The Fall

Tarsem Singh
(aka Tarsem)

Those who have spent any significant amount of time convalescing will tell you that nothing speeds recovery along like a worthwhile diversion in the form of an epic tale. When you add thrills, romance, and laughter to the narrative, you create a powerful, side effect free unparalleled prescription for health without the need of co-pays, waiting rooms or HMO red tape where there aren’t any deductions for preexisting conditions and you never have to deal with a clipboard full of paperwork. Imagine your doctors in residence weren’t the test-happy first year medical students still trying to master the right way to hook up a catheter or IV most of us face at our local hospitals but rather Being John Malkovich filmmaker Spike Joze, Zodiac helmer David Fincher and the innovative fellow music video director turned feature filmmaker Tarsem Singh and you’ll begin to get a better sense of their cinematically experimental procedure where reels of film and not dangerous drugs replace mood altering anesthesia. And comparable to the wonderful program Doctors Without Borders, imagine sending this cinematic dream team of Filmmakers Without Borders to expertly stitch together twenty-six locations over four years in more than eighteen countries (IMDb) in Tarsem Singh’s highly anticipated sophomore follow up to his critically acclaimed first feature, The Cell.

Already, the work, entitled The Fall has divided the critics into largely two factions of those who feel his film is a masterpiece and those who call the mad-scientist’s resulting epic an infuriatingly self-important vanity project. However, for my money, Tarsem succeeds where others like Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly failed with his atrocious second feature Southland Tales, in admirably taking risks but like a good doctor, Tarsem contemplates each move with stealth like precision, making sure that the benefits outweigh the negatives for his unforgettably dark, brilliant grown up fairy tale, The Fall.

From the breathtakingly bizarre black and white opening montage set to music and staged as though it were a silent film to its overwhelming eye candy that seems to pour off the screen in each daring frame as it continues, Tarsem’s Fall combines the scope and ambition of a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster with the artistic risk taking of experimental cinema. Admittedly as one who has never been overly keen on fantasy, I worried that it was going to be as bloated and pretentious as some of the critics described but I was quickly taken in by the riveting tale, which was inspired by the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho.

Set in a Los Angeles hospital, we first meet our precocious five year old heroine Alexandria (Romanian newcomer Catinca Untaru) who, still recovering from a broken arm after picking oranges in a grove along with her impoverished family, forms an unlikely attachment with Roy Walker (Lee Pace) a heartbroken, suicidal film stuntman whose legs were damaged after he attempted a ridiculous sequence jumping from a train bridge onto a horse.

Unable to move on with his life because he’s lost the woman he loved, Roy distracts himself along with Alexandria by first sharing with her a story of her namesake Alexander the Great and afterwards, telling her a fictitious epic tale of five heroic men (including Charles Darwin) who aspire to kill the horrible Governor Odious. As the story continually builds from one exciting adventure to the next, Roy begins to subtly blackmail his young friend into procuring enough medicine for himself so that he may end his life, only to have some of his plans backfire in unexpected ways.

Although the bleak nature of Roy’s outlook on life might have been unbearably sad in another’s hands, Singh fills his film with surprising amounts of black comedy, near-misses as the story Roy begins to tell suspiciously morphs into a catharsis when reality and fantasy are blurred as Roy, Alexandria and others they know in the hospital and in their lives begin to make appearances in the emotionally intoxicating and artistically dazzling saga. However, I must warn that it becomes extraordinarily brutal near the end causing us to shift uncomfortably in our seats in trying to anticipate just how Tarsem will conclude the film.

Despite this, admirably The Fall rises from the obvious label of a spectacle picture due to the sheer amazement to be found in the magical sequences that will haunt your dreams after the viewing, by providing a satisfying emotional payoff as well for both of the characters we’ve come to know and love, and both of whom we realize could not have healed without each other nor the unforgettable tale.

And that’s better than an allergic reaction to a prescription medication your insurance won’t cover but the doctor insists you need any day of the week. In other words, go to the cinema and call me in the morning.


Roman de Gare

Alternate Title: Crossed Tracks
Director: Claude Lelouch

In his frequent comical plugs for his book I Am America and So Can You, Stephen Colbert jokes—and I’m paraphrasing-- that if you make your first work good enough, you don’t have to complete another. And although it wasn’t his first release, essentially the same could be said for writer/director Claude Lelouch, whose landmark 1966 film A Man and a Woman has become synonymous with his name, earning him honors from around the globe including the Cannes Film Festival and our very own Academy Awards.

Sort of a pre-Love Story for international art house viewers, A Man and a Woman, while being stylistically impressive seemed to be a larger hit with audiences and in the same turn, one prone to far more critical evaluations by scholars who have since labeled Lelouch a “middlebrow” (Ebert) and others who felt it was derivative of far superior French New Wave works, repackaged without passion for the masses. Still, it’s a gorgeous work with a sweeping score instantly recognizable after only a few notes and a film that-- despite a few intermittent hits here and there-- Lelouch has never been able to top. It's also one that he continually references on some level (whether conscious or not) throughout his oeuvre dominated by works about the inexhaustible dramatic implications between the genders both in terms of the plot and titles, such as Lelouch’s uninspired film And Now… Ladies and Gentlemen, which nearly put me to sleep after just twenty minutes.

Given to complicated, taut spider web like narratives that seem to weave over one another, going back and forth before finally freeing the viewer to create any sort of linear plotline that will fit, Lelouch has released his most exciting work in years with Roman de Gare. While it still harkens back to his commercial version of the New Wave in terms of style, it seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of fellow French New Wave Hitchcock devotee Claude Chabrol. Nobody builds a vaguer sense of impending doom better than Chabrol and Lelouch channels him to great effect right from the start as we meet our three main characters whose lives intersect throughout the film like travelers switching trains or as the title so beautifully translates, Crossed Tracks.

No stranger to French noir from her work with past masters including a delightful turn for Francois Truffaut in Confidentially Yours, actress Fanny Ardant portrays bestselling mystery author Judith Ralitzer whom we first see in two locations as she discusses her latest novel and is also brought in for questioning in regards to the disappearance of her rumored ghost writer. As the possible writer Dominique Pinon (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) gives the film’s very best and most subtle performance in his role as Pierre Laclos who first crosses paths with neurotic Huguette (Cesar nominated newcomer Audrey Dana), a stranded, high-strung hairdresser whose fiancé dumps her after a horrible argument while en route to meet her family. Out of equal parts chivalry, pity, boredom and fascination, Pierre offers Huguette a ride and soon establishes such a rapport with the perfect stranger that she enlists his help in pretending to be her fiancé. While in the hands of most, this set up would traditionally lead to light-hearted romantic comedy wherein the two predictably fall in love, Lelouch instead seasons his tale with danger and intrigue in the form of overlapping plotlines chronicling the escape of a serial killing magician from prison who pulls murder instead of rabbits out of a hat and the search for a missing schoolteacher who's disappeared without a trace.

Visually impressive from the get-go with the double exposure of two completely different reels of film to introduce both the prisoner’s escape as well as a man driving at night, Lelouch’s stunning film photographed by Gerarde de Battista and edited by Charlotte Lecoeur and Stephane Mazalaigue never fails to create a mood that’s the most effective in a creepy sequence at Huguette’s family’s farm tinged by Lelouch and company with shades of Deliverance. Admittedly the final twist is fairly obvious to predict given the film’s slower pacing near the conclusion which loses a bit of the intrigue when Pinon is reacquainted with Ardant and the film becomes less Chabrol and more Sirk tinged melodrama. This being said, Gare holds up particularly well in post-film discussion when you realize the amount of truth mixed in with the lies as expressed by the characters and deduce with dismay that some of the earliest clues were hiding in plain sight, making Lelouch and not the film's serial killer, the magician we’re the most consumed by in Roman de Gare.

Sense & Sensibility (2008)

Director: John Alexander

When it comes to the men of Austen, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy has always been in a class by himself. Occasionally he's proven far more memorable than some of the scribe’s heroines, yet when critics and devotees turn their attention to Sense and Sensibility, there’s a nearly universal dissatisfaction with the novel’s dull yet loyal Colonel Brandon who nonetheless manages to secure the affections of the young, spirited Marianne Dashwood. Typically-- due to both their similarities in temperament and their estimable age of mid to late thirties-- Brandon is lumped together with Emma’s Mr. Knightley who often scolds the precocious matchmaker with schoolmarm styled dialogue such as “Badly done, Emma. It was badly done, indeed.” Yet despite the fact that Knightley is consistently deemed preferable to Brandon, to me Emma’s beau seems about as sexy as a collections agent (except when portrayed by Jeremy Northam in the ’96 adaptation) and while-- granted-- neither man is in Darcy’s league, Brandon always seemed like my kind of guy. Trying to validate this belief became a much harder case to make in Ang Lee’s stunning ’95 cinematic version penned by Emma Thompson when the ages of nearly every character (save for Kate Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood), were increased and Brandon was portrayed by Alan Rickman a.k.a. the villainous star of Die Hard who thereafter had a recurring role in my childhood nightmares. However, even though he was brought to life by the man who would become Harry Potter’s Snape, there was always something about his chivalry, his obvious affection for Marianne and the fact that, in stark contrast to his usually dour exterior, he seemed to grow more joyful when in close proximity to her positive, passionate demeanor that genuinely touched my heart.

This is augmented considerably in director John Alexander’s gorgeous Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Sense and Sensibility, which recently made both its television and DVD premiere thanks to the good folks of PBS and the BBC. Startlingly sensual from the start as we’re introduced to the story via a love scene-- for a moment, I wondered if screenwriter Andrew Davies (who penned the best Austen adaptation with the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth) had picked up the right book. Although quickly we’re pushed headfirst into the familiar tale of the serious, practical and protective Elinor Dashwood (The Bank Job’s Hattie Morahan) and the fiery roughly seventeen year old Marianne (Charity Wakefield)-- two close yet decidedly different sisters who along with their mother (Tumbleweeds and Songcatcher star Janet McTeer) and much younger sister Margaret (Lucy Boynton) are left nearly penniless after their father dies and his estate and fortune are left in the hands of their greedy half-brother and his manipulative Lady Macbeth styled wife, aptly named Fanny.

While Fanny takes an instant dislike to the women, her charming brother Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens) arrives for an overdue visit and proceeds to form an attachment to Elinor that troubles both Fanny and the Dashwoods when the overly polite Edward and soft-spoken Elinor fail to make any concrete plans regarding marriage. Not so subtly kicked out by Fanny, the Dashwoods retreat to the country when they’re offered assistance and a humble cottage from Sir John, a relative of their mother’s whom she’s never met and find themselves instantly welcomed by not only Sir John and his wife but John’s dedicated thirty-five year old friend Colonel Brandon (The Other Boleyn Girl’s David Morrissey).

Admirably and perhaps indicative of the fact that screenwriter Davies is male, we’re given a greater glimpse into the male characters and dynamics in the film as Brandon is positioned more as a kind, unlikely soul mate than his usual label as an old, tired boor. In sharing with Marianne a genuine love of music and books and eagerly surprising her with sheet music, Davies sets the two of them up nicely until the oblivious Marianne who’s mistaken his generosity for friendship turns her attentions to the Austen’s quintessentially sexy bad boy Willoughby (Dominic Cooper from The History Boys and Mamma Mia!). While those familiar with the rascally Willoughby know exactly where this is headed, it’s great fun to watch another reinvention of the classic that invites comparisons to Ang Lee’s sumptuous classic and at the same time also adds more dimension to the tale in its inclusion of more scenes taken directly from the novel that strengthen characters' motivations.

Clocking in at three hours, surprisingly Alexander’s amiable (as Austen would say) adaptation never ceases to impress. While the talented but under-utilized and erroneously cast Hattie Morahan makes a weaker Elinor than Emma Thompson-- and there’s no replacing the Oscar nominated Kate Winslet-- the film’s real revelation comes in the astute portrayal of Charity Wakefield as a more earnest and relatable Marianne who nearly ignites on screen with fevered passion and becomes even stronger when sharing scenes with Cooper (predictably) but even more so when partnered with Morrissey. Granted as someone in the character’s age bracket it pains me to say that the obvious difference in the ages may not benefit the argument that Brandon is the right man for Marianne in the staunchest critics. However, given the benefit of the adaptation’s length and making his character feel more alive and less one dimensional, perhaps even his fiercest detractors will have to admit that when all is said and done, there’s just something about Brandon after all.

In other words, "Nicely done, Davies. It was nicely done indeed."

Close to Home

Directors: Dalia Hager & Vidi Bilu

They’re told to keep their uniforms immaculate and hair pulled back, to keep their eyes open and practice restraint and sensitivity to those they decide to check. Although privately, eighteen year old Mirit (talented newcomer Naama Schendar) appeals to her parents to try and find some loophole to get out of her required two year service as a soldier in the Israeli Army, publicly she’s a dedicated, hard working addition to her all-female unit. Mirit’s strict adherence to the rules is soon tested when she’s partnered up with the rebellious motorbike riding Smadar (a terrific Smadar Sayar) whose entire philosophy seems to be to keep her head down, stay out of sight and do as little work as possible until her term is finished.

While Mirit continues to pound the pavement by day, dutifully stopping Arabs to check their ID cards and add the information to lists while fighting her natural urge as a teenager to bend the rules-- even while on break-- to go try on a beautiful hat in a shop window, Smadar spends most of her time smoking and talking on her cell phone until their no-nonsense commanding officer (Irit Suki) decides to go on rounds with them. After an explosion goes off within feet of Mirit, Smadar has a change of heart and the two girls begin to tentatively bond with consequences that are positive as Mirit tries to get out of her shell especially where romance is concerned and negative when Smadar’s rebellious nature proves contagious.

A fascinating slice-of-life piece from writer/directors Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu, this Israeli film undoubtedly draws on their own experiences as teen soldiers yet intriguingly, it doesn’t make any grand statements or address the Israel/Palestine conflict throughout its roughly ninety minute running time. Preferring to stay objective, we’re left to make up our own minds in realizing the importance of the service completed by the young Israeli soldiers yet all the while remaining aware of the limitations as some of the citizens are able to bully the girls due to their youth and some in the same turn feel bullied as well.

Close to Home boasts a star-making turn by Smadar Sayar whose fierce passion as Smadar makes her character the most commanding of the entire film as she believably evolves, indicative of not only her young age but the circumstance in which she finds herself. While some critics cried foul at what they perceived was a teen angst focus instead of the opportunity to stimulate political debate, I felt it was a refreshingly honest character-driven piece and one that reminds us to stop thinking abstractly and concentrate on the humanity of the conflict and the way that the situation is far more complicated than most citizens-- let alone eighteen year old kids-- can possibly imagine.

Winner of the Best Screenplay Award from the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival Forum, Close to Home makes a wonderful foreign film to share with your own teenage daughters, (especially here in the states), to inspire greater global awareness by introducing them to the situation in the Middle East through the eyes of their diligent contemporaries overseas who stand prepared with their hair pulled back, uniforms immaculate and ready to serve.

How to Cook Your Life

Director: Doris Dorrie

Perhaps it’s because it’s a trendy housewarming gift or more likely it’s because my culinary skills are roughly on par with my atrocious mathematical ability, but whatever the case may be, when I moved into my first apartment, 99% of the gifts I received from friends and loved ones seemed to consist of cookbooks. Whether they were worried that I would soon need a second freezer to hold all of my microwave dinners, a second drawer for my takeout menus or secretly feared they’d have to suffer food poisoning when I invited them over, my kitchen inexperience is legendary. Needless to say, I’ll take any excuse to eat elsewhere and while despite being a picky eater-- no seafood, no mushrooms-- I love cuisine, let’s just say that I’ll never be mistaken for a “foodie.” Lack of culinary knowledge and a genuine disinterest in spending far too much time in the kitchen dirtying dishes seemed to be the major culprit, however, it wasn’t until I watched German documentary filmmaker Doris Dorrie’s quirky offering How to Cook Your Life which chronicled the philosophies and practices of Zen priest and chef Edward Espe Brown, that I realized maybe film buffs and foodies are of a different breed altogether. While I never tire of analyzing cinematic shots and cuts, unlike Chef Brown I’ve never cried over the shape of teapots, sought life lessons in smelly pickles or culled wisdom from an uncooperative sponge in the kitchen… but then again, I’m not a fan of tea, pickles or sponges. Perhaps if I was, I may have been—if not a great chef—then at least one who can prepare something other than macaroni and cheese. This being said, even with a slight improvement, I’d probably still be the worst student that Chef Brown could ever imagine.

After having penned The Tassajara Bread Book, which Zen inclined foodies consider the “bible of bread making,” Zen priest and Chef Brown has dedicated forty years of his life to his realm of culinary practice and belief that cooking food also leads to improving one’s own health and vitality by teaching his particular brand of meditative cuisine to students around the world. Surprisingly still irritable and at times short tempered whether it’s frustrating food packaging, bottle cap engineering or annoying question askers that set him off, at first glance Chef Brown doesn’t seem to be the greatest poster child for Zen especially when he admits to a twenty year annoyance with the dramatic ceremony of offering food to the Buddha.

However, after espousing the wisdom set forth by Buddhist monks who’d come generations before him, the man who readily admits he’s just “a human being,” is filled with anecdotes and one-liners for all who are willing to listen to his own self-prescribed ingredients in the quest to learn How to Cook Your Life as the thirteenth century cooking manual of the title connotes (SIFF). From railing against our tendency to eat puffy, chemically manipulated cardboard styled food served in gigantic proportions that lead to waste in a society where convenience and deadlines dictate both our lives and waistlines to revealing the three mindsets a “tenzo” (chief cook) aspires to possess (big, joyful, and kind), Brown shares some excellent observations. Yet, ultimately there seemed to be something slightly off-putting about his detached personality that held me at a distance which was magnified by the subtly affected overtone of his preaching and the way he seemed more moved (to tears) by a teapot than to any individual in his environment.

Although, for others who like myself are genuinely fascinated by Buddhism, it’s worth a look, but even at its slight running time of roughly ninety minutes, it moves from mild annoyance to highly irritating rather quickly, much like the hard to open package of plastic cheese drives Brown to attacking it with a knife, despite his desire to will others to cook peacefully and be in the moment. All this aside, just imagine what the poor priest would do if he were ever faced with my kitchen!


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Director: Steven Spielberg

“Here we are now, entertain us.”-- Nirvana

And so we return to Dr. Jones and the gang’s all here, John Williams’s score sounds better than ever, and the fedora has become as recognizable as Chaplin’s cane. Following months of advertising including near singular sponsorship of the 2008 NBA Playoffs, the question wasn’t whether or not Indiana Jones would make money or break box office records, but rather if it was worth dusting off our favorite archeologist from his nineteen year retirement of perfectly preserved and re-mastered memories on DVD and sending him on a fourth perilous search for another trove of treasure. Of course, even to co--creator George Lucas, Indiana Jones was never about the treasure itself—similar to Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, it never quite mattered what he was chasing, for the real treasure was in the quest itself as we followed archeology professor Dr. Henry Jones to the most unimaginable corners of the world in a wit and daring filled hero’s journey to outsmart the Nazis or whoever stood in his way to—much like a modern day Arthur—secure whatever grail he needed to win.

From the groundbreaking Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to the uneven Temple of Doom (’84) and the enjoyable misnomer Last Crusade (’89), Harrison Ford’s most endearing character since Han Solo (for my money, the coolest one from the Star Wars cannon) has garnered generations of fans but now at age 65, bringing him back to high flying adventure sounded like an unlikely and primarily profit driven undertaking. Like many, I feared going in that Spielberg and Lucas, who have both become unparalleled masters of the latest filmmaking technology, would forget the cheesy B movie roots or matinee spirit of the original extraordinary trilogy and in forgoing classic entertainment, offer a perfect reinvention of Jones with Iron Man styled special effects. However, my concerns were put to rest within minutes as we’re faced with the retro Paramount logo and old-fashioned credits announcing that the Indy we love is back.

Opening in 1957 Nevada, it takes less than five minutes for Dr. Jones to find himself in lethal jeopardy as he tries to outthink—not the Nazis this time but rather Communist Russians led by the wicked dominatrix Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett reveling in her Ukrainian accent and dark colored bob). Admittedly when we first catch a glimpse of the aged Ford cracking dialogue that directly references his age and ability, doubt instead of awe is the new reaction we have to this elder Indy but soon, we’re distracted by enough chaotic complications and old fashioned wonder that cynical preoccupation is abandoned and we’re well into the story.

Scripted by Spiderman and Panic Room scribe David Koepp from a story by Jeff Nathanson and George Lucas, while the psychic, paranormal phenomena and extraterrestrial excitement feel a bit out of place, again that MacGuffin couldn’t matter less as we’re more entranced by the outrageous spectacle first introduced with the arrival of the newest addition to the “good guys,” greaser Mutt Williams (a delightful Shia LeBeouf), whom we first see in perfect imitation of Marlon Brando in The Wild One straddling a killer motorcycle. Bearing information from his mother Marion (Karen Allen), who-- despite being the most memorable Indiana Jones heroine-- for reasons that are never explained (possibly old age?), Jones doesn’t quite put together with being that particular Marion, Mutt serves as Jones’s call to action, leading him on a wild goose chase to the mythic South American city of El Dorado by way of Cusco, Peru to track down the legendary crystal skulls that have fascinated the Russians (and Blanchett) as well.

Soon reacquainted with Marion Ravenwood and other colleagues including Ox (John Hurt) and Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy and Mutt’s lives are increasingly threatened as they get closer to the treasure but along the way, we have our trademark thrills—some of which play like a greatest hits mix tape of the earlier films and some that I still remain dazzled by twenty-four hours later. The ultimate features an unforgettable jeep chase with swashbuckling action in the form of a Mutt and Irina swordfight, gunfire, and more, as-- in true Indy fashion-- Spielberg keeps topping the sequence before it, stacking up danger until he knocks it all down like a wicked Jenga game.

There’s the quintessential “gross out” moment harkening back to the horrifying snake pit debacle from Raiders that indeed sent people fleeing to the restroom as the leads are attacked by, as Indy calls them “big damn ants,” which manages to overstay its disgusting welcome just seconds into the overly long sequence. And while this isn’t the only part of the film that feels like padding and there aren’t as many genuine laughs as Kasdan penned in his memorable Raiders screenplay, the action is so riveting and the affable nostalgic and high energy spirit of the series is kept remarkably intact as to rival the overly cool, and hyper real action movies of today, that I was amazed by just how big of an absence was left in action film when Indy hung up that fedora.

Although it would be woefully unwise to call him back to adventure again and Spielberg does hint that perhaps Mutt may be the next in line for the professor’s whip, it was a fond farewell to the films and a nice reward for fans who, similar to myself as someone roughly as old as the entire series, always looked forward to the next hybrid of imaginative thrills and brain teasing wit.

In other words--we were there, so Spielberg, Lucas and Ford entertained us.



Harris Goldberg

Have you ever had one of those days where you remember getting in your car and driving home from work but have absolutely no memory of what happened on the drive? You know you’ve obeyed the traffic lights and gone the same route you always do yet you’re so used to going through the motions that it’s impossible to distinguish one trip from the next… that is until something major changes. We take comfort in knowing that our detachment is only temporary but for Hudson (Matthew Perry), living in a “horrific perpetual dreamstate” becomes permanent after the anxiety ridden, high-strung screenwriter triggers his preexisting tendency for disassociation in a bong binge after smoking too much dope too fast while trying to pause his penchant for panic.

Soon diagnosed with “depersonalization” disorder or feeling entirely outside his body as he goes about his day, Hudson fights his condition in the quest for the perfect psychiatrist, experimenting with both talk and drug therapies while attempting his own remedies from an unsuccessful venture to reconnect with reality by visiting his parents to spending far too much time in front of his television zoning out to The Golf Channel. Nearly resigned to a life spent indoors watching the longest films ever made on DVD, Hudson is faced with an optimistic jolt when he becomes attracted to the beguiling, lovely, carefree, and refreshingly weird studio development girl Sara (Lynn Collins) after meeting her in a pitch meeting with his long suffering writing partner Tom (Kevin Pollak).

Surprisingly accepting of his predilection for evenings in front of the television, one night when faced with viewing the entire Star Wars trilogy complete with the filmmaker’s commentary, Sara urges Hudson out of the house and serious sparks begin to fly during some completely unexpected adventures. Now given a true reason to cure his depersonalization due to the fear that revealing his condition will alienate his new love, Hudson fights even harder to try and find the right course of treatment but when playing “musical drugs” begins failing, his tendency towards self-sabotage kicks in as writer/director Harris Goldberg’s impressive, autobiographical, and wholly original romantic comedy continues.

Featuring a pitch perfect performance by Matthew Perry in a role that seems completely tailor-made for the star given his incredible talent for dialogue and self-deprecation, Goldberg admirably fills in the rest of the script with equally involving characters, even when they begin bordering on caricature such as in a fine if slightly artificial subplot featuring Mary Steenburgen as an unstable cognitive behavior specialist who breaks the boundaries of a traditional doctor/patient relationship when she gives into temptation with Hudson.

Far better than one would assume given Goldberg’s other credits as a screenwriter contributing to the awful Dana Carvey vehicle The Master of Disguise and the downright despicable Deuce Bigalow series, we realize that the talented filmmaker has much more to offer than lowbrow credits. Given the maturity and well-earned laughs from this completely human script, it's safe to say that we can look forward to other movies from Goldberg that-- if he manages to stay as close to his heart as he did with this deeply personal tale-- are sure to garner him more fans in the world of independent film. Co-produced by its star Matthew Perry, Numb, which earned the Audience Award from the Gen Art Film Festival, has been recently released on DVD.

Movie Review: Made of Honor (2008)

Director: Paul Weiland

Now Available on DVD & Blu-ray

Filmgoers did a double take in the 1990s when, in trading in a ten gallon hat and cowboy boots for a Mets cap and sneakers, Billy Crystal became a short comedian in the saddle in City Slickers. As unlikely as that image seemed at the time, it made far more sense to see Crystal in cowboy mode in director Paul Weiland’s sequel City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold and much less sense when Grey’s Anatomy doc McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) decides to stop a wedding by commandeering a horse in Weiland’s latest release Made of Honor. While it’s par for the romantic comedy course to end genre offerings with either the hero or heroine physically chasing down their love via taxis, airplanes, bicycles, etc. and the director at least gets credit for trying to add whimsy to the mix, for Honor's finale, coming off the heels of several clichés in a row, the only way the sequence would have seemed original is if suddenly Crystal had popped up on the screen looking for another western adventure.

Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by the first hour of the film, which, similar to the other recent lackluster romantic comedy, What Happens in Vegas, reels us in with enough high energy and laughs to keep us interested until they realize we’ve taken the bait, and then instead of continuing to fish, the filmmakers slowly drop us further into the lake. This being said and intriguingly for someone who has never seen an entire episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I was more taken in by Made than Vegas, perhaps due to the sheer charm of the two affable leads played by the aforementioned Dempsey as well as the terrific Michelle Monaghan who’d first impressed me a few years back in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Similar to her Kiss costar Robert Downey Jr., the visible roughly decade age difference between Monaghan and Dempsey seems overly conspicuous when we realize that (again like Kiss) they’re playing former classmates, but because they seem to genuinely spark with one another, it’s easy to forgive.

Opening in 1998 at Cornell University, the philandering ladies man senior student Tom (Dempsey) meets cute with worldly, mature freshman Hannah (Monaghan) by mistaking her bed for that of her skanky roommate. Impervious to his unoriginal advances, Tom’s flirtation turns to fascination when the refreshingly honest Hannah calls him on his game and we cut to the duo ten years later as they’ve become best friends in a slightly codependent relationship-- more intimate than most marriages, yet completely platonic as a heterosexual version of Will and Grace.

Now in contemporary New York and having become successfully wealthy after inventing a “coffee collar,” man-whore Tom still chases anything in a skirt despite keeping commitment at bay while ridiculously adhering to lecherous self-imposed rules. And luckily for Tom, his favorite girl Friday, the art restorer Hannah seems all too happy to be his backup date when it matters most such as attending the sixth wedding of his father (a hilarious Sydney Pollack).

Although unlike Will and Grace yet predictably as research indicates that a majority of friendships contain some level of attraction, we suspect that Monaghan may want more out of her relationship. However a possibly awkward conversation is cut short when she journeys to Scotland for a six week work trip. Unsurprisingly, absence makes Tom’s heart grow fonder when he realizes that the bimbos he beds just don't interest him as much as Hannah but he’s in for a rude awakening when she returns engaged following a whirlwind “Bronte” inspired courtship with the unspeakably dull yet attractive Colin (Kevin McKidd). When Tom is asked to serve as Hannah’s "Moh" (Maid of Honor), his friends encourage him to sabotage the event from inside but when the annoyingly flawless Colin can’t be knocked from Hannah’s pedestal, Tom decides instead to leave character attacks out of the mix and try to prove to his best friend that he’s the one who is Made of Honor.

While less enjoyable than the unchallenging yet adorable Wedding Planner yet far better than Julia Roberts’s overwhelmingly mean-spirited My Best Friend’s Wedding, Honor benefits from its gender reversal twist. Unfortunately, as soon as the film substitutes its New York setting for fairy tale Scotland as the wedding draws nearer, the brains of the screenwriters must have fallen asleep as the film continues in auto-pilot, predictably hitting turbulence and cheap laughs for the rest of what felt like an overwhelmingly bloated running time (yet in reality was just 101 minutes).

Still, it's not as horrid as most critics would have you believe and the two actors try to get as much mileage out of the material and their underwritten, bland characters as they can and it’s half successful, until-- and echoing the predictable conclusion-- all the stops (and horses) are pulled to try and ruin things from turning “happily ever after.”


Summer 2008: Sunday Film Discussions

This summer, beat the heat in air conditioned luxury by checking out free flicks with like minded movie lovers during my Sunday Film Discussion Series.

The Details:

Scottsdale Public Library: Civic Center Branch
Main Auditorium: Lower Level
Sundays at 1:30 p.m.

The Films:

June 8, 2008
(Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski)

June 22, 2008
Cinderella Man
(Directed by Ron Howard)

July 13, 2008
(Directed by Gary Ross)

July 27, 2008
Road to Perdition
(Directed by Sam Mendes)

August 10, 2008
The Motorcycle Diaries
(Directed by Walter Salles)

August 24, 2008
Across the Universe
(Directed by Julie Taymor)

The 11th Hour

Directors: Nadia Conners & Leila Conners Peteterson

Despite bearing a freakishly uncanny resemblance to decades old photos of my grandfather which has prevented me from joining the legions of his lusty admirers, I must admit that the handsome Leonardo DiCaprio makes a far more appealing alternative to watching a roughly one hundred minute Power Point Presentation. This being said, as environmental awareness documentaries go in explaining the horrors of Global Warming, The 11th Hour pales in comparison to Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar winning film An Inconvenient Truth starring Al Gore.

Admirable, well-intentioned and filled with diverse figures from scholars to scientists, 11th Hour producer, narrator, co-writer and star DiCpario continues the conversation set forth by Gore in this exceptionally crafted yet largely ineffective documentary. Many have accused The 11th Hour of simply preaching to the choir of those of us who not only saw the Truth of Gore’s film but have also tried to change the ways in which we live our lives whether it be with a simple eco-friendly light bulb to purchasing a hybrid automobile. And in regards to Leo's Hour, one must admit that its core audience would be those who not only accept the proven argument of Global Warming but are also aware that change must occur.

In addition, although we’re living in a time of undeniable environmental crisis with little time left to change our ways to stave off unspeakable catastrophe from the irreparable harm we’ve caused to our planet, spending an entire hour chronicling everything that went wrong following the Industrial Revolution which has brought us to our current state of too many citizens, using too many resources, much too quickly doesn’t really do much in guiding audience members to solve problems. Instead of overwhelming us with negatives and threats which are undoubtedly accurate and devastatingly urgent, playing the blame game with too many hellfire and brimstone like environmental sermons about an impending doomsday makes us feel even more powerless and thus far less likely to act.

Despite this, the finally thirty-five minutes are indeed inspiring in outlining some of the ways in which ordinary citizens have gone beyond narrow viewpoints and self-obsession in seeking inspiration in nature to strive for sustainable design. However, in the end, the film’s original thesis that the incredible, limitless potential and extraordinary abilities of the human mind will save Earth from turning into Venus (as Stephen Hawking fears), becomes a distant memory, as directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Peterson paint a bleak portrait with the final cut of The 11th Hour which ultimately provides more information than answers, making us long once again for Professor Al Gore and his trusty Power Point Presentation.

I Really Hate My Job

Director: Oliver Parker

Following a voice over narration which drowns out the visually atmospheric introduction of London’s hustle and bustle before the action is transferred to the claustrophobic setting of Stella Bar in Soho, author Alice (Shirley Henderson) receives a letter from her publisher informing the scribe that her latest manuscript has been rejected as both “unmarketable” and “mind-numbing.” Shortly thereafter, one begins to feel exactly the same way about writer Jennifer Higgie’s unfocused, rambling, and over-the-top screenplay which, just like Alice’s overly intellectualized novel, seems to be in dire need of revision.

Director Oliver Parker has proven in the past that he has a penchant for plays with the inventive adaptation of An Ideal Husband and the mediocre yet watchable versions of Othello (saved by Kenneth Branagh) and The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to be up to his old theatrical tricks once again when tackling Higgie’s text, which although it tries to pass itself off as a film, seems like it would have been better suited to an avant-garde or experimental college feminist theatre troupe production rather than the world of independent film. Saddled with an unimaginative and narrow title that fails to highlight the film’s ensemble nature, Parker relies heavily on his talented cast to disguise the many shortcomings as we spend a chaotic, irritating, and disaster ridden evening among five female restaurant employees who find themselves in charge of the entire bar after they’re unexpectedly disappointed by two other male employees off-screen.

While task-master Madonna (Anna Maxwell Martin)-- a well-intentioned but largely ineffective manager tries to promote working as a team and trying to cover up her soon to be broken heart, affable Henderson’s Alice suffers burns and catastrophe slaving away in the kitchen alongside a maniacal dishwashing assistant named Rita (Oana Pellea) who smokes like a chimney and spouts communist revolutionary theories with zero prompting. Rounding out the group is the film’s saving grace in the form of the sweet but admittedly dim German art student Suzie (Alexandra Maria Lara) whose innocent naiveté provides an entirely welcome counterpoint to Neve Campbell’s brash, debt-ridden struggling actress Abbie who comes to work on her thirtieth birthday and proceeds to have a breakdown over the course of the ninety minute film.

Unsuccessfully trying to cram far too many offbeat (and 99% unlikable) characters into the chaotic production does little to endear Parker’s film to audiences, despite a nice cameo in the end by actor Danny Huston who seems to have both waltzed in from and onto an entirely different production altogether. While every once in awhile an actress delivers a killer line you know you’ll remember long after you hit eject, you can’t help wondering how much better it would’ve been if-- much like Alice’s manuscript-- they’d streamlined it when it was still in the writing stage by trimming the fat, combining personalities or removing some of the unruly characters altogether.

Hollywood Dreams

Henry Jaglom

“Mmmm, I'm a star
And the audience loves me
And I love them
And they love me for loving them
And I love them for loving me
And we love each other
And that's because none of us
Got enough love in our childhoods
And that's showbiz, kid.” – “Roxie Hart” from Chicago

In her pitch perfect screen performance as Roxie Hart in the Academy Award Winning musical Chicago, Renee Zellweger played the ultimate ingénue—the quintessential star-hungry dreamer whose ambition was equally matched with her willingness to do whatever it takes to secure her fifteen minutes of fame. While in the 1920’s era Chicago, Roxie Hart’s path led her to murder, the tireless character of a young, wide-eyed hopeful girl much too eager to see her name in lights has been a favorite in Hollywood for years. Whether it’s depicted in All About Eve or in network television’s newest crop of reality programming, the recurring premise of an ambitious talent taps directly into our celebrity driven culture of a contemporary society which seems as equally dependent on gossip as we are on gasoline.

In writer/director Henry Jaglom’s latest film, we’re presented with another aspiring star, who-- and equally fitting to the archetype-- has arrived in Hollywood from small town Mason City, Iowa known to most in Tinseltown as the setting of Broadway’s The Music Man. With an encyclopedic knowledge for classic Hollywood trivia and dialogue and not above bursting into tears at an audition or fainting on cue to gain sympathy, there is something distinctly similar to Roxie Hart embodied in actress Tanna Frederick’s portrayal of Jaglom’s heroine Margie Chizek.

While we realize that she isn’t likely to resort to murder, Margie’s delusional behavior and tendency towards mania makes her an unlikely main character with whom the audience can legitimately sympathize. Even after she’s kicked out of her latest living situation for destroying the microwave, we’re always convinced (although we’re not sure she’s deserving) that she will not only land on her feet but she just may become a star and her big break appears in the form not of a knight in shining armor but in Kaz (Zack Norman) a gay film producer walking his dog in the park. Feeling sorry for Margie, he takes her to lunch only to realize he’s been hustled but he’s so convinced that her ability to lie will translate to an innate ability to perform that he sets her up in his guest home, promising he will eventually make her a star. With her other newfound benefactor, Kaz’s partner Caesar (an excellent David Proval), Margie’s Hollywood Dreams begin to come true but soon love unexpectedly enters the mix when she begins falling for the other occupant of the guest home, Robin (Justin Kirk).

Although warned that when it comes to Robin, he’s “S.B.O.” (“Strictly Boys Only”), the two seem to naturally gravitate to one another with near magnetic force as Margie starts realizing that in modern day Hollywood where the rules have been changed, Robin may only be pretending to be gay to garner more niche work. However lying about one’s orientation may not be the worst of the secrets flying throughout as every member of Kaz’s circle seems to have enough baggage to crash a jet plane.

While Robin’s storyline seems to be the most fascinating one in Jaglom’s overcrowded screenplay, especially when played to such charismatic heights by the impressive Justin Kirk, far too much time is spent fixating on Margie, who, much like Roxie Hart is fascinating enough to ensure interest for fifteen minutes of fame but ultimately not worthy of building an entire production around, despite the daring tenacity and fierce determination brought to the role by the fearless Frederick.

Paradise, Texas

Lorraine Senna

For film buffs, there’s an old adage which states that you’ll never forget the first movies that made an impact on you and the same could technically be said for younger actors whose early films seem to resonate-- sometimes unpredictably-- decades later in their careers. For actor Timothy Bottoms, the young avid movie enthusiast he played in Peter Bogdanovich’s 70’s classic The Last Picture Show, comes full circle in director Lorraine Senna’s family film, Paradise, Texas. Again we find Bottoms back in Picture Show’s dusty small town Texas setting as a movie star who seems to have forgotten just why he’d fallen in love with cinema in the first place, taking in movies at his father’s drive-in instead of the about to be closed, antiquated theatre in Bogdanovich’s Picture. However, that’s where the similarities end-- as much out of evolving technology as necessity-- since Senna’s workmanlike film is expressly produced within the family friendly mindset and seems to be like something one has stumbled upon via HBO or ABC’s Family Networks while flipping channels on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Still tirelessly clinging to the salary and working demands coveted by others in his business, actor Mack Cameron (Timothy Bottoms) has a movie star’s ego that seems conspicuous only when we realize that the man whose name was formerly synonymous with big box office business has significantly less clout than he’d previously boasted. Preferring to accept as many opportunities as his snakelike agent procures to further his waning career in lieu of spending time with his long-suffering wife (Meredith Baxter) and children, Mack is the type of father who returns home from a business trip and presents the eldest son he barely understands airport tourist trinkets like a snow globe and Lakers jersey for the boy’s birthday. After it becomes increasingly obvious that he’s alienating his family, he takes an unglamorous role in an independent film shooting in his home town of Littleton, Texas with the condition that his family accompanies him for the duration of the shoot.

Once in Littleton, he meets his costar CJ Kinney (Ben Estus), a talented middle school aged aspiring dancer whose preference of tap shoes over baseball has made him a strange spectacle in his farming community with a macho cowboy father. However when the boy impresses his drama teacher and the entire school in a bravura talent show act and his mother explains to her husband that “not everything that walks on two feet in Texas needs to have a baseball in its hands,” he gives in and CJ’s natural talent shines through in his scenes with Mack whom the young boy begins to idolize. When Mack’s true selfish nature predictably rears its ugly head, Mack realizes that he’s the one who most needs to come of age as the film reaches its protracted yet innocuous conclusion.

Earnest and enjoyable without being terribly original in its Billy Elliot like homage which most critics referenced, Senna’s technically inferior yet likable family film Paradise, Texas, proves to be far worthier of family viewing than most of what is released theatrically by Hollywood. However, more than that-- its engaging if contrived final sequence admirably celebrates youthful cinematic passion and the importance for adults like Cameron to recall just what drew them to the medium in the first place, whether in real life or in that of celluloid as a young man working alongside Bogdanovich braving the Texas winds to get the shot outside the town’s theatre just right in The Last Picture Show.

Steel City

Brian Jun

Ironically after a fatal collision sends reckless Carl Lee (John Heard) to jail, it’s his old resilient pickup truck that’s in the least need of repair. Instead, unlike the steel metal of his vehicle, it’s the humans affected—namely his family—that are the most in need of healing. As we learn in writer/director/editor Brian Jun’s feature length filmmaking debut Steel City, the trauma from the crash which found an unfortunate motorist dead simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time spirals out from the road and into the Alston, Illinois buildings and lives occupied by both the locked up Carl Lee as well as the relatives he’s left behind.

This is all the more apparent in the case of Carl Lee’s only regular visitor, his son PJ (a terrific Thomas Guiry) who, having survived the crash which sent his father to jail, struggles to cope with the aftershocks and secrecy involved in that particular incident that seems to magnify a childhood filled with repressed “accidents” before his mother (Laurie Metcalfe) decided to divorce Carl and start a life with a kind police officer (James McDaniel).

Although PJ seems content to stay in denial of the dysfunction in his youth, when director Jun switches the film’s focus onto his older, unhappily married, philandering brother Ben (a menacing Clayne Crawford), after just a few scenes we realize in light of two very different characterizations how having Carl Lee for a father has manifested in the cool gazes and detached personalities of the two men who seem to have only DNA in common with one another.

Unwilling to admit he’s self-sabotaging his relationship with his girlfriend Amy (America Ferrera) whose appearance he criticizes behind her back, soon PJ gets fired from his job working in a restaurant and fearing he’ll lose his home, looks up his long-absent Uncle Vic (Independent Spirit Award nominated Raymond J. Barry), who helps his nephew get back on his feet and in the process enlightens PJ to some of the dark secrets lurking in the family’s past.

Intriguingly Vic’s revelations seem to be the tip of the iceberg when Jun surprises audiences with a genuine shock late into the picture to help explain the vague motives of two key characters, however despite this twist, the bleak, hopeless characters living in the shadows of missed opportunities and failure does drain on the viewer throughout. Still, Steel City marks an incredible, mature and deft filmmaking achievement for helmer Jun, just in his twenties and one that-- in spite of the unceasingly gray color scheme and characters whom we can’t imagine wanting to spend any time with in reality for longer than a minute-- boasts an astute, atmospheric sense of time and place, earning it a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.


The Wedding Weekend

Alternate Title: Shut Up and Sing
Director: Bruce Leddy

Even though I’m consistently inspired by the sheer poetry penned by my favorite movie critics (you guys know who you are!), recently I’ve become dismayed by a disappointing trend as-- those chosen geniuses aside-- a shockingly large amount of film criticism has become increasingly repetitive. This was especially apparent with last week’s most frequently obvious tagline of “What Happens in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas,” and will no doubt occur again when enough reviewers take in writer/director Bruce Leddy’s unbelievably clichéd male bonding film The Wedding Weekend. To explain: a simple film criticism scavenger hunt for similar phrases in other reviews will probably reach the double digits in less than twenty minutes when one considers not only Leddy’s film’s original title (see above) but also the fact that his inauthentic main characters routinely greet each other not with the “Wuzzzzuup” of beer commercials but with the phrase “Shut Up.” You can imagine the variations favored by reviewers across the country all still reeling from a lackluster film venting their frustration via their keyboards, looking for the best way to work in the phrase "Shut Up"-- cherishing the fact that instead of being given a time-out for saying it in school, they’re earning a guaranteed laugh. And indeed, it’s hard when a joke is that obvious, repetitive, fitting and readily available to will oneself to dig deeper; in fact I found myself leaving the theatre with the lyrics of the infectious hit “Shut Up & Let Me Go” by The Ting Tings (aka the song from the latest iPod commercial which you can download below) playing in my head and wishing I’d listened to that on repeat for ninety minutes instead of taking in the flick. While we can’t always force inspiration, especially when critiquing an ode to mediocrity, I thought I’d fight the urge to shout “Shut Up” and-- taking a cue from the man who inspired me to write about film, Roger Ebert—segue into the review with an anecdote.

A few years ago, I foolishly gave into well-intentioned peer pressure in consenting to a blind date. After the predictably inauspicious beginning best characterized as “Hugh Grant styled bumbling,” the conversation flowed a bit more freely when we started discussing film (I know, big surprise!). And in switching gears to other topics, delightedly we discovered a few other things in common-- however, instead of driving forward, our burgeoning relationship stalled unbelievably with my date’s admission that his greatest passion in life was a cappella music. Out of equal parts Midwestern politeness and downright curiosity, I tried to feign enthusiasm but no doubt an eyebrow was raised when he shared his experiences performing as part of a larger ensemble in college and the high he felt singing with other men. I’m sure you’re with me in wondering whether or not—ahem-- I was exactly his type but he was a sweet kid so I tried to show interest until a few firework-less dates later, I found a way to insert what I call my “old reliable” (aka the traditional “friends” speech).

Perhaps like carnivals or clowns, republicans or scientologists, renaissance festivals or Star Trek conventions, there’s just something odd about a cappella. And it’s all the stranger in The Wedding Weekend when we’re introduced to the pastime without even a trace of justifiable explanation by writer/director Bruce Leddy who seems so convinced that the entire world shares his love of a cappella that he repeatedly creates more opportunities for his gorgeous sounding but awkward group to perform, even going as far as to find the lead characters land in the slammer alongside an intimidating man who-- wouldn’t you know-- melts like butter in discovering their like-mindedness as they sow their oats in a rousing musical number. It’s this complete absence of irony or an even tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of Leddy’s situations that brings out the cynic in audience members, especially even those, like me, who normally love the sound of human beings singing in harmony.

Reuniting for a wedding fifteen years after they shared the “youthful bliss of ignorance” performing in a collegiate a capella group, it seems not much has changed for the seven member male chorus. While Steven (David Alan Basche) has moved to California to launch a reality television show starring Vanna White and takes prodding to return to the Hamptons to celebrate the nuptials of Greg (yummy Mark Feuerstein) with whom he’d fallen out with over a “stolen” girlfriend, the main five continually delight in every opportunity to sing together on a New York street corner during their lunch hours. Although still preoccupied with sex and how to get it, the men seem eager to get a jumpstart on each of their mid-life crises, alienating the women in their lives, with David (David Harbour) who, after changing the subject from having children with enough baseball analogies to annoy a television commentator, instead fixates on measuring his receipting hairline (oh yeah--good times!). While it’s obvious that Leddy intended most of the laughs to derive from the hammy performance of Reg Rogers, who seems to be doing a cross between a Neil Simon era Jack Lemmon impression and standard musical comedy dinner theatre, playing a cynical recently divorced lawyer going on his five hundredth day of disappointing celibacy, Saturday Night Live alumni Molly Shannon steals every scene she’s in as the unhappy, lust-filled potty mouthed wife of workaholic Ted (Alexander Chaplin). Although relegated to mostly window dressing or being directed to look on in disappointment or with rolled eyes at the men whose ultimate catchphrase is “Shut Up,” the women seem to be the only relatable ones in the film, even when we’re served up a few more clichés such as a Martha Stewart like Hollywood wife and a twenty-three year old Swedish nanny named Elsa (Camilla Thorsson) whom the guys hope may offer Richard a "pity jump."

Inexplicably, The Wedding Weekend earned five film festival accolades including an Audience Award from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which makes one wonder just what the other screenings were like. However, for audiences given a larger range of options, there’s no need to pretend you’re on a blind date and feign politeness in the multiplex; Leddy’s overly theatrical staged offering would have been better suited for a musical theatre production where not only the scenery chewing actors would have felt more at home but the a cappella wouldn’t have seemed so out of place. For a thematically similar yet infinitely better male bonding movie, hit your local video store to check out the Film Intuition favorite Beautiful Girls or download the song below from iTunes for the best recent recitation of “Shut Up" not found in countless movie reviews.

"Shut Up & Let Me Go" by The Ting Tings
The Ting Tings - Shut Up and Let Me Go - Single - Shut Up and Let Me Go


Director: Alejandro Gomez Monteverde

Although infinitely preferable to the sexist and conservative rants of Dr. Phil, normally I wouldn’t advise trying to glean any wisdom on how to live one’s life from the heartbreaking oeuvre of Tennessee Williams. Despite this, there is definitely something to be said for Blanche DuBois’s memorable confession, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” uttered in A Streetcar Named Desire. Not only do those words ring true more regularly than the evening news would have us believe in real life, but often they also provide a terrific springboard for creativity in the world of independent filmmaking.

From The Station Agent to Once, it seems as though we overwhelmingly gravitate towards stories in which our main character finds either their romantic or platonic soul mate in a complete stranger. Frequently this burgeoning appreciation echoes the events onscreen as audience members find themselves becoming an integral part of a steadily growing word-of-mouth movement that brings together film lovers from all backgrounds and walks of life to find truth, solace and consolation in the fact that this world is much smaller than we may think, with people who feel things in the same way as do we.

A beautiful cinematic realization of this sentiment can be found in writer/director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s feature film debut Bella which earned the 2006 People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, once again exemplifying the determination of filmgoers to seek out and reward works with which they identify. Primarily set during the course of one fateful New York day, save for a few wisely chosen flashes backwards and forwards in time, we encounter two employees of a restaurant who find a spark of recognition in one another.

When the pretty, young waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard) is fired by domineering Manny (Manny Perez) after arriving late to work, despite the fact that they’re relative strangers, something in the girl’s eyes and manner speaks to Manny’s brother, the restaurant’s chef Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) who follows Nina to the subway where she reveals she is pregnant. Not wanting to leave her alone and equally drawn to her plight by the ghosts of his own tragic past which are revealed over the course of the film and refreshingly without predictability, Jose brings Nina to his family’s home.

Traditional narrative structure would have us believe that we’re watching a straightforward romance where Jose would chivalrously save the young woman from a tragic fate however just when you think you have it pegged, the film moves in another direction. Moreover, Monteverde’s intelligent screenplay and carefully chosen leads never let us forget that Jose needs Nina just as much as she needs him and Bella avoids becoming mired in a tired formula as the film evolves from a naturalistic romance to one where the romance isn’t simply to be found in the relationship between a man and a woman but one that celebrates genuine love between human beings, whether it’s classified as romantic, familial or platonic.


Director: Andrea Staka

We all have the instinctive urge to escape. Whether it’s to travel to exotic locations for vacation or start over in a brand new place, there’s something undeniably irresistible and inherently human about wanting to get away to try something new, not only to see how life is lived elsewhere but to see who we become in another setting. Although we can neither escape our problems nor our true nature, the desire to hit “reset” is one that exists at all levels, ranging from just wanting to clear your head from the daily grind and lie in the sun or at its most urgent, needing to relocate permanently due to work, hardship or in the case of the main characters in writer/director Andrea Staka’s award winning feature film debut Fraulein, to leave political turmoil and war behind.

As the film begins, we meet the young, attractive, free-spirited Ana (Marja Skaricic) who arrives in Zurich from Bosnia. Although she’s survived the war, the tragedies of the past seem to dance precariously in her eyes, never to be forgotten, even as she dances as quickly as she can to pulse-pounding electronica blasting over the speakers in the city’s clubs, distracting herself with one-night stands until her secrets start to unravel like a piece of yarn from her beaten old sweater.

Everything about Ana seems temporary and transient but after she impulsively accepts a job working in a local cafeteria, her life becomes intertwined by two elder coworkers, including Jovic, an intelligent Croatian immigrant (Mila Ljubica) still trying to decide in which country she hopes to spend her remaining years, and Ruza (Mirjana Karanovic), the strict cafeteria owner who, like Ana, had twenty-five years earlier abandoned her native Yugoslavia when she was just twenty-two.

Initially resistant to Ana’s overtures of friendship, most likely because she reminds her of the homeland she’d prefer to forget, the indifferent Ruza experiences a change of heart as she starts to recognize the woman she once had been, most notably in a gorgeous metaphorical scene where she, much like Ana, begins to dance when surprised by an impromptu birthday celebration.

Although a solemn air hangs over Staka’s picture from the start especially considering the revelation of one particularly heartrending shock early on, Fraulein manages to challenge both a typical cross-generational female bonding structure as well as resist, much like the determined Ruza, any urge to journey into false nostalgia or fall in step with what very well could have been a tearjerker paradigm. However, this emphasis on authenticity throughout no doubt owes much to the care of first time feature director and award winning short Swiss filmmaker Andrea Staka, a former photographer and visual arts student, who drew from her own background as the daughter of two exiled Yugoslavian parents.

With remarkable performances that seem all the more riveting when one realizes that neither lead actress spoke German and instead had to learn their dialogue phonetically as explained by Jay Weissberg in Variety, this award winning foreign favorite which played as an Official Selection at both the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festival, has since been released to discerning film lovers via Film Movement’s prestigious DVD-of-the-month club.


P.S. I Love You

Richard LaGravenese

In the late 1990’s and most likely to compete with Gap’s aggressively cool “jump, jive, an’ wail” and “Kerouac wore khakis,” advertising campaign, Dockers launched their own line of commercials which featured handsome men on subways and street corners catching the eyes of flirtatious female passersby who replaced the tired wolf whistle with the sexy, succinct line, “Nice pants.” As my favorite creative writing professor jokingly told us, “If a woman told me I had nice pants, I would MARRY her.” Now admittedly, unlike my professor who was on—I believe-- wife number four at the time, I’m not one for marriage. However—and no pun intended-- if pressed, my “nice pants” weakness would be men who write letters. Sketches are flattering and songs entertain but creative men who pour their hearts out on paper with wit, passion, and ease are few and far between. Indeed, unfortunately, it seems as though they only exist in syrupy tearjerker novels, movies about death, or in foreign countries. In the latest outing from director Richard LaGravenese, he confirms this suspicion by mixing up a cocktail of all three as we have a film adaptation of Cecilia Ahern’s novel about death in which our male letter writer hails from Ireland.

Inaccurately billed, advertised and even critiqued as a traditional romantic comedy which raised enough eyebrows when one realized that Hilary Swank-- Oscar’s queen of doom and gloom-- was starring in something funny, P.S. I Love You crashed and burned at the box office, with audiences preferring to see Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman’s awkwardly characterized “feel-good” movie about death, The Bucket List. Think of this film as The Bucket List in reverse as it opens with Holly (Hilary Swank in as my dad described “Jennifer Garner mode”) and Gerry Kennedy (dishy Gerard Butler) returning home from a disastrous evening as they wait until they get to their apartment to argue to avoid making a scene.

Unfortunately, while the Kennedy’s neighbors are spared the scene, we watch the loud, chaotic confrontation escalate as the two begin with one issue, and predictably although authentically, proceed to use that as a springboard to attack each and every problem existing in their marriage. Faster than you can say, “show us, don’t tell us,” in a scene perhaps best suited for the stage as exposition literally comes spewing from the mouths of our talented leads making them grate on our nerves fairly quickly, we learn moments later that Gerry has died from a tragic illness, leaving his young, devoted wife reeling.

Cutting herself off from the world, Holly proceeds to grieve in her own way, avoiding hygiene and cleanliness, ignoring work, and instead sublimating her loss in fantasy as she imagines still speaking, holding and sleeping with Gerry as well as watching every woman’s weepie classic one can imagine starring Bette Davis and Judy Garland on her bedroom television. Things change on her thirtieth birthday, when Holly's mother Patricia (Kathy Bates) and two best friends (Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon) stage an intervention that nearly fails until a surprise letter arrives from the deceased Gerry who reveals that he has left Holly ten messages which will appear in mysterious ways over the course of one year.

Signing each letter with—you guessed it-- “P.S. I Love You,” Holly begins to come out of both her apartment and shell as Gerry's assignments challenge her to take part in everything from karaoke to a trip to Ireland where she meets Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Billy Gallagher, another sensitive and gorgeous lad who-- wouldn’t you know?-- was one of Gerry’s old mates.

Meanwhile, in New York, Harry Connick Jr.’s bartending Daniel hopes to become more to Holly than just a friendly shoulder to cry on, as Holly realizes that as much as she wants to move on, it’s hard to let go, especially when Gerry keeps reminding her of their love with each successive letter.

While Swank’s character never feels entirely authentic and too much back-story is crammed in awkwardly throughout the narrative, despite its contrivances and predictable plot points, P.S. I Love You isn’t quite the disaster that one would have expected going in. However with obvious parallels to The Notebook and Ghost, it’s important to note to prospective renters hoping for a romantic comedy that the film is much sadder and far more devastating than the lighthearted trailers would have one believe, which tests the patience of viewers considering its overly long running time of 126 minutes.

In addition and quite surprisingly for a chick flick that was originally penned in novel form by a woman, I was amazed by the fact that the most fascinating and rewarding characters in Love weren't predictably Holly or her friends but rather the men in their lives including Gerry, Billy and Daniel. But then again, it's easy to forgive the author's understandable indulgence; as I said before, men like these only exist in the movies… or maybe just in Ireland.

Son of Rambow

Director: Garth Jennings

Something tells me writer/director Garth Jennings won’t be asked to film an anti-piracy DVD public service announcement anytime soon.

Set in the early 1980’s, Jennings begins his whimsical ode to childhood daydreams and the magic of movies with a seemingly insignificant event as Sylvester’s Stallone’s violent classic Rambo: First Blood is released in the film’s sleepy English community movie theatre. While outside the theatre, religious protestors rail against the sinfulness of cinema, inside the grand building, middle school aged Lee Carter (Will Poulter) slumps down in his oversized red seat. Armed with his older brother’s video camera, the nonplussed Lee relaxes with a cigarette as he records the movie’s bloodbath blow-by-blow, apparently bored by both his act of piracy as well as the film’s body count. Shortly thereafter, the worlds of both the purported film-going sinners and the bible-thumping saints collide amusingly as troublemaking Lee gets kicked out of his class and meets up with the only other student relegated to the hallway, young Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner), booted from the room due to movies instead of misdeeds as his religion prevents him from watching even educational television.

After a mutual accident gets them in trouble, they bond quickly with Lee’s rebellion and escalating lies and Will learns how life is lived outside of his family’s religious order of "The Brethren," when he accompanies Lee after school to find him living largely unsupervised in the back part of the family’s retirement home business with absentee parents who spend most of their time abroad. When Lee’s bossy, self-obsessed older brother (Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick) orders Lee to finish his work pirating Rambo, Will gets his first taste of film which hits him like a shot of adrenaline straight to his heart as the young, artistically inclined, daydreaming boy begins seeing the world around him as an extension of Rambo’s, finding adventure around every corner.

Combining Will’s new thirst for violent excitement with Lee’s goal to win a young filmmaker’s competition sponsored by the BBC, the two boys set out to make their own sequel. While working on the project they title Son of Rambow because of a naïve misspelling, Lee and Will’s friendship is tested by both their duties to their family as well as their newfound popularity, when the two outsiders garner the attention of the impossibly cool, 80’s New Wave inspired French exchange student Didier (Jule Sitruk). Informing Will that he will deign to be the star of their film, Didier along with his adoring entourage of hangers-on and groupies pull rank and drive a wedge between the boys over the course of a long summer.

Now available in wide theatrical release, the former crowd favorite at the Sundance Film Festival before its Arizona premiere at The Phoenix Film Festival has garnered comparisons to everything from Wes Anderson’s thematically similar Rushmore to the 80’s hits of John Hughes due to its lackluster production values. However, it’s a positive and refreshing change of pace to the overwhelming summer “event” movies and one with a touch of E.T. styled childlike wonder and winning, heartfelt humor which surrounds its underdog leads.

Above all, the film is sure to strike a chord with those of us who, much like Lee and Will, recall their outsider status as young movie lovers in schools where coolness was currency and gossip-- not theatre tickets-- granted us admission to the popular cliques. While we may have sat on the sidelines with our heads filled with imaginative wonder, Son of Rambow celebrates the creativity of the childhood film lover who, much like this reviewer, still cherishes the optimistic daydreams of a youth filled with as many adventures and hopes as the ones that populated our local movie screens.