Thursday, October 06, 2005

Previews I'm just getting around to: Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Asylum, The Thing About My Folks, Pretty Persuasion

Free previews are easy to find. There's usually two or three in every issue of the weekly alterna-rag, and one every other day or so in the daily papers. You may have to go someplace and pick them up - and try to get ahead of all the other moochers - but sometimes you just stumble onto them - I think I found passes for Asylum when I was looking for ice cream, and I've found others in a pile with the CSNs and such outside the comic shop.

In fact, for a while I had enough passes and things lying around my cubicle that my co-workers seemed to think the studios treated me like a real critic and sent me passes. Not yet, guys.

Although I wouldn't complain.

Hustle & Flow

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2005 at Loews Bosotn Common #7 (Preview)

I'll give Craig Brewer some credit - he made me like Hustle & Flow, despite nearly all of my personal preferences advising against it. My thoughts about its individual elements run the gamut from "disinterest" to "disdain". But go figure; even if he and his cast don't quite make me care about a pimp who would be a rapper, that the characters were able to grab my interest is a victory in itself.

DJay (Terrence Howard) is a Memphis pimp, but not a particularly prosperous one. He's got three girls in his stable, but with Shug (Taraji P. Henson) pregnant with his child, Nola (Taryn Manning) a less-than-high-end country girl, and Lexus (Paula Jai Parker) belligerent (and having recently given birth herself), he's all too aware that things aren't exactly getting better. A couple brief discussions give him an idea, though: Arnel (Isaac Hayes), a local bar owner, mentions that local success story Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be having a party at his bar. And a guy he knew in high school as "Key" (Anthony Anderson) is doing some work as an audio engineer. Well, DJay used to rap in the same places as Skinny, and not many thought Skinny was that much better. If DJay could make a demo, and slip it to him...

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (Preview)

There are any number of good things to say about Junebug. It's got interesting things to say about art and the art business. It's a great demonstration of how both the tensions and affection within a family, and the reasons for them, often go unsaid and misunderstood by outsiders. It features an unusually even-handed look at the uneasy co-existence of urban and rural America. But when all is said and done, even all of its other fine qualities blend together as a footnote to one thought: That Amy Adams, she deserves some sort of award.

We don't meet Adams right away; we first encounter Madeline and George (Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola). She's a gallery owner in Chicago; he's her new husband. They've traveled to South Carolina so that she can meet with an "outsider artist" who happens to live near George's family, whom she's never met. Ms. Adams plays Ashley, the literally barefoot and pregnant wife of Geroge's brother Johnny (Benjamin McKenzie), both of him still live with his parents (Celia Weston and Scott Wilson).

Read the rest at HBS.


* * (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Preview)

Asylum is a "bad decision" movie, where the lead character makes a near-constant string a poor choices, but the audience is expected to sympathize because her poor choices are made as the result of passion, while the people she's turning away form are gray martinets seemingly incapable of giving affection. And, of course, Natasha Richardson has the sex appeal going for her, too, and I think we're supposed to look at this movie set in the late 1950s/early 1960s and say, ah, it's tragic that women in that time were expected to repress their sexuality and the only way this vibrant creature could find any sort of release was with one of the inmates at the mental hospital where her husband was employed.

The film fails because it never manages to sell this to us as a tragedy. This is partly because it doesn't establish a strong sense of time and place - tweedy 20th century English melodramas do tend to run together, and Laurel and I wound up figuring the exact timeframe by reading a gravestone toward the end of the picture - so a present-day audience may wind up looking at Ms. Richardson's Stella Raphael and saying "if you're so unhappy, divorce his ass and move on, and if you can't bear the thought of work, examine your priorities or at least seduce someone who be able to do more to keep you in the lifestyle to which you are accustomed than an escaped mental patient who killed his wife!" Maybe not those exact words, but at some point, you'd like to see the protagonist do something that's not utterly stupid.

Working around the idiot plot, it's a competent enough little movie. There's a nicely stuffy atmosphere, and director David Mackenzie does a fine job illustrating the tedium that must be slowly killing Stella. The supporting cast is as good as one expects for a British period piece, with Marton Csokas somehow managing to be smolderingly repentant, Hugh Bonneville perfectly believable as the sort who looks at a wife as a sort of servant, and Ian McKellen as reptillian as one could desire. Gus Lewis is okay enough as Stella's son, although not really enough of a character that we wish him well for any reason other than "he's a kid".

"Competent" isn't really saying much, though, is it? There's not much that could be done to make a movie based on this story better, but what's the appeal of this sort of story of self-destruction, where there's not even anything instructive about the suffering?

The Thing About My Folks

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 August at Loews Boston Common #2 (preview)

I don't hate Paul Reiser, no matter how much my brother Matt and I mocked him the day of the preview. He's a guy who's useful in a small part, but he's limited. As an actor, his range runs from "whiny" to "smarmy". He's also the writer on this movie, and it's the same sort of observational humor as his stand-up - "it's funny because it's true" - which I tend to find rather weak. All it's got going for it is familiarity, and it never really is able to surprise the audience enough to deliver many laughs.

Not that it's purely a comedy; it's a road movie where Ben Kleinman (Reiser) and his father Sam (Peter Falk) tool around upstate New York after Sam's wife up and leaves without notice. And while they're driving around randomly, there's the inevitable talking about Sam's failings as a father and husband, Ben's insecurities, and their family history. Paul Reiser is whiny. Peter Falk is crochety. And he farts. As we all you know, only a few things are guaranteed comedy gold, and old guys farting? What more could you want?

The Thing About My Folks is sweet and harmless and boring. I don't think that wanting to give the audience warm fuzzies must inevitably lead to a dull movie; it's the trading over well-worn territory that does that. This is just another movie about an adult son trying to connect with his elderly father, and in trying to make something everyone could relate to, Reiser never put much in that was unique. We wind up just marknig time until the inevitable teary scene in the hospital where everyone realizes how much they really, really love each other.

On a note that has nothing really to do with the movie, I will give Reiser some credit for sometimes seeming as irritated as me at the people who come to a preview/festival with Q&A, raise their hands, get recognized, and then just ramble on and on. Granted, his method of dealing with this was almost-impercepitable sarcasm while mine was banging my head back onto my seat saying "ask a frickin' question" through gritted teeth. As gratifying as it is to know that you liked Columbo or Mad About You or, hey, even The Thing About My Folks, the guests have limited time, and your long-winded sucking up is potentially displacing an actual interesting question and answer.

Pretty Persuasion

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (preivew)

When I first saw the trailer, I admit, I thought this was a Jena Malone movie. She and Evan Rachel Wood look really, astonishingly, similar. The difference, apparently, is that Ms. Malone's movies tend to be less cynical than Ms. Wood's.

Here, Wood plays the sort of teenaged girl that primarily exists in the nightmares of older men: Genius IQ, highly attractive, and absolutely no concern over right and wrong. I imagine that this is a common nightmare among high school teachers, but also something that doesn't happen nearly as often as the media would have us believe. But, hey, movies about monsters are more compelling than movies about people who do something foolish on a whim and are no match for the authorities who are trained to handle their likes. And Wood's Kimberly is a compelling monster. She's got a knack for saying terrible things in a way that can be taken as not being actually malicious. She's got a rotten, scummy father (James Woods) to whom one would assign more blame if her actions weren't so thoroughly calculated. And at times, the audience can relate to her problems: We get her antagonizing a trophy-wife stepmother and receiving mixed messages from a boyfriend, and what at first seems to be a casual lie turns out to be surprisingly true. The spoiled brat who becomes a total sociopath over basic teenager stuff is almost a cliché, but in Wood's hands it's more.

Kimberly is easily the most complex and interesting character, but by no means the only watchable one. Her "friends" and partners in crime - Elisabeth Harnois as the blonde, perky, not so bright Emily and Adi Schnall as demure new student Randa - are types but well-realized ones: It's funny but also sad to see Randa's innocence be chipped away, and Emily would probably be a normal kid removed from this situation - the goofy one in the gang, probably self-centered in the way teenagers are, but likable enough once you got to know her. James Woods is hilariously reprehensible as Kimberly's crass, bigoted drunk of a father, and Jane Krakowski is amusing as a TV reporter who only thinks she's opportunistic and ambitious. The weak link linds up being Ron Livingston as the teacher who is the target of the girls' wrath. He is in some ways a deserving target, but he's Ron Livingston, one of the most charisma-free actors working today.

Black comedy is a tricky thing to do. I don't think there's any subject that should be categorically off-limits, but there are certain things, like sexual misconduct between a teacher and student, where you've got to have a darn good joke. A lot of the jokes are pretty good, but the film falters when it tries to make the leap from twisted humor to moralizing - where do you draw the line one which twisted things are funny and which aren't? Also, while Kimberly is believably brilliant, it's in part because pretty much everyone else is rather dim, or too easily manipulated. It's one thing to be cynical about how easily everyone can be played, but another to rig it that way.

It's a nice little black comedy, if that's not a contradiction in terms. It's only really sunk by the unfortunate need to demonstrate that its heart is, in fact, in the right place If you're going to go for the throat, don't stop until it's well and truly ripped out.

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