3/29/2008

Quiet City

Director: Aaron Katz



In my high school creative writing class, I annoyed my teacher at times with my tendency to avoid formal structure and compose what I thought were snapshot vignettes or short works which often consisted of two characters-- usually a man and a woman for a good balance-- whom I chased around a notebook with my pen and struggled to keep up with wherever they went.

Most of the time, I didn’t even bother giving them a name and only went with vague descriptions of their physical appearance just painting the two in broad strokes so the reader could feel free to imagine anyone they chose. In some ways, it was a rebellion against our mandated creative writing prompts that did little to inspire; simply put, I didn’t want to write a story about pirates and lost treasure, I wanted to write about humans interacting whether they were fighting or falling in love.

I eventually moved on to construct more concrete works with an actual beginning, middle and end (though not, as they say, necessarily in that order) as I continued on in college, but I still cherish tales about people who are searching for something and find another human being for better or worse. It’s this basic premise that seems to be at the heart of the low-budget, Do-It-Yourself “mumblecore” independent film movement that’s been getting increasingly popular with films by directors such as Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and others.

Nathan Rabin of The Onion cited the Danish filmmakers who broke the rules with their ten new commandments in the 90’s and the gloomy offshoot of alternative rock favored by Generation Y and labeled it a “Dogme-meets-emo subgenre,” in his review of one of the best mumblecore films so far, Quiet City. Like my maddening stories from high school, it begins with a woman who meets a stranger (again a man, for good balance) and soon we proceed to follow around the two characters for the entire running time, similar to Linklater’s Before Sunrise, except, I’ve neglected to mention that it’s at least twenty minutes in before we learn at least one of their names. That’s right, it’s the type of film that would have sent my poor creative writing teacher up the wall and one where nobody finds any lost treasure but just seeks out similarities and differences for discussion that occurs in roughly twenty-four hours of their lives.

When Atlanta native Jamie (Erin Fisher) arrives in New York to meet her flaky friend Samantha, she finds a mostly empty subway terminal and depends on the kindness of a fellow twenty-something stranger named Charlie (Cris Lankenau) to point her in the right direction of the café she’s supposed to find. As the two walk and talk, they fall into an easy conversation that is prolonged when Samantha who still hasn’t answered any of Jamie’s calls fails to show up. “If you want to hang out with me, my couch is open,” Charlie suggests and nervous laughter along with a frantic rechecking of phone messages follows before Jamie follows her female intuition and proceeds to crash with Charlie until she can track down her illusive friend.

The relaxed dialogue, penned by the director Aaron Katz and his lead actors, continues as they play a mini-keyboard, she cuts his hair and they drink his father’s gift of pinot noir out of coffee cups. Jamie falls asleep only to awaken worrying she’s overstayed her welcome and after asking if Charlie is sick of her, he reassures her that he has nothing else to do and “it’s a pleasant distraction" as they aimlessly walk and talk around New York city both admitting our generation’s tendency to “slink around” lazily as some would say as well as personify the fact that most of our successful friendships and relationships seem to be those that just blossom out of proximity and as little effort as possible. Turning their attention to the discussion of romantic relationships, they tackle a question that has been an increasingly popular topic of my friends and myself as we lament the fact that it’s hard to meet others and begin to wonder whether or not as we age our capacity to sustain a relationship increases or if people are just staying with others out of comfort and lack of ambition, sometimes making serious commitments to others for whom they may have settled.

Although it’s hardly all self-involved conversation—the title of Quiet City seems at once both paradoxical in its setting of the city that never sleeps but also quite appropriate in its hauntingly beautiful and artistic cinematography by Andrew Reed that Stephen Holden of The New York Times explained punctuates the film “with images of New York at twilight that cast a mood of reflective melancholy reminiscent of the loneliness at the heart of Edward Hopper paintings.” With some nods to Malick as we see shots of quiet and subtle beauty that fixate on empty streets and an ode to Godard as a group of characters dance to a most likely fast rock song but instead of the music, we hear the film’s score, Quiet City is proof that those who pompously say that there is no independent film are incorrect.

It’s gentle, honest, and earned festival awards across the country for its cinematography and direction as well as a prestigious nomination for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. Perhaps indicative of Charlie’s wish that “we need to devise a plot to where we can basically do absolutely nothing and our bills get paid,” the talented director Aaron Katz has devised a way to make a film that on the surface seems basic and vague but at its heart is one that seems to represent its generation in a more authentic way than a large majority of movies coming out of the studio system.

While there are those who hate mumblecore on principle and at its worst, they have a terrific point, when one sees something like Quiet City, we’re grateful that as Katz was quoted on IMDb, “this is the first time, mostly because of technology that someone like me can go out and make a film with no money and no connections." And just think-- they didn’t even have to incorporate pirates or lost treasure in the process.

The Counterfeiters

Director:
Stefan Ruzowitzky

“One must adapt or they die,” Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) reasons to others in Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters. The most recent recipient for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, the film was based on the book by Adolf Burger which told the true story of Burger (played by August Diehl), Sorowitsch, and other Jewish former printers, photographers, and bankers involved against their will in Operation Bernhard, the largest governmental counterfeit program in history run out of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen in order to help finance the Nazi’s war efforts.

Although it’s bookended with events set after the war ends and Sorowitsch journeys out of the camp, Ruzowitzky’s moving film gets us fully invested in the narrative as Sorowitsch, the successful and naturally gifted counterfeiter-- a likable scoundrel to most whom he meets-- is arrested by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). The two men’s paths would cross again in even crueler circumstances after Sorowitsch is moved from Mauthausen Concentration Camp where his artistic skill or more accurately gift for portraiture made him a favorite painter among the Nazi officers to Sachsenhausen where Herzog, who received a promotion from his prestigious arrest of Sorowitsch, has been put in charge of the counterfeiting program to give the Nazis some much needed capital in their war. While morally outraged by the position they’ve been placed in with their new occupation being to help fund the men who murdered their families and condescendingly bribed with soft beds and a ping-pong table, the men are forced to put their experience to use.

Intriguingly Ruzowitzky’s illuminating film which offers a much different view of the horrific events of World War II by focusing on an operation of which few of us had been exposed also explores the humanity and conflict among the counterfeiters as one sees no point in going on having lost everything that mattered to him, another resents having to work with a criminal like Sorowitsch, and Burger employs a resistance tactic to stall and sabotage in order not to use his skills for Nazi gain.

With a running time of less than one hundred minutes, this taut, suspenseful and emotionally rich offering which was also nominated for six German Film Awards (and recipient of one for Striesow’s supporting performance) avoids getting lost in the World War II movie shuffle by offering viewers a new look at the war in bringing this fascinating and true tale to light.

Confessions of a Superhero

Director: Matthew Ogens


It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s an ordinary man dressed as Superman?
No, it’s not Halloween, in documentary filmmaker Matthew Ogens’ Confessions of a Superhero, every day it’s a costume party for a surprising number of individuals who work the Hollywood Walk of Fame sidewalk outside Groumann’s Chinese Theatre and, dressed as their favorite film characters, take pictures with tourists for tips.

Is this legal and how is it different from ordinary panhandling?
The honorary mayor wants them thrown out and Graumann’s has set up a sign informing passersby that they are not affiliated with these “characters” who the chamber of tourism say are "Ambassadors of Hollywood Boulevard" and while occasionally a few get arrested for aggressive begging or solicitation, most follow the set rules. To explain, there are legal rules that state that the characters aren’t allowed to name dollar amounts, solicit photos, can’t demand a tip nor make contact first with tourists for the purpose of a transaction and then there are the unwritten code of conduct rules that some of the characters try to live by such as the boulevard’s unofficial leader Superman (real name: Christopher Dennis) who tries to show a newbie the ropes by explaining that, although they can smoke in private, they maintain an image as superheroes and can’t smoke in public. It’s a convincing and honorable argument that is somewhat diminished by the arrival of an aggressive female fan who seems to have a groupie-like Superman fetish who asks a friend to help her pose for a photo with Dennis before groping him without a word and passing him along an unknown amount of money.

Just what is it that makes the four individuals (Superman, Hulk, Batman, Wonder Woman) decide to go through this strange ritual of hairspray, costuming, and characterization everyday?
Well, aside from the money which has them raking in hundreds on a particularly good afternoon, it’s the same reason everyone goes to Hollywood which is the prospect of possible fame and fortune. Not only are they selling themselves to the public but as a city official notes early in the documentary, they’re also trying to sell themselves to producers, directors, and any other people walking by who may be ready to offer them their big break. It seems like an unlikely way to attract any serious consideration from someone in the industry and while some definitely stare at the characters as if they were freaks and a few try to suggest that Batman and Superman should fight, stranger things have happened in Hollywood and the four keep pounding the pavement.

An official selection at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival, Confessions of a Superhero which has been presented on DVD by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), takes what could very well have been a campy or laughable treatment of its subjects by creating an honest, straightforward look at the lives of the individuals as we try and ascertain just what makes them do what they do each day. In the process we uncover some deep melancholy truths and difficult pasts but are constantly reminded of the filmmaker’s respect and humanity for the subjects by refusing to cut things in a ridiculous way and just let it play out naturally.

Along with Christopher Dennis, who is the son of the Oscar winning actress Sandy Dennis who lives in a shrine to all things Superman and dates a Ph.D psychology student, we meet Jennifer Gerht’s Wonder Woman a.k.a. the beautiful homecoming queen who loathed high school and graduated early only to flee her small town and head for Los Angeles in the hopes of a better future and the Hulk’s Joseph McQueen who was homeless for a few years and is searching for his big break. Perhaps the film’s most fascinating and mysterious figure is the troubled George Clooney look-alike Maxwell Allen who in between working as Batman on the boulevard suffers from a tendency towards rage that’s balanced by his loving relationship with his disabled wife who likes telling others she’s not only married to Batman, but also to someone who looks like Clooney.

Far more compelling than one would expect given the sort of strange curiosity it solicits in viewers from the start, Confessions of a Superhero is a bold documentary sure to entertain and spark good discussion on the nature of celebrity, pop culture, and Hollywood and the best part is that we don’t have to snap a photo or get ready to tip a stranger to enjoy it. In other words, that’s leaping several obstacles in a single bound.

Under the Same Moon

Foreign Title:
La Misma Luna
Director:
Patricia Riggen

Think of it as August Rush flavored neorealism in the wondrous crowd pleaser Under the Same Moon that, in its Sundance Film Festival premiere, received a standing ovation from the audience. Making her feature film debut, director Patricia Riggen, working from a script by “Go, Diego! Go!” writer Ligiah Villalobos follows Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), a young, precocious boy who, just after his ninth birthday decides to make the risky and increasingly dangerous illegal journey from Mexico to East Los Angeles on his own in order to reunite with his mother (Kate del Castillo). After a rocky start hiding in the vehicle driven by college students America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia, he soon makes the unlikely acquaintance of Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), who like the elderly woman in Salles’ Central Station, is a rough around the edges, grumpy sort who finds their heart melting around the adorable child.

While it’s the gifted young Alonso who captures the affection of the audience from the get-go, it’s ultimately Derbez who is the film’s most valuable asset, turning in a tough, convincing and layered performance that may have easily ventured over in the land of camp or as a one-note portrayal. The travels of Carlitos are intercut with the story of his struggling single mother Rosario, who, beautiful and hardworking, cleans houses for wealthy white employers to try and give her son a better life and has come to the crossroads of her life in trying to figure out if she should return home or make her citizenship legal by marrying the handsome and sensitive Paco (Gabriel Porras) who has long had a romantic interest in Rosario.

With plenty of dramatic heartbreak and missed connections along the way, Under the Same Moon, much like its tiny hero Carlitos, journeys onward to an emotional conclusion guaranteed to make even the most hardened viewer blink back a few tears. While there’s a definite political undercurrent to the topical tale of illegal immigration in Riggen’s film, it’s never heavy handed and takes the lofty stance of character driven plot to illuminate the struggle and even for those who may disagree with the border crossing, one cannot deny the relatable story of a child going to great lengths to reunite with a mother who in return has gone to great lengths to take care of her son.

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!


Alternate Title: Horton Hears a Who!
Directors: Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino

“I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent,” so goes the famous quote from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg that seems to be even more poignant when scripted for actor Jim Carrey as he lends his vocal talents to bring children’s literature’s best loved elephant to life in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! From the same studio who created the family films Ice Age and Robots, Blue Sky Studios of 20th Century Fox, directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino craft not only the best adaptation of Dr. Seuss brought to screen thus far but also the best family film of 2008 as of this review.

For years, I’ve been wondering if I was simply growing too impatient with animated features, having found myself bored by critical smashes such as the overly long Pixar hits The Incredibles and Cars and struggling to stay awake during films such as Curious George and Bee Movie and although there’s been a few notable exceptions (Surf’s Up, Over the Hedge), I’ve found myself steering clear of animation. However, it wasn’t until I saw Horton Hears a Who that I fell back in love with the concept of bright, magical animated family films that manage to blend positive messages with high flying entertainment and quality humor that gave at least this viewer the same kind of amazing theatrical experience that I had while seeing Finding Nemo or the Toy Story films years earlier.

While on one hand, the film, like several animated works filled with A list stars for better or worse (which take jobs away from voice-over actors), has a boast worthy roster that comprise a comedic dream team in the form of not only Carrey but also Steve Carell, the legendary Carol Burnett, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and Isla Fisher, I found myself forgetting the magnitude of the stars after only a few lines by each were uttered as admirably they began to ham less and instead preferably stick with telling the terrific tale.

For those who, like myself, barely remember the book, I’ll bring you up to speed—moments into the film we meet our unlikely elephant hero Horton who hears a noise coming from a tiny speck on a clover flower, only to discover that he’s listening to residents of the tiny universe Whoville or more accurately, the mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell). Eventually concluding that “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton tries to save Whoville by bringing the flower to a place where it will be protected from outside forces such as the disbelieving kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who feels Horton is becoming a dangerous agitator that must be stopped and hires the Russian vulture Vlad (Will Arnett) to do just that.

Touching, beautifully animated, fast-paced (refreshingly just 88 minutes) and undeniably heroic, Horton Hears a Who is the type of film that will entertain adults just as much, if not more than children as I found myself laughing frequently throughout by the increasingly wild situations and characterizations by the cast.

Note: The book, which was published in 1954 sent some readers and journalists looking at Seuss’ work as a political allegory and in a fascinating sidebar “Who are the Whos?” by Entertainment Weekly’s Adam Markovitz (3/21/08, p42) chronicles three takes on the work, including the two likeliest which saw it as first a look at postwar Japan (which Seuss has admitted) and secondly as yet another 1950’s artistic offering that echoed the political climate of America during the devastating McCarthy hearings.


Read the Books


The Battle of Shaker Heights

Directors:
Efram Potelle
&
Kyle Rankin

Erica Beeney’s screenplay for The Battle of Shaker Heights was chosen as the second winning entry in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s popular HBO series Project Greenlight. Similar to another Greenlight release Stolen Summer, 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights surrounds the friendship of two boys coming of age. Sweet natured and original, the undisputedly predictable yet charming film helped introduce the world to former Holes star Shia La Beouf before he became a new sensation with roles in Hollywood hits such as Transformers.
Set in the Cleveland, Ohio suburb of Shaker Heights, La Beouf plays Kerry Ernswiler but highly intelligent teenager who spends his weekends as a civil war reenactor where he befriends the wealthy, kind Bart Bowland (Elden Henson) who not only gives him access to his father’s collection of legendary battle artifacts but also introduces him to his gorgeous but engaged older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), on whom Kerry develops a hopeless crush. The son of hippies in the from of a recovering addict father who sometimes lets the at risk homeless people he works with sack out on the family sofa and a mother who runs a bizarre sweat shop mass producing portraits of horses with her Asian staff, Kerry spends increasing amounts of time with Bart. Along with his new friend, Kerry tries to devise a strategy to take on the school’s biggest bully who incidentally is the son of Kerry’s exasperated history teacher who gets routinely challenged by the young war buff in class.
Although the ending wraps things up far too easily and abruptly and the film at times feels uneven in its tone which further research revealed may have been indicative of the studio’s battle to turn the film into a teen comedy whereas the filmmakers intended it to be a drama, it’s still an entertaining time-waster and even more enjoyable than the Affleck/Damon production Stolen Summer.

A Cool, Dry Place

Director: John N. Smith

Think of it as a gender reversal Lifetime movie. Before Vince Vaughn became synonymous with Wedding Crashers-esque frat boy comedies such as Old School and Dodgeball and after he took Jon Favreau to “Vegas, baby, Vegas” in Swingers, he made a stop in rural Kansas for this lovely independent sleeper film. Based on Michael Grant Jaffe’s novel Dance Real Slow and adapted by screenwriter Matthew McDuffie, Canadian helmer John N. Smith directs this sensitive tale about a father trying to reconcile his own needs and wants in raising his adorable five year old son Calvin (Bobby Moat). Surprisingly, it takes little time to adjust our own filmgoer’s persona of man’s man Vaughn as the sweet-natured, good-hearted Russell Durrell, a Northwestern University educated lawyer who leaves Chicago and moves with his son to Kansas after his wife Kate (Monica Potter) abandoned them a few years prior without warning. Spending his days working on mindlessly frivolous lawsuits, Russell’s spirits are raised in taking care of his son and also in coaching the local high school basketball team.

When he clashes with Noah Ward (Devon Sawa), a player with a bad attitude, Noah’s veterinary assistant sister Beth (Joey Lauren Adams) intervenes on his behalf and after a memorable act of rebellion, the sparks between Russell and Beth intensify until they quickly embark on a courtship. Of course—and this is where the clichéd Lifetime-esque predictability creeps in—it’s around this time that Russell’s ex Kate begins to phone and soon shows back up in their lives, trying to find her way back into not only young Calvin’s heart but Russell’s as well. When he’s given a career opportunity elsewhere, Russell realizes he must question not only what is best for his son Calvin but what is best for him as well. Vaughn’s scenes with Moat are tender and true, making viewers see the actor in a whole new light and although some critics dismissed it as lighter, sudsy fare, A Cool, Dry Place is a predictable yet above average human drama that—while never making us think too hard—touches viewer’s hearts.

Digging to China

Director:
Timothy Hutton

Some kids want to run away to join the circus, or as the heroine of My Girl decided, to run away and join The Brady Bunch. In Digging to China, Harriet (Evan Rachel Wood) wants to run away so badly that she tries to get abducted by a UFO so that she can be anywhere but 1960’s rural New Hampshire. Living with her caring but maddeningly alcoholic mother Mrs. Frankovitz (Cathy Moriarty) and twenty-six year old flirtatious sister Gwen (Mary Stuart Masterson) in the motel that the women earned in a divorce settlement, Harriet longs for adventure and when she’s unable to get it by trying to escape, she decides to use her imagination and ingenuity in a wide variety of failed experiments such as a balloon chair and other attempts. Her flights from reality take a backseat with the arrival of thirty year old mentally impaired Ricky (Kevin Bacon) who shows up to stay at the hotel en route to an institution by his sickly, aging mother Leah (Marian Seldes) who worries about what will happen to her son after she has passed away.

Despite their twenty year age difference, mentally and emotionally Ricky is on the same page as the ten year old Harriet and the two become fast friends whose limitations and worries are lessened as they begin to find confidence and hope even after Harriet is faced with an overwhelming and unexpected tragedy. However, the rest of the world isn’t as forgiving of a grown man spending time with an impressionable child and Gwen tries to separate the two which inspires Harriet’s escapist tendencies once again when she and Ricky go on the lam to live the life of boxcar children until they must return.

While it’s easy to dismiss as what Maltin referred to as a “one note” premise, it’s compassionately told and startlingly well acted by Wood in her screen debut as well as by Bacon that recalls at times I Am Sam. Winner of two film festival awards, actor Timothy Hutton’s likable debut as a feature film director was written by the talented screenwriter Karen Janszen who also penned quality family films Duma and Gracie.

This Revolution

Director:
Stephen Marshall

After winning an award from the Sundance Film Festival, Stephen Marshall’s name has become almost synonymous with daring. Globally conscious and prone to risk taking, Marshall, who created the first VHS global newsmagazine Channel Zero and co-founded the Guerilla News Network (IMDb) pays homage to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool with his docudrama This Revolution. Shot in one hundred days, This Revolution centers on a young edgy reporter with a last name that’s a bit too on the nose-- Jake Cassavetes (played music video and commercial director Nathan Crooker)-- who found his priorities and world view changed after spending time filming the war in Baghdad. No longer wanting to-- as he says-- suck up to the rich corporations who run the networks, he butts heads with Chloe (Amy Redford) who in addition to being his boss shares his bed on a casual basis but politics begins to drive them apart as tough-talking Chloe who tells Jake to get her “the edgiest stuff” he can on the phone while standing next to a poster for the Lumet film Network pushes Jake away as he takes to the streets to film the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Movie posters are everywhere in the film and perhaps one of the most telling shows up within the first ten minutes in Jake’s bathroom in the form of Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. Instinctively, we know this assignment coupled with everything he’s seen overseas will affect his view and ability to remain objective and his beliefs and convictions are tested yet again when he befriends a beautiful, rebellious and radical widowed bookseller Tina Santiago (Rosario Dawson) and her young son (Brett Deluono). Although by this point, the atmospheric film that near the end suddenly turns into Antitrust feels a bit dated and the earnest and unpolished turns by Crooker and Redford (who may not have been directed right) do hinder the success of a film that seems to swing back and forth from pretentious to cheesy like a pendulum, it’s the radiant, fiery and passionate Dawson whose performance escalates This Revolution and makes it feel distinctly authentic. In fact, she may have been too convincing as you may recall when, while filming scenes with other cast members playing a subversive group, Dawson along with others were mistaken for real activists and arrested on the spot and footage of Dawson’s actual arrest made its way into the film (IMDb). Now available on DVD, you may also be able to find This Revolution on regular rotation in the Sundance Channel programming guide as not only is Marshall a Sundance favorite but actress Amy Redford is the daughter of Sundance founder Robert Redford.


Rain in the Mountains

Directors:
Joel Metlen
&
Christine Sullivan

Fitting to the film’s tag line, actor Steve Pierre’s “Eric Smallhouse has gone off the reservation… way off the reservation” in the quirky indie comedy Rain in the Mountains that was penned by Joel Metlen and became the third feature directed by Metlen and his filmmaking partner Christine Sullivan. A festival favorite, the film which earned three awards as Best Feature and one for Best Comedy was also an Official Selection at the Santa Fe Film Festival before making its way to DVD.

As the movie opens, Eric, walking home from a job interview, stumbles upon an elderly man hanging from a noose in a tree. Instead of finding him dead, the old Native American man begins to speak and tells Eric that it is his duty to lead his people back to the old ways. Unsure just what the old ways would entail, Eric does his best, angering his wife Lindsey (Audrey Seymour) in the process as he drops his teenage son off on a deserted road to have an Indian vision quest, erects a tee-pee in his front yard, or in the film’s funniest sequence, takes his son Todd (Nick Erb) fishing, determined to only eat what they can catch, only to have the reel fall off the pole and a hook get caught in a plant before he must use the modern convenience of duct tape to try to fix his pole. Despite the fact that his initial forays are a failure, Eric doesn’t give up and further loses his grip on life as he takes his frustration out on the local power company with his decision that electricity is the enemy, taking to the streets to smash light-bulbs to the ground and yell a loud cry of “Damn you, Edison!”



Although the film’s amateurish production coupled with some false, one-note performances (notably Seymour’s) take some of the cinematic pleasure from the movie, it’s a great effort that seemed like it would be of particular interest to film students working on making their first feature films since it never quite shakes its student film feel, despite some inventive bits of humor such as an Abbott & Costello styled routine between Eric and the local sheriff about a chopped down power pole and a likable, upbeat storyline that makes its pacific northwest setting seem like an additional character. Admirably, according to IMDb, the eventual completion of the film is an inspiring achievement considering that the charismatic lead actor Steve Pierre suffered a serious stroke a full two thirds the way into the production of Rain in the Mountains.

The Thin Red Line

Director:
Terrence Malick

To this day, I’m still shocked when people say the dislike The Thin Red Line. Having had the misfortune of being released the same year as Steven Spielberg’s critically lauded yet (aside from the brilliant and unrelentingly brutal opening) highly formulaic Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line seemed to be the antidote to the Hollywood gloss of most WWII films as it is poetic, passionate, frustrating, hypnotic, tender, breathtaking and unspeakably tragic.

While it’s said in some circles that having both Spielberg’s Ryan and Malick’s Line up for the Best Picture Oscar may have helped split the vote and led to the Shakespeare in Love upset, to me, it was again proof that the Academy Awards, while important and historical, are subjective and it’s a shame that several films and performances can’t be recognized as they’re overlooked in the definitive quest of simplifying things down to a single “best” choice.

In comparing the works, Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that “Steven Spielberg’s film was about character and Malick’s is about spirit,” although I’d argue that spirit by its very definition is embodied in a fully realized and fleshed out character and in Malick’s film (which is based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones) is filled with a wide range of characters and their unforgettable spirits.

As IMDb reported Malick had longed to adapt the book by the author of From Here to Eternity since the late 1980’s yet it wasn’t until ’98 when his meandering opus about the first major offensive by America’s Army Rifle Company C (for Charlie) on the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal in 1943 was released.

While fighting for an overwhelmingly long time over the “key-positioned airfled that allows control over a 1,000 mile radius,” (IMDb) we get an intimate view of both the army and inner lives of several of the soldiers including our heroic Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) along with countless others that are played by the likes of Adrien Brody, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, George Clooney, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Tim Blake Nelson, John C. Reilly, John Travolta, Nick Stahl, Donal Logue, Nick Nolte and Sean Penn.

With so many actors, it does at times become hard to tell them apart since (much like myself) the casting director must have had a thing for sensitive looking dark haired men.

Viewers do at times feel a bit lost in the shuffle and may benefit from a second viewing yet contrary to critic Roger Ebert’s statement that “the actors… are making one movie, and the director is making another,” I thought they all added to Malick’s vision and their willingness to leave their egos aside for sometimes only moments of screen time owes much to the admiration for the legendary director of Days of Heaven and Badlands. The underrated Elias Koteas is especially good as Capt. Staros who fights hard to stick up for the men under his command and defy the orders of egomaniacal Lt. Col Tall (Nolte) to protect the others and save lives much to the detriment of his own career.

With an average reported shot length of 7.9 seconds (IMDb) and a running time of roughly three hours, the daunting film which was nominated for seven Academy Awards alienated some with its artistic and cerebral approach but for those with the patience who appreciate a different take on a traditional war film (and one in the tradition of Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now), you will be extremely glad you invested the time.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John

Director: Taggart Siegel

Having received my baccalaureate degree at Prescott College, named the “greenest” school in the country by Time Magazine, I know firsthand that those of us who are interested in organic foods, recycling, alternatives to oil, and all things green are usually labeled hippies. However, in Farmer John Peterson’s case, it’s a hippie come full circle in documentarian Taggart Siegel’s film which chronicles the man from his beginnings as a true farmer heading up the ten year artistic commune experiment “The Midwest Coast” in Illinois to barely surviving the crushing loan crisis and vanishing of farms in the 70’s and 80’s up through current day which finds his farm the headquarters of “Angelic Organics” as Peterson works with over 12,000 families, provides shelter and work for persecuted refugees from foreign lands, and offers as he says a “beautiful reuniting of people with the source of their food.”

However, in this five time festival award winning documentary given a tremendous vote of confidence when Al Gore called it “unbelievably special,” Peterson, writing and narrating the film himself is neither a folk hero or an everyman, as we realize just moments into the film seeing him tasting his soil to check on the rich quality, donning feather boas and costumes of glitz and glamour to heighten his occupation which he considers theatrical. Lamenting the fact that in his rural community he’s not welcome because he’s “a little different,” Peterson shares the history of his life and the farm which has been in his family for generations over scenes of gorgeous family videos which begin in the 50’s when his mom Anna brought home a video camera. In addition, he candidly shares the tragedies of losing his father and also the loss of 328 acres of land during the tumultuous era of loans and President Reagan where housing communities flourished and concrete was “poured in the good land,” as one farmer stated while he and his neighbors began losing their possessions and legacy in auctions.

Peterson who wrote a successful play as catharsis about the experiences he and his neighbors lived through that he was unable to tour throughout the country since he was told that he seems like a flagrant homosexual in need of reprogramming despite a series of romantic relationships throughout his life with beautiful brunette women soon found himself the target of vicious rumors and most likely arson as neighbors began to call his peaceful artistic commune Satanic and spread tales of drug trafficking and animal sacrifices. Driven away from his home to his favorite retreat of Mexico, he decided to give farming a more serious second try in the early 90’s with a loan from his supportive mother and a decision to grow his crops organically which resulted in trials and tribulations including eighty to ninety hour work weeks.

A fascinating and arty portrait of the life of a most unforgettable farmer, The Real Dirt on Farmer John takes a little while to get viewers hooked but gets far more compelling as it goes on charting the struggles and successes in this “epic tale of a maverick Midwestern farmer,” to quote the DVD description. While in the words of Kermit the Frog, for hippies that garner raised eyebrows from the masses like John Peterson, “it’s not easy being green,” for those with an interest in learning where their food comes from, Farmer John’s dirt is a great place to start.

The Girl in the Café

Director:
David Yates

These days, meeting people is hard. We seldom look at one another in elevators as I should know having been stuck in one last Fall and we begin silently questioning one another’s agenda when we’re chatted up in public, and as we age and become busier with our own relationships and families, people begin to drift further and further apart from the friends we always held so dear. As hard as it is to meet people, it’s even harder to meet someone you spark with—someone who just gets you or with whom you click with instantaneously or at the very least, someone with whom you’re never quite sure what to expect and can’t wait to hear what they’ll say or do next. After a decade on the dating scene with enough horror stories and humorous anecdotes to fuel a week’s worth of material, I continually try not to be too cynical since I’m always trying to hope for the best in others and in my romantic belief that while there are no perfect partners and it’s damn near impossible to imagine a single person fitting all of one’s needs for an entire lifetime since you’ll both change and evolve, we can’t do without that thought that “this time, it will be different.”

It’s precisely this optimism that inspires two introverted, awkward and overly polite characters to fall into something close to love in director David Yates’s HBO film The Girl in the Cafe penned by Four Weddings and a Funeral scripter Richard Curtis. Quickly into the film we meet Bill Nighy’s Lawrence, a fifty-seven year old workaholic whose only luxury apart from his lofty position working alongside the Prime Minister and others in Britain’s government is deciding how many packets of sugar to stir into his tea on the very worst of days. In a crowded café where every table is occupied, he asks the young, beautiful yet approachable Gina (Kelly McDonald) if he can sit down at her table. Cautiously seated diagonally from one another, they fluster for the right words as they politely bond over shared opinions on striped pajamas and other meaningless bits of everyday life until they feel comfortable enough to sit directly across from each other. Like many of us less bold and equally shy individuals would do, one senses that although they’d long to chat even further, neither knows how to do so and when Lawrence realizes he’s going to be late back to the office, he begins to walk away before taking a chance to ask Gina to lunch. Nervous and rambling, Gina reveals that she has nothing to do with her time (which let’s face it, would’ve ended most “dates” right there here in the states) and they plan to meet up in a few weeks.

A few more earnest and polite dates follow until Lawrence, after phoning her a few times in one day (which again would’ve probably caused most of us Yanks to back away) takes an even bigger risk in asking her to accompany him to the G8 Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Much to the gentlemanly Lawrence’s surprise and although he’s never actually made any attempt to actually kiss or touch her by their third date (which would never happen here as well), Gina accepts the offer to travel but after they realize that they’re going to be forced to share a room, the two polite and confused souls try to over accommodate one another by debating over who gets the bed or couch while they vow to stay away from the intimate quarters as much as possible. Intriguingly, nothing is made of the age difference between the two as they are visibly May and December with at least twenty to thirty years between them and while, normally one would doubt their true motives with assumptions towards “sugar daddy” or “mid-life crisis,” it just seems like in Girl in the Café that the two feel genuinely pulled to one another.

Moving away from just a true romance, the film becomes more political with each successive minute after they land in Reykjavik and Lawrence, who we assume had gotten into government with an Atticus Finch or Capraesque wish to change the world and help mankind is becoming more and more disenchanted and disheartened by the proceedings that are making his quest to help fight global poverty overshadowed by matters of economics and defense. Couple this with Gina’s newfound passion for speaking out and reading all of the research that the defeated Lawrence brings home which recounts the 30,000 children dying unnecessarily each day from extreme poverty and the two begin to see their budding and sincere relationship tested by political actions and decisions in a land that feels as isolated and introverted as the characters themselves.

Winner of the Best Made-For-TV award as well as accolades for the screenwriting and McDonald’s performance, Curtis wrote his astute, intelligent and quietly powerful films especially for the two stars who were also nominated for Golden Globes. Although I’d always been a fan of the gifted McDonald, especially since her performance in both Gosford Park and Two Family House, I was also pleasantly surprised by Bill Nighy, who in stark contrast to his wild lothario rock star in Love Actually (also written by Curtis) proves to be a fascinating and sensitive actor that’s delightful to watch. Available on DVD, The Girl in the Café may also be found playing sporadically on its home network of HBO.

3/26/2008

Site News 3/26/08

Hey Everyone,

More reviews will be appearing later in the week. Hope you've been enjoying the new look of the site-- it's lighter, brighter and a bit more user friendly. I'm learning as I go so thanks for your patience, support and invaluable feedback as the site keeps improving. Over at our homepage this week, we have a Musical Interlude and Salute to Spring (my favorite season). Who doesn't love an excuse to watch videos? We're a film site after all-- head on over to check out two clips guaranteed to make you smile by clicking here.

As always, thanks for your readership and loyalty. Some of the discussion board comments are heating up-- as the first site to bring global readers a Stop-Loss review, Peirce's film is becoming quite the hot topic with hundreds of new readers each day. I appreciate all voices so thanks for your time and input but remember, let's keep it friendly!

In addition, by popular demand, we now have a list of every single film I've shown in my Library Series so far along with video clips and/or trailers from all of the upcoming films. Browse the list by clicking here and be sure to check them out if you don't live in the area or do but tragically have other plans! I'm toying with the idea of trying something new out in the Fall-- going with classics (basically looking for any excuse to play Vertigo) or breaking down films like we're in film school, by selecting a work such as No Country for Old Men and then analyzing it "key-scene by key-scene." Another possible new feature for those of you who are regulars is hopefully teaming up with some local fests and film groups to provide info and maybe more surprises to audience members. Stay tuned for more details and as always, click here to fill out the feedback form (located at the bottom of the page) to hit me up with any requests or ideas and we'll see what we can do. For the attendees, we may be doing a short survey at the next few screenings.

As you've probably noticed in our Links section, I've been including links to some of the sites that link to or quote from Film Intuition. Every once in awhile I'm quoted on a site that updates or changes content frequently so we don't get to send readers on over to their pages to check out their wonderful sites (apologies to Univ. of Essex: Grad Film Program). This week, we have such a case as my City of Men review is quoted on a site that will possibly be changing soon so while it won't be visible on the permanent Links page, check out Binghamton New York's Art Mission Theatre and the Film Intuition excerpt by clicking here. In addition to our own quotable quote links, be sure to browse some of my favorite movie related sites and blogs on the Links page as well.

Thanks and Happy Movie Watching,
Jen


3/24/2008

Poll Results: The Breakfast Club

If there were an alternate universe filled with the characters from movies, somewhere in it right now, Andrew Clark's dad from The Breakfast Club is smiling.
Fulfilling his dad's mantra of "You've got to win, Andrew. You've got to be number one," in our latest Film Intuition Poll Andrew Clark, or rather the talented actor who played him, Emilio Estevez wrestled his way into first place.

The official results in a minute, but first, a script excerpt from one of Andrew's better scenes which finds him intervening on behalf of Claire (Molly Ringwald):

Andrew: I said, "leave her alone."

Bender: You gonna make me?

Andrew: Yeah.

Bender: You and how many of your friends?

Andrew: Just me. Just you and me. Two hits. Me hitting you. You hitting the floor. Anytime you're ready, pal.
That's right, although successful wrestler Andrew Clark was stuck in Shermer High School's Saturday detention in John Hughes' 1980's smash, the actor playing the film's "athlete" beat out the "princess," "brain," "basket case" and "criminal," with the following poll:
Question:
Which cast member of The Breakfast Club is the most deserving of a comeback?
Results:
Emilio Estevez (34%)
Molly Ringwald a.k.a. Claire the Princess (28%)
Judd Nelson a.k.a. Bender the Criminal (21%)
Ally Sheedy a.k.a. Allison the Basket Case (12%)
Anthony Michael Hall a.k.a. Brian the Brain (3%)
While undeniably they're all talented, I'd have to agree with Estevez's ranking as he proved with Bobby, his latest excellent film as a writer/director, that in addition to his charms as an actor, he is an equally accomplished filmmaker. It would be wonderful to see Nelson, Sheedy, Ringwald and Hall in something of worth again-- over the years, I've seen them in a few different works but with the exception of Sheedy in High Art, few of their performances have made a lasting impression. Time will tell if a new generation of filmmakers who grew up with the kids from John Hughes' films will create an opportunity to bring the Brat Pack back.
Thanks for voting!

3/22/2008

Young at Heart

Alternate Title:
Young @ Heart
Director:
Stephen Walker

As someone who has the song “London Calling” currently set as her cell phone ringtone, it only took a few bars of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to get my head and feet moving right from the start of the infectious documentary Young at Heart. Recalling that the last time I’d rocked out in a theatre was in the far less crowded press screening of Sweeney Todd where I doubt that any of the critics could have picked me out of a lineup, I self-consciously looked around the jam-packed theatre this time and saw that I wasn’t the only one going into concert mode—others were getting into the film, including a man in a wheelchair whose head was banging even harder than mine and an elderly woman who was moving her arms and dancing in her seat. While it can be argued that this is the most expected reaction to British punk of the 70’s and 80’s, it’s a far more surprising reaction when the entertainers performing it in the documentary are chorus members in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s. As a widow enunciates, “Darling, you’ve got to let me know,” we sense that she means it and thus begins former BBC documentarian Stephen Walker’s crowd pleasing film which earned him the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways and Juno film studio Fox Searchlight Pictures definitely has another smash on their hands and I sense that this will be another one of those people mover word-of-mouth documentary hits like March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, or Mad Hot Ballroom that get people not only recommending the film to their friends but coming back to experience it again. Funny, sharp and at times heartbreaking, narrator and director Stephen Walker introduces us to the Young at Heart chorus which started in 1982 as an act that performed vaudeville songs until someone performed Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and the rest was history. From The Clash (which one band member called Crash) to Radiohead, the Sex Pistols, and others, the Northampton, Massachusetts group led by their patient yet strict and supportive music director Bob Cilman has traveled across Europe to play for the King and Queen of Norway and performs regular sold out shows in their hometown as well as wherever they have a prospective audience such as the local prison. Though the health problems of the performers abound with some having survived numerous heart attacks, cancers, spinal conditions and other major setbacks along with the constant reality that losing members due to serious hospitalization and even death is a recurring struggle, the chorus carries on as Walker documents their two month preparation for a new concert. Although Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” which prompted some Young at Heart members to shove earplugs and tissues into their ears seems like it will be the toughest one to master for the members, who mostly prefer classical, showtunes and opera, Cilman gives them their trickiest challenge yet with the rousing toe-tapping, hand-clapping Allen Toussaint number “Yes We Can Can” which uses the word “can” 71 daunting times.

Documenting his “twenty-four new grandparents” every step of the way from their home lives to car rides with questionable driving to the rehearsal hall where some fall asleep during the now required three practices per week, Walker’s compelling film is quietly moving and when we lose two members late into the picture unspeakably sad, yet it’s a touching affirmation of life and dedication or as one member says determination to keep their mind active since they’ll lose it if they don’t use it. While their versions probably aren’t what James Brown or the Talking Heads had in mind when they first set pen to paper or pick to guitar, the clever interpretation by Cilman and his singers bring unexpected humor, warmth and new meaning to some of the compositions such as The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” David Bowie’s “Golden Years” or at their most heart-wrenching Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

It’s the beauty of the numbers and the clarity and quality of the voices that make audience members forgive some of the film’s shortcomings such as perhaps invading the privacy of one gravely ill member in particular a bit too much or not offering much in the way of background on the chorus, how the members are chosen, or much in the way of logistics instead preferring a natural, organic approach. Overall, it’s a remarkable achievement for the filmmaker of course, but more than that for Bob Cilman and the Young at Heart chorus.


Note: This review is dedicated in loving memory of my recently deceased Professor C.B. who was the first professor I ever had both when I took a kid’s college course at eleven and also when I officially enrolled five years later. C.B. managed to inspire everyone whose life he touched with his humor, passion, and humanitarian service. It was C.B.’s encouragement and support that inspired me to take my writing more seriously and I can still hear his Bostonian accent calling me “Jennifaux” and telling me to always keep writing and to never listen to anyone who tells me my sentences are too long. Thank you, C.B.

Hannah Takes the Stairs

Director: Joe Swanberg

By now the phrase “We should probably talk later,” seems to echo the same sentiment as “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” or “I hope we can still be friends,” that all daters seem to use while trying to process how to break up with someone. “We should probably talk later,” is a phrase I’ve personally used (more times than I care to admit since knock on wood, so far I’ve always been the dumper although that’s hardly a victory) and it’s the same one that Hannah (Greta Gerwig) tells her first of three boyfriends shortly into the delightful indie comedy Hannah Takes the Stairs. Although it’s used early on, viewers who, like Hannah, are in their twenties know damn well that it won’t be the last time we hear either those exact words or something similar from our feisty, hyper, annoyingly indecisive and self-obsessed yet unquestionably bright and affable heroine. No, we find ourselves making the decision to break up often before it dawns on Hannah as the young college graduate navigates through the instantly relatable and compulsively addictive terrain of three slightly older men including her twenty-eight year old boyfriend Mike (Puffy Chair writer and star Mark Duplass) who quit his job since work nor rocking out in bands is no longer making him happy, the moody and self-deprecating intellectual narcissist in humility’s clothing Paul (Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha writer/director Andrew Bujalski), and thanks to the gifts of antidepressants, the higher functioning fellow trumpet playing writer Matt (filmmaker Kent Osborne).

Shot without a script or without much in the way of a plot, Hannah Takes the Stairs isn’t quite as mesmerizing as Bujalski’s films that are also included in the, as The New York Times explains “Do-It-Yourself” style independent movement Bujalski named “mumblecore” with self-involved characters who chat about nothing in films with low-production value. Yet, despite this, Hannah is one that feels less like a vanity project than some other mumblecore offerings and seems to be an articulate, recognizable if slightly ridiculous film that keys into the aimless wanderings of intellectual twentysomethings still trying to figure out just where to go from here. Reared on pop culture, the characters like Hannah admittedly suffer from “chronic dissatisfaction” yet in between their ramblings amidst these messy Cassavetes like glimpses of people all striving to find meaning, they manage to ask some pretty engaging questions about life, art, the manic state of romantic crushes and the fleeting nature of love. In other words, when the conversation is this engaging, suddenly the phrase “we should probably talk later” doesn’t seem so dire after all.

Nancy Drew

Director:
Andrew Fleming

To sleuth or not to sleuth, that is Nancy Drew’s question in this utterly delightful big screen adaptation of Carolyn Keene’s beloved series of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories that began with The Secret of the Old Clock. Set in modern day America, teenaged Nancy (the adorable Emma Roberts) is the brightest gumshoe unofficially associated with the River Heights Police Department who never loses her cool whether it’s diffusing a bomb with a cool head or engaging in an automobile chase while strictly adhering to the speed limit.

After her life is jeopardized in the film’s bravura opener, her widowed father Carson Drew (Tate Donovan) makes Nancy promise to give up sleuthing when they temporarily move to Los Angeles for his work. Sad to leave her good friend Bess and “very good friend” a.k.a. unofficial boyfriend Ned Nickerson (Max Thieriot) behind, Nancy finds abandoning detective work even tougher, especially given that she chose their rental home in Hollywood precisely because it’s the site of one of tinseltown’s most notorious unsolved mysteries surrounding the murder of the home’s former owner, gorgeous Audrey Hepburn like movie star Dehlia Draycott (Mulholland Drive’s Laura Elena Harring).

After a book on advanced sand castle making fails to hold her interest, Nancy gets back to her old ways enlisting the aid of her new twelve year old sidekick with a hopeless crush, Corky (Josh Flitter) and a jealous Ned who drives up Nancy’s beloved blue convertible to surprise her, and instead finds himself surprised to discover Corky, however he's predictably unsurprised to find Nancy playing girl detective once again. Armed with her sleuthing kit and with plenty of baked goods in tins ready to bribe anyone who may need a little convincing, Nancy nearly wears out her penny loafers and retro dresses (sewn from her mother’s patterns) as the case grows far more mysterious and dangerous.

Refreshingly, director Andrew Fleming (helmer of 2003’s The In-Laws) and his co-writer, the first time screenwriter Tiffany Paulsen, fight the temptation to make Nancy too modern and although she now has an iPod and access to the internet, she’s sweet-natured and wholesome as ever, winning over others with her sincerity despite becoming the source of ridicule from some of her more Britney Spears or Hannah Montana like classmates. As a former wannabe girl detective who spent hours in childhood pouring over Keene’s mysteries, I was nervous and skeptical to view what all probability suggested would be a failed adaptation given Hollywood’s insistence on sexualizing teen girls in countless grotesque comedies yet Nancy Drew is winningly old-fashioned, yet just like the books were to me in the late 80’s and early 90’s filled with ideas that celebrated female independence and ingenuity destined to make it even more accessible to teens who take the time to seek Drew out. A rare quality filled family picture with an impeccable characterization by Emma Roberts (niece of Julia) as our title heroine, Nancy Drew’s celebration of its girl sleuth may have even made Carolyn Keene proud.

Dans Paris

Translated Titles:
Inside Paris
or
In Paris
Director:
Christophe Honore

In my teens I fell in love with the French New Wave or more accurately the gorgeously inventive if admittedly pretentious cinema of what occurs to lovers after the “happily ever after” usually featuring intellectually snobbish, sad-eyed and soulful dreamers including Jean-Paul Belmondo or Jean-Pierre Leaud as they fall in and out of love with beguiling and maddeningly aloof women such as Anna Karina or Catherine Deneuve. With sweeping scores, jump-cuts, and nonlinear narratives, it’s the type of filmmaking audiences either love or hate but to love New Wave is to fall hard (both blindly and passionately) and New Wave fans are my favorite kind of film lovers.

However, when New Wave fans begin to direct, the results at times are mixed with the incredible Godard inspired Tarantinto masterwork Pulp Fiction to the disconcertingly uneven yet compulsively watchable Dans Paris from novelist and playwright turned writer/director Christophe Honore.

L’Auberge Espagnole star Romain Duris stars as Paul whose relationship with Anna ends after the two fall out of love and overwhelmingly depressed and near-suicidal, the gloomy Paul returns home to live in the apartment occupied by his father played by Guy Marchand (Cesar nominated for his role). Also living at home is the scene-stealer of Dans Paris who comes in the form of Paul's gorgeous, much younger brother Jonathan (The Dreamers star Louis Garrel) who spends his time attending class when he feels like it and others perpetually seducing women with such questioning lines as “Can I possibly kiss you? It’s a matter of life or death.”

With a running time of roughly ninety minutes, not a frame is wasted in the hands of Honore, who sets himself up as the New Wave’s most ardent and fanatic devotee with his painstaking homage to the movement that on one hand seems unspeakably pretentious but on the other helps breathe life into a story that, had it been told in a more traditional manner such as the increasingly depressing fare of American independent film, would have had audiences pressing eject after only a dozen minutes.

A hit in his native France, reaction to Honore’s Dans Paris or rather its influence from the New Wave forefathers had critics divided with The Hollywood Reporter dismissing it as “a greatest-hits collection of French cinema” with its references to Godard, Demy, Rivette, and Truffaut (although I would also add Lelouch and Chabrol to the list) and Manola Dargis of The New York Times assessing Honore as someone who “may be a student of the New Wave but he’s not a slave, and he steers clear of pastiche in this film precisely because he knows the difference between empty imitation and creative inspiration.” With Dargis overstating it and The Hollywood Reporter flippantly understating it, it’s up to the viewer to decide how the New Wave references play out. As far as I’m concerned, the result is in between the critical assessments for Honore’s above average work, which benefits tremendously from Garrel and especially Duris’ dynamic portrayals and for my money, any film that may make its viewers seek out New Wave classics deserves an A for effort any day of the week, even though I’d probably give Dans Paris a B.


Enchanted

Director:
Kevin Lima

Forget the Roomba. When it comes to cleaning apartments, would-be fairy tale princess Giselle (Amy Adams) sings the Oscar nominated “Happy Working Song” and her mellifluously melodic voice attracts animal friends from all around who help her wash dishes, scrub floors and make everything zestfully clean in two minutes flat. Although I confess it’s strange, in the films from Walt Disney Studios, the presence of animals that speak, dance, sew and make up a lovely young woman’s entourage is nothing new but it’s a sight mostly found in their beloved feature-length animated works like Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Little Mermaid. It’s a different proposition altogether when we see live action vermin and mosquitoes flee from New York City’s Central Park only to appear in the posh apartment of divorce attorney Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) yet that’s just one of many scenes of inventive hilarity in Disney’s best “princess” film in ages, director Kevin Lima’s Enchanted.

Beginning with a full ten minute animated sequence, the viewer is thrust into familiar territory as we meet the fair animated maiden Giselle (still voiced by Adams) who, on the day of her wedding to Prince Edward (James Marsden) is tricked by Edward’s evil mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) into banishment as she plummets from the kingdom of Andalasia only to find herself climbing up from the sewer into modern day Time Square. Convinced that it’s only a matter of time before her prince will come, Giselle sets off looking for help and finds unlikely and mostly unwilling assistance in the form of handsome Robert Philip, who, about to venture into an unromantic engagement with the kind but bland Nancy Tremaine (Idina Menzel) is prodded into rescuing Giselle by his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey).

Filled with lots of Dinsey in-jokes and references to the history of the animated division of the studio along with giving three actresses who voiced princesses in the past cameos in the film (Jodi Benson’s Ariel, Paige O’Hara’s Belle, and Judy Kuhn’s Pocahontas), the delightful and surprisingly engaging Enchanted managed to hook me soon after the live action sequence began, thanks to the creative script from Bill Kelly who wrote the similarly themed Blast from the Past. However, most of the film's charm comes from the unceasingly talented Adams who, with her variety of excellent performances in the past two years, has the makings of becoming one of our top leading ladies. The film’s soundtrack featuring lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and music by Alan Menken received two additional nominations for original song for the tracks “So Close” and “That’s How You Know” and Enchanted also earned recognition by the Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards as the Best Live Action Family Film of last year.

Romance & Cigarettes


Director: John Turturro



“There’s a lot of things in this pothole of a life that don’t make sense,” Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) tells his youngest daughter Baby (Mandy Moore) in writer/director John Turturro’s self-described “down and dirty musical love story,” produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Romance & Cigarettes. Turturro originally had the first inklings of an idea for the film in the 1980’s before beginning to write it when portraying a struggling screenwriter himself in the 90’s in the Coens' Barton Fink and, after directing his two earliest pictures Mac and Illuminata, Turturro finally got the chance to bring this startlingly sexual, overwhelmingly crude, yet undeniably original musical to life.

Despite the production being postponed for nearly two years due to James Gandolfini’s commitment to the HBO series The Sopranos, Turturro spent those years securing the rights to the songs he’d chosen (IMDb) for his trashy firecracker salute to musicals that told the story of blue collar ironworker Nick Murder whose dressmaking wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) discovers he’s been betraying her as well as bailing on his duty to his three daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro) by having an affair with the sultry, British, lingerie-selling redheaded harlot Tula (Kate Winslet).

Now dubbed a “whoremaster” by his betrayed wife who runs to church to take her frustration out with a stirring rendition of “Piece of My Heart” along with Eddie Izzard and the rest of the choir, Nick is relegated to the fact that according to him “marriage is combat” and he must fend for himself opposite his wife’s army (the three daughters) even if it means that Kitty will no longer be preparing his dinner. Nick ends up going to extremes to satisfy his "mistress in heat" Tula who we’re introduced to in a laughably over-the-top fire sequence and as Winslet plays the part (visibly having a ball), Tula is a woman whose dialogue is completely made up of foul lines that get even more shocking as she continues on and soon we realize that the relationship isn’t going to last even before she confesses that she “loses interest in a man as soon as he begins to care" about her. However, Turturro’s film busily occupies itself as a musical comedy of “remarriage” as Nick fights to try and win back his wife, who, meanwhile has been fantasizing about her first love Aidan Quinn and seeking revenge on the cheating Nick by conducting her own investigation along with her dangerous cousin Bo (Christopher Walken).

Despite a four star review from Roger Ebert, this Golden Lion nominee from the 2005 Venice Film Festival was labeled “loud and pointlessly crude,” by The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Bennett (9/7/05) who cleverly summed up Romance & Cigarettes with the observation that “it looks more like something that might have been made by Jesus Quintana, the wild man of the bowling alley he [Turturro] played in The Big Lewbowski.” Definitely film fodder for an acquired taste, I found myself mostly disgusted by the cinematic train-wreck created by the indisputably talented writer/director and cast, even though admittedly it was oddly compelling at times. Ultimately, Romance & Cigarettes is an unnecessarily lewd offering that never failed to inspire genuine interest in the characters who populate each frame other than the initial involuntary shock that forced viewers to pay attention similar to the way that we can’t help but stare at a fire or traffic accident, terrified and drawn in by the twisted beauty but all the while hoping that everyone gets out in one piece.

3/17/2008

The Band's Visit

Director: Eran Kolirin

Recently, there’s been much discussion and press regarding the historic cultural exchange that found New York’s world renowned Philharmonic Orchestra traveling to North Korea to play for the country’s most powerful and privileged. Although the number of negative aspects to that controversial decision seemed to outweigh the positives as evidenced on the nightly news, heroic Madeleine Albright said it best when she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and explained that it is a positive thing because it opens up a cultural exchange and may be the start of a better relationship between the countries. With culture, perhaps, comes the idea of universality and recognition that despite our differences, we are more alike than one thinks so in the spirit of culture or music more specifically tearing down walls to overcome clashes of countries, we have the most surprisingly touching and funny foreign film of last year with Israel’s The Band’s Visit.

In a film my mother repeatedly described as “precious” until I realized that that is undoubtedly the correct word, television director Eran Kolirin makes his feature film debut with this foreign gem about eight members of the small Egyptian police band the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who leave their native country to journey to Israel where they have been invited to play at an inaugural celebration for a new Arab Arts Center, only to find after a bus leaves them in the middle of nowhere that due to a pronunciation and spelling miscommunication, they’ve showed up in the wrong town. With their light blue long sleeved formal uniforms standing out in the beige, expansive desert, visually they seem as separate as can be until the group makes the acquaintance of a beautiful restaurant employee named Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who, along with her coworker decide to take the men in for the night of food, shelter, and conversation until they can catch the next bus the next day.

Gentle, sweetly touching and witty, the film sneaks up on viewers similar to The Station Agent in showing how seemingly opposite individuals can find themselves bonding with people at whom they may never have given a second glance. As we follow the men through the night, we become particularly drawn in by the stories of the band leader Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) who forms an unlikely bond with his lovely hostess and the charmingly mischievous, handsome ladies man (Saleh Bakri) who tags along on an awkward double date, only to branch out from his usual pickup line of “Do you like Chet Baker?” by assisting a young man in overcoming his shyness around women.

Winner of Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as well as grand prizes in Munich, Tokyo, Zurich and other countries including earning the awards in every single major category of Israel’s Film Academy Awards, The Band’s Visit was the country’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award but was disqualified when it was discovered that more than 50% of the picture had English language dialogue. While it was unfortunately denied a greater and much needed introduction to American audiences through the Oscars on a technicality, hopefully those who enjoy finding obscure critically acclaimed and award winning films will be sure to seek out The Band’s Visit for their own personal cultural exchange.

Drillbit Taylor

Director: Steven Brill

Although the screenplay is credited to writers Seth Rogen (Knocked Up) and Kristofor Brown, the story for the newest offering from producer Judd Apatow was also credited to Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles writer/director John Hughes, who using the pseudonym of Edmond Dantes collaborated on this surprisingly cute offering from director Steven Brill. After having penned the three Mighty Ducks films before moving on to direct the uneven Adam Sandler comedies Little Nicky and Mr. Deeds, Brill does a great job of navigating Rogen and Brown’s alternately funny and heartfelt comedy about the horrors of high school that finds a trio of bullied kids looking to hire a bodyguard on the cheap to protect them from the daily beatings and humiliations they’ve come to expect in the hallways, bathrooms and grounds of their high school.

Eager to make an impression, adorably scrawny and insecure Wade (Nate Hartley) who struggles against his hyper masculine stepfather and brawny stepbrothers at home, decides that he wants nothing more than to be popular and obtain a girlfriend in his high school and he begins plotting out his proactive strategy with fellow geek Ryan (Troy Gentile), an overweight student with a passion for rap who has decided that he will go by the "lady-friendly" nickname of T-Dog. Unfortunately, the two make the spontaneously disastrous decision to wear the same shirt on the first day of school and after Wade intervenes in trying to stop two horrifying bullies from shoving young, small Emmit (David Dorfman) into a locker, they’ve not only inherited a new sidekick in Broadway t-shirt wearing Emmit (fond of Cats and Rent) but also in becoming the frequent targets of the merciless duo of villains that seem to allude the awareness of the clueless school faculty including their principal (Stephen Root). When desperation leads them to outsource protection, homeless army veteran and full time schemer Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) arrives on the scene first with the intention of swindling the boys to earn enough cash to go to his desired destination of Canada who begins to realize he may be actually starting to care for the three lads, not to mention their gorgeous English teacher Lisa (Leslie Mann).

Although some of the dialogue and the violence near the end of the film felt a bit like overkill, I found myself surprised by the fact that I enjoyed the innocuous Taylor far more than I thought I would, despite being the first to admit that it falls into numerous films of the same underdog paradigm of most of the frat pack comedies of Will Ferrell and company over the last few years by Apatow but also the same Curly Sue, Home Alone and Ferris Bueller anti-authority works of the ever-talented Hughes as well. While the previews make the film appear that it’s Wilson’s show all the way and that the success of Drillbit Taylor depends solely on Wilson, similar to the way his films like You, Me and Dupree were marketed, the three young stars all manage to not only steal our hearts but also remind us of the dangers of high school and burden of bullies that overwhelmed us in our own educational career… that is, unless you were the ones doing the terrorizing.