Monthly Archives: November 2007

THE SAVAGES

Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ darkly funny, bitter and sad portrait of the caretaking of an ailing parent by his adult kids is amusing and moving, sometimes in the same breath. Laura Linney is reliably fabulous as Wendy Savage, a temp from New York City who writes “subversive, semi-autobiographical” plays about her fucked-up childhood at the hands of a neglectful father (the solid Philip Bosco) and an absentee mother. When her father’s elderly girlfriend dies at their home in Arizona, with his own mind being ravaged by dementia, Wendy can no longer avoid taking care of him, and so she and her brother John (an always wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drama professor from Buffalo working on a book about Brecht, must put aside their deep-seeded resentments and painful pasts, and face up to the need to help their father through his final months with some semblance of dignity. Jenkins’ follow-up to her debut film “Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998) is a good step up. Its mixture of odd moments of human comedy, not-overly-dramatic pathos and thoughtful, heightened realism is endearing (no wonder the likeminded Alexander Payne is an executive producer). Very well-done.

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STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING

Andrew Wagner’s deep, sweet, thoughtful film is a vision of the solitary life of writing as it opens up to the input of others. We first see him eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him, almost praying, sitting in front of his typewriter. Here is a man who is uncertain where to go next. His name is Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) and he was once a decently famous author in New York who wrote four published books (and two unpublished ones) and has been working on his latest work for over ten years. Then, a breath of fresh air. Into his life comes Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose of TV’s “Six Feet Under”), an ambitious and surprisingly thoughtful young graduate student who has fallen in love with Leonard’s work and wants to write a critical career-spanning piece on him for her Master’s thesis. Leonard is at first resistant to her advances, but is soon agreeing to meet and discuss his work with her on a weekly basis. Leonard is not well after a recent stroke and is trying desperately to get his final work out in the world, and at first sees Heather as a distraction before coming to appreciate her company, as well as her appreciation of his work; there is no greater aphrodisiac to an artist than finding someone to love their work. Early in their discussions, Heather kisses his hand and may in fact be infatuated with him – does she love him or his work? We think we know where this will go – a May-December romance for the ages with all the care and meaning of a sexual fling, but it’s more than that; how much more I will leave you to discover. Meanwhile, Leonard has a daughter, Ariel (Lili Taylor), a 40-ish pilates instructor who desperately wants to have a baby – so desperately, in fact, that she is currently having unprotected sex with her boyfriend to “trick” him into having a baby, although she sees him more as a means to an end, not as part of the actual life of the child. She once broke up with the love of her life, Casey (Adrian Lester of “Primary Colors”) because he didn’t want children and, it’s hinted, all but forced her to have an abortion – a decision neither one of them could withstand the strain of. When he comes back into her life unexpectedly, will either of them have the fortitude to see their relationship through this time? The film was directed and co-written by Andrew Wagner, who made the semi-autobiographical pseudo-documentary about his troublesome family, “The Talent Given Us” (2004). This film, based on a novel by Brian Morton, is just slightly more dramatic and less like a documentary. The characters are all bright, intelligent, thoughtful and literate people who are well-spoken and well-read, careful about the words they use, goal-oriented but sensitive to the needs of others. Frank Langella gives the performance of his career as Leonard, a fiercely smart, uncompromising but kind-eyed old soul who is afraid to move forward in his life and yet doesn’t precisely want to remain in neutral either, though his work suggests otherwise. Ambrose is strong as the young firebrand who catches his fancy and attracts his intellect, an intelligent and well-read romantic who thinks she wants to be close to the man whose work inspired her to be a writer; how close is too close is unclear. This could’ve been simply about these two intellectual writers with a massive age difference coming to terms with one-another and, perhaps, falling in love, but I also cared for Ariel as the self-doubting (perhaps, indeed, self-loathing) daughter who is aging too quickly and can hear her biological clock echoing in her mind, and Casey as the well-meaning and nice young man who loves Ariel but has always put his own desires and needs first – at no point including having children on his radar screen. These four people are searching for, in their own way, love and happiness and some of them go about it in the wrong way, and some of them may never be completely happy; their struggles are believable and absorbing, never punched up for dramatic effect. The results are oddly fascinating and utterly moving; one of the year’s best films!

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<br/><br /><br />NOTE: Nominated for Best Male Lead and Screenplay (Wagner and Fred Parnes) at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.

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ENCHANTED

Here is a film both paying homage to, and skewering the cliches of Disney films past, a fairy tale for the modern age. As the film opens, we are transported to an animated kingdom somewhere far far away where Giselle, a princess prone to singing and having all kinds of creatures join her in her chores, is soon banished by Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), the wicked stepmother of Giselle’s beloved Prince Edward (James Marsden). Giselle goes down a well and arrives in a sewer underneath Times Square. Next thing she (and the audience) realizes she’s in live action. Soon, Prince Edward follows her with Giselle’s faithful chipmunk Pip and the Prince’s own nefarious manservant Nathaniel (Timothy Spall, who even animated looks just like him!) in tow, and we’re off to the races. But one fateful night, Giselle meets a handsome, single father named Robert (Patrick Dempsey of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), who is as cynical and jaded as they come – he’s a divorce lawyer. Giselle enters his reality and livens up New York City in the process. Of course, Robert is engaged to the not especially bad and really rather fetching Nancy (Idina Menzel), but his young daughter has her sights set on Giselle as a potential new mother. Amy Adams (“Junebug”) again plays a vulnerable young woman with a sweet naivety and an infectiously charming disposition; she could (possibly literally) bring the sun out at night. At first, we’re wondering if she isn’t completely insane; after a while, you learn to go with the flow. Sarandon is suitably evil when she’s on screen (she spends most of the film animated and/or as a CGI creation). Timothy Spall can play kind and gentle, low and sadsack, or maliciously evil (see him in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”) whenever he sees fit, and slips easily in and out of the audience’s favor as the sidekick whose loyalties are somewhat wavering. The direction by Kevin Lima (“Tarzan,” “102 Dalmatians”) is light and nimble; we’re talking feather-light here. I’m not the target audience, but I enjoyed this little fusion of fairy tale cliche and modern sensibilities. It’s a crowd-pleasing romantic adventure and a major spotlight for Amy Adams; she really makes this shine.

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AUGUST RUSH

August Rush, Kirsten Sheridan’s directorial debut, is a modern-day fairy tale – a thoughtful, unabashedly sentimental and (at times) melodramatic contrivance that only the most hard-hearted cynic could turn away from.

Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland) plays Evan, an orphan with a gift for creating music based on the confluence of sounds he hears around him. He is convinced his parents – an Irish guitarist (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and a concert cellist (Keri Russell) – are still alive and could find him if they could only hear his music. He runs from the orphanage he grows up in, pursued by a kind case worker (Terrence Howard) and comes to New York City, only to be scooped up by the Wizard (Robin Williams), an exploitation artist who runs an unofficial home for young street performers in an abandoned theater. Renamed “August Rush,” Evan takes to the streets, hoping to some day make the music that will draw his parents to him.

This owes way more than a bit to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, with Williams playing the Fagin-role and August the proverbial Oliver, but there are some differences. Nevertheless, this is a well-made and just plain nice film from the daughter of the great Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan.

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HITMAN

Hitman Movie Review

R, 89 min, 2007

Director: Xavier Gens
Writer: Skip Woods (written by)
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko

Xavier Gens’ Hitman is a high-octane, moderately-successful feature with a scintilla of a story, some cool visual style, and little else. Continue reading

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NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

The Coen Brothers’ suspenseful, absorbing Western-tinged noir follows Cormac McCarthy’s blood-drenched 2005 novel to the letter, and it results in one of the most wickedly entertaining and bone-chilling crime films to come out of America in the last 50 years or more. Javier Bardem is Chigurh, the disturbing and disturbed, cold, calculating murderer who dispatches some business associates quite violently when a drug deal goes awry. Happening upon the scene, sans Chigurh, is rancher Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in one of four great films this year!), who finds a stash of heroin and $2 million in cash. Of course, Moss takes the money and Chigurh is then hot on his tail. Tommy Lee Jones, appearing in another wonderful law-enforcement role this year, plays Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, the small Texas-Mexico border town’s local lawman who finds the scene and then pursues Chigurh in an effort to save Moss. But as a character says late in the film, “You can’t stop what’s coming.” Twisted and heart-stopping, gruesomely violent and wickedly funny by turns, this is as brilliant a film as the Coens (“Fargo,” “Blood Simple”) have ever made – in any milieu! Nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture!

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I’M NOT THERE.

Todd Haynes’ film is perhaps the most curious cinematic experiment in many a moon, a stylish, bizarre emotional biography of the many lives and personalities of Bob Dylan. The film employs 6 actors to portray one of the most influential and fascinatingly enigmatic musical figures of the 20th century. There’s the little black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who says he’s Woody Guthrie; and Jack Rollins (Christian Bale), the Greenwich Village folk singer. There’s Robbie (Heath Ledger), the rebellious Hollywood actor who settles down into rocky marriage (to a lovely French girl played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and family life, and an actor (Richard Gere), who essentially represents Dylan appearing in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” We get a 5th Dylan in the form of an elusive young man (Ben Whishaw from Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) submitting to a probing interview. However, it is Cate Blanchett (yes, she!) in a “Fellini’s 8 1/2”-inspired sequence, who makes the greatest impression as Jude, a version of Dylan during the transition from acoustic to electric guitar and folk to folk-rock, succumbing to drug-induced shakes,  suffering accusations of betrayal from his biggest fans and confusion from everyone else around him, except perhaps the poet Allen Ginsbourg (David Cross). The point, I think, is that Dylan (or any artist, for that matter) could never be pinned down, and that a career like this has a rather schizophrenic whiplash-inducing quality, always weaving and bobbing, never standing still in one persona for too long. Todd Haynes (“Far from Heaven,” “Velvet Goldmine”) thusly hasn’t made a literal biography, but more of a spiritual one, capturing the many moods and styles of his subject, without ever referring to his characters by their “true” name. The film this most reminded me of in an odd way was Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes” (2005), which gave us 8 different actors to play a 13 year old pregnant girl in various scenarios involving the potential for abortion. In the end, this is rather a fascinating exercise in the investigation of a life and career, intriguing and very well-done.

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LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

Love in the Time of Cholera Movie Review

R, 139 min, 2007

Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Ronald Harwood (screenplay), Gabriel García Márquez (novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera)
Stars: Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt

Mike Newell’s adaptation of the internationally popular Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera is a languid, plodding, pointless affair – great to look at, but lost on substance. Continue reading

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MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM

Zach Helm’s whimsical, magical, thoughtful and sometimes pretty funny family film surprised me with its charm and relative insight; I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I ever could’ve expected. Dustin Hoffman is Mr. Magorium, the “eccentric” old man (indeed, some reports suggest he’s 243 years old!) who runs his magical toy store in a tiny corner of New York City. Helping him is piano prodigy turned store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), who has forsaken her burgeoning career as a composer and pianist for long hours tending to Mr. Magorium’s quirks, his wild imagination, and the store which has eminated from such things. Helping both of them is young Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a smart, quirky 9-year-old devoid of friends (outside of the store) who even puts off his fellow children when he plays around them inside the store. Mr. Magorium is “departing” and needs to assess the value of his life’s work, so he hires “the mutant” Henry Weston (Jason Bateman, in the same season as “Juno”), an accountant who works all day and has no fun. Gradually, little by little, he becomes first Eric’s friend, then Molly’s, and begins to possibly see a twinkle of the wonderment the store has to offer. How immersed in the adult world of work and paper would you have to be to miss a door with a handle which seems to shift the rooms behind it, a gigantic ball, a live pet zebra, books which seemingly give you whatever you’re searching for (actually make things materialize from the page) and fish mobiles with live, fresh fish? Such is Henry’s lot in life until he walks into Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The plot concerns Henry’s change from uptight adult to chidlike waif, and Molly’s shift from childlike waif and follower of Mr. Magorium’s whims to full-fledged adult with belief in herself, and young Eric’s shift from odd loner to…odd loner with friends? The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter Zach Helm, who previously wrote Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006). That also involved occult-power-imbued objects and uptight accountants getting loose and finding their inner sparks and Dustin Hoffman as a quirky old eccentric. What Helm lacks in craft, he more than makes up for in spirit, imagination and whimsy. This film, then, is a remarkable construction. From the set design, to the cinematography to just the general energy level of the story, this is the kind of movie where hyperkinetic doesn’t really begin to cover it; it practically oozes sugar and light. That being said, it is fun and sweet and thoughtful and surprisingly grown up for a G-rated family film. But it is a family film, and one adults might possibly enjoy just as much as their offspring.

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SOUTHLAND TALES

Southland Tales Movie Review

R, 145 min, 2006

Director: Richard Kelly
Writer: Richard Kelly
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott

Sometimes, I wish I could write a negative review and still recommend the film it concerns. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is a surrealist epic, an apocalyptic thriller, a futuristic satire, a political comedy, and an utter mess. It’s an insane affair which is the kind of film that goes over the top, doubles back, and then goes over the top again. Normally, this is a good thing, but Kelly’s film is so filled to brimming over with half-baked notions, bizarre characters and connections between them, and confounding plot twists that it is virtually impossible to understand. Continue reading

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P2

Here is a creepy, unnerving and exciting action-horror film that engages you for all of its running time without ever quite dumbing itself down too far; this is a rarity these days. For Angela (Rachel Nichols), a workaholic toiling away in a New York City high-rise, Christmas Eve was just another boring old day at the office. But then the lights went out, and soon the party was over. Before long, Angela finds she’s been captured by Thomas (Wes Bentley from “American Beauty”), a vaguely creepy night security guard in her office building’s parking garage. Soon it’s revealed that Thomas is lonely, has an unrequited crush on Angela, and that that crush (and the desire to express it) has overtaken him; Thomas’s attempt to “impress” Angela with his devotion is thoughtful and kinda sweet, if horribly misguided and disturbing. The film, directed and co-written by Franck Khalfoun, was produced and co-written by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur (“High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes” remake); Khalfoun appeared in “High Tension” as Jimmy. Like “High Tension,” the film is genuinely creepy and, at times, outright scary, because it plays on the very real fear of being all-but-helplessly confined to a locked space – and with an obsessive stalker/psychopath, yet. Nichols makes a good, fresh-faced and quick-thinking heroine – however ill-fated her attempts at getting away from her captor. Wes Bentley, as Thomas, is a deeply disturbed and frightening presence; he’s clearly insane, thinks he means well, but is also thoroughly scarred by years and years of lonliness and rejection and sees Angela as someone he can save from a similar fate. Try to imagine the young man from “American Beauty,” all grown up, still tending toward the demeanor of a creepy stalker, and now with years of rejection and psychosis under his belt; that’s Thomas. The film is darkly and beautifully shot by Maxime Alexandre, from the opening credits (set to “Santa Baby”) to the various scenes of a barefoot, beat-up Nichols attempting to evade the seemingly unstoppable Bentley. The bottom line is this: if you’re looking for an atmospheric and scary thriller that doesn’t insult you too badly, this will suffice.

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AMERICAN GANGSTER

Ridley Scott’s crime epic is dynamite from the first frame to the last. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star as, respectively, a rising star in the heroin trade in 1970s New York City and the blue collar detective – honest to a fault? – who is trying to get to him. Well acted, brilliantly directed and surprisingly decent writing from Steven Zaillian (he made 2006’s worst film: “All the King’s Men”!) combine for a strong effort.

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