Friday, May 26, 2006

Over the Hedge / *** (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
RJ the raccoon: Bruce Willis
Verne the turtle: Gary Shandling
Hammy the squirrel: Steve Carell
Stella the skunk: Wanda Sykes
Ozzie the possum: William Shatner
Lou the porcupine: Eugene Levy
Penny the porcupine: Catherine O’Hara
Heather the possum: Avril Lavigne
Vincent the bear: Nick Nolte
Tiger the cat: Omid Djalili
Dwayne the Verminator: Thomas Hayden Church
Gladys: Allison Janney

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick. Written by Len Blum, Lorne Cameron, Davey Hoselton and Kirkpatrick. Based upon characters created by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG (for some rude humor and mild comic action).

Most movie experiences are enhanced by seeing the film with the large audience for which the film is targeted. Even seeing a schlock horror film can be a good time if the theater’s filled with shrieking teenagers. Such is not always the case, however, as I found out watching DreamWorks Animation’s newest CGI entry “Over the Hedge”. The theater was filled with young kids screaming and crying, hanging off the back of my seat; and, yes, two of them were mine.

This is not to say the children (or I) did not enjoy the film. It was a good comedy with some nice cracks at life in suburbia and how wildlife might interpret some of our more odd human rituals. But it is a shame the cast wasn’t there in the movie theater to poke fun at parents torturing themselves in the darkened room by gathering with their children, stuffing them full of sugar and watching them spin their little heads off.

...But back to the movie. “Over the Hedge”, based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T. Lewis, tells the story of a rascally raccoon, RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis, “Lucky Number Slevin”), who gets into a bit of trouble when he’s caught stealing the motherload of junk food from a hibernating bear named Vincent (Nick Nolte, “Hotel Rwanda”). Woken a week early from his winter nap in a bad temperament, Vincent gives RJ the week to replace all of the loot or RJ will become his next junk food snack.

Luckily RJ stumbles across a group of woodland animals who have awoken from their winter slumbers to discover a giant hedge in their forest; on the other side of which suburbia has moved in. It’s up to RJ to teach these forest dwellers how to survive in the concrete jungle. Soon, he is showing them the delectable wonders of trash cans, the paranoid highs of energy drinks, the euphoric lows of MSG, along with the gullibility involved in the human fear of nature.

Now, this is the most eclectic assortment of animals I’ve ever seen. Their leader is an innocuous turtle named Verne (Gary Shandling, “What Planet Are You From?”). Hammy is a tightly wound Squirrel (Steve Carell, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”). There are a father and daughter, Ozzie and Heather (voiced respectively by William Shatner of “Star Trek” fame and pop music star Avril Lavigne), take great pride in their ability to literally “play possum.” Stella (Wanda Sykes, “Monster-in-Law”) the skunk is just dying to perform her own special species power and eventually gets her chance to drop her bomb. A family of porcupine, headed by Lou and Penny (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara respectively, “Best in Show”), provide the group’s familial foundation.

RJ is merely using his new found friends as a resource to dig himself out of the trouble he landed himself in with Vincent. But when the animals eventually anger the head of the neighborhood’s home owners association (Allison Janney, TV’s “The West Wing”) and she hires a pest control expert who refers to himself as The Verminator (Thomas Hayden Church, “Sideways”), RJ finds himself regretting his actions and longing to be a part of their odd family.

While there is little to jump up and down about in this unimposing film, there is also very little with which to find fault. Perhaps some of the voice-over artists are a little out of place in such an innocent environment; overall, however, they seem well cast. Thomas Hayden Church as The Verminator may have been a second choice, as the part seems as if it were written for perennial voice-over actor Patrick Warburton (see New Animation Rule from my “Hoodwinked!” review). The actors’ similar vocal intonation and delivery make Church a worthy fallback. Oh, and as with “The Wild”, William Shatner’s outstanding delivery is vastly under utilized here.

“Over the Hedge” certainly breaks no new ground in the arena of family oriented animation, but it does provide a few good laughs. It makes some pointed jabs at the consumerist culture so prevalent in America. The animals staring in wonder at the size of an SUV as RJ points out that they usually are only able to transport one human, is a particularly sharp barb. The film is good enough to overcome the maddening experience of a Cineplex family matinee screening, and that has to say something about its level of success.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The DaVinci Code / **½ (PG-13)

Robert Langdon: Tom Hanks
Sophie Neveu: Audrey Tautou
Sir Leigh Teabing: Ian McKellen
Bishop Aringarosa: Alfred Molina
Silas: Paul Bettany
Bezu Fache: Jean Reno

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. Running time: 148 min. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content).

Has Hollywood forgotten how to fashion a good mystery? It seems they – you know those guys who run Hollywood – still know what one looks like, but the art of throwing a true surprise at an audience has gone the way of the dodo. Last week I complained that Ethan Hunt couldn’t figure out who all the bad guys were when it was obvious who had set him up in “Mission: Impossible III”, this week I lost track of all the mysteries I was able to figure out before the main characters in “The DaVinci Code” divined them.

Ron Howard’s new film, based on the best selling book by Dan Brown, has sparked a great deal of controversy over what is really just a fun entertainment. There are a lot of people in it acting badly about a plot that involves the church and secrets kept about Christ, but it is essentially just an Indiana Jones movie in the guise of an adult thinking man’s movie. Don’t think too much though, or you will get ahead of it all.

Tom Hanks (“The Terminal”) portrays Dr. Robert Langdon, an expert in historical symbols, who is implicated in the murder of the curator of the Louvre Museum in Paris, Jacques Sauniere. French actress Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”) is a police codes expert Sophie Neveu, who is more deeply connected to the case than she seems at first. She helps Langdon to escape from the French federal officer Captain Fache (Jean Reno, “The Pink Panther”) so he can help her decipher the messages left behind by Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle, “A Summer Affair”) leading to his real murderers and the conspiracy they are trying keep covered up.

The way Langdon and Neveu are fairly freely able to investigate a series of clues left behind by Sauniere throughout the museum in his own blood before he died, while the police try to find them after their apparent escape is a good example of the improbability factor utilized for the convenience of the heroes for the plot of the story. I’ve been to the Louvre recently and if the curator was able to move around that gigantic museum the way he did in order to place his clues, he could have gotten himself some care before his death and possibly lived. Also Langdon and Neveu’s escape, both the false one they use to through the police off and their eventual escape, are highly dependent on the fact that a great deal of officers are going to leave their posts long enough for the two heroes to do their work and conveniently drive away.

Langdon and Neveu are certainly not like Indiana Jones in any way shape or form. This is not a movie driven my stunts and explosion and special effects, but they do end up becoming treasure hunters of sorts. They find their way to their goals by laying out their clues and thinking them through. Langdon offers a description of himself at one point as a “historical policeman,” but a policeman in the sense that he never looses his head. He approaches his problems with logic. While this type of character doesn’t break the plausibility lines by becoming some scholarly action hero, it is kind of a shame we only get to see Hanks thinking out problems. His acting talents are fairly under-utilized here.

Sir Ian McKellen (“X-Men” trilogy) does get a chance to add some flavor to the characters presented here as a friend of Langdon, who – again conveniently for our heroes – has a lot of money and helps them discover just what it is they are actually looking for and why certain parties might be interested in keeping it a secret. Paul Bettany (“Firewall”) also adds some twisted menace to the proceedings as a religious assassin.

Despite much of the convenience of the plot, the story really is intriguing and offers up some good popcorn thriller fare. A good deal of the movie works as long as you don’t try too hard to get ahead of the heroes. Unfortunately, however, Howard (“Cinderella Man”) seems to be a little too timid in allowing the audience to just soak it in. Throughout the film the director insists on dropping in short flashback sequences that are a little too revealing. It is as if he is afraid the plot is too complicated for the audience to follow, but besides clarifying the ideas proposed by the “controversial” conspiracy theories presented here, the flashbacks also offer clues into the plot’s mysteries. These clues are all too often obvious and steal away most of the surprises to come at the end of the film.

I suppose, since most of the world besides me has already read the book, the surprises have all been spoiled anyway, but there is something to be said for the time when Hollywood respected the intelligence of its audience enough not to spell everything out for them. Most of the fun to be had in a film such as this is not having any clue what-so-ever as to how it is all going to end up. Hollywood has gotten into the habit of spoon feeding its audiences by playing to the biggest ticket buying demographic of young men who mostly enjoy visual stimulus. It is a shame that even a director as gifted as Ron Howard is unable to resist that type of mentality in filmmaking, especially for a production that otherwise does a good job of keeping its thriller elements on a mature adult level.

Hoodwinked! / **½ (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Red: Anne Hathaway
Granny: Glenn Close
The Wolf: Patrick Warburton
The Woodsman: Jim Belushi
Nicky Flippers: David Ogden Stiers
Boingo: Andy Dick

The Weinstien Co. and Kanbar Animation present a film directed by Cory and Todd Edwards. Written by Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards and Tony Leech. Running time: 80 min. Rated PG (for mild action and thematic elements).

“Hoodwinked!” is a brilliant idea, a brilliant use of the CGI animated format; and at another time, maybe more than ten years ago, may have fooled people into thinking it was pure genius. Unfortunately for it, the spectrum of what CGI animation can bring to movie going audiences has been fairly well explored by this point and the bar has been raised many times over, meaning that the fairytale genre in this format really demands a finer finished product than this “an ‘A’ for effort” homemade project provides.

The brilliant idea encased in yet another CGI animated “children’s” film is the telling of a very well-known children’s tale a la “Rashomon”, from different characters’ points of view. This is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” by the four major characters involved in that story: Red, Granny, The Wolf, and The Woodsman.

The film begins in the midst of the story as we know it, with Red (Anne Hathaway , “The Princess Diaries”) coming to see her grandmother, the Wolf (Patrick Warburton, “Kronk’s New Grove”) has disguised himself as Granny (Glenn Close, “101 Dalmatians”), and upon Red’s discovery of the Wolf’s deception the Woodsman (Jim Belushi, “The Wild”) enters wielding an axe. The police are called in to sort things out. Detective Nicky Flippers (David Ogden Stiers, “Lilo & Stitch”), a frog gifted in dance, questions each of the “suspects” on what lead up these awkward events.

Each character tells a story in which they are trying to do the right thing and somehow become the victim of some mysterious grand scheme, including the Wolf who claims to be an undercover reporter. What the Wolf is trying to uncover, and what the other characters haplessly stumble into, is a plot to steal all the secret recipes from all over the Woods; apparently baked goods are the forest creatures’ primary form of commerce. Each character’s story is different and reveals details about the grand story and informs details about each story told by the other characters.

For the most part it is quite an ingenious idea. The identity of the recipe thief, which I will not reveal here, is a little too obvious to carry the mystery element over the police procedural. The characters, however, are wonderful, and all their tales are very cleverly intertwined with one another. Granny’s tale pushes the envelope a little too far in terms of good plot developments. The filmmakers seem to have run out of ideas by the time they got to her story. There are also some wonderful supporting characters, including a squirrel that is wound a little too tight and steals the show, a singing hillbilly goat, and a rabbit named Boingo, who is Andy Dick (TV’s “Less Than Perfect”) as a rabbit.

Where the film loses its power is in its finishing. While it is witty and clever, the film lacks a sort of refinement. The character rendering seem plastic and expressionless. Red carries the same disinterested look throughout the movie. While CGI animators often choose a stylistic rendering to the characters and environment that is not realistic, this world seems rendered stylistically out of lack of imagination and resources. And while the ideas behind the dialogue are clever and there are a good many chuckles throughout, the script itself seems to play more like a first draft than a finished product. Many of the jokes are good ideas that don’t seem to have been worked out as far as they should have been. Many of those chuckles could have been out right guffaws with the proper punch and delivery.

I believe the reason for this apparent disparity between the great ideas and the mediocre execution comes from the fact that this film never went through any sort of professional development stage. On the DVD the creators, Cory and Todd Edwards, claim to have made the picture for a mere $5000. The Weinstien brothers bought the film to boost their properties as they set out to launch their own studio after their departure from Disney’s Miramax division. While the Weinstiens used their considerable clout to gather a great cast of voice performers to rerecord all the dialogue and probably helped with technical finishing such as editing and color timing, they may have been better off having the Edwards brother remake the entire film with technology beyond what they could buy with their parents’ credit card.

In truth, the limitation of the animation is something that could very easily be overlooked by audiences, since the ideas behind them are so fresh and interesting. And despite the fact that the dialogue is a little flat, it is passable in today’s climate of flash over brains when it comes to acceptable execution of story. But acceptable is something a good movie should strive to rise above, and given the chance of development this idea has the potential to be great. I would like to see the Edwards brothers try it again now that they’ve got their feet in the door.

New rule in animation: It seems it is becoming a new rule in the animated film industry that the voice over artist Patrick Warburton, known in the flesh as Putty from “Seinfeld”, must be employed in every animation project. The use of his voice as one of the primary characters within an animated project automatically raises the final product to a higher level. The rising popularity of his voice is a welcome development.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Mission: Impossible III / *** (PG-13)

Ethan Hunt: Tom Cruise
Owen Davian: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Luther Strickell: Ving Rhames
Declan: Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Julia: Michelle Monaghan
Zhen: Maggie Q
Musgrave: Billy Crudup
Lindsey: Keri Russell
Brassel: Laurence Fishburne

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by J. J. Abrams. Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Abrams. Based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace, disturbing images, and some sensuality).

If you look at action heroes throughout the ages of film, you might notice that actors often run funny. Probably the clearest case in point is Harrison Ford, who has done his fair share of it in his films. Tom Cruise has also made much of his career out of running. Beyond the “Mission: Impossible” movies he was running early on in “All the Right Moves” right on up through “War of the Worlds”. The thing about Cruise is that he is good at it. Unlike most actors, he looks good doing it; and he does it a lot in “Mission: Impossible III”.

The good news is that like his running stance, his track record with the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is pretty good. They aren’t the in depth moral dilemma political thrillers of the seventies, but they provide pretty good popcorn crunching fare for those summer blockbuster months. In the latest Impossible Missions Force adventure we find Cruise’s Ethan Hunt once again saving the world from a terrible threat, and we also get the bonus of a look into the private life of a super spy.

The second opening of the film finds Ethan at an engagement bash to his true love Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan (“North Country”). She thinks he works for the Department of Transportation. In spy reality, however, Ethan has retired from field service to become an operative trainer. But, of course, he is willing to come out of his semi-retirement to help rescue one of his former students (Keri Russell, “The Upside of Anger”) from a sadistic arms dealer, who is brokering a deal to sell a possible global threatening virus.

Much has been made of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn toward this more commercial oriented film than is typical for him, especially coming off his Oscar win this past year for his performance in “Capote”. He proves he has more than what it takes to be a diabolical villain as the arms dealer Owen Davian. The MPAA claims as reason for the PG-13 rating they awarded the film “intense sequences of frenetic violence and menace.” The “menace” included in this explanation is there entirely because of Hoffman’s performance.

The adjective of “frenetic” attached to the fairly well expected violence of the film can probably be attributed to the non-stop pace of the film established by director J.J. Abrams and his editing team. Abrams, creator of the popular television series “Alias” and “Lost”, was tapped personally by Cruise for his skill at fusing conspiratorial thriller elements with more soap-operatic personal storylines. He delivers both with a raw breakneck quality to the film, which is helped by opening the film with a scene from its climax and flashbacking what lead up to that point.

After the brutal opening sequence, where Hoffman gets a chance to sink his teeth into the audience right off the back, we learn that Hunt has a life outside IMF. While still never really delving into Hunt’s psyche, Abrams does a good job dangling this “real life” of Hunt’s into the fray of the espionage life he is so good at. That real life is as much a secret in the spy world as his spy job is in the real world. Never is that subject of the other life left out of a scene, usually a scene filled with flying bullets and explosions.

Cruise is as solid as he ever is in action mode. As a bonus to being a competent action hero, Cruise always has the extra ability of conveying pain and personal stress just under the surface, as if he is in a heated drama. Even though you know he always manages to pull it off in the end, he makes it easy to imagine that maybe this will be Hunt’s last mission.

The movie does often err on the side of spectacle rather than logic. A sequence involving a death defying leap across a gaping hole in a bridge, when going around would have been both easier and faster, comes to mind. And, although Hunt is obviously a very smart man, he often refuses to think out a situation entirely in order to keep the danger level up in the story. It was easy to figure out who all the bad guys were and Hunt should have been at least 10 steps ahead of me.

Despite a few errors in logic, “M: I III” is for the most part a smartly conceived picture and just the type of summer popcorn fare that I personally am welcoming at this time after spending the winter months ruminating over the heavy volume of independent thinkers that dominated the latter part of 2005. It also is a step above the overabundance of stupidity that has plagued the first half of 2006. Navigating away from the poor quality of the films released so far this year is proving to be the truly impossible mission, but this one isn’t a terrible place to start.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Glory Road/ *** (PG)

Dan Haskins: Josh Lucas
Bobby Joe Hill: Derek Luke
Adolph Rupp: Jon Voight
Jerry Armstrong: Austin Nichols
Harry Flournoy: Mehcad Brooks
Orsten Artis: Alphonso McAuley
Willie “Scoops” Crager: Damaine Radcliff
Nevil Shed: Al Shearer
Willie Worsley: Sam Jones II

Walt Disney presents a film directed by James Gartner. Written by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG (for racial issues including violence and epithets, and momentary language).

Ever since the surprise breakout success of the Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney production of “Remember the Titans” from a few years back, Disney has been in the business of producing true-life inspirational sports tales with strict formulaic structures the likes of “Miracle” and “The Rookie”. All have been generally good movies if never venturing into the territory of greatness. The latest Disney sports moment is another collaboration with Bruckheimer in the form of a basketball picture – they’re going to run out of sports soon. “Glory Road” tells the story of small time college basketball coach Dan Haskins and how he cobbled together the first ever all black starting line up to win the 1966 NCAA Championship.

Josh Lucas (“Stealth”) portrays Haskins, who comes from humble beginnings. Playing with the audience’s perceptions, first time director James Gartner first shows Haskins courtside badgering his players throughout a game. His chides of how they are all “playing like girls” become more comedic when it is revealed that they are girls. A small southern university, Texas Western, takes a chance hiring Haskins, whose only successes have come coaching high school women’s basketball, to turn around their struggling NCAA men’s basketball program.

When Haskins takes the coaching job he is faced with the task of putting together a winning team without the financial resources or the name recognition to do so. “Texas who?” During scouting sessions where the top white athletes laugh at Haskins presence, he notices that each team seems to have one or two black players that play very well, which no one seems to notice. Soon Haskins has taken to the streets, chasing down young black men that think he’s some crazy white man on a black bashing spree.

There are some very funny scenarios here that probably did not hold the same amount of levity in their reality. One involves Haskins chasing one player home where he finds the opportunity to have the fellow’s mother hear him out for the price of partaking in some of her wonderful apple pie. The mother returns later in the film for some more humor when the player finds himself struggling to keep his grade point average up.

The racial civil rights issues of the story are impossible for the filmmakers to avoid since the whole point of such as story is to honor the civil right achievements of Haskins and his team’s accomplishments under the diverse racial tension of the time. However, as in “Remember the Titans”, the filmmakers have managed to keep the Spike Lee scream down to a dull grumble here that consists primarily of older stuffy white folk holding up a stiff chin at the sight of seven black men standing in the same place together. There is a scene of racial violence that even gets some of the Texas Western white teammates ready to rumble with the locals, but like the filmmakers, coach Haskins steps in before anything really nasty breaks out.

The final passages focus on the team’s extraordinary fight through the playoffs to finally face powerhouse champs Kentucky for the championship. Jon Voight (“National Treasure”) plays the crotchety veteran coach of Kentucky Adolph Rupp. The last couple of games presented in the film are typical sports film fare, but done well enough to keep the audience engaged in the games. I think perhaps Rupp’s seeming acceptance that he is going to lose the title to this black team after they have made a couple of key plays to turn the tide is a little too prophetic for a man in his position with his beliefs at the time, but the players never seem aware of the game’s outcome before the end.

While the racial issues in this film are unavoidable and add a resonant significance to the proceedings, there is really no new territory mined here. “Glory Road” is the solid formula Disney has molded into a profitable movie experience from the inspirational sports story. It will please. It will amuse. It will provide a couple of exciting games that people are or are not aware actually happened.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

8th Annual Overlooked Film Festival

Bad Santa (2003) ***
Millions (2005) ****
Junebug (2005) ****
Claire Dolan (1998) **½
Spartan (2004) ****
My Fair Lady (1964) ****
Duane Hopwood (2005) ****
Ripley’s Game (2002) ***½
The Eagle (1929) ***½

Man Push Cart (2006) N/A
Somebodies (2006) N/A
U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (2005) N/A

For the second year in a row I have missed out on one of my favorite events in the world, Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. 2006 marks the 8th year of this delectable film festival. After my first, I promised myself I would never miss another. Well, now I’ve missed two, but thanks to the miracle of Netflix I’ve been able to witness at least the most important part of this year’s festival – the films themselves.

I, of course, have yet to be able to experience those films featured in the festival that have yet to find distribution in US theatrical or DVD releases. This year that includes the minimal budget film “Man Push Cart”, written and directed by an Iranian-American, starring a Pakistani-American about a former Pakistani rock star who now operates a vending cart on the streets of Manhattan. Another Sundance film “Somebodies” is a celebration of African-Americans in Georgia with an unconventional approach that eschews the typical signatures of ethnic films in America and the tendency to try to show black people as role models and simply shows people as people, black or white. Also featured was a new South African adaptation of the Bizet opera “Carmen” in the film “U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha”. It has been my experience with this film festival that these totally under the radar films tend to be the best of the bunch. I managed to see all the films I missed from last year’s festival; I can only hope I get the chance to catch these gems before the year is up.

Of the films I did get to see in the room my wife has come to refer to as my “dungeon getaway” I can only say this year’s seems to have been a truly exceptional festival. While the quality of these overlooked films are always very high, this year’s collection was the best consistency of high quality films I’ve seen yet. They are also all fairly recent films, save the festival opener “My Fair Lady” and the silent feature “The Eagle”, there is no film here older than ten years and most are from just the last couple of years. I present them here in the order I viewed them.

Bad Santa. Truthfully, this film should also go down as one of the ones I missed at this festival. Director Terry Zwigoff returned for his second festival in a row (and I missed ‘em both) to present his unreleased “director’s cut” of this very unconventional Christmas film. I did not see the theatrical cut of this film but did see the “Badder Santa” DVD version, which while longer still did not contain all the material in Zwigoff’s director’s cut. Billy Bob Thornton plays a low level thief who, along with his little person cohort, uses the holidays as an opportunity to bilk shopping malls for money and merchandise posing as a Santa and Elf for the children.

This is a truly black comedy, strictly for adults, where Thornton’s miserable thief is truly the poorest excuse for a human being, and few other characters in the film are any better. When Thornton’s character comes to the rescue of a fat kid who is tormented by peers, it looks as if the film may turn into some redemptive power of children movie, but Thornton’s thief isn’t any better at handling children than he is his own life. The audience is left wondering just how many lives this man can possibly destroy. While I loved this film’s devilishly subversive attitude toward life and the conventions of holiday movies, its released ending betrays the black nature of the comedy by providing a little more happiness than any of these characters deserve. I hope the director’s cut corrects this small misstep.

Millions. So many of today’s “family” films coming out of Hollywood tend to be targeted to the youngest and lowest mindsets. A case in point is Disney’s recent revamping of “The Shaggy Dog”, which does a good job of imagining the easiest way to make a kid laugh by having Tim Allen run around on all fours chasing after cats. “Millions”, on the other hand, is a family film like no other. It tells the story of what happens when two kids discover a bag full of money (stolen money, unbeknownst to them). It imagines the very meticulously thought out process these brothers use to decide just what to do with the money.

Set in Britain on the eve of the national change over to the Euro, there are very little impurities to the characters of these two brothers. The youngest brother consults the saints he has come to learn of in school in his imagination, which provides some comical fantasy segments and explanations to the adults when they discover what the children are up to; and the entire film is a visual cinematic feast compared to your average film, let alone family film.

Even more surprising is the directorial mind this wonderment of cinema comes from. Director Danny Boyle draws from his own cinematic oeuvre of very adult oriented films like “Trainspotting”, “The Beach”, and “28 Days Later” to create this family friendly, yet adult literate tale about the morality of children. “Millions” was Ebert’s choice for this year’s free family matinee, and is perhaps the best choice he’s ever made for this spotlight.

Junebug made a bit of a splash this past awards season because of the wonderfully nuanced and comic characterization created here by actress Amy Adams as a compulsively positive yet not very worldly pregnant sister-in-law. Although Adams deserved all the praise she got and more for her performance, there are many other reasons the film itself can be held on equal grounds with her input. Director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan have made “Junebug” very much in the spirit of independent film, with a stronger emphasis on slice-of-life presentation than on plot, but they have filled it with more than the average amount of warmth and humor for a film that also deals with the drama of life.

Embeth Davidtz is a Chicago art dealer who returns with her new husband to his very rural home in North Carolina to meet his family and woo a potential artist for her gallery. While the story of a city dweller displaced into country bumpkin culture is certainly no new territory for a film, “Junebug” is a breath of fresh air in the unpretentious characterizations it provides for its cast. It is unusual that a film can do such a good job making its audience feel good while still providing a serious story that avoids any expectations one can place on it. In fact the most interesting element of this film to me was the way in which as it came too a close I realized I had read too far into where it was going, as so often happens with most people dealing with relatives in life, when it was all much simpler than I had at first assumed.

Claire Dolan, on the other hand, was the disappointment of this year’s collection for me. It seems every festival must have one that just doesn’t live up to the rest, although it is fairly easy to see what Ebert found to appreciate about this unusual thriller. I label the movie a thriller, however many may fail to see what is so thrilling about this story of a call girl who struggles to build a new life for herself. In a more typical treatment of this same tale it would be presented as a thriller as the titular character tries to hide from her business minded pimp after she has stashed away enough money to make her run to another city.

Katrine Cartlidge and Colm Meaney provide wonderful performances in the almost daughter/father relationship they share as prostitute and high class pimp. They have reasonable conversations about their business partnership, but he sees her as a business investment and she knows he’ll never allow her to leave willingly. Vincent D’Onofrio also appears as a potential love interest for Claire, which would also be far more exploited for tension and conflict in a production less interested in character.

While I felt this could have been a highly compelling drama with its focus on character above suspense, the film, unfortunately, moves at far too laconic a pace. Too many passages lingered too long on what choices could lead to, and not enough on what they do. While I admire the fact that the filmmakers chose not to go down the typical path of melodrama, they could have used to pump up the tension level a bit more often to keep the story moving along.

Spartan. Ironic that a potential thriller squandered might be included in the same collection of films as this espionage thriller so expertly executed by such an unlikely director as David Mamet. Mamet has built his career known as a great dialogist and although he has dabbled in the thriller genre a couple of times before, even his works like “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Heist” have been mostly supported by Mamet’s amazing skill at wielding the American language (because his English is so uniquely American). While his skill at the art of speech is still on its strongest display in this picture, “Spartan” is the first film of Mamet’s I’ve seen where his plotting and direction of action exists on just as high a level as his words.

Val Kilmer plays a covert expert brought in by the CIA to find the kidnapped daughter of the President. When he uncovers a white slavery ring involved in the kidnapping the twists and turns start coming and don’t stop until the film’s bloody end. Understanding that this is a film by David Mamet, and therefore does not draw studio heads’ attention as a potential box office smash, I was shocked after seeing it that someone with some sort of studio control at Warner Bros. didn’t see a screening of this and recommend a heavy media push to turn it into a sleeper hit, because there is nothing about this film that wouldn’t please a mainstream audience and draw crowds to the theaters. “Spartan” is a wicked thriller and it would be nice to know a large audience could be exposed to such intelligent dialogue for once, but alas they don’t call it the “Overlooked” for nothing, and most people haven’t been so lucky to see this one.

My Fair Lady. Now “overlooked” is not a word that leaps to mind with this 1964 Best Picture Oscar winning musical, but “My Fair Lady” acts as a splendid reminder of what the American movie going audience has forgotten about in its abandonment of the musical format in film. The failure of last year’s “Rent” at the box office only serves to secure the fate of the musical as a now overlooked genre; but only a musical can deliver such a deliciously abusive relationship as that of the waifish flower girl Eliza Doolittle and the arrogant Professor Henry Higgins, who on a whim wagers he can pass her off as high society with a fellow linguist, and still leave its audience smiling.

It was shocking to witness how vicious these two characters are to each other. Not only is it highly comic, but it is a level of human relationship that can only be seen in the most daring (overlooked) of today’s movies so homogenized by political correctness. The film may have also been slightly ahead of its time for the women’s rights movement which didn’t take full flight in Hollywood until the 80’s with films like “Baby Boom” and “Working Girl”. It does cave into the happy ending in the end, which marks most of its female rights activism moot, but it takes some grand digs at the male dominated society of the story’s and the film’s time periods. I only wish I could have seen it in glorious 70mm, the other overlooked aspect for which Ebert chose it.

Duane Hopwood. Next to the grandeur of a Hollywood musical made in the heyday of their dazzling production values, a digitally shot film with the simplicity of “Duane Hopwood”’s story might never seem to live up to it. Yet what this story of a man’s struggle with his alcoholism lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in emotional power. The surprising thing is not all of that emotional boiling is a downer. Like in “Junebug”, first time writer/director Matt Mulhern has the amazing ability to find the humor of life in the humility of what the titular character of this film has to go through.

Mulhern also knows how to utilize the natural comedic talents of his cast to lighten what can be a big emotional pill to swallow. David Schwimmer’s performance as Duane marks another career defining performance for a comedic actor who tackles the serious subject matter of alcoholism. Most of all, this is a film that seems to be made with love and understanding of its characters and their feelings toward one another and the difficult to control disease of alcoholism. It made for a rough ride emotionally, but was warmed with enough laughter and love to make it a better experience than can be found with most movies.

Ripley’s Game. Patricia Highsmith’s literary murderous con artist Tom Ripley is a difficult nut to crack. His strange cold outlook on life is nearly impossible for the average filmgoer to understand. Put in the hands of a performer who is just a bit off kilter himself, such as the ever engaging John Malkovich, and Ripley begins to make a little more sense.

Like “Spartan”, it is hard to believe that this adaptation of Highsmith’s novel “Ripley’s Game” was able to fly so far under the radar it never even received a U.S. theatrical release. While it is a little less traditional for a thriller than “Spartan”, it is an adaptation of an adventure of a very popular literary character and follows not to long after the higher profile Ripley adaptation “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. It contains much of the unusual plotting of that story, but this film, set in the present day rather than that of the time period of the novel, seems less interested in the setting and mood of Mr. Ripley’s unusual world, as it is in exploring the characters of it three primary players.

The performances by the principal actors elevated this movie to a level beyond what the plotting provides. Malkovich was born to play Ripley, but the performances by Ray Winstone as a former partner of Ripley’s and Dougray Scott as his latest “victim of circumstance” are as equally compelling.

Winstone has provided a great many wonderful supporting roles of late in films like “King Arthur” and “Cold Mountain”, but here he gets a chance to take a controlling interest in the endeavor. There is a scene where his character bumbles his way into a delicate venture of Ripley’s and Winstone’s execution makes it clear that while this man is a bit of a buffoon, this clumsiness is also part of his personal style that allows him to get what he wants out of others.

Scott, on the other hand, is the epitome of a desperate man in way over his head and mostly unaware of it. Watch the glee that percolates under his every action after he has performed Ripley’s initial duty. This is impressive mostly because Scott has tended to play heavies in his career, his most well-known performance being Tom Cruise’s nemesis in “Mission: Impossible II”.

The Eagle. Performances are also the shining force behind the silent classic “The Eagle”. A Rudolph Valentino starring Robin Hood story set in Russia during the rule of Catherine the Great, “The Eagle” proves that the silents weren’t just a stepping stone to the sound era for the spectrum of performance.

In most of the silent films I’ve seen the focus has been either on the technology of film itself and how it allows for illusion or on stunts. The emphasis when film was new was always on the visual, rarely did the emotional enter into what are generally known as the great silents. And when it did, it was always accompanied by a heavy helping of visual gags as well. While the visuals of “The Eagle” are not dull, they are hardly the focal point of this romance between Rudolph Valentino’s character and the daughter of his enemy. There is also a great comedic storyline with Catherine the Great who puts a warrant out for Valentino’s character when he rejects her advances toward him.

The performances are executed with the same aplomb as great dramatic and comedic performances of today, which gives the film a more immediate feel than your average (or even above average) silent. It is easy to see why Valentino was as famous in his day as Tom Cruise is today. I only wish I could have seen his passion complimented by the incredible soundtrack provided live each year at the Overlooked by The Alloy Orchestra.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Duane Hopwood / **** (R)

Duane: David Schwimmer
Linda: Janeane Garofalo
Anthony: Judah Friedlander
Gina: Susan Lynch
Fred: Dick Cavett
Steve: Steve Schirripa

IFC Films presents a film directed and written by Matt Mulhern. Running time: 84 min. Rated R (for language).

It seems the alcoholic’s story brings out the best dramatic product from the most seemingly unlikely performers. There have been several wonderful films made on the subject all revolving around stunning performances by actors who were best known for their comedic output prior to their alcoholic turns. Michael Keaton beat the horrific road to recovery in the movie “Clean and Sober”; and Meg Ryan shed her romantic image to portray a wife that can’t cope with her drinking problem and her family in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” In “Duane Hopwood” former “Friends” star David Schwimmer gets his shot at dramatic legitimacy and delivers perhaps the most satisfyingly complete portrayal of a drunk this critic has ever seen.

Duane is divorced from his wife Linda (Janeane Garofalo, “Stay”); although an opening montage that plays under the credits shows the couple sharing happy moments together and with their two daughters. But Duane’s drinking was obviously a problem and most likely the reason for their divorce. He is a bouncer at an Atlantic City casino, which seems to be the one area of his life his drinking has not severely affected. That doesn’t mean he likes his job, it just seems to be his one line.

One evening Duane is pulled over for drunk driving. The state trooper is a friend of Duane’s and is willing to let it slide if Duane cooperates. That is until he discovers that Duane was taking this 3 a.m. drunken joy ride with one of his daughters asleep in the back seat. “Duane, this changes things,” his friend says to him, and it seems never a truer statement had even been spoken to Duane in his life.

As if estrangement from his family hadn’t been much of an uprooting experience, Duane’s life is truly turned on its head as not only does his problem unexpectedly finally threaten his work situation when he finds himself without a license to drive in the middle of November (riding a bike to work on the New Jersey coast in the midst of winter is a bit conspicuous), but his wife’s lawyer urges her to have Duane’s visitation rights removed.

Now, this all sounds severely depressing, and there are moments in the film where the emotions involved become overwhelming, but the greatest element of this movie is its lighthearted approach to life in general. For every heavy heartbeat in this film there are pathetic comic figure and is wonderfully cast as this very likeable pity case. He has the ability to find the everyday comedy in moments where the character is at his most vulnerable, but he never seems to be playing for the comedy. His sad attempts to bed a bartender friend (Susan Lynch, “Casa de los babys”) who helps him home when it is raining one day are a good case in point.

It is also good to see that Duane and Linda have not forgotten how they once felt about each other. Despite their divorce and the horrific notion of taking Duane’s daughters away from him, they still seem to very much like one another. Duane’s alcoholism isn’t something that just happened to him and turned him into a villain to those who once loved him. The alcoholism is the thing that has taken hold of both (all) of their lives, and they understand it wasn’t something Duane did to them on purpose. Garofalo does a good job conveying that although Linda does not want to take his daughters away from him, it is something she feels she must do for their own and even Duane’s own good.

Writer and director Matt Mulhern is quite gifted in the way he is able to multi-layer all of his character’s actions and emotions. Drawing out the comedy in most of his slice-of-life situations is an ingenious way to make the material easily accessible and even highlights the multi-layered aspect of his characters when the audience realizes they are laughing at a man’s tragedy.

Duane does not have to carry every burden. Anthony (Judah Friedlander, “Date Movie”) is a janitor at the casino who has aspirations of becoming a stand up comedian. At first he comes across as a loser, one of those guys that every place of employment seems to have, a guy who is always spouting theories about everything and everyone just humors to his face but laughs at behind his back. But after Duane humors Anthony into his house as a “roommate” we find that he is the ever understanding friend that anyone needs in order to get through hardships. Anthony’s frankness becomes an asset Duane can count on to call him out when he is in the wrong and the next moment still be there to support him.

Duane also has two neighbors that are the dictionary definition of “characters.” Steve (Steve Schirripa, “Must Love Dogs”) never says a word, yet gives the impression that he wants smack someone out of their ignorance at any moment but is too scared of disrupting some fragile balance. Former talk show host Dick Cavett plays Steve’s roommate Fred. Fred is one of those people who always means well yet can’t help but say too much in any given situation.

“Duane Hopwood” is a tough movie in that by its end, it has put its audience through the emotional wringer, but the journey itself is a smooth ride with welcome friends and good times to be had. It certainly doesn’t present alcoholism as a walk in the park, but it present life as a challenge that can either be crashed into headlong or drunk up and cherished. It is a choice we have all made and regretted at times, but we have no choice in the matter of living itself, only how.