2/24/2008

Poll Results: Famous Movie Couples

Hope everyone has a wonderful Oscar Sunday. Had a blast watching the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday and if you get a chance to catch the replay, look for the afternoon's funniest joke that I can't even begin to print here which came from presenter Dustin Hoffman involving Javier Bardem and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Juno, The Lookout and Once were big winners receiving the awards for Best Feature Film, Best First Feature and Best Foreign Film respectively.


Okay, enough news-- onto our most recent poll.

Valentine's Day Poll:
Choose your favorite movie couple(s) from the following list:

Bogie and Bacall (57%)
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (34%)
Fred & Ginger (26%)
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (23%)
Myrna Loy & William Powell (15%)
TIE: Hepburn & Tracy; John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara (3%)
Newman & Woodward (0%)

While it was probably the least popular poll so far, I was thrilled that Bogie and Bacall clocked in at number one and would agree with most of the results but I was shocked that Newman & Woodward came in last. This could be due to the fact that although they're a lengendary couple in real life, their films together didn't quite sizzle like Bogie and Bacall's, save of course for the sultry Long Hot Summer.

For our next poll, I've decided to go the escapist route and also offer something for my incredibly loyal and largely male readership in asking you guys to choose your favorite James Bond. While it seemed strange to include Lazenby (who only starred in one), Dalton (who has become the source of jokes whether fair or not) and Craig (who may be too new), my parents raised me right, so 67's Casino Royale spoof aside, I didn't leave out a single official Bond. May the best Bond win.

Any last minute Oscar predictions? I used to conduct informal polls and make wagers with family and friends but over the past few years, I've felt that they've become pretty predictable. However, I woke up this morning with the strangest feeling that Juno may do quite well so we'll see but logically my brain still tells me it's No Country's night. Although I'm reminded of some vote splitters of the past (hello Shakespeare in Love) with surprising results so we could be in for one interesting evening.

Film Intuition List: The Art of Adaptation

After being bombarded with 16 required texts to read in my 2.5 month quarter of grad school, I’ve found myself literally up to my eyeballs in words. As a lover of books, it’s been tough to forgo all of the great novels and works of nonfiction I'm longing to read when focusing only on what’s assigned and now, just past midway through the term, I’ve started to feel drowned in literature to such an extent that book reading for fun seems like a chore.

An alarming idea to think that books and me need to see other people so as an attempt of “couple’s therapy,” I’ve decided to make a constituted effort to fall back in love with books by coming up with the latest Film Intuition List of 20 novels I feel would make wonderful films.

When looking these up, I had to delete one—The Time Traveler’s Wife, which has actually been made starring the beautiful Rachel McAdams and gorgeous Eric Bana and drop one that has already been made for PBS (White Teeth). While I found that several of the selected works are in development or pre-production, some we’ve been hearing rumors about for years so I decided that they were fair game since nothing is set in stone.


A few of the works have a permanent place in my Top 10 favorite books of all time, some I just feel would make terrific films (and indeed be improved upon), and others would be refreshingly different fare for filmgoers. Even though I have no power to greenlight, I’m grateful for the opportunity to highlight.

Anyway, hope I’ve selected some of your favorites and feel free to comment or add your own!

1) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
One of my favorite books of all time, yet it’s one that has only been read by two people I actually know. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Chabon’s book has all of the ingredients for a Best Picture winner including romance, war, mystery, action and humor. It's a uniquely humanitarian work that has been a labor of love for Chabon following the book’s publication as he continues work on the screenplay. In the latest news, it’s been attached to Stephen Daldry (The Hours) and while he is a great director, I always thought it may do well for a more innovative approach by a director such as Darren Aronofsky. And, if you've never read Chabon you must-- a man whose kind, sensitive nature and classically handsome appearance are as gorgeous as his prose, Michael Chabon is one of our most exciting authors working today.

2) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
A humanistic masterpiece about the Vietnam war and another book with a permanent place in my top ten— I’ve either purchased this book or recommended it over a dozen times to the various men in my life from my dad to my friends as it was introduced to me from one of my favorite professors in my very first college course when I was sixteen. I’d always envisioned it completed by Terrence Malick although it’s probably far too similar to The Thin Red Line to interest the director. Haunting vignettes and drama with enough plot to interest some of our very best character actors; I’m amazed that nobody has purchased the rights yet as our society may be struggling to accept films about Iraq, but any look at war and how it affects people is something of the utmost importance today. It’s a difficult book to adapt but one that I wouldn’t hesitate to drop on Paul Thomas Anderson’s doorstep.

3) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Gorgeous prose, passion and tension—its terror plot may be a tough sell but it’s one that I feel would reinvigorate Hollywood to create much needed thinking films for women as opposed to obligatory chick flick romantic comedies about biological clock worrying old maids. Director-wise, Joe Wright seems like the right fit.

4) Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Daring and bold-- it probably could never get made but man, would I love to see what Todd Haynes would do with it.

5) Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
It’s funny; when I read the book, the only actor I imagined in the role of the unlikely detective was Edward Norton and it felt like a dream come true when Edward Norton snapped up the rights… but that was several years ago!

6) On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The last I heard, this book was owned by Francis Ford Coppola. It may make the perfect opportunity for his son Roman Coppola—an amazingly creative visionary in his own right—to finally get noticed for himself. Over the years I always envisioned Matt Dillon, Jim Cavaziel (who looks amazingly like Kerouac but I can't stand his politics) or Billy Crudup for the lead.

7) Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
I’d say that someone of the caliber of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze would be ideal for this fantastic novel of a young girl’s introduction to the works of our most famous philosophers… but we’d want to be sure to keep the heart of the book intact without worrying that it would run away with itself a la The Science of Sleep so I’d probably go for somebody like John August to write.

8) The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard
A guilty pleasure, Elmore Leonard novels have always been my favorite weekend books in that back in school, I’d pick one up from the library on Friday and return it on Monday. Hey, it was Minnesota in the frozen winter—what else were we going to do? And nobody does dialogue or style like Leonard who’s so gifted it’s a crime that writers don’t take him more seriously and recommend his books to those interested in the craft of storytelling. I’d love to see Curtis Hanson get back into the movie spotlight again with something like this one.

9) Jazz by Toni Morrison
I’d say Kasi Lemmons or John Sayles would be most able to do justice to this fast and fiery tale by Toni Morrison.

10) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer Since he did such an amazing job on the underrated Everything Is Illuminated, there’s nobody else in my mind that seems more prepared to adapt than Liev Schreiber.

11) Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken
A sweet, funny and touching tale of comedians of yesteryear becoming film stars and a book that would be an amazing showcase for some of our talented young comical stars to show their serious side.

12) The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
I’ve started this book twice and both times was so blown away by the scope and prose that I was heartbroken when life became too busy to finish it. Because of the sheer New York energy of the piece, it has to be given to a New York director and most likely one who will take some true risks such as Spike Lee.

13) A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
Another gentle and lovely work by Anne Tyler that I’m terribly surprised hasn’t already been made for Lifetime or the Hallmark Hall of Fame… which means it could be time for Ms. Tyler to get her big screen debut. I’d recommend Deepa Mehta who for the last several years has tirelessly worked on her Fire, Earth and Water trilogy so much so that people are forgetting she’s also capable of gentle romance like her adaptation of The Republic of Love.

14) Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen
Hiaasen, like Leonard, is one of the most imaginative writers from what has become known as “the south Florida wacko genre.” Although I'm not a huge fan, in Brett Ratner’s hands, this would be a blast since God knows he’d feel right at home with the Miami bikini beauties.

15) If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Calvino, Calvino, Calvino— dare I say Minghella, Minghella, Minghella?

16) Timbuktu (or anything) by Paul Auster
One of our most unique and humanistic writers and for my money, America’s Kafka, Paul Auster’s heartbreaking book about a dog who loses his homeless owner offers not only a dog’s eye view of humanity but a glimpse of America that would be gripping to behold onscreen.

17) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
For the longest time, it was reported that Nick Hornby was asked to write the script but I haven’t heard anything about it since. It would be really great to star an up and comer—someone who’s a magician with dialogue like a Topher Grace, which begs to mind his In Good Company directors who also handled Hornby’s About a Boy—the Weitz brothers.

18) Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Let’s get Rebecca Miller back to filmmaking with this tremendously written book that I must have started to read two dozen times before (as was the case with Fortress of Solitude) having to put it away when too much landed on my plate. It would be a terrific opportunity to highlight Hollywood's talented women with an actress like Evan Rachel Wood and a cinematographer like Ellen Kuras.

19) Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart by Joyce Carol Oates
Mira Nair’s sociological background would benefit this tale of race, tolerance and hatred in the 50’s.

20) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Alfonso Cuaron would be ideal for this thrilling and heartbreaking ode to books and love.

Hmm, so many books, so little time, and while there are several others I'd love to include, this first installment proved to be successful therapy. Not only did it remind me just why I love books but also brought back my deep admiration for people who can write as well.

All titles should be available at Amazon

2/21/2008

SPL Spring & Summer 2008 Film Series

Announcing the latest titles confirmed for my ongoing
Film Discussion Series at Scottsdale Public Library.
Film Discussion Series (Spring & Summer 2008)
Sundays @ 1:30 pm
Hosted by Jen Johans
Scottsdale Public Library: Civic Center Branch
Main Auditorium: Lower Level

March 9, 2008
3:10 to Yuma
(Directed by James Mangold)
March 16, 2008
What's Cooking?
(Directed by Gurinder Chadha)
April 13, 2008
Dreamgirls
(Directed by Bill Condon)
May 18, 2008
Dan in Real Life
(Directed by Peter Hedges)
June 8, 2008
Red
(Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
June 22, 2008
Cinderella Man
(Directed by Ron Howard)
July 13, 2008
Pleasantville
(Directed by Gary Ross)
July 27, 2008
Road to Perdition
(Directed by Sam Mendes)
August 10, 2008
The Motorcycle Diaries
(Directed by Walter Salles)
August 24, 2008
Across the Universe
(Directed by Julie Taymor)
Hope you enjoy them, tell a friend and I'll see you at the movies!

2/20/2008

Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton

Director: Loïc Prigent

Perhaps it’s because my mother and two cousins have worked as models or perhaps it’s because I’m visually drawn to beauty but whatever the case may be, I’ve always had an undeniable love of fashion. On the surface, friends argue that I can’t call myself a feminist because, despite a limited budget as a graduate student that makes it an adoration from afar, I worship Chanel and luxury cosmetics. However, there are worse faux pas (being a feminist who actually considers Pretty Woman romantic, for example) and unlike the ads for Victoria’s Secret that seem to be designed only to titillate the male viewer, I’m fascinated by fashion as functional works of art designed to titillate oneself and serve as one of the most effective modes of nonverbal communication and self-expression.

"If we didn’t like fashion, we’d be naked," Louis Vuitton model Uma Thurman explains in the cinematic ocean of creativity and excitability that is director Loïc Prigent’s engrossing documentary Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton. Recently airing on the Sundance Channel to coincide with Fashion Week, the film which already hit Parisian shops back in September 2007 will be released for purchase on DVD next week here in the country that calls the New York offices of designer Marc Jacobs home.

Jacobs, one of the most artistically talented designers working in the world of haute couture today, gave unprecedented access to Prigent for this behind-the-runway look at the process of creation of new lines for both his own daring brand Marc Jacobs (that some state gave birth to grunge fashion) as well as his even higher end designs for the 154 year old Louis Vuitton label most famous for its luxury bags and luggage that have become “the most counterfeited bags in fashion history,” according to Elle Magazine. Taking “the brand beyond lustworthy luggage” (Elle), Jacobs who survives on a questionable diet of ceaseless cigarettes, protein bars, sugar snacks, health juices and vitamins while wearing vintage t-shirts celebrating American pop culture (from candies to Mickey Mouse to rock bands) finds inspiration everywhere and in collaborating with his staff, makes radical choices to iron flowers comprised of sandwich wrappers in creating Japanese doll-like headbands and bathing gorgeously intricate beadwork adorned dresses in bleach to give them the most “insane” appearance imaginable. “Insane,” to Jacobs is used in the best sense meaning unbelievably brilliant as the seamstresses whose hands have become living pincushions and workers struggle to keep up, fighting to stay awake on only an hour of sleep before big shows as they do last minute bag surgery, ribbon lacing, and color switching to keep the newest replacement motifs and designs in check.

While the models who strut down the catwalk make everything look so effortless, Prigent doesn’t hide the fact that behind their polished poise lies chaos and a breakneck schedule of roughly ninety runway shows for top models during fashion week whose frequent changes of hair and makeup styles lead to increased, painful sensitivity, allergies and reactions exacerbated by the physical agony of fittings standing in fifteen inch heels for hours on end, not to mention jetting off to Tokyo for a twenty-five hour flight for twenty-seven seconds of runway glory. However, the models, like the seamstresses, the craftsmen, and others in their “workshops gone wild” much like the brilliant Jacobs whose daring choices have garnered fans in high places such as Sofia Coppola, Uma Thurman, Catherine Deneuve, Wes Anderson, Marilyn Manson, and Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour wouldn’t have it any other way.

Although the designs are sure to dazzle, the undeniable standout in the documented Vuitton show and the bag most quintessentially daring and indicative of Jacobs is hands-down the show-stopping collage bag that broke machines and frustrated seamstresses who stitched by hand several of the most famous Vuitton designs with only minutes to spare for its seconds-long debut in the Fashion Week collection show. And, for the curious, this particular bag in question will only be replicated roughly two dozen times for its signed limited edition that will run the privileged buyers 35,000 Euros. While, of course, most of the viewers like me can only see it and dream, we’re grateful for the unprecedented inside access to the world of Jacobs in Prigent’s wondrous documentary that seems like the pages of Vuitton ads in our favorite fashion magazines come to life complete with sass, style, sensuality and soul.




2/19/2008

Gone Baby Gone

Director: Ben Affleck



When I was in my early teens, I got my first video camera. In addition to it being nearly attached to my eye socket for the next several family functions which I taped complete with ceaseless commentary, being a film geek, my brother and I decided to recruit a good friend and make our very own movie. Oblivious to the fact that there was a Kevin Costner film of the same name, we called our small three person endeavor No Way Out with all of us playing several roles in our story of a journalist (me) who brings down her corrupt boss Alfoncis Rinetti (my best friend Paul) who, of course, had ties to the mob. While Paul and I used my Macintosh to hammer out the script which cribbed a little too much from Scorsese’s playbook, my older brother decided that direction was for him and thoroughly enjoyed bossing us around, shouting "cut" and demanding reshoots every time our small puppy ran in and out of shots. Needless to say, while it wasn’t our last grand scheme, making a film helmed by your brother is hard and for the better of our relationship, we decided to stick with video games, basketball, and super soaker fights and leave the filmmaking to the pros.


In 2007, a far more professional endeavor was undertaken with Academy Award winning screenwriter turned hit movie star Ben Affleck when, in adapting Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone, he decided not only to step behind the camera to direct but cast his younger brother Casey Affleck as the male lead. When I first began seeing notes about the film in magazines, I kept having flashbacks to my suburban teenage mob movie and my heart went out to both Casey and Ben. However, after recently viewing the film that was just released on DVD last week, I realized that my concern wasn’t warranted in the least and that with two talented veterans like the duo Affleck, they ignored any family squabbling to surpass simply rising to the challenge but, in a year overcrowded with dark films, made a minor, overlooked masterpiece in the process.

Thematically similar to his novel Mystic River which in itself was made into a brilliant film from director Clint Eastwood four years ago, Gone Baby Gone is Lehane’s fourth tale involving private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro as the Dorchester, Massachusetts couple is hired to look into the kidnapping of four year old Amanda McCready who vanished from her home a few days earlier. Although Angie (Michelle Monaghan) was reluctant to take a case that in all likelihood would only lead to devastating heartbreak, she and Patrick (Casey Affleck) find themselves drawn in by Amanda’s devoted aunt (Amy Madigan) and use their knowledge of the tough, lower class neighborhood to track down figures and clues of which the police may not be privileged to find. Discovering that Amanda’s promiscuous and substance abusing irresponsible mother Helene (Oscar nominated Amy Ryan), who may have a few dark secrets, and has double crossed some of the neighborhood’s most notorious thugs, Patrick and Angie find that they’ve just scratched the surface of something much more complicated going on even though the police led by Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), and Detectives Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) and Nick Poole (John Ashton) fear that they will jeopardize not only the investigation but Amanda’s life as well. However, audiences quickly ascertain that the film is more than thankfully just a gritty kidnapping drama and in the tradition of other works by Lehane, asks some deeply existential and ethical questions as it continues with a conclusion that will have viewers debating it amongst themselves for days, not to mention annoyed that they had overlooked some previous seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue or visual cues that turned out to be vital clues as the story progressed.

While most of the talk surrounding the film centers on Ryan’s convincing portrayal and dead-on accent which even fooled Boston native Ben Affleck in the audition who took her as a fellow resident (IMDb), to me, the most passionate and involving turn was by Ed Harris who tears into his role and challenges all those who share a scene with him throughout the film. However, down the road, I think Gone Baby Gone will be remembered alongside 07’s Assassination of Jesse James... with kick-starting the career of talented character actor Casey Affleck whose versatility continues to astonish audiences and I’m sure impressed the man in the director’s chair, his big brother Ben as well.

Jumper

Director:
Doug Liman

You know your movie is in trouble when even Eminem didn’t like the script enough to accept the lead role. Yet, Swingers and Mr. and Mrs. Smith director Doug Liman powered through, encountering more rejections and cast shakeups including Evan Rachel Wood turning down the chance to play the female lead (thankfully preferring to continue working on quality art films) until at last, Star Wars star Hayden Christensen signed on to play Jumper protagonist David Rice. Notice that I didn’t use the word hero—no, to me, being called a hero presupposes that the audience finds you heroic or at the very least, likes you enough to care about your plight. As Jumper opens, we meet our smug, arrogant lead Rice as he brags about his ability to teleport himself anywhere on Earth for coffee in Paris or securing a phone number elsewhere until he decides to bring us up to speed by flashing back to a time when he was a “chump just like you,” as he explains to the audience. Going back eight years earlier, we see fifteen year old Rice as a sensitive and thoughtful high school student, who battles a bully and later gets trapped under the mostly frozen lake in his suburban Michigan hometown, only to magically reappear soaked to the core deep in the stacks of the Ann Arbor Library. Running away from an unhappy life with his drunk, neglectful father, Rice trains himself to master the art of “jumping” from one place to another, stages a massive bank robbery without opening the door to a vault and living a life of wealth, privilege and hedonism by entertaining himself with trips to exotic locales and, when the whim strikes him, jumping over to London to pick up a random pub girl, possibly coining a new phrase "one night jump."

Needless to say, there’s not much to like about Rice who seems to represent everything commercial, calculating and cold about the twenty-something consumer male culture so we’re thankful to actually be given something in the way of a plot when anti-Jumper Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) appears on the scene. An ultra religious “Paladin,” Roland uses a machine (that’s never quite explained) to devote himself to murdering those whom he feels are blasphemous abominations. After giving the jumper Rice a run for his money in a violent and terrifying fight at Rice’s posh apartment, Rice escapes back to Michigan to look up the girl that got away, his high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson) because as we all know, when your life is on the line, it’s always a good idea to try and jeopardize the life of someone else.

Millie, who's never met a low-cut shirt she didn't like and spends her time serving brew at a local sports bar, quickly defies all logic by making the impulsive decision to travel (yes, this time on a plane) with Rice to Rome in order for her to finally see the place of her dreams and of course for him-- who by this point is probably as into exotic locales as most of us are to playing bingo-- a chance to score. Once in Rome, audiences meet our comic relief in Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell as fellow-jumper Griffin who, reluctantly teams up with Rice to take on Roland a la the Marvel comics the two are fond of but by this point, the audiences are so tired of the headache inducing violent fights from one location to the next that we just don’t care.

Given an unsatisfying conclusion that is also never quite explained (are you sensing a pattern?), Jumper is a cautionary tale of excess run amok and will hopefully remind the otherwise immensely talented director Doug Liman to return to stories that actually entertain with offbeat characters who engage us such as the ensemble from Go rather than decorative, hyper cut eye candy of Jumper that shows off like a high school jock. In other words, skip Jumper—you’ll have more fun on a trampoline.

The King of Kong (2007)

Complete Title:
The King of Kong:
A Fistful of Quarters

Director:
Seth Gordon

It’s been said that the books we read as children help shape us in ways none would expect. In this increasingly technologically age, perhaps like books, the first video games we play as children shape us as well-- or at the very least, they stick with us. While I’m too young to have seen Pong, I am old enough to remember the classic arcade games on Atari and remember the thrill on my older brother’s face when he unwrapped his Christmas present in the 1980’s to discover that Santa had left him Nintendo. My earliest experiences with video games were as being relegated to playing alongside my brother as Luigi (whose more Italian sounding name appealed to me more than Mario) and while I struggled in the wake of faster paced games that we played in the dawn of Sega Genesis, PlayStation and X-Box, I always had a special affection for my earliest games especially Frogger and Ms. Pac Man.

Classic arcade games, with their rudimentary graphics and simplistic set-ups to me seemed like the real challenge since not only did the games require logic and skill but as noted in Seth Gordon’s documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, they actually sharpened the minds of players who became better the more they played by increasing their aptitude for logic. As someone who always loathed mathematics, logic seemed like the answer—not only was it the course I relied on to fulfill my mathematics requirement for my first college degree but it also hearkened back to the storyteller in me and one whose experiences not only reading storybooks but trying to get that little frog across the street in all that chaotic traffic made completing the course even richer.

Donkey Kong was one of those games—deceptively simple, it’s the type of arcade game that’s gotten even more mythic with each passing year as we’re reminded that the average game lasts only a minute and I can count the number of times I got past the first board on one hand. The first Mario game, in the arcade world, Donkey Kong is the granddaddy of the competitive games and while it always seemed like a logic driven but ultimately fun diversion for my friends and brother growing up, I was completely unprepared by just how ruthless the players of Donkey Kong are in the world of championship video gamers. Yes, you read that correctly—there are actual competitions for people who’ve never gotten past their affinity for arcade games such as Donkey Kong.

In the hilariously offbeat yet surprisingly compelling documentary film The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (just released on DVD), we’re given an informative background on a group of gamers brought together in 1982 to be photographed by Life Magazine as champions of their respective games. One of these players, Billy Mitchell, who would later be named Gamer of the Century, scored 874,300 points on Donkey Kong and would hold the record for more than two decades until a laid off employee from Boeing dedicated himself to beating the record while he earned his teaching degree in Seattle, Washington.

Earning 1,000,000 points, the likable family man and all-around good guy Steve Wiebe sent his tape into the official record holding website Twin Galaxies (headed up by folk singing, transcendental meditating official Walter Day) and while the recognition he received gave him a burst of press and helped restore some of the confidence that had gone with losing his position and having his livelihood threatened, that all changed when Mitchell and his Twin Galaxies cronies sent officials to tear apart Wiebe’s Donkey Kong machine looking for any excuse to void the victory.

After the ensuing controversy and a challenge by Mitchell that the only way to have a true victory is to play the game live and set a record in front of everyone at their highly lauded gaming center Fun Spot, Wiebe takes him up on it. He flies out to set a record that’s all the more impressive, given that one of Mitchell’s relentless unsportsmanlike sycophants (who looked and sounded like The Office character Dwight Schrute) remained just out of earshot narrating the events trying to get him to fold under pressure but his victory is short-lived as Mitchell has sent a videotape of him beating both Wiebe and his own former record. Seemingly contradicting his own decision that videotaped records are inadmissible and indeed his fuzzy videotape has some questionable pauses and tracking issues on the left side of the screen making even the most casual viewer wonder if it’s completely legit, the Twin Galaxies crew, determined to keep Mitchell champion puts up his record in less than ten minutes without even a hint of the investigation they’d unleashed on Wiebe back in Washington.

“Is this little world too heavily invested in Mitchell as its superstar?” Roger Ebert asked in his pointed review that seemed to echo the sentiment of most viewers who were crying foul. And indeed, it’s at this point, when I think most people who had been treated as poorly as Wiebe by the corrupt, smug tight-knit gamers who seem more gossip prone than a sewing circle would have simply walked away but then again, most of us aren’t as obsessive as gamers and Wiebe gets yet another chance to take the title when the Guinness Book of World Records comes calling and a final event is staged for competitors to be ranked in the book in a playoff that’s held in—and no I’m not making this up—Mitchell’s hometown of Hollywood, Florida. Still, overlooking the proceedings with disdain from his lair, Mitchell compulsively clad in ties with slicked back hair that make him look all the more Machiavellian (as Ebert noted), audiences wait on the edge of their seats to see if he will actually go out to take on Wiebe.

“We hate this guy,” Ebert wrote and indeed, we want to know just what makes him tick and why the gamers are so loyal to a fault and the documentary becomes all the more compelling in its stand of Wiebe verses Mitchell that, given the frequent usage of Rocky music and editing that makes it echo the westerns its title seems to connote, manages to entertain and compel viewers to such an extent we feel as though we are witnessing a full scale war rather than a video game competition. One of the most unforgettably engrossing surprises of 2007, Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong is sure to fascinate even those without interest in games or like me, with the inability to survive more than a few minutes of Donkey Kong.


Fahrenheit 451

Director:
Francois Truffaut

Based on his short story The Fireman, in the 1953 publication of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury predicted a futuristic world where television and mood altering drugs rule. Likewise, in Bradbury's nightmare, reading is not only banned by the government but firemen are also employed to burn any of the “antisocial” textual elements being hidden by citizens.

Seemingly inspired by not only the horrific Nazi book burnings of World War II but also the Cold War era of the 50’s that Bradbury worried was going to lead to books becoming extinct, the novel and indeed the resulting 1966 film from director Francois Truffaut seem timelier today.

And you're able to sense the immediacy within moments, given our current contemporary society where flat screen televisions similar to the ones he described adorn our walls and you can’t open a magazine or turn on the television without seeing an ad for medications designed to alter whatever seems to be troubling us from E.D. to allergies to depression.

In fact, Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont who is working on a newer version of the film was quoted on Wikipedia from an MTV source in saying that the book is “more relevant today than [when] it was published … [as] “George [W]. Bush has made this the most relevant piece of literature ever written.”

In his first film shot entirely in color and the first and only film recorded in the English language, director Francois Truffaut reunited with his Jules and Jim leading man Oskar Werner. Werner stars as Guy Montag, a hardworking fireman who begins to question his blind adherence to governmental laws after he befriends Clarisse (Dr. Zhivago's Julie Christie) his beautiful, free-thinking neighbor who loses her position as a schoolteacher due to her quintessential nature to ask "why."

Montag’s wife, also played by Christie, becomes horrified by her husband’s increasingly daring behavior when he makes the decision to read one of the books he’s asked to burn and finds himself forever changed by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield which propels him to rebel against what has become the dangerous fascist norm.



Beginning with a commanding credit sequence that sets the tone by having the titles read aloud by a narrator in keeping with the text-free setting (a la Altman's M*A*S*H), soon we feel so deprived of reading that we find ourselves not only reading the name of every book ready to be burned but also longing to go to our bookshelf once the film is completed to curl up with one of our favorites.

Incredible cinematography from director of photography Nicolas Roeg (who would later direct Christie himself in Don’t Look Now) along with a tense score from acclaimed Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrman adds to the film’s Hitchcockian feel which makes sense given its 60’s creation when Truffaut, who’d been working on his memorable book Hitchcock/Truffaut would eventually release his ode to the master of suspense, The Bride Wore Black.

Perhaps most indicative of Hitch’s Vertigo given a strategic dream sequence that echoes one Jimmy Stewart experiences in the aforementioned film along with his decision to have a leading lady play dual roles-- similar to the way Hitch utilized Kim Novak-- the film’s artistically superior style helps elevate it from its obvious shortcomings. Namely, it suffers a bit from its low Fahrenheit temperature via the inherently icy air and the stilted dialogue penned partly by the director who had struggled with the English language and “was much happier with the French-dubbed version, which he supervised,” (IMDb).

Recently, I hosted a screening of the film to coincide with the fascinating “Fighting the Fires of Hate” traveling exhibition sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And in that particular showing held in a library, I was once again reminded of Bradbury’s love of libraries and books that prevailed to such an extent that his text “was written in the basement of UCLA’s Powell library on a pay typewriter,” (Wikipedia).

This love of the written word no doubt found a like-minded champion in Truffaut whose autobiographical Antoine Doinel series, that began with 400 Blows, also emphasized literature. Likewise, several of the books burned in the film were not only favorites of the director himself (and some speculate that they may in fact have been his books) but in viewing their destruction, the audience feels as outraged as he must have felt watching the pages curl up into ash at 451 degrees Fahrenheit since books seem like friends in the eyes of bibliophiles.

“When you burn books, eventually you burn people,”
an attendee poignantly observed in our post-film discussion and it’s this terrifying realization in our increasingly televised world dependent on reality shows, youtube and iPods that makes the film, as Darabont noted, all the more timely today.

King of California

Director:
Mike Cahill

In what Michael Douglas called “one of the best scripts I’ve ever read,” according to the DVD, the Oscar winning actor dreams the impossible dream portraying bipolar Charlie who, just released from a mental institution, embarks on a quest to find buried gold left from the expedition of seventeenth century Spanish explorer Father Juan Florismarte Garces. The fact that it’s buried six feet below cement in the local Costco doesn’t deter him in the least as he pours over books and orders expensive equipment to aid him in his quest, much to the disappointment of his intelligent, hardworking sixteen year old daughter Miranda (Evan Rachel Wood) who, forced to fend for herself when he went away, has become the responsible party pulling double shifts at McDonald’s to pay the bills and telling enough lies to social services and others so that she wouldn’t have been brought into the depressing foster system. Worried that her father’s erratic behavior is a sign that he’s getting worse, Miranda tries to control Charlie but then decides to tag along more to keep him company than anything else out of fierce and blind love for her father that defies all logic even when he rants. Soon, almost against her will, Miranda begins to believe Charlie’s tales and goes undercover working at the local Costco while the two, along with a former associate of his, plan a way to get past the security alarm and hunt for treasure. Fascinating, funny and filled with intelligence and heart, this quixotic independent film marks the film debut of novelist turned talented writer/director Mike Cahill.

King of California, which was a finalist in the 2004 American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest offers a brilliant showcase for Douglas who’s playing a character that seems to be the polar opposite of his early Prince of Darkness roles in Wall Street and Fatal Attraction and after his work in Wonder Boys and Traffic several years ago, indicates to audiences that he has much more to offer in his legendary career. Wood further demonstrates her impeccable taste in working on character driven pieces and this film, coupled with her roles in Running With Scissors, Down in the Valley, The Upside of Anger and others makes her one of the most consistently daring and talented young stars to watch and the perfect antidote to the plastic looking one-dimensional characters and actresses that populate most Hollywood films for her age group.

Filmed in just thirty-one days, King of California which played to critical praise at last year’s Sundance Film Festival was recently released on DVD, thanks in part to the name stars and also securing a fan in producer Alexander Payne (director of Sideways) who notes on the DVD that he liked Cahill’s script so much that he was jealous that he wasn’t directing it himself. A true treasure of a film and one that’s hopefully easier for audiences to find than gold underneath a Costco, Cahill’s sundrenched ode to bland homogeny of strip-mall contemporary life points out the wonderful ability for those of us who, like Charlie and Miranda, need to take the time to believe in the impossible dream.

Starting Out in the Evening

Director:
Andrew Wagner

Twenty-five year old Brown University graduate student Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose) likens men her own age to chewing gum that lose their flavor after ten minutes while she chats up her esteemed literary idol, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) over dinner. Aggressively flirtatious and pushy, the pretentious and affected Heather flatteringly fast-talks her way into Leonard’s life in the opening moments of Starting Out in the Evening by proposing that the best way to keep Leonard’s out of print novels from disappearing forever is if she resurrects them in an analytical thesis in this intellectually satisfying character drama from Andrew Wagner (himself a Brown graduate). Although reluctant at first and overwhelmed by the beautiful student’s hero worship and curiosity, Leonard wears down and soon she becomes a regular fixture in his apartment, asking one prying question after another which he mostly refuses to answer in her quest for a unifying thematic thread to surmise his career as evidenced in the four books he published and the fifth which he’s continually working on that has taken more than a decade.

Based on the Pen/Faulkner award nominated novel by Brian Morton, this Sundance Film Festival critical hit from 2007 has earned Langella numerous nominations and a Boston Society of Film Critics Best Actor Award for his portrayal of a man in the evening of his life being challenged by an inquisitive mind as well as the events in his past that are dredged up in the process. It’s these realizations that shed new light on his relationship with his fortyish adult daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is struggling with the urgency of her biological clock as she tries to get pregnant and along the way, falls back in love with her former flame Casey Davis (Adrian Lester) whose previous partnering nearly destroyed her when it ended after she realized that he didn’t want children and wasn’t about to change. While Ambrose grates on the nerves with her phony bravado, it’s the subtle Taylor who touches our hearts in her stunning turn as a woman who, on the surface seems to be trying to compensate for a childhood where she was overshadowed and neglected by her famous father by finding a man the opposite of Leonard, who suddenly realizes that despite superficial differences, that her current relationship and choice in Casey may be causing Ariel to relive that experience once again.

Beautifully acted with Taylor and Langella’s best roles in years, Wagner’s film alternately stirs and frustrates viewers. Admirably too, it’s one that holds a questioning mirror up to the literary world in not just the publishing realm but also in its critical approaches by showing us the humanity involved in the creation of art and how things cannot be summarized or evaluated in neat little sentences that are black or white, without acknowledging the planet of gray in between.

Blue State

Director:
Marshall Lewy

While the 2000 election results seemed like a bad dream to Democrats such as myself, we all had hope that in 2004, voters tired of the Bush administration would turn out in large numbers to elect John Kerry. Unfortunately, we were wrong and during that night after a few states began turning red on the interactive television maps that channels like CNN love to flash before our eyes, some of us stared in shock and others who were far more radical began thinking of moving to that country to our north.

Kerry campaign worker John (Breckin Meyer) is a young, patriotic and fiercely political blogging pundit so idealistically dedicated to his work and belief that Kerry will win that not only does he canvas homes with Bush signs in their front lawns but he also makes a bold, impulsive statement swearing on his life that if George W. Bush wins the 2004 election, he will pack up and move to Canada. When red dominates the election map, he at first tries to forget that promise but soon after friends start wishing him well in his new homeland and his girlfriend announces her engagement to someone else, he puts up fliers offering to carpool with any other fed up Democrats. John has a few interviews with prospective travelers but gets depressed by the choices until attractive Chloe (Anna Paquin), whom we first see adding blue dye to her dark hair and piercing her nose, walks into the coffeehouse announcing that she’s so fired up, she’s willing to leave the very next day. Sensing a likeminded soul and romantic prospect, John eagerly makes plans, including arranging the opportunity to find a new wife through the website “Marry a Canadian" in case things with Chloe don't work out.

When vegetarian, obsessive and super Type A John who has mapped out his route including gas stations that do not use Middle East oil sets off wanting to listen to Democratic radio the entire way, he has a rude wakeup call in wild Chloe who may not be as politically interested as he’d believed as their journey takes on added significance when they visit his right wing parents and enter Canada, only to discover that it may not be the dream they’d had in mind.

Funny and well-acted, Blue State benefits from a truly surprising twist midway through the film that reveals the characters’ true motivations and intentions when secrets are revealed which tie in with the Iraq war. Paquin, who is one of the film’s executive producers, continues to choose daring and thought provoking work and while, admittedly the caricatures of some of the Canadians in the film who are depicted as hippie haters of these United States may annoy viewers in Canada, the film also pokes fun at politically active complainers who prefer to play victim rather than act. An entertaining little independent sleeper that’s far more accessible than a typical newscast about Super Delegates, Blue State hit DVD shelves last week.

Looking for Richard

Director:
Al Pacino

Think of it as a fun and visual version of Cliff Notes, except instead of the ugly yellow and black books, we follow an impressive Oscar caliber cast of actors from all ages and all walks of life. To pay homage to Stephen Colbert, in Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, the veteran Academy Award winning actor investigates the classic play Richard III and seems to state to the audience, “I am Shakespeare and so can you.”

In this superb, inviting and winning documentary that stands as one of the best modern filmed versions of Shakespeare despite the unorthodox and disjointed approach, Al Pacino dons a director’s hat in exploring Shakespeare’s significance around the globe today and tries to tear down the daunting, invisible yet strong wall that people seem put up around them whenever they’re faced with what they perceive to be the elitist and snobbish iambic pentameters and rich wordplay from the Bard that has fascinated theatergoers, scholars, directors, actors and literature lovers for centuries. Confronting stereotypes and ruminating on the subtle rivalry between British Shakespearean actors and their American counterparts, Pacino takes on the role of Richard III as well as playing our likable, intense tour guide (so knowledgeable and witty that he’s like the English professor we wish we would've had) and not only acts out major scenes of the play with a cast that includes the likes of Penelope Allen, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder and Aidan Quinn as well as breaking down everything plot point by plot point but also interviewing talented enthusiasts such as Kenneth Branagh (Mr. Shakespeare, himself!), Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline.

Beginning with “now is the winter of our discontent” and traveling all the way until the anguished cry of “my horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse,” we’re riveted with the fresh approach and breakneck pace. Contagiously enthusiastic, Pacino's passion for the project seems to light a fire under the cast and crew, bringing out their very best and as one crew member jokingly confessed near the end, they didn’t dare tell Pacino about the other ten rolls of film that were available or else he’d want to use it to continue his labor of love that’s become a lovely film for audiences to behold as well. A must-see!

Feast of Love

Director:
Robert Benton

Having lost his woman and his dog in the first twenty minutes of Feast of Love, Bradley Thomas (Greg Kinnear) is like a country song come to life. However, thankfully, minus the dog and the woman, Robert Benton’s lusciously sensual adaptation of Charles Baxter’s bestselling 2000 novel penned by Allison Burnett stops the country comparisons right there. Of course, the fact that Bradley’s woman abandoned her husband on her birthday for another woman puts to rest any concern that Bradley’s about to drive to a honky-tonk in his GM pickup truck.

Set in a small and sometimes seemingly claustrophobic Oregon community, this episodic tale chronicles the lusts, loves, and losses of a wide array of characters all linked to Bradley and/or his hip, arty coffee shop Jitters that seems to have more in common with Wharton and James than following the love lives of caffeinated young people of the Friends variety.

The heart of the film lies in the character of Harry Stevenson, embodied by the incomparable Morgan Freeman as a heartbroken professor still on leave, spending his days going from the home he shares with his loyal and loving wife to Bradley’s shop while trying to come to grips with his son’s shocking, unexpected death. In the beginning of the film, narrating as a mythic God like figure as he wanders around the community one sleepless night taking in his surroundings, Harry shares that Greek Gods invented humans because they were bored, and then love so the humans would have something to do. It turned out that love wasn’t boring so the Greeks tried it themselves only to discover they had to invent laughter just to bear it. Despite the informative and clever prologue, there’s little laughter in the love lives of Feast’s characters but plenty of gratuitous nudity that seems instead to be director Robert Benton’s connotation of the title’s Feast.

While a majority of the characters seem to be far too self-involved and self-destructive for us to give much thought to and too much screen time is given especially to the vastly unlikable real estate agent adulterer Diana (Radha Mitchell), the latest woman to toy with Bradley’s heart, it’s the charms of leads Kinnear and Freeman that really keep us invested along with a great, supporting turn by Alexa Davalos as Chloe, a beautiful new employee of Jitters who finds her soul mate in coworker Oscar (Toby Hemingway). Similar thematically to one of my favorite romantic vignette films, Playing By Heart, while the overall success of Feast decreased in the translation to film, it’s still an above average contemporary big screen soap opera that’s old fashioned in its spirit but modern (sometimes too much so) in its execution.

You Can Count On Me

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan

Before it evolved into an Academy Award nominated feature length film, Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me began as a one-act play, set in a restaurant where mature bank employee Sammy Prescott meets up with her aimless, rebellious brother Terry for lunch, looking forward to seeing him for the first time in ages. This lunch that begins politely and then gets progressively more dramatic as secrets come tumbling out fascinated the award winning playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth) to such an extent that, feeling an affinity for his two lead characters, he decided to expand that one-act into a roughly two hour screenplay by giving the brother and sister more plot. Making his debut as a feature director in a work produced by Martin Scorsese, Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me launched not only himself as a major talent but also reintroduced the world to Laura Linney whose small but memorable roles in The Truman Show and Primal Fear had always made her an actress on the brink of stardom. Laura Linney earned an Academy Award nomination for her compelling, fierce, funny, and emotionally gripping portrayal of Sammy Prescott, a woman who, after losing her parents when she was a child, became an adult nearly overnight as she tries her best to hold things together for her eight year old son Rudy (Rory Culkin) and returning wayward brother.

Although it’s Linney who most commands our attention from the get-go, her performance and indeed the entire film is elevated by then-newcomer Mark Ruffalo, whose heartbreaking turn as Terry Prescott managed to strike home to several viewers and as a few attendees of my most recent showing of the film in my discussion series noted, is subtle and unforgettable in the film’s most challenging role.

Once the admittedly melancholy film reaches the half hour mark, the tone shifts from "family reunion" indie and it becomes a stirring psychological portrait of how two members of the same family remain stuck in that devastatingly defining moment in time when they lost their parents and thereby grew into two equally confused adults. With twinges of bittersweet humor, this surprising independent film earns some truly genuine laughs from the interplay between not only Linney and Ruffalo as well as the touching scenes between Ruffalo and Culkin but also in the form of Lonergan friend Matthew Broderick who shows up as Sammy’s new uptight and controlling boss Brian.

Linney, who this year is also nominated for an Oscar for her work in The Savages, seems to have a recurring interest in films about adults who are struggling to grow up, noted that she was drawn to the film because she’d never had a sibling and wanted to explore that relationship. It proved to be one of the wisest decisions the actress made in securing her not only nominations for her first major starring role but also in endearing her to audiences worldwide.

After crafting this deceptively simple, beautifully humanistic film, You Can Count On Me’s writer/director Kenneth Lonergan who costars in the film as Father Ron, waited eight years to release his follow-up film which will also star Ruffalo and Broderick alongside Academy Award winner Anna Paquin and should be out sometime in 2008.

Note: the haunting unaccompanied classical cello piece that plays throughout the film is Bach’s 1st Cello Suite.

2/17/2008

Oscar Picks

Hey Everyone,

In this week's Take Two over at our home page, you can check out Film Intuition's Official Oscar Picks a.k.a. our choices for the films and individuals worthiest of Oscar Gold in the major categories. Click here to check it out.

For a hilarious satire of Oscar glory, take a look at David Spade's online send-up of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood with his short skit, There Will Be Oscars by clicking here.
(Note: the video contains some brief foul language)

And stay tuned this week for another installment of reviews.

Thanks!

2/10/2008

Poll Results: Kate Winslet

The Question:

What about Winslet? Which nominated performance(s) should have garnered Kate Winslet an Academy Award?



The Results:

Sense and Sensibility (48%)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (37%)
Titanic (27%)
Little Children (24%)
Iris (0%)

I couldn't agree more with the top choice of Sense and Sensibility. As Marianne Dashwood, Kate Winslet first captured our hearts with her fiery passion and sharp wit. When Willoughby gave Marianne the cold shoulder at the dance, everyone watching could feel the heartbreak which made her "happily ever after" with the gentle, older Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) even sweeter. While the rest of her performances have been top-notch as well, it's her decision to stay with risky art and independent films she believes in that has made her one of the most fascinating actresses to watch and possibly one whose avoidance of "large scale" blockbusters (Titanic excluded, of course) has cost her a larger fan base but viewers who have been captivated by Winslet in overlooked gems like Eternal Sunshine or Little Children wouldn't have it any other way.



In honor of Valentine's Day, the topic of our next poll is Favorite Movie Couples. In crafting the choices, we've tried to include pairs of all types from funny to legendary by celebrating couples that have endeared audiences across generations. Be sure to cast a vote in the next poll and share some of their films with your Valentine.

If you're looking for movie recommendations to share with that special someone, click here to visit the Film Intuition list from 2007 .



Happy Valentine's Day!

2/09/2008

The Jane Austen Book Club

Director:
Robin Swicord

With the big screen adaptations of Sense and Sensibility, Emma and the Emma inspired Clueless in the late 1990’s, filmgoers saw a resurgence of interest in Jane Austen that has grown increasingly more popular with Oscar contender Pride and Prejudice up to the current year 2008 as PBS dedicates an entire series of new Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of her six classic novels. When Jane Austen’s name began to appear repeatedly in contemporary news publications about a decade ago, one of my favorite creative writing professors mentioned to her amusement that at a recent cocktail party, she’d overheard two men talking and one asked if anyone knew how they could track down Ms. Austen’s agent. Although she wrote novels centuries ago and perished at the young age of 41, there’s just something medicinal, intuitive and timeless about her works that have delighted readers to such an extent that nowadays, it’s impossible to walk into a bookstore without seeing her novels near the front as if they were brand new as well as either her name or a reference to the works in the titles of contemporary chick lit offerings.



Take for example, Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club which in itself became a hot book club favorite and was selected by talented screenwriter Robin Swicord as the source for her first feature length work as a director. No stranger to literary adaptations with her scripts for Matilda, Memoirs of a Geisha or my personal favorite Little Women, Swicord’s hurried, independent film with a thirty day shoot managed to attract talented and award winning stars such as Maria Bello (who was the first to sign on), Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Lynn Redgrave, and Amy Brenneman who together crafted a lovely and surprisingly winning little film that actually surpassed Fowler’s source material.



Set in contemporary, fast-paced California with lives lived at a breakneck speed in the technological age, six bibliophiles get together to form a Jane Austen discussion group that will meet up for six months with each person selecting a title to host at their monthly meeting. Initially created as a way to divert the minds of Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) and Jocelyn (Maria Bello) from their recent losses of an unfaithful husband (Jimmy Smits) who left his marriage to Sylvia and dog breeder Jocelyn whose trusty canine sidekick passed away, soon the women realize that the plots of Austen's oeuvre are echoing their own lives and relationships as time passes. Rounding out the club is Allegra (model turned actress Maggie Grace) as Sylvia’s daredevil lesbian daughter who’s always as fast to fall in love as she is to take her latest risk, the free-spirited six-time divorcee Bernadette (Kathy Baker) who lovingly tends to her young friends with the same vigor as she applies to yoga and knitting, neurotic and pretentious high school French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt), and our adorably comedic token male Grigg (Hugh Dancy) as a science fiction lover who joins the club to get closer to an oblivious Jocelyn.

Despite having such an impressive ensemble cast with enough plot to cause a few characters to get lost in the shuffle, which led to imaginative production design and costuming choices to augment their personas, The Jane Austen Book Club is a richly crafted film that succeeds where similarly themed works like Ya-Ya Sisterhood or How to Make an American Quilt failed by offering women with whom viewers can actually relate who find themselves trying to cope in easily identifiable situations.

Although as an NYPD Blue fan I enjoyed seeing Brenneman and Smits together onscreen again, I was riveted by the performances of Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy. Blunt nearly steals the film as the heartbreaking perfectionist Prudie and it’s in her subtle nuances along with the winning charm of Hugh Dancy’s Grigg that makes the film rise above traditional chick flick fare. I think I speak for most of Austen's enthusiasts when I say that a man who has read Austen for fun and not for school is a man we'd all like to meet. Perhaps though the film’s greatest achievement comes in making viewers want to scour their bookshelves to dust off Pride and Prejudice and the other novels discussed for yet another reread.

A film that makes one want to read a book?
Of course that success can only be had with the craftsmanship of a remarkable writer and if her first directorial effort is any indication, we will be treated to more fascinating films from the talented Robin Swicord for years to come. While it may be impossible to track down Ms. Austen's agent, something tells me that Ms. Swicord's agent will be busy for a long awhile.


No End in Sight

Director:
Charles Ferguson

One of the major criticisms of Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award nominated documentary No End in Sight is that it presents facts about the Iraq war that news savvy viewers already know but the tragedy is, in the increasingly busy lives of American citizens, most seldom have the time to gather all of the data on their own and instead we must glean what we can through newspapers and network news channels owned by the very corporations that are in league with the current administration. Yes, those who stayed up on the war will know the facts presented in No End in Sight but this aside, they’ve never been presented together in quite this way, with this many insiders who worked in close quarters with the Bush administration, the war itself or in the humanitarian effort and the film offers various viewpoints straight from the sources without it being filtered or spun into sound bytes.

In No End in Sight, we meet some truly compassionate, noble and intellectual professionals who tried to help with the best of intentions but often whose goodness was left at the wayside in the agenda to get us in the war and they had to witness firsthand the devastation and chaos that followed. As one official notes, he hopes that his speaking out will be considered criticism that counts since he can’t hold his peace any longer and the film, which should be required viewing for American citizens and one that’s all the more urgent given our upcoming election, underlines the importance of citizens to understand just why our country is overseas and to honor all of our servicemen and women fighting whose suffering and loss must have a meaning as noted in the documentary.

Software millionaire turned MIT and Berkeley visiting professor Ferguson, a one-time senior fellow of the Brookings Institute who was initially supportive of the war years earlier (Ebert) and holds a doctorate in political science (NY Times) chronicles the war in Iraq all the way back to the unspeakable attacks of September 11, 2001 where, officials note, they were told immediately by Bush and his advisors “to go looking” for a link—any link—between al Qaeda and Iraq, indicating there was an agenda from the start. With sometimes only a few months of planning the strategy and reconstruction efforts, as those hired explain, American troops entered Iraq and after Saddam and his cohorts were driven out of Baghdad, horrific looting destroyed the city as our soldiers (who as they confide with the right orders would have been more than competent to step in) had to instead stand around and watch nearly as helplessly as we did glued to our televisions. The chaotic “free for all” of lawlessness that ensued left the city and historical sites including the National Archives, library and museum ruined and/or burned to the ground, causing not only Iraqis to state in the film that “now we have no heritage” but the entire globe to be shocked at the loss of history that charted 7,000 years of civilization. From this of course, as you surely know, the sectarian militias and burgeoning Anti-American sentiment began to increase as the Iraqi military was disbanded, against the better judgment of a few of our top experts interviewed in the film, and citizens (including a percentage of former Iraqi soldiers) joined the insurgency against us rather than being utilized to assist us in our efforts, leading to the “near anarchy” described in late 2006.

Despite the catastrophic loss of life on both sides including the overwhelming number of our brave soldiers returning with lost limbs or disabled which is the most upsetting factor, our livelihood, safety and indeed economy has been severely jeopardized by the ill planning of a vast majority of members of the administration who did not speak Arabic and rule with little or no foreign policy, military, combat or Middle Eastern experience who, as the 2007 Harvard Study cited in the film estimates that the total cost of the war will be 1.860 trillion dollars. As mentioned earlier, these facts (which are just a fraction of the appalling details included in Ferguson’s film) are not new to viewers who have been following the war from the start but where Ferguson succeeds and others who decide to paint a more sensationalized or propagandist picture fails, is that he uses actual firsthand accounts, documents and offers a truly devastating assessment of the events. Instead of us feeling separated from the truth as we sometimes do by the media, he reminds us of the humanity of everyone involved and how those who share their details aren’t being Anti-American but in fact even more patriotic since they were admirable people who genuinely tried to help, selflessly without worried about their legacy or what history books would say about them down the road, but in wanting to do what is just and their willingness to admit flaws and errors and take credit for mistakes. Despite its title it's not a doomsday cautionary tale—it’s an assessment of what went wrong and given the information, hopefully citizens will feel more connected to the events and decide to do what is right, making it the timeliest of documentaries given the 2008 election.

Rocket Science

Director: Jeffrey Blitz

You know you’re in the presence of a truly original filmmaking voice when only a few minutes into Sundance Film Festival award winning director Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science, our narrator Dan Cashman summarizes the film’s opening events with the proclamation that, “Suitcases end marriages and farming subsidies launch cataclysms.” Referring to two arguments presented in the film that find the father of our unlikely hero Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) walking out of the family home after bargaining with his soon to be ex-wife over which pieces of luggage he will take with him as well as seeing a highly verbal veteran debater succumb to uncharacteristic silence during the high school state championship, the film recalls the first three movies by Wes Anderson in giving us eccentric literary characters who, despite living in a bland, nondescript suburban New Jersey environment, are anything but ordinary.

Making his feature film debut, impressive documentarian Jeffrey Blitz whose award-winning Spellbound followed a group of diverse children as they made their way to competing in the National Spelling Bee, Rocket Science calls not only on his apparent affinity for words and education but also his own life as a teenager who overcame a stutter and joined the high school debate team. While seemingly not as confident or successful as Blitz may have been, Hal Hefner is an undeniably smart and sensitive student who practices requesting pizza for his school lunch and writes down the correct answers to asked questions in his notebook but when he has the opportunity, finds it impossible to speak up due to his pronounced nervous stutter. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when his speech therapist teacher suggests a remedy to the problem by urging Hal to sing, whisper, or use an accent, lamenting that he wished the boy was instead hyperactive since speech pathology isn’t his specialty and instead he offers inapplicable advice on the perils of open relationships.

He is offered a glimmer of hope when the attractive, talented debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) still scorned by her disappointment when previous partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) froze up and stopped speaking at the championships before going into hiding as a dry cleaning employee, intuits inexplicable promise in young Hal and in her words “ferrets” him out to recruit him to the debate squad. Partially it seems the decision was made in irony of trying her luck on a quiet guy who may talk rather than the crushing defeat of partnering with a talkative guy who went quiet along with the boys’ resemblance to one another, but determined in her attitude that “deformed people” are best because of their “deep resource of anger,” Ginny eggs Hal on and predictably and perilously he falls in love with her. Often compared to the indie hit Thumbsucker, about which I could find little to like or identify with, Rocket Science surpasses Thumbsucker and although it suffers from an unevenly melancholy middle act, the performances of both Thompson and D’Agosto in particular keep us instinctively on their side. A superbly written and intelligent coming of age comedy that perfects the sweet and sour trend of indie films of the genre and with all of its eccentricities such as a marital couple who plays instrumental versions of Violent Femmes songs for therapy and Hal’s mother who assumes her Asian boyfriend’s homemade tuna casserole is an exotic dish from his ancestral homeland, Rocket Science may very well be a film that will attract even more followers on DVD the way that the film's unlikely hero Hal causes people to give him a second look to see what they've missed.

I Am Legend














Director:
Francis Lawrence

In Cast Away it was Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball; in I Am Legend, we have Will Smith and a dog named Samantha. Both films deal with a similar problem of an isolated man trying desperately to get out of their surroundings, find help and discover another human being but in I Am Legend, it’s far deadlier.

Unlike Hanks, he isn’t cast away on an island; instead Smith’s military scientist Dr. Robert Neville is most likely the sole human survivor from a catastrophic biochemical plague-like disease that ravaged mankind three years earlier in 2009. The biochemically engineered treatment which Natasha Richardson explains in a brief opening clip took a radical approach to curing cancer by re-engineering measles and after thousands of people found their cancer vanishing, it was deemed a miracle… that is, until the brutal side effects were revealed which found those infected far more aggressive, shedding their hair in a chilling metamorphosis from man to a zombie-like beast without a trace of humanity. Moreover, they began destroying one another at such a rapid rate that the government quarantined New York to try and secure citizens.


Neville, who lost his wife and daughter proved to be immune to the disease and after civilization was wiped out, we catch up with him in 2012 as he goes about his days with his trusty canine sidekick Samantha, scouring through the city of Manhattan, hitting golf balls off docked military planes, renting DVDs in alphabetical order from the local movie store, transmitting over AM radio signals to try and contact any other survivors and mostly, trying to resist the increasingly aggressive human zombies who are deemed the “dark seekers” since they’re unable to withstand the UV rays. In the mean time, he works on a medical cure in his basement converted lab, experimenting on heavily restrained, captured dark seekers to unsuccessfully reverse their condition.

Undeniably grim but highly compelling thanks to the charismatic and heartbreaking portrayal by Smith who’s able to embody a wide range of emotions in a single scene with little to no dialogue, I Am Legend is the latest adaptation of the 1954 science fiction novel of the same name by writer Richard Matheson. While there are some definite logical problems that challenge the audience’s ability to suspend their already stretched disbelief even further, there are also some horrifying moments that had me baffled when I learned that not only was it only PG-13 but also available to horror fans as an IMAX experience.


Still, the film is far better than one would think although it admittedly suffers thanks to a rushed, uninspired, and contrived conclusion that ultimately leaves viewers who have felt caught up in the events dissatisfied. It was reported online late in the fall of 2007 that Smith was called back for reshoots to provide an alternate ending and one can only hope that both versions will be available on the DVD.

All I Wanna Do

Alternate Title: Strike!
Director: Sarah Kernochan

When the students of the fictitious Miss Godard’s School for Girls finds out that they’re merging with the comparable local boy’s school to become coed in 1963 Connecticut, it’s up to the D.A.R to save them. Not D.A.R as in the Daughters of the American Revolution but the D.A.R. as headed up by Verena von Stefan (Kirsten Dunst) in writer/director Sarah Kernochan’s All I Wanna Do with their initials standing for Daughters of the American Ravioli. Fond of not only eating their favorite ravioli from Chef Boyardee but of dreaming and scheming, the small group of girls recruits newcomer Odette (Gaby Hoffman) to their lair after the rebellious high school girl from Detroit is shipped off to the east coast when her shocked parents discover she had made “unladylike” plans regarding her relationship with her boyfriend. Predictably, the brainy, politically conscious Odette clashes with her classmates until they band together to go on strike (and indeed the film’s alternate title is Strike!). Concocting a highly unbelievable but hilarious plan for sabotaging the boys when they arrive for the dance and mixer, along with getting even with goody-two-shoes nemesis Abby Sawyer (Rachel Leigh Cook) and defying the school head Miss Mc Vane (Lynn Redgrave), this amusing time-waster produced by Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail writer/director Nora Ephron is intelligent and high-spirited fare for teenage girls. In addition, it may also ring a few bells for not only women who were teens in the 60’s but for those of us (including myself) who spent any time in part of a single-sex education environment and recall both the many positives and (as far as I’m concerned) few negatives of promoting self-esteem and intellect among young women away from the unfortunately, typically male dominated academic environment.
* On a sad note: this review is dedicated in loving memory of one of my best friends and talented academic sisters who we lost at the tender age of 22 last week. To A.L.H. -- while we may never recover from your death, we will always be grateful for the friendship you offered us in your inspiring life.*

Pride

Director: Sunu Gonera

There’s a reason that movie studios keep reaching into our past for inspiring tales of underdogs overcoming tremendous odds to succeed and that’s because, despite the formula, these films act as an antidote to the sometimes overwhelming desperation and depression of films that hit a little too close to home. Movies where people rise up instead of ones where they are cut down act as medicine for the soul and often they’re found in tales of athletes and have become so popular over the past three decades with hits such as Rocky and Rudy that Walt Disney Studios has been steadily releasing several over the past several years including Remember the Titans and Glory Road which not only evoked the underdog sports formula in tales of truth but also dealt with important issues such as tolerance and racial equality.

In 2007, Lions Gate Films released another film in the same mold as the aforementioned works that slipped through the cracks due to a poor marketing strategy that had most filmgoers overlooking the otherwise critically well-received film Pride starring Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard. Howard, in one of the first of his several great roles in ’07 including turns in The Brave One, The Hunting Party and August Rush, stars as Jim Ellis, a talented college swimmer whose dreams were cut short due to intense racism that destroyed an important meet. Despite graduating with an impressive baccalaureate degree in mathematics, Ellis has struggled to find his calling, neither fitting in with the predominately white scholarly world of narrow minded employers or sometimes in his own African-American community as well. After failing to earn a prestigious position at the white, wealthy Main Line Academy, Ellis takes a job with the Philadelphia Department of Recreation in the 1970’s, packing up a soon to be closed center in a troubled neighborhood. Once at the center, he butts heads with proud, defiant and challenging janitor Elston (a superb Bernie Mac) who despite his tough exterior, is passionate about the youth in his community and soon, inspired by the youth who spend their days outside the center, Ellis reopens the pool and begins to coach the kids into champion swimmers, ready to take on Main Line Academy and their arrogant Coach Bink (Tom Arnold).

There are some predictable obstacles and a subtle beginning of a flirtatious love interest for Ellis with likable budget minded councilwoman Sue Davis (Kimberly Elise) but in spite of some of the contrivances, the film works well, thanks to a genuinely moving story and an emotionally gripping turn by Howard who, given his role in Pride and the other films of ’07 should be well on his way to becoming one of our new talented leading men. Howard succeeds in securing our empathy because of his innate ability to radiate a sense of justice and integrity which is an admirable skill that cannot be taught. Engaging and inspiring—the kind of film that should delight young audiences whose parents grew up with Hoosiers and one that may earn even more attention now that it’s been put into regular rotation on premium cable, Pride has more than enough pride, determination and resilience to go around.