The Search for John Gissing


Originally published at Blogcritics as part of my feature: Under the Radar

The story behind the final release of writer/director Mike Binder’s charming corporate culture clash comedy The Search for John Gissing seven years after its production is nearly as entertaining, surprising, amusing, and filled with enough dubious events to rival the plot of the film itself.

After using the benefit of a British tax break to shoot overseas and scraping up enough money between his own savings and that of supportive family and friends, Binder filmed Gissing in early 2001 entirely “on the cheap,” as he told Cinematical’s James Rocchi. Yet, despite drawing raves from audience members and inclusions into several film festivals around the globe, he was never able to find a fair studio offer, admitting that, “the only deals we could get were from people who wanted to own it. Forever. For doing nothing.”

Understandably finding it unacceptable, Binder promptly moved on to other projects, including HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man, his critical breakout Joan Allen and Kevin Costner vehicle The Upside of Anger, the straight-to-DVD, Preston Sturges meets Jerry Maguire Ben Affleck comedy Man About Town, and the little-seen, entirely underrated Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler post 9/11 buddy film Reign Over Me.

However, while Gissing remained on the back burner for Binder who even at one point “re-wrote the whole script… called… The Multinationals,” with the intention of filming it again, the search for the original John Gissing film remained a constant obsession for its fiercely loyal, determined, and unwavering fans. While Binder grants that the devotees consisted of “primarily absolute Rickman fans” (among which he includes himself), an online petition was begun to force the film’s release, ultimately gathering 3,630 signatures and fans flew from across not only the U.S. but England as well to see the film and Binder’s Q&A when Gissing was included “as a last minute thing” at the Westwood International Film Festival. Touched by their passion, Binder took down the mailing information of forty attendees and sent them each a burned copy of the DVD, as Cinematical reports.

Inspired, finally he decided to follow through on his goal “to put together a site to sell my movies,” which he admits was “more work than I thought it was going to be… there’s a new obstacle every day.” However, via his experiment to eventually create “a big-ass pipeline going right through the ground to people that want to buy my movies,” he found an unlikely DVD maker through an adult entertainment DVD company “looking to go letimate.” Eventually the disc earned its release, with no studio input — a Binder film (made by Mike and produced by his brother Jack) on a Binder website to a Binder audience. After stumbling on the DVD at a local video store, I found myself becoming quite the Gissing fan in my own right.

To be fair, I’ve been a Binder fan without realizing it since tagging along with my parents to see the Big Chill-like, sunny Indian Summer in the early '90s (which he wrote and directed) but ever since Upside of Anger, I’ve made a special effort to seek out his work. In that film, he became one of those unique and admirable (yet far too few) males to accurately portray women as complicated and fully realized characters and it was thrilling to witness a movie with such a tremendous and overwhelmingly female cast wherein the women weren’t obsessed with shopping or mani/pedis. Yet, more than that, he’s equally — and obviously given his gender — probably even more so at home in the world of the male-dominated concrete jungle where Art of War seems to be the post-MBA manual. It’s a subject he keeps returning to again and again — whether it plays a dominant role as it did in Man About Town or a more subtle one with Don Cheadle’s character's work struggles in Reign Over Me.

And again, international business is the agenda of the day in The Search for John Gissing, yet to just say it’s a business comedy would be to do it an immense disservice. It begins as a far better hodgepodge of Neil Simon’s Out-of-Towners and the comedies of the modern day French master Francis Veber (The Valet, The Closet, The Dinner Game) with a little of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment thrown in for good measure, which Binder admits indeed helped inspire the office building set decoration.

When Compu-Corp employee Matthew Barnes (Binder) and his wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo) arrive in London, they assume it’ll be their next temporary landing place in a series of buy-outs, mergers that go along with being one spoke in the wheel of his employer’s international conglomerate company. However, from the moment their feet touch cement at Heathrow Airport, anything and everything goes wrong as all the plans made for the couple’s arrival by Matthew’s same-level London colleague John Gissing (Alan Rickman) fall through. Soon they begin to wonder if their trip is being sabotaged on purpose by Mr. Gissing himself. And the first forty minutes of the film blends the misunderstandings and mistaken identities found in not only Veber but also British sex farces to great effect as the couple find themselves in situations one has to see to believe. I’d reveal more about exactly what and whom the Americans encounter but hesitate to do so as by even expanding on the character descriptions, I’d be killing several of the film’s jokes before one even inserted the disc into their DVD player.

However, once Rickman and Binder share screen time, it morphs first from a chess match of one-upmanship into thematically similar territory of the freewheeling buddy movie adventure he did so well in Reign Over Me. Except in the case of Gissing, the tears come from laughter this time instead of sadness and we absolutely can’t get enough of Rickman as we’ve never seen him before. As a Steve Martin-like “wild and crazy guy,” Binder notes that contrary to his fear that Rickman was “gonna be tough; he seems kind of cranky and cantankerous and a bit curmudgeonly in the meetings,” he was instead the “warmest, sweetest gentlemen I’d ever worked with in my life,” adding that he believes Rickman “was just dying to tear up the scenery and the furniture.” And after viewing it, I wouldn’t hesitate to agree and despite my fondness for Rickman as a serious actor (despite being the source of my childhood nightmares after I watched Die Hard with my older brother while still in grade school), I would honestly love to see him offered more comedic work to show the wise-cracking, pratfall friendly side of Harry Potter’s Severus Snape.

With a great turn by the always hysterical Janeane Garofalo who makes a perfect bantering partner for Binder, Gissing is one of those word-of-mouth films sure to get one phoning others as soon as it’s over. Filled with inventive jokes about the culture clash to be found when Americans travel abroad even to a country that speaks our language, the award-winning The Search For John Gissing also contains priceless bits sure to attract an even wider international base as the finale involves a German group of buyers and a French antique-chair obsessed superior to Barnes and Gissing who receives his comeuppance in a decidedly unexpected way.

And although given the background of the film, it’s easy to forgive the skimpy extras (containing outtakes and deleted scenes), one can’t help but wonder, given its cinematic plot-worthy backstory, if perhaps in the future Binder won’t do something with it down the road. Whether he chooses to make an insider Hollywood satire (although after the lackluster Tropic Thunder -- man, do we have enough of those) or in its next DVD release, turn Gissing into a double-disc special feature heavy version, one thing is for certain — namely, you can guess you’ll find it via Binder’s own “big ass pipeline,” online, which may inspire more independent filmmakers to reach prospective audiences down the road.

Still, in the effort not to inspire yet another petition to plead with him to reinvent a perfectly good DVD, I must say that Binder’s movie is even more entertaining than the seven year odyssey to its release. Or in the spirit of brevity to match the setting of the film’s business world — I’d urge you to begin The Search for John Gissing at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your time and there will be a meeting about it in the morning. And as I’m sure Matthew Barnes would warn — just make sure you don’t ask John Gissing to call you with the details.

Ballet Shoes


After Tom Hanks and his “big bad chain store” force Meg Ryan’s sweet little children’s bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, out of business in Nora Ephron’s 1998 cinematic charmer You’ve Got Mail, she visits Hanks’ business for herself in a heartbreaking scene. And in the film, inspired by not only Lubitsch’s original movie (The Shop Around the Corner) as well as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ryan winds up in the children’s department where her expertise on the subject matter is quickly required when a clueless salesperson is unable to identify a customer’s request for the “Shoe books” or their author. Immediately recognizing the source, Ryan snaps away from self-pity and into helpful attention, sharing through tears, “Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theater Shoes and Movie Shoes… I'd start with Skating Shoes, it's my favorite, although Ballet Shoes is completely wonderful.”

And ever since that moment, I’ve been fascinated by not only the Shoes series but Noel Streatfeild as well. Yet it’s always a sad fact of a hectic twenty-first century life filled with multi-tasking that there aren’t often enough hours in the day to squeeze in the reading we’d love to do with the reading we’re forced to do for school and work. Thus, I’d forgotten all about my promise to track down Ballet Shoes but was recently reminded this month by my mother who returned from the movies gushing about a trailer she’d seen for a cinematic adaptation of Streatfeild’s classic Ballet Shoes.

Originally produced for Granada Television for the BBC and adapted by screenwriter Heidi Thomas and director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You, The Governess), Ballet Shoes premiered during Christmas of 2007 to great success in the UK. And it’s getting the royal treatment for its American debut, opening in limited theatrical release this week before its DVD from KOCH Vision hits shelves on September 2. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that despite its late summer release that the film's popularity should build steadily not only as there’s so few worthwhile films for young women but it also stars Harry Potter’s very own Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) in a refreshingly feminine and challenging period performance.

Although in an intelligent and thoughtful twenty minute interview included on the DVD, Emma Watson admits that she’d never read the 1936 classic, she phoned her grandmother who shared her own love for Ballet Shoes as a girl, saying that it was not only a personal favorite but changed her outlook on life in its illustration that everything is possible. And it’s that message that still shines through more than seventy years later in this delightful and high quality adaptation.

In its opening credit sequence, Shoes is reminiscent of The Secret Garden as we encounter the young Sylvia Brown who dressed in dark mourning wear arrives — with her devoted Nana in tow — to live at the house of Sylvia’s only living relative after the death of her parents. Although Sylvia’s uncle, Professor Matthew Brown (Richard Griffiths), an eccentric paleontologist and globe-trotting explorer, is initially hesitant to let a child into his life, they soon grow attached to one another. And just as quickly, after she grows into a young woman in her own right (now played by Emilia Fox) and his travels continuously take him away from home for extended periods of time, she’s startled when he begins sending back his own version of “fossils” from his expeditions.

For — unlike traditional fossils — the eternally caring professor, who seems to be always in the wrong place at the right time, first rescues an orphaned baby aboard the Titanic and sends her back to be raised by his own charge and Nana (Victoria Wood), only to repeat the process two additional times before he disappears altogether. Soon without the means to send the three girls — Pauline (Watson), Petrova (Yasmin Paige), and Posy Fossil (Lucy Boynton) — to receive a traditional education, Sylvia has to rely on her ingenuity and determination to keep things afloat.

After taking in a group of free-spirited boarders, including two elderly female professors, she’s able to entrust their academic math and literature-based education directly to them. However, in realizing that the world isn’t kind to girls who can’t support themselves, Sylvia takes the advice of her bewitching and bold boarder, the former dancer Theo Dane (Lucy Cohu) who encourages Sylvia to enroll the girls in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training.

While Posy Fossil, who had arrived special delivery with only her birth mother’s pair of beautiful pink satin ballet shoes to her name, shows a naturally prodigious aptitude for dance, Pauline finds herself drawn to the stage. Soon, the girls begin earning enough money to help out their beloved caretaker “Garnie,” who seems to be increasingly stressed by not just the financial and time-consuming struggle and poor health but also fear that too much ambition and fame isn’t the right thing to encourage for her adored girls.

Yet even though Posy and Pauline seem thrilled by their feminine and artistic studies, the tomboy Petrova is far more hesitant, going along to auditions out of duty and loyalty, but with a serious passion towards finding “roads in the sky” in becoming a female pilot like her hero Amy Johnson. Her love of engines is encouraged by Sylvia’s charming male boarder Mr. Simpson (Marc Warren), for whom Sylvia seems to have developed romantic feelings as we realize that much to our heartbreak—in a life spent in service to the three bright girls—she’s never been able to allow herself to consider her own wants and needs.

Ballet Shoes: The Official Theatrical Trailer

With gorgeous cinematography by Catherine Ashmore (view the photo gallery), Ballet Shoes is one of those enchanting movies that, although set in the 1930s, seems all the more incredible for the vital pre-feminist messages set forth by Streatfeild in her text. As the girls routinely state on their birthdays and Christmas that “we three Fossils vow to put our name in the history books, because it is ours, and ours alone and no one can say it’s because of our grandfathers,” they truly seek to achieve their dreams on their own terms, never taking shortcuts or depending on a man to get them there and it’s all the more amazing when you realize the original publication date of the novel.

Featuring subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired along with deleted scenes, the beautiful DVD transfer also includes a valuable interview with Watson sure to impress her fans as she compares and contrasts working on this film with Potter and reflects on the film itself, as well as an audiobook excerpt (read by Elizabeth Sastre) and limited edition mini-poster.

Recommended by The Dove Foundation as worthwhile “family entertainment,” and highly recommended by this enthusiastic reviewer, Goldbacher’s film is the best one I’ve seen aimed at young female audiences this year, surpassing even the superlative Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery (which incidentally took place in the same era except here in the states). Additionally, Ballet Shoes is one sure to touch the hearts of viewers — especially females — of all ages whether they’re just getting their first pair of pink slippers, taking aviation lessons, running a shop around the corner, or tucking their grandchildren in at night.


New On DVD for the Week of 8/24

Although Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher's latest Rom-Com, What Happens in Vegas is sure to top the DVD rental and sales charts this week, my DVD pick of the week is the lesser-known British import, Son of Rambow, which incidentally is one of my top ten favorite films of the year so far. Note-- I should be receiving a few other new releases for review shortly so stay tuned for updates.
Additionally, Mumblecore has another disc in stores:
Below you'll find a link to an article I wrote for Blogcritics regarding Independent Cinema's Mumblecore Movement and its latest film to hit DVD shelves, Team Picture. As it contains numerous photos and video clips, it's far too lengthy to post here but I wanted to give you guys a heads up in case you were interested. Thanks!

Under The Radar: A Cinematic Decision for Indecision: Mumblecore’s Latest Team Picture-- When you combine French Speaking Outsiders with Dancing Brat Packers, Mumbling Slackers are born.


Go see it
(but don't tell your friends about it).


One of the great things about going to the movies is the post-mortem discussion where not only do film geeks exchange their own views about what they just saw but they get to dissect everything from the actors to the music to the structure itself. Admittedly, a good percentage of casual moviegoers are happy to just sort of dismiss or recommend a film with one sentence — namely, they either dug it or they didn’t. However, for film buffs it goes several steps beyond that and for critics, often the discussion can get far more intense.

The press screening for Traitor was no exception as a small group of the Phoenix media exited the darkened theatre into the brightly lit lobby in the early afternoon (a time that I think most will agree isn’t the most conducive for the “event atmosphere” of theatre-going). In an impromptu conversation, we quickly moved away from the general consensus of liking it and recommending the film (for the note-taking studio PR rep) and focused our attention to an entirely different and more urgent problem altogether.

More specifically, our problem was this: just how the hell were we supposed to write about a film that demands such an extreme element of surprise?

A few critics joked it would be the shortest summary in movie history and lamented the fact that even the title gives something away! Likewise we didn’t envy the studio marketing team who obviously would have their work cut out for them in not revealing spoilers. And while the first few trailers for writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s film (which surprisingly came from an original story idea by comedian Steve Martin) just showcased the film’s breakneck pace, emphasis on action, and globe-hopping structure, sure enough the most recent commercials reveal darn near every single surprise.

Therefore, if you find yourself face-to-face with a Traitor trailer or commercial, close your eyes and plug your ears as they should be avoided at all costs. Simply put — Traitor is the cinematic equivalent of a house of cards and its success will topple if word gets out too soon.

So in the spirit of trying not to give anything away and avoid forcing my readers into the legions of those already in the know thanks to the ads, you’ll have to forgive a perfunctory synopsis. Essentially Traitor tells the story of elite, contemplative FBI investigator Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) who pursues the path of American citizen Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) who is linked to a group of international terrorists. Predictably, Clayton discovers — and I’m sure the title does cause most imaginations to run overtime — that there may be more to Horn’s story than it would appear.

Quicker than you can say “Jack Ryan meets Jason Bourne,” the film steps into high gear at its halfway point, making the second (and far more successful hour) all about political espionage, intrigue and conspiracy. A high tech version of cops and robbers in our post 9/11 world, Traitor does suffer from its delusions of grandeur and the fact that a revelation about two characters that comes in at the hour mark may have made the film’s script much stronger if audiences had been in on this from the start.

Not to mention, seven years after 9/11, we’ve begun growing weary of similar sounding rhetoric and Traitor’s screenplay is in desperate need of a polish as — due to its sometimes overly politically correct and sound-byte heavy dialogue — Pearce and Cheadle are forced to preach about religion far too often. And in the same token, the terrorists deliver speeches that sound like your run of the mill, anti-American propaganda we’re faced with on a daily basis in the media.

Still, while it falls short of its goal to be a new Bourne Identity entry or successor to Tom Clancy’s famous Jack Ryan series, Traitor never fails to entertain and does that job quite well. Additionally, it’s bolstered by wonderfully edited action sequences that ratchet up the tension as well as a top-notch cast headed up by one of my favorite character actors, Don Cheadle (who also produced).

While Pearce, Jeff Daniels, and Neal McDonough are all uniformly excellent, look for Traitor’s surprising scene stealer Said Taghmaoui (The Kite Runner, Vantage Point) who can next be seen playing Breaker in the hotly anticipated big screen adaptation of the Gen X favorite action figure — G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra.

Music Review: Danny Aiello-- Live From Atlantic City

By paying tribute to the greats,
Danny Aiello paves the way to greatness himself
... this time as a singer.


Note: While this is technically a music review, originally published on Blogcritics, I thought it would be of interest to fans of the actor Danny Aiello.

For a large portion of Generation X and Y video game devotees, after a long day of working in the concrete jungle, the ultimate way to unwind is via a rousing game of Guitar Hero or Rock Band -- wailing along with their favorite artists. And for others who are mostly female — as a natural progression from the innocence of singing into one’s hairbrush-- some still find themselves belting out pop songs at stoplights with their windows rolled all the way up while imagining that for five minutes they’ve become Madonna or Gwen Stefani. Yet for a certain type of music lover — usually those who revere the classics — there is no greater fantasy than daydreaming that you’re under the hot spotlight of a darkened club crooning standards, cabaret tunes and/or torch songs with enough lung power to rival Dino, Old Blue Eyes, Billie, or Judy Garland amidst the sounds of ice cubes clinking in a glass.

Often filled with melancholic lyrics of love gone wrong or pleas for one’s current love to last, these are the type of songs of which even a passionate fan of diverse genres of the medium, such as this reviewer, can’t get enough. Sure, I still mostly listen to alternative and independent rock and always rush out to buy the latest disc from Radiohead or Wilco.

But whether it’s in the shower, in the car, or in my head, often the first songs that pop into my mind are the ones of the past that told a story — adult contemporary jazz standards — of emotion and heart. And for a moment, just listening to the various arrangements by artists such as Louis Prima, Bobby Darin or Carmen Miranda makes one mentally travel back in time fifty plus years to an era of classic standards as Danny Aiello told J&R interviewers where they were “sung the way [we]… like to hear them (understanding every word).”

Therefore it’s no wonder that Aiello titled his 2004 debut album, I Just Wanted to Hear the Words, and although, unfortunately there seems to be little call for these ballads in an increasingly modern MP3 based market of iPods and electronic redubbing, in Aiello’s follow-up album Live From Atlantic City, he again loses listeners in a dreamy reverie of musical storytelling with enough drama to rival the great Russian authors, yet with a beat you can dance to and with the brevity of a poet and the wit of a comedian. Offering listeners a performance from February 18, 2006 just two years before Atlantic City’s legendary Sands Hotel and Casino was demolished, Aiello’s concert was initially recorded just for the sake of Aiello and his band (called Joe Geary & The Guys).

However, given the hotel’s destruction and the success of Aiello’s first album, which reached #4 on the Billboard Charts alongside Harry Connick Jr., Winton Marsalis, and Diana Krall for about “five minutes,” as Aiello jokes on the CD, suddenly the idea of a recording to preserve history for one’s private use seemed like a limited goal as it is now a historical document in its own right. Additionally it's highly significant to Aiello on a personal level as the album was recorded in the very Copa Room wherein he met Old Blue Eyes (Mr. Frank Sinatra himself) ten years earlier at his final American public concert at the Sands.

Indeed the album and the songs chosen for Aiello’s concert are a tribute to artists like Sinatra deeply admired by the actor turned musician. Thanking “all the artists whose memorable performance[s] have impacted so many lives including my own… [and]… those songwriters whose words have helped create a beautiful soundtrack to my life story,” in the liner notes, he begins the album with the pointed choice “All Of Me,” which announces not only Aiello’s style but his intention to serve himself up fully for the enjoyment of the audience.

And although he admits that as a singer it’s an “avocation” not a vocation as he’s primarily an actor—earning Emmy and Oscar nominations and acclaim for his memorable turns in everything from Moonstruck to Do the Right Thing to the Madonna video “Papa Don’t Preach,” Aiello eases into the roughly hour long live concert with humor and self-deprecation. In between songs such as “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” before launching into the Louis Prima like fast-paced “Pennies From Heaven,” he riffs with the audience, telling stories about his life and background whether it was spending just a half an hour in high school to enlisting in the army at seventeen or working as a bouncer, along with sharing an endless appreciation for his wife of more than fifty years, Sandy.

Sharing that he loves “those sexy songs,” he rips into “Besame Mucho” with soul. And although he frequently shares his own fan-like adoration of the artists who performed the quintessential versions of the tracks like his musical idol Bobby Darin, for whom he performs the record's two final songs “Beyond The Sea” and “Clementine,” his own versions of the works are helping to encourage a new generation as well. You can witness this revelation via the following YouTube clip wherein Aiello performs with rapper Hasan in a “Mucho” remix.

While you can listen to two of the album's tracks here via Windows — “All Of Me,” and “Pennies From Heaven”-- the disc works at its best as one big concert with each track and anecdote flowing right into the next. While I only wished it would’ve been recorded on DVD as well, Aiello is a tremendous entertainer and one who seems like in addition to his many other career twists and turns, would’ve made quite a gifted writer in his own right. Given his background in acting, he adds a depth and character to the music we know so well, most evident in “I’m Confessing (That I Love You)” as he walks away from the standard easygoing Chet Baker style of the piece and tells a tongue-in-cheek anecdote making endless excuses for a most likely dalliance completely in the character of the song.

However, the album’s crowning achievement is the vocally impressive “Some Of These Days,” which he attacks with an energy that men half his age would envy, which is all the more of a feat considering that it’s the ninth tune of a twelve track album and by that point, normally one would be longing for a break. Instead, in Aiello's case, it just highlights his tremendous range.

Just before he begins the song, Aiello shares the way that that particular tune helped propel him from one phase of his life to the next, echoing the way he confesses throughout the record that when he was at a loss for words whether it was at a charity function or in questioning the direction his life was headed, he would turn to music. And when you hear it, you’ll soon realize that it’s lost none of its significance so many “days” later in this impressive man's varied life.

In fact, while most actors in their seventies — let along double hyphenates such as Aiello’s actor-singer — would begin to aspire to slow things down, as far as Aiello is concerned, he has many, many plans for the rest of his days and we’re glad he’s decided to overcome his hesitation as a lifelong aspiring singer to finally get some albums recorded. As you can see below, the infectious ambition he offers listeners in the aforementioned track makes us all fantasize just for a moment of putting down our Guitar Hero or hairbrush and deciding that one of these days, we’ll sing in public as well.

My Brother Is An Only Child

"Yeah, I don't get the title either...
but I bet it sounds pretty in Italian."


Whereas Italian writer/director Daniele Luchetti’s previous cinematic charmer Ginger and Cinnamon made the perfect foreign intellectual antidote to our superficial chick flicks (like Because I Said So), his follow-up film couldn’t be more different. Instead of a contemporary, female-driven romantic comedy like Ginger co-written by and starring his talented, high verbal wife Stefania Montorsi (think the Italian version of Said’s equally gifted Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame), this time he sought inspiration from Antonio Pennacchi’s book Il Fasciocommunista.

Although anything is preferable to that name, no favors were done when the movie was saddled with the unfortunate title My Brother Is An Only Child, which was derived from Rino Gaetano’s song (IMDb). (This being said, possibly if I spoke Italian or was familiar with the song, I’d get the joke but I don’t and I’m not so I don’t but if you do and you are and you do, please help an American out by sending me an e-mail.)

After receiving the prestigious “Un Certain Regard” from the Cannes Film Festival, the film also received nine nominations and five awards in 2007 at the Italian version of our Academy Awards — the Donatellos. Recently released on DVD with zero features and barely visible, miniscule subtitles that cause eyestrain, My Brother Is An Only Child tells the story of two very different brothers coming of age in the 1960s and '70s amidst political upheaval. Although they find themselves on opposite ends of the party spectrum, which would be bad enough, it’s escalated when revolution breaks out and all the more so when they’re drawn to the same woman.

If this sounds familiar to Italian foreign film lovers, it should (and not just to those who may have read the book with the daunting title). For Brother, Luchetti collaborated with the talented screenwriting team behind the structurally and thematically similar yet vastly superior 2003 miniseries The Best of Youth, which earned its place on numerous Top Ten lists that year of film buffs in the know. While at roughly two hours Brother can’t be as epic in scope as the six-hour Youth, it still pales in comparison to one of the best miniseries in recent memory, especially when the plots are so maddeningly similar that one can’t help but contrast and compare.

However, the astute marketing team at THINKFilm tried to remedy this before Brother’s release by releasing a clever but misleading trailer. Although it still echoes Youth and does evolve into stirring melodrama near the end, complete with the swelling of a beautiful orchestra, the footage erroneously sets up Luchetti’s film to be far funnier and jovial than the end result. Thus, sort of pigeonholing the work into the ever-popular European genre of coming-of-age with a dysfunctional family and/or trying to break out of a relative’s shadow.

And while incidentally Brother does include both of these plots along with the obligatory Jules and Jim-like love triangle for good measure, it’s a darker work than one would expect with characters that aren’t as likable as one would guess from the footage below.

My Brother is an Only Child: Original Theatrical Trailer

Yet, despite this and rather forced nostalgia which doesn’t come as naturally as it did in Youth, My Brother Is An Only Child is a work of the utmost quality. It chronicles the tale of the smart but bitter Accio (Ellio Germano) who has always been the family’s Jan Brady, next to his older, handsome, flirtatious, and mischevious brother Manrico (Riccardo Scamarcio), whose parents, neighbors, and beautiful girlfriend Francesca (Diane Fleri) act as though he hung the moon. While Manrico has become a veritable voice of the people with his growing involvement as a Communist spokesperson and lead protester — out of equal parts brotherly annoyance and feeling a kinship with the neighbors he seems to prefer to his own family — Accio joins the Fascists.

Although predictably as events heat up and both get a glimpse of the best and worst of their parties, Accio has a change of heart and switches sides, things soon spiral out of control as the brothers begin to realize what’s really important and ironically adopt the best qualities of each other whether it’s Manrico’s bravery or Accio’s thoughtfulness.

In the end, Luchetti offers us a truly memorable conclusion that admittedly made my appreciation for the film rise considerably. Depicting a stirring mini-revolution led by Accio on a much quieter yet more effective and smaller scale — with no violence and all soul — Luchetti manages to capture our hearts in a way that had been lacking for a better part of the picture and keeping it fresh in our minds long after we hit eject. Therefore with this in mind and given the stellar performances and production value, it’s recommendable on that level alone.

And while no doubt, Brother would have benefited from larger and more legible subtitles, in between squinting at the text, Luchetti and company opened my eyes much wider to a political situation that most casual moviegoers wouldn’t normally see. While the radical and tumultuous era of the '60s and '70s have been well-documented in countless American films, they’ve mostly dealt with the situation either right here on our land or in Vietnam. More specifically, they've failed to explore what was going on in other countries with some of the riots in France in the late '60s or indeed the events in Italy depicted in this film and Best of Youth and for more knowledge of such, we must turn our attention towards international cinema (even when it arrives with a nonsensical name).

And while Brother is an above average work, ultimately, for my favorite Luchetti film in recent memory, I’d still have to direct your attention to the appetizing Ginger and Cinnamon. Likewise, for those seeking a thematically similar yet infinitely more powerful depiction of the political scene of the era in Italy, movie lovers should look no further than the unforgettable Best of Youth, also available on DVD.


Ali Larter Goes Bollywood...


I must admit that I’m not sure why Ali Larter isn’t a bigger star. I mean yes, of course, she earned her big cinematic break playing a Varsity Blues bimbo but she made intelligent choices thereafter with the cult teen scarefest Final Destination. And despite a Hollywood absence for a few years to take a break from the sex-kitten characters being offered her way (Allure, 7/08), she’s rebounded much better than other late ’90s starlets who also first portrayed bimbos, such as American Pie’s Shannon Elizabeth. I guess, in retrospect, Larter and her fans should be grateful that she doesn’t have Elizabeth’s primarily straight-to-DVD career but the potential for Larter is undeniable.
Case in point: before her TV series Heroes “jumped the shark,” you couldn’t open a magazine without press covering it with multi-page spreads and articles, yet all the ink spilled seemed to surround the likable, funny Japanese newcomer Masi Oka’s Hiro and Hayden Panettiere’s perky “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” character. Yet, honestly, while the sunny young Panettiere was used as the face of the show to maximize its youth appeal as the new Buffy, as far as women were concerned on Heroes, it was Larter and not Panettiere who played the best character in season one (before I gave up on it last Fall). As a New Age Film Noir heroine, Larter played a combo of the virgin and the whore dual personality all rolled into one without the cheesy melodrama of a daytime soap and we never knew which side of Larter’s character we’d see next.
And while granted she’s no Meryl Streep, in the film Marigold as well as a recent independent screener called Crazy I was lucky enough to view (currently making the rounds in the film-festival circuit), she gets the chance to show a range that we haven’t seen before and both films involve music. While in the biopic Crazy, she plays the long-suffering wife of a talented guitarist, in writer/director Willard Carroll’s likable sleeper Marigold, Larter takes her biggest risk yet and gets her diva shot at Bollywood glory.
Due to the rightful insistence of casting directors that she’s just not “sympathetic enough,” D-List actress Marigold Lexton (Larter) whose own boyfriend describes her as a “four-star bitch,” has made a career appearing in numerous direct-to-DVD sequels of famous films. After earning a horny fanbase with turns in "Fatal Attraction 3" and "Basic Instinct 3," Marigold’s career has taken such a status dive that as the film opens she boards a twenty-hour flight to Bombay in coach class and bumps along during a hellish twelve-hour cab ride to Goa for her latest gig in Kama Sutra 3.
After screaming at her agents and boyfriend via cell phone the entire way (and clearly loving the chance to play a hammy stereotype as Larter kills even Carroll’s most throwaway lines), eventually her feet touch land in Goa. However, instead of a red carpet, she quickly discovers that due to the shady dealings in the background Sutra’s Indian producers have landed in jail and the German bankers fled to Singapore to avoid a similar fate when financing fell through. Further distraught when her fed-up agent fires her over the telephone and she realizes she was only provided with a one-way ticket to India, the unkind Marigold relies on the kindness of strangers in the Bollywood film community as she tries a way back to the states.

Although instead of a temporary layover, her stay is lengthened the duration of a film shoot, when she’s shocked to discover that while blonde actresses are a dime a dozen in synthetic La La Land, in Goa, her exotic golden-tresses and experience working even in, as Kathy Griffin would call, D-List films, makes her a valuable commodity. Soon, the director is reworking his Bollywood production to feature Marigold in a starring role and although (much like Larter), her character has zero musical or dancing training, her new friends quickly take her under their wing, including the gorgeous and guileless choreographer Prem (Bollywood sensation Salman Khan). A romantic relationship predictably develops but culture clash and prior commitments (both with Marigold’s lackluster relationship back in the states and Prem’s familial obligations) threaten to get in their way.

A true fairy-tale for the film’s duration—tinged with beautiful visuals and featuring seven original songs about the various stages of love (of which only some are successful), Carroll’s Marigold is an earnest and warmly romantic guilty pleasure. And as the director noted on the DVD that it's an “affectionate homage” rather than a parody of the genre, he manages to produce a Bollywood-light film that even the uninitiated will find appealing without immersing themselves fully into the genre. Famous for their multiple-hour running times and sudsy plots that nonetheless engross (like the Academy Award-nominated three-hour “cricket-match musical,” Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India), Bollywood isn’t for everyone. Like sushi, country music, and the comedy of Dane Cook—you’re either a fan or you’re not and oftentimes it’s hard to analyze why.

While ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, I really enjoy the genre, I do grant that I couldn’t watch too many of them in a short time period. In the same token if pressed—genre-wise, I’d say that I wished I could spend one day living life as though it were a frothy French romantic comedy; American musicals would be a close second. With this in mind if you blended together the sweet with the sour of both genres and poured on the soapy melodrama while grating on generous amounts of cheese, you’ll have formulated the ultimate Bollywood musical that it’s fun to get lost in, at least for two hours.
However, while I’m a casual fan, writer/director Willard Carroll is a die-hard Bollywood devotee. The filmmaker, a few years back crafted one of my favorite underrated Altman-esque ensemble pieces, Playing By Heart (which I forced everyone I knew to rent). Afterwards, he found himself fascinated by the genre after only taking in one Bollywood musical--incidentally starring Khan-- when he was in India. When he arrived back in the states, complete with a new obsession, he programmed a one-man international film festival, absorbing, analyzing and viewing an admitted “150-200” films before he set out to begin crafting his own.

And although it will never top Playing By Heart which is still one of my favorite films—ironically Heart is one so synonymous with its cast (including Connery, Jolie, Rowlands etc.) that it wasn’t until after I began researching Marigold, that I even realized the helmer of this one was one and the same. Still, Marigold is affable Saturday afternoon fare for single girls or a lightweight date movie for nights curled up on the couch, sure to find a bigger audience on cable television, as long as-- that is-- Bollywood doesn’t send you running.
Yet unlike Gurinder Chadha’s Jane Austen inspired blend of American musicals and Bollywood fare—Bride and Prejudice—Carroll wanted to pay tribute to what he liked but avoid parroting the genre altogether in what could have been an unsuccessful satire. Couple this with the fact that—as he reveals on the DVD—Ali Larter was living in his guest home and suddenly one day while observing her doing laundry, he realized he had his very own remarkable leading lady to get the job done. And likewise, he gave her a chance as a friend and supportive professional that most in the industry wouldn’t have, as he says, believing in her even more than the actress does herself.
While unfortunately it's a bit skimpy on DVD extras, the studio more than makes up for it with a fascinating behind-the-scenes thirty-minute making-of featurette on the Marigold DVD, taking film lovers further into the cinematic process of such a visually stunning work. And although therein he admits that although the process of the two stars couldn’t have been more different with Larter’s cerebral questioning and longing for rehearsal and the veteran Khan who has the ability after the bare minimum of run-throughs to just complete a complicated number flawlessly, soon they inevitably clicked. And in doing so, much like the film itself—thereby managing to meld the west and east together in a very harmlessly yet unexpectedly entertaining way.


House Bunny (2008)

Even Elle Woods couldn’t “bend and snap”
this film into a success.


Director: Fred Wolf

In screenwriting team Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s big screen adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon taught Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a. Stiffler’s mom) how to “bend and snap” men into submission by offering them the most flattering view of their figures. However, while Witherspoon’s ditzy character’s transformation from sorority bimbo to Harvard law student garnered critical acclaim and award nominations, in recycling their Blonde script into the far more degrading House Bunny, McCullah Lutz and Smith offer us a film that’s all about the proverbial “bend” with none of the refreshing “snap” of Blonde’s witty dialogue. Although I didn’t worship Legally Blonde as much as most viewers, I still feel it’s a frothy, forgettable, and escapist film that served its purpose brilliantly in making us laugh after the tragic events of 9/11 (when it was re-released specifically for that purpose the second time that year) mostly due to Witherspoon’s undeniable charm.

Cut to seven years later and likewise the similarly themed Bunny benefits from the vastly underrated Anna Faris. She first caught my attention with her scene-stealing turn in Lost in Translation (until I realized that Sofia Coppola most likely modeled her on Cameron Diaz which makes the caricature seem a bit mean-spirited) and later impressed me again as one of the brightest additions to the final season of television’s hit show Friends.

In Strange Wilderness director Fred Wolf’s House Bunny (produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions), Faris is cast as Shelley Darlingson, a Playboy Bunny who’s ousted from Hef’s mansion the morning after she turns twenty-seven. No longer able to lounge around in bikinis at the pool, flirt with celebrities, shop on Hef’s dime or drive the company’s pink Prius, Shelley eventually lands in jail after being mistaken for a prostitute, which offered the writers the first opportunity to gently season their lighthearted comedy with a subtle commentary about Playboy’s objectification of women, yet they missed the mark completely.

Of course, after they’ve turned from ugly ducklings to Spice Girls, Shelley and the girls realize that inner beauty is what counts and in a perfunctory fashion the screenwriters try to work in this message half-heartedly far too late into the picture. Ultimately even the likable Anna Faris can’t make up for House Bunny’s complete lack of respect for the intelligence of its audience and especially its narrow and sexist view of women and men alike.

Let’s just say that McCullah Lutz and Smith may joke via Shelley that they “know what boys like,” but obviously they don’t know what thinking men and women like. And as a feminist who not only adores men but as a film lover — who has a circle of mostly male friends — I’m proud to say that a large majority of both genders will find this ridiculous. However, as a woman and one individual, I can only speak for myself in saying that when it comes to representing our gender, I rank McCullah Lutz and Smith in the same regrettable company as Dr. Laura along with the contestants on The Bachelor, Wife Swap, and America’s Next Top Model.

This is especially unfortunate as Faris, a sunny, guileless beauty who will do anything for a laugh, tries her hardest to make the script work, playing her role as a sort of cross between Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday. It’s definitely most notable when we realize that as a Playboy Bunny she’s never actually been on a real date and struggles with coming on first too ridiculously sexy and then as a faux intellectual. For the fullest effect, check out these priceless clips as she tries to win over Colin Hanks’ (yes, the son of Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks) earnest do-gooder over the course of two monumentally awful dates.

Date 1:

Date 2:

And you know it’s bad when Hugh Hefner earns the most audience sympathy in a few choice comedic scenes and our romantic leading man plays a character so one-dimensional, he may as well have just been dubbed “Shelley’s Date” instead of even given an actual name. Although he’s had little opportunity to prove himself in other work, Hanks is likable (it runs in his family after all) so therefore it’s woefully unfortunate that the writers were so compelled to include a romantic subplot that they didn’t even try to offer us anything new, creating yet another one of these bland, interchangeable, asexual, and neutered romantic comedy males (think Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed or Mark Ruffalo in 13 Going on 30). I couldn’t help but think that the film would’ve benefited from deleting his character altogether and making it solely about Shelley’s Pygmalion-like journey with the other girls as they each begin to bring out the best in one another. Although that wish was dashed from the start when it begins structured like a fairy-tale without a trace of irony with Hef’s mansion as the film’s version of a royal palace and Shelley’s ultimate goal to become a centerfold.

Admittedly, as ultimately a sorority plot-driven film, I knew it wouldn’t be as bold or daring as the Christina Ricci independent vehicle Pumpkin which found her superficial character overcoming prejudice in falling for a mentally disabled athlete. But after viewing these two early House Bunny scenes of Faris and the girls (shown below), I was sorely disappointed that when you have a cast filled with talented stars including both Emma Stone and Kat Dennings, it’s a shame that more wasn’t done with the young women’s storyline other than forcing Stone to go through a humiliating “sacrificing of the virgin” jello lava slide into punch at an Aztec-themed party.



Therefore, all in all, while Witherspoon’s Elle Woods will never be mistaken for a celebration of sexual equality, compared to Shelley Darlingson, she seems like a modern-day version of Gloria Steinem. And while I have no doubt that some will call my reaction to the film overly harsh and typical of my gender (and I predict, to misquote the title of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 epic, "There Will Be Comments"), I must assure you that it has nothing to do with those facts nor that as the same age as Shelley’s character, I’m not upset that the film informed me that I’m fifty-nine in bunny years.

No, instead, I just feel that wisdom should go along with age and no matter how old you are in bunny years, you’ll take it upon yourselves to seek out just what makes something truly funny and heartfelt for both men as well as women. And as Elle Woods might say, may I be as bold as to suggest going for something with much more “snap,” and a bit less “bend?”

Paranoid Park

"Skateboarding is not a crime…
unless it becomes one."


First Published on Blogcritics in my New Feature: Under the Radar:

Director: Gus Van Sant

Nobody does young male angst quite like Gus Van Sant. And over the course of more than twenty years it’s a landscape he returns to again and again throughout his filmmaking career. While some films are more successful than others, when evaluated as a body of work, Van Sant has painted an increasingly complex and irreplaceable portrait of moral and sexual ambiguity, coming-of-age amidst painful contemporary circumstances and above all, the evolving nature of masculinity during the last few decades.

Whether he’s chronicling the prescription pill popping robber Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy, casting River Phoenix as the narcoleptic gigolo who shares a Dustin Hoffman Midnight Cowboy-like affection for Keanu Reeves in the Shakespearean tinged My Own Private Idaho, or dealing with Joaquin Phoenix’s lust turned obsession with Nicole Kidman’s “bubble headed bleach blonde” in To Die For, he seems most comfortable with evaluating the lives of loners and outsiders.

And while he had his biggest hit with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s breakout Oscar winner Good Will Hunting, despite filming the thematically similar yet equally fascinating and overlooked Finding Forrester starring Sean Connery, Rob Brown, and Anna Paquin (with the only misstep being Connery’s ill-advised tagline of “You the man now, dog!”) he refused to play by the rules. Following up the more mainstream fare of both Good Will and Forrester along with the experimentally strange shot-by-shot color remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Van Sant returned to art house territory for what he refers to as his “Death trilogy.” Beginning with the Cannes Palme d’Or winner and unflinching Columbine-like Elephant (which Tom Hanks has cited as one of “his top five all-time favorite films”), he continued the thread with Damon and Casey Affleck’s wandering docudrama-like Gerry and the Kurt Cobain inspired Last Days.

However, old habits die hard and death continues to play a part of his most recent work Paranoid Park which won one of two awards it was nominated for at the Cannes Film Festival as well. Additionally, those who intend to check it out will do best to avoid watching the film’s spoiler heavy trailer and most major film reviews which reveal virtually every twist and turn of the subtle film’s plot.

With this in mind, I ask that you forgive a rather vague set-up to Park, but essentially it’s an artistic mood piece about the internal workings of a character as opposed to a standard by-the-numbers hero’s journey. This should come as no surprise since we all know by now — just as there are no legitimate villains — there are no heroes in the works of Gus Van Sant as all characters, even those involved in death, seem to reside firmly in the gray area in between.

And yet although its effects seep through every frame, it’s life and not death that’s the central focus of Park. No, rather like Michael Cuesta’s phenomenally brilliant and equally underrated Twelve and Holding, Paranoid Park shows how precarious life can be and the way we’re all affected by an unexpected passing; however instead of Cuesta’s young group of suburban tweens, Van Sant remains true to his favored demographic of the high school age.

Based on Blake Nelson’s novel and set in Portland Oregon, Park centers on its skateboarding lead character Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) who finds himself somehow involved in a death, of which the circumstances are revealed throughout the artistic tapestry woven by Van Sant in its roughly ninety minute running time. However, true to his age and Van Sant’s determination to keep things realistic in doing more than any director in recent memory in accurately portraying the struggle of males during their teens, Alex is also dealing with the disintegration of his parents' marriage. Couple this with the added pressure that arises when the subtly orientation-conflicted Alex finds that it’s he and not his virginal girlfriend — the pretty and popular cheerleader Jennifer (Gossip Girl’s Taylor Momsen) — who wants to put the brakes on their decision to go all the way, and you’re quick to understand that beneath the surface of the deceptively blank-faced gaze of Nevins’ Alex, lies a veritably figurative sea of angst.

And indeed, it’s hard to watch without — as an adult — wanting to somehow reach through the screen and intervene. For, when Alex is called to the principal’s office fairly early on into the movie and in a slowly paced walk choreographed to Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” which would no doubt have been left on the cutting room floor of most major film shoots, Alex’s true delicate nature is revealed and ironically, we understand that — despite the lyrics — he’s the one we desperately want to help.

Swan’s music is just one of several intriguing selections, along with a quintessential Van Sant inclusion of the late, great Elliot Smith (who virtually filled Good Will Hunting’s memorable soundtrack) as well as tracks from Beethoven, Frances White, Ethan Rose, and more predominantly numerous works from composer Nino Rota’s fascinating score for Federico Fellini’s experimental Juliet of the Spirits.

While in anyone else’s hands, making overwhelming use of classic Italian cinematic compositions may have been seen as pretentious, it works to tremendous effect here, helping to add to the film’s air of mystery as well as Paranoid Park’s strange melancholic sense of beauty, frustration, and compassion. Not to mention, when laid over the breathtaking cinematography by one of film’s truest modern day magicians, Christopher Doyle (who shot Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love as well as Philip Noyce’s Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence), it seems to form the ideal creation of yet another subtle Van Sant masterwork that emphasizes ambiguity in favor of easy answers and utilizes a near docudrama feel. Perhaps most significantly, above all, Paranoid Park remains true to not only his favorite theme but the one he excels in like no other craftsman — namely, depicting the portrait of a young man just trying to get by in the twenty-first century