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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

 
The DVD pick of the week is One Last Thing... from director Alex Steyermark and writer Barry Stringfellow. Magnolia and HDNet Films are releasing it as part of their day-and-date theatrical/DVD/television release program, and unlike the first release, Bubble, it has more mainstream potential.

Michael Angarano plays a 16-year-old with terminal cancer who shocks a "Make-A-Wish" type organization with his final wish - to spend the weekend with a supermodel. While it's not a ground-breaking film, it's very enjoyable and Angarano comes across as a very appealing lead, and the supporting cast (including Cynthia Nixon, Sunny Mabrey, Gina Gershon, and Johnny Messner) fills out the film well. It works both when it goes for a comedic and dramatic touch and transitions between the two nicely.

Friday, May 19, 2006

 
At least in the indie world, you don't have to worry yourself with whether The Da Vinci Code will open to $60M or $70M or somewhere in between or above or below. A couple indie releases try to find some room among the big May releases and start their run this week.

The pick of the indie releases this week is Twelve and Holding, which opens on three screens. Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) returns with another film about adolescence that doesn't pull any punches. He's not afraid of taking on the real issues that tweeners have to face on the cusp of adulthood as three twelve-year-olds try to make sense of the tragic death of a friend. The three young stars give captivating performances, and the film is definitely worth checking out. Stephen Holden in the New York Times calls it a "poignant, beautifully acted film," and IFC Films looks to have at least moderate success with the film that could be remembered at Independent Spirit Award time.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

 
With all of the talk of Brokeback Mountain as a landmark in cinema, it's interesting to look back at a project that might have laid claim to that distinction. The project was based on the 1992 novel "The Dreyfus Affair" by Peter Lefcourt. The story of an All Star Major League shortstop with a wife and kids who falls in love with his second baseman was initially optioned twice by Disney without progressing far through development. Then in 1997 the novel was optioned by Fox with Betty Thomas attached to direct before New Line took the project for Thomas in 1999. At that point Ben Affleck got involved, joining Thomas in developing the project for him to potentially star as the lead. (There were also rumors of perhaps Wesley Snipes as the second baseman.) The project stalled shortly thereafter, however, with no new developments since.

Had the film been made it certainly would have been something of a milestone as it would have presented a romance between two men from a masculine profession. It would have also featured a major movie star (post Armageddon Affleck) playing a gay man in a romantic relationship in a mainstream movie. The main difference between The Dreyfus Affair and Brokeback Mountain is that the former explicitly deals with the sociological issues of the affair when it is discovered and creates a media frenzy while the latter concentrates more exclusively on the romance that is largely unspoken outside the bounds of the two men's encounters.

Of course there's the question of whether a Betty Thomas, Ben Affleck, Wesley Snipes combination would have produced a film that would receive the same critical response as the Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal film. It certainly would have garnered a lot of attention with the baseball angle seeing as since then we have had the editor of Out magazine claim that he was dating a star baseball player and a baseball player calling a press conference to declare his heterosexuality.

The reasons for The Dreyfus Affair not being made probably involved normal film development issues as opposed to any political issues, but the fact that it's taken six years since then for a high profile gay romance film to actually get made goes a long way to explaining why Brokeback Mountain has become such a cause celebre now.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

 
One Day in September

Steven Spielberg's Munich will be released later this month and not only is it highly anticipated, but it has also been annointed as an Oscar favorite based on Spielberg's presence and the film's subject matter. If it does win the Oscar, it won't be the first movie based on the subject matter to win one.

In 2000, One Day in September won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (the same year that American Beauty took the Best Picture award and Hilary Swank won her first Oscar for her performance in Boys Don't Cry). The documentary essentially could play as a prequel to Munich as it covers the terrorist action against Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. There is plenty of archival material available as the world watch live television coverage as events unfolded. That is supplemented with interviews with family members of the Israeli athletes, German officials who took part in the response, and one of the Palestinian terrorists.

The approach is a fairly straightforward telling of the events in chronological order, and it is very effective. Though a documentary the events are so compelling that it works like a narrative movie, and even knowing the ultimate outcome, the revelation of the details creates plenty of dramatic tension. Director Kevin Macdonald would go on to make another excellent documentary, Touching the Void and is currently directing The Last King of Scotland, starring Forest Whitaker as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

So before you see Spielberg's movie about the Israeli response to the Munich terrorist action, consider checking out this Oscar winning doc.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

 
Toronto Film Festival 2005
Day 7 (Friday, September 16th)

Dreaming of Space

In 1957, Sputnik was launched, providing a sense of pride and hope in the Soviet people. This is illustrated clearly by a young good-natured chef and amateur boxer nicknamed "Horsie." When Horsie meets Gherman at the boxing training center, they spar with Horsie being repeatedly knocked down without laying a hand on his opponent. Ever the optimist, Horsie keeps coming back for more and applies his bulldog approach outside the ring as he tries to befriend the reserved loner, Gherman, who is not so enraptured with the Soviet Union and maintains a strong interest in foreign lands. When the movie operates as a buddy movie, it is at its best. The relationship between the two men with Gherman trying to shake his new irrepressible cohort and Horsie trying to emulate his newfound hero is well developed and the two actors show strong chemistry. The movie stumbles elsewhere, though, with subplots not nearly as convincing and sometimes downright confusing.

Vers le Sud

In the late 1970s, three women spend a vacation at a resort in Haiti. They come not just for the sun, sand, and surf, but also for the attractive young Haitian men who hang around the resort and are willing to provide company and more to the visiting women. The women have a particular interest in one specific 18-year-old, Legba. While it is all meant as purely physical with no emotional attachment, jealousy and competition rear their ugly heads. While the women concern themselves with days on the beach and with who is the current recipient of Legba's favor, the brutal regime of Baby Doc Duvalier operates just outside the exclusive resort. Strong performances by Charlotte Rampling, Karen Young, and Menothy Cesar anchor the film, which does a good job of mixing sexual politics with just plain politics.

Mother of Mine

In Finland during World War II an estimated 70,000 children were sent to live in Sweden to keep them safe from the ravages of war in their homeland. We follow the story of Eero, sent to Sweden by his war widow mother. When he gets to Sweden, he doesn't exactly get the warmest of receptions. It seems that his foster mother, Signe, was expecting a girl and is somewhat bitter about her new charge, while Eero looks for any way home including a makeshift raft to sail away on. As they both realize that they are stuck with each other, at least for a while, they begin to understand each other. Eero is cute without being cloying and the difficult situation is not portrayed in an overly maudlin way. The end result is a very touching film.

Opa!

Opa! can perhaps be described as what The Da Vinci Code would have been had it been a romantic comedy. Matthew Modine plays an archaeologist, who now equipped with high tech gadgetry, sets out to find the Cup of St. John, a relic that his father spent a lifetime pursuing. He arrives on a Greek island with evidence that the cup is nearby, but he is distracted by Katrina, a single mother and owner/operator of the best tavern in town. The rest is fairly standard romantic comedy fare, but very well done romantic comedy fare. Colorful supporting characters add to the central romance - the overprotective tavern manager, the archaeology colleague who needs his grant money for his bar tab, and three nuns who serve as a Greek (natch) chorus. The result is a very conventional, but very entertaining film.

Sorry, Haters

When an Arab New York City cab driver picks up a woman who wants him to take her to the suburbs, he agrees because he could use the big fare, but he gets more than he bargained for. The woman is a little bizarre, but she can help him with his predicament. His brother has been deported to Syria on a questionable at best terrorism charge leaving behind a wife and baby. What follows for a while is a pretty tight thriller - a game of cat and mouse. The film begins to unravel as it reaches a climax, however. As a reflection of US-Arab relations and of reactions to 9/11 four years later, it doesn't feel as if it rings true. It works better as a thriller than as a political statement.

Friday, September 16, 2005

 
Toronto Film Festival 2005
Day 6 (Thursday, September 15th)

The Porcelain Doll

Set in a Hungarian farming village, The Porcelain Doll consists of three mystical fairy tales instigated when outsiders come to the village. In the first, a group of soldiers challenge a local boy to a series of track and field contests, in the second a visitor convinces two grieving mothers that he can resurrect their children if they do what he says, and in the third when and elderly couple on the run are ratted out they respond in an odd way. While not unenjoyable, the stories are very slight, and even at just 75 minutes don't seem substantial enough to fill out the running time.

The District!

With its cutout animation style and irreverent political satire, it's easy to classify The District! as the "Hungarian South Park," and that's a pretty accurate description. There are shades of Romeo and Juliet, as in a down and out district in Budapest full of prostitution and other crimes and racial tensions, a Gypsy boy falls in love with the daughter of his father's rival, a Ukrainian immigrant. After getting advice from his grandfather, the boy comes to the conclusion that to win over the girl he needs to get rich. Money equals peace and love. He hatches a plan that involves time travel and digging for oil in his neighborhood, but his actions bring on the attention of world superpowers. While there is certainly satire specific to the Hungarian experience that is missed, enough of the humor translates for American audiences to enjoy it, and how can you go wrong with the slamming Hungarian Hip Hop soundtrack?

The Gronholm Method

It's the standard horror movie formula: a group of individuals is isolated and are then picked off one by one. The Gronholm Method is not a horror film however. In Madrid in the midst of protests against the World Bank and IMF, seven individuals arrive at the offices of a multinational corporation to interview for a high-ranking position. They are informed that the company will be using a new method to choose from the candidates, and it soon becomes clear what that is. They are left together in a room and given tasks to complete during which time individuals are eliminated one by one. It sounds a lot like a reality show, but based on a play by Jordi Galceran Ferrer, it is full of claustrophobic intensity. Though elimination in this case doesn't mean being hacked to pieces by an unstoppable killer, the film provides more tension than most horror movies, and it turns out that the personnel department just may be crueler than a guy with a hockey mask and a machete.

50 Ways of Saying Fabulous

In rural New Zealand in the 1970s, Billy and Louise are cousins and best friends. Billy is chubby and effeminate and gets picked on at school for being a poofter (even though he doesn't know what that means) while Louise is a tomboy who wants no part of bras and other girly things and would rather star on the school's rugby team. Their relationship is challenged by the arrival of an odd new boy who takes a liking to Billy and a hunky farmhand who inspires romantic feelings in both Billy and Louise. The film has occasional moments, but it largely falls flat. The biggest problem is that the child actors are not up to the task of pulling off these complicated roles, and the story is told in broad strokes making it difficult to sympathize with the characters. There may be 50 ways of saying fabulous, but none of them apply here.

Little Athens

Yet another large ensemble cast with intersecting storylines movie that is pulled off admirably. The film takes place over one day in Athens, Arizona - a small town suburbia where several recent high school graduates are stuck in low paying dead end jobs with no future in sight. Their lives consist of gambling debts, drug dealing, cheating boyfriends and girlfriends, petty crime, eviction, and general desperate straits. In movies like this, the casting is especially important. Though there are few recognizable actors (DJ Qualls, Jorge Garcia of Lost, Shawn Hatosy), the cast is largely unknowns and in twenty or so roles of significance there is not a weak performance, and in fact there are several minor roles that turn into scene stealers. My one complaint was an over reliance on music to the point that it became a distraction. It seemed like a lack of trust in the moment to carry itself when perhaps a few more moment of quiet and stillness may have enhanced the film more than the soundtrack could.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

 
Toronto Film Festival 2005
Day 5 (Wednesday, September 14th)

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

In September 2004, Dave Chappelle threw a block party in Brooklyn. Of course, unlike other block parties, this one featured musical performances from the likes of Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, and Mos Def and Michel Gondry was on hand to film the festivities. The musical performances are intercut with footage of Chappelle preparing for the day from three days before handing out golden tickets in Dayton, Ohio to visiting the Brooklyn neighborhood where the party would take place to rehearsing with the musical acts. The music performances are universally phenomenal. Hip hop and R&B are musical genres that I often feel are overproduced in the studio and don't always make the transition to live performance, but here, aided by the filming, are examples of how good it can be when done right. Also, seeing Chappelle interact with people provides glimpses that perhaps he was longing for a more simple way of life.

River Queen

Starring arguably the best actress working today, Samantha Morton, and directed by Vincent Ward, River Queen should have been a slam dunk, but instead it is a muddled messy work. In New Zealand in the 1850s, simmering conflict between the native Maori and the British settlers is about to erupt into full-fledged war. When an Irish young woman falls in love with a Maori man, their affair produces a baby boy before the father dies in an influenza epidemic. When the boy is kidnapped by a Maori chief, Sarah searches for him for years, getting caught up in the middle of the war between the two sides. She is not interested in any of the politics of the conflict, only in finding her boy, and thus winds up on different sides at various points. Some of the Maori also fight with the white men bringing a Civil War element where personal relationships become entangled in the battlefield. The problem lies in the fact that the material seemed better suited for a novel in that the film lacks the depth and exposition that could have been expounded on in a novel. Voiceover from Morton tries to fill in some of the blanks, but ultimately it just feels like the filmmakers were aiming for something that they couldn't achieve.

One Last Thing...

The childhood cancer comedy is probably a rare genre for pretty good reason, but director Alex Steyermark and writer Barry Stringfellow are able to deftly balance the two antithetical elements. They are aided by a charming performance from Michael Angarano as Dylan, a sixteen-year-old dying of cancer. When a Make-A-Wish type organization grants him a wish, he knows he's supposed to say that he wants to meet his favorite football player, but like most sixteen-year-old boys he would rather have a night with his favorite supermodel and sets out to make it happen. The main story works well (you'll laugh, you'll cry...), but some of the side stories feel underdeveloped and forced. Still, One Last Thing... is very charming, touching, and enjoyable.

John & Jane

A growing theme in documentary filmmaking is that of globalization. Does making the world smaller make the world better? Does it bring people closer together or does it just widen the gap between the have and the have nots? When the U.S. culture is the dominant culture does the world just become a more homogenized, blander place? John & Jane tackles these issues in a more impressionistic fashion by looking at several individuals who work at outsourced U.S. phone call centers in India where they handle everything from trying to sell products to customer service complaints. Before they handle calls, there training involves adopting American sounding names, American accents, and studying American culture. Some of them hate the job, but are stuck because it is the only decent job available. Others buy wholeheartedly into the idealized image of the American dream and even though they're unlikely to make enough money to travel to the United States, they feel that they are somehow transported there by phone during their work shift. There are some specifics left unanswered by the approach of the documentary, but it is likely to give you more insight the next time someone calls you to try to sell you long distance even if it doesn't make the call any less annoying.

Twelve and Holding

Twelve is a pretty awkward age. It's about that time when you begin to realize that your parents aren't always right and before the time that you realize that they're not always wrong either. You also have to begin to play in the adult world even though you don't really know the rules of the game. Three friends - the meek Jacob, the precocious Malee, and the overweight Leonard - all begin to take control of their lives for better and for worse in response to a tragedy that even their parents don't seem to know how to respond to. It sounds a bit grim, but it is a comedy at heart that makes you recall that time when you were trying to figure things out and making misguided gestures and embarrassing mistakes in the process. The three young actors deliver the impressive performances on which the film hinges. They do a great job at portraying the learning as you go and making things up as you go along, and showing the thought processes that a teenager can go through to make even an outrageous action seem like the most reasonable thing to do.

     


 
 

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