10/30/2007

Michael Clayton

Director: Tony Gilroy

Blame it on Danny Ocean. The onscreen film persona of George Clooney is hard to separate from not simply the suave and debonair characters he plays in Ocean’s Eleven and other films but also George Clooney in real life adorning the covers of countless magazines on a given grocery store rack.

Of course, it doesn’t help when even in a film like Michael Clayton where he plays a “fixer” of problems (an associate calls him a miracle worker) for a top New York law firm with a weakness for high stakes poker, when the makeup artist applies copious amounts of eyeliner and mascara to make him all the more Vanity Fair ready and a book lying casually out in the open for the camera to pan across is entitled Alpha Male.

This being said, Clooney is, as always, an engaging and commanding screen presence, turning in a fine portrayal but it’s the supporting players, most notably the fierce and taut performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson that steal the film.

Michael Clayton
, which was nominated for the 2007 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, marks the directorial debut of writer Tony Gilroy who penned the wildly popular Bourne scripts for the blockbuster Matt Damon trilogy.

After Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), his colleague stops taking his bipolar medication and flips out unprofessionally, Clooney’s Clayton is sent for damage control, later realizing that Edens may have been onto something much larger in scope in his sabotage of a class-action multimillion dollar lawsuit settlement facing agricultural corporation U/North, whose legal head Swinton is trying to control as well by any means necessary.

Employing a crisp muted color scheme in its cinematography by Robert Elswit (Magnolia, Good Night, and Good Luck)—the film is sophisticated fare for adults that recalls high quality Grisham thrillers popular in the 90’s and indeed Firm director Sydney Pollack co-produces and stars in Clayton, but the film has been praised way out of proportion by critics all clamoring under the star power of the vehicle in trying to predict Oscar season.

One thing remains certain, however and that is if Oscar comes calling, there is no one worthier in Clayton than the impressive but often overlooked Wilkinson who shows us the same passion and precision evidenced in his previous Oscar nominated turn for In the Bedroom.

Rare Birds

Director: Sturla Gunnarsson

In the tradition of Saving Grace, Waking Ned Devine and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, comes this offbeat Canadian comedy drama centers on a talented New York chef named Dave (William Hurt) whose Newfoundland restaurant The Auk is facing closure due to lack of interest. In order to prevent his best friend from leaving, Dave’s clever, paranoid and scheming dreamer sidekick Phonce (Andy Jones) concocts an ingenious plan to attract clientele by faking the sighting of an extremely rare bird. After the plan is set in motion and the popular local radio show vouches the fake tale, the tiny town is flooded by arrivals hoping to spot the bird and of course, sample Dave’s cuisine along the way. Meanwhile Dave finds himself falling for Phonce’s beautiful younger relative, college student Alice (capable character actress Molly Parker) and involved with a more dangerous plot involving Phonce’s discovery of a large quantity of drugs he’s found ashore. Written by Edward Riche who adapted the script from his own novel, the critically acclaimed production suffered a misfortunate fate in scheduling as it was set to make its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11, 2001 according to critic Roger Ebert. While there was a makeup screening, understandably due to the horrors surrounding that terrible event, it was ill-attended and Rare Birds was carted off to a few festivals (earning the Audience Award at the Atlantic Film Festival) before being dumped onto DVD shelves. However, it’s worth tracking down for fans of Hurt looking for a fun ensemble piece that benefits greatly from the homey feel of the Newfoundland setting and can be screened 24/7 online as part of Netflix’s new Watch Instantly feature.

Fun fact: according to IMDb, the production was completed in just thirty days save for the final shot which was postponed seven months due to a snowfall. While the bulk of the budget had been spent on the production, the Lasse Hallstrom production of The Shipping News was filming nearby and the News crew shared some of their own manpower and equipment to help finish Rare Birds.


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Jane Eyre

Director: Susanna White

Nominated for more than a dozen British and American Emmy awards, Bleak House director Susanna White crafts this sweeping two part miniseries for Masterpiece Theatre based on the 1847 novel by Charlotte Bronte. Adapted by Sandy Welch, the classic tale of a young headstrong girl who endures cruelty as a child at the hands of her aunt and a severe boarding school for girls to become the governess of a wealthy Englishman’s ward when she is old enough to leave is given an exquisite retelling with beautiful gothic imagery, sweeping panoramic views and a sensuality that was always lacking from other versions. Ruth Wilson makes a convincing Jane in her first role (according to IMDb) opposite the impressive Toby Stephens as Edward Rochester who at times threatens to overpower the quiet young actress but the two instead have excellent chemistry and form a romantic dynamic that radiates off the screen. Made by the partnership of the BBC and PBS television and now released on DVD, Susanna White’s adaptation of Jane Eyre is the most complete one in recent memory and well worth a look for lovers of the Bronte sisters and devotees of English period literature.


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Big Nothing

Director:
Jean-Baptiste Andrea

In a role that couldn’t be further away from his Friends character Ross, actor David Schwimmer stars in this dark crime comedy about inept blackmailers who decide to try for one big score wherein anything and everything goes horribly, violently wrong. With his police officer wife (Natascha McElhone) bringing home the bulk of the family income, struggling writer Charlie Wood (Schwimmer) reluctantly takes a job at a computer technology call center to help provide for his wife and daughter. After being fired on his first day, he is approached by coworker Gus (Simon Pegg) to blackmail Reverend Smalls, an avid user of adult websites with membership to some especially unsavory online addresses. They team up with former beauty queen Josie (Alice Eve) after she overhears the two planning their scheme in a bar, which most audience members agree should be the first sign that they’re not quite cut out for a life of crime. After a quirky and surprisingly humorous opening, everything disintegrates into a shocking and sometimes disturbing fashion. Set in Big Falls, Oregon, writers Billy Asher and Jean-Baptiste Andrea (who also directs) will attract fans of the indie crime genre looking for something different however the film’s maddeningly vague ending makes viewers question the fate of the main character in a way that lacks solid resolution. Overall, Big Nothing is far more entertaining than one would expect and a film that definitely shines a whole new light on the talent of Schwimmer who had previously been typecast as Ross.

Cautiva

Director:
Gaston Biraben

After what feels like only a few minutes into this unnerving portrait sure to rattle parents everywhere, Argentine teenage student Cristina Quadri (Barbara Lombardo) is removed from her Catholic school and taken to see a judge who informs her that her real name is Sofia Lombardi and she is the daughter of two political activists who were among the estimated thirty thousand people who “disappeared” during the country’s “dirty war” and last dictatorship. Sent to live with the biological grandmother she's never met, Cristina understandably struggles with the revelation but after befriending another girl (one of the roughly seventy-four recovered) begins looking into her genealogy and what happened in the 1970’s during that tumultuous political era that is so vast that most of the participants haven’t been caught, still remaining in Argentina and as the film states, protected by governmental laws. Obviously a highly personal and passionate film from first time writer and director Gaston Biraben, a former sound department contributor on movies such as Return to Me, The Fugitive and My Cousin Vinny, Biraben’s film triumphs due to its emotional impact and impressively mature young actress in the lead role but Cristina/Sofia’s acclimation to her new environment feels a bit rushed. Cautiva, now released on DVD and available for both rental and instant watching on Netflix earned five international awards and six nominations.



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Mr. Brooks

Director:
Bruce A. Evans

Following in the footsteps of actors like Harrison Ford in What Lies Beneath, Tom Cruise in Collateral and Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition, All-American actor Kevin Costner (most famous for Ron Shelton sports comedies and the bad haircut from The Bodyguard) takes on the role of a killer in Mr. Brooks. Seemingly inspired by Jekyll and Hyde, the film opens as Costner’s box factory owner Earl Brooks wins an award as Man of the Year. Soon after the ceremony, Earl is prodded by his alter ego Marshall to come back from his two year hiatus and commit more murder as the Thumbprint Killer. Marshall is played by William Hurt who gets the film’s best lines time and time again, recalling that even in small roles like this and History of Violence he remains one of our most fascinating players. After the double homicide, the troubled Earl tries one more time to go clean from his murderous addiction by attending AA meetings in his Portland, Oregon community but four characters seem to prevent him from doing that. The first is Marshall who whispers sour nothings into his ear on a regular basis and seems to have keen insight into the arrival of two more characters early on—Dane Cook as a genuinely creepy engineer and voyeur who, having snapped photos of the latest crime, wants to be Brooks’s sidekick for the next murder, and Jane, Earl’s daughter who suddenly returns home from her freshman year of college with more than a few shocking revelations that seem to indicate that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Demi Moore shows up looking determined and justifiably angry as the foremost expert on the Thumbprint Killer and, having caught numerous notorious criminals in her detective career has a hard time separating her messy divorce from her money hungry soon to be ex from not only the Thumbprint case but another serial killer who’s arrived back in town. If it sounds overly complicated, it is—too many characters make the narrative focus uneven and we feel cheated by some of the more interesting characters—especially the Jane storyline—being left to the sidelines. While this may have been the director’s intention all along as Costner stated, according to IMDb that Mr. Brooks is the first in a trilogy of films, audiences will feel a let down from the rushed film and a few gaping plot holes and logical questions that don’t ring true such as Mr. Brooks’s unintelligent choice to change his disguise in broad daylight or even more hard to believe, his picking up Cook’s Smith in the same vicinity several nights in a row at the exact same time for their strange killer camaraderie of Mr. Smith and Mr. Brooks—or what one could call the yuppie sociopath version of Reservoir Dogs.

Double Whammy

Director: Tom DiCillo

Former Jim Jarmusch cinematographer turned writer/director Tom DiCillo made a huge independent film splash with his Sundance favorite Living in Oblivion in the early 1990’s. Several years later he still proves a penchant for crafting larger than life satirical comedy capers such as this one which stars comedian Denis Leary as New York Police Detective Ray Pluto, who, after the tragic loss of his wife and daughter in a hit and run years earlier spends most of his weeknights getting stoned while watching cheerleader exercise videos. When the film opens, he and police partner Jerry (DiCillo regular Steve Buscemi) debate over which one should go into a fast food place to order lunch with Jerry citing his bum knee as his reason to wait. Suddenly a crazed shooter kills six people in broad daylight and while trying to intervene, Pluto suffers an extreme back spasm, accidentally knocks himself out cold and his gun slides across the floor where it’s picked up by a child who uses it to take out the murderer. After the press dubs him “Loser Cop,” Pluto is assigned light duty with a majority of his cases being given to chief’s pet Chris Noth, while he reluctantly tries to overcome his chiropractor prejudice and eventually breaks down to see gorgeous chiropractor Elizabeth Hurley who not only manages to help cure his back pain but captures Pluto’s heart as well. Colorful and fast paced—Double Whammy seems like a live action cartoon that borders on the ridiculous at times with the introduction of far too many quirky characters and some whom we as an audience never warm up to such as two aspiring screenwriters who wear brightly colored suits and plan their seemingly Tarantino-inspired screenplay and dream about a Cannes victory and the annoying daughter of building super Luis Guzman who hires some thugs to get her father when he refuses to grant her permission to be tattooed. Still, DiCillo’s film is fresh and funny with enough good material to keep us watching and one that does successfully blend hip dialogue and crime comedy together in this now overly popular independent film subgenre.

Starter for Ten

Director: Tom Vaughan

Fun trifle produced by Playtone’s Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman in association with the BBC and HBO brings viewers to 1985 England where a young working-class boy packs off to attend Bristol University with the hopes of becoming a champion on TV’s University Challenge. Adapting directly from his own novel, David Nicholls’ intelligent screenplay provides a wonderful alternative to American coming-of-age in college films about fraternities and sex by taking a more realistic, yet hilarious look at insecure Brian Jackson (a terrific James McAvoy) who finds himself torn between blonde bombshell Alice (Alice Eve) and brainy beauty Rebecca (Rebecca Epstein). Featuring a terrific soundtrack of 80’s new wave classics and painful wardrobe and hair choices, Starter for Ten is forgettable but likable entertainment in the tradition of Hanks’ other Playtone productions My Big Fat Greek Wedding and That Thing You Do. Look for a nice supporting turn by up and coming star Dominic Cooper (who also made a splash in The History Boys) in his role as Brian’s rebellious friend. Tom Vaughan’s film netted the director and writer an Advance Screening award from the Austin Film Festival and was also nominated for the Best British Film of 2007 from the Empire Awards, UK.

A Mighty Heart


Director:
Michael Winterbottom

For what Variety called his first studio film, director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) tackled the true and heart-wrenching story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and eventual murder that took place in the winter of 2002. Based on the book written by Mariane Pearl and adapted by Band of Brothers screenwriter John Orloff, A Mighty Heart is a devastating and tense docudrama cinematically similar to The Constant Gardener that features a dynamic yet subtle performance by Angelina Jolie as Mariane who, very pregnant, kisses her husband goodbye as he steps into a cab, never to see him again. Officials, government specialists and colleagues and others wait alongside Mariane while trying to follow Daniel’s final story in Karachi, Pakistan that led to his disappearance and shocking end that horrified citizens around the globe. Editor Peter Christelis and Danish cinematographer Marcel Zyskind heighten the already tangible tension as we hold our breaths—and although we know what’s coming, it’s all the more upsetting when we are placed by Winterbottom in the house of his soon to be widow. A finely crafted film that features Jolie’s best work since her Academy Award winning turn in Girl, Interrupted.

Novel Romance



Director: Emily Skopov

Sharply written (sometimes overly so) chick flick stars Traci Lords as Max Normane, a brainy fast-talking, highly successful editor known for her incredible taste and ability to transform mediocre writing into the stuff of legends in her literary magazine URBANITY. After realizing that her love life isn’t as easily controlled as the pages she can attack with her trusty red pen, she sets a peculiar plan in motion to have a baby by offering a decidedly indecent proposal to a young up-and-coming writer Jake Buckley (Paul Johansson) whom she will publish provided that he agree to not only her rewrites and editorial notes but also if he provides a much needed donation in her quest for artificial insemination. After a clumsy start that made Novel Romance feel like a Sex and the City version of a Lifetime or Oxygen network movie, the film becomes a surprisingly entertaining time-waster—a fluffy beach read from television series staff writer Emily Skopov set to film and while we’re never sure we’re in agreement (at any time) with Lords’ domineering perfectionist, it’s still a humorous concept to see a woman wielding power to demand a favor, which goes against the Pretty Woman, Indecent Proposal Can’t Buy Me Love (and the list goes on) mindset of American movies.

10/24/2007

Things We Lost in the Fire


Director: Susanne Bier

Returning to the harrowing personal drama he perfected in 21 Grams, Academy Award winning Traffic star Benicio Del Toro takes on another intimate and demanding role in Danish director Susanne Bier’s first English language film, Things We Lost in the Fire. Bier, whose most recent movie After the Wedding was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film award, works from a script from debut screenwriter Allan Loeb that plays off her interest in personal tragedy and family dynamics most evident in not only Wedding but also Brothers and Open Hearts. The result is an uneven but powerfully acted and intelligent drama that seems to recall the classic women’s weepie cinema of Douglas Sirk in the 1950’s (which was brought back to the big screen a few years ago in Haynes’s Far From Heaven). Halle Berry makes the most of her difficult role as Audrey Burke, an upper class Washington state housewife whose picture perfect marriage to David Duchovny is cut short when he intervenes in a domestic quarrel and ends up shot in a tragic murder/suicide. Left reeling from the horror of the unexpected death and trying to keep up appearances for her two young children (Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry), Audrey reaches out to the troubled Jerry (Del Toro), her husband’s lifelong best friend and former successful lawyer, now living in a seedy motel addicted to heroin. After Audrey instinctively but surprisingly invites Jerry to live in her vacant garage, he tries once again for sobriety while bonding with the children and helping Audrey work through the pain. Del Toro and Berry’s scenes together are explosive and filled with the kind of performances sure to draw Oscar attention (and deservedly so, especially in Del Toro’s case) but despite that, the film still feels a bit too cut off from reality and Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review in Entertainment Weekly attacked the lack of authenticity head on with her thoughts that it’s “still a TV-scaled tear-duct drama about a beautiful woman who pushes past sadness in her House and Garden home.” While I still felt that it was a worthwhile film, especially for fans of Bier (and Sirk for that matter), I do hope that in Bier’s next film, she’ll contribute to the screenplay herself given her vast experience and roots in the Dogme film movement and bring more of her unique style of shooting to the finished product that go beyond a few impressionistic reaction shots.

Hot Fuzz

Related Review:
The World's End

Director: Edgar Wright

Bad Brits, Bad Brits, Whatcha Gonna Do?




In this inventive spoof of American buddy cop films, the Shaun of the Dead duo (Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright) reunite for Hot Fuzz bringing their distinctive blend of hyper cuts, ironic dialogue matched with contradictory images and witty banter to a film that I liked even more than their previous one.



Pegg stars as Nicholas Angell, the literal "Goody Two Shoes" London police officer (the song even plays during his introduction) whose arrest record is 400% higher than any other officer in the entire department. In the simplest terms, the prodigy with the badge is not only a criminal’s worst nightmare but that of his coworkers as well and, tired of looking like slackers, they give him a promotion and send him off to a country department in Sanford, a town with low crime but increasingly deadly accidents that Nicholas quickly believes to be foul play, making him unpopular in his new community.

Of course, this isn’t helped by the fact that on his first night there, he arrests what seems to be half the town for various offenses, only to realize that one of the men he apprehended is to be his new partner, the eager and hilarious Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), son of the Inspector who plies his partner with questions about carnage and danger.

In a humorous play on the homoerotic subtext of cop films made in the states, Butterman invites Angell in for a night of drinking together on the sofa during a cozy double feature of Point Break and Bad Boys II that seems all the more entertaining after discovering on IMDb that early drafts of Hot Fuzz had given Angell a love interest who was cut from the shooting script but lots of her original dialogue was given instead to Butterman “often without any changes.”

Featuring great bits by Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Steve Coogan and two nearly unrecognizable cameos by Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson, the film also offers up two juicy roles for Timothy Dalton as a sadistic grocery store owner and Jim Broadbent as the Inspector unsure of how to deal with his new employee, other than making sure he enforces the swear box policy. A movie that, like Mike Judge’s Office Space, is sure to draw an even bigger following on DVD, Hot Fuzz is best shared with friends, especially those up on their 80’s and 90’s American cop movies.


This Is My Father

Director: Paul Quinn

Inspired by a story the mother of the Quinn brothers overheard as a girl growing up in Ireland, This Is My Father marks the impressive filmmaking debut of writer/director Paul Quinn with this heartbreakingly moving and tender love story. Despite an overly long set-up featuring the always charismatic James Caan as burned out high school teacher Kieran Johnson, the film quickly finds its footing once Johnson along with his nephew depart present day Chicago and return to their ancestral Ireland to try and learn more about Kieran’s father whom he never knew after discovering an old picture and inscription in a book of poems in his ailing mother’s belongings. Once in Ireland, Kieran and his nephew meet up with fortune teller Moira Deady and her money-hungry son (Colm Meaney) who begin to tell the men the story of their free-spirited, rebellious mother Fiona back when she was a seventeen year old girl and fell in love with the elder Kieran O’Day an introverted orphaned famer played by the always effective Aidan Quinn. Beautiful and bold newcomer Moya Farrelly admirably holds her own opposite veteran Aidan Quinn in a difficult role as the lovers begin an awkward courtship that’s threatened by the overbearing and guilt inducing hellfire and brimstone sermons at the local Irish Catholic parish and Fiona’s bitter alcoholic mother, the Widow Flynn (Gina Moxley). In spite of the Widow’s efforts to prevent her independent daughter from continuing to frolic with Kieran, the two begin spending more time with one another and on a memorable trip to the city, find themselves surprised by the arrival of the man in the sky—John Cusack who brings a much needed air of joyful energy to the film as a Life Magazine photographer who lands on the beach and befriends them for an evening. Although we know that the love story will end tragically, this gorgeous and sweepingly old fashioned tale is made all the more memorable thanks to Declan Quinn’s gorgeous cinematography, who as he did in Monsoon Wedding, In America and Leaving Las Vegas reminds us once again that he’s one of the greats. While Paul Quinn was criticized for “barely mask[ing] his contempt for organized religion,” by Variety’s Leonard Klady who felt that This Is My Father “comes to the dark conclusion that there is no reward for decency,” I found the deeply heartfelt and personal movie to be a fitting one for its genre and time period, reminding me of a tragic Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens novel. Quinn’s Canadian and Irish coproduction which premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival is one that shouldn’t be missed on DVD.

Heights

“Everything looks perfect from far away.”
– Iron and Wine’s “Such Great Heights”


Director: Chris Terrio

Call it Magnolia on a smaller scale without the rain of frogs. Chris Terrio’s ambitious Altmanesque drama centers on a handful of New Yorkers all grappling with relationship issues over a period of twenty-four hours. Based on the play by Amy Fox (who co-wrote the film with Terrio), the film explores the adage usually given to men of the sins of the father going to the son but with the gender reversal it’s a look at the intimate lives of a mother and her daughter that captures our hearts in Heights. Glenn Close portrays Diana Lee—a famous actress (much like Close herself) who divides her busy schedule with teaching, directing and acting while trying not to fixate on the fact that her husband has broken the bounds of their casual open relationship by falling in love with Close’s younger, beautiful understudy. On the same day, we meet Diana’s daughter Isabel (the likable Invincible star Elizabeth Banks), an ambitious and talented photographer who seems to be having second thoughts in her upcoming marriage to handsome lawyer Jonathan (James Marsden) whom she chats with back and forth via walkie-talkies, in a unique and cute alternative to cell phones. We also meet Jesse Bradford’s Alec, a gifted young actor who catches the attention of Diana along with Peter (John Light), a writer working on a famous photographer’s memoirs journeys to New York from England where he meets with the exes of his own male lover (including a small but capable turn by Rufus Wainwright) for an intimate story he’s working on for Vanity Fair only to stumble on some of the same characters in the film who aren’t quite receptive to his questioning. Although some of the film is easy to predict, it still feels true and is so exquisitely crafted by writers Fox and Terrio along with a talented cast that we’re completely taken in by yet another sophisticated and involving Merchant Ivory production—especially considering that this time it was refreshingly made for twenty-first century audiences.

Tell Them Who You Are

Director: Mark S. Wexler

Midway through the emotionally charged documentary Tell Them Who You Are helmed by the son of two time Academy Award winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Haskell tells son Mark and viewers that he believes most directors are stupid and states, “I don’t think there’s a movie I’ve been on that I didn’t think I could direct better.” While such arrogance is shocking to say the least, it’s even more so when faced with Haskell Wexler’s enviable filmography which reads like an impressive history of some of the most important American filmmaking including Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ashby’s Coming Home and Bound For Glory, Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night and George Lucas’s American Graffiti. This isn’t even taking into account the impressive films in which Wexler senior was removed from during the shoot such as Coppola’s The Conversation, Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Malick’s Days of Heaven. When faced with the sweepingly gorgeous scope of these films, it’s easy to become entranced by Wexler and given to hero worship as he is one of the greats of all time, responsible for innovative techniques such as helping to pioneer cinema verite, mount cameras to capture tracking and dolly shots on his own long before the equipment was there and his innate ability to play with light, shadow and color that’s all the more astounding considering his partial color-blindness. However, Medium Cool director Wexler wasn’t interested in a standard mythic biography filled with glowing anecdotes and sunny memories—instead, in the hands of his son who has followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a filmmaker (documentarian) and noted photojournalist but adopted the opposite political views of his liberal father’s background, there’s a lot of pain in their relationship that’s evident from the opening as a simply request to establish scene brings about a downward spiral of profanities and judgment. The tone of Tell Them Who You Are is best described as uneasy—it’s not a by-the-numbers documentary by any means and there’s a lot of anger and attitude that charge each frame (sometimes the men explode back and forth) yet there’s also a large amount of love and respect and while you feel a bit as though you’re catching a glimpse of a family fight you want to creep back away from, it’s hard to ignore. Filled with balanced interviews from some famous associates who range in their views from adoring to irritated, Mark tracks down Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Paul Newman and others, Wexler’s film which played at the Toronto International Film Festival is a must for classic American film buffs and for those curious about the usage of the medium of documentary filmmaking for exploratory and challenging portraits.

Jam

Director:
Craig Serling

Last month, I found myself trapped in a Phoenix elevator during the one hundred degree heat with five other people and a nine month pregnant woman. While it was alarming to say the least, the entire situation seemed so unreal that for the twenty minute ordeal, we found ourselves both trying to resourcefully come up with ways out, use humorous defense mechanisms and mostly stay stagnant in disbelief. This being said, it felt like something out of a movie and since then I’ve found myself intrigued by movies that arbitrary stick people together and watch how they respond. While it seems like a great opportunity for characters to open up, the strangers and I never shared as much as a first name although no doubt that would’ve changed had the woman gone into labor so it was entertaining to watch how quickly the fictitious characters in Craig Serling’s Jam began exchanging extremely personal information. Craig Serling (whose relative is the legendary and imaginative television pioneer Rod Serling) followed in Rod’s footsteps editing television shows ranging from Survivor to The Amazing Race and eventually created a short film in 2004 entitled Jam.

Working with co-writer Nicole Lonner, he took the premise of the short about a lesbian who goes into labor during a traffic jam and she and her partner try to deliver the baby safely and decided to revisit the same imaginary jam and explore the stories of other drivers and passengers on a hot day when stalled on a rural mountain road after a dog darts into traffic, causing a swerve and crash that brings dangerous live power lines to the ground.

Ironically, the plot of the short film is the least believable of the longer version of Jam as the two hippie women enlist the help of criminals hiding out in a stolen RV to deliver the child au natural and instead we find ourselves drawn in to a few of the more powerful stories including one about a good-natured and hard-working father who, divorced from a wife he still may have feelings for, tries to let his kids know that he’s accepted a promotion and will be seeing them even less. Taking place on Father’s Day, this admittedly episodic film has some moments that are too preposterous to be believed and characters who seem to be cardboard cutouts going through the motions but the script is admirable and the goal of introducing us to fifteen wildly diverse travelers at major crossroads in their own lives undoubtedly helped the screenwriters earn the 2006 Independent Spirit Award from the Santa Fe Film Festival.



The cast includes some familiar faces and impressive newcomers including Christopher Amitrano, Alex Rocco, Jonathan Silverman, Gina Torres, Tess Harper, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste that all help remind us that—similar to the REM song by the same name that also featured a huge traffic jam in its popular 90’s music video— everybody hurts.

Brooklyn Rules

Director: Michael Corrente

As a part Italian film buff, I grew up with the family tradition of watching The Godfather trilogy every single year. To my family, it’s not a film about the mafia; it’s a film about family that uses the mafia as a Shakespearean and operatic backdrop. This being said, sometimes I’m accused of looking to Coppola’s epic far too often but in regards to this film, I think it’s not only warranted but it’s damn near impossible to watch Brooklyn Rules without comparing it to other mob films especially The Godfather. Yes, The Godfather—not just because Brooklyn stars Scott Caan who is the spitting image of his father James and in this film Scott plays a character very similar to his dad’s Sonny Corleone but also because the other two main characters in the film recall the other Corleone brothers Michael and Fredo and one is even named Michael. Although penned by Sopranos writer Terence Winter and often compared to De Niro’s A Bronx Tale, this film chronicles the story of three tight knit Brooklyn friends whose lives change during the fateful year of 1985 as they struggle with decisions involving loyalty and love. Freddie Prinze Jr. manages to wipe all of his bad 90’s teen movies from our memory with his portrayal of Michael, the attractive and intelligent Columbia student who, nearing graduation uses a cocky narration to tell of his artistry in scamming his way through essays and his goal to attend law school and get out of his doomed environment where far too many of his neighbors are ending up involved in the escalating crime wars that result in the bold, infamous murder of Gambino boss Paul Castellano by Gotti’s men on December 16. After he meets beautiful Ellen (Mena Suvari playing a Kay Corleone like WASP), Michael feels the strain in his relationship with the friends he considers brothers—womanizing Carmine (Scott Caan), who grew up idolizing local mobster Caesar Manganaro and has started to become involved in this thing of theirs and Jerry Ferrara as Bobby, the sweet but slightly slow friend whose goals are far les ambitious and consist of marrying his longtime girlfriend and becoming a postal worker. While Bobby is the butt of many jokes in regards to his frugal spending and movie musical knowledge, those of us who have seen too many mob movies know exactly what’s going to happen to him but Winter’s clever script breaks our hearts all the same and as Mick La Salle said in his San Francisco Chronicle review that when it comes to accurately depicting life in Brooklyn, Corrente’s film can be added “to the short list of movies that get it right.” While the narration near the beginning sets us up for what we believe is going to be a B movie—some of the dialogue seems to be a nostalgic crib of GoodFellas, the film works because we believe the relationship we’re seeing between the three men, not only when trying to sort out the rest of their lives but also in the lighter moments such as a hilarious and eye-opening analysis by Caan as he debates the logic of the end of Zemeckis’ Back to the Future with Prinze.

10/23/2007

Jesse James...

Complete Title:
The Assassination of Jesse James
by the Coward Robert Ford
Director: Andrew Dominik




Despite Brad Pitt’s highly publicized and surprising win as Best Actor from the Venice Film Festival for his role as Jesse James, the film with the ten word title (a marquee nightmare) belongs to Casey Affleck. In the past, Casey has turned in fine if mostly understated supporting roles in independent movies but in 2007 with a role in this film and his brother Ben’s directorial effort Gone Baby Gone, he’s ready for his close-up.

Recalling the introspective, sensitive and painful emotions expressed by Dean in the 50’s or Newman in the 60’s, his role as Robert Ford also brings to mind the performance that launched his good friend and brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix in the 90’s in Van Sant’s To Die For. While the burden of a title that sums up the climax of the movie is that the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen (also because it’s the stuff of American infamy), clocking in at an exhaustive one hundred and sixty minutes admittedly wears on the patience of audiences who recently enjoyed the faster paced 3:10 to Yuma and weren’t game for a Sergio Leone styled western opus, we are enraptured due to the impressive performances of a cast filled with character actors and the lush cinematography by Roger Deakins.

Deakins who has served as the frequent collaborator on Coen Brothers movies with his exquisite photography (the only saving grace in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for example) has dazzled audiences for decades but some of the visuals in Jesse James will leave you breathless with their artistry by blurring the edges of the shots like we’re in the middle of an optometrist’s shop playing with lenses to better study certain scenes and getting us lost in the western landscape (with Canada standing in as America).

However, the acting and the visuals can’t make up for the bloated running time that had audiences shifting in their seats after only twenty minutes of slowly paced scenes that were summed up by The Hollywood Reporter as follows, “pointlessly long takes, repetitive scenes, grim Western landscapes and mumbled, heavily accented dialogue,” coupled with their belief that, “word of mouth may kill the movie faster than Robert Ford killed Jesse James.”

While I do agree that the complicated and as Ebert pointed out homoerotic relationship between hero-worshipping Ford with his idol the abusive Jesse James, whom Pitt intriguingly plays as bipolar in a stereotype busting role, does get a bit lost throughout, the turns by the rest of the cast including Sam Rockwell (always a joy) as Charley Ford and Paul Schneider as Dick Liddl help add fuel to New Zealand writer/director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the novel by Ron Hansen.

Although it’s worth the theatrical investment just to see Deakins’ majestic sequences on a large screen, staying highly caffeinated may help keep you awake through this film that does rival Days of Heaven and The New World for ponderous, leisurely and overly contemplative scene after scene that’s an admirable if unsuccessful antidote to another summer of Guy Ritchie-esque MTV action films.

10/22/2007

SPL Winter Series Films Announced

After taking into consideration all of the wonderful feedback from patrons during our summer run, I'm happy to announce the next batch of titles selected for my Sunday Film Discussion Series at Scottsdale Public Library. I've already received notes and information regarding more title suggestions from some of you for the spring if the series is extended so keep those ideas coming. Note: as of now, we don't have an agreement with Sony Pictures Classics, The Weinstein Company, or Fox Studios to show their films so unfortunately I wasn't able to get Once or a few of the other ones we were shooting for.


Here's the details:



CC Winter Film Discussions Sundays at 1:30 pm
Scottsdale Library: Civic Center Branch



Main Auditorium (Lower Level)
Hosted by Jen Johans

December 2: Stranger than Fiction
(Directed by Marc Forster)

December 9: What’s Cooking?
(Directed by Gurinder Chadha)

January 6: Two Family House
(Directed by Raymond De Felitta)

January 20: Matchstick Men
(Directed by Ridley Scott)

February 3: You Can Count On Me
(Directed by Kenneth Lonergan)

February 17: Finding Forrester
(Directed by Gus Van Sant)


Thanks! Hope to see you at the movies!

10/21/2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Director: Wes Anderson

The literary aspirations and inspirations of the films of Wes Anderson have always played a large part of his oeuvre. While on a lesser scale in his debut Bottle Rocket, they were at the forefront of both Rushmore and his masterpiece The Royal Tenenbaums, which were co-written by Owen Wilson. Anderson made a misstep with his Tenenbaums follow-up The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, co-written not with Wilson but The Squid and the Whale auteur Noah Baumbach and that’s when film lovers began to turn on the overly hip and stylized films—colorful movies with art direction that was likened to dollhouses, bright theatrical sets and characters with obvious costumes all placed in the center of the frame a la Roman Polanski. Suddenly, Anderson became a precocious and overeager student, kind of like Rushmore’s Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman)-- the annoying but undeniably talented youngster who is obviously a little too impressed with himself and his purported importance. While I never completely bailed on the Anderson bandwagon, I was very disappointed by Life Aquatic but just attributed it to be an example of artistic excess and freedom run amok. Anderson re-teamed with Rushmore star Jason Schwartzman who, along with Roman Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s son and Schwartzman's cousin) banded together to write his newest film, The Darjeeling Limited which is much more successful than its predecessor. However, ultimately it’s still hard to separate "Anderson the reputation" from "Anderson the filmmaker" given the shots that call attention to themselves and an unbelievable storybook sensibility with an overabundance of metaphors laid on extremely thick throughout the otherwise affable film that make Darjeeling feel like an ideal candidate to be analyzed in Introduction to Film classrooms or high school honor's English. In addition, the film is a fascinating work of Hollywood family analysis as it’s nearly impossible not to wonder about the Coppola involvement and metaphors to their own family along with the Wilson brothers as Owen Wilson is the film’s main star and when he appears onscreen covered with bandages, the audience does gasp in sad recollection of his recent tragic suicide attempt.

With a prologue entitled Hotel Chevalier that can be seen for free on iTunes and on the web (that, despite being separated from the ninety minute feature will no doubt appear on the DVD), the ambitious and sprawling Darjeeling tells the story of three brothers who haven’t spoken to one another in a year since the funeral of their father. When the film opens, long-legged and skinny Peter, played by Adrien Brody (looking appropriately nerdy) races to board the Darjeeling train in India where he reunites with bossy itinerary minded eldest brother Francis (Owen Wilson) battered from a near-death experience and his youngest brother Jack (Jason Schwartzman), sad-eyed from a recent tryst in his troubled relationship that’s far past its expiration date. Peter comes with his own baggage literally and figuratively as he has escaped his pregnant wife in what seems to be a personal responsibility crisis and with his many designer bags that had belonged to his deceased father (all eleven pieces of luggage were designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton). During the trip through India, the three agree with much prodding from Francis to undergo a spiritual journey and become closer in their relationship but ultimately result in gossiping amongst each other with prefaces not to tell the absent brother whatever information is being transpired, only for the confidant to break that promise moments later and betray the information. Abusing Indian pharmaceuticals while trying to fake their way through praying at shrines, the story is best when dealing with the interplay between the brothers in an understated manor and at its worst when forcing the many metaphors (baggage that should be abandoned, prescription glasses that make Peter see the world through his dad’s eyes, Francis’s bandages indicating his need for healing and Jack’s sublimation through art) down our throats or trying overly hard to fit in with Anderson’s other films in its obligatory inclusion of a well-timed slow-motion shot, Rolling Stones songs and other painstakingly choreographed moments. All in all, a return for Anderson back to the right direction of his career (heading closer to Tenenbaums and Rushmore territory than Life Aquatic) but like the brothers in Darjeeling, we do get the feeling that an entirely different journey would be beneficial for his filmmaking and while the Coppola family make excellent screenwriting partners, we do long for another collaboration with the gifted Wilson.


Download Hotel Chevalier and the Soundtrack

Apple iTunes

We Own the Night

Director: James Gray

Set in 1988, this New York police drama feels like it was crafted in the style of American filmmaking popular a decade earlier. And after only a few minutes into the film, we begin to realize that We Own the Night is precisely the type of film that actors like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro would have gravitated to in the 1970s.

Filmed with a gun metal color palette with moody interiors, dark grays, blues and blacks and dim lighting—this Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Mean Streets hybrid takes a little while to get going but soon gets our hearts racing in some bravura sequences, most notably one that's on par with The French Connection as we're thrust into a car chase under New York City bridges.

Reuniting with actors Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg whom writer/director James Gray had worked with on The Yards a few years earlier, We Own the Night tells the story of the men of the Grusinsky family who are on both sides of the law.

Father Robert Duvall is the highly regarded Deputy Chief Burt Grusinsky, who, as the film begins states how proud he is to have his son, the lieutenant and family man Joseph (Wahlberg) following in his footsteps and also heading up the drug task force to combat the new far deadlier influx of drugs that has turned New York City into a war zone.

Brother Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) has hidden his ties to the police by taking his mother’s maiden name in his role as club manager for El Caribe, living the life of blissful and irresponsible hedonism with beautiful Eva Mendes, card games, booze and drugs until he learns from his family that the Russian mob may be running drugs out of his Brooklyn club.

When his brother Joseph is shot and left for dead, Bobby realizes that he can’t ignore his family loyalty any longer and tries to get involved in the dangerous situation.

Thrilling filmmaking benefits from the credible performances of the leads and top-notch execution (the previews alone made it look like The Departed 2) but it gets slightly derailed in a final act that feels inauthentic and actually had some audience members in the theatre I saw the picture in walking out in disbelief after having been so engrossed for the first eighty minutes.

After some research and consultation, I learned that what happens in the film could actually happen in the world of law enforcement, however it is a bit unlikely and Gray’s sudden twist feels forced. Still, the whole film can’t be penalized for its finale and police and crime film fans will not be disappointed in Gray’s film which was nominated for the 2007 Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director James Gray


Iceberg

Alternate Title: L’Iceberg
Directors: Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy


While serving as the blog-master and Festival Ambassador at the 2007 Scottsdale International Film Festival, I met a lot of friendly movie buffs whom I enjoyed dishing with regarding all things foreign film. From movies to see, ones to avoid, ones that we loved in recent memory to anything that entered our heads—there’s no beating festival atmosphere for fun discussion. I left with a mental list and a few e-mails as well with a majority telling me that their favorite SIFF film in recent memory was the Belgian comedy L’Iceberg which I finally found on Netflix. In what seems to be a fusion of Triplets of Bellville and Mon Oncle with the air of classic American silent film masters (the holy trinity of Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton) thrown in for good measure, Iceberg tells the story of Fiona (director Fiona Gordon), a manager at a fast food restaurant who as the film opens, accidentally locks herself in the large walk-in freezer overnight. After discovering that Julien, her perpetually yawning and dull husband (co-director Dominique Abel) along with her two children failed to even notice her absence, she finds herself oddly drawn to all things frozen, finally embarking on an adventure that she hopes will lead her to a real life iceberg when she becomes attracted to deaf-mute sailor Rene (Phillippe Martz) who agrees to let her share his tiny boat. The boat which, when translated appears to be named The Titanic is one that ironically aims to head for the iceberg and although Julien tries desperately to track down his wife, she’s single-minded both in her fascination with ice and also the wild looking Rene. Increasingly bizarre, the film is one you must see to believe—film students will delight in the uneven achievement of some truly awe-inspiring blends of clever deadpan choreographed action with the visuals (that may indeed impress ultra-stylized filmmaker Wes Anderson) but it still seems to be more of a fascinating puzzle to be admired than a wholly successful film. Iceberg was the winner of the award for Best Film at the Bogota Film Festival along with a richly deserved accolade for Fiona Gordon as Best Actress from the Seattle International Film Festival.


Vacancy

Director: Nimrod Antal

In Vacancy, bickering soon-to-be divorced couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale find themselves stalled on a deserted back road in the middle of the night. Despite the influx of such films as Psycho, The Shining, Identity and 2007’s other horror flick 1408, they decide to wait out the night until the car can get serviced by checking into a seedy motel. Although there are numerous red flags—the first and most important would be that the initial sound the two hear when entering the office is a blood curdling scream and what seems to be a graphic adult film playing in the back office—they forge ahead. Wilson, exhausted from driving all night while abusing truck driver uppers and fighting with his wife along with the ultimate emasculation of getting lost and having to ask directions at a gas station, reluctantly checks into the “newlywed suite” with Beckinsale who lashes out at her husband when a past tragedy enters the conversation and self-medicates herself into a strong sleep by the aid of a Zoloft-Prozac cocktail. When the two find that the TV of the dingy bug-infested room plays only static, they insert one of the mysterious videotapes found only to realize after a few initially horrifying images that the amateur horror and exploitative flicks are crude documentaries shot in their very room of previous guests getting slaughtered. Faster than you can say “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave,” (Eagles, Hotel California), the two begin realizing that there may not be a way out as they try to prevent the imminent attack and outsmart the villains. Better than it should be—Panic Room with more gore—the film is elevated by the disbelieving and peeved Wilson and emotionally drained Beckinsale who, like characters in Panic and other intelligent thrillers, do come up with a variety of diversions and decoys that audience members who can barely resist yelling at the TV are thinking of in their own heads. Horror fans won’t be disappointed—it’s a B movie that knows its roots well and uses them to great effect without overstaying its welcome in less than ninety minutes.

Even Money

Director: Mark Rydell

For gamblers, the thing about addiction is that it’s never satisfied. Players are only ahead for so long but in the end, the house always wins, even if gamblers lose their own house in the process. This is exactly the risk facing Carol Carver (Kim Basinger), a married novelist who claims she’s spending her days working on book number two but in reality is spending her time losing her teenage daughter’s college fund and husband Ray Liotta’s trust while playing the slot machines. Mark Rydell’s gloomy portrait of addiction emphasizes gambling as the root of the character’s problems but he’s also careful to include the addictions of love, power and money as we meet a group of desperate characters whose lives are beginning to unravel. Loss of control in contemporary society is a recurring theme for Crash producer Bob Yari’s films and while Even Money is no Crash, the increasingly impressive Yari Film Group managed to produce the film with an equally impressive ensemble cast including Danny De Vito, Nick Cannon, Carla Gugino, Forest Whitaker, Grant Sullivan, Jay Mohr, Tim Roth and a nearly unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer. While some critics were justifiably irritated by the film’s decision not to explain the reasons for the character’s addictions or even how or why they became gamblers in the first place, there’s enough good performances to help keep the film afloat and some of the stories are more successful than others such as the tale about college basketball star Nick Cannon who is persuaded into throwing games to help his indebted older brother Forest Whitaker. Although Basinger’s twitchy and shaking pathetic addict made me want to throw in the towel whenever she was onscreen due to her underwritten characterization, she reminds us of her Academy Award winning power in her scenes with DeVito as a tragic dreaming has-been magician who wants to start anew. All the while we’re drawn into a mystery surrounding the death of a bookie at the beginning of the film and the possible involvement of the often discussed but unseen mastermind Ivan who many of the characters want to track down until a rushed finale that doesn’t quite have the emotional kick for which the film and the constant dialogue about the man had prepared us.

Two Brothers and a Bride

Alternate Title: A Foreign Affair
Director: Helmut Schleppi

Released in theatres and in the film festival circuit as A Foreign Affair, Helmut Schleppi’s surprising indie film has been renamed Two Brothers and a Bride to better appeal to DVD buyers intrigued by the popularity of numbers in movie titles. However, it doesn’t matter what name the film is given—Schleppi’s charming and heartfelt work sneaks up on viewers who begin the film expecting one thing given the sardonic tone and sexist straightforward remarks of our lead character played by Tim Blake Nelson, only to find themselves moved by the end of the work. Taking place somewhere in the unnamed Midwest, impressive character actor Nelson disappears into his role as Jake Adams, a farmer who finds he has to fend for not only himself but his younger brother Josh (David Arquette) as well after their beloved ma (Lois Smith) passes away. Since mom darned their socks, kept the home clean and prepared hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the grown men realize that they must find another woman to take her place but quickly realize that a professional housekeeper will cost them too much in the long run. Nelson decides the next best thing is a wife but preferably one who won’t ask too many questions interfere in their lives or expect romantic entanglements and soon he packs his brother up and they venture to Russia on a two week romance tour to meet eligible mail order brides from what they hope is a subservient culture. Inspired by the real life tours that draw men from all walks of life over to foreign lands, viewers find the premise both funny and uneasy given their questionable moral issues but realize that Schleppi and writer Geert Heetebrij (who along with the actors did take the tours for research) will not mislead American audiences and provide a balanced look at the phenomenon which is helped by the character of Angela Beck, played by likable Emily Mortimer as a British documentary filmmaker who is following around the men and women involved. The men quickly begin to learn that once in a foreign environment different aspects of their personalities emerge when they’re not solely preoccupied with farm life as Josh enjoys dating for the first time in his life by becoming a player and Jake must rethink his stereotypes and attitudes as he begins spending more and more time with Mortimer that makes him realize that what he knows about women (which admittedly came from the farm and his mother) may be misguided as he honestly approaches each woman and creates a list, takes notes and tries to select a wife with scientific methodology. A likable film that is sure to fool viewers expecting a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, Two Brothers and a Bride (or A Foreign Affair if one prefers) is sure to delight viewers and cause discussion.

Pittsburgh

Directors: Chris Bradley & Kyle LaBrache

Local boy makes good. Naturally, it helps when that local boy is Jeff Goldblum. Jurassic Park star Goldblum, who made his stuttering quirky persona irresistible long before Hugh Grant did the same thing on the other side of the pond and made it fashionable, seems to be an unlikely choice for a lead role in a theatrical production of The Music Man. Nonetheless, Goldblum did take a break from film acting to return to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to play the part and later, Goldblum collaborated with directors Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache on this mockumentary that walks a nearly invisible line between fiction and nonfiction as we watch Goldblum (as himself) take a role to help his leading lady, twenty-three year old Canadian fiancĂ© (Catherine Wreford) get a work visa to stay in the United States. Going against the advice of his agent and being kicked to “second guest” on Conan after he plugged his regional theatre turn on The Late Show with Craig Kilborn, Goldblum enlists the help of good friends Ed Begley Jr. and Illeana Douglas who decide to perform in the show as well. In addition, people who own any of Moby’s CDs will definitely want to check out his creepy cameo as Illeana’s lecherous boyfriend who dumps her while in a mermaid parade so that he can shag fans on tour. Hilarious and eye-opening—the film which was the Spotlight Premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, has received numerous comparisons to the work of Christopher Guest and while fans of his movies will no doubt be at home here, Pittsburgh plays even better to the film buff crowd. Although relegated to playing on the Starz channel, Pittsburgh has been recently released on DVD and the brief film (roughly ninety minutes) is augmented by several deleted scenes featuring other stars playing (hopefully) fictitious or exaggerated versions of themselves such as Scott Caan who has a memorable scene with Goldblum while he’s getting his hair cut for the period Music Man.

Jindabyne

Director: Ray Lawrence

“I once caught a fish this big.” Fishermen are famous for their embellished tall tales of adventure on the high seas or in the quest for the biggest catch of the day. But Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne) and his three male friends get much more than they bargained for with this haunting tale that’s so filled with quiet lurking menace and existential questioning that not even Ernest Hemingway would have dared to tell it. And indeed Hemingway did not—based on the story “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver that was first adapted and woven into the meandering, compelling yet overrated Short Cuts by Robert Altman, this time the setting is moved to the desolate, windy fields in Jindabyne, Australia. Lantana director Ray Lawrence helms this harrowing tale based on scripter Beatrix Christian’s work which finds four men justifiably ostracized by their community and accused of moral bankruptcy after they discover the nude murdered body of attractive teenager Susan (Tatea Reilly) on Friday, yet wait days later when they’re set to leave their fishing expedition before phoning the police. How could four very different but grown adult men behave in such a shocking way? Issues of racism and sexism are raised as the victim was not only female but also Aboriginal and the aftermath finds both marriage and family bonds put to the test, especially in the home of our main characters Gabriel Byrne and his wife Laura Linney who share a small yet emotionally overcrowded house with their young son and Byrne’s overbearing mother. Even more unsettling in the film’s narrative is the fact that Susan’s killer is hiding in plain sight and aside from the general feeling of unease we have in watching the disintegration of characters’ facades that crumble after the unspeakable horror, director Lawrence avoids going with a typical thriller mode by never resolving the murder or even showing an attempt to locate the “thriller” aspect which, if the film had been made in America may not have simply been the main plotline but you can guess that Byrne and Linney would have tracked down the man with guns blazing. While it shouldn’t be that simple, not even addressing the foul play in Jindabyne is far more unbelievable than the concept of people in contemporary society so desensitized to violence that they’d be able to tether a victim to a tree and continue on their merry way—not to perhaps catch a fish “this” big but to avoid an even bigger body that reminds them of their unimportance in the scheme of things in the vast, unforgiving Australian environment.

Inland Empire

Director: David Lynch

Some studios take out expensive full page ads in Variety or plaster the faces of actors on Hollywood billboards in order to remind members of the Academy to nominate the people involved in movies during Oscar season. David Lynch prefers to use cows. It’s been widely reported that after his three hour experimental opus Inland Empire wrapped he became a one-man public relations machine on behalf of Laura Dern, literally taking his method to the street by standing on the corners with a cow and a dream. Although she didn’t receive the nomination, it has to be the most eccentric campaign ever created and we’d expect nothing less of Lynch. While I’m not sure whether Dern should be offended or flattered that a cow was involved, one thing is for certain and that is his affection for Dern and likewise her trust in the director which explains her involvement in the frustrating yet intoxicating Inland Empire. Another postmodern nightmare that should endear him to his fans, Empire made me take a step backwards as I’d always been on the fence regarding Lynch but was blown away by Mulholland Drive. Of course, as established—he’s not one to play by the rules but I wasn’t sure just how off the deep end he’d go with this rambling and incoherent but beautiful work. We’re never quite sure exactly what’s happeneing—we believe it’s about Nikki Grace (Dern), a married blonde actress who takes a role on a film that she later learns may be cursed after discovering it’s a remake of a doomed incomplete Polish production that found the two leads dead. She begins to let her imagine run away with her while simultaneously becoming attracted to costar Justin Theroux. After a bizarre opening, the first hour of the film is compelling and even easy to decipher but that’s when Lynch reminds us once again he’s running the show and takes us further into the nightmares and dreamscapes of his subconscious mind with a meandering hybrid of fantasy and horror involving a carnivalesque stable of freaks and people living on the fringes of society—life sized rabbits living out a domestic drama in front of what appears to be a live studio television audience, hookers who enjoy doing the locomotion, a scary old woman, lots of Polish speakers, and a film crew. Co-produced by Dern who inspired the title of the piece after sharing that her husband musician Ben Harper is from the area nicknamed that, the film co-stars Jeremy Irons, Harry Dean Stanton, Diane Ladd, William H. Macy, Julia Ormond, Mary Steenburgen and also utilizes the involvement of Nastassja Kinski, Laura Harring and Naomi Watts. Lynch, who told Joe Huang at the AFI Dallas Film Festival that the film’s “episodes” were never supposed to be edited together for a feature but were rather just film short stories he wrote and shot on digital video, earned a Special Award from both the Venice Film Festival and also the 2007 National Society of Film Critics Awards for what they called his “labyrinthine Inland Empire, a magnificent and maddening experiment with digital video possibilities.” Overall a film to be experienced rather than sincerely admired such as Mulholland or his other works, Inland Empire’s three hour running time is daunting indeed but for those ready to take the journey, go ahead and follow along and try your best to keep up.

2 Days in Paris

Director: Julie Delpy

Try as we might, sometimes there’s no getting around the “it’s not you, it’s me” diplomatic paradigm in breaking up with a lover. However, in writer/director Julie Delpy’s unflinching look at thirty-somethings who try to revive their two year relationship with a trip to Europe, it’s both of them and audiences cringe throughout in recognition that not only should they not be together, we can’t imagine just who the unlikable, narcissistic characters would actually be right for. At first, we’re instinctively on Delpy’s side—she is after all Julie Delpy, the sophisticated beauty who enchanted the world with her roles in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and proved to be a cool femme fatale in Kieslowski’s White—and in 2 Days in Paris, she seems to be playing a very thinly disguised version of herself. Like Delpy, our main character Marion has weak eyesight and she also had been in a relationship with our leading man, Adam Goldberg, and even went as far to shoot some scenes in her family home casting her own parents along with her cat. The humorous character actor Goldberg is in full Woody Allen mode, hypochondriacally suffering from a new ailment every other minute after admittedly coming down with very real food poisoning in Italy but his foul mood quickly transforms the city of love to the city of dissatisfaction when they land in Paris and he begins numerous arguments. Playing an interior designer named Jack, Goldberg is a tattooed bohemian prima donna who complains about dial up internet, numerous conditions inside Delpy’s tiny Parisian apartment and spends all of the time he's outdoors wanting to keep his travels at arm’s length by photographing the entirety of the trip, despite the fact that Europe is fully documented and his girlfriend Marion is a professional photographer. Soon after they meet up with her blunt parents, Marion and Jack bump into several ex-lovers of Marion’s with Jack’s mind running overtime in trying to translate subtle glances and conversations with thoughts of infidelity dancing through his head. Quickly, the scenes of his discomfort soon become the only thing with which we can identify as the film goes on and becomes increasingly unlikable, irritating (so many characters appear out of nowhere just to argue, shock or crudely discuss sex in ways that would freak out Kevin Smith) and bizarre. He plays his odd man out status well and pretty soon it’s Marion whom we’re blaming for the situation because most of us watching (at least in the theatre I saw it in) are Americans experiencing a decidedly unromantic version of Paris in a strange cross between Scorsese’s After Hours and Allen's Deconstructing Harry. I really wanted to admire the film, having looked forward to it not only because it seemed like a delightful yet painfully real look at relationships that may actually be authentic (it’s far from it) but also because Delpy not only wrote and directed in the film but also starred in, co-produced, and worked on the soundtrack but it may in fact be too much of a singular vision. You know things are not going well when we meet up with characters that Jack had cruelly sent in the wrong direction because they were Da Vinci Code reading Bush voters later into the film and they reappear to be spray painted and most likely attacked by vandals, yet we can’t help thinking that, despite their opposite politics and attitudes, if we had followed those characters we may have had much more fun than trailing around Jack and Marion.

10/16/2007

Mr. Woodcock

Director: Craig Gillespie

Former television commercial director Craig Gillespie tackled the script of first time writing duo Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert which centers on a young man who has overcome his youth as an overweight student mercilessly bullied by his middle school gym teacher and channeled it into a successful career writing a hit self-help book. When we first meet him as an adult, John Farley (Seann William Scott) seems to have the perfect life—traveling around on book tours with his no-nonsense business handler Maggie (the always hilarious Amy Poehler) and finally getting the key to his small Midwestern town but he’s in for a nasty surprise when he returns back to his childhood home to find his widowed mother Susan Sarandon engaged to his nemesis Coach Woodcock. As he proved with his roles in the inane but surprisingly funny School for Scoundrels and the joyously sleazy Bad Santa, nobody plays the tough, sinister yet oddly double-sided villainous antihero better than Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton is what makes this film work—he elevates Scott’s performance with his challenging dialogue and demeanor yet also reveals the oddly charming side (most evident in Bandits) that makes it believable to audiences that Sarandon would have become involved with him in the first place. After a failed attempt to apologize, clear the air and start from scratch, John ends up teaming up with another tortured classmate Nedderman (Ethan Suplee), to spy on Woodcock in order to get the dirt that will prevent the nuptials and break up the couple in a sort of twisted Parent Trap in reverse. It’s refreshing to see a male character try and fight so hard for his mom as usually films are overpopulated by the gender clichĂ©d mother and daughter or father and son bond and while I do agree with other critics (most notably Roger Ebert) that the contrived ending wasn’t nearly satisfying enough and we wanted a darker payoff to fit Woodcock’s evil character, it’s still a much more entertaining film than I was expecting. However, there are some pure Hollywood moments that do get in the way of the performances and hilarity as the LA Times reported that director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus and Shanghai Knights) was hired for three weeks of reshoots to retool the film.

Shanghai Kiss

Directors: David Ren and Kern Konwiser

Film buffs will remember the following paraphrased joke from Annie Hall: a guy goes to the doctor to report that his brother thinks he’s a chicken. The doctor asks why the man doesn’t turn him in and his reply is, “I would but I need the eggs.” Woody Allen used this quip in the epilogue of Hall in expressing his feeling that despite the agony and pain, there’s much joy to be had in relationships and we keep on giving love a chance because frankly we need the eggs. The same can be said for the films of Woody Allen which get released once a year and despite the fluctuation in quality over the past decade, one thing is for certain and that is the unrivaled and unquestionable influence he’s had on filmmakers around the globe. Everyone from major directors and celebrated auteurs of today to up and coming independent filmmakers seem to have drawn inspiration from his work and although the resulting movies range in their cinematic success, the man’s life and movies are utilized to strong effect in the unfortunately named debut film from directors David Ren and Kern Konwiser, Shanghai Kiss. Before she became the cheerleader to be saved in order to save the world in TV’s Heroes, teen actress Hayden Panettiere shot the role in Shanghai that later earned her an award for Best Actress in a Feature Film from the 2007 Newport Beach Film Festival. In the film she plays the sixteen year old Adelaide or “Adi” for short—a bubbly, artistically talented, mature yet childish, free-spirited self-proclaimed natural genius who latches onto Liam Liu (Ken Leung), a hapless twenty-eight year old Chinese American out of work actor struggling to get past both Tinsletown and his own self-loathing Asian stereotypes in landing a role. Serving as Liam’s unlikely ally, Adi harbors a major crush on her new friend. Although, in the tradition of those who have escaped from their culture out of anger, Liam must learn to get a better sense of self and his place in the world and accept himself before he is good for anyone, let alone a younger female sidekick whom he prefers to accompany to harmless outings to movies, Laundromats, coffee and car rides so that she doesn’t have to ride the L.A. bus to and from her Beverly Hills high school alone. When he isn’t spending time with Adi, Liam devotes his time to the occasional one-night stand and complaining about his situation to good friend Joel David Moore in Allen styled witty, self-deprecating dialogue. After the grandmother he’s never met dies and leaves him the ancestral home in Shanghai, Liam impulsively goes to China where he falls for the polar-opposite of Adi in Kelly Hu’s Micki, a sophisticated grown woman who makes Liam realize he may want to return to his cultural roots and permanently move to the foreign land with a language he doesn’t speak. Of course, that’s when he must stop running and start facing not only his friends in California but also the father from whom he’s been estranged back in New York to address the reason for his bitterness. Leung makes the most of a difficult role with a character who uses humor to disguise his every emotion, coming off as a callous creep at times and a wounded soul in others in a fully realized portrayal which also earned him a Special Mention for his Breakout Performance from the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival where the film premiered. While it definitely calls to mind Manhattan in the romantic triangle between an age appropriate woman and a young artistically talented girl with a man undergoing a self-identity crisis, not to mention using some direct quotes from Allen and paying homage to numerous films in other scenes (in one deleted example on the DVD there’s a hybrid of two famous speeches from Annie Hall and Manhattan), Shanghai Kiss is still a wonderful little find and deserves a better audience than its direct to DVD fate. Although burdened by a title that doesn’t really apply, the poster of the film which features Panattiere should instantly attract fans of Heroes but don’t let the youth-appeal of the box fool you—it’s a film that plays best to adults (especially the twenty or thirty-something crowd) rather than teenagers thanks to the intellectual script of David Ren.