4/26/2008

Come Away Home

Director:
Doug McKeon

Watching the second hand advance sixty times just before the final bell releases kids for summer vacation is arguably the longest and most painful minute in a child’s life. While typically that fateful three o’clock bell seems to announce an idyllic summer of freedom away from the rigors of flashcards and chalk dust, twelve year old New Yorker Annie Lamm (Jordan-Claire Green) finds her plans for partying dashed when her parents, long overdue for some quality alone time, impulsively decide to pack up their daughter and head off to South Carolina. Depositing Annie with her maternal grandfather Donald (Paul Dooley), her parents Carol (Lea Thompson) and Gary (Thomas Gibson) rent a place nearby promising to check in regularly via her mother’s trusty cell phone.

However, the independent and headstrong Annie starts devising her own plans for escape when she realizes that instead of soaking up rays in the family beach house, she’s staying in a musty, dusty, clutter filled rundown home without a computer and just a black and white television that can only tune to the Spanish channel for her amusement. And it's also a place where Annie notes to her chagrin that each room offers its own odor ranging from “taxi cab” to “old tire.”

While it’s hardly the picture perfect postcard Hilton Head, South Carolina resort town Annie was hoping for, her grandfather and his best friend Barney (a comical Martin Mull) try their best to entertain the girl with chess and stories of the good old days. Predictably, Annie makes a run for it and after her optimistic journey back to New York places her in peril, she begins to change her attitude when she encounters some new quirky, eccentrics and more importantly realizes there’s more to her grandfather than meets the eye.

A refreshingly old-fashioned family film that, despite its startling similarities to On Golden Pond (which incidentally starred director McKeon), is the type of film that manages to engage viewers of all ages and tragically may be overlooked by audiences due to its lack of a wide theatrical release. Admirably building a plot around a young woman’s bonding with her grandfather as opposed to a typically male formula of a young man beginning to fill his masculine ancestor’s shoes, Come Away Home was an audience favorite that earned a Best Picture Honor from the International Family Film Festival along with an Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board. An official selection from the traveling nonprofit organization Kids First, McKeon’s touching movie has recently been released on DVD.

War Dance

Directors:
Sean Fine
&
Andrea Nix Fine

“Since the day we were born, we’ve heard gunshots,” a child tells the camera near the beginning of this heartbreaking Oscar nominated documentary, which focuses on three children from the Acholi tribe living in a northern Uganda displaced person’s camp (population: 60,000) after murderous rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army drove 90% of the tribe from their homes.

Even before we hear the words, their faces prepare us for the horrific stories to come, yet while unspeakably tragic, the film by Sean and Andrea Fine takes an unorthodox approach—it’s a heroic underdog tale framed as a war documentary as we focus on the preparation of the displaced students’ Patongo Primary School in working towards Uganda’s 2005 National Music Competition that will find 20,000 schools contending “for the right to represent their tribe.”

Exquisitely photographed with majestic beauty that’s in stark contrast to the atrocities being relayed, at first the idea of a Mad Hot Ballroom styled documentary is off-putting yet soon we, like the three children we’re following, realize how vital it is for the arts to serve to sublimate pain and refocus the children’s energies to something positive as opposed to feeling defeated or orphaned by the unspeakable acts perpetrated on them in the past and dangers of living in the “most remote and vulnerable” northern Uganda camp.

Refreshingly, the film opted to let the children, including thirteen year old orphaned Rose, fourteen year old Nancy who looks after her three younger siblings, and fourteen year old talented xylophone playing Dominic document their own experiences straight to the Fines’s camera in lieu of a narrator. However, some critics cried foul at the “uneasy sense of being manipulated” (Stephen Holden, New York Times) by both the “children’s controlled, likely coached interviews,” (Rachel Howard, San Francisco Chronicle) and as Holden noted one devastating scene in particular that he felt seemed rehearsed, and while there’s no doubt that the children probably did go over their tales a few times with the filmmakers, it doesn’t make their words any less heartrending or true.

Rated PG-13, THINKFilm’s War Dance seems like a terrific choice for eighth grade and above classrooms due to its timeliness and accessibility in getting the message across to viewers of all ages with an unusually uplifting storytelling arc, yet at the same time opening the eyes of young viewers to events happening around the globe.

The Tollbooth

Director: Debra Kirschner

You may want to dub this one Feminist on the Roof but there’s no telling what Fiddler’s Tevye would have made of Sarabeth Cohen (Marla Sokoloff), the young art school graduate struggling against her parent’s adherence to Jewish tradition as she tries to navigate through The Tollbooth.

While Norman Jewison’s landmark musical Fiddler on the Roof served as Tollbooth’s primary inspiration in offering audiences a modern tale of three sisters who “attempt to redefine the parameters of their culture,” as writer/director/producer Debra Kirschner explains on the film’s official website (thetollboothmovie.com), her story is uniquely contemporary and tinged with the filmmaker’s feminist sensibility.

After returning to her Brooklyn nest following college graduation before artistic differences and Sarabeth’s anger towards parental censorship of her politically charged artwork prompts her escape, twenty-two year old self-described “feminist artist” and activist Sarabeth moves in with her medical student sister Becky (Liz Stauber) to weigh her options. While her loyal boyfriend Simon (Rob McElhenney) seems all too willing to compromise his art and settle down in his native Pennsylvania working a regular nine to five job, Sarabeth rails against conformity. Accepting part time work as a cater waitress, she decides to spend more time painting and pounding the gallery pavement, receiving one very memorable critique that while feminist anger is out, cynicism-- as long as one keeps with the times-- never goes out of style.

Meanwhile Sarabeth, who questions, “What is the point of being chosen when you have no choices?” gets frustrated by the old fashioned traditions kept up by her mother Ruthie (Tovah Feldshuh) who seems all too ready to take a submissive attitude towards women’s work, and her quote happy father Isaac (a terrific Ronald Guttman). In keeping with her belief that New York is the capital of attitude, Sarabeth has more than enough attitude to go around and it’s precisely this bratty, unattractive sense-of-entitlement worsened by her obliviousness to respecting the fact that her relatives both paid for her education and our housing her all the while having to put up with her absence of gratitude that made her, in my opinion, the least likable character in the bunch.

Far more fascinating are the two older sisters in the film, namely model daughter Becky who is as devout as her parents but trying to meld her religious upbringing with her newfound realization that she is a lesbian as well as the talented Idina Menzel who plays the married, pregnant Raquel, who seems to be an intriguing blend of her two parents.

Unfortunately, as Sarabeth’s story gets the most screen time, it bogs down Kirschner’s clever set-up by way of the film’s ultimately clichĂ©d coming-of-age paradigm, making it an average success bolstered only by the expert supporting turns. Although it took four years to make its DVD premiere, Kirschner’s high definition video labor of love was a modest success in the east coast film festival circuit, debuting at the Hamptons International Film Festival following its 2004 production.

Inside

Director:
Jeff Mahler

Parents worried that their teens will turn into couch potatoes over the long upcoming summer vacation won’t think twice about renting writer/director Jeff Mahler’s claustrophobic thriller Inside. Not only will teens be thrilled to see a freaky independent feature starring Heroes actor Nicholas D’Agosto and Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester, but after the roughly ninety minute surprisingly gore-free psychological chiller is over, teens won’t be able to get outside fast enough.

The film, which makes the most of the beige and seemingly unspectacularly bland Arizona sun stars D’Agosto as Alex, a criminally curious and seemingly friendless young adult library worker who takes to following strangers to learn more about their lives. Much like the main character in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant overlooked sleeper Following, Alex makes an equally peculiar and far bolder acquaintance in the form of Josie (Meester), the perky, attractive, bored little rich girl turned kleptomaniac who steals anything that isn't nailed down to try and get a rise out of her psychologist father.

When Alex finds himself drawn to a perpetually depressed couple who check out the same library book every month, he begins to follow them and fearlessly lets himself into their home only to get caught in the process. However, instead of dialing 911, Mark and Alice Smith (Kevin Kilner and Cheryl White) are struck by Alex’s uncanny resemblance to their recently deceased son Timmy and end up sharing the evening with him.

After Alex is hit by a car upon his departure from their home the following day, the Smith’s decide to take care of the young man themselves, being that he has no parents of his own and lacks health insurance. However, Alice’s adage that “nothing is worse off after someone has cared for it,” is called into question by both Alex and audiences fairly quickly when the couple begin to feel that not only do they have a second chance at taking care of a son but perhaps Alex is Timmy after all.

Soon Nolan’s Following evolves into Reiner’s Misery as Alice begins conditioning Alex to act like her lost son and it gets increasingly more frightening by the minute. However, much to the director’s credit, instead of going for cheap thrills and gore, much like the foreign works With a Friend Like Harry, Cache and modern thrillers from Chabrol, he manages to spill little blood and instead keeps the darkest violence behind closed doors, injecting terror into the most seemingly innocuous scenes as Alex strives to choose Timmy’s favorite Monopoly piece or plant a flower in Alice’s garden.

While the progression of Josie’s dubious interest into Alex’s disappearance seems to occur a bit quickly givent he fact that, to audiences (unless scenes were left on the cutting room floor), they spent very little time together, we’re nearly driven mad with apprehension until she starts to try and intervene on Alex’s behalf. Although the concluding standoff is poorly executed with a surprising lack of fear in the younger characters’ reactions and would’ve benefited from better editing to pare it down almost ten minutes, it’s still a terrifically haunting little creepfest. Once Inside reaches its final credits, it will drive you outside, not just to get out there in the sunlight but also to start telling others about the crazy film you’ve just seen.

The Final Season

Director: David M. Evans

Typically film critics rail against the perils of predictability and contrivances in contemporary cinema, yet a different attitude seems to be adopted by most when it comes to the All-American genre of underdog sports film that never seems to go out of style. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick La Salle wrote, citing the similarity of the genre’s offerings, “Funny thing about theses sports movies. They’re all the same. They’re never bad… they’re rarely exceptional. In fact, their appeal may be their sameness.”

The Final Season is such a case—a warmhearted, inspiring film that despite its modest production values, works the same way that chicken soup does when one has a cold, or mashed potatoes and/or macaroni and cheese do after an awful day—it’s a film that comforts, nourishes, goes down easily and doesn’t ask too much in return. Similar to the quintessential underdog he played in Rudy (one of the best sports films of the 90’s), Sean Astin pulls double duty as both producer and star in this true story, playing unlikely high school baseball coach Kent Stock, who, at the tender age of twenty-four after just two months of assisting the legendary Coach Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), finds himself taking over the Norway High School team.

After winning nineteen straight state championships under Van Scoyoc, the small Iowan community with a population of 586, that-- as the townspeople state-- grows baseball players similar to the crops on their farms, must come to terms with bureaucratic changes all made under the guise of “progress” that mandates that the Norway High School Tigers will be playing their final season before merging with the larger Madison High School.

As illustrated in the film, the vindictively villainous School Board President Harvey Makepeace (Marshall Bell) fires Coach Van Scoyoc out of petty spite and, in the hopes of sabotaging the team’s last competitive year, replaces the coach with the impossibly young, earnest Stock whose only experience heading up a team on his own was as a girl’s volleyball coach.

While the primary focus of The Final Season is on the development of the team and interplay between the Norway community, other subplots are introduced and, despite engaging us from the outset, are given little time to satisfactorily develop such as a terrific storyline about a rebellious Chicago teen played by Forbidden Kingdom star Michael Angarano whose widowed father (Tom Arnold) drops him off with his Norway grandparents in the hopes that the change of scenery will turn the young man around.

Angarano, who has some great scenes that beg for more exploration including a few confrontations with the film’s most valuable player, Powers Boothe, is shortchanged by the film. Yet these few time-wasting subplots aside including a likable turn by Rachael Leigh Cook as Stock’s love interest, The Final Season is further proof of director David M. Evans’s love of America’s favorite pastime following his terrific family classic The Sandlot, which he’d also penned.

Another solid and slightly above average entry into the overcrowded underdog sports genre, the film manages to further compel audiences with its timely storyline of small communities like Norway becoming ghost-towns when economic and political issues force them to close their schools, leading to devastating effects as businesses follow suit, which is something that seems to be hitting us yet again in the wake of our struggling economy.

The Bridesmaid

Director:
Claude Chabrol

As summer wedding season approaches, those of you single men hoping to make like a wedding crasher and pick up a bridesmaid who is hot-to-trot may be reminded to do so at your own risk after viewing Claude Chabrol’s chillingly twisted film The Bridesmaid.

Based on Ruth Rendell’s novel, the then seventy-six year old former French New Wave legend and Hitchcock devotee Chabrol once “again takes up a sharp instrument and directs it at one of his favorite targets, the family,” (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times) in this sinister look at dangerous young love.

As it opens, we’re invited into the seemingly normal suburban French home occupied by Christine (Aurore Clement), the single, middle-aged beautician mother of two daughters and a son. Packing along a gift in the form of a cherished backyard statue that bears an uncanny resemblance to the mother, the family sets out to meet her boyfriend Gerard Courtois (Bernard Le Cog) before he sets off for a business trip to Italy and nearly vanishes from the entire picture. While Courtois is a man who, despite not being quite the Kevin Costner Christine was dreaming of-- as a daughter informs her-- is as courteous as his name implies, the meeting seems to affect Christine's son the most.

While it can be said that her son, the contracting employee Philippe Tardieu (Benoit Magimel) who shares an unnaturally close (read: creepy) relationship with his mother may see Gerard on some level as a rival, he seems far more perturbed about the loss of the statue. His feelings of annoyance at his mother’s gift to a man she readily admits she has mixed feelings about is lessened in a surprising way when Philippe becomes transfixed by the beguiling Senta Bellange (Laura Smet)at his sister’s wedding. Something in the bridesmaid’s curious expression, her cool beauty, and challenging air reminds him of the statue (subtext: his mother) and he decides at once that-- like the statue he went and stole back from the absent Gerard-- he must possess the young woman as well.

Although impervious to his flirtations at the wedding, we quickly realize that the aloof Senta prefers to dangle herself as bait and reel men in on her own time as soon after, she shows up alone at his door, drenched from the rain, and after changing into his mother’s robe, seduces Philippe on the spot. Immediately following their coupling, Senta begins to share thoughts that would have sent most people running (even, like Philippe, from their own home) as she tells her new lover that he is her destiny and they are one. Later, the former model and exotic dancer turned female actor (she abhors the sexist term "actress") informs Philippe that not only is she his completely, but her home is now his and they should always think alike and never disagree. Somehow, bewitched first by sex and then her intensity, Philippe falls even harder for Senta and finds their love tested shortly into their whirlwind, atypical courtship when she requests a murderous favor from him to prove his love.

Eerie, diabolical and with excellent performances that try and more often than not succeed in making up for shortcomings in the script including some dubious characterization, it’s quintessential Chabrol. While strictly keeping with his oeuvre of evil lurking in the hearts of families that has comprised his work for decades, intriguingly, as Dargis noted, this recent offering proves that “while his aim remains true, his touch has become gentler, more forgiving,” as the film careens to a slightly unsatisfactory and rushed finale that adheres to Chabrol's inclination for vagueness.

Nominated for the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival, 2004’s The Bridesmaid won’t be a film that stands out on the same level as some of his lauded New Wave classics and while I didn’t find it as compelling as his other recent work, Merci Pour le Chocolat, neither his fans nor those who have an interest in trolling weddings for brief encounters won’t want to miss it.

Dopamine

Director:
Mark Decena

You’ve heard of the birds and the bees but what about Koy-Koy and dopamine?

Women’s magazines and self-help books continually offer new theories about romantic attraction but whether one believes in fate or fix-ups, I think most of us agree that there’s some sort of chemical reaction at play when determining whom we consent to date again and to whom we offer some derivation of “don’t call me, I’ll call you.” Or, as the father of computer programmer Rand (John Livingston) tells his son while summing up his lifelong love for his wife whom now remains stationary on a couch stricken with Alzheimer’s, their chemical spark was ignited because, simply put, they “set each other off.”

The argument that love’s chemical processes result in dopamine wherein your body releases a highly addictive pleasure drug during courtship resulted in Rand and his two coworkers, Winston (Bruno Campos) and Johnson (Rueben Grundy) participating in the three year development of a virtual friend, a computerized, interactive bird they named Koy-Koy which provides the same narcotizing stimuli for the lonely and/or friendless. When their employers want their brainchild tested, the three colleagues-- admittedly suffering from cabin fever of being trapped in a small, sunless room working on code-- reluctantly consent to offering Koy-Koy a children’s classroom full of would-be friends.

However, it’s the attractive teacher Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd) that captures the attention of not one but two programmers after they meet one night in a bar without realizing their futures would be intertwined. When the troubled, commitment phobic Sarah lets her guard down temporarily to begin spending increasing amounts of time with the smitten Rand, they find their burgeoning relationship tested by his overly analytic, scientific explanations of love that provide little in the way of assurance that their coupling is different from those of animals. And, with all his theories, Rand manages to not only kill the romantic mood but contribute to the distance between the two lonely souls.

It’s precisely this distance that’s echoed in the audience as Dopamine suffers from the same cool, detached emotion that surrounds the world of computer programmers, which isn’t helped by its unlikable heroine and the production’s claustrophobic execution. Yet, it’s an admirable attempt for a film that should definitely spark—if not chemistry—then discussion, director Mark Decena’s Dopamine (written by the director and collaborator Timothy Breitbach) won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was chosen for both DVD distribution in the Sundance Film Series and regular rotation on Redford’s prestigious premium cable network.

Americano

Director: Kevin Noland

In their decision to-- as one character surmises-- rethink whatever it is they think they thought by escaping the realities of student loans, the 9-5 grind, and obligations, three friends head to Spain for one last adventure following college graduation.

Hoping to participate in the Fiesta de San Fermin a.k.a. the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, Ryan (Timm Sharp), his girlfriend Michelle (Ruthanna Hopper), and their unofficial leader Chris (Joshua Jackson) find themselves all uniquely affected by their surprising foreign experiences and the intriguing characters they meet along the way such as a strange, Beat styled philosophizing club owner Riccardo (Ruthanna’s father Dennis Hopper) who advises Chris not to “fall for the con—the Ameri-con.”

Coming to grips with, as Ryan explains, the old adage that if you really want to get to know someone better, travel with them, his relationship with Michelle becomes strained both by his yearning for home and his preference to zone out with Vicodin and keep everything at an arm’s length. While those two seem to be nearing the conclusion of their relationship, artistic Chris, whose backpack is stolen at the start of the film, realizes that instead of material belongings, he’s discovered bliss in the simple, unhurried practice of wandering around, scribbling and sketching in his journal.

His love for his new way of life is infinitely deepened when he meets the gorgeous, aggressively confident and I daresay nearly macho fly-fishing actress Adela (Leonor Varela). Drawn to her insistence that bullfights are sensuous dances wherein the matador adorns feminine clothing to look as beautiful as possible before seducing and killing the bull, Chris finds himself seduced by her own tantalizing dance-like conversation and the two embark on a tentative friendship with developing flirtation as the film continues.

Despite too much screen time devoted to a highly bizarre and off-putting Dennis Hopper whose aimless character runs a club (aptly named Americano) which seems to be a twisted version of Moulin Rouge,the film Americano is an engaging and charming sleeper. Admittedly Hemingway purists will find the film’s frequent parallels to the author and his masterwork The Sun Also Rises wearing on their nerves rather quickly, yet writer/director Kevin Noland’s breathtakingly photographed and engaging 2005 film festival favorite (which was screened in Palm Springs, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Vail, Milan, and Newport Beach) is well worth the investment.

4/18/2008

The Way I Spent the End of the World

Director:
Catalin Mitulescu

Beginner’s luck is one thing but it’s always best for beginners to have the talent to help inspire such luck as evidenced with the production, release and subsequent overwhelming acclaim for writer/director Catalin Mitulescu’s feature length debut, The Way I Spent the End of the World.

Having been screened at internationally recognized festivals in cities including Toronto, Venice, Berlin, Rotterdam, Melbourne, Helsinki, and Hong Kong, Mitulescu’s celebrated film received two additional honors-- first as Romania’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards and secondly when its star Dorotheea Petre garnered a Best Actress award from the Cannes Film Festival. However, for film buffs, perhaps its greatest feat came from the overwhelming support of master directors Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) and Martin Scorsese who served as executive producers to the film and via their name recognition, helped ensure its wider release in getting the movie seen by more audiences before their goal was enhanced yet again with the title's inclusion in the Film Movement series. All of these extraordinary feats over the course of an entire career would be impressive enough but for them to have happened to a filmmaker with his first feature length release makes talented beginner Catalin Mitulescu someone to watch indeed.

Framing a coming of age tale in the last year of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989 Bucharest, we meet the seventeen year old beautiful, intelligent Eva (Dorotheea Petre) who, along with her boyfriend, accidentally shatters a valuable bust of the dictator at their school. Expelled after revealing her involvement in the unintentional incident, Eva is sent to reform trade school where she meets Andrei, the rumored son of arrested pamphlet passing revolutionaries who has become a hot topic of conversation in her neighborhood. Eva and Andrei form a fast friendship while they plot their Romanian escape which is viewed with jealousy and suspicion by Eva’s loving but mischievous seven year old brother Lalalil (Timotei Duma) who, along with his loyal group of rebellious kids plot to exact lethal revenge on the dictator for driving his sister from his home.

As Cinematical’s Martha Fischer wrote in her Toronto International Film Festival Review, The Way I Spent the End of the World is less about conditions under Ceausescu’s communist regime and is more focused on depicting the ups and downs of life for the country’s working classes prior to the revolution. With an emphasis on character driven action that offers a stunning showcase for not only its charismatic leading lady but also its precociously gifted young star Duma, the film boasts a gorgeous score by Alexander Balanescu and should definitely strike a chord with fans of similar tales of youth coming of age in difficult political times such as Machuca, Viva Cuba (also available from Film Movement), and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

Note: My screening of the film came from the recommendation of both a thoughtful reader as well as an acquaintance at Film Movement. Thanks for the heads up, guys, and keep those ideas coming!

The Mist

Director:
Frank Darabont

Attention market shoppers, we have carnage on aisle four.

In the aftermath following a violent storm that wreaked havoc on a small Maine town, movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) notices an ominous mist that has appeared over the lake. Packing up his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and offering a ride to his one-time enemy, the New York lawyer Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) with whom he’s begun to tentatively mend fences while evaluating their respective property damage, the three head into town to stock up on supplies for what they predict will be another violent New England storm.

Once inside their local market which, like the town itself, seems to be a place that has escaped time in its quaint 50’s like aura, they share stories with others and are startled when an elderly man runs into the store visibly shaken and bloodied, yelling, “Something in the mist took John Lee! Don’t go out there!"

Something in the man’s tone, not to mention the blood begins to cause a panic and while most feel confident to trust their neighbor, they watch in horror as a disbelieving man exits the store. Shockingly vague violence and screams follow, leaving the man dead and thus begins one of last year’s most chilling sleepers that can only have come from the godfather of suspense himself, Mr. Stephen King.

Adapted by longtime King fan, Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile writer/director Frank Darabont, this moodily haunting horror film sets itself up like a modern episode of The Twilight Zone (and in a DVD feature King notes that he was inspired by the horror classic TV show Panic). With an emphasis on characterization and psychology, we feel as terrified as the townspeople as they barricade themselves inside the market and logically try to deduce not only what’s going on outside the store but also their next steps in how to proceed from there.

Initial worries that the mist was a chemical pollution cloud soon give way to greater fear when the resident town psycho, the (as King said) warden-like Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) pulls out her bible and begins to whip a group of shoppers into a Revelations frenzy saying that the wrath of God has been unleashed on the town heathens and the end is near. After further carnage ensues when additional townspeople are killed by seemingly otherworldly beasts as they test the limits of their imprisonment, soon the store is divided into two groups with Mrs. Carmody gaining momentum on one side and the more proactive, sensible citizens headed up by David Drayton, shopkeeper Ollie Weeks (a terrific Toby Jones) and the town’s new schoolteacher Amanda Dunfrey (star of Darabont’s Majestic, Laurie Holden) becoming the minority banding together in a different aisle.

It’s by this point that the audience, nearly working in tandem with David and his group, try to solve the mystery on their own, although admittedly we realize that the horrifying vagueness of the situation is precisely what is driving most of the fear, as both on and off the screen fingers all seem to point in the direction of the nearby military base long accused of dabbling in the extraterrestrial in a top secret operation called Project Arrowhead.

While we’re never quite sure the mystery itself will be solved, we’re riveted the entire way, although I found myself disappointed when The Mist morphed from a tense, thinking person’s horror film into one obsessed with mutant bird-sized bugs and slimy tentacle creatures as opposed to concentrating on the fear-based psychological breakdown and terrifying "group-think" mentality. Thus, as the running time increases, The Mist becomes an overdone and not terribly satisfying B movie, which may have played better in the black and white photography that director Darabont had intended (and indeed the color and black and white versions will be released in a 2 disc DVD set).

Although granted, Mrs. Carmody’s conversion of the shoppers seems to occur much too quickly, the film’s dual horror show of oversized mutants and bible thumping madmen and women keep us distracted enough to forgive some of the film’s flaws and ultimately its high-speed pace and clever characterization make this a roughly average thriller that’s strengthened considerably by its much discussed, shocking conclusion that, although it wasn’t written in King’s novel, seems to be the only fitting finale. In fact, the conclusion was so vital to the film’s storytelling success that writer/director Darabont received confirmation from the Weinstein Company and Dimension Films that his original script including that unforgettable ending could not be aletered.

Best viewed on a sunny, mist-free day, while Darabont’s The Mist will most likely be overshadowed by superior King adaptations such as Kubrick’s The Shining, Reiner’s Misery and Stand By Me, and Darabont’s own Shawshank Redemption, it’s still a deft chiller and one that, as Darabont noted on the DVD, actually made the legendary King jump “three feet” during a screening of the film. And in the end, box office and reviews aside, scaring King with his own material should be the truest form of evaluation for any King adaptation.

P2

Director:
Franck Khalfoun

Way to ruin Christmas, Thomas.

After an off-screen confrontation had her fending off an amorous married colleague who had a little too much to drink at the work Christmas party, the last thing beautiful workaholic Angela Bridges (Rachel Nichols) wants to deal with is more unwelcome attention from creepy males yet she gets much more than she bargained for in Franck Khalfoun’s intelligent scarefest P2.

The last to leave her office, the brainy Angela makes all the right decisions by phoning relatives to inform them she’s leaving and riding down in the elevator with a friendly older security guard and it’s thanks to the inclusion of these little character establishing details that instinctively gets audiences on Angela’s side as refreshingly we realize we’ve been treated to a logic-driven horror heroine worthy of our interest in the same vein as Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Neve Campbell in Scream and Rachel McAdams in Red Eye. Temporarily reassured by the appearance of others leaving at the same time, Angela journeys to her car confidently and quickly where she left it on parking level P2 only to discover that it won’t start. Aware that the building and attached garage will be closed for three days, Angela gathers up her belongings and gifts and searches for access to the elevator room so that she can go upstairs and phone a cab.

Assistance comes in the form of Thomas (Wes Bentley), a seemingly friendly security guard with a requisite terrifying attack dog named Rocky who first gallantly offers to attempt to recharge the car’s battery and then after her polite insistence, lets her go phone for a cab. Before she leaves, he invites her to share his small Christmas meal and given her exhausted expression as she tries to process the offer, he informs her that he was kidding before suggesting that perhaps they eat together another time, to which, again out of kindness, she agrees.

After discovering an inability to exit the locked building when her cab arrives, their dinner date comes sooner than expected when Thomas sneaks up on Angela and drugs her with a handkerchief. She awakens to the sounds of “I’d like You for Christmas” playing on a scratchy record player, only to discover that she’s been changed into a revealing evening dress and chained at the ankle. Now seated at his candlelight dinner table, Thomas proceeds to act as though they’re on their first date, discussing his hobbies and inquiring as to her background. Quickly we ascertain that the entire evening has been a wicked setup by Elvis obsessed, Hemingway reading lonely security guard turned stalker Thomas and that’s when the film, which started out like an eerie suspense picture takes a turn towards horror as Angela uses her cunning and intuition to try and escape Thomas’s parking garage trap that gets all the more terrifying when he begins dispatching victims with the words “way to ruin Christmas.”

The type of film that will definitely play better to female audiences especially those who, like me, actually held a job where my car was parked on P2, Khalfoun's P2 taps right into female fears as I found myself more than once infinitely glad I was watching the film in the privacy of my own home as I yelled back at the television to urge Angela on. Despite a few dubious and forced concluding confrontations that do feel a bit contrived, P2 is a mostly successful thinking person’s horror film that will hopefully gain more viewers on DVD, as opposed to its ill-timed pre-holiday theatrical release which made the spooky, violent tale a festive mood-killing, surefire “way to ruin Christmas" indeed.

Music Within

Director: Steven Sawalich

Like most children, Richard Pimentel’s earliest dream was to become a superhero. Little did he realize that this goal would manifest itself in a rather unusual way when, as an adult, Richard discovered the superpower of being able to read conversations from one hundred feet away. Although it wasn’t a power that he’d stumbled on accidentally like the ones which defined Spiderman or The Incredible Hulk, similar to those heroes, it was one that came with a price, however in the eyes of a society that likes to turn a blind eye to the disabled (no pun intended), the price he paid was far more difficult than scaling walls or turning green. For Richard Pimentel, the price for his superpower was his hearing.

After a tragedy ridden childhood, Pimentel (Ron Livingston) found his calling as one of the most naturally gifted members of his high school debate team in the 1960’s. With a gift for memorization and a theatrical stage presence, Pimentel’s goal to receive a college scholarship was dashed when Professor Ben Padrow (Hector Elizondo) informed him that, although talented, he was insincere and needed to go out, experience life and earn a unique point of view. Still reeling from the news, impulsively, Pimentel enlists in the service only to find himself stationed in Vietnam where after an incoming explosion, he manages to escape with his life but with his hearing forever damaged. Now plagued with the high pitched ringing of unceasing tinnitus, Pimentel learns that he’s lost half of his hearing in the upper register. It’s due to this disability and the lack of preparedness by the powers that be that tell Pimentel that they can’t authorize his hard earned GI funds to send a deaf student to college and paint a bleak picture for the veteran of a friendless future and a warning that if he miraculously graduates, they wouldn't be able to place him in a job.

Doom ridden predictions be damned, Pimentel enrolls in college and on his path to graduation, he befriends another outsider in the form of Art (Michael Sheen), a witty man with a genius level I.Q. who, due to a cruel twist fate, is wheelchair bound and afflicted with cerebral palsy. The two embark on both a fast friendship as well as a quest to participate in the life that 1970’s American society seems all too ready to exclude them from which is evidenced in a heartbreaking scene as they’re kicked out of a pancake restaurant for breaking what Pimentel calls the “ugly law” a.k.a. the intolerance of able-bodied citizens to share public space with those who are "deformed or diseased." Later, Pimentel’s quest turns much more political, ambitious and proactive as, on behalf of not only himself, Art and fellow disabled Vietnam vets (suffering from both physical and mental impairments), he gets a job in a government agency cold calling businesses from the local Portland phone book in order to help other disabled citizens find jobs. Word reaches the governor who quickly asks Pimentel to create a program that will pave the way for employers to train and hire disabled persons and soon, Pimentel’s landmark professional guide makes him one of the most actively sought authorities on the matter and also helps lead to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

While legendary film critic Roger Ebert faulted the film’s assertion that just one man was responsible for the ADA with his worthy and correct articulation that Music Within’s “hero stands for countless others," the film is first and foremost a biopic of one man’s struggles and successes so it’s on that level which made it a success for this reviewer. In addition to offering viewers yet another depiction of the tremendous range of actor Michael Sheen (star of Blood Diamond who also portrayed Tony Blair in The Queen and The Deal), it will be especially surprising to fans of Livingston’s Office Space and Sex and the City to see the typically comedic actor in a new light.

Winner of the Audience Award at the 2007 AFI Dallas International Film Festival, director Steven Sawalich’s moving film does admittedly suffer from a predictable script filled with action that is “accompanied by some very deliberately programmed and too obvious period music,” (John Anderson, Variety). Yet, perhaps in the wake of increasing numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental disabilities, despite the film’s contrivances, it’s the type of quintessential underdog movie that inspires audiences rather than divides them and given the timeliness of the content, it’s hard to find fault with that.


The Life Before Her Eyes



Original Title:
In Bloom

Director:
Vadim Perelman


“But it’s too late to say you’re sorry.
How would I know, Why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her,
She’s not there.”
- “She’s Not There,” (The Zombies)

In just one of the recurring artistic references that echo continuously during the follow-up feature from House of Sand and Fog director Vadim Perelman, the melody and refrain of the Zombies hit “She’s Not There” float throughout this tragic tale from screenwriter Emil Stern’s adaptation of the Laura Kasischke novel. Similar to the way that William Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” from his Songs of Innocence collection is used in a key moment, “She’s Not There” has a subtle effect on our main character that rivals the way she jumps when she hears the sound of gunfire on the family room television.

Using time like a revolving door, the film’s parallel narratives surround the beautiful blonde Hillview High School student (played by the talented Evan Rachel Wood) happily laughing and chatting away with her best friend Maureen (Eva Amurri) as they question when their lives will start. Ironically their wish to have something happen in their lives takes place just moments before a young, troubled boy armed with a gun enters their school and leaves an eerily quiet, bloody massacre in his wake before cornering the young women in the lavatory and telling them that only one will live.

Quickly we cut to the fifteenth anniversary of the event as the now married mother Diana (Uma Thurman) tries to cope with intense survivor’s guilt as she brings her precocious, rebellious daughter to Catholic school and goes to work as an art teacher analyzing the usage of flowers and symbolism in paintings in a way that seems to mirror her professor husband’s ethical lectures on conscience and morality.

Although she frequently wears floral attire and the same clanging bracelets she favored in her youth, there appears to be several changes from this now perfection seeking, restless and mentally exhausted Diana to her more wild and careless youth as a promiscuous, pot smoking teenager. In the film's extensive flashbacks, the younger frequently troublemaking Diana served as a stark contrast to her church going, prim best friend Maureen and the girls who shared a close bond that felt more like sisterhood jokingly called each other “the virgin and the whore.”

Visually stunning with clever effects utilized throughout in the way that both narratives seem to play off of one another which heighten the viewer’s interest after a devastating beginning sets the overwhelmingly bleak tone (which seems especially ill-timed given more recent school violence on the college level as well), Perelman’s film boasts excellent performances by its leads especially in the form of Amurri, who is the daughter of Susan Sarandon and Franco Amurri.

While initially it’s hard to step back from the shockingly tragic events unfolding onscreen that culminate into a surprising twist ending that had some audience members debating all the way to their cars, once the symbolism gets overtly preachy near the film’s conclusion which prompted some critics to bash the film as a right-wing statement movie and time passes, the filmmakers’ delicate anti-feminist subtext becomes far more apparent. Is it a female punishment film disguised as something quite close to a ghost story? I hesitate to say more as I want to avoid spoilers and further review reading (most notably John Anderson’s spoiler heavy one in Variety) will no doubt answer any lurking questions curious viewers may have.

A few less heavy-handed symbolic references near the end of the film may have decreased some of the backlash and it’s a tough film to recommend given not only the subject matter but also some of the slightly propagandist messages laced throughout, however it’s visually imaginative and fans of the actors will surely find the work of interest, even if the end result makes Life a large sophomore slump for Perelman after his critical smash House of Sand and Fog.

Moliere

Director:
Laurent Tirard

In this delectable, frothy, yet mostly decorative confection, three of Moliere’s beloved plays “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” “The Misanthrope,” and “Tartuffe” are sifted together with a generous helping of Shakespeare in Love and Casanova added in for flavor. The result is an entertaining and gorgeously photographed although largely fictitious look at the famous French seventeenth century playwright Moliere or as he is better known throughout the bulk of the film, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.

Played by one of my favorite dark haired, dreamy eyed French actors, Romain Duris (L’Auberge Espagnole, Dans Paris), we first meet Moliere in 1658 after he’s spent thirteen years with his theatrical troupe entertaining citizens in the provinces and steadily building up such a reputation that upon his arrival, the king gives him a Parisian theatre to stage his latest work.

The only catch is that the king has a weakness for comedies and Moliere, long tired of farces, desperately wants to deliver his audiences an epic tragedy but his mind is changed after a young woman pays him a visit and beckons him to go see her gravely ill mother. Moliere’s relation to the women and indeed their identity is kept hidden from viewers although it’s fairly easy to guess the facts only a half hour or so after the film ventures back to thirteen years earlier when struggling performer Moliere is arrested for failing to pay a large debt.

His cry of “A plague on creditors; long live the theatre!” seems to fall on deaf ears until the wealthy M. Jourdain (Intimate Strangers star Fabrice Luchini) offers to cover his debts in exchange for acting lessons. Bewitched by the sharp-tongued young beauty Celimene (Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier) the married Jourdain wrote a one act play to win the fair maiden’s favor and in order to hide his hopeful future seduction from his wife, he asks Moliere to stay with him at his home under the guise of priesthood as Moliere must pretend he is Father Tartuffe.

The clever script, which could have easily fallen into farce is saved by the talented Jourdain who earned a Best Actor award for his performance at the Moscow International Film Festival as he plays the entire thing straight, making the comedy both accidental and spontaneous while Jourdain balances his schedule of taking music, dance and painting lessons with his duties of husband and father thereby hiding his true passion for acting out of guilt for his intended affair. The lovely Laura Morante (Dancer Upstairs, Avenue Montaigne) stars as Jourdain’s wife who, suspicious of Moliere’s appearance and her husband’s sudden interest in the church, quickly becomes the target of the younger man’s affections as we find Moliere up to his old tricks of trying to win her over with earnest romantic words both written and spoken.

While Moliere purists will no doubt feel dismayed by the film that appears to have been undertaken in the same spirit as the misguided fictitious biopic Becoming Jane about Jane Austen, Moliere succeeds where Jane did not by celebrating Moliere’s spirit in keeping the work as entertaining as one of his plots in this sumptuously photographed film which earned four Cesar Award nominations in its native France. Although it may not qualify as the proper Moliere nourishment, the end result is something quite close to a cinematic French dessert—scrumptious, luscious yet minus the calories of a French Silk Pie.

Sleepy Hollow

Director:
Tim Burton

Such as it was in the case of Edward Scissorhands and their newest collaboration Sweeney Todd, some material just seems made for director Tim Burton and his frequent muse and star, Johnny Depp. And in the case of-- as they sang in the Disney animated version-- “Ichabod, Ichabod, Ichabod Crane,” and Washington Irving’s entire Legend of Sleepy Hollow, again we are faced with one of those quintessential situations best delivered to audiences via Burton and Depp.

Sensuously heightened and painterly in scope, the photography by Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Great Expectations, Like Water for Chocolate) is one of the most startlingly original artistic achievements in years and well-worth the audience investment even when the film grows increasingly bloody with each passing scene.

Set in 1799, Sleepy Hollow (which incidentally was filmed precisely two hundred years later) follows scientifically inclined constable Ichabod Crane who leaves his post in the big city to travel to the small village of Sleepy Hollow in order to investigate the suspicious deaths of numerous citizens who are left decapitated in the night by a villainous horse-rider that the town has dubbed the Headless Horseman (played by Christopher Walken, of course).

Emphasizing the unattractive qualities of his intense fear, shyness and peculiarity rather than the historic homeliness of Crane, Depp is wonderful, delightfully gasping and fainting when he comes face to face with not only the village horrors but also the beautiful young Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), whose family he stays with during the investigation. Earning a sidekick in not only Katrina but Young Masbath (Marc Pickering), a servant boy whose father was one of the unfortunate victims, Crane sleuths out the case, only to predictably find himself the center of increasing jeopardy as he detects some of the shocking little secrets being hidden by the town's elders (including the judge, reverend and others).

Although as IMDb reported acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard was tapped to complete an un-credited rewrite of the script to tone down the excessive violence of Andrew Kevin Walker’s original work, blood spills and heads roll aplenty but luckily, Burton never fully relishes in the gore as some directors may have, instead, as a former Walt Disney Studios animator, he found himself inspired by the style of Disney’s version in the creation of his own (IMDb). However, as true with Sweeney Todd, when it comes to this Burton/Depp venture, it’s best to leave the kiddies at home and like Todd, their fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Prairie Fever




Directors: Stephen Bridgewater & David S. Cass Sr.

“Hell, that ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of women,” a bemused villain surmises in figuring out the best way to rob a small wagon-bound party heading for Carson City in this surprisingly entertaining made-for-cable western just released on DVD. In what can best be described as a B movie version of a tale probably better suited for old dime western novels of the early 1900’s, we’re introduced to familiar characters and situations in the film’s opening sequence as Sheriff Preston Biggs (Kevin Sorbo) accidentally guns down his wife while trying to stop a criminal holding her hostage.

Cut to two years later and he’s become the town drunk, practically renting one of the stools at the Pure Luk Saloon (intentionally spelled wrong in honor of the proprietor Luk). After an obligatory bar fight lands the sheriff in jail with a hefty two hundred dollar bill to cover both the damages and his past due bar tab, Preston reluctantly accepts a week long assignment to bring three mail order brides stricken with prairie fever (a.k.a. mental instability) to Carson City's train station.

Soon saddled with the strangle-happy Lettie (Jillian Armenante), the hellfire and brimstone scripture quoting Blue (Felicia Day), and the sweet but terrified Abigail (Dominique Swain), Preston finds he’s gained a fourth traveler when the beautiful no-nonsense con-woman Olivia (Jamie Anne Allman) overhears Abigail’s irrational screams and intervenes on her behalf with a pistol, only to find herself discovering a maternal attachment to the young bride as well as a surprising interest in Preston. Having fled her former controlling male partner, Olivia talks her way into the wagon and provides both added danger in the form of her ex Monte James (Lance Henriksen) and a helpful ally and conscience as she and Preston begin to make inroads with the young women and learn what has driven them batty.

With an emphasis on sensitivity and character development that, as The New York Times wrote, does make for some pretty awkward dialogue that no cowboy would have been able to pull off, this nonetheless unusual and passable western benefits from the inclusion of four worthwhile female roles. Thankfully with a running time of roughly ninety minutes, Prairie Fever isn’t given the opportunity to overstay its welcome and it’s perhaps due to its brevity that the film’s (many) flaws are hidden, yet it’s sure to entertain those who scour used book racks looking for old fashioned tales of the west and those who appreciate a slightly modern take on a popular (and admittedly trite) western plot.

Of Mice and Men

Director: Gary Sinise


Nominated for the 1992 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winning writer Horton Foote adapted John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic novella Of Mice and Men for the second and far superior cinematic interpretation from director/producer/star Gary Sinise. As he notes on the DVD, Sinise, who had first seen the play as a 16 year old at the renowned Minneapolis Guthrie Theatre, acquired the rights from Elaine Steinbeck while performing in the Broadway version of The Grapes of Wrath. After a breakneck year of planning, including solidifying the script which was approved on the spot by MGM studios, production was underway.

Having taken part in the play twelve years earlier at the Steppenwolf Theatre, Sinise once again tackled the role of the protective George Milton. In one of his smartest moves as a filmmaker, Sinise reunited with his Mice costar John Malkovich for his pitch-perfect characterization of the mentally challenged Lennie Small in the heartbreaking tale of two close friends who travel together during the Great Depression while working on California ranches as they try to save enough money to buy their own farm and secure a piece of the American dream.

Nearly as vital and timely as it was in its first printing given the state of our questionable economy with frequent discussion of recession, Sinise’s film has also stood the test of time with its painstaking attention to detail in bringing Steinbeck’s vision to life. And perhaps it's even more accessible thanks to Foote’s augmentation of his lean and muscular writing by adding more emotion to the tale in order to enrich Steinbeck’s theme of loneliness.

In addition to being controversial for conclusions made regarding disabled individuals such as Lennie, Steinbeck’s novel also caused a feminist outcry as female sexuality leads to the men’s undoing, in the form of the flirtatious wife of their boss Curley (Casey Siemaszko). However, in the 1992 version both of these oft debated characterizations are deepened without losing any of Steinbeck’s intent. In the DVD interview, Sinise argued that one of the most important things he wanted to address in the movie was the treatment of Curley’s wife by humanizing the woman (played by the lovely Sherilyn Fenn) and emphasizing her loneliness being the only woman on the ranch without a sole to talk to. In doing so, he considerably plays up audience sympathy as opposed to the book’s depiction of her as a dangerous, aggressive symbolic villain. In addition, as Sinise shared, this change of developing Curley’s wife into a fully realized character makes the film’s memorably shocking ending all the more tragic and in my view, makes her yet another one of the many lonely outcasts that populate Steinbeck’s world, inviting the audience to draw greater parallels between her character as well as the others, especially Lennie who is painted as the ultimate outsider, given his childlike innocence that’s contrasted with his dangerous strength and overwhelming size.

While it’s Malkovich that ultimately steals the film, I was especially touched by Sinise’s characterization in depicting George in a tenderer fatherly manner, and after viewing the film a second time around, began to realize that in truth, he had the more difficult role. Not only does George serve as the negotiator of both Lennie’s optimistic fairy tale like hope for a better future and the harsh realities of the ranch but he also served as the glue in the relationships with every character in a way that had me recalling William Hurt’s underrated, similarly all-encompassing role in Children of a Lesser God. While George is nowhere near as flashy or memorable as Lennie who holds our hearts for the entire running time, it’s ultimately George who serves as the contemplative stand-in for the audience as he’s the one we’re constantly judging throughout the movie.

Seeing the two great actors working together at the peak of their careers makes Of Mice and Men all the more precious and it’s this immediate bond the two share that wins us over from the start. This relationship is definitely heightened by Foote’s script which, under the guidance of Sinise who wanted to make his own Scarecrow like “buddy movie” (for lack of a better phrase), allows the two not only to shine but invites Steinbeck fans to look even deeper into the novella. And perhaps it's this more than anything that should be the true test of the success of adapting literature in whether or not it inspires us to go back to Steinbeck’s novella to compare and contrast while appreciating the similarities and differences of each instead of just choosing one over the other. In that regard and so many others, Sinise's Of Mice and Men is an overwhelming success.


4/11/2008

Falling For Grace




Original Title:
East Broadway

Director:
Fay Ann Lee

As a child she was shunned from the cool cliques due to her fate as the self-described “nerdiest girl in PS 1” and unhappily saddled with the name Yip-Han as the first generation American-raised daughter of two South Chinese immigrants. Yet the young heroine of Falling For Grace begins to assert her independence firstly when she controls the checkbook as the only English speaker in her home and secondly when she discovers the lovely Grace Kelly on television.

Thus she reinvents herself to become something quite close to the Philadelphia socialite turned princess as an adult. Quickly we meet up with Yip-Han 2.0, now renamed Grace Tang (Fay Ann Lee) as she continues to dutifully look after her beloved parents with subzero refrigerators and cell phones they’re unable to use. Likewise, perhaps culling from her checkbook balancing childhood, she’s since become a successful investment banker in a top Wall Street firm where she and her best friend/coworker Janie (Margaret Cho) try to maneuver their way through the male dominated concrete jungle.

Still intrigued by high society in her Grace Kelly inspired quest, the perpetually Coke drinking and Dunkin’ Donuts eating adorable Grace crams for a cocktail party mixer to impress the well-to-do blue bloods and become a member on the Metropolitan Opera Junior Committee by having her good friend and cabbie quiz her on opera trivia.

However, any attempt to impress with musical knowledge is long forgotten when her name is overheard and our bubbly heroine is mistaken for well-known but illusive designer Grace Tang whose Manhattan boutique Shanghai Tang has become as coveted as Marc Jacobs to the very women with whom she’s hoping to get acquainted.

Caught up in their fawning and admiration, their mistake is never corrected at the party and before Grace’s mistaken identity can be rectified, she is later stopped on the street by one of the women’s fiancĂ©s she’d met during the mixer, Andrew Barrington Jr. (Gale Harold).

As the handsome New York golden boy, Andrew forgoes his parent’s wishes to live a life of class and privilege by trying to make a name for himself crusading on behalf of the mistreated sweat shop workers in Chinatown in his position in New York’s attorney general’s office. And upon seeing our heroine a second time, he takes an immediate interest in Grace and their tangible chemistry grows considerably as they become tentative friends before romance enters the equation.

While admittedly the film was creatively influenced by her love of romantic comedies such as The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Pretty Woman and Working Girl, theatre and television star Lee jokingly told Phoenix Film Festival audiences her initial inspiration was “lack of work." After she'd had great success starring in Broadway’s Miss Saigon before being relegated to roles such as maids and nurses in television, Lee ultimately decided that since nobody was writing for Asian American females, she would do so herself.

Referencing the recurring theme from the aforementioned comedies she enjoyed of “underdogs trying to find acceptance in a world where they don’t quite fit in,” Lee’s production notes continued by invoking Working Girl, noting, "There were simply no Asian Tess McGills in our cinematic catalogue that I can think of. So, when I decided to pen my first screenplay, I wanted to create the Asian 'Tess.'"

The film, which took four years to raise enough money to produce, went through numerous versions that originated with a first draft of the delightful and winning script penned by first time filmmaker and the film’s star Fay Ann Lee, which was written ten years earlier by Lee in a screenwriting class. Later, guided by her own instincts as well as those of her talented mentor Jim Taylor (Sideways), she rewrote more than seventy pages before final production.

Featuring a terrific performance by Christine Baranski as Andrew’s overbearing mother, which seems to provide further proof that Baranski has cornered the market in playing uptight WASPs married to men who tie sweaters around their necks, Lee's film is also strengthened by the rest of its stellar cast. In deciding to make the Asian family in the story as authentic as possible to try to bring something new to the romantic comedy format, Lee cast actors who all spoke the same dialect to heighten the familial intimacy.

While some critics have likened Falling For Grace to My Big Fat Greek Wedding and admittedly, it does at times feel like a predictable yet sunny hodgepodge of several romantic comedy plots, I greatly admired Lee’s choice in Grace to, unlike the family in Greek Wedding, honor her family by presenting audiences with one that undeniably loves and fights for one another as opposed to just dishing up one sitcom ready one-liner after another that makes fun of the family’s ethnicity instead of embracing it.

Lee’s affection for her characters definitely shines through and it’s the little details in their relationships and the terrific stars including Elizabeth Sung (as her mother), Clem Chug (as her father) and the charismatic Shanghai Kiss star Ken Leung as her brother that help move the plot along even though we ultimately know where it’s headed.

The type of feel-great romantic comedy we need this spring after months of dark plots filled with vengeance and blood, Falling For Grace, which opens soon in limited theatrical release here in Arizona at the renowned Camelview 5 Harkins Theatre, seems destined for word-of-mouth success as it’s the kind of movie you’ll immediately want to recommend to others. Perhaps more importantly, it's another fine example of women wearing numerous hats as directors, writers, producers and stars to bring their cinematically independent visions to life.

The Visitor

Director: Thomas McCarthy

How would you react if you discovered that someone was already living your life-- not your life exactly but living the life you’d always wanted but never had the courage to attempt?

When the bored, humorless, impersonal Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) who’s been sleepwalking through his life by teaching the same course for twenty years and coasting professionally under the guise of writing a book is ordered by the dean of his Connecticut institution to present a co-authored paper at a Global Policy and Development Conference New York University, he tries to find any excuse not to go. However, his feeble excuses seem to be as unconvincing as the ones his students give him when turning in late assignments and, packing up a few pertinent belongings, he returns to an apartment he’d owned for twenty-five years which he’d shared with his late pianist wife. It's his wife's music that seems to have left a larger absence than the mostly absent Walter, as a neighbor fondly recalls her keystrokes in a way that makes us instantly aware that the reason Walter has gone through five piano teachers in a quest to learn the instrument himself is because to the man, who still wears his wedding band, the only time the piano sounded the way it should is when she’d been alive.

Startled to find fresh flowers in a vase and a light wafting out into the hallway from the bathroom, once he gets further into the apartment, Walter realizes that he is not alone, only to discover a young Muslim illegal immigrant couple has been renting the place for two months, having been tricked into the arrangement by an unseen fast-talker named Ivan. After apologetically packing up their belongings and setting off into the night, Walter’s humanity gets the better of him and he offers to share the place with the Syrian Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend from Senegal by way of France, Zairab (Danai Gurira) for a few days until they can figure out their next move. Soon charmed by the earnest and friendly drummer Tarek, Walter is thrilled to find a new ally who shares his passion for music and the two embark on an amusing, surprisingly gentle and natural friendship that manages to subtly touch viewers similar to the way that the outsiders of writer/director Thomas McCarthy’s first film The Station Agent did years earlier. When a misunderstanding leads to Tarek’s arrest and detainment in an immigration detention center in Queens, Walter, who originally hadn’t wanted to leave Connecticut is surprised to now find himself with the inability to leave Tarek, Zairab and New York City out of loyalty and genuine compassion that’s strengthened into a tender, awkward courtship when Tarek’s beautiful mother Mouna (Satin Rouge’s Hiam Abbass) arrives to find out why she hasn’t heard from her son.

Winner of three awards at Method Fest, this official selection at both the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals is sure to strike a chord with McCarthy’s Station Agent fans but instead of on the surface deceptively being advertised as a similar cute story of opposites and oddities coming together, it’s a gentle, humanistic and moving tale that celebrates diversity and understanding throughout. Although there are a few covert political messages sprinkled throughout (along with a few overt ones), McCarthy’s deftly written and inspiringly acted work, which features a breakout role for Sleiman and a solid showcase for Jenkins, succeeds because even though it has the perfect platform to become a “message movie,” it forgoes the urge to preach. Instead, The Visitor emphasizes human relationships over sociological statements and open conversation over sound bytes. McCarthy's The Visitor is highly recommended and one of the best films I was fortunate enough to see at the 2008 Phoenix Film Festival.



The Forbidden Kingdom

Director: Rob Minkoff

In Michael Mann’s Heat, audiences felt their breaths catch waiting for Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to converse together onscreen in the diner, each sizing the other man up in a way that feels nearly Shakespearean. In the movies of Nora Ephron, we felt a similar thrill when Tom Hanks fell in love with Meg Ryan and the two began their happily ever after in the sunny, flower-filled Central Park conclusion of You’ve Got Mail. And in the first onscreen pairing of legendary action stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan for director Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, as soon as Chan stumbles into the same scene as Li and utters, “Do you come here often?” the last thing I wanted for the men was the two to chat or fall in love. Instead, like nearly every other audience member and undoubtedly Chan and Li themselves, I wanted to see them fight. And fight they do in this uneven but gorgeous spectacle before their characters end up on the same side in helping a modern day South Boston teen who, via a pawnshop and a magical Bo Staff that’s propelled him back in time to ancient China, return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (Li in a second role).

Beginning as a near homage to Back to the Future, the movie opens with Kung Fu movie obsessed Jason (Shia LaBeouf look-alike Michael Angarano) being forced to aid in a robbery by a band of dangerous bullies that goes wrong and hurls him into the past where he soon meets Chan’s Drunken Master inspired Lu Yan, a perpetually wine-chugging fighter specializing in Drunken Fist which he explains is the “secret Kung Fu of the south.” To restore the order of the land, Jason and Yan decide to bring the Bo Staff back to the Monkey King, who the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) has frozen in stone for roughly five hundred years “give or take a few decades,” and on their peril filled journey to the Five Elements Mountain, they find their team increasing with the addition of a beautiful vengeance seeking orphan Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) along with the monk Lan Cai He (Jet Li). The characters and indeed plot from Young Guns screenwriter John Fusco (who is currently writing the questionable new version of Seven Samurai), were derived mostly from “Chinese mythology and adventure pulps” as well from the “Chinese epic story Journey to the West [which is] one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature,” according to IMDb.

When the battles with an evil witch with stark white hair and other dangerous allies of the War Lord become far more treacherous, Back to the Future morphs into The Karate Kid as Yan takes it upon himself to teach Jason how to fight. The introduction of this element not only provides the characters with more plot from scripter Fusco who went through, as IMDb reports five rewrites (some during the film’s shoot) but also gives the film’s producer and fight choreographer the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix trilogy, Kill Bill 1 & 2) a chance to style some of the most thrilling and high flying fight scenes we’ve seen in years which, even when the film becomes self-consciously cheesy, are worth the price of admission alone.

Although it’s hard to fault a film with this much sheer entertainment value for its inability to sit side by side with works like House of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to which, I believe most of the audience was hoping the first collaboration of Li and Chan would compare, for fans of the actors, especially my personal favorite-- the hilarious and charismatic Chan, it’s definitely a treat. And hopefully it’s also one that will lead to even more pairings and possibly a grander cinematic approach, aside from the film's major standout that comes in the form of the jaw-dropping, majestic cinematography by Oscar winning Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger). However, until we get there, The Forbidden Kingdom is a great place to start.

Then She Found Me

Director: Helen Hunt

“I mean it’s not gonna get any worse than this,” April Epner (Helen Hunt) explains after her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) tells his wife that he’s made a mistake and doesn’t want this married life any longer when she learns that he’s resigned from his post teaching across the hall. Surely audiences, used to beginnings of films where spouses or lovers leave, laugh knowingly in recognition that yes, this must be the worst of it. However this first heartbreak comprises just the beginning of Helen Hunt’s directorial debut co-written by the actress from a novel by Elinor Lipman, which finds April thrown for yet another loop when her mother dies shortly after Ben’s announcement in the achingly real, bittersweet yet surprisingly humorous Then She Found Me.

I say humorous because while those two overwhelmingly depressing events would have led to the end of most stories or in real life would no doubt have caused an individual to withdraw from the world for awhile to cope with their grief, instead for April, they provide the impetus for another surprising revelation that comes in the form of a legal representative who informs April that her adopted mother wants to arrange a meeting. When the devoutly Jewish April meets spunky talk show host Bernice Graves (a pitch perfect Bette Midler), the two women couldn’t be more different yet it's precisely the meeting of these opposites that provides just the right opportunity for growth for each as they learn more about themselves and what they really want out of life as April, longing to be a mother, must contend with her own feelings of maternal abandonment in her quest to conceive a child.

While normally it would have been easy for the men to be lost in the process of this admittedly female-centric work, again we’re treated to a delightful surprise by way of the thinking woman’s sexiest man alive, Colin Firth, who stars as the bitterly divorced father of two who writes book jackets in his car in the school parking lot so that he can be nearer to his kids. Firth’s Frank who takes a liking to April nearly form the start as she accuses him of coming on to her just nine hours after Ben leaves, (which he may very well have been doing), offers April both affection and the family she’s always longed for as she tries to deal with both Bernice and her separation from Ben.

Never allowing itself to be pigeonholed by genre conventions and refreshingly shot with a naturalistic close-up heavy style to heighten its intimacy, Then She Found Me, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival before getting picked up by Think Film and Blue Rider Pictures is building up momentum around the festival circuit where it earned the 2008 Audience Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival as well as a richly deserved Breakthrough Director of the Year honor for Hunt at ShoWest.

One of my favorite features from the eighth annual Phoenix Film Festival that should strike a chord with audiences who sought out last year’s Waitress, Then She Found Me is further proof that it takes a woman to produce intelligent, emotionally satisfying, and mature fare for women who have been long ignored by our recent overreliance on testosterone fueled tragedies.

The Good Night

Director:
Jake Paltrow

We all flirt but there are often lines that seem to change with each relationship as to what constitutes cheating. Is going out for coffee with an opposite gender friend cheating? How about dinner with an ex? What about those e-mail correspondences that are getting more flirtatious? Do you find it’s easier to chat with an attractive coworker than your mate in the morning? While these questions can lead to more revelations about yourself and your relationship since they all include boundaries that may be easily crossed, how does it fit into the mix if you dream cheat? That is, if in your dreams you have an affair with a perfect stranger that actually feels more like love while embarking on a fantasy relationship you look more forward to than the perfunctory “good night” and “I love you” said to your partner.

For Gary (Martin Freeman), this is the situation he finds himself in fairly quickly into writer/director Jake Paltrow’s feature film debut. In a beginning that feels ike a British version of VH1 Behind the Music, we learn a bit of the background of former Britpop musician Gary who, now in his thirties, resides in New York with his nagging, frumpy, dark-haired girlfriend of seven years Dora (played by Jake’s sister Gwyenth Paltrow). When we first meet him, Gary is busily eking out an unsatisfying career scoring commercial jingles for an advertising agency with his former band-mate turned boss Paul (Simon Pegg). Although he’s approaching an early midlife crisis, unlike his womanizing, lecherous married friend Paul who is currently having an affair with a woman he describes (as only Pegg can) as “sort of tall and hot, in a kind of short, ugly way,” Gary saves his fantasies for himself and finds them indulged in a bizarre way one evening when he dreams of a gorgeous, beguiling stranger (Penelope Cruz) who, speaking to him only in subtitles, tells him that if he pays close attention and shuts his eyes he “can feel a heartbeat” in her lips.

Intoxicated by this imagined encounter, Gary’s ego is given a boost as he decides to explore the field of dream interpretation and lucid dreaming, visiting a new age bookstore before he meets up with a dream coach in the form of a group run by Mel (Danny De Vito). Gary, who decides to avoid the small clique of fellow dreamers all hoping to control their dreams as if they were listening to their favorite song without an ending before the Kendo practice interrupts them, hires Mel for private consultation. Soon their sessions enable him to continue his affair with Cruz that soon takes over his own waking life as he begins darkening and soundproofing his bedroom for better dreaming conditions before Dora is only too happy to have an excuse to leave for an Italian two week business trip. Quickly startled into thinking that fate is the reason for his dreams when he sees Cruz’s likeness adorning fashion ads on city buses, Paul takes it upon himself to arrange an introduction but will the reality be as good as his dream or was Gary just trying to find a way to avoid his own relationship that may be way past the expiration date?

A fascinating premise that would have done better to be played more for laughs than the downbeat drama as penned by Paltrow that concludes into a dark cheat of an ending that feels a bit rushed and disappointing, the film also suffers from as Hollywood Reporter writer Kirk Honeycut noted, Paltrow’s decision to make “ever character thoroughly unlikable” or as he corrects, “actually pathetic would be a better adjective.” With such a brooding tone to the film with self-involved and cringe-worthy characters that may have been more successful on the page, there is little to recommend the work despite the originality of Paltrow’s idea and his unquestionable gift for direction as the film offers plenty of gorgeous scenes that, on their own, show his promise but compounded with the rest result in an uneven mess. This being said, it's nonetheless suitable for the same audiences who found themselves entranced by the similarly themed fellow Penelope Cruz vehicle, Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (based on the superior Abre los Ojos also starring Cruz).