Thursday, September 27, 2007

­BFF: The Poet

Closing night of the Boston Film Festival offered me a choice between director Frank Whaley and star Freddie Prinze Junior introducing New York City Serenade and writer Damian Lee doing the same for The Poet. Suffice it to say, I feel I chose poorly, even if I did meet a cute and friendly girl there (and chickened out from getting her name because I nearly said "hey, that's my youngest brother's favorite band!" when talk of Trade led to Kevin Kline led to Life as a House which apparently had a soundtrack by Guster. I'm old.). She was a little annoyed with the festival organizers, since she'd dropped $10 on one of the fifteen to thirty-minute short programs that was supposed to start at seven and hadn't by The Poet's 8pm start time.

I've tried not to be unkind to the people running the festival - they didn't put together a very impressive event, and the well-attended screenings tended to be either stuff that was shot locally or stuff for which they gave away a lot of tickets. Part of that's self-serving - I'd like a media pass next year, after all, and would hate to burn any bridges should the festival actually get good again. Part of that is me just not wanting to make a film festival about personalities, even if personalities are part of the experience.

But it's tough to let Creative Director John Michael Williams off the hook where that's concerned. Absolutely every film he introduced was really excellent, which is what you have to say, but he certainly didn't sell it like Mitch Davis does at Fantasia. Mitch seems genuinely excited about every film they screen and lets it show - I remember when they screened Citizen Dog and he had us all upset about how Miramax was keeping Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger in a vault and chanting "Wisit Rocks!" even though I suspect many of us (myself included) had never heard of the guy.

Guys like Davis radiate sincerity and enthusiasm. I'm not saying Williams isn't sincere, but here's the thing: The audience laughed at The Poet. This was a serious drama that wanted to really move the audience and we snickered at how clumsy and ham-fisted it was. And then Williams comes out afterward to introduce the director, and he's still acting like this is the greatest thing to happen to film ever. Which, I suppose, he may honestly have believed it was. And most of the people laughing bolted before the Q&A (or even before the film ended), so there probably wasn't much point of acknowledging them, I guess. It just made the continued effusive praise seem more like kissing the butt of one of a director who was willing to show up at this festival than legitimate praise.

Maybe I'm just spoiled by Fantasia, where everybody running the festival seems really jazzed about everything they're showing, or how Ned Hinkle (at the Brattle) or Clinton McClung (late of the Coolidge) are able to not avoid overselling films before they run and seem to have the pulse of the room afterward. Or, much more likely, I'm making too much of a non-event (the crowd and the programmer disagreeing on the merits of a film). Still, it made for an odd atmosphere, at least for me.

The Poet

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

You're not supposed to laugh at movies like The Poet. It's serious business, after all: Polish Jews running from the advancing German army! A good young man caught between his own loving, artistic heart and the brutality of his country! Sure, it's not like we were roaring or yelling at the screen, but let's face it: Once the audience is snickering, you've failed.

The story of Oscar (Jonathan Scarfe) and Rachel (Nina Dobrev) is supposed to be grand and tragic - Oscar is a poet, but during World War II he was doing intelligence work for the army in Poland, which finally made his father (a general) proud. He comes across Rachel during a snowstorm that arose rapidly, bringing her back to his home to nurse back to health. They fall in love almost immediately, despite the awkward question of Rachel's fiancé Bernard (Zachary Bennett). Oscar helps the two escape, but the Jews only make it to the Russian frontier, where paths will cross once again.

There are problems with this film from the very start, many stemming from its insistence that we like Oscar early on. I'm sure that we're supposed to be coming to a more complete understanding of him or seeing him as growing because he's in the German army and that makes him unsavory by default, but that plan backfires badly: His first poems (voiced over like a high-schooler who just wishes people understood) are about the injustice of war, his mother (Daryl Hannah) outright tells us and his father (Kim Coates) that he has a soul that should not be tainted by this evil, and he has no visible reaction when he finds the Star of David in an unconscious Rachel's locket. So the net effect is that we wind up respecting Oscar less, since despite all the film's attempts to portray him as basically good, he's still helping the Nazis invade Poland. Scarfe doesn't do much to further our interest; his performance is as bland and wishy-washy as the character.

There is some chemistry between him and Nina Dobrev, but their relationship doesn't ring very true - it's love at first sight, although that's a little creepy when that first sight comes with one of the parties unconscious. One of the movie's weaknesses is portraying the passage of time, so we've got no real idea how long Oscar and Rachel take to actually fall in love. It certainly feels like they're professing their devotion with Rachel ready to ditch Bernard within about a day (to be fair, it's something of an arranged marriage). Neither Dobrev nor Bennett is quite so wooden as Scarfe, but neither really manages to grab the movie and make the audience care about their fate, though Dobrev comes close.

What's particularly frustrating is that toward the end, we get glimpses of what could have been more interesting movies. Dobrev's transformation from pretty naïf to pragmatic cabaret singer in a Nazi camp is more or less jumped over, and the fallout from the cabaret segment leads us over the Russian border - and I would have happily watched a movie about the woman leading the local cell of partisans. These are much more interesting characters than Oscar, but the film has a frustrating habit of returning to its title character, culminating in an ending that just boggles the mind.

I can appreciate that Damian Lee wanted to do something better than the direct to video dreck that has made up the bulk of his career, but I'm not convinced he has the skills for it. I know Roy Scheider is better than his stilted segment as a rabbi who officiates over an impromptu wedding (with a conveniently perfect wedding dress!), for instance. The courtship between Oscar and Rachel is, as mentioned, awful, and I've got to think that Kim Coates and Daryl Hannah could do even better if there was a little meat on the bones of their characters, rather than them just being personifications of the two directions Oscar is being pulled.

Sure, The Poet likely has more redeeming value than most of Lee's other work - he does have Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe on his résumé, after all. That's damning with faint praise, though, and Black Book is out there if you want to see a really good Nazi-Jew love story.

Also at EFC.

­BFF: Strength and Honour

­This is one I just barely got to see; In the Land of Merry Misfits started late and had a short attached, so it got out at 9:37 when Strength & Honour was scheduled for 9:30. Fortunately, it was running a bit late, and I managed to snag a seat up front just before Mark Mahon and Michael Madsen started talking (Mahon drops "y'know" into his sentences even more than I do).

Not a bad little movie, and it was kind of neat to see Madsen play something other than his usual tough-guy role - and, yeah, that's kind of a weird thing to say when the movie features a big bare-knuckle boxing tournament. Also kind of amusing is that since there were no opening credits, I spent a good chunk of the movie wondering who that Vinnie Jones-looking guy playing the heavy was... Only to discover it was Vinnie Jones.

(Hey, it was quarter of ten after a full day at work and already seeing a movie that hurt my brain and not having a lot of down-time because of the festival. I'm entitled.)

Strength and Honour

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Strength and Honour is likely not a movie I see outside of a festival setting, because it looked to combine a couple of genres I'm not particularly fond of - the "poor and miserable Irish people" movie and the boxing movie - and I'm not a particular fan of Michael Madsen. I would have missed out; this is certainly a movie that's better than its trappings might indicate.

It certainly doesn't waste much time heaping misery on Sean Kelleher (Madsen) and his family: In the first ten minutes or so, a sparring session ends with Sean's brother leaves the younger man dead, and then we flash forward seven years to see his wife Shannon in the hospital, dying from a nasty blood disease. Soon after she is laid to rest, Sean's son Mikey (Luke Whelton) falls ill, and the doctor says it will cost three hundred thousand dollars to get him the treatment he needs in America. The solution, obviously, is to enter a "Traveler" (Irish gypsies; remember the "pikeys" from Snatch?) bare-knuckle boxing tournament, even though he promised his wife he would never fight again.

Would this tournament ("The Puck") really have a two hundred fifty thousand Euro prize? Heck, would many Travelers have the ten thousand Euro entry fee? I kind of doubt it, but the film does a pretty good job of glossing over that inconvenient question by giving us Vinnie Jones as the reigning six-time champion, Smasher O'Driscoll. Even before the idea of Sean going after the Puck starts to germinate at all, we learn that Smasher has recently been cleared of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of someone in the last Puck. Jones embraces his typecasting and plays Smasher as a vicious sociopath; any fighting tournament with him in it is going to have to have high stakes. It's an outsize performance for what is basically a small-scale drama, but the film needs him to be a monster.

That's in part because Madsen's Sean is so very good. Madsen's normally a guy that you'd expect to find in Jones's role, but he's surprisingly good as a big softie. His Cork accent sounds genuine and working-class enough to my admittedly American ears - he doesn't bury its inherently gravely nature in order to sound more Irish - but it's his body language that sells the character. Sean is beaten down by the events that open the movie, and only manages to hide or forget that around his son sporadically. When he moves into the Traveler campground, he projects a note-perfect combination of shame and new-found belonging, especially as the McGrath family makes the Kellehers feel welcome. We hardly ever see Sean angry, which probably would have been the easy way to play it.

The rest of the cast is memorable, too. Michael Rawley is quite likable as Chaser McGrath, the young boxer Sean trains with who comes to regard the older man as a father figure, and Gail Fitzpatrick makes his Mammy the sort of woman that one doesn't mess with under any circumstances. Patrick Bergin lends quiet authority as the Traveler clan's leader; Richard Chamberlain a somewhat more boisterous presence as Sean's and Chaser's trainer. Even Myles Horgan's Barry Lacey (Sean's affable best friend and co-worker) and Sheridan Mahon's Coco McGrath (Chaser's sister and Mikey's babysitter) stick in the audience's mind. Youngster Luke Whelton winds up being the weakest link; he seems to overdo the cuteness a bit.

First-time writer/director Mark Mahon is partly to blame for that; he really doesn't write his characters with many shades of gray, so it makes sense that just as Smasher is very nasty, Sean is very good, Mammy is very passionate... Well, Mikey's going to be very innocent, and the kid just doesn't have the experience to make a fully rounded character out of that. Mahon and his cast do wind up doing a fine job of taking a worn premise and adding the details and polish that make it an enjoyable movie. He has a few nifty directorial flourishes; I especially like the stylized opening segment.

By the time it was over, this movie had impressed me. Not just because it got me to enjoy subject matter that I normally have little interest in; that's too specific and subjective to be that big a deal. In broader terms, though, it's a good example of a potentially forgettable movie executed well, and those are always nice to see.

Also at EFC.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

­BFF: In The Land of Merry Misfits

There's independent film, and then there's stuff like In the Land of Merry Misfits. It's hobbyist filmmaking, which is a cool idea; no form of art should be reserved by corporations or anyone else primarily worried about what other people think. A great many people paint, play music, cook, and write not to get paid for it, but because the urge to create is a force in and of itself.

And it's kind of cool that festivals have a spot for this sort of do-it-yourself movie, but I occasionally have trouble figuring out what I should say about them, if anything. On the one hand, I figure a prospective audience member is going to paying the same ten bucks and deserves to have it treated the same way. On the other hand, it's more personal; it's not just criticizing a product. It feels bad.

(And it's seldom this objectively good thing; film is by nature collaborative enough that someone is going to screw things up, even if the motivating force is a genius)

In the Land of Merry Misfits

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

For all I know, the most amusing part of In the Land of Merry Misfits won't even be included when it finally gets whatever sort of distribution it winds up getting. The festival screening opened with a rapid-fire summarization of how the film got made over a period of years, and the true story of the filmmaker going from sausage vendor to writer for MTV's Singled Out to doing construction over the course of its filming is as entertaining as the feature that follows in much less time.

The story (such as it is), has Matt (Mitch Malem) trying to take a short cut through Bethany, MA, to get to Salem and declare his love for Risandra, his girlfriend who is about to leave for Europe. His car breaks down, though, and he finds the town almost entirely populated by the odd. He's assured that George (Wayne Previdi) can fix anything with wheels and that Heather (Danielle Weeks) can rent him a car, but both of those look like dubious prospects. Besides, some guy named Lord (Keven Undergaro) is calling Matt a "chosen one" who will lead the quest for the Grail of Popularity.

To state the movie's plot like that doesn't give a full impression of how peculiar everything is - it misses the mayhem that occurs at a Bunny Scouts meeting, George's need to do his repairs in the nude, the sword Matt pulls out of Pigboy's butt, that there is a character named Pigboy (Mark Phinney), the spiritual advice of "Friar Chuck" (played by former wrestler Bob Backlund), the fued with the McDeeval car dealership that goes back to high school, or the casting for a play that involves Santa Claus and Hitler. There's a new and bizarre thing on screen every couple minutes, and John Waters is narrating it.

It's the sort of self-consciously weird material that can, quite frankly, get kind of annoying. Matt is constantly complaining about wanting to get back to "the real world", and roughly two thirds of the characters are entirely defined by how they in particular act cah-ray-zee. I know I wanted to smack Junkie (John Comerford) with a shovel about two minutes after seeing him, and that's about the level of subtlety filmmaker Undergaro uses with the whole "weird guys are nice but seemingly 'normal' people are jerks" thing. Consider that the acting is just about what you'd expect from a group of friends making a movie on a lark, and the whole thing can be cringe-worthy.

It does have a certain amount of mad energy to it, though. Maybe not enough to recommend, but there's a certain goofy charm to certain scenes: Matt calls a friend, for instance, and his bits are a funny reminder that there's crazy everywhere; the sheer randomness of certain sequences is funny even when the scenes in question don't make a lick of sense ("in George's honor, let's play this game of paintball... naked!"). And while using non-actors can be minefield when they're required to read lines, there is often something unquantifiably genuine about them.

I can't imagine that I'll ever be tempted to watch Merry Misfits again, and I was truthfully quite glad to leave when the screening was over. And without the introductory piece, I'd probably be much harsher on it. But when it's made so clear that it's just a thing the people involved started as a lark and finished because they cared about finishing it, a critic can't really say the people involved did anything wrong... Even if he can't recommend spending actual money to see it.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Monday, September 24, 2007

­BFF: Everybody Wants to Be Italian

Tuesday night at the festival was mostly dedicated to low-profile stuff that was shot locally. I guess that the night's big draw was Stiffs; they had to move it from theater #18 to #2. I missed that, because the folks who made the schedules had it arranged so that Everybody Wants to Be Italian would have had to start right on time while Stiffs started late to get to both (that night's other early option, Million Calorie March, would have let me see Stiffs, but didn't excite me too much, even though I wound up seeing it anyway come Friday). That didn't happen

It's not always the best stuff, but it does tend to be well-attended. Shoot in the North End, and it's just a quick walk for the local cast, crew, and crew's family to the Boston Common theater. I believe that the people running the festival have day jobs with the Massachusetts film board, so these are likely the films that they're most aware of, at the very least. I hope that doesn't mean that next year's big event is a world premiere of the Pink Panther sequel.

Everybody Wants to Be Italian

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Everybody Wants to Be Italian is a delightfully slight romantic comedy. The film has a cute hook but isn't held hostage by it, there are only one or two characters who aren't at least occasionally funny, and the main relationship has its ups and downs without being melodramatic. This isn't likely to make anyone think it's the golden age of Hollywood again, but it does tend to deliver what it promises.

Jake Bianski (Jay Jablonski) is Polish, not Italian, despite living and working in Boston's North End. As the film opens, he's making ready to propose to Isabella (Marisa Petroro) for the eighth time, which is doomed for a very good reason. This is really starting to get on his co-workers' nerves, so when veterinarian Marisa Costa (Cerina Vincent) shows up behind their shop looking for her cat, they're quick to invite her to the local Italian-American Club, not realizing that she's Spanish. So he's getting instructions on how to woo an Italian woman, she's being told what to expect from an Italian man, and they don't agree on what they want from each other at any given time.

The whole "mistaken ethnicity" thing is a fun way to get Jake and Marisa together, and it lurks in the background to remind the audience that there's a certain amount of deception in this relationship. It is, thankfully, not all the movie has going on story-wise and is in fact more or less forgotten for a while, so anybody wincing at the expectation of the movie leaning on a bunch of stereotypes for humor will probably be relieved. Sure, "cocky guy with a high school education woos smart and classy lady" is a bit of a cliché itself, but it's one that you can do more with.

Part of what keeps the movie going is that there's a group of fun supporting guys. The other guys in the fish market are reliably amusing. John Kapelos's Steve Bottino is just finishing up his doctorate in psychiatry and tosses Frued around but does so in macho neighborhood vernacular. John Enos III does good back and forth with Jablonski and Kapelos; Richard Libertini is dryly amusing as "Papa Aldo". Marisa doesn't have nearly as good a supporting cast as Jake - basically Judith Scarpone as the neighbor tutoring her in the fine points of being Italian. Ben Livingston has a few great little one-liners in his one sequence as a colleague of Marisa's. Marisa Petroro and P.J. Marino are also pretty good, making what could be an unpleasant storyline amusing.

It starts out amusing, at least, but the way Isabella and Mario figure into Jake's and Marisa's story after about the halfway mark drags the movie out a little. It's the sort of thing that the audience is willing to swallow as funny in an offbeat way, but it moves things sideways as much as forward. Still, what writer/director Jason Todd Ipson does there is unexpected, and he's got a knack for going in different directions without going off the deep end. There's clever little bits in the early scenes that I'd normally put in the synopsis, but they were too much fun to discover.

Jay Jablonski is part of most of them; although Jake's not stupid, he's clearly also not the guy who is always going to do the smart thing. Jake's got to come off as a little bit of a punk, and a little bit deluded, but not so much that we don't buy it when he finally figures out what's what. He does pretty well by it, even if he's not quite the conventional leading man. Cerina Vincent's Marisa is a bit more conventional, and makes a fun foil for Jake: She's given a lot of "my biological clock's ticking and I don't have time for screwing around" stuff, but she also has a few moments where she has to throw Jake and the audience off-balance, and she always delivers.

I admit, Everybody Wants to Be Italian got some bonus points from me for being partially filmed in Boston (just a few blocks from the theater where it screened) and because the previous two nights of the festival had featured movies that covered some of the same ground poorly (The Metrosexual and Good Luck Chuck). Those are just factors that mean I enjoyed it more than I might have otherwise; even in a vacuum, it's still an enjoyable little comedy that's worth a look even if you don't recognize the stars.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

BFF: Rails & Ties

... And on my third day at the Boston Film Festival, I finally saw something on film. I know this doesn't bug a lot of other people, but that single pixel that was lit up on the projector was driving me nuts.

Rials & Ties

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #14 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

The more one thinks about the plot to Rails & Ties, the creepier it becomes. It's already about a kid bonding with the man who killed his mother (albeit accidentally), and while good stories about ad hoc families forged from tragedy aren't impossible to create, there's something unnerving about how temporary this one is from the start. Director Alison Eastwood should be commended, then, for keeping this from being completely overpowering.

Davey Danner (Miles Heizer) and Tom Stark (Kevin Bacon) both love trains - Tom operates the line that runs between Los Angels and Seattle; Davey's model engine seldom leaves his hands - and both have a very sick woman in their lives. For Tom, it's his wife Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), whose breast cancer has spread to her bones; Davey's mother Laura (Bonnie Root) is all but bedridden. They meet when Laura tries to commit suicide by stopping her car on the tracks in front of Tom's train. Davey survives, but Tom is suspended pending an investigation. Megan is about to leave Tom to spend her last days in San Francisco when Davey shows up at their door, demanding to know why he didn't stop and winds up sticking around.

Writer Micky Levy seems to take a fairly dim view of most of his adult characters. Tom is the most obviously off-putting - he keeps working even though his wife is dying, when he's suspended and can't do that, he still doesn't go with her on her trip, he snarls that he didn't do anything wrong when Davey looks at him accusingly. Laura is overbearingly religious, with the kind of twisted beliefs where including her son in her suicide makes perfect sense. Even Megan is portrayed as rather selfish - sure, you can argue that someone with a month to live is entitled to be so, but it's Tom who stands to face the consequences if anyone finds out about the kid she insisted they let stay with them. Parenthood is a long-term commitment, so Megan taking a kid who has just lost his mother in so that she can have the experience of filling that role potentially much worse than the piano she orders.

It still works out, though. It works especially well when you consider that the film spends most of its time between events, watching Tom, Megan, and Davey interact while waiting for Tom's hearing. There's occasional cuts to Marin Hinkle as the children's services worker trying to find find Davey, reminding us that what the Starks are doing is probably not all right with the world outside, even if it does seem to be helping them somewhat. Alison Eastwood doesn't quite have the sure hand of her father - she tends to push her characters' anguish forward, where Clint tends to back off and let the audience contemplate it - she does share his tendency to let the cast tell the story.

That cast is obviously a strength; Kevin Bacon is particularly good. Tom is angry at the world and Bacon doesn't shrink from making his character come off as a prick. He's good about only revealing Tom's better qualities in stages, rather than being too eager to show us right off the bat that he's a good guy underneath everything else. Marcia Gay Harden similarly avoids making Megan into too much of a saint, but still manages to earn the audience's affection. Miles Heizer does a better job than many child actors at making us believe that Davey is really as clever as the story requires him to be while mostly having him play as a kid whom the adult world can still catch by surprise.

Rails & Ties is in some ways the serious-drama equivalent to a genre film "programmer"; it doesn't break new ground and doesn't execute so exceptionally well as to be a must-see on those merits. It's got some good performances, and the details are interesting enough so that it doesn't feel like just a retread.

Also at EFC.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

BFF: Good Luck Chuck

The BFF website has probably been corrected by now, but the printed schedule showed this 96 minute movie running at both 8:00pm and 9:30pm on Monday - and the two folks I was talking to in the audience didn't seem like they'd come for the festival; they'd just bought tickets when they saw it on the list of showtimes in the lobby, and "hey, I didn't think this opened until Friday" seemed to sell more tickets than the festival itself.

I was kind of wondering why this was playing the festival - it's not a prestigious preview - until I saw Dane Cook was a local guy, although he and the director didn't seem to be hanging around for the second night.

Anyway, if they're reading this... I do like fun movies, really, I do. This one just wasn't that much fun.

Good Luck Chuck

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #14 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

It's instructive to examine the advertising for Good Luck Chuck. The posters are as generic as can be, just Dane Cook and Jessica Alba standing next to each other. The first trailers laid out the story and featured a lot of Cook, but the recent ads are almost entirely Jessica Alba acting goofy. Why? Well, people like pretty girls, slapstick and penguins; emphasizing the pretty girl doing slapstick with penguins must surely make a middling film look irresistible!

Fair warning: Those bits are, in general, from fairly early in the film, before it settles into a bit of a rut and flounders because its high concept - that because of a hex laid on him when he was ten, any woman who has sex with Dane Cook's Charlie will meet her true love after they break up - isn't nearly as funny as it sounds. He actually meets Alba's Cam Wexler at the wedding of one of his exes, and they click right off, but when Charlie finally finds out that there's this curse on him, he sets out to test it, and his panic winds up creeping Cam the heck out.

The big problem here is that Charlie just isn't that interesting, especially compared with Cam. Just look at where they live; Charlie's got a blandly nice house while Cam's place is kind of funky both outside and in (she really likes penguins). Charlie's defining characteristic initially is that his relationships go south, but the only one we see is right at the start, so it doesn't say much about his personality. He's a nice guy, basically, so much so that his decision to take advantage of his supposed curse (he doesn't believe in it, but so long as the women around him do...) seems out of character, and actually makes us like him a bit less. It's also a problem story-wise: Charlie doesn't actually have to grow over the course of the movie; he's already good to women and a little mopey over the shallowness of his relationships, so the logical path of the story would be figuring out how to end the curse, but that's barely a factor.

What does work? Dane Cook and Jessica Alba are actually an enjoyable pairing. They banter nicely during their meet-cute at the wedding and when disaster seems to inevitably follow Alba's Cam early on, his mild alarm complements her cheerful acceptance of what happens to her and apologies for what happens to him (this has happened to her all her life and she's used to it) nicely. Most of writer Josh Stolberg's previous credits are stuff for kids, which probably explains why kids show up so often in a comedy that is so off-handedly raunchy and are used pretty well (the game of spin the bottle that opens the movie is perhaps my favorite example of both these traits). And the ending, while a bit predictable, is cute.

That's what makes the filler around the good parts so frustrating. There's a "Charlie screws a morbidly obese woman to test the curse" segment that goes on forever, is not very funny, and is uncharacteristically mean both on the surface and underneath. The women who come to Charlie to take advantage of his hex/curse/charm are also a strange case - the two we meet and talk to come across as sympathetic and individual, but the montage of weird phone messages, bare breasts, and comedic sexual positions that follow basically just feeds the "women want to get married at any cost!" stereotype. The one-note sidekick characters are just lazy writing: Cam's brother Joe (Lonny Ross) is a stoner who does embarrassing things; Charlie's friend Stu (Dan Fogler) is a breast-obsessed cosmetic surgeon who unfailingly says the crudest thing possible. And, of course, once the movie starts to focus on Charlie's "emotional growth", suddenly Cam gets much less clumsy.

I didn't hate Good Luck Chuck; I didn't even really dislike it. Even when one of the jokes scores a hit, though, I always felt like the movie could, and should, be funnier - that if everybody put the same amount of effort into their work that Ms. Alba did, there would be a really funny movie here, rather than a kind-of-amusing one.

Also at eFilmCritic

BFF: The Metrosexual

I'm not sure what gave the BFF guys the idea to add "The Street Cleaner" to the end of The Metrosexual, other than maybe having had wires crossed about when the director was going to be in town. It's an odd pairing; The Metrosexual is a wannabe zany comedy; "The Street Cleaner" aims to make the audience uneasy. There was no announcement about this, either, it was just sprung on us when we sat down for the feature. A number of people left the theater as soon as the Metrosexual Q&A was done, probably because that didn't leave much time to get to Good Luck Chuck.

What a sad double feature that sounds like. Chuck isn't outright bad, but together, that would be three hours of films aiming for broad laughs but almost never quite managing it because they back off from anything that might keep the audience from loving their main characters.

Maybe that's the lesson to take from those disappointing movies: It's okay to laugh at characters who get into ridiculous situations for reasons that are their own damn fault; we'll still like them so long as they can get out of them in a clever way or at least learn from the experience.

The Metrosexual

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Do people still actually say "metrosexual"? In today's internet-speed environment, pop culture memes have an average half-life of about six months, and "metrosexual" peaked two or three years ago. Not that it really matters; the title character's metrosexuality isn't really that big a deal. Maybe if it had been, the movie would have been a heck of a lot funnier.

A metrosexual, if you've never heard the term or it has already faded for memory, is a straight man who has the same kind of obsessive attention to appearance and general personality as a traditional gay stereotype, which is good for a few jokes about Eric Bremer (Shaun Benson) early on. He's also kind of unlucky in love, spends a lot of time with lifelong friend Leo (Nick Paonessa), and has a father (Bruce Weitz) who is his complete opposite in personality. Easygoing Leo is on the rebound, and thus makes a faithful sidekick for Eric's romantic and sexual misadventures.

Those misadventures are pretty standard stuff: Eric and Leo go to a strip club, Eric's date is interrupted by his uncouth father, Eric throws a party, Eric and Leo hire hookers who are not as attractive as their pictures. Of course, the fact that Eric is an uptight control freak (and Leo is not) threatens to ruin everything at every turn. Things inevitably end with Eric being humiliated in some way, and neither the set-up nor the punchline is very clever. There are a few funny moments sprinkled throughout the movie, but only one or two is big enough to even start to make up for the number of bits that don't work.

The way those bits come also illustrates a shortcoming, in that the characters don't really do a lot of funny things. Rather, they constantly break the fourth wall and tell us something that's supposed to be funny. Every character does it individually and in groups, for a bunch of purposes: Defining terms, introducing characters and flashbacks, illustrating character quirks. It's constant enough that it continually underlines what an unreal construct Eric is, when if it had been a little more judiciously it might might have been a more entertaining way to get into his head. (This happens in regular dialog, too, as with Leo just saying "all Eric's eighties music? It's because he stopped growing there.") It also sometimes seems like the writers have this joke they can't figure out how to fit in. The bit with how a gay friend can get away with all manner of hugely inappropriate pawing of women is probably the funniest in the film, but it's got absolutely nothing to do with anything else that's going on.

The addressing the camera is probably inspired by Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Shaun Benson does sort of have a young Matthew Broderick vibe to him. He and Nick Paonessa are sincere enough that I'd like to see them with better material. Vic Chao is probably most reliably funny as Kurt, the aforementioned gay friend, but he's also underused. Similarly underused is Colm Meaney as "The Mayor", owner of a local strip club (why give a guy a nickname and let him address the audience directly unless he's going to be in more than two scenes?). Bruce Weitz falls into the "should be funnier" category for most of the movie as the immature father, although he does amuse a little in the end when he's called on to be cranky from his meds, rather than just fussy and crude.

I almost think that director Adam Kaufman and writer Josh Diamond needed to go for broke a little more. Or at least, for the obvious joke. There's a moment in the movie where the navigational system in Eric's car goes on the fritz, and his date says it's no big deal, he knows how to get home, right? Of course I do, says Eric. And then the film cuts to them... pulling into Eric's driveway. What the heck? Similarly, how do you miss doing anything innuendo-wise with Eric and Leo? It's just sitting right there, an opportunity to at least try to do something funny. This sort of thing wouldn't have been classy in the least, but that ship sailed with the strip club. Those things would have been chances for big laughs, rather than the small chuckles that they seem to be shooting for. It's as though they're afraid of making the characters in their comedy look foolish, which is just not a recipe for success.

I think I laughed once or twice while watching The Metrosexual, and as much as the audience was saying nice things to the guests afterward, I didn't hear a whole lot of noise from them while the film was actually running. It's not the funniest idea for a movie ever, but they still could have done a heck of a lot more with it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

BFF: Trade

I like Kevin Kline a lot, so it feels kind of odd to realize that he has not, in fact, been on the shelf for a few years. The IMDB lists him in three films last year, and while it's my own fault that I missed A Prairie Home Companion, I had purged The Pink Panther from my brain and totally forgotten that someone was sitting on him in As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh. That's going directly to video, which really annoys the heck out of me.

Ah, well. That ship has sailed. At least this one's seeing theaters.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Trade plays pretty rough, which is as it should be. If it didn't, it could easily become just a suspense story that offers a thrill of horror rather than a nasty bit of business with just enough familiar trappings to pull the audience along. As it is, it's kind of on the line, probably a nice place for this movie to be: It gets the audience angry but doesn't quite send them running for the exits.

We start in Mexico City, where Jorge (Cesar Ramos) has given his sister Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) a bicycle for her 13th birthday. Jorge has not earned the money for this gift honestly, by any means, but his crimes are nothing compared to the Russian gangsters who snatch her off the street. She's thrown in a room with Veronica (Alicja Bachleda-Curus), a Polish girl who chose the wrong people to help her find work in America. Jorge is able to track his sister to Juarez, near the Texas border, and it's there that he meets up with Ray Sheridan (Kevin Kline), a detective with his own personal reasons for tracking this ring of sex traffickers.

Kevin Kline is the first person billed, but he doesn't actually appear until about a half hour into the movie; that belongs to Cesar Ramos, Paulina Gaitan, and Alicja Bachleda-Curus. We get a sense of just what easy pickings the kidnappers' targets can be, and what kind of corruption anyone fighting them has to deal with, in multiple senses of the word. Sometimes a scene will seem ja little less smothered by the smog-filled skies of Mexico City, especially if it involves Adriana, pre-kidnapping, but once things go bad, it's relentless.

And then Kevin Kline shows up. In some ways, he's sort of the wrong guy for this film, though that's not necessarily the fault of anything he does here. It's that he's Kevin Kline, and even if he's not a big enough star to get a big audience into a movie these days, people know what that means. For example, when he showed up at the end of Orange County, every other role he'd ever played let the audience know what this guy was about as soon as they saw him. Here, even though he plays Ray as a bit arrogant and at times short-tempered, and handles the parts of the script that should make the audience question Ray's motivations exactly the way he should... He's Kevin Kline; we like him too much, and the movie doesn't do as much to exploit that as it could.

An example of how he hits every note right is how he manages to avoid turning Trade into a buddy-cop-type film, even if the plot does revolve around two opposites joining forces and getting under each other's skin. He's got a lot of help there from Cesar Ramos; what could be jokes come out just as angry as they should. He does a nice job of establishing that Jorge has not been a good kid by any means, but can still become something other than a monster. He holds his own in his scenes with Kline, playing intense but not in a way that makes Kline's even delivery look weak or too steady. Linda Emond works well with Kline, too, although they spend most of the movie talking over the phone.

The actors in the other group are pretty good, too, although they're playing more familiar types. Paulina Gaitan spends most of the movie terrified as Adriana after a few scenes in the beginning to establish that she's a nice, innocent kid. Alicja Bachleda-Curus is mostly charged with taking abuse, trying to be smart and tough enough to look after Adriana. Marco Perez's Manuelo is an interesting character; charged with getting the sex-slaves-to-be from Juarez to New Jersey, there's often a look of unease on his face as he pimps his "packages" out, but he doesn't hesitate to beat or debase them.

Director Marco Kreuzpaintner keeps things moving, and manages to get tension out of such unexciting things as an online auction. He's got a knack for finding creepy moments, both expected and not. He's a little hamstrung by Jose Rivera's script, which has one or two too many convenient coincidences - Cesar happens to see the kidnappers, he and Ray are at the same place at the same time, etc. It's probably not more than most films, but lucky breaks feel out of place in this story.

The movie isn't all lucky breaks, and the message certainly isn't that everything tends to work itself out. There needs to be some hope to the story - otherwise people are walking out and telling people not to go - but only a little, lest the message get lost.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Monday, September 17, 2007

BFF: The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

So... If most of the people coming to see movies at this festival are those with a personal interest in the subject matter, who makes up the audience for this?
The Union: The Business Behind Getting High

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

At some point, Brett Harvey and Adam Scorgie should probably have changed the name of their documentary on the underground marijuana industry; the Union of the title isn't mentioned until at least halfway through. "The Union: The Business Behind Getting High" sounds like an exposé, but this documentary is more a piece of advocacy.

The film is arguing for the legalization of marijuana. It is, the film argues, at worst harmless, especially relative to alcohol and tobacco, and at best of great medicinal value. Hemp, a related species of plant also banned in the U.S., is fantastic for manufacturing paper and textiles. It's a useful plant for biodiesel manufacturing. And much like America's Prohibition on alcohol, prohibition of cannabis arguably creates the violent crime that it was allegedly meant to fight - that the only people it benefits are criminals and those who make money from law enforcement and incarceration.

The segment on "The Union" - a catch-all title for the string of people who make up the marijuana supply chain - is, to my mind, the most informative part of the movie. Harvey and Scorgie trace both the money and the actual product, from homeowner to contractor to fall guy to border jumper, showing how a product that is cultivated without a great deal of difficulty can be a seven billion dollar per year agricultural industry for British Columbia, driving a great deal of other business as well. The numbers are eyebrow-raising - one "grow op" (a private home where cannabis is cultivated out of sight) with just eight sun lamps can produce six crops a year, with each crop going for twenty thousand dollars. We also see the remains of a larger operation housed in twenty buried railroad cars that must have been worth millions, and that's before it has traveled south and east through the U.S., where it can wind up going for thousands of dollars per pound. If you respond to hard numbers as well as I do, it's a fascinating little economics lesson.

(It also gets a body thinking about how that unused basement is not helping with paying back the college loans, doesn't it?)

There aren't quite so many hard numbers in the rest of the movie, but there are a whole bunch of expert witnesses - the film's website lists over thirty interview subjects, of varying degrees of credibility. People with a law enforcement background like former Seattle chief of police Norm Stamper and former undercover agent Jack Cole give compelling testimony of how the only violent crime related to marijuana comes from how criminalization puts the distribution into the hands of criminals, but an actor like Joe Rogan, while an entertaining interview, doesn't really add much in the way of authority to the discussion. Some may fault the filmmakers for apparently not seeking out people to present an alternate view - the only bits supporting the War On Drugs are clips of Republic Presidents, and they're facile comments clearly meant to be mocked rather than actual arguments. The closest thing you'll see to a rebuttal is allowing the occasional interview subject to be so worked up as to undermine his or her credibility.

The style of the film is fairly fast-paced, with Adam Scorgie acting as a Michael Moore-style "host", though a much less obtrusive one. He and Harvey use a lot of stock material, and while their documentary and interview footage is fairly clear (although with as many interview subjects as they use, I might like it if subjects were constantly identified), but when they go to stock footage - including that old standby, silly-looking thirty-five year-old educational films - they get a little cut-happy. I do like the way they cite webpages in the end credits to make it easy for audience members who have had their curiosity piqued to refer directly to primary sources.

One subject the film is oddly silent is why marijuana sells beyond medicinal uses (although they'll use former "High Times" editors as interviewees). It's probably a deliberate choice, to prevent accusations of promoting that a certain lifestyle. Leaving the whole "getting high" aspect out means that the movie is obviously avoiding something, even if it isn't really the point of the production.

Is the argument convincing? Well, I'm pretty libertarian by nature anyway (I've also got no horse in this fight; I've never touched the stuff and don't intend to). Maybe it will nudge some people with no opinion a little nudge. Probably not enough to accomplish its goal any time soon. But getting people thinking about change isn't a bad thing.

BFF: Team Everest: A Himalayan Journey

Saturday turned out to be "inspirational sports night"; I saw Team Everest directly after a featurette on "The World's Oldest Basketball Team". That was, shall we say, sparsely attended - me, the filmmaker, and another filmmaker. No tickets were sold, so the theater thought it would be okay to send people in to clean up.

There's been a little grumbling on the lack of publicity for the BFF and its films this year; often, it seems films without Hollywood stars are getting attendance based on vested interests - people who know someone with Marphan's came to Mo, people who know the cast and crew of other films come to them. About half the turnout for Team Everest seemed to be people connected with the film. I don't know if things would have been different if they hadn't done the weird, overlapping schedule with Lars and the Real Girl, but it certainly couldn't have helped.

Team Everest: A Himalayan Journey

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Team Everest means to inspire you. It exists for that. Even if Andy Cockrum hadn't been along to make a movie, the expedition it chronicles was still put together in order to inspire disabled people, by showing that they could excel in extreme situations. Maybe they can't all summit Everest, but they can make it to base camp, still a rough hike at high altitude.

The expedition leader, Gary Guller, has attempted to climb Mount Everest before, but the film starts with a dramatized flashback to an earlier date, when a fall while climbing in Mexico killed one of his partners and cost Guller his left arm. He remains a top mountaineer and motivational speaker. At one of his speeches, quadripalegic Gene Rogers asks if Gary could take him on an expedition. It sounds absurd, at first, but Guller warms to the idea. Eventually, he organizes an trip to Everest's base camp, some eighteen thousand feet above sea level, from which he would continue to the summit. A dozen or so disabled people, mostly from Texas, will join Guller and Rogers, along with the dozens of Sherpas and Porters used by a successful trek. They're led by Guller's friend Nima Dewa, who brings along two disabled people from his own village.

The expedition is made up of colorful people. As expedition leader, Gary Guller is in charge of over two hundred people, and as such he's got to be a bit of a taskmaster, especially with regard to safety. He's also a captivating, larger-than-life figure - some people talk with their hands, and even though he's only got one left, he gesticulates as much as anyone with a full complement. Gene's brother Robert is there to assist him, and while Gene is paralyzed, he's a world traveler while Robert hasn't even been camping in years - but Robert is a cut-up, talking a mile a minute in a goofy mock-Scottish accent. Mark Gobble is a teacher at a high school for the deaf, and brings interpreter Christine Kane along with him. Matt Standridge and ex-Army cadet Riley Woods have similar spinal injuries and develop a sort of friendly competition to see who can do more. Lakpa, an elderly lama from head Sherpa Nima Dewa's home village, is as excited as anyone to see Everest; he had lost his arm to a snake bite as a child. Dinesh Ranasinghe frequently winds up bringing up the rear with his prosthetic leg, but he does make it to the way stations. And there are a half-dozen others.

The team members aren't just interesting for their disabilities, but there's no doubt that their circumstances make things more intriguing. The mechanics of Dinesh's leg are nifty, for instance, and team doctor Janis Tupesis points out that the paralyzed members of the expedition are in particular danger, since they won't feel any damage that the bumps to their legs might cause. Wheels on a new chair don't quite works as planned, and wheelchairs aren't exactly ideal for the rocky environment (or for being carried.

The footage of Nepal itself is also beautiful. I don't know whether filmmaker Andy Cockrum was working with film or HD video, but he gets a lot of beautiful images, form the stark majesty of the mountains themselves to the bridges connecting them. He'll capture scenes like the expedition pitching their dome tents for the night, cut somewhere else, and then back to the same shot the next morning where there's a couple inches of snow on the ground, and not make a point of it. My favorite image from the movie is probably a shot of the village of Namje, which is carved into the side of a mountain like an amphitheater.

In a way, that shot illustrates a recurring subtheme to the movie - that the Nepali people have adapted to a challenging environment much the way that disabled people have, through the use of well-applied technology and engineering. Maybe it's not quite so obviously cool as an aerodynamic wheelchair made of lightweight materials, but note is made of how the baskets they use are designed to make use of the entire spine. The whole film is obviously about challenging limitations, and that means both being tough and accepting that you are going to need some help, both technological and human, to geth through some things.

The audience knows that's going to be the message from the moment they buy the ticket, if not before, so it's a matter of how well Team Everest can get out its inspiring message. The answer is that it's quite uplifting indeed, and the team members' personalities are just as big a reason for that as their disabilities.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


As this film started, my DVR was not properly recording the Sox-Yankees game. Comcast picked a very bad weekend to flake on me.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

That Mo got made is something to admire, at the very least. Making a feature film is no easy thing, and even though the subject clearly means a lot to director Brian Lederman, it takes more than one person's commitment to get it done. It's still plainly his film about his little brother, and it's both as big-hearted and (perhaps) overly-close to the subject as you might expect.

Matthew "Mo" Lederman (Erik Per Sullivan) was born with an ulcer and club feet, and various other medical problems would plague him due to what is eventually identified as Marfan's syndrome, a systemic weakness in the connective tissue. He handles it pretty well, though; although clearly smaller and frailer than his friends, he's pretty well-liked, meets a nice girl (Shayna Levine), helps his brother Ben (Lederman) on his film school projects, and is pretty much a normal kid. The big difference is that as his friends are preparing for college in the fall, he's looking at recovery from a scheduled heart operation.

And that's pretty much the story. Creative Writing 101 teachers might scold Brian Lederman about the lack of conflict in the story, and they wouldn't be totally off-base. The film isn't boring, but there's never a sense that it's building toward something - it just plays as a series of anecdotes of relatively equal weight, some of which work and some of which don't. While watching it, I got the feel of a decent-enough TV comedy series, something like That 70s Show set in contemporary Long Island. A lot of hte segments seem like they're starting things, but the joke or potential subplot doesn't go anywhere.

Making Mo clash with overprotective parents might not have been true to the actual events and people, though, and if the idea is mainly to create a true portrayal of Mo's life, I get that. Another obvious goal of the film is to raise awareness of Marphan's syndrome, and several scenes of Mo's trip to the doctors' are shot first-person, so that the doctors are effectively explaining the disease directly to the audience. It's kind of crude, but if Lederman is trying to do is deliver information directly, I guess you can't fault the effectiveness, even if it is almost a lecture. It does indicate that he can use a bit more experience all around, knowing when to tighten things up, or build the story so that it becomes more than just a series of events.

The cast pulls their weight, making those events at least involve people we like. It's tough to believe that Erik Per Sullivan is still only sixteen; it seems like he's been around forever. He's a seasoned pro by now; he make Mo seem both very normal and a little odd, an occasionally smart-alecky teen who also can seem wise or like a guilty child when appropriate. Margo Martindale hits all the right notes as Mo's concerned mother Pam, and Adam LeFevre is wryly amusing as father Jim, making us aware that he's just as worried in his own way as Pam is. Shayna Levine's character kind of drifts in and out after she first appears, but is always a plus when she shows up. Writer/director Brian Lederman more or less self-inserts as Mo's older brother Ben (as does his wife Monica, as Ben's girlfriend Madeline), and he's a genuine pleasure in that role. Say what you want about "no acting required" here, but many have stumbled in a similar situation.

I can't fault Lederman's intentions with this movie, or say that he didn't accomplish the goals he seems to have set. I like several moments in Mo - the ending sequence does certainly get to the audience, perhaps more than if it had been built to - but I think it might have been a bit better if it was a little less choppy.

BFF: The Price of Sugar

Contemporary "issue" documentaries are an odd thing; the pipeline between filming and any sort of theatrical release is long enough that some sort of update is invitably necessary at the end, since things will have changed in the time since filming completed. For The Price of Sugar, for instance, we learned in the Q&A that Father Christopher Hartley has been reassigned from Los Llanos, Dominican Republic to somewhere in Ethiopia, and some of his efforts - the meal center, for instance - have been shut down, although the sugar companies are supposedly reforming (although it's a lot of announcements and not much action so far). I wonder if digital technology can do something to help with that turnaround time, so that films like this can get into theater while they're still very contemporary.

The Price of Sugar

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

Everything we eat and use, it seems, has some sort of despicable behavior involved at some point in the supply chain. Why should sugar be any different? At least in documenting this, The Price of Sugar is also able to show that the Haitian migrant workers on the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic have advocates who seem to be doing some small bit of good.

As poor as the Dominican Republic is, the people of Haiti are even poorer. Thus, Dominican sugar companies "hire" Haitian workers - smuggling them into the country, stripping them of their identity papers, housing them in squalor, paying them in vouchers only good at overpriced company stores, and just barely enough to maybe survive at that. Several of these sugar plantations, called bateys, owned and operated by the powerful Vicini family surround Los Llanos, where Father Christopher Hartley is the local parish priest. Upon seeing the conditions, he does everything he can to secure proper nutrition and health care, along with a fair wage. The Vicinis are powerful, though, and even if they can't directly attack a Catholic priest, they can certainly manipulate public opinion.

There's no shortage of powerful images and anecdotes, especially later in the film when the Vicinis have inflamed public opinion against Father Christopher. As much as images of distended bellies and skin diseases are reliably horrifying, the antipathy between Haitians and Dominicans is something I'd only been vaguely aware of, especially when it's explained in part by "Haitians are a little blacker". I don't mean to discount the very real human rights abuses and terrible conditions displayed on an individual level, but the cynicism of a private company starting riots to rid themselves of one man is something that you don't often see in this type of film.

Having that one man as a focal point is a boon from a storytelling point of view, but introduces its own problems. Father Christopher comes from an interesting background, has a great deal of personal charisma, and is very good on camera. He's clearly media-savvy enough to see director Bill Haney as a potential ally in his crusade, and gets a lot of face time, both in one-on-one interviews and leading the filmmakers through the bateys. Still, Father Christopher's story proves to be a bit of a distraction; we don't need to spend ten minutes in the middle of the movie learning about his privileged childhood, for instance. As a result, the film at least partly succumbs to the trap of familiarity: Zeroing in on the rich white man when the vast majority of the victims are poor and black.

(And even while doing that, the filmmakers seem to leave a few obvious questions unasked. For instance, we're told that the Hartley family fortune comes from jams and jellies; it seems almost natural to ask if they use Dominican sugar, or if they've changed their practices because of Christopher's work. This irony is goes uncommented upon.)

Of course, many of the other players are not going to be willing to appear on-screen anyway. The Vicinis are described as secretive in any event, so it's not surprising that none appear to be interviewed. Their head of security, Mertité, is seen from afar and looms large in the other characters' descriptions, but never comments directly. We do get to see videotaped footage of Dario, one of the "recruiters" who brings Haitians across the border and actually came to Father Christopher seeking justice when the Vicinis didn't pay him. And maybe Father Pedro Ruquay, another priest actively seeking better treatment, simply did not want to participate as much as Father Christopher.

For all that, Haney and company do a good job of putting the documentary together, although the graphics in front of a stark image of pouring sugar can sometimes be a little overwrought (as is the sometimes superfluous narration by Paul Newman). They do manage to talk to a lot of people and get their cameras into interesting places. They also manage to show a lot of the concrete good that Father Christopher and company have accomplished, making the film more than just a simple snapshot.

Of course, it's an evolving situation; things have already changed for better and worse since the film has finished shooting. Not so much that what we see is no longer important or interesting, though, and even if it someday is, the story itself is still a good one.

Also at eFilmCritic

Saturday, September 15, 2007

BFF: Grace Is Gone

It's a good thing Grace is Gone is a good movie, because if it hadn't been, yesterday would have been a complete disaster.

I don't expect film festivals to run on time - it's one of the reasons to get a pass, since then you at least have the option of making new plans when late starts and long Q&As kick in. What happened yesterday was ridiculous, though - the festival organizers didn't arrive at the theater until a half hour before the film was scheduled to start, then they waited for the director to arrive because his driver was lost. When he got there, they couldn't make the sound work on the digital projection, misdiagnosed the problem at least twice, and were in fact ready to show another film until finally figuring it out over an hour after the original 7:30 start time. And even then, the sound was badly out of sync for the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film.

I'm forgiving of festivals, in general; these things happen. But I must admit, I'm approaching today with some trepidation - if this is what goes wrong with one movie on one screen, how will a full weekend slate fare?

Grace Is Gone

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2007 at AMC Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival 2007)

The word on Grace Is Gone is that it might be the film that secures John Cusack his first Oscar nomination. I wouldn't bet against that - it's a good performance, after all, and this is the type of movie that exists for the express purpose of displaying good performances. While it does that, though, it also manages to tell a nice little story in a way that could have been politically charged but is instead quite down-to-earth.

Cusack plays Stanley Philips, a manager at a Minnesota Home Store. His wife, Grace, is a master sergeant in the U.S. Army currently stationed in Iraq. They have two daughters, eight-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) and twelve-and-a-half-year-old Heidi (Shélan O'Keefe), whom he doesn't let watch the news. While they're at school, an officer and a chaplain from the nearby base arrive to tell him that Grace has been killed in action. He can't bring himself to tell the girls, though, and when Dawn answers "Enchanted Garden" to his question of where they want to go, he impulsively decides to drive to the Florida amusement park with them, despite school being in session. Dawn's excited, but Heidi's smart and perceptive enough to realize that something is very wrong.

Writer/director James Strouse knows not to do too much here; this story is all about Stanley and the girls, and the camera seldom strays from them. There is only one other character of any real import - Stanley's brother, John (Alessandro Nivola) - and he's confined to one segment of the movie. A bigger-budget film might have opened with footage of Grace in Iraq, but we never actually see her as more than a photograph, or a disembodied voice on the family's answering machine. The rightness or wrongness of the war itself isn't really an issue except as something that John and Stanley argue about (an argument, we sense, that has gone on for years), because it really doesn't matter in this particular situation for these people.

The production of the film is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nothing looks like a set; there's a distinct lack of ornamentation to many of the places the family stops that makes them seem bigger and emptier than a created place might. I'm somewhat curious to see what Jean-Louis Bompoint's cinematography will look like when the film his general release; it was projected digitally for the festival screening, and there is something fitting about this movie looking like a blown-up home video; it gives what we see the look of a family trip rather than a story. Clint Eastwood's piano-based score also feels small and intimate, just enough to avoid silence when necessary but never enough to overshadow the characters.

John Cusack is, indeed, very good here. At first, he seems to be trying a bit too hard - the stiff body language and somewhat clipped manner of speaking seeming like a very deliberate attempt to show that, see, he's got range, he can do things other than the nerdily cute, talkative guys he's become known for. That eventually disappears, though, in part because we're supposed to see that Stanley is acting - he's trying to look happy for the girls even as his world has fallen apart. There's a certain rigidity to him that is kind of off-putting, even when John gives us a little insight into it. Cusack and Nivola make for a nice contrast, too - their political disagreements show each as flawed, though in different ways.

The other set of siblings almost manages to upstage them, though. I was reminded of the Bolger sisters from In America while watching Gracie Bednarczyk and Shélan O'Keefe, which is some of the highest praise I can give them. They never seem to be playing a part, especially when they're doing things like fighting in the back of the car or begging their dad to get their ears pierced. They just act like kids, especially Bednarczyk - it's a complete gut punch when the loud, energetic Dawn gets some idea of what's really going on. O'Keefe is just exceptional in what appears to be her first film role; where Stanley gets hit with everything all at once, Heidi only gradually figures out what's going on, and her confusion is as poignant as her father's devastation.

Grace is Gone has a few faults - the space between Minnesota and Florida feels sort of homogeneous, so that despite the days of driving we never really get the feeling that the Philipses are really on a long trip, for instance - but it's got two really excellent performances from John Cusack and Shélan O'Keefe (along with two in the "pretty darn good" category from Nivola and Bednarczyk). Whatever one's opinion on the war that kills Gracie is, the movie about the aftermath is well worth seeing.

Also at eFilmCritic.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

BFF: Boston Film Festival Preview

I've got a weird sort of relationship with the Boston Film Festival. It's the first one I ever attended, back in 2001, and that was the first time anyone saw fit to publish any of my reviews on-line (there's probably an excited anonymous review of Brotherhood of the Wolf somewhere in the Ain't It Cool archives). It was a fun festival, with a couple dozen features and documentaries, five short film blocks, and one or two big name guests every year. Nobody else paid it much attention, with the Toronto Film Festival going on at the same time, so it was kind of mine.

They're also the only festival I attend that hasn't given me a media pass(*) yet - the old management hit me with a double whammy of "internet?" and "we do press screenings a month in advance so that there can be reviews written ahead of time"; the new guys just ignored me, at least up until today, probably figuring they'll get close to the same coverage and sixty or seventy of the dollars I earn at my day job this way. So some of the frustration I get looking at the festival's site probably comes from feeling snubbed. Although they did send me a press release today, so we'll see what happens when I show up for Grace Is Gone on Friday.

Of course, there are other aggravations - the website, for instance, which still doesn't list Grace as Gone anywhere as of 12pm on Thursday, and does list some movies that don't appear on the revised schedule I've received. So, two days before the festival starts, the primary resource most of us have for information about which movies are playing and when is incomplete, inaccurate, and difficult to read. (We will leave aside the big old non-skippable Flash intro that the site as a whole foists upon you). And some of the scheduling itself... Well, I'll vent about that when we get to Saturday.

Still, it's not a bad little festival. They've wisely moved it out of Toronto's way, the $10 tickets aren't much more expensive than what you'd pay at that particular theater anyway, and unless I misread the information I've been sent, every director will be on hand for Q&A, which is pretty nice. They've gotten more indie since when I first started going - they're on what I think is their third year under new management, but have a nice selection of things with recognizable names.

So, what are they offering? Here's what my email says, combined with a revised schedule posted Thursday (which still doesn't list Grace is Gone or High & Outside):

Friday 14 September 2007

7-ish - Grace Is Gone: This has been getting the tag of being a movie designed to get John Cusack an Oscar, but I'm okay with that; he's been a favorite and a workhorse for a long time. Director James Strouse scheduled to attend.

10pm - Opening Night Party. I haven't been to a festival party yet, and I don't know if I'll break the streak here, even though that's all that's going. After all, I don't drink, have a hard time picking out individual voices in a crowded room, and don't do this for a living, so networking isn't a big thing for me.

My Plan: Grace Is Gone, maybe the party. Depends how long a day at work it is.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

12pm - The Price of Sugar: A documentary narrated by Paul Newman about the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic. I'm guessing it's somewhat more cynical than Rumbo a las Grandes Ligas. Director Bill Haney is scheduled to attend.

2:30pm - Calvin and Sweet Pea: A documentary featurette about the family of a woman with Alzheimer's disease. Director John Fletcher is scheduled to attend.

4pm - Mo: Erik Per Sullivan is a teenager now? Yikes. Apparently, he's playing a kid with a weak heart trying to fit into high school. Director Brian Lederman is scheduled to attend.

4pm - In The Crease: The BFF had pretty good luck with a movie about teen hockey last year, so it looks like their going to the well again. Director Michael Sarner is scheduled to attend.

7pm - Oldest Basketball Team in the World: Another sports documetary, this one about a team of women's seniors who wind up competing with younger teams in a tournament because there's no-one else in their age range. Director Sharon McGowan is scheduled to attend.

7:30pm and 10pm - Lars and the Real Girl: Wasn't there a movie very much like this at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival during its first year or two (Love Object)? Anyway, this movie about a man who falls for his RealDoll until he meets a flesh-and-blood woman has a nicer cast, including Ryan Gosling, Patricia Clarkson, and Emily Mortimer. Mortimer and director Craig Gillespie are scheduled to appear.

8pm - Jerry Weintraub Tribute with George Clooney: Am I spending $150 to watch Ocean's 13 with its star and producer? No. But I imagine that this is what pays the bills.

8:30pm - Team Everest: Disabled people attempt to make it to the Mount Everest base camp. Should look nice, at least, certainly going for "inspirational". Director Andy Cockrum scheduled to appear.

My Plan: The way Team Everest overlaps the two showings of Lars and the Real Girl annoys the heck out of me. I briefly considered some bizarre theater-hopping scheme where I watched the first forty-five minutes of Lars, switched to Everest, and then finished Lars. I'll probably wind up with Sugar, Mo, and Everest, maybe working Calvin and Oldest Basketball Team in the World in if they aren't used for meal breaks. Lars and the Real Girl, well, it's getting a theatrical release, so I'll wait.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

12pm - Come Walk in My Shoes and Lost and Found in Mexico: Two featurettes; one about the civil rights movement and one about American expatriots in Mexico. Directors Robin Smith and Caren Cross are scheduled to appear.

12pm - Short Program A: "AWOL", "Coney Island", "These Boots are Made for Walken", "A Driving Lesson", and "The Baglady Diaries".

3pm - The Union: The Business of Getting HIgh: Documentary about a nightclub owner investigating the marijuana business. Director Brett Harvey is scheduled to appear.

4pm and 9pm - Rails & Ties: Alison Eastwood (Clint's daughter) directs a drama about the aftermath of an accident involving a train. Eastwood and stars Kevin Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden are scheduled to attend.

5:30pm - Metrosexual: Didn't that term and stereotype run its course about five years ago? Still, Colm Meaney's got a supporting role; I hope he's the gruff counterweight to the title character. Director Adam Kaufman and star Shaun Benson are scheduled to attend.

6pm - Todd English & Bonfire party.

8:30pm - Good Luck Chuck: Part of "College Night" with Metrosexual, I guess. I have to admit, the commercials have amused me. I like pretty girls doing slapstick. Director Mark Helfrich and star Dane Cook are scheduled to attend.

My Plan: See what the shorts are, then The Union, Metrosexual, and Rails and Ties.

Monday, 17 September 2007

3:30pm - Street Cleaner, Rose, and CNN Hero: Mountain Top Removal: Two short thrillers and a documentary about coal mining. The directors of Street Cleaner and Mountain Top Removal, Nathaniel Nauert and Michael Cusack O'Connell, are scheduled to attend.

6pm - Short Program B: No breakdown of what the shorts are.

6pm - Bobby Dogs: An alcoholic opens a hot dog stand and turns his life around. Director T.K. Reilly is scheduled to attend.

8pm - Good Luck Chuck

8:30pm: The Poet: Rabbi's daughter and German soldier fall in love during WWII. Nice cast, including Daryll Hannah, Roy Scheider, and Colm Feore. Director Damien Lee and co-star Nina Dobrev are scheduled to attend.

My Plan: Depends how soon I can escape the day job. If it's early, then I'll see Bobby Dogs before The Poet.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

4pm - Short Program C: No breakdown of what the shorts are.

6pm - Everybody Wants to be Italian: A local production, with two non-Italians pretending to be Italian in the North End. Director Jason Todd Ipson and actors Jay Jablonski and John Kapelos are scheduled to appear.

6:30pm - Million Calorie March: Gary Marino documents his march from Florida to Boston to raise money to fight childhood obesity. Marino is scheduled to appear.

8:30pm - Stiffs: Black comedy about funeral home operators trying to save their business; set and filmed in Boston. Stars some familiar B-listers (Danny Aiello, Jon Polito, and Lesley Ann Warren). Director Frank Ciota and Aillo are scheduled to attend.

7pm - Trade: Kevin Kline helps a 17-year-old boy investigate the kidnapping of his sister by sex traffickers. It's been a while since I've seen Kline in something good. Direcotr Marco Kreuzpaintner and actress Alicja Bachleda are scheduled to attend.

My Plan: Try to get out of work in time to get to Everybody Wants to be Italian, then probably Stiffs, although Trade looks pretty good.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

4pm - Greetings From the Shore: A girl spends her last summer on the Jersey Shore before leaving for college, and apparently has some adventures. Director Greg Chwerchak, star Kim Shaw, and co-star David Fumero are scheduled to attend.

7pm - Take: Drama about two people who meet and during a tragedy; intercut with that day is another day several years later, with Minne Driver. Director Charles Oliver and Adam Rodriguez are scheduled to attend.

7:15pm - In The Land of Merry Misfits and "Wondering William and the Sandman": A peculiar-sounding fantasy about a young man who wanders into a strange world where outcasts want him to help them capture the "Grail of Popularity". John Water narrates. Director Kevin Ungaro and Producer Maria Menounos are scheduled to attend.

9:30pm - Strength and Honour: Michael Madsen plays a former boxer who gets back in the ring to raise money for his sick son. Director Mark Mahon and Madsen are scheduled to attend.

9:30pm - In the World of Puppy Love: Wendy Diamond documents the search for a man with whom one can bond with as well as with one's dog. Diamond is scheduled to attend.

My Plan: Man, I wish I could get to Greetings From the Shore; maybe I can work from home that day. Otherwise, it's a coin flip between Take and Merry Misfits, then I'll probably go for Strength and Honour

Thursday, 20 September 2007

4pm - Golden Days: Documentary of an indie band versus the record industry. Director Chris Suchorsky is scheduled to attend.

5pm - Beyond the Call: Documentary of ex-soldiers delivering humanitarian aid into war zones. Director Adrian Belic is scheduled to appear.

7pm - "Who Ordered Tax"; no information about this short was found. Director Kevin Bright is scheduled to appear.

7:15pm: "Love Sees No Color": A twelve-minute musical shot around the world.

8pm: New York City Serenade: Two friends from New York scam their way into a Kansas City film festival. Some notable names in the cast: Freddie Prinze Jr., Chris Klein, and Wallace Shawn as himself. Director Frank Whaley is scheduled to attend.

My Plan: Stupid day job; I'd really like to see one of the documentaries. Probably just New York City Serenade, then.

Friday, 21 September 2007

3pm - Short Program D: No information on the shorts is available.

6:30pm - High & Outside: Looks like another documentary about wacky ex-Sox pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee (who'll attend along with Director Peter J. Vogt).

And? - Supposedly, other films will get encores.

My Plan: High & Outside, so far.

... And that's pretty much all I can find on it. I imagine all of this is subject to change (I remember seeing shows get rearranged for this festival a lot when it had a fuller schedule); hopefully I'll be able to leave work and get into town from Waltham enough to see and review most of these films.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Manly Masculine Movies: War, 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot 'Em Up

I didn't think I'd have time to add War to this entry before the Boston Film Festival starts, but it turns out I did have a bit to spare during a long Sox game. After all, who wants to write about a bad action movie, which spends an inordinate amount of time having Jet Li shoot people rather than batter them with his fists and feet, when there's stuff that's either good (3:10 To Yuma) or at least amusing (Shoot 'Em Up) to write about.

Not big crowds at either film, which is a bit disappointing - Yuma is a top-notch action movie, and great evidence for the Western being far from dead, at least creatively. I'm not sure how America fell out of love with this genre. I blame the 1970s, much as I do for the death of the musical. Sure, both had been on the wane before then, but when the industry did the wholesale shift to contemporary, "real" movies, the Western became seen as quaint. When the audiences finally declared that they were ready to have fun again, it was with the likes of Star Wars and Jaws, which set the standard for popcorn adventure for the next few decades. So every Western to appear since then has borne the burden of having to reintroduce the form, or update it, or somehow comment on it. Thankfully, James Mangold doesn't try to do that with his one; he just makes the best Western he can and hopes for the best.

Shoot 'Em Up, meanwhile, is as dumb as a box of hammers, but a movie that panders so shamelessly (and, often, entertainingly) should probably get some of the audience it's pandering to. That strikes me as only fair.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (first-run)

There is little more dispiriting than watching a bad movie after the cast has gotten one's hope up. Sure, Jason Statham has had a knack for choosing crap and Jet Li's American career has been less than impressive, but the opening credits throw John Lone, Luis Guzman, Ryo Ishibashi, and more at you in rapid succession. Sure, any one of them could just be picking up a paycheck, but can all of them be slumming?

Yes. Yes, they can.

It takes a while for Jet Li to show his face; the opening segment has FBI Agents Jack Crawford (Statham) and Tom Lone (Terry Chen) hunting down an ex-CIA assassin (known only as "Rogue") now working for a yakuza family. It looks like they kill him, but no body is found, which means that soon he's going to be back for revenge. He kills Lone and his family, Crawford becomes obsessed. Three years later, he's back in San Francisco, now working for Chang (John Lone), whose triad is at war with that yakuza family. Rather than dealing drugs, though, they seem to be vying for possession of an antique horse as a matter of honor. As the fighting escalates, it's clear that Rogue, who changes his face every six months and now looks like Jet Li, is up to more trouble than just being an assassin.

The backstory is complicated and deeply stupid, which is a dangerous combination. An action movie can be stupid if it delivers the action, but it's better if it's stupid and simple. In that case, the filmmakers and the audience have an understanding - they'll do just enough to tie the action scenes together, and we'll ignore what doesn't work so well. As soon as you start to make things complicated, though, you've got the audience paying attention, maybe even trying to play along, and getting frustrated by the silliness of it all - especially when the red herrings turnout to be more interesting than the actual plot twists. The film also has entirely too many characters that the audience doesn't care about - we're here for Statham and Li fighting, and everyone else had better be fighting with them or getting the hell out of the way.

Full review at HBS.

3:10 to Yuma

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2007 at Regal Fenway #12 (first-run)

When I saw (and reviewed) the first film made from Elmore Leonard's short story "3:10 to Yuma" two years ago, I described it as "a game of cat and mouse with the cat and the mouse in the same room". James Mangold's version doesn't spend quite so much time in that room, but does manage a few things which improve on the previous adaptation.

The basic story remains the same - outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang brutally attack a payroll coach and happen to land in the town of Bisbee at the same time as flat-broke rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale). Wade is captured, but with Pinkerton man Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) injured, railroad representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) hires Evans to help transport Wade to Contention, where he'll be loaded onto a train to Yuma prison. There's one big hitch, though - Wade's mad-dog second-in-command Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is looking to spring him. A smaller problem is that Dan's fourteen-year-old son William (Logan Lerman) has decided to tag along.

That last bit is the biggest change from the 1957 version - in that version, it was Dan's wife who joined up with him in Contention, rather than his son. That's not just a change to the details of the plot - William is at the very center of what this movie is about. Even before the movie starts, Will has lost patience with his cautious father, and Ben Wade seems to be everything Dan is not - bold, willing to take what he wants, charming. Where the first movie was about two smart, articulate characters trying to outwit each other before the clock ran down, this one is a battle for William Evans's soul - or at least his respect. It's an angle that adds more than a bit of emotional heft to the proceedings; where the first film was a highly enjoyable potboiler, there's something a little more universal going on here, since most of us can relate to a young man facing a choice between two conflicting role models.

Full review at HBS.

Shoot 'Em Up

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2007 at AMC Bosotn Common #17 (first-run)

I've never met the man, but I'll bet if someone asked him, Michael Davis would come out against editing the guns out of Looney Tunes when they aired on broadcast TV. Unless, that is, the writer/director of Shoot 'Em Up sees his violent live-action cartoon as an eighty-minute long piece of sarcasm, which isn't out of the question.

It opens with its nameless Bugs Bunny figure, played by Clive Owen, munching on a carrot at a bus stop when a pregnant woman runs by. She's followed by a man, who draws a gun as he turns the corner to follow her. Well, crap, that's not right. One carrot-induced death later, Bugs is delivering the woman's baby. A whole mess of other killers show up, and while the woman doesn't get away, the man and baby do. The crew of men chasing her is led by Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who soon chase "Smith" when he brings the baby to prostitute Donna Quintano (Monica Belluci), who is currently servicing lactation fetishists. Much violence ensues, but Smith is better with a gun than the roughly five thousand hired killers chasing him put together.

This is an unabashed guy movie, perhaps the guyiest guy movie ever made. The soundtrack is almost all hard rock or heavy metal. It offers up plenty of blood, guts, and mayhem. Smith and Hertz speak almost entirely in tough-guy one-liners and fire off enough ordinance to make a Hong Kong-era John Woo proud. The plentiful gunfights operate based upon a set of physical laws generally only found in cartoons. There are a number of wacky Rube Goldberg devices and complicated remote-control setups. And even more than in most movies, the female lead is literally there for her breasts (although this can be said of many Monica Bellucci roles that don't involve hungry newborns).

Full review at HBS.

Friday, September 07, 2007

2 Days in Paris

I'm proud of this review, not because it's close to the best I've ever written, but because I got all the way through without mentioning Before Sunrise or Before Sunset. That may not sound like that big an accomplishment, but look at any other review or article about this film online (I'm partisan, I know, but I especially like Peter Sobczynskis interview on Hollywood Bitch-slap/eFilmCritic. You can't avoid it, even though they're very different movies.

And now I've gone and ruined it.

2 Days in Paris

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2007 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

About eight years ago, Adam Goldberg and Julie Delpy did a pilot for an American television series, True Love, which would have been a romantic comedy about an American guy and a French girl falling in love in New York. ABC chose not to pick it up and it vanished into the limbo to which such things are consigned. It would be interesting to see it pop up as a DVD extra for 2 Days in Paris, because I strongly suspect that the contrast would be, to say the least, striking.

Here, they play Jack and Marion, who have been together in New York for two years and are now reaching the end of a European vacation, stopping off to see Marion's family and friends in Paris before returning home. This is, of course, even more of a minefield than you might expect - two years is just long enough for irritations to build but that which sparked initial attraction to be taken for granted, and Jack's got his share of irritating qualities. On the flip side, it's also long enough that anything new you learn about your partner will likely be (or at least be seen as) something they tried to keep hidden - like Marion's eccentric parents and ex-boyfriends.

Ah, but this is Paris; true love must prevail, no? Well, maybe. Julie Delpy wrote, directed, edited, produced, composed the music and probably drew the stick figures that decorate the closing credits; for her and Marion, Paris is home, as opposed to some idealized city, and we all know home is not perfect. Delpy seems to take an almost perverse glee in exploding the myth of Paris: The cemetery at Pére-Lachaise is overrun with obnoxious tourists, there's fungus in the couple's bathroom, the French eat animals that Americans keep as pets, and each taxicab driver they meet is more obnoxious and racist than the last. It's still a beautiful city, Delpy just isn't going to ascribe magical romance powers to it - at least, not when they can do any good.

Full review at HBS

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Invasion

Not much to say about this one, other than that it's part of the swoon at the end of summer. Kind of matches the dog days of August, I guess - I wound up walking to Boston Common after missing the bus to Reading for Harry Potter 5 (actually, the first in a three-bus chain, but I'll talk about that when I get to reviewing that movie), and it was crazy hot. So I'm worn out by the time I get there, and the movie doesn't excite me. Just one where you sit there and take it as a reason to soak in a couple hours of air conditioning

The Invasion

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2007 at AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the stories that's worth pulling out and remaking once a generation or so; the basic theme is something we all feel even if the details of why change over time. So despite the knee-jerk reaction some might have against remakes, The Invasion wasn't a bad idea at the concept stage. The question is, then, just where did things start to go wrong?

Fans of the space program might say it's in the first few minutes; its images of a disintegrating space shuttle strewing debris across the country might seem to match a recent real-life disaster a little too closely. Instead of the toxic materials used in the shuttle's construction, though, the danger comes from a virus that has hitched a ride to Earth on it. Center for Disease Control investigator Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) is exposed, and after a night's sleep, he wakes up different, less ruled by his emotions and looking to share this gift.

Maybe the problem was with the leads. I generally like Nicole Kidman (playing psychiatrist Carol Bennell) and Daniel Craig (as Dr. Ben Driscoll), but they fail to click here, either singly or as a couple. There's nothing especially individual about either of them; even Carol's maternal instincts to protect her son and Ben's "I really want to be more than friends" thing are pretty standard-order. This was probably intentional, on a certain level - have the threat of transformation bring out stronger emotions while the people around them get numbed - but it doesn't quite work out that way. The two of them react well, but they're not really given characters to play, a potential disaster when the point of the story is how the virus is sapping people of their emotions and individuality.

Full review at HBS.