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The Convincer (2011)
A Great Con Movie - Done Midwestern Style
The swindle, the bamboozle, the big Con. A favorite subject for filmmakers for nearly a century now. The game is basically always the same, but the players are what makes for a great con movie. "Thin Ice" (previously titled at Sundance 2011 as "The Convincer") goes white-collar crime, the legal kind, just look in your phone book and you might find your own convincer, the local Insurance salesman.
"Thin Ice" directed by Jill Sprecher, is Sprecher's return to feature films after her well received "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing". Alan Arkin, returns to team up again with Sprecher and is joined on screen with "Little Miss Sunshine" cohort Greg Kinnear to create a thoroughly enjoyable tale of Midwestern simplicity and the everyday Con man with a silver tongue. An old man with an unfathomably rare violin crosses paths with an insurance salesman at the end of his rope, what unfolds across the frozen terrain of Wisconsin is a wonderful bit of storytelling The film has a solid cast of players, alongside Kinnear and Arkin, Billy Cudrup has a solid little role. David Harbour delivers a gem of a performance and the fantastic Bob Balaban is always a welcome addition to any movie.
Much of the effectiveness of the movie, which could easily have been a rehash of all the movies before it, is in its Midwestern point of view and ability take your average insurance man and peel away the layers to observe how the art of lying creates a life of constant deceit that will eventually take it's toll. Mickey the insurance man(Kinnear) trolls 24/7 for a mark to give his sales pitch, but when he crosses paths with the simple farmer Gorvy the amount of deceit he will need to get the big payday pushes him to cross even lines he never dreamt of going.
A unusual relationship forms between the insurance man and the farmer, as Mickey is forced into a role of caregiver as he circles the rare violin in hopes of selling it for big money. "Thin Ice" unfolds through these series of encounters between Mickey and Gorvey and tension builds at a detailed pace towards Mickey's eventual ultimate deceit. Mickey's life is falling apart around him, ultimately their is no back-up plan, at any and all costs his existence is tied to the old man and the violin.
The film maintains a steady pace, each detail is thoroughly absorbed and clearly never losing sight that its all building up to, not if, but when Mickey will cross the line from white-collar liar to criminal. Although "Thin Ice" is a fascinating take on the relationship between a simple Midwest farmer and convincing insurance man, it is foremost a story of the consequences of lying and when those lies will come back to haunt you.
Thus the story takes a dramatic turn as Mickey unwillingly teams with a local ex-convict locksmith(Billy Cudrup) to break into Gorvy's home to get his prize violin. Things don't go at all as planned and soon Mickey is dealing with a whole nother type of crime. The killing kind. What unfolds through the second half of the movie is a masterful touch of high tension and bumbling amateur criminal misbehaving.
Though the film will undoubtedly be compared to a few other con movies, Fargo comes to mind though that's primarily just scenery correlation, "Thin Ice" is very much original. The strength of this film is the wonderfully acted script that is sharp and nearly without flaw. The movie could not have had better pieces then Kinnear and Arkin who are brilliantly matched and thoughtfully reminiscent of their real life counterparts.
This thoroughly engaging and captivating little tale works from beginning to end. If one were to focus on possible weaknesses it would only be that true to it's Midwestern stylings its not overly flashy Nor particularly gritty compared to slicker studio productions. That being said "Thin Ice" is completely its own film and gives very little to dislike.
The Details (2011)
Great Performances Can't Save The Details
The Details begins with a pleasant enough introduction and promises of a humorously dark spin on suburbia . With a stellar cast that offers up top notch performances the movie moves along with a theme-park roller-coaster like flow between comedy and tragedy. Certainly humorous and at times truthful, the movie has a Jekyll & Hyde flow that creates a whole lesser then its pieces.
A seemingly perfect couple, Jeff the Doctor (Tobey Maguire) and the beautiful Nealy (Elizabeth Banks) are in a rough patch in their stale marriage. Two ill advised home improvement ventures lead Jeff to a run in with some pesky raccoons and a even more pesky encounter with a crazy cat lady neighbor(Laura Linney). Doctor Jeff's life begins to unravel as he tries to navigate his way through bribery, blackmail and his urge to feel some sort of spark that is missing from his marriage. A woeful tale of infidelity gone bad unfolds that leads the Doc down a slippery slope. He tries to cure his woes with a few doses of philanthropy, but no good deed goes unpunished, its the details that always gets you in the end.
The performances by the cast are top notch, Toby Maguire as Dr. Jeff gives a complex performance that is humorous, emotional and sympathetic. Elizabeth Banks has flashes of brilliance, the last 10 minutes give glimpses of what more her character could have offered had the filmmakers seen the opportunity. Lauara Linney is comic genius in a turn that is right up there with her best. Dennis Haysbert and Ray Liotta give very pure performances. This movie couldn't have asked for better side players which only makes it more disappointing that the filmmakers didn't create a better landscape.
The Details has brilliant moments of humor, but its see-saw approach between gags and edge of darkness stuff keep it in a gray area which can only be successful in the most polished of hands (e.g. American Beauty). Ironically its in the details, where the Details fails. There are numerous moments in the film where just a few tweaks could have kept it from flying off the tracks. The lasting impression is an attempt at modern story telling that wastes excellent performances by not keeping a tighter grip on the story.
I expect some buzz about the film after its initial premiere. Tobey Maguire gives a fabulous performance and gives all that he could, however once this sort of film is removed from the gloomy shadows of the downer films that typically makes up most of Sundance it probably won't fair very well. Shame really, this could have been a more significant film.
The Romantics (2010)
The Romantics is a Charmer
At first glance The Romantics gives the impression that it might be one of those trendy new value packed romantic comedies laced with bits and pieces of top talent aimed at getting fans in the seats but offers little in the way of good story telling. A good example being the dull "He's Just Not That Into You" or the recent "Valentine's Day". Luckily the Romantics is not one of those types of films, in contrast it's a true ensemble piece where the actors work stronger as a unit then alone. The casting by long time producer, first time feature length Director Galt Niederhoffer is near pitch perfect and the players work together seamlessly to create a smart story about the unpredictability of love and how we may get older and wander but some things just never change.
The Romantics are a crew of preppy (former J.Crew models from the looks of their cloths) late 20 somethings that come together on a Hamptonish Long Island estate for their friend Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom's (Josh Duhamel) wedding. Lila has asked her old college roommate and friend Laura (Katie Holmes) to be her maid of honor. This a rather devious gesture by Lila because Laura has a long standing history with the groom Tom. Of course with the old gang getting together again Laura must push through the torment and do her part at the wedding. The friends are all well aware of the tension between Lila, Tom and Laura and expect fireworks to fly before the the wedding bells ring. Tensions begin to build at the wedding rehearsal dinner before kicking off a wild night that finds old lovers reuniting and old friends rediscovering themselves.
The Romantics asks the question is the nostalgia of our past love just a sugar coated flashback or is that first true love the most pure and most enduring love? From what we can gather here, there is no clear answer only a process of trying to understand ones true feelings. The Romantics stays true to the process, allowing the events of the movie to unfold in a very honest and rewarding manner . Where other lesser films might try to force the jokes and push forward to a obviously predictable ending the Romantics is at its best when it focuses simply on people's feelings and the raw emotion of the moment.
What is abundantly clear after viewing this movie is that Katie Holmes is a really great actress, not good, great . Believable, honest and fragile, in the role of Laura she elevates the material here and there leaves little doubt that she deserves consideration on her own merits sans her TomKat status. Additionally Josh Duhamel delivers a very rewarding performance , he brings a lot of charm and honesty to the performance. His chemistry here with Katie works incredibly well.
The entire cast all have there moments in the Romantics, however its hard not to see that many of the players here deserved more screen time and more chance for developmet. Elijah Wood in particular needed more face time, he is an absolute riot fest here. To add to that Dianna Agron of Glee fame turns out a great little performance as Anna Paquin's sister in the movie. Strikingly gorgeous and infatuating on screen Dianna is a star in the making, her moments with Anna were gems. Fans of Malin Ackerman, Anna Paquin and Adam Brody will probably feel let down that each star didn't receive a bit better treatment, however there are still little treats in each of the their performances which should satisfy most fans.
Cyrus Loves His Mother and the Duplass Brothers Get Even Better
If you have followed the fantastic rise of the brothers Duplass from their early no budget shorts film days to their breakout low budget Sundance hit Puffy Chair and the equally good follow-up Baghead then you likely had to wonder what kind of movie they were making in Cyrus; which in contrast to the other movies appears to have considerable industry financial backing and bona fide Hollywood stars. The main concern here is that the brothers other movies are distinctly low budget and free wheeling (AKA "Mumblecore" indie movement), thats what makes them great in many ways and lets be honest the expectations for those first two movies were nil. When you aren't expecting a lot and get something pretty good back in return its going to seem really great. In Cyrus their are expectations, one only needs to see their prime opening Saturday night premier at Sundance to see just how far these guys have come. That works out pretty well though for the brothers, because they deliver a great film. Cyrus is distinctly indie and personal but isn't so much so that it scares off the mainstream.
Cyrus is the story of a lonely divorcée John (John C. Reilly), who upon finding about his ex-wife's (Catherine Keener) impending nuptials has the unlikely fortune of getting caught with his pants down in a drunken act of buffoonery by the enchanting Molly (Marisa Tomei). Strangely enough Molly isn't frigthened off by John's drunken antics and heartfelt lonely ramblings which she finds endearing and honest. A bit of romance ensues and as John pursues further he eventually comes to find out that Molly has a 21 year old son who lives at home with her and has an oddly close relationship with his mother. John being the good guy that he is tries to make the best of the situation before Cyrus makes life a complete living hell for John and a bizarre rivalry ensues that will try the relationship of boyfriend, mother and son.
John C Reilly has always had a great gift at humor and that is no different here, him and Jonah Hill have a brilliant comedic dynamic that at times is beautifully subtle and other times in your face. What might be the Duplass trademark is the way they bring out real honesty in the performances by all three stars. Reilly gives one of his best performances and Jonah Hill has easily his best here. It is hard to say underrated but has Marisa Tomei ever not been stellar in the last few years? . Her performance is the glue that holds together the movie, with the insanity revolving around her character is believably sweet and endearing.
Cyrus undoubtedly will be compared to the works of Judd Apatow, this isn't unwarranted but in truth the Apatow films feel much bigger and less personal then Cyrus and maybe have a bit less heart. We will have to wait and see if the mainstream audiences is eager to give the Duplass brand of comedy a shot, but regardless this looks like the beginning of something much bigger.
Not Much Beauty Found in this Chaos
The movie Hesher arrives at Sundance with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's star on the rise and heightened anticipation post- 500 Days of Summer to see just how far he can go. One would think that with accomplished starlet Natalie Portman co-piloting this dramedy that Hesher would be a potent indie. Unfortunately, while JGL literally burns up the screen, the rest of the movies chaotic fire only dimly flickers.
The movie tells a tale of a grieving boy, TJ (Devin Brochu), whose mother recently passed away in a car accident and is struggling to deal with a rather nasty high school bully. During his travels TJ comes across a rather unlikable sort who goes by the name of Hesher (JGL). As the name would hint, Hesher is all balls out and heavy metal. Obnoxious, uninhibited and straight out dangerous Hesher brings a strange mix to TJ's family dynamic that includes his equally grief ridden father (Rainn Wilson) and his salt of earth Grandmother. Strangely enough Hesher offers the family an unlikely distraction that fascinates them all. As TJ stumbles along with the devil (Hesher) sitting on his shoulder he finds a kindred spirit in the form of Nicole the local grocery check out gal (Natalie Portman).Through a strange set of events TJ,Hesher and Nicole create a weird little triumvirate. With building intensity Hesher's brand of chaos begins to spark a flame in TJ that will transform his grief into a powerful force for good and also bad. Much like a wildfire everything must burn down to the ground in order to be rebuilt again.
The character Hesher is mesmerizing and at times extremely funny. Surely Joseph Gordon-Levitt saw a complex character that he could really have fun with, and indeed the end results show just that. Let it be clear that in terms of quality this is another great turn by JGL and another stepping stone on his way to becoming one of the best actors of his generation. That being said Hesher the movie feels disjointed, at times the movie's is too ugly and it leaves a bad taste that makes it hard to rebound for the laughs. To that end, while lurid the movie's strongest parts are its humorous ones which unfortunately are far too short lived. Speaking of short lived, Natalie Portman sees very little screen time and is dreadfully under used. Rainn Wilson as the depressed father turns out a great performance, after seeing this it seems that the Office dweeb has a lot more to offer then Dwightisms. Additionally, Devin Brochu as the young TJ is no slouch and really gives a powerful performance at his tender age, his rage is believable and at times tough to watch.
While there are good performances here the story simply does not allow for attachment or a truly rewarding pay off. The end results feel like JGL highlights with little else that really makes a lasting impression.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
They said this movie wasn't going to be a love story, but that's simply not true cause I feel all warm and fuzzy after watching this flick. I think it's Love. How could you not love this movie, this a story about a guy named Tom who wants to be an architect but ends up working a meaningless job at a greeting card company creating romantical propaganda on paper. Luckily for him the most perfect girl in the world, Summer, just started working at his office and wouldn't you know it, she loves The Smiths, too. It's a match made in Ikea Heaven, but wait there is a twist here! This goddess of all things shabby chic doesn't believe in love, furthermore she doesn't want to be held down by a relationship. Oh No! Poor Tom. Those ocean blue eyes, that voice, that smile, those eyes.... oh those eyes, how could Tom not fall deeply in love with Summer. So begins the season of love, the 500 Days of Summer. In 500 amazing days Tom will learn about relationships, reconciliations (a good Ex never dies), Love, Lose and most importantly about moving forward.
Now talk about great performances, this ones got two. You want Zooey, you got Zooey. She's all over this one, easily one of her top performances to date. She is simply truth in this movie, she'll make you love her and then she'll slowly break your heart but you'll just want to love her more until all you see are those glowing blue eyes in your loneliest nightmares. Joseph Gordon Levitt is so prime here, the chemistry between he and Zooey clicks perfectly and not only that but since every woman,man and child is in love with the knee bending powers of Ms. Deschanel it must be said that JGL gives such a strong performance that he clearly owns this movie all the way till the very end. You might come on down to the cinema looking for Zooey but you'll be rushing home to hit up the IMDb to see what the 3rd' Rock kids been up to over the last 8 ( hint... see 2005's Brick). While watching JGL's performance it's pleasantly reminiscent of a pre-Brokeback Heath. He has such a charm about him that glows and an easy smile that jumps off the screen, plus much like Heath he has the chops to take it dark and lonesome with sincerity if the flick requires. The rest of the cast rounds out nicely with a few supporting folks like Clark Gregg who plays Tom's square Boss and Geoffrey Arend who is good for a few good sidekick chuckles. By the way special shout out to Ian Reed Kesler who played the "Douche" (IMDBs words not mine) with perfection. That must have been an interesting audition call.. looking for 30-something dude to play the "Douche". Well Played Sir!
Now the dynamic duo aside, Marc Webb the Director has got a little something-something going on. Past sins aside (directing Jesse McCartney videos, WTF?), it seems that his music video hipness lends a freshness and style to the overall appearance of this flick. The movie very rarely missed its mark and by golly its got real DEPTH!. Needless to say this makes it quite a bit more interesting then the latest McConaughey (dude what happened, you were so cool in Dazed) and Kate Hudson needs a paycheck mindless studio romance. You'll have lots to talk about and feelings to relive long after this ones stopped rolling the credits. Additional strong points here are a visual aesthetic that has a modern meets Capraesque remix, which felt very much built around Zooey Deschanel's fabulous style. The colors and landscape are all complimentary to the movie, downtown LA never looked so nice! The other thing we got going on here is a killer soundtrack, built around some Smiths, Doves, and a few others, not mention the fact that once again we get a chance to hear Zooey Deschanel do a little karaoke in the movie which is a tasty little treat.
Bottom line 500 Days is going to be on your mind in 2009 and chances are that like a good EX it will always pop back in your life and you'll dust if off and pop it in the player and go down memory lane remembering all good stuff, then like a swift punch in the gut like only a good EX can, it'll break your heart all over again.
See it, believe it.
In the Loop (2009)
Get In the Loop
Is it a work of fictional farce or an insightful view of the members of the governmental bureaucracy? Probably in truth, In The Loop is a little bit of both, but more so its a whole lot of fun at the governments expense. There have been numerous films over the years giving us insight into how our government works, at times it sure looks bleak and unjust, but we sure haven't seen it in such a ridiculous view. In The Loop aims at making sure they scrutinize the bureaucratic desk jocks for all their worth. The film follows the Minister of International Development (Tom Hollander) after he has put his foot in his mouth, unintentionally announcing that war is unforeseeable. Back tracking and word-smith manipulations prove mute, fortunately for the Minister he's got big fans in the US who would like nothing more then to use the naive Brit in their political posturing. The hawks begin circling and before the Minister knows what game he's playing he's into deep and merely a puppet in the political theater.
There is a hint of a serious political thriller in the plot here, but In The Loop knows we've seen all that before so why not have a little fun, actually why not have a whole lot of fun and throw in lots of scalding four letter words and absolute British wit. Tom Hollander as the Minister of I.D. is dumb-foundingly perfect in his role and is well complemented by his bungling assistant Oliver (played exceptionally by Chris Addison). As the Director of Communications, Peter Capaldi steals the show with his relentlessly scathing superhuman vulgarity ridden wit. Those with a distaste for such colorful language should look elsewhere as their ears will certainly be on fire if they can last through a third of the film. Personally the language was not a problem for me, I appreciate a master of the finer words, and Capaldi has shown himself to deliver his lines with such craftsmanship that sailors around the world will be put to shame.
The Brits are a fantastic mess, but of course what international mess would be complete without the United States Govt.. And so comes the behemoth know as James Gandolifini, the Don Capo hasn't lost any of his on-screen presence. As the ol' war vet Pentagon General, Gandolfini is gruff and verbally abusive in a really mean spirited way, which is glorious. Those with a keen sense of cinema will notice how well the film shifts humor as the Brits come across the pond to the the dry humor of America. Gandolfini makes the most of his screen time, but on the American side the majority of the ridiculousness comes from Mimi Kennedy, as the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy and her bickering 20 something Capital Hill brown nosing assistants. Director Armando Ianucci's delivers such a cynical sharp witted look at all things politically ridiculous and it works on so many levels. Fans of British humor will love this, its pureness to the form is perfectly meshed into the political platform that moves the comedy along with merely a few small bumps in the road. On the other side of the coin, those who enjoy making fun of those of the diplomatic persuasion will delight in the roasting of our governmental members.
The Winning Season (2009)
It's a Winner!
Just got back from seeing the premiere of The Winning Season at Sundance 09' and couldn't be more thrilled to report back that we have a winner.
The basic elements of the story are familiar; down in out coach finds a second chance with a bunch of scrubs and you know the rest. The Winning Season isn't groundbreakingly different from its ancestors, but just enough in all the right places to make this "dramedy" a very rewarding viewing. Audiences familiar with typical indie fare, will find that The Winning Season is indeed cut from an indie mold. The Winning Season does not gloss over the coach's failures, his abusiveness or the realities of the steep obstacles he faces. This is a good thing though, because being able to see the dark nature of the human condition makes the successes all that much more enjoyable. The strength of the The Winning Season is in its balances and ultimately the director/writers decision to allow humor and healing to be the driving force as the movie plays out. Far too often indie films allow their depressive themes to run rampant in what appears to be an effort to increase anti-depressant sales. There a lot of folks who think of any movie labeled as a "dramedy" to be fluff or mainstream box office disguising itself as an indie movie, but I would beg to differ. There is always room for reality and laughter to co-exist in a uniquely indie vision, and in the end movies should be allowed to make the viewer feel rewarded. The Winning Season aims to do that, and it's pretty much hit that mark.
On to the cast, Sam Rockwell (always underrated) is right on the money with his performance that never waivers from the lead characters self destructive nature as well as delivering such wonderfully dry humor that you keep thinking to yourself why isn't this guy getting more credit for being such a great actor. The young women in the film who make up the team are terrific and give such a sweetness to each of their roles, Emma Roberts in particular is fantastically clever in her role. Also, what a bonus to have Rob Coddry of Daily Show fame, as the goofy principle he just adds the right comedic touches to the scenes between he and Rockwell. Finally James Strouse, coming off two other well received Sundance films, ups his game here and brings a very strong effort. He should have very little problem getting more gigs with this type of quality output.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
Gael & Diego Entertain But The Story Telling Is Average
I just screened this new flick out of Mexico at the Sundance 09' Premiere. I went into the movie very pleased to see the two ultra talents Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna reunited on screen with the filmmakers that brought us the classic Y tu Mama Tambien. Luna and Bernal are tremendous actors and their chemistry on screen is evident from the start, and throughout the movie they bring life to the two main characters Beto (Luna) and Toto (Bernal). Beto is rough, tough, and determined, Toto is unassuming, curious and also determined though in a more naive way. The story follows the two brothers lives as they go from "hick" banana farmers to professional futbol stars. The strength of the movie is in the diversity of the two brothers transition from nobodies to somebodies and how one brother embraces the fame and all its opportunities while the other is unable to leave behind his reckless habits. The background to the brotherly chaos is the insanity of the Mexican futbol league that is corrupt,cutting and beautiful at the same time. The rise to fame is glorious, but what must go up must come down. The weakness of the film is ultimately the sudden downturn which may be, as the director later told the audience, true to the Mexican way, but this truth hurts the film when it needs a golden ball to lift its spirits. In this day and time, why not give a little hope, a little success to those who would hope to succeed even though they can't help but screw it up? To each his own, but the pay off is not nearly as sweet, and not nearly as meaningful as one would hope for the two brothers.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
Surprisingly Great Comedy - Elisabeth Shue is Marvelous!
Screened this surprise comedy gem at Sundance 2008, and judging from the reaction of festival goers this is the best of the fest. The story is about Dana Marschz (Coogan) who is a complete and utter failure as an actor. As such the only gig he can get is teaching drama at a low funded Tuscon, Az high school. His wife (Keener) isn't too happy with the living conditions which includes little money and a random roomie (Arquette) to help pay the bills. As luck would have it though Dana's life is about to change. His drama class unexpectedly inherits a bunch of misfit kids who need more then a little motivation, then Dana has a chance encounter with the goddess that is Elisabeth Shue who now lives in Tuscon and works as a nurse because she is sick of Hollywood. To top things off Dana has just one last chance at creating a masterpiece before the curtain comes down for the final time. By shear will and a good bit of madness Dana creates Hamlet 2, which very well could be the most horrible play in human existence. Short on talent but strong on enthusiasm the group of misfit students come together to bring to life Dana's opus. With both disastrous and beautiful results Dana's masterpiece thrills and amazes in what can only be called a very interesting movie going experience.
I don't want to over hype the film, its certainly not Little Miss Sunshine, but it can hold its own with the smart and hip comedies that we've come to expect from the indie circuit. Steven Coogan finally has his vehicle to break through to the American cinema and it should definitely increase all our awareness of his comedic genius. More unexpectedly though the best part of the show is Elisabeth Shue who is so fantastic playing a parody of herself. Certainly one of my favorite on screen performances in a long while. Aside from the actors, you can expect a nifty little group of musical sequences that are both funny and actually performed quite well by the talented young folks in the flick. Movie should work on all levels, there is some questionable material, but if you don't take risks in comedy you aren't going anywhere new which is exactly why this is a comedy worth watching.
Josh Hartnett's Best Film To Date
Screened this at the Sundance 2008 Festival. This movie actually caught me by surprise, it was very hip and surprisingly Josh Hartnett really brought it. The movie has a modern "Wall Street" type vibe, the story follows Tom (Hartnett) who is a super confident .com entrepreneur who is in crisis mode during the downward spiral of the .com stock bust just before September 2001. Hartnet nails this role with high energy output and makes this a very watchable flick. Austin Chick the director is obviously very talented and throws just the right amount of style and cool music into the film to keep it slick and contemporary which should broaden its appeal past just the Gen-X group. The one downside is that the film gives the other characters so little room to make their presence felt, especially David Bowies character who gets only a few minutes of face time. Other then that the movie really has a nice pace and the ending worked very well when you consider all the superficial things that Americans thought they cared about until Sept 2001, and then realized there are somethings much more important then money and stature.
Film should get some nice play on the indie circuit, though indie folks probably will be hard swayed to pay over for a Hartnett movie. I would reckon that Josh Hartnett will win over some who doubted him with this performance and maybe even get a little award type talk. I know its hard for me to believe either :)
Lost in Translation on the Ball Field - A Beautiful Portrait of Latin American Ball Players
Screened this film at its premiere during Sundance 2008. The main appeal for most coming to see this movie was to see what the team behind Half Nelsen could do on the second go around. And for the most part those who enjoy quality film-making will find many positives here, though this is a completely different film then Half. Much like Half Nelsen the cast feels authentic and the characters are very understated and come across with very true to life performances. The main issue with audience appreciation will hinge mostly on their interest in baseball. Serious baseball fans will most likely look differently at the Latin America ball players and the MLB system once they witness what is a very accurate portrait of the trials and tribulations of the foreign players. Sure most folks know about the great Latin players like Pedro, and David Ortiz, etc,, but do they know about players like Migual "Suger" Santos? The answer is probably not and I believe the filmmakers succeeded in creating a film that makes us think about what life is like for all those players we don't get to see under the bright lights and on the baseball cards. Its all very fascinating stuff for baseball fans to ponder and think about, those none baseball fans may find it slightly dull but with an open mind its still a beautiful portrait of a young mans journey to America.
First off, the lead actor Algenis Perez Soto is fantastic, it is unbelievable how great his performance here is when you consider that he has absolutely no acting experience at all. They literally pulled this kid off a ball field in the Dominican and stuck him in front of a camera. The rest of the cast is great as well and similarly most are not trained actors since the makers or the film wanted authentic ballplayers. From whats been said this is most likely going to be a HBO release on TV and I think thats a great spot for this film as its definitely too small and too specific a subject for a wide release. I highly encourage baseball fans to check this out when they get the chance.
The Escapist (2008)
A Great Escape
Seen at Sundance Premiere 2008. Within the first 2 minutes of the Escapist you know your buckled in and you won't be getting up till the credits start rolling, and thats just how it is. In the tradition of the Bird Man of Alcatraz, Great Escape, Cool Hand Luke and other greats of the prison break genre you can add the Escapist. The feel is modern but the setup is old school and true to the genre in a familiarly comforting way. Director Rupert Wyatt has created a fantastic action film with intelligent sequencing and a meaningful ending that makes you remember its indie roots. What is even more amazing though is the (((sound))) , it is insane! The sounds of the prison are so real and chilling in their quiet way, then when the action hits its like a tidal wave of sound hitting all you senses. Rarely does a new flick come along with such wide potential that brings new ideas and old ones together so well. I'm left extremely impressed by all involved. Movie will be best seen on the big screen with high quality sound, I imagine American audiences will not show this as much love as they should do to the lack of big names but I suspect the UK will embrace this very well.
A Beautifully Shot Thriller in the Cold
Just screened this great film at Sundance 2008 and came away very pleased with the experience. It appears that Director Brad Anderson has successfully created a modern thriller worthy of attention. The backdrop of this film is the wondrous Transsiberian Express railway which in itself makes this completely watchable and makes for fantastic cinematography. The story takes us along the railway with Jesse (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody) who are taking the trek as an adventure after a stint in China. The two Americans find themselves befriended by a young couple Carlos and Amby (I think thats her name,the character was played by Kate Mara) who themselves are traveling around Russia. After some time together an awkward friendship forms between Jesse and Carlos who has several different motives. As the train keeps pushing across the frozen tundra some situations occur that separate the newfound friends and places certain individuals in compromising positions that ultimately result in some stressful events. Russian narcotics officer Grinko (Kingsley) arrives just in time to really make things chaotic and turn the train ride into a thrill ride. Jesse finds herself pushing and pulling between dealing with the truth and what it will take to survive the train trip home.
First of all whether one loves the plot or not, its hard to deny the fantastic cinematography that takes place throughout the film. The train sequences inside are so authentic that one can truly feel the atmosphere breathing. Overall the whole film just feels authentic to the locations and the people who wander in and out of the film are completely genuine. Superb performances by all, just really good stuff from actors you would expect it from. Plot runs a little weaker towards the end and inevitably its somewhat predictable as most thrillers are, but with the train and the location its a enough of a twist to keep viewers interested. Flick definitely should appeal more to mainstream audiences then the typical indie sorts, so buzz might be a bit weak on the indie circuit but this movie should have decent release interest and definitely get good views on video and cable when people give it a chance.
Good Dick (2008)
Don't be fooled by the title, flick is surprisingly moving
Took in this independent film from newcomer Marianna Palka at Sundance 2008. The audience was overwhelmingly appreciative of the film, though some were left perplexed due to the funny title which implied a comedy. I'll admit I assumed from the synopsis and title that this was going to be a comedy; a porn loving women is courted by a video store clerk, definitely sounds like the makings for some good sexual innuendo and lots of genitalia jokes. In fairness the Good Dick is very humorous in parts, though much of the time the humor comes from dysfunctional sexual material that would be uncomfortable if taken too seriously. The lead male played by Jason Ritter is a down on his luck and low on funds video store clerk who attaches himself to a shy and highly dysfunctional women played by Palka. Palka's character rents adult movies at his video store and wants nothing more then to be absolutely left alone. This obviously makes for an interesting courtship and interesting dates do occur, the video store clerk brings over his personal playlist of pornos and the women begrudgingly agrees to share her viewing time with him thus allowing the chance for something more. Palkas character shows signs of hope in letting our video store clerk into her life, but no sooner does she lower her defenses then she aims to hurt him in an attempt to keep her life less complicated and keep her personal problems hidden. Some awkward moments create some good laughs, but the laughter is just a slight distraction from the obvious pain that stirs deep within the women. Bits and pieces of ideas float throughout the movie hinting at the ending, but when the ending does eventually come it is still moving and should strike a chord with anyone who has ever cared so much about someone that they were willing to endure almost anything to connect with them or were on the other end and had to finally deal with something deep inside that they wished they could leave untouched and forgotten in the past. While the movie misses on a few scenes its still a very well done attempt at the strong subject matter.
It will take a certain kind of audience to truly appreciate this movie for what it is, that could be tough for a lot of people who are uncomfortable viewing subject matter dealing with sexual dysfunction and the boatload of issues that brings into relationships. Regardless of content though Marianna Palka should be applauded loudly for all her work that went into this film, it's hard to imagine that she wrote/directed and acted in her first feature film. Also, Jason Ritter is outstanding in this role and obviously deserves more of our time.
The Good Night (2007)
The Good Night, just a decent night at the movies
Saw the world premiere showing of the Good Night at the Sundance Film Festival last week and have come to report back on my findings. Was really looking forward to this one, story sounded interesting in an Eternal Sunshine kinda way, and the cast is top notch. The Good Night stars Martin Freeman as former brit pop star Gary, who hasn't exactly been doing a whole lot since his famed band went on the skids. Gary lives a less then fulfilling life with his long time girlfriend Dora, played by the excellent Gywenth Paltrow, and keeps company with successful ex bandmate Paul, played by the hilarious Simon Pegg. Gary spends his days doing meaningless commercial gigs in which his creative talents are kept in check in order to create more familiar music that sounds like the theme from "Cheers". Understandably Gary needs an outlet from his less then stellar career and from his almost non-existent relationship with Dora. One night Garys finds that outlet in his dreams, more specifically in the perfect female form played by Penelope Cruz. Desperate to escape reality Gary finds himself wanting more to live in his sleeping life then in his real life and he finds an unusual guide in Mel, played by Danny Devito. Mel mentors Gary on this lucid dreaming and soon Gary finds himself mastering his dreams, but in reality his good nights are turning into bad days.
Sounds interesting but does it work, well not so much. Much like a dream the story is scatter shot and incomplete. We only get a glimpse into the characters lives and as the story goes along we still don't have a lot of info here. Does Gary want to be a pop star again, is he jealous of the success of his friend, does he really care about his girlfriend - did he ever and whats so special about his dream girl? Gary is as lost in life as he is on the audience, he feels distant as do most of the characters here, aside from the amusing Paul. In the end this movie just doesn't quite work out, maybe it wasn't supposed just like a dream. All that being said its a nice first movie by Jake Paltrow, he's got a good vision and his effort here is obviously promising but frankly the story was beneath his directing talents. As for the actors, Martin Freeman, Gywenth, Devito - all very good work but again the story just is so-so and the acting can't save that. The Good Night, just a decent night at the movies
Son of Rambow (2007)
A Fantastic Movie About the Wonders of Childhood
I recently took this movie in at the 2007 Sundance film festival and am quite glad that I made the effort to sneak this little gem in. The movie was made by the very talented Garth Jennings of the famed music video production team Hammer and Tongs known for their visionary music videos and previously Hitcherhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Set in an average English town in 1982 the movie revolves around the interesting life of a 12-13 year old boy named Will whose family is part of a strict religious group that prohibits him from having any friends outside the group and strictly forbids him from watchings any TV or Movies. Without these usual sources of childhood entertainment Will finds other ways to pass the time, namely in drawing out his flourishing imagination that he scribbles and doodles all over the pages of his bible. One day Will unexpectedly crosses paths with the school terror Carter who also happens to be an amateur bootlegger at the local movie theater. Will, whose never seen a movie before is caught off guard when at Carters home he sees Rambo playing on the TV, the visuals of the movie explode in Will's imaginative mind and from there on out Will is forever changed. An unlikely friendship begins between Will and Carter as they begin production on Carter's home movie masterpiece, Son of Rambow. The two children begin coming closer before their friendship is tested by a new-wave French exchange student Didier Revolve. As the friendship between Will and Carter begins getting twisted so does his relationship with his family, as the church group starts taking notice of Wills more worldly interests. In the end Will must stay true to himself and the film must go on.
The performances by all the children were exceptional, especially Carter who is the movie's sparkplug and provides comic relief frequently. As well as Didier the french exchange student who is a text book example of how absurd the whole new wave trends of the day were, his appearances are all wildly amusing. The movie also has a fair amount of quirky animations and dream sequences that offer visual pleasures for the eyes and bring childhood doodles to life. The movie is just a brilliant little idea and it plays out so very well in all the settings and the characters are extremely likable in all manners, the movie should play great for almost all ages
King of California (2007)
Michael Douglas Plays Whacky-Zanny and This Movie is a Whole Lot of Good
After seeing the trailer for this movie and checking out the cast and filmmakers I made this a must see at this years Sundance Film Festival. The combination of Alexander Payne (Sideways,Election,About Schmidt) producing and Michael Douglas playing wacky gives hope for another great dramedy along the lines of Little Miss Sunsine and Sideways. King of California easily meets those hopes and for many it will be much more enjoyable then those former films. The movie features Douglas as Charlie a recently released mental patient with a whimsical fascination for buried Spanish treasure. While Charlie has been away his 16 year old daughter Miranda played by Evan Racheal Wood has managed to avoid child services, dropped out of school and support herself and their home by working full-time at Mcdonalds. Upon Charlies arrival home Miranda finds that life was much easier without Charlie around, not only does she have to support their home but now she has to take care of her unstable father. Persitent with his intent to search for a mythical buried Spanish treasure Miranda begrudgingly agrees to help him. The movie finds its humor and warmth in the moments shared between Charlie and Miranda during their treasure hunting through developed suburbia that leads them to a unlikely final destination. In the end the real treasure may not be the gold after all but the love between a daughter and father.
The ever developing Evan Racheal Wood is solid in the role of Miranda, the whole movie develops through her narration and her acting is effortlessly touching. Michael Douglas is outstanding and in true form here, from start to finish he's a joy to watch, this is easily his best performance since Wonder Boys. This will definitely be one of the best movies in 2007, expect praise a plenty for Douglas come awards time.
Black Snake Moan (2006)
Craig Brewer convinces us that he is for real and Samuel L. makes sweet music
Just saw this fantastic film at the Sundance premier and cannot sing its praises enough. Last time I saw Craig Brewer he was singing Ike and Tina to the audience and turning Sundance upside down with his breakout film Hustle and Flow. This time around he fulfills on his big Sundance payday with another unique vision thats going to get everyone talking about Samuel L Jackson, and if you thought Christina Ricci was just that girl in the Addams Family movies then think again. Ricci plays Rae a complete mess of a women who without her beloved Ronnie, played by the getting better all the time Justin Timberlake, has an uncontrollable need for all things sexual. When Ronnie leaves for the a tour with the Army, Rae's demons send her tumbling down a bumpy road that leaves her used and abused left for dead on the side of the road. Along comes old blues-man Lazarus played by the great Samuel L Jackon, Lazarus himself has a few demons lurking around in his head as well, notably his ex-wife who done wrong by him. Lazarus gets to think about this young women and after some soul searching he takes it upon himself to cure her evil ways with some love, some lessons and a 40 lb. chain. I don't want to reveal too much so I'll just say there's some dark moments, some very funny moments and whole lot of great acting. This movie isn't by any means Hustle & Flow 2, however Craig Brewer does tie the two films together with his hope for redemption and change for the better for even the most unlikely of people. Audiences will find a movie worth watching here and worth thinking about well after it ends.
Unlikely romance story with some edge, features breakout role for Mandy Moore
Saw this at the premiere showing at Sundance, where it played well for the crowd and apparently Harvery Weinstein liked it so much he bought it. I really didn't know what to expect from this movie as it featured a actor turned first time director and an unlikely pairing of serious actor Crudup and former pop star Mandy Moore. The movie feels part Garden State, with a similar tale of depressed-anxiety ridden guy meeting girl and romance. However Crudups character Henry who is a children's book author is far from being the lovable depressed dope, he's edgy and seriously troubled from what is hinted at as an abusive childhood. Henry's only friend is Rusty his collaborator and book illustrator played by the always reliable Tom Wilkinson, Rusty knows that Henry is on a path of self destruction an forewarns him that he may not always be around to help keep him sane. Rusty becomes ill and thus enters Lucy, the new illustrator, the transition as you would expect is not an easy on for Henry and he makes a mess of what is obviously a blessing in disguise. With Lucys persistence and willingness the two work on the book and romance is kindled however an old flame of Lucys proves a problem as does Henrys demons.
Crudup as Henry is quite good, but the character has such a sharp tongue and dark disposition at first that it was hard to not hold resentment against him for much of the film. However as the film goes on and Henry shows more of his likable eccentric quirks your hoping for him to change and that works in the films favor. Mandy Moore brings life to this film that made all the difference to me. As soon as her character Lucy enters the film the whole movie changed for the better. Without her sweet smile and persistent patience with Henry this film wouldn't work in the least. The director Justin Theroux, who you probably know from Charlie's Angels 2 as the Irish gangster, does a great job in his debut and works magic with the soundtrack and adds in some unique visuals along the way to enhance the viewing. All and All audiences should find this movie to be a good indie romance comedy/drama, the type one would expect from the indie world with rough edges and darker subject matter then your typical Hugh Grant -Julia Roberts type stuff.
Solid Indie Comedy-Drama with Heart
Just got back from the premiere screening at Sundance for Delirious and after the screening I felt like I'd picked a winner. What you get with this movie is a very solid performance from Michael Pitt who plays Toby a homeless kid in his early 20s that through a chance encounter finds a friend in struggling paparazzi Len played by a on fire Steve Bescumi. The movie follows Toby across a wide range of changes in his life that puts a strain on his relationship with Les and questions how far apart are those in front of the camera from those behind it. Micheal Pitt really breaks out here playing the role of Toby with a very natural wide eyed enthusiasm that wins over the audience from the beginning. Steve Buscemi tears it up in this role, as the edgy Les he perfectly portrays a loner who deeply wants to be something more then the despised paparazzi that he is. Some nice performances from Gina Gershon and Alison Lohman round out the cast.
I felt entertained and satisfied by the end of the movie, however film takes a a misguided turn at one point and I could fell most everyone in the audience thought it was regretful on the directors part and felt out of place in the movie. In the end though the film still works, unfortunate plot twist aside, you've got quality acting, fresh cinema and a excellent soundtrack that adds up to a solid experience.
La science des rêves (2006)
Dreamy Art Pic that requires multiple viewings
I just saw this at the Sundance Film Festival and feel compelled to saw a few things about the flick. This movie is so insanely good and just plain insane at the same time. The movie follows Gael Garcia's character as he moves back to his mothers home in Paris and finds himself falling for the girl across the hall. Gael's character experiences reality through dreams and the present, creating all sorts of confusion. The movie has some of the most unique props and eccentric animation pieces I have ever seen, but would you expect anything less from Gondry (Eternal Sunshine..). This movie really can't be described in truth but holds so much potential for multiple viewings as its so full of life and visual wonders for the eyes. Gael Garcia is just perfect in this role and is fascinating in gesture and laugh out loud funny when the script allows. I think you should definitely look forward to seeing this movie when it gets a wide release, its funny, its art, its pleasure for the eyes and a puzzle for the mind.
Kurt & Courtney (1998)
Amateur Documnetary with big names
I have to say this movie which apparently is some kind of documentary is total rubbish. First of all there is no Nirvana music, so right off the bat you know its not a legit documentary on Kurt and Courtney, but then you think well maybe I will get the real dirt they don't want you to know. Well they have a murder conspiracy from some dude who wears a gimp mask and a down on his luck private eye who drives some 70's oldsmobile boat around and meets people at the Ramada! Damn if that doesn't sound swanky, and legit. This dude Broomfield interviews basically anybody off the street, he doesn't even know if these people know Kurt or Courtney, the best interviews are from a high school girlfriend and his church lady aunt. Its seriously pathetic, and it not worth your time at all. Trust me on this, if a filmmaker cant verify that the people they are interviewing actually knew or have even met the subject, then you probably shouldn't have your work distributed. Damn shame this bastard is making money off Kurts pour soul and its painfully obvious that he knows aboslutley nothing about Kurts music or what made Kurt a special artist.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Great Portrait of Post Divorce, but not for everyone
OK well I just saw this at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and hope to report back for you folks looking forward to this films wide release. First of all I have to say I'm a Wes Anderson fan, however I didn't like Life Aquatic very much and Noah Baumbach who co-wrote that now offers up this movie Squid and Whale, so I had some interest and some concern coming to see this movie thinking well I like the Wes Anderson style but was my distaste for Life Aquatic due to the addition for Mr. Baumbach? The movie starts out in Brooklyn in 1986, there is a Royal Tennenbaums vibe from the setting and some old school Adidas tennis gear thrown about, so I like this. The beginning of the movie is packed with humor and I got some good vibes from the great cast. However this movie reveals it self about 1/3 as a very thought provoking portrait of post divorce stress and dysfunction that affects all parties. The movie maintains some humor later on but it is less funny when you realize its more troubling then humorous. Jeff Daniel who plays the father is brilliant (however I knew Bill Murray was attached earlier on and I couldn't help but to occasionally think this really seems like Bills role from some of the dry humor displayed by the father), Daniels character struggles to deal with the divorce as his writing career is eclipsed by that of his ex-wife played by the marvelous Laura Linney. The stars of the show though are the two sons Walt and Frank, Walt is a fantastic character and offers up some of the more amusing issues. However Frank, I hate to go off about this being a liberal minded person but there was something extremely bothersome about this little boy. I hate to be offended but for some reason Mr Baumbach felt it necessary to show this young boy masturbating against a library bookshelf and then reaching down his pants and then wiping his semen on some library books. That put me off, but then we get some more, the young boy later kisses the locker of a school crush (one assumes) and then smears a handful of fresh semen on her locker. Hmmm, doesn't that sound pleasant? It really icked me out and felt like a bit too much, so did my two friends who came with me. Though one might assume with Mr Baumbachs association with Wes Anderson this would be an eccentric comedy/drama, do not expect to enjoy this movie for the humor but more so for the thought provoking portrait of how divorce affects families and especially the challenge of sharing custody. I am not from a divorced family so for me it wasn't really as emotional as it should be to folks that can relate, but its obviously a well done movie. Let me just say take out the semen smearing scenes and I'm a fan otherwise, I respect the script and cast but I was too grossed out to focus on the movie. On a side note, well done by Mr. Baumbach for coming to several screenings to talk to the audience, it was a pleasure to see his movie and his insight was appreciated.
Visually Wonderous, with an enchanting all ages story
I was very fortunate to see the premiere screening of MirrorMask at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival this week and would like to report back. I'm a big fan of Neil Gaimans work, who if you're not familiar with is one of the greatest sci-fi/fantasy writers in the world (American Gods and Sandman are two well known works). MirrorMask is an enchanting story about a young circus performer named Helena who after her mother falls ill finds herself dreaming off to a new world that is unlike anything I've ever seen. She meets up with a cast of strange characters both real(aka live actors) and CGI. As the movie goes on she finds that she has a evil twin from this world that has used the Mirrormask to switch places with her trapping her in the new world. She meets up a interesting fellow by the name of Valentine and they journey off in search of finding the Mirrormask. As you would expect there is a bit of drama when she comes into an encounter with an Evil Witch who wants to keep her as her own daughter. There is a happy little ending and the movie is completely appropriate for most all ages especially appealing to late elementary and jr. high kids which are very much into strange little stories with a hint of scare. The story is very imaginative as one would expect from Neil but isn't as nightmarish as his other works, but for an all ages flick its perfect here. The CGI world created by Dave Mckean and Jim Henson productions is unlike anything I have ever seen its just indescribable (If you know Dave's work from comics this is like all his art in 3D), your eyes will be amazed by this movie after the first 20 minutes. By the way the young lead actress who plays Helena is just adorable and is a great little actress while the fella who play Valentine offers a nice touch of light hearted humor that is perfect for this film. On a side note I would like to add that it was a fantastic experience to get the chance to hear Mr Gaiman and Mr McKean talk about the movie after the showing and as one would expect they came off as two fine gentlemen that deserve to do as well as possible