose footage and onscreen text comprises The Hole Story and flies from Boston, Massachusetts to Brainerd, Minnesota. Financing the project himself, Karpovsky sets out to uncover the mystery surrounding a frozen lake with an extraordinarily large hole in the midst of the ice that refuses to freeze despite record low temperatures. Of course, once in Paul Bunyan’s old stomping ground of Brainerd, Karpovsky learns that the hole has given over to peer-pressure and conformed to the rest of the lake by freezing solid. No longer a traditional puzzler, Karpovsky doesn’t do what most of us probably would do when faced with a similar situation and head back to Boston and instead opts to wait nature out until the hole reopens. Soon enough his relationship with his girlfriend disintegrates over the phone and most of the crew (save for the aforementioned off-screen cameraman) deserts the struggling filmmaker and he begins to undergo a personal, emotional, spiritual, and existential crisis crumbling under the depressingly white on white surroundings and chilly season until he has a full-blown mental breakdown. Although essentially a mockumentary or as Karpovsky calls it in Filmmaker Magazine a “fickumentary”), the independent filmmaker who indeed worked as a karaoke video editor used his own life as a jumping off point for the film which, despite never using an actual script, has played at film festivals around the country and as Matthew Ross wrote in Filmmaker made the film which is “equal measures Woody Allen and Werner Herzog… one of the most original American comedies we’ve seen in a long time.” Filled with humor and an underlying sense of melancholy that punctuates each scene and indeed makes the film begin to go from fascinating to overly indulgent near the conclusion, it’s nonetheless a cerebral Blair Witch Project sure to interest indie film buffs and psychology majors.

Kinamand

Director: Henrik Ruben Genz

From a delectable dish to matrimonial bliss? When the wife of kind but dull Keld (Bjarne Henriksen) leaves him, the Danish middle-aged plumber ventures to the Chinese grill across the street every evening for dinner and begins working his way through the numerical menu. Once he runs out of options, Keld is propositioned by Feng (Lin Kun Wu) with an offer off the menu after Keld heroically jumps to the rescue following burst kitchen pipes. The offer consists not of savory Chinese cuisine but of an arranged marriage when Feng asks the overweight, quiet man if he will marry his beautiful younger sister Ling (The Pillow Book’s Vivian Wu) so that she can stay in the country. The arrangement, according to Feng will be completely “pro forma” with absolutely no “hanky panky,” and while audiences accurately predict that romantic attachment will end up in the mix after the perfunctory ceremony is completed and the two must cohabitate to fool immigration authorities, there’s a bittersweet undertone to their relationship that develops and I was genuinely moved by the surprising ending. Winner of two awards at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Henrik Ruben Genz’s lovely international sleeper has been made available to American audiences thanks to Netflix that both carries the film in its DVD service and also offers it for instant watching online.

The Return

Director: Asif Kapadia

Even though I’d classify myself as a Patsy Cline fan, I think if I heard the opening of Sweet Dreams crackling through every radio station in the middle of the night while driving down a deserted Texas road, I would probably turn my vehicle around and get the heck out of Dodge. But then again, I’m not a character in a horror movie and had I done so, the story would’ve only been used as an amusing dinner conversation instead of Hollywood fodder. I guess it could’ve theoretically been worse—the song wafting through speakers from channels on the FM dial could’ve been Cline’s far more eerie masterpiece Crazy. In award winning British director Asif Kapadia’s American filmmaking debut, TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar plays troubled loner Joanna Mills, a twenty-five year old sales representative for a largely masculine transportation company who travels from her St. Louis home base to her native Texas for work only to begin having terrifying visions of another woman’s murder which, along with strange events (such as the aforementioned “name that tune”) propel her to play amateur detective. Beginning with a flashback to a strange vision and traumatic experience Joanna had when she was just eleven years old following a car crash, viewers realize that something far more sinister may be lurking than just a touch of psychic power as the allegedly “happy and carefree” Joanna was changed into a melancholy worrier with a self-wounding tendency by the haunting revelations that plague her. After a perfunctory visit back home to check in with her equally lonely widowed father Ed (Sam Shepard whom IMDb reports was Gellar’s dream choice for the role), Joanna befriends a handsome stranger named Terry Stahl (Peter O’Brien) and starts to investigate the situation in small LaSalle, Texas. German cinematographer Roman Osin (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) does a wonderful job of elevating the admittedly B movie that never interests us at a higher than Lifetime Television Channel level to a disturbing work of art at times with the darkly greasy color scheme filled with browns, grays and blacks but it’s an ultimately forgettable little thriller despite a surprising finale.

Helvetica

Director: Gary Hustwit

As Miss Manners would probably advise, certain controversial topics are off limits in polite dinner conversation. Politics, war and religion, yes, but typography? After watching Gary Hustwit’s surprising documentary, typography or more accurately the film’s subject of Helvetica isn’t something to be introduced lightly even over cocktails--especially when typesetters have been invited to the party. How the default font on both Apple and PC systems as well as the standard modernistic, crisp, clear and legible typeface stir up such wildly diverse opinions was beyond me but only midway through Hustwit’s film we are faced with ranging comments that call the usually benign style everything from the “most neutral typeface” to one woman who refers to it as fascistic and representative of both the Vietnam and Iraq war. Created fifty years ago in Switzerland, Helvetica was originally given the name “Neue Haas Grotesk” before they realized that marketing something with such a dark name to American audiences probably was ill-advised so it was first given Helvetia which is the Latin name of Switzerland until, not wanting to name something after a country, the compromise to Helvetica was made. Originally launched as the antidote to old-fashioned style, Helvetica’s smooth, and accessible efficiency has made it the most popular font in the world and one used for IRS tax forms, numerous car companies, and countless logos and advertisements for everything from The Gap to American Airlines. Far from my prediction that talking about Helvetica is like “dancing about architecture” to quote the old line about discussing love-- only minutes into Helvetica the movie professionals working within the field liken the font used on New York signage to bland “crap” such as off-white paint or McDonald’s. While not all of the interviewees loathe the typeface in question, Hustwit’s point about the need for discussion and options is made by the film’s halfway mark and causes his documentary (which runs less than 90 minutes) to overstay its welcome but it’s still an intriguingly eye-opening little movie sure to delight devotees of words, design and Americana. Note: just this week, director Gary Hustwit was nominated for the Truer Than Fiction Independent Spirit Award 2008.

The Treatment

Director:
Oren Rudavsky

Ever since I saw Chris Eigeman in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, I became a fan of the actor’s uniquely neurotic delivery of dialogue and the way he can make the most complicated paragraphs of scripted words sound naturally effortless. Over the years, since his scene stealing performance in Stillman’s Metropolitan, Eigeman has attracted some truly innovative writers such as Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) and television scribes including Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) and Peter Mehlman (It’s Like You Know). Therefore it’s only fitting that the favorite character actor of wordsmiths is portraying an English teacher at an upper class New York prep school in his latest film. In Oren Rudavsky’s The Treatment which was co-written by Rudavsky and Daniel Saul Housman based on the book by Daniel Menaker, Eigeman plays teacher Jake Singer who’s reached a dead-end in not only his professional life but personal one as well. His only “long-term” relationship (if you could call it that) is with Dr. Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm), Jake’s unorthodox Argentine psychiatrist who uses strange tactics and insults to try and help his patient. While the focus of the film (especially given the title) is on Jake’s therapy as he tries to get over his past love and becomes romantically interested in wealthy widow Allegra Marshall (Famke Janssen), I found that the least interesting storyline and was far more intrigued by Allegra’s situation which grew more complicated throughout. Utilizing the award-winning MacArthur Foundation Genius award recipient John Zorn who created the film’s score and gifted cinematographer Andrij Parekh (Half Nelson), it’s a beautiful if slightly disappointing work that should nonetheless win over Eigeman’s fans. Winner of the Best Film Made in New York award at the Tribeca Film Festival where the film premiered, it has also made the rounds of some of our most respected festivals before New Yorker Films released the DVD.

12/02/2007

Poll #2 Results

Checking back in to post the results from the second and far more popular poll.


This time around the question was:


"How did you hear about the site?"

And the results were as follows:


"I know Jen." (16%)
IMDb (48%)
Scottsdale Film Festival (1%)
Scottsdale Public Library (8%)
Web Search Engine Results (20%)
Other (4%)

Hmm, math was never my strong suit but the blogger results don't quite reach 100%. Still, there was definitely a pattern forming there!

Thanks for voting and stay tuned for the next poll.

11/25/2007

Martian Child

Director: Menno Meyjes

Unlike other prospective adoptive parents, David (John Cusack) tells his sister Liz (Joan Cusack) that he doesn’t want a happy little Gap kid who goes with the flow. When Dennis, a six year old boy who spends most of his time in an oversized Amazon.com cardboard box (complete with the “Fragile: handle with care” warning) is ready for adoption, caring and good-natured Sophie (Sophie Okonedo) believes she has the ideal match for David. The fact that the previously emotionally abused Dennis believes he is from the planet Mars has classified him as difficult to place so Sophie figures that David, a successful and admittedly odd science fiction writer may be just the right key to unlocking the mysteries of Dennis’s world. Dutch Academy Award nominated writer turned director Menno Meyjes reunites with his Max star Cusack for this touching film based on the book by David Gerrold that channeled his feelings as a gay science fiction writer adopting a son in an appealing screenplay by Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins. Obviously fearing the market for a film about a gay father, Cusack plays a straight widowed writer still reeling from the death of his wife two years earlier who finds himself questioning the justification in adopting the child he and his wife had wanted alone. As Roger Ebert notes, “few actors in the right role can be sweeter or more lovable than John Cusack…” and this is precisely the case yet again as from the moment the film begins and his character is explaining his past as a childhood outcast, we’re instinctively on his side and buy the film even at its most ridiculous and its most precious as the endearing David caters to the whims of his new “Martian” boy by purchasing numerous boxes of Lucky Charms at the local grocery store (the only food he eats) and helping him with his duct taped homemade battery weight belt to prevent the boy from “floating” away. The film features a winning Amanda Peet as the free-spirited Harlee, David’s best friend who bonds with Dennis and expectedly finds her relationship with Cusack complicated by his incessant flirting that, despite its feeling of ritual does eventually result in a subtle romantic subplot that luckily doesn’t veer the film away from its roots as a parent and child film. While some critics labeled it K-Pax meets About a Boy, I found the entire concept charming and handled with the utmost sophistication until I’d say about three fourths of the way through the film when it began to suffer from I Am Sam syndrome with one too many endings and a few contrivances that tried to bog the quirky movie down to a saccharine melodrama with forced speeches and predictable plot points. I actually found myself wondering at what point the film started to veer off course in the production in either the rewrite stage or test market but it may indeed have been the latter as IMDb cited a Los Angeles Times article revealing that director Jerry Zucker was brought in to film new footage only a few months ago. Still, despite the endings, Cusack is always a joy and Martian Child will definitely strike a chord with audiences who seek it out amidst the large spectacle films of the holiday season.