6/29/2008

Wanted




Director:
Timur Bekmambetov

I jumped on the Angelina Jolie bandwagon early—so mesmerized along with everyone else by her work in Girl Interrupted that I overlooked the questionable decisions and craziness that followed from making out with her brother at the Oscars, starring in Gone in 60 Seconds, wearing a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck, sleeping with knives, and even setting her sights on Jennifer Aniston’s husband. And frankly it’s because she’s just so cool, so talented, so gorgeous, and incredibly gifted that her remarkable body of work along with her humanitarian efforts and becoming the poster woman for celebrity adoption considerably tip the scales in her favor making her the idealized woman for countless men and the courageous no-holds-barred impulsive risk taker most women wish they could be... if on a much smaller level. Granted, it’s time for someone to at long last admit this and-- after watching Wanted which of course, followed the endlessly entertaining bullet strewn romantic comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the big screen version of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and others-- I think I’ll take the plunge and confess first that frankly, I’m a bit irrationally terrified of Angelina Jolie. To explain, if I was in a darkened alley or in a parking garage and I got the impression that Angelina Jolie was around, I think I’d either: a) drop into a fetal position and beg for my mother; b) despite hating The Wizard of Oz, click my heels and hope to magically reappear back home; c) have a heart attack right there on the spot; or d) be so worried that-- endlessly spoiling for a fight-- she’d just whip out weaponry that I’d hitch a ride with the nearest person I could find whether they were a five year old on a bike with training wheels or a sixty-five year old in a golf cart. Just like there was something about Cameron Diaz’s Mary that made men turn into stalkers by her romantic allure in the Farrelly Brothers comedy of the 90’s, there’s something about Jolie that makes me immediately concerned she’ll go rogue samurai with little prompting, making her domestic partner Brad Pitt not only climb in my respect for him as one of the very few men who are not only turned on by strong women but respectful enough to be with one, but also a private hero that he hasn’t hired a team of bodyguards whenever they have an argument over who drank the last of the milk. Since, let’s face it, if I was him and I’d accidentally finished Jolie’s crossword puzzle or forgotten to take out the trash, I think I’d be changing my name, dyeing my hair, and moving to Canada.

This being said, when it comes to the big screen adaptation of Mark Millar and J.G. Jones’ comic book Wanted directed by Russian helmer Timur Bekmambetov in his Hollywood debut, Jolie is the ultimate choice to play the aptly named Fox—being that of course, to use a phrase from the 70’s, she is a “stone cold fox” and as we all know, only the coolest characters in action movies are either named after animals or consist of one syllable.

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In a film I-- like other critics have dubbed Angelina Jolie’s version of her partner Brad Pitt’s Fight Club, shortly into the work and similar to Fincher’s white collar male angst classic, we meet a dissatisfied office worker in the form of Wesley Gibson (Atonement star James McAvoy). The fact that he has a full name immediately sets him apart from the rest as the film sets him up to be an average square like Norton’s Fight Club character except-- you know-- minus all of the homoeroticism. Recently given one of those bogus corporate America promotions of a title change from “service representative” to “account manager,” Wesley is a man who is so whipped that not only is he still best friends and cubicle buddies with the quintessential twentysomething slime ball who’s sleeping with his nagging live-in girlfriend but adding insult to injury, when the pig is short on cash, he actually pays to keep him in prophylactics and seems unwilling to end a relationship with the cheating, ungrateful woman that’s way past its expiration date.

Furthering his humiliating existence, he lets his overweight, monstrous boss send him into panic attacks which make him as regular at his pharmacy counter as Norm was at the bar in Cheers and it’s precisely in this location one night where he’s approached by Fox who tells him that the father who’d abandoned him shortly after his birth in all reality was one of the finest assassins who ever lived and died yesterday after being taken out by a traitor who, incidentally is standing right behind them. While normally this would send Wesley straight for his bottle of anxiety medication, the audience is fully prepared having seen the highly imaginative and unforgettable assassination just moments beforehand, and what’s more, before Wesley has time to react, Jolie is lugging him around like a box of tissues, rolling and ducking as she shoots her way with Wesley through the pharmacy, culminating in a furiously fast, audacious, and spectacular car chase sequence that will leave you breathless.



It’s about this time when no doubt most of the working press began mentally labeling the film a roller coaster or thrill ride and while I’ve never been one to follow suit or stoop to clichés, by this point in the film, filmmaker Bekmambetov has demanded either full suspension of disbelief from his audience to just sit back and shut up... or warning them that it’s going to be an awfully long two hours. For the purposes of an audience member and critic, I tried to stay with the stimulus in total submission for as long as I could, even as it grew far more incredibly ridiculous as we’re introduced to the thousand year old order of assassins called The Fraternity, led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and inhabited by other interchangeable toughs some of whose names have more than one syllable and are therefore less important than Fox or Sloan. Following orders given down to them by the Gods through—I kid you not—a “loom of fate” as codes are woven into the textiles created in their Chicago mill, The Fraternity make it their goal to restore order in the universe, killing anyone whose name pops up without question.

At first, like Neo in The Matrix (to which countless parallels will be drawn), Wesley resists the temptation to join with the motley crew, but then again, we realize he has a gift and Fox doesn’t make mistakes in recruiting crack shots—it was after all Wesley she chose at the store and not a hunting supply shopping Dick Cheney. Thus, ultimately Wesley takes the proverbial “red pill” and goes through highly excruciating training which largely consists of as Alexander DeLarge might say in A Clockwork Orange, “a little of the old ultraviolence” as his beautiful face is beaten to a bloody pulp prompting him not only never to break rule number one and talk about Angelina’s Fight Club but also to toughen him up. With the end result of enabling Wesley to use his own genetically gifted features and adrenaline charged self-discovered biofeedback to his benefit to see things clearer, slow things down, learn to bend bullets, heal faster, and undergo feats of superhuman strength in order to fully join the fraternity and seek bloody revenge on the traitor who killed his father, enough science is thrown out the window that Wanted may cause anyone with a background in quantum mechanics and string theory to go running for the movie theatre exits.

Still, we’re not in it for logic, we just want to see some action and the director delivers on that promise with some amazing spectacles but unlike the gorgeous action of say Kill Bill or the beauty of martial arts movies or the dazzling Hong Kong shoot 'em up action pictures that actually allow depth to filter in, basically Wanted is one that damn near causes eye strain. Overwhelmingly, it felt like we were watching a large collection of video games that had been left on by eager fanboys in a rush to flee their homes and line up to see Jolie’s violent foreplay-- ultimately making the headache inducing film seem like a dissatisfying gun tease with lots of on-the-surface action but little follow through with an age-appropriate emphasis on quantity over quality (there's a joke in there somewhere but I don't think I need to spell it out).

Although age is something that should definitely be taken into consideration with the film that—should there have been any MPAA justice or proof their ratings aren’t bought off—earns itself an NC-17 within the first half hour alone, yet it was just saddled with the seductive box office friendly R rating, allowing the right for a tragic amount of parents in my audience to legally have the trashy taste to bring young children under the age of ten to go see Hollywood’s latest orgy of blood. Hmm, maybe Jolie will be adopting them soon?

And while I don’t shy away from violence and love a good action film, holding James Cameron’s Terminator 2 up as one of the greatest of all time, in the end, Wanted was so ridiculously violent, so aggressively mindless (a loom, really?), and with a highly unrewarding finale that—without giving anything away—makes a few scenes from The Deer Hunter feel far fresher, that it’s ultimately a major let-down. It’s one you want to love so badly and in fact so many critics and fanboys have been obsessed with this picture for months they’re near candidates for a twelve step program that I think it’s going to be better received than it should have been when viewed through that subjective mirror, yet ultimately it’s not one I can quite recommend.

However, out of mortal fear—no actually sheer respect—I do want to say that nobody handles herself quite like the Oscar winning Ms. Jolie when it comes to outgunning the men and I was grateful that at least they let her feminine beauty shine through (she actually has a shootout in a white, lacy, feminine summer dress!), but she, like the Golden Globe nominated McAvoy and Oscar winning Freeman deserve something much, much better and especially so do the fanboys and girls.

Noise





Director: Matthew Saville

Although less claustrophobic than the insanity tinged genius of Aronofsky’s Pi and far more accessible to daring art-house audiences than that experimentally trippy classic, I was initially reminded of Aronofsky’s fascination with visual and aural experimentation within the first few brilliant moments of writer/director Matthew Saville’s Noise. With an overwhelming emphasis on auditory trickery, the film begins on confident cinematic footing with the audacity of launching right into the psychologically loud yet eerily quiet mayhem as-- typically lost in her headphones-- young McDonald’s employee Lavinia (Maia Thomas), boards an Australian train only to discover after a moment of nonchalantly getting lost in the post-work fatigue and rhythm of her music that all of the other passengers have been massacred by gunfire.

Following this shocking discovery, we’re introduced to a parallel story, also set at the train station as police officer Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell), who has privately suffered for quiet months with ringing in his ears, experiences a blackout while boarding an escalator at a stop down the line, only to awaken later at a hospital where he’s diagnosed with tinnitus and learns he may eventually lose his hearing.

The two stories link up quickly as McGahan’s medical note is ridiculed by his bullying hyper-masculine superiors and he’s assigned night duty, babysitting a caravan at a crime scene adjacent to not only the train but also the mysterious death of a local woman in the community. These two tragic occurrences sound an alarm in their sleepy, suburban community that they may be somehow related as the justifiably frightened sole witness Lavinia tries to grapple with what had happened the night she boarded the train and McGahan must deal with random locals who visit him to complain, jeer, fight, gossip, slander, fill with misinformation, and genuinely make his shift all the more complicated.

With a phenomenally gripping beginning that braces audiences for a typical police procedural thriller, Saville ignores the limitations of the genre and like a magician from the school of experimental Aronofsky, uses sound in peculiar ways throughout, heightening the tension. Ultimately Noise’s narrative approach is less a traditional whodunit as a character driven, moodily atmospheric piece where eccentric locals abound and things are never as they appear in the spirit of John Sayles where the setting is both a clue and a character and it will undoubtedly play differently to audiences who live in other countries who—although admittedly entranced by its spell—may not fully understand the nuances that helped earn the film a remarkable twelve awards in its native Australia.

While the awards aren’t hard to imagine given the high quality of the film, this is especially apparent in the pitch perfect performances of both Brendan Cowell as he tries to resign himself to living with his disability and fight the wedge it threatens to divide in his relationship and work as well as young Maia Thomas’s emotionally wrought Lavinia, whom we learn in well placed flashbacks, may actually know more than she initially wanted to share for fear of her life from simply being in the wrong place at most decidedly the wrong time.

Although Noise will infuriate those hoping for a strict cop paradigm who will grow weary with the film’s continuous exercises in sound manipulation in creating an unforgettable dramatic effect and the end of the film is maddeningly vague-- inspiring viewer discussion long into the night-- perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the entire impressive film is that it only marks the second filmmaking and first feature length effort from its gifted and imaginative helmer Matthew Saville.

Exclusively available through Film Movement, Saville’s Noise is one sure to cause lots of conversational noise once you hit eject, however filmmaking students will want to hijack the disc, in order to study that opening, experimentally bravura sequence of tone establishment many times over, discovering what happens when all the post-production elemental tricks work together in nearly symphonic unison at the highest level to engage the audience.

6/27/2008

Introducing Labels, Links, Widgets & More

Now that we've nearly reached Post Number 750, the time has come to begin organizing everything in greater detail. As a Type A former library assistant, this is something I probably should've gotten started on much earlier but it's always challenging to balance work, school and a social life-- let's face it-- three things which will always win out over quality time with the PC.

Still, now looking over everything, I'm eager to begin making Film Intuition far easier to navigate so soon you'll be able to jump directly from one film review to another to discover a movie I referenced or explore a much wider range of labels to locate every "Foreign Film" I've written about (which will be further broken down by country) or even every film featuring your favorite celebrity.

Considering all of your valuable feedback and learning as I go since admittedly I'm so technologically behind that it takes me 10 minutes to send a text message (note to friends-- just call me instead!), I've begun this lengthy process today so I hope you will bear with me as I continue working to bring you a much more user and film buff friendly site where you'll never need to ask for directions to find exactly the type of film information for which you're looking. Be forewarned, though-- with this amount of data-- it may be weeks to get all of the links and labels set up!

Also new to the site is a Bookmark/Share/Add This widget on the upper right hand side so you can feel free to make a bookmark, save something, let a friend know about any of the reviews featured on any page or-- if you're one of the trendy "social networking site" members-- take advantage of an easier interface that hooks right into your pages.

Again, as always, I appreciate the loyalty-- thanks for your support as I'm constantly amazed by a genuinely global readership, not to mention continuing to climb in IMDb's critical rankings, opposite the tried and true "established press." It's more than a freelance film buff could have hoped for in a million years and I promise to continue improving the site to bring you an increasingly awesome experience. You're truly inspiring me to grow as a writer every day so thank you.

- Jen

6/26/2008

Gunnin' for That #1 Spot




Director:
Adam Yauch

To misquote a memorable lyric from Beastie Boy turned filmmaker Adam Yauch, when it comes to dribbling towards NBA glory, eight of the twenty-four high schoolers prominently featured in his latest doc Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, take it to the hoop because they can’t, they won’t and they don’t stop until they come to Rucker Park and rock the sure shot. Think of it as a cinematically trip/hip-hop infused journey (stylistically influenced by both music videos and Requiem for a Dream like repetition) that takes a Mad Hot Ballroom, Wordplay, or Spellbound like narrative documentary approach. In Gunnin', Yauch acquaints us with eight very different, versatile, and amazingly athletically gifted players from across the 50 states who—regardless of age, creed, color, background, connections, or income level—are invited on sheer talent alone to play in the now legendary Elite 24 Hoops Classic.

The three day event which culminates on Game Day (9/1/06) at Harlem’s Rucker Park is known throughout the land by those "who've got game" as the “Mecca” of street basketball and its location has resonated for sixty years like no other state-of-the-art arena in the world, according to interviewees who explain that it’s the same park that makes or breaks dreams, launches careers, introduces kids to those with connections, offers them memorable street cred in the form of often hilarious nicknames by the MC/Narrator Robert Garcia, and perhaps most importantly helped cement the court to greatness taken by Dr. J, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain.

While the odds are against the young men with shrinking statistics regarding the numbers of high school students who make it into division one or two universities and colleges let alone the NBA, throughout the U.S., the teens in Yauch’s film do what they can to separate from the pack to level the odds and climb upwards in the questionably political and ever-changing online rankings those in the film say may be dubiously crafted by men who look like they’ve never shot a ball in their life. However, with little complaint, the students go through the craziness it all brings and find it's more than worth it, especially when offered the ultimate reward of an opportunity to don a white or blue team jersey annually at Rucker's Hoops Classic.

Yauch fills Gunnin' with blaring hip-hop and rap tracks that—while distracting to the mainstream viewer—seem to be an ideal match for the hyper editing and subject matter. Nonetheless, when Gunnin' slows down from its frenetic and sometimes overly hip pace (reminding us of players who showboat a bit too often on the NBA court), you’ll find yourselves genuinely drawn in by the individual stories of the various athletes.

Although the three rival shoe companies of Reebok, Adidas, and Nike along with trainers, recruiters, financial advisors and coaches begin scouting students as young as elementary or middle school, the recurring theme running throughout each boy’s story is their love of the game, loyalty to the tireless family and friends who support them, and dedication to be the best they can be on the court. While some have experienced tragedies in their young lives losing one or both parents and/or being raised by either single parent households or grandparents, every student we encounter has an unflappable support system rooting for their player-- thus their confidence is infectious.

Taking great pains to humanize the players in refreshing ways other than just offering us statistics we would normally see on ESPN or the way they’re coolly ranked online or in the professional world, Yauch brings viewers into the lives of eight as one player dubbed the “future of point guards” admirably takes his position as role model for an adoring younger brother seriously, another promises to take care of his younger sibling if he makes it to the professional level, one embraces yoga to stay in peak condition, another plays several sports including holding the position of starting quarter back the prior year and one enjoys goofing off making Blair Witch like spoofs with his video camera. However, the most surprising revelation is repeated throughout as several share that they knew they were in love with the game when they first held that round orange ball in their hands whether they were three years old or in first grade managing to outscore their older brother and his friends and in the end, that's what we see beyond the numbers, magazine covers and hype-- just a great group of guys eager to play ball.

Intriguingly, it does raise some valuable questions about the morality and legitimacy of putting such enormous pressure on young men when they’re just getting out of elementary school as one laments that he’s been unable to get his cell phone company to turn off text messaging since he’s constantly bombarded by scouts, agents and others. In fact, it's an underlying issue which permeates just underneath the hip hop editing that makes us wish the topic would have been explored further, however admittedly it's so vast that it would probably fill an entire second documentary.

An official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival, Gunnin' earned a great rave review from Cinematical critic Scott Weinberg who called it “easily the best movie of its kind since Steve James’ Hoop Dreams." While I think that's overstating it slightly as Ward Serrill’s underrated Heart of the Game should hold that title, as Gunnin' stands, it’s a far better basketball picture than one would assume, refreshingly intimate despite its overtly masculine, testosterone-fueled bravado. Additionally it’s one that—despite being essentially a sport themed niche-picture—will manage to interest a larger audience should they take the time to seek it out.

Or in other words-- filmmaker Adam Yauch couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t stop as Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot came and rocked the sure shot.


6/24/2008

Get Smart


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Get Smart



Director: Peter Segal

When the first Get Smart poster hit the multiplex, it looked like Nick at Nite by way of Neutrogena with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous glamour shot of Anne Hathaway given a perfect salon blowout coupled with flawlessly air-brushed skin all but drowning out her film’s costar and lead actor, Steve Carell. Needless to say, this image went off like a fanboy bat signal in cyberspace signaling panic in those who cherished the clever humor and inventive James Bond inspired 1960’s television spoof created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and immediately cried foul, bracing themselves for the worst as they nervously anticipated every new detail of the big screen version of Smart. The poster and reaction reminded me of the quintessential cinematically captured moment of advertising letdown in Cameron Crowe’s great Almost Famous wherein lead singer Jason Lee discovers that his band-mate, the impossibly pretty “Golden God” Billy Crudup has been featured in the foreground of the tour t-shirts, relegating Lee-- much like Smart’s Steve Carell-- as decorative background or as Almost’s Lee quipped, to his position as "just one of the out of focus guys.”

Granted, it seemed like an odd marketing strategy indeed in hoping to lure in ticket buyers to a comedy with a built in Baby Boomer and Generation X audience with Generation Y sex appeal and seemed like it would've been as out of place as if the poster for Charlie’s Angels had only featured Bill Murray’s face or Will Ferrell had been the only one on the DVD box for Bewitched, yet honestly, after seeing what the filmmakers did with the update of the classic series Get Smart, they may have made the right choice, given the fact that in a quiet, unintentional way, the twenty-five year old Anne Hathaway manages to steal the entire movie from her forty-five year old veteran comedic costar. And while her character’s Agent 99 was always the loyal, brainy, loving woman tirelessly “standing by her Max" in the original series, given Carell’s terrific talent and excellent source material, it really shouldn’t have been this way.

As a stark contrast to the suave, highly unbelievable James Bond, part of the show’s charm and in fact-- no doubt its very inception-- was to have a bumbling, klutzy secret agent who can never manage to work his high tech equipment including the running gags of the cone-of-silence and shoe-phones supplied for him in his work within the American spy agency Control. Yet in the update, Maxwell Smart a.k.a. Agent 86 (Carell) has been inexcusably transformed into a formerly obese and still emotionally scarred highly valuable pencil pusher, who-- as his chief and fellow Little Miss Sunshine costar Alan Arkin explains-- is Control’s best analyst with raw human data, deciphering a counter-agent’s productivity based on the number of carbs they eat or if they’ve spent the past few nights in marital discord sleeping on the couch.

The updated version of Max is still as accident prone as ever but now his eccentricities are dismissed as minor negatives overshadowed by the ultimate positive that he’s a man so good at his job in crafting reports that the chief can’t bear to think of promoting him to field agent. As a Get Smart purist, this is unacceptable on so many levels, but more than that, it literally destroys the film’s main source of comedy. And when the cone-of- silence, shoe phone gags or his memorable “Would you believe?” lines are inserted, they feel like they’re puzzle pieces that have been forced into weird alignment by over-eager children at a birthday party waiting for cake or worse, like they've been tossing those of us who enjoyed the show a few retro bones to play fetch with on a Nick at Nite styled scavenger hunt whereby the end of the running time, our checklist is mostly blank and what's more, all the cake has been eaten.

I’m all for reinvention and re-imagination rather than forgoing creativity for stale reproduction, but by not offering us anything intriguing about Max, it’s easy to get distracted by the supporting players including a hilarious, under-used, tongue-in-cheek Dwayne Johnson as the ultra hot Agent 23 who nonetheless manages to walk into a wall when checking out a perky receptionist but especially, the pitch perfect Hathaway as the film’s saving grace of 99—the gifted field agent grudgingly assigned to working alongside Max after Control is attacked by KAOS madmen led by a Beethoven obsessed Terence Stamp.

Perhaps predicting the audience’s discomfort in the twenty year age difference between the stars, the screenwriters work out a plastic surgery excuse to explain that they’re chronologically closer than one would think. However, it’s a wasted reason as once the two are together, the chemistry just clicks into high energy flirtation and fascination where age is a forgotten number allowing each one a chance to step back and let the other one shine, although in the case of Smart, diplomatically it seems like it’s Hathaway who’s trying to underplay and make her partner funnier but try as he might, Carell just isn’t given the benefit of quality material, making 99 the one for whom we’re continually rooting.

As an escape from the over-abundance of superhero films slated for release this summer and a surprising lack of good family comedies, no doubt Get Smart will reach its targeted generations of built in fans plus kids and grandkids and as it stands on its own, it’s passable but not worthy of a recommendation for those who know and love the show. Although the best result would be if it inspired unfamiliar audience members to track down old episodes of the series. Therefore, even if it took a manipulative air-brushed, magazine quality poster to get them to do that, then kudos to the publicity department at Warner Brothers for helping people learn how hip it is to Get Smart.


Fool's Gold




Director:
Andy Tennant

In trying to explain the dubious popularity of Jerry Springer in the late 1990’s, a professor memorably decided that to viewers, watching the show was the ultimate form of catharsis in however bad they had it, at least they weren’t in the shoes of guests who had so many partners they didn’t know who fathered their child, had gambled away tens of thousands of dollars in welfare money, realized they were just one of several families their spouse had set up across the country, or were married to someone who used to be of an entirely different gender. I’m not sure if Professor Murphy was right but I liked her theory and there’s something to be said about our instinctive inclination to stare deeply at whatever shocks us which explains why people get into car accidents while distracted by watching a different car accident and those who roll their eyes disapprovingly at paparazzi magazines and then begin flipping through the pages anyway while in line at the grocery store, or after taking a bite of questionably funky potato salad, turn to a friend and say, “Dude this is the worst-- try this.” The sad thing is, most of us do, without even thinking about the internal gag reflex or the warning we just encountered, either for the aforementioned catharsis of “at least I didn’t make that salad” or the belief that something really can’t be as bad as everyone says it is and the same is often true of movies.

While I’m definitely taking everyone’s word for it that dental torture is preferable than sitting through The Love Guru and you couldn’t pay me any amount of money to see the crass, racially offensive Eddie Murphy comedies that have been released in the past few years, in the same turn-- like Pauline Kael who raved about the joys of trash-- I’m actually one of those people who in her heart truly tries to give others the benefit of the doubt. This is especially true if I like some of the involved personalities’ other work which is why-- having dug J. Lo in Out of Sight-- I actually added Gigli to my Netflix queue despite the Razzies and while it was indeed awful, perhaps the most embarrassing part of the entire experience was that it was one of the only times a Netflix film was ever lost in the mail so I had to report to the center that sadly, I needed them to send me another Gigli. I imagine I’m on a wall of shame somewhere and needless to say, there were no investigations over whether or not I was dishonest and secretly hording Gigli DVDs even to prevent subjecting others to the horrors of bad comedy.

And then this year, when it came to Fool’s Gold, the critics darn near wore out their keyboards trashing the cinematic reunion of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey after their box office hit How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which despite its predictability and the fact that I’ve possibly lost all cinematic credibility, genuinely made me laugh enough to be curious about Gold.

This being said, I’ve often felt that men and women view films differently and none more so than romantic works. Whether straight or gay-- we’re turned on differently, turned off differently and as all daters know, definitely have our own timeline for everything and such is the case for romantic comedies or the oft-cited “chick flicks.” By the way: a note to you men out there-- as a label, “chick flick” is about as appealing as the various nicknames for our “time of the month” and if it's a phrase you insert into conversation frequently, it will definitely set you back a few places in (ahem) succeeding in your goal-oriented dating timeline.

When it comes to the rom-com genre and chick flicks in general, I listen to the largely male dominated industry out of intellectual respect, especially those with whom I share much in common or highly regard, but end up deciding to make up my own mind which is why, overlooking its many flaws I’m one of the only critics who enjoyed Baby Mama; who felt that while it was weak Made of Honor was better than the male preferred What Happens in Vegas; and although I probably would only recommend it as acceptable airline entertainment honestly didn’t think 27 Dresses was quite the end of civilization as we know it that my male contemporaries did. Although, this being said, while it’s definitely watchable if channel flipping, I find Pretty Woman incredibly unromantic so much that I roll my eyes at men who assume we all obsess about it and felt that the Sex and the City movie paled in comparison to the series-- so in the end, to each their own.

However, when it comes to the case of Fool’s Gold, it was so hammered that I guiltily sneaked into the video store like an embarrassed shopper, thinking they should perhaps rent the disc in a brown paper wrapper or behind the pharmacy counter and indeed, at my local store, there was a sign indicating that you had to ask for the film at the front desk, which made the experience feel just about as classy as Netflix’s missing Gigli.

Although I could take or leave Matthew McConaughey and frankly prefer his near look-alike Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama, Glory Road), I’ve been a fan of Hudson’s since she made us laugh and cry all in the same sentence realizing she’d been lost in a poker game in Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece Almost Famous and after a week of studying the Renaissance in grad school and watching too many depressing epics, felt like a brainless comedy was exactly what I needed. However, we get what we wish for and I couldn’t have found anything more brainless than Fool’s Gold—a film so bad that by this point it’s almost a cliché to ridicule it which is why I took a narrative approach to this review.

Except in the chosen few titles like The Princess Bride or Romancing the Stone, the hybrid of romantic comedy adventure seldom works but I held out hope after a truly memorable opening finds treasure hunter Finn (McConaughey) and his partner’s boat exploding in a fiery burst while they're underwater hunting for any clues in a few hundred year old mystery that will lead them to the whereabouts of the legendary Queen’s Dowry which was lost in a hurricane following the marriage of King Phillip of Spain. The exploding boat would be enough of a bad omen to give even those most resistant of superstition pause but Finn manages to outrun the men (including Cosby Show’s Malcolm Jamal Warner) who want to kill him and his debt of sixty two thousand dollars to try and convince his newly divorced wife Tess (Hudson) to go off on another adventure to search for the gold, conveniently of course setting them back on the path to reconciliation along the way.

Although they make a terrific bantering team, despite having a truly weak script that offers them zero of the opportunities which made their earlier movie together much more memorable, Hudson and McConaughey just feel as unconvincing, bland, and predictable as the overwhelming sun which finds the male star—at this point most likely contractually obligated—to remove his shirt with little prompting throughout the course of the entire movie. (Let's just say, I had to dig long and hard to find a publicity photo of the two above wherein McC was actually wearing clothes since to misquote Mamet, by now, "we can draw his chest from memory" whether we want to or not.)

Overcrowding the story with far too many details and less than stellar characters including an inexplicably wasted Donald Sutherland as Tess’s wealthy employer and his pointless, young bimbo daughter Gemma (Alexis Dziena) both of whom seem to be used-- unfortunately like the African-American cast members-- to try and reach every demographic without respecting any reasonable audience member’s intelligence, Gold becomes so disastrous, one begins to wish for the discussed hurricane to come and bury the script, freeing up the actors so that they can move onto other projects that are hopefully better than this one.

And although I’m as guilty as the stars for taking any part in the film’s success by renting it, perhaps its reason for being was exactly that—that when handed the script, Hudson and company couldn’t believe that anything could truly be that bad. Unless instead of the script, they were first delivered their paychecks; for as we all know, gold can make a fool of anybody... just ask Jerry Springer.

The Air I Breathe





Director:
Jieho Lee

Since the inspiration for director Jieho Lee’s feature film debut The Air I Breathe derived from the Chinese proverb categorizing the four pillars of life into (as IMDb notes) the “emotional cornerstones” of happiness, pleasure, sorrow and love, it seemed only fitting that his work reminded me of another ancient Chinese proverb dictating that if you save’s another person’s life, you are responsible for it.

Formatted into four distinct vignettes that-- in true Altman and P.T. Anderson fashion-- overlap in surprising ways throughout the course of the picture, Lee’s usage of his four primary emotions that are even echoed by some characters which share the same names, are constantly evolving. While each twenty to thirty minute segment is introduced with the corresponding emotion, basically it seems as inconsequential as a name-card at a crowded wedding reception where people table hop at will, as ultimately in the hands of Lee and co-writer Bob De Rosa, they merge into one super emotion that isn’t quite "sorrowfully-happy-pleasure-filled-love" but—perhaps truer to life—one that seems to better fit our frequent transient states in the human experience as we go about our days surprised by several emotional ups and downs. Although of course, filmmaker Lee ratchets his character’s plots to overwhelming dramatic heights where lives are either cut short or given a second chance and the destiny of those involved in these decisions are thus forever entwined, holding all individuals accountable for each twist of fate or rash decision. And if it sounds incredibly ambitious, it is and it’s not always successful but one has to give Lee points for walking his talk.

Despite a clunky start that fails to separate Lee’s film from the rest of the trendy pack of independent vignette works using any random connective tissue to overlap the lives of a seemingly diverse population of film characters as we’re introduced to a predictably pulpy noir inspired beginning which finds hardworking bank employee Happiness (Forest Whitaker) making a perilous bet on a horse race, we’re snapped to attention with a genuinely engrossing second storyline. In Pleasure, we encounter the emotion’s ironically corresponding namesake played by Brendan Fraser as the loyal, right-hand man of gangster "Fingers "(Andy Garcia), who according to the movie, earned the nickname because all he has to do is snap his terrifying fingers and Fraser’s Pleasure will strong-arm anyone at will.

What separates Pleasure from what ordinarily would be a typical noir cliché is his character’s peculiar ability to see the future, or-- even more frighteningly-- the ultimate destiny and death of those whom he encounters which makes him the handiest man to have on your side in a fight as he babysits Fingers’ immature, pig nephew Tony (Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch). Soon he finds his gift at risk when he sees a poster of Trista (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a gorgeous singer to whom he’s attracted and realizes that not only can he not see into the beguiling young woman’s future but also feels a strange pull towards Trista, wondering if perhaps she is his own destiny. Fraser's character is so fascinating that I half-wished the film's entire four handed bridge game of Chinese proverbs would have been abandoned for a classic narration of Pleasure’s penchant for psychic premonition and the problems that are undoubtedly tied up within the questionable gift but Lee proved he wanted to explore several ambitious ideas with his first crack at direction.

Pleasure's instinct that Trista is his future proves to be an accurate assumption as Trista (who doubles as Sorrow in the film) finds herself bartered by her sleazy manager who trades her contract to Fingers in order to make good on an astronomical debt. Longing to escape the intimidation of Fingers who wants to milk his newest employee for all she’s worth like the cattle he considers her, Trista falls under both the protection and spell of Pleasure, embarking on a dangerous romance before her journey eventually leads to a fourth unevenly tacked-on segment involving crusading doctor Kevin Bacon who struggles to save the life of his married college sweetheart Julie Delpy at all costs.

Unfortunately, the film’s final act doesn’t quite fit the noir mold that Lee perpetuated with the nearly monochromatic color scheme and brooding tone for more than the film’s first hour and does slightly pull one out of its darkly seductive allure as a modern day homage to classic German expressionist influenced American noir works of the 1940’s, largely because the majority of the finale is filmed in predominant sunlight. And, given the genre, in the harsh light of day, Air's flaws along with its ability to cloak its shortcomings in noir style become glaring to the viewer.

However, it’s still a highly compelling film where earlier actions build on one another in unexpected ways and also one where-- more than just using the four emotions as a convenient structural device-- responsibility and accountability comes into play with the lives that are spared, making it a worthwhile proverbial Chinese puzzle to be solved for movie lovers who are game for viewing something out of the ordinary on DVD.


Rent It!
Netflix, Inc.

My Mom's New Boyfriend

Alternate Title:
Homeland Security
Director:
George Gallo


The fact that the talented and charming writer/director George Gallo is behind this overwhelming mess of a film is mind boggling to me. Just last year, he impressed Arizona theatre chain owner Dan Harkins enough to grant Gallo Scottsdale, Arizona’s biggest art-house screen where he routinely packed in audience members for his self-financed, genuinely touching, semi-autobiographical and refreshingly nostalgic Local Color, which had nary a trace of cynicism. It’s a film incidentally one still can’t track down in a theatre or a video store nearly a year later; instead our local video chains were just filled with Gallo's direct-to-disc clunker usurped by the star power of Meg Ryan and Antonio Banderas entitled My Mom’s New Boyfriend. In need of a mindless laugh, it looked like harmless Sunday night fare and although it began to reek of disaster in the opening minutes as we encountered Meg Ryan in a fat suit falling down on a front lawn-- tired from the dog days of blistering 115 degree Phoenix heat-- I left it in my disc player and was utterly shocked that instead of a frat pack comedy director’s name ending up in the final credits, I was faced with none other than the name George Gallo.

Yes, he’s the same man who crafted the disastrous Trapped in Paradise which, despite possibly only causing one or two genuine laughs, earned back one single, valuable credibility point for a terrifically ingenious premise of crooks stuck in a Capraesque town after committing a robbery with no hope of escape, but Midnight Run is one of my favorite buddy action movies of the 80’s. “The Duke.” “Moscone Bail Bonds.” “Marvin!” Not to mention Joe Pants, Dennis Farina plus a wonderful gag involving sunglasses and filled with great one-liners, more f-bombs than one could count and dare-I-say a surprisingly sexy, mischievous young Robert DeNiro who became infinitely funnier by association with Charles Grodin as they all meshed together to make a terrific overlooked gem that my brother and I watched far too many times than we should probably admit in our childhood.

But when we fall, we fall hard and it’s a cruel twist of Hollywood fate that junk like Boyfriend gets a major release because of the name stars and something as heartwarming as Local Color is left in the dust—flipsides of the same coin that is George Gallo and proof of his range and the fact that, when he damn well wants, he can make one amazingly moving film, and when he’s not as motivated or overdue for a quick paycheck, he can phone it in just as easily. And hey, given our questionable economic climate and the fact that these stimulus checks barely cover a few tanks of gas, there’s no moral judgment on Gallo, but I do wish that at least half the amount of people taking home Boyfriend would’ve been able to at least view Color.

Similar to the action comedy Midnight Run Gallo penned which I grew up with, DVDTown writer James Plath noted that Gallo too called on the comedic capers and romantic action films of his own youth by creating an uneven hybrid of The Pink Panther and To Catch a Thief for My Mom’s New Boyfriend. Instead of packing her son up for college, as the film opens the overweight (cue the questionably tasteless fat suit), perpetually junk food eating, soda drinking and cigarette smoking clingy mother Martha Durand (Meg Ryan) bids her ambitious, devoted son Henry (Tom’s son Colin Hanks) farewell for his new, top secret work with the F.B.I. Having lost a husband who’d perished in jail—our first clue that ol’ Martha likes herself a bad boy—she’s devastated to lose her surrogate “man,” but even more shocked when she’s mistaken for a bum by a passerby so, urged to change her ways and make a second start, she makes a fortune in stocks, slims down to a sexy model stature from her two-hundred fifty plus pound size, buys herself some silicone implants, and renames herself Marty.

Ditching her old frumpy Martha persona, the choice of a masculine name for our leading lady isn’t lost on astute viewers as Henry returns three years later to discover his mom is acting like a twentysomething frat-boy gone wild-- bed and motorcycle hopping at will, with an Italian chef serenading her nightly on her front lawn to dating a boy who drinks milk straight from the carton and leaves Marty’s place just in time to make it to his finals. This isn’t quite as amusing as it sounds as Ryan’s Marty is less a Desperate Housewives styled cougar and more like an over-the-hill desperate club girl—the type who never turns down a drink and is the first on the dance floor whether or not music is playing. Ryan deserves better than this-- to have us laughing with her discovery of her new sexual liberty rather than at her newfound uninspired horniness.

Predictably, Henry's alarmed to discover this new version of Marty as basically a one-dimensional Cosmopolitan Magazine cover come to life and it throws their relationship completely out of whack when not only Henry introduces his mom to his F.B.I. psychological profiling colleague fiancé Emily (Selma Blair) but soon after, Marty meets cute with an ultimate bad-boy in the form of mysterious, probable international art thief Tommy (Antonio Banderas). For simply the sake of the preposterous plot instead of any actual logic, Henry is assigned the task of staking out his mother without her knowledge, bugging her home and keeping tabs on her new love.

Predictably the “ick” factor is incorporated rather quickly when Marty and Tommy take their relationship from the streets to the sheets in a scene that has not only ruined the children’s nursery rhyme “Itsy Bitsy Spider” for me for all of eternity but also seemed particularly creepy when one realizes the fact that Ryan was so well-matched romantically with Colin’s father Tom Hanks in movies of the past that in an alternate bizarro universe of “movie characters,” she darn near seems like she could possibly be his mother, had Ryan and Hanks ever taken their “happily ever after” off the screen and into real life following their monumental celluloid successes.

While on paper, I admire Gallo’s truly original idea and the desire to bring back the old caper comedies of the past like How to Steal a Million, Charade and his other two aforementioned beloved works and the actors all put a great deal of energy into selling this obviously rushed and slapped together B movie, the final act is so ludicrous that it defies all not only law enforcement logic but movie plot logic when—without any hinting—a convenient plot device just falls out of the sky and everything is patched together in a warped deus ex machine that Gallo would never have gotten away with in any Introduction to Screenwriting classroom worth not just the cost of tuition but the cost of a pen.

And although normally I would never be this harsh on a mindless trifle, I have immense respect for what Gallo is capable of in not just the highly entertaining “caper comedy” he penned in my youth but also the lovely Local Color. Thus, I wish that he’d spent more time viewing the films from his childhood to keep their spirit alive to hopefully-- speaking as a girl who felt the same way about Midnight Run that he felt about Pink Panther-- possibly engage another kid to create a quality caper comedy when they turn to filmmaking as well. And who knows? Perhaps next time fat suits won’t even enter the equation.

Mortgage Blues? How About Superhero News You Can Use?

Right now with mortgage horrors, devastating floods, and economic uncertainty featured prominently on the evening news, who doesn't need a boost?On behalf of their upcoming superhero film Hancock, Columbia Pictures has launched a contest to offer one deserving Grand Prize Winner a Mortgage Pay Off. Here are the details:

Columbia Pictures will pay off the mortgage debt of one deserving family, with a grand prize worth up to $360,000. To enter and find the official contest rules, log on to www.Hancockmovie.com. Entrants must write a 200 word essay explaining why they are deserving of the grand prize. The program begins immediately and runs through July 6.

Good luck to everyone and remember, Hancock opens nationwide on July 2.

6/20/2008

Remembering Cyd Charisse...

This week, we lost a legend when the amazingly versatile, witty, and gorgeous Cyd Charisse passed away. Always labeled as having "legs a mile long," despite being deceptively shorter than one would assume, she was the ultimate icon for tall women with the courage we only wished we had and the grace that only the chosen, gifted few like Charisse posessed in spades, whether it was bending Fred Astaire to her will in The Band Wagon (above) or tantalizing Gene Kelly so that he didn't know what hit him in the film that launched her, Singin' in the Rain (below). Whatever it was-- Ms. Charisse definitely had "it"-- that quality that makes or breaks a performer in solidifying their place as one of Hollywood's brightest stars. While she will greatly be missed, as not only a film buff but one with a definite weakness for musicals, the only way I could see fit to pay tribute to Ms. Charisse was by posting two clips from the aforementioned films to highlight her tremendous talent. I think you'll agree that they haven't lost their ability to awe more than fifty years later. Click here to view the Film Intuition Video Clips on our Home Page this week and also be sure to browse the rest of the site for updated reviews, trailers, clips, and a fun new video of the week on Jen's P.O.V. page certain to put a smile on your face, courtesy of director Spike Jonze.

6/19/2008

Mongol




Director: Sergei Bodrov

If one were to conduct a public opinion poll on Genghis Kahn today, chances are the most frequent descriptions of the man would consist of terrifying leader, murderer, pillager and barbarian. Yet, after viewing Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, the first work of a planned trilogy about the controversial leader born with the name Temudgin, my initial reaction was that perhaps all Kahn needed was a good public relations team to turn worldwide frowns upside down. In showing us the softer side of Kahn as a predominant lover who occasionally fights rather than a horrifying fighter who sometimes loves, one encounters a Kahn who wouldn’t be out of place as the lead hero in Gladiator or Braveheart, and even far more surprisingly, incidentally a man one wouldn’t hesitate to bring home to mom.

Kazakhstan’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2008 Academy Awards where it made the international cut to become one of five prestigious nominees, Bodrov’s film has drawn countless parallels to old fashioned epics with its grandiose scope and wonderful usage of a vast, overwhelming landscape (painstakingly accurate in its cinematography of Kahn’s old stomping grounds in the countries of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan). While one is instantly aware of the influences of Ridley Scott especially in some of the expressionistic, alternatively fast and slow motion new aged battle scenes wherein the audience is shown the action from the point-of-view of weaponry as though we’re complicit in the attack, I was also struck by Bodrov’s homage to other foreign masters including Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s work with Toshiro Mifune and especially fellow Russian director Sergei Eisenstien’s much imitated classic Alexander Nevsky.

While admittedly I’m probably the ideal viewer of Mongol with relatively zero knowledge about Genghis Kahn other than his oft-cited reign of terror and it’s obvious that liberties were taken with the facts for the benefit of the cinematic narrative, Bodrov’s aim is undoubtedly true in capturing the spirit of his source material, which is not only based on “leading scholarly accounts” according to the press release but as cited in a Wikipedia referenced interview, was additionally inspired from an ancient Chinese poem which chronicled-- similar to Mongol-- Kahn’s upbringing and marriage.

Opening in the Tangut Kingdom in 1192’s Year of the Black Rat, the nine year old Kahn, then named Temudgin (played by the charismatic young Odnyam Odsuren) accompanies his father to visit the Merkits with the intention of choosing a bride. Immediately thunderstruck by Borte, a bold ten year old girl who initially chides her new acquaintance with the adage that all “smart people choose us for brides,” later, liking his face and similarly in-tune with the lad, she adds the fortuitous afterthought, “you should choose me.” Ignoring his father’s advice to ensure he find a wife with the right description of facial features and one with what his dad repeatedly states has strong legs to keep a man happiest, Temudgin settles on Borte with the intention to marry her in five years. However, his future becomes dangerously uncertain after the death of his father finds him fighting to stay alive verses his people’s arch enemy Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov) who is not only hell bent on taking over as Kahn but promises that-- while he won’t break Mongol tradition and murder a child-- as soon as Temudgin comes of age, he will kill the rightful heir to the leadership.

With plenty of perilous adventures, near misses, abductions and escapes, Temudgin grows into the beginning of the quick thinking legend he would become as—and now played by the impressive Japanese star of Zatoichi, Tadanobu Asano—he finds he can finally marry his equally rebellious tomboy beloved Borte (likable newcomer Khulan Chuluun). However, unfortunately for the newlyweds, their relationship is continually tried with repeated captures and obstacles, none greater than Temudgin’s battles with his blood brother turned rival Jamukha (Road Home star and Mongol scene-stealer Hanglei Sun).

Although the film stumbles considerably in its second half with plodding pacing and a lack of the same take-no-prisoners emotional investment it slayed us with in its first opening sequences, Bodrov more than redeems himself with his expertly staged Eisenstein inspired battle sequences and the stunning photography from two distinctly different cameramen including Russian cinematographer Sergei Trofimov and Quills and Disturbia Dutch veteran lens-man Rogier Stoffers.

Above all Mongol is surprisingly romantic and thankfully intimate for a large scale epic where oftentimes the individual characters get sidestepped in preference for the impact of the bigger picture and emphasis on carnage and casualties. And while it’s a far more sensitive and charismatic Kahn to which history enthusiasts are accustomed, it’s a terrific achievement by Bodrov and one where, given the impressive footing he found right out of the gate, he’ll undoubtedly be able to build off of like a Kahn worthy war strategist in the next two installments to cross the trilogy's finish line with unsurpassed style.

Reprise




Director:
Joachim Trier

Just after snakes, the theme song to Twin Peaks, preachers, Alan Rickman, escalators, and reality dating shows, as a writer, one of the most terrifying items I’m faced with literally several times a day is the blinking cursor on my computer screen. Like those men you just hate to love and love to hate, that cursor taunts me, seduces me, and enchants me to pick myself up, kick myself in the rear, mingle with the backspace key, rely too much on sugarless gum and caffeine, and reach for the thesaurus hoping to create something worthy of that blank page. Why go through the agony? Since as much as I try to put off face-to-face time with the word processor by killing far too many minutes joking around via e-mail, I have no choice but to write, as babies have no choice but to cry, and often the best place to cry to the world and console yourself into serenity is right in front of that flickering cursor. It’s a persistent battle that writers face, whether we want to admit it or not from those smug individuals who claim that writer’s block is a myth to the same annoying ones who never cease to amaze by the sheer volume of prolific work they crank out in a given year. And heartbreakingly, even after one has gone through all of the required phases of the creative process and is justifiably spent-- in need of a stretch, a walk, a laugh or a hug-- the lingering insecurity continues on.

“Do I really want to expose the world to this?” a twenty-three year old character asks right at the beginning of Danish born Joachim Trier’s Norwegian feature-length debut, Reprise, as he stands alongside his good friend, securely gripping heftily filled manila envelopes in front of a public mailbox. Seeking literary glory and all of the fame and fortune that goes with it, both Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) decide to take the plunge, submitting their manuscripts out into that vast unforgiving void of the publishing world as Trier’s restless camera which-- much like its youthful, hyper, never contented and always changing characters-- proceeds to flash forward into the world of possibilities this fateful act would have on their lives, friendships and careers.

While Erik’s work is rejected, Phillip’s is given the benefit of publication and publicity, which unfortunately seems to be more than the young man can handle or had possibly envisioned when he was alone in his apartment cranking out the work filled with fear and exhilaration in trying to satisfy that tantalizing cursor. Institutionalized for six months following a horrifying breakdown, Erik finds his once exuberant pal changed—detached and distant—with a battle-scarred body and glassy eyes either from prescription drugs or disillusionment as he discovers he’s unable to slide back into step with his unruly clique of fellow young men who spend far too much time and money debating literature and music and hiding their total lack of understanding about women with misogynistic rants and generalizations.

Of the three main women in the movie who are relegated to supporting players in Trier’s obvious ode to white European male angst and artistic temperament set to the tune of Truffaut and Godard styled New Wave (in which some of the masters' works cited in Trier’s homage almost make one want to scream out the titles like we’re watching a cover band playing the favorite songs of a mix tape from our past), we’re the most fascinated by Viktoria Winge’s understated portrayal of Kari. With as Manohla Dargis noted an appearance that definitely calls to mind Godard’s former love and one-time muse Anna Karina, Winge’s Kari plays the soulful, emotionally torn and equally conflicted on-again, off-again love of Phillip who struggles to try and go through the motions recreating their most romantic dates, which is especially apparent in a heartbreaking trip to Paris where they realize that not just the fire has vanished but in its place has conjured up two competing magnets wanting to push them apart and pull them together either for love or maybe just comfortable yet possibly ill-advised old time’s sake.

Stylistically inventive and showing off its New Wave roots proudly from the start with some grainy black and white cinematography that-- to cite two of Godard’s titles will leave you Breathless while watching this Band of Outsiders. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as completely enraptured by the work as most of my contemporaries, feeling it lacked the emotional spine more evident in the tenderness of Truffaut (Jules and Jim) and needed Godard’s penchant for wide open spaces (Pierrot Le Fou) as the claustrophobic set pieces and slightly blurry white subtitles start to tire us out in its rambling final act that made me wonder if perhaps working on the screenplay for five years (Wikipedia) had possibly caused the filmmakers to spend too much time in front of that cursor and too little time out on the streets, breathing the air like the forefathers of the New Wave.

A Peck on the Cheek




Director:
Mani Ratnam

When asked why I don’t have children, aside from rattling off the traditional concerns of wanting to raise a child with a good man since I believe two parents are ideal or preferring to wait to ensure financial security, one of the most frequent arguments I encounter from other childless individuals within my 25-40 year old age bracket is the citation that it may not be the fairest decision to bring another innocent life into a world filled with such violent uncertainties including war, school shootings, horrific economic injustices, rampant drugs and intolerance. While the argument certainly feels all the more timely today, it’s curious that when I speak with much older friends and relatives, they offer the same exact reasoning that gave them a fertility pause decades ago. In fact, they tell me it was especially an oft-quoted political statement during the tumultuous Vietnam era and assassinations of prominent historical leaders in the 1960’s. And while it’s easy in this era of American-centrist news to naively feel as though this may only be unique to our citizens, it’s a fear that’s cropping up in the farthest reaches of the world where justifiably some are giving greater thought to starting a family by weighing pros and cons in a way that possibly hadn’t occurred to some individuals in both the United States and abroad to investigate that perhaps the near-mandate to grow up, marry, procreate, buy a home and continue working until death had larger moral implications to take into consideration.

It’s precisely this same line of thinking that the type of world a child is born into may not be worthy of such an innocent creature that provides the earliest obstacle in the newly arranged Sri Lankan marriage between the twenty-two year old beautiful Shyama (Nandita Das) and her new husband in Indian writer/director Mani Ratnam’s award winning Film Movement selection A Peck on the Cheek. Although the nervous, introverted Shyama finds herself unable to make eye contact with her husband during their nuptials, the two find themselves falling easily into a joking, flirtatious rapport once they’re alone, however their early bliss as newlyweds is cut abruptly short by their war-torn country where explosions seem as abundant as the trees in the forest and their consistently dangerous existence inspires Shyama’s husband to state he wants to wait to give her the eight children she longs for until at last there is peace in the country. However, Mother Nature and fate have other plans and when war finds the young married lovers cruelly separated, Shyama is shocked to discover she’s pregnant and, in a country where the hospitals are in ruins and wanting the best for her daughter, Shyama’s father sends her away where she goes into labor upon her arrival in an Indian refugee camp in Rameswaram.

Given the emotionally devastating prologue, I was completely unprepared for director Ratnam’s abrupt change in both tone and style as, following Shyama’s delivery, we cut to nine years later as her young, mischievous and fiercely independent daughter now named Amudha (P.S. Keerthana) lives with her two younger brothers along with her adopted wealthy, professional parents including the engineer and successful fiction writer Thiru (R. Madhavan) who publishes under the name of his television anchorwoman wife Indira (Simran). Set in a vibrant, colorful Madras, India, the film’s hauntingly lyrical beginning is wiped away by high-energy Bollywood production values, complete with musical numbers and the introduction of several characters—some far too confusingly quickly—until the film finally settles down into a more cohesive narrative as the nine year old Amudha learns on her birthday of her true origin and adoption. With emotions going overtime as she struggles to process this from feeling predictably betrayed to fascinated and worried how it will affect her life with her parents who adore her and had in fact, sweetly fallen in love while bonding over the young infant daughter who inspired her father’s most passionate story that secured his future wife’s affections. Driven by her concerns, Amudha makes some feeble attempts to run away and track down her biological mother until her parents decide to aid her in her quest to uncover her past as they journey to the still horrifyingly dangerous Sri Lanka to track down Shyama.

While some of the Bollywood numbers, the overly manipulative score, and a few far too convenient plot devices detract from the emotional impact of the otherwise very solid film, Ratnam’s movie is filled with gorgeous little details including the way it flows forwards and backwards in time with its most successful segment following that powerful introduction as the compassionate outcasts Thiru, Indira and baby Amudha all seem to fall for one another simultaneously, thus reminding us that-- while the world can be horrifyingly cruel and bleak-- we must take every opportunity to love each other while we’re here and reach out to one another, often forming a family with those we wouldn’t expect.

An excellent foreign gem to share with high school students and one that will definitely play even better to audience members who have experience with adoption, A Peck on the Cheek, which earned six national awards in its native India before screening at festivals around the globe has been recently made available to movie lovers here in the U.S.A. courtesy of Film Movement.


Recount




Director:
Jay Roach

While going through one another’s belongs in The Breakfast Club, a fellow student asks the nerdy “brain” (Anthony Michael Hall) why he would need a fake I.D., to which he replies so that he can vote. Although I was never the fake I.D. type, as a fellow uncool “brain” who started college at sixteen, I could definitely relate to Anthony Michael Hall’s wish and was less excited by the possibility of getting into bars or dance clubs and far more thrilled to finally have a voice in the American democracy when I turned eighteen. You can guess how popular this made me with my peers, which is probably the biggest reason that—even to this day—the average age of most of my friends is at least a full decade my senior. Despite placing the former, tragically deceased professor turned Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone on my personal political pedestal and being from the state where the most notable election was for an old friend’s dad-- Jesse Ventura, the registered independent former wrestler turned Minnesota governor-- the first election I was old enough to participate in was the 2000 presidential election.

I remember it like it was yesterday—knowing full well, I’d be leaving the cool Midwest temperatures to visit my grandparents in the state of Arizona which months later would become my home, I went down to City Hall in person to vote for Vice President Al Gore, having the strangest but surest inkling not to trust the idea of an absentee ballot by mail. It turned out to not only be a good decision but obviously the least of my worries when I sat on the edge of my seat well into the evening of the November 7, 2000 election. Certain that sooner or later the media-- and especially Dan Rather who by about ten p.m. was running out of an increasingly bizarre string of the strangest metaphors one could ever muster-- would finally stop “flip-flopping” their decision over who had won Florida similar to the way the news attacked candidates for “flip-flopping” on an issue, I kept waiting to hear the final word on who would be the next Commander-in-Chief.

And then it continued on well into the night until George W. Bush seemed to be the winner but just when we thought it was over, the next morning it continued again and rumors started pouring in with new phrases such as "butterfly ballots," “hanging chads,” and outcries of elderly and African-American voter suppression beginning to cloud over the election, leaving unprecedented chaos, mounting suspicion, outrageous disbelief, and disaster in its wake over the next several weeks until Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris began setting in motion the events that helped push the Supreme Court to uphold Florida’s ruling and serve up the White House to then Governor George W. Bush. And of course-- no matter which party you belong to—we all know how well that turned out! Still, now with the benefit of hindsight, it makes us infinitely aware in a post 9/11 world, that the pre 9/11 election was one of the most important on record.

Additionally what we didn’t know perhaps-- or what only some of us true news junkies who lived for the latest facts and figures back in 2000 with CNN blaring in the background and newspapers stockpiling on our coffee tables-- is the stuff of political infamy and it makes for highly compelling fodder in HBO’s latest made for premium cable film Recount. After the film’s producer, the recently deceased director Sydney Pollack found his health failing and therefore couldn’t helm the ambitious project, Meet the Parents and Austin Powers director Jay Roach stepped in, which despite seeming like an incongruous choice, turned out to offer the film just the right tongue-in-cheek, awkward, hilariously strange but unfortunately true tone he'd poured into the similarly pitched festival of discomfort, Meet the Parents.

An insider’s look at the events from the point-of-view primarily of one of Gore’s lead strategists, Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), we follow Ron along with other Gore staffers Denis Leary’s Michael Whouley, and later their lawyer David Boies (Ed Begley Jr.) as they try to get to the bottom of just what went wrong in Florida. Using every legal recourse, they try to demand first a machine and then hand recount of the questionable butterfly ballots which found several elderly Democrats mistakenly voting for Pat Buchanan (who even admitted that his large number of votes must have been an error), and navigate the conflicting rules and biases from one Florida county to the next over how ballots with “dimpled” chads would be handled, while researching questions about military and absentee ballot legitimacy, a highly inaccurate count of voters turned away from the polls for having names similar to those of convicted felons, and voting machines that offer a different read every time. Of course, presiding over the chaos is the overly made-up and-- as the film illustrates-- the cheerleader puppet Harris (wonderfully played by Laura Dern) who seems so unfit for her position that she’s eager to not only seek advice from either the bible or any of Bush’s people including Tom Wilkinson’s James Baker and Bob Balaban’s Ben Ginsberg, but prefers to hide behind an unchangeable recount deadline unless of course—per her most cited alibi-- a hurricane hits the state of Florida.

While admittedly slanted to the left, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls star turned scripter Danny Strong’s intelligent first time screenplay is the way that it manages to illustrate all of the madness and every possible solution including the arguments of both sides. Instead of narrowly offering one specifically definitive view of the situation or even by completely demonizing the questionable motives and back-room deal-making Republicans or celebrating the heroic underdog Democrats, Strong seems to argue that the entire process is filled with potential flaws with neither the hand count or machine count being ideal, showing the equal probability for both human and mechanical errors. And of course, all this is the key to stimulating excellent audience debate... and just think, Roach and Strong didn’t even begin to address the validity and wisdom of the electoral college! Although, as a passionate voter looking eagerly forward to casting a vote this upcoming November, I'm hopeful that this topic won't be explored in a sequel... now only if I could ensure the ballot, the chad, and the machine will read my choice for the Democratic nominee correctly.

Mama's Boy



Director:
Tim Hamilton

They say that the best way to uncover just what a man truly thinks of women is to see how he treats his mother. In fact, right up there with “sense of humor,” one of the most desirable qualities female friends rattle off when listing the ideal man seems to be “gets along well with his mother.” Of course, one can’t help who their parents are just as much as one can’t help who their children are and there are definite understandable exceptions to this rule. And granted, chivalry may be on its last legs but often times the little things men do to show their affinity or compassion for women from simply holding a door, offering a coat, walking us to our car in bad neighborhoods, or not trying to grope us in the first instant we’re alone are often internally, instinctually ingrained at a young age by their relationship to the first woman in their life-- namely "mom." However, this being said, there’s a definite difference between loving one’s mother and being a mama’s boy and I know plenty of relationships that went south precisely because of this difference in what attracted a woman in the first place was just a sneak preview of the mother issues her mate had once they’d gotten together. But truth be told, when it comes to mama’s boys, Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder’s character Jeffrey Mannus takes the cake in the aptly named film Mama’s Boy.

Like Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch, Jeffrey is one of those twenty-nine year old late bloomers who still lives at home but while McConaughey’s alter ego in Launch used it to an advantage as the perfect excuse to end a relationship without doing any of the heavy lifting or awkward “we need to talk” conversations most of us try desperately to avoid, Jeffrey prefers that the only woman in his life is his mother Jan (Diane Keaton) and that likewise, he should be her only man. Predictably things change when Jan approaches the cheesy if innocuous "success coach" Mert Rosenbloom (a hilarious Jeff Daniels), like a smitten groupie after a lecture and she accepts a date to see him perform with his jazz band, aptly named “The Mertones." While great for the desperately lonely Jan, this agreement sounds an insecurity alarm in Jeffrey who-- similar to his mother-- hasn’t dated in three years and cruelly reminds Jan that as a middle aged widow she’s “not some trollop from a Jackie Collins novel.”

Thankfully she ignores her son’s advice, not to mention his insistence to stalk his mother’s every move during her courtship with Mert, between his hobbies of collecting comic books, role-playing intricate outdoor battles with other Dungeons and Dragons types, obsessively watching and listening to all things 1980s dressed like a New Wave Smiths devotee, and usurping control of classic video games at the local arcade. Then flirtation finds Jeffrey and he's equally thrown for a loop after meeting cute with Nora Flannigan (Lost in Translation’s Anna Faris), a rebellious coffee shop employee whose real hobby is as “plucky songstress” writing protest anthems about corporate America including her own favorite track, “Bed, Bath and Bulls**t.”

While Nora’s interest in the mean-spirited loser who demands that his mother continue to make his daily lunch and walk him to the bus (since he refuses to drive), seems far-fetched at best, Faris is so genuinely likable that she’s the one singular breath of fresh air in this slightly stale straight-to-DVD, forgettable confection that wastes its gift of Diane Keaton, makes Heder a far creepier version of the geek he played in School for Scoundrels, and gives both saving grace Faris and the amazingly diverse and resourceful Daniels too few opportunities to shine.

But admittedly it's much better than one would assume, even with an overly padded ending that seems tacked on simply to try and lighten up the film’s tone after a painfully unfunny turn of events sours us on the main characters, it’s sure to garner more support on DVD due to the commercial appeal of the leads. Despite this and I note this with affection as someone who was forced to move back in with mom for grad school budgetary reasons-- mama’s boys be warned as director Tim Hamilton’s Mama’s Boy may provide one more stumbling block for men in their late twenties who still live at home in trying to meet a romantic mate. For a more flattering—if admittedly just as predictable—view of homebound males as "McConaughey-like shirtless hotties," it’s perhaps best to rent Failure to Launch if you’re choosing a film to share on a date... just before revealing that you still sleep in your childhood bedroom.