DVD Review: How Do You Know (2010)

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Related Review:  
Broadcast News: Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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When it comes to the reception to James L. Brooks’ latest film, what went wrong had little to do with what Brooks did right in the creation of yet another under-appreciated minor gem – his second in a decade following the divided reaction to his previous effort Spanglish.

And while so much about this picture is so right, unfortunately far too few people know about it because everything about its overall release went wrong... so wrong in fact that even fewer people are aware of the perfect storm of misjudgment and miscalculation that lined up before the first screening commenced.

For starters, the decision to dub his beloved 1997 work As Good as it Gets was a gamble that paid off several times over in the form of repeat business, awards and accolades for master writer/director James L. Brooks.

Unfortunately for the filmmaker, history did not repeat itself in 2010 when his blandly titled How Do You Know became a box-office dud, bowing at number eight during its opening weekend before dropping off the chart completely three weeks later. Needless to say, it’s hard to remember to buy tickets for a film if you can’t remember the title.

Moreover, nothing screams “summer movie” quite like a smart, quick-witted breezy warm-weather set romantic comedy that finds Reese Witherspoon’s All-American Olympic veteran softball player torn between love with a major leaguer (Owen Wilson) and a businessman (Paul Rudd). Yet maddeningly, How Do You Know was released in the wrong season, sandwiched between serious awards contenders and franchise films hoping to score holiday cash.

Having been saddled with a bad trailer that began with the otherwise sweet-natured film's one comically vulgar Apatow-audience-friendly awkward joke uttered by a ballplayer in a bullpen, the hits to How just kept on coming.

Unfairly maligned by critics in addition to its forgettable title and blink-and-you-missed-it release in an over-crowded season, Brooks’s sophisticated and refreshingly sweet-natured film wasn’t even given the chance to become a word-of-mouth filmgoer success.

Yet fortunately thanks to a perfectly timed home entertainment release on Sony Blu-ray and DVD that coincides with the start of Spring – and likewise Spring Training for ballplayers everywhere – Brooks’s underrated sleeper-in-the-making How Do You Know has been given a second chance to make a much better first impression.

The film not only reunites the writer/director with longtime star Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as it Gets) but also finds Brooks returning to the same themes that have populated his oeuvre for decades on screens big and small from his groundbreaking work on TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show to his masterpiece Broadcast News and beyond.

Endlessly fascinated by the way that men and women relate to one another as well as how people communicate in general particularly through the device of a love triangle that ultimately questions the difference between what we “want” and what we “need,” Brooks balances out How’s love story with past preoccupations of family dynamics along with our fruitless struggle to keep work from spilling over into our personal lives.

An ambitious writer/director who respects his audience’s intellect, Brooks rebels against the idea that dialogue-driven humanistic “people movers” must only follow a single plot-strand and wrap up in ninety minutes by making “big” movies that emphasize real people over really expensive special effects.

Similar to the way that Jack Nicholson connected the Greg Kinnear neighbor plot in As Good as it Gets with Helen Hunt’s waitress, Brooks once again indulges his fondness for “putting two comedies under one roof” by linking together two separate storylines through an overlapping character via Reese Witherspoon’s relationships with two very different men in How.

The emphasis on Witherspoon is no accident after all as Brooks contacted the actress after seeing her Oscar winning role in Walk the Line and asked if he could write a film for her specifically.

Although initially, Paul Rudd’s energetic and at times overly animated performance as a businessman who’s been thrown an ethical, legal and life-changing curveball seems strongly influenced by Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, ultimately he wins us over along with the rest of the cast.

Through a beautiful marriage of writing and performance Rudd, Wilson and Witherspoon revel in the complexity of their evolving roles to the point that we even begin to second guess Owen Wilson’s perpetually cheerful, laid-back narcissistic jock as they reveal more layers from one act to the next.

A cinematic breath of fresh air given its respectful treatment of people both onscreen and off that never once cheapens a heartfelt moment with an emphasis on trendy scatology or illogical shortcuts, How manages that rare romantic comedy feat of making old scenes new with some inventive twists.

Thus, what went wrong in December 2010 was easily canceled out by what went right on set. From a phone call made outside the window of the man Witherspoon wanted to see (a reverse Romeo and Juliet) to a blind dinner date wherein the man and the woman make a vow not to speak, you know you’re charmed by the idea of falling in love in How Do You Know when you realize to your sheer delight that you’ve never seen anything like it before.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Criterion Collection DVD Review: Fish Tank (2009)

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If an aquarium is too small, fish being housed in the tank may become stunted – overwhelmed and doomed to give into their environment – unable to fully grow and mature to the level that they should.

While being a contemporary teenage girl is a little like being a fish on display in a tank anyway given the overly-sexualized roles young women are pushed to perform as mirrored back on television through music videos and reality shows, it's twice as hard when the emotional fish bowl experience is also physical as lived in the veritable fish tank of a modern day housing project.

For regardless of how much has changed over centuries the one thing that's stayed the same since the days of Ancient Rome is the treatment of the “have nots” by the “haves” in power in governments around the world, which have opted to house society’s working classes in tight living quarters.

Whether it’s in the American “projects,” Scottish “schemes” or English “council estates,” et al. it’s become common practice to cram hundreds upon hundreds of disadvantaged and diverse strangers in tenements, knowing full well that the environments will stunt the growth of generations given the byproducts of violence, drugs, prostitution, and/or gangs that some of the “fish” in the ill-equipped tanks turn to in an attempt to survive.

And in the aptly titled Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winning Fish Tank, Oscar winning British filmmaker Andrea Arnold plays against mainstream cinema’s tendency to tackle these issues with either pitch-black or rose-colored glasses via exploitative gangs, guys and guns gritty crime movies or uplifting underdog tales of breakdancers or ballerinas who become Broadway stars.

The result is a refreshingly realistic, painful yet poignant female-centric portrait of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a restless, angry fifteen year old girl with an uncertain future who’s fully aware that she’ll be trapped in the same Essex council estate she shares with her disinterested, abusive overgrown “party girl” mother (Kierston Wareing) if she doesn’t break free.

Literally butting her head against all that she knows in the film’s extended opening sequence as Mia uses her head to break the nose of an old group of friends who’ve turned their back on her, her desire to escape manifests itself in her love of hip hop dancing and her fruitless, futile attempts to free an old horse that’s chained up down the road.

Even hearing that the horse is ill, near death and likewise best left as is on the property doesn’t prevent Mia from returning again and again, stubbornly sure that like her, the horse must be longing to run free and needs an accomplice to assist in the getaway.

Mia finds an enigmatic, charismatic accomplice all her own after becoming fascinated and – to our alarm – finding her growing attraction reciprocated by her mother’s staggeringly handsome, new young beau Connor, played by Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre and Hunger star Michael Fassbender.

The opposite of a Mena Suvari like American Beauty or young Lolita, prone to wearing baggy pants and ponytails in stark contrast to her bikini clad foul mouthed little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), the less overtly sexual Mia is at once flattered by the paternal attention of Connor as she is confused yet drawn in by his lingering gazes and conspiratorial connection to encourage her love of dance.

Whereas in someone else’s hands, this set-up could’ve easily abandoned its roots as a fly-on-the-wall docudrama and become a salaciously sudsy melodramatic two hour soap, Arnold never wavers in her starkly matter-of-fact Ken Loach by way of Truffaut’s 400 Blows styled approach, despite the fact that it’s pretty easy to predict two of the plot twists regarding Connor long before they’re revealed in the final act.

Unflinchingly realistic to a near-excruciatingly intense fault in an overly long segment wherein Mia rebels in the harsh light of new information by taking her frustration out on a completely innocent party, to Arnold’s credit, even when the work changes course and we find ourselves in a horrific situation, the emotional payoff feels completely natural and true.

Following in the footsteps of post-World War II Italian neorealist filmmakers who cast amateurs in lead roles, Arnold’s Fish Tank is anchored by an amazingly authentic debut performance by newcomer Jarvis who was discovered having a public argument with her boyfriend at a railway station.

And similar to the way that parents don’t always know where there kids are, what they’re doing or what the day will bring, Tank was filmed chronologically with strict adherence to the Loach technique. Namely, the first-rate cast only received the pages for the scenes they’d be filming one week at a time and with no intentional information of what occurred in shots in which they didn’t take part until – as in Wareing’s case – they saw the completed film at Cannes.

And fortunately emphasis on realism on set wasn’t lost in translation via this filmmaker supervised and approved Criterion Collection debut which was crisply transferred with “2k resolution from the original 35 mm camera negative” and also boasts a trio of Arnold’s short films including the Oscar winning Wasp.

In addition to other behind-the-scenes featurettes, the Criterion release also offers one of its strongest essay booklets in recent memory thanks to an exceedingly well-written piece from Scorsese on Scorsese co-editor Ian Christie that analyzes Fish Tank’s significance and relation to thematically similar British fare, while applauding Arnold’s refreshing and cinematically rare decision to make her “fish” an independent young woman.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Criterion Collection DVD Review: Senso (1954)

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Similar to the way that Chabrol's Le Beau Serge was overshadowed by Truffaut's 400 Blows and Godard's Breathless as the often forgotten first work of the French New Wave, when you think of Italian Neorealism, it's safe to say that De Sica's Bicycle Thief and Rossellini's Rome, Open City trump any memories of Luchino Visconti's Obsessione, which ushered in the movement.

A far cry from carefree “white telephone” pictures centered on lives lived in luxury far removed from any reality of the World War II era, though Obsessione was less concerned with overt politics than the aforementioned Neorealist works, the brilliant but unauthorized Postman Always Rings Twice adaptation took a stark look at life, lust and death.

In addition to inspiring a new naturalistic approach to telling intimate stories of everyday Italians, Visconti inspired himself as well from a topical rather than a technical perspective, revisiting these themes in his career changing technicolor debut feature Senso in 1954.

Moving away from Neorealist docudrama to indulge his own obsessione with heightened melodrama, Visconti showcased his passion for passion in the painterly near-operatic Italian production, which was recut, rewritten (by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles), re-dubbed and re-released in the United States as the poorly received Wanton Countess.

Very loosely based on the eponymous novela by Camillo Boito, Visconti's Senso is – as the title implies – a sensationally sensuous feast for the senses, even if admittedly it's about as relatable as the “white telephone” pictures that Visconti rallied against with the creation of Neorealism.

Foreshadowing Visconti's future as an opera director while hearkening to his background in costume-making with an exquisite attention to detail, the technically influential yet ultimately disappointing Senso is lovely to look at but impossible to understand on anything other than an overall plot level.

Bogged down by the film's overwhelmingly silly non sequitur filled English language subtitled conversations between our doomed lovers, Senso is further hindered by Third Man actress Alida Valli's thoroughly unlikable main character, Livia, an Italian countess who betrays her family and country during 1866 Italian-Austrian wartime by embarking on a torrid affair with Farley Granger's manipulative Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler.

Though critically panned upon its initial release and heavily censored in Italy where it incidentally bankrupt the studio funding the picture, Visconti's Senso has nonetheless gained new appreciation by Italian cinema scholars as a watershed work in the legendary director's career as well as a melodramatic masterpiece for its celebratory aesthetic hybrid of opera, theatre, film, fashion, and art.

Likewise since it's the type of work you'd rather hang on your wall or show just before a hyper-stylized work by Luhrmann or Almodovar rather than watch on its own merit, Senso is fittingly more luscious than ever in Criterion's Martin Scorsese color-corrected restoration that's sure to appeal to die-hard Visconti admirers, thanks to the inclusion of The Wanton Countess and a plethora of historical featurettes.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

 FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.